Friday, December 18, 2009

Absolutely (not).

Dragged by events into policy issues, I have posted almost exclusively on politics and economics, when I had actually hoped to hold forth more on philosophical stuff. With what appears to be a break in the action, here’s something along the latter lines.

The subject is moral absolutes. In what follows, I may use the terms “morals” and “ethics” interchangeably in some places and not so in others. I can't find a reliable distinction that makes one word always preferable to the other in every context. But where the distinction can be observed, I will use "ethics" to describe behaviors from the actor's perspective, and morals to describe them from the perspective of the community that the behaviors affect, either directly or as a consequence of the community's being made up of members who exhibit them.

But back to moral absolutes. Are there any? I say “no.” But then what? Relativism, at least as it’s commonly understood, is not necessarily the only place one can go without absolutes.

I start from the premise that we think about morality with the object of forming principles on which to base our ethical decisions. I recognize that some people reject the whole notion of “thinking" about morality, favoring instead the notion that one ought to strive to acquire the aretaic virtues, extracting ethical principles only as descriptive of how virtuous people are observed to be, not prescribing them as deontic rules to be observed. But to me, aretaic and deontic ethics are the vinyl and CD of the same music. I will say, though, that the aretaic school has one thing right: if there are no rules, per se, then a fortiori there are no absolute rules. And that’s really the point of this post: to harmonize aretaic and deontic ethics on the issue of absolutes.

At the outset (four paragraphs in, and I’m still at the outset – yikes!) I must declare my affinity for aretaic ethics. It’s like the old line “Don’t marry for money; go where money is, and marry for love.” Good people don’t need rules; the rules need them. But we live in a world where much of ethics is debated on the deontic plane, and rather than say that the issue of absolutes merely demonstrates the futility of deontic analysis, I prefer to refine that analysis so that it can be of use to those who find it useful, even as a way to grow in arĂȘte.

Actually, I want to, er, press the vinyl analogy. Leaving relativity and quantum mechanics aside for the moment, there is no set limit on how high or low a sound an analog disk can record. But a CD is expressly limited to the range that can be represented by the 0’s and 1’s available to code pitch. And yet, one assumes that for most ears CD technology is adequate for recording all of the music that has ever been recorded on vinyl. Some audiophiles can hear analog nuances that are lost in digital recordings, but those of us who are not audiophiles get along quite well with CD’s as our music source.

Can we say, therefore, that CD technology is “always” adequate? Well, for some people – most people, really – it is. If one of these people has to decide whether to buy a CD, is there any point in that person inquiring as to whether some audiophiles might find a particular CD inadequate? Or should the person, being one of those people who cannot tell a CD from a vinyl recording, simply order his or her musical life on the “absolute” principle that, for him, CDs are absolutely adequate? Even if we tell this person that there could be a piece of music for which even he would find a CD inadequate, unless he can actually identify such music easily, what good does the information do him? In other words, whether or not CD technology is always adequate, many listeners are best advised as a practical matter to behave as if it is.

In the ethical realm, this logic brings us to a question of human engineering. Is it better for a society to teach its children that (i) honesty is the best policy, or (ii) we cannot be 100% sure that honesty is the best policy, but there are no known instances in which honesty is not the best policy, i.e, it is the best policy so often, and our ability (dulled by both ignorance and bias) to discern situations in which honesty is not the best policy is so suspect, that we ought to behave as if honesty were the best policy? (I’m using “honesty” here in the sense of deception intended to defraud someone for the benefit of the defrauder and the detriment of the defrauded. Little white lies don’t count: no harm, no foul.) For some people, it makes sense that they be taught that there are moral absolutes and that honesty is one of them. For others, it’s ok, I think, to say that there are no moral absolutes, but there are some principles that are so often true that we are best advised to act as if it they were absolutes.

If, as a matter of selective pressure, the people in a society are most likely to survive if as many of them as possible behave as if honesty were the best policy, what follows? Moral absolutes, I think. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Teaching moral absolutes (like honesty is the best policy) works better than teaching the truth (how ironic!). How, then, can we be honest and still teach the simplified version? I submit that we must believe that there are moral absolutes so that we can honestly teach that there are moral absolutes, because it is in our community interest that the absoluteness of those moral rules be accepted, and we cannot teach it if we don’t believe it. (The Soviets tried to teach things that they knew were false, and look where it got them.)

Moral absolutes thus join Voltaire’s God among those things we would invent if they did not exist - not coincidentally, seeing as how morality is one of God’s principle contributions to our purported understanding of things. So maybe it’s immoral for me to argue that there are no absolutes, just things that are true often enough that we should act that way. But I can’t lie. That would be wrong.

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