Friday, April 7, 2017

--- Notes on ethics ---

Morality is not properly the doctrine of how we may make ourselves
happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.

Immanuel Kant

When considering a philosophical question, I usually begin with the simplest, most naive answer I can find and then I try to figure out why the naive answer doesn't work and I modify my idea until it does seem to work. I also consider the answers given by people in the past.

"What is good," turns out to be a surprisingly problematic question. Like Judge Potter Stewart, who addressed pornography by saying, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it...", we might conveniently say, "We don't know what "good" is but we know it when we see it." But we are looking for a guide for making decisions such as, "What is the right thing to do?" and this rule doesn't help much.

Despite the fact that I chose a quote by Kant to describe my position respecting ethics, I can't quite accept his formulations for deciding how to proceed in a moral dilemma. He gave two rules:

Choose your action according to a rule that you would want to be a universal rule of ethics.

Choose the action such that humans are never an means to an end, but only an end.

The first rule seems to be a nod and a wink toward relativity. In other words, it seems to imply that there is no universal rule of ethics but that you should choose rules that you would want to be universal.

The other rule brings up some serious issues in relationships. It seems to me that things like friendship, love, marriage, and such are founded, precisely, on use. For instance, love (or some variant of love) might be defined as the intention that an other has a good life and that you are a part of the cause of goodness of their life. In other words, if you love someone, you want to be used for their benefit. You desire to be a means for the end that they are happy.

If a person is not the means of a relationship, I don't see how there can even be relationships.

My naive ethic is that what is good is that which leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Is morality relative? Is it relevant?

The Bible isn't really much help at the outset. After 40 years of study, I'm fairly convinced that the Bible isn't much concerned with any such abstract concept as what moderns mean by "morals". When the Bible says "good", it refers more to what we would mean by "fitting". It is a practical term. What is the effective way to live? How do you maintain relationships?

And my naive model has two big problems. First, "the greatest number of people," seems rather inaccessible. There are an awful lot of people out there. How in the world could one calculate what action would lead to their greatest happiness? Further, the unexpected consequence would most certainly foil any attempt to actually secure the happiness of the greatest number of people!

My house has a favored video game called Witcher III: The Wild Hunt. In it, there are many alternative tracks that can be taken. One of the intriguing parts of this game is the end credits where it explains many of the consequences of the players actions, for, many of the heroic acts invariably lead to horrible ends - just like life. As the country wise man says, "You just never know."

So, how can I patch up my model?

Well, first I can make morality subjective - we do what we think will lead to the greatest happiness of the most people, but, then, some people seem to not value happiness as the greatest good. So let's say that "the greatest good" is a subjective thing, and then I have to accept that "good" is relative.

Well, not exactly. "Good" is a word and, like all words, it has to be defined. The first step in determining what is good is to define "good". That would be about the same as establishing a goal for good behavior. Does "the good" aim toward happiness? or survival - of the individual or the species or nature? Is it power?

But once "the good" is decided, it is no longer subjective because, having established our goal, we can no longer know exactly how to get it. There is a way to accomplish the goal but complexity and chaos gets in our way of knowing precisely how to go about doing it. But "the good" is no longer relative. It is now fixed and it's "out there" to be discovered.

So, I figure that "the good" involves a two step process: the first step is subjective and relative, the second step is objective and fixed.

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