Forrest Cameranesi, Geek of All Trades

A Note On Ethics

The field of study usually called "ethics" is traditionally divided into three sub-fields. The core of them, often just called "ethics" itself but called "normative ethics" when needed to distinguish it from the other two fields, is the traditional philosophical study of ethics, giving general all-encompassing models of what kinds of commands, intentions, actions, or states of affairs are good, or moral, or just, and when and why they are. Another subfield, called "applied ethics", is about applying various of those normative ethical models to specific real-world circumstances, seeking answers to questions about what particular thing is best in some particular circumstances, according to those more general models. The third subfield, called "meta-ethics", is the newest and most abstract of them, concerning itself originally with the meaning of moral sentences, a topic now called moral semantics; as the field of meta-ethics has now expanded to encompass other topics besides that, such as what kinds of things in the world (if any) constitute the reality (if any) of moral facts, the topic called moral ontology; and how we can know the answers to any of the above questions, the topic called moral epistemology.

I am of the peculiar opinion that applied ethics is not properly speaking a branch of philosophy at all, but is rather the seed of an entire field of underdeveloped ethical sciences, parallel to the physical sciences, concerned not with building theories (descriptive models, complex beliefs) to satisfy all of our sensations or observations, but instead strategies (prescriptive models, complex intentions) to satisfy all of our appetites. Furthermore, I hold that the field of normative ethics is something of a mutt, and as such should be dissolved entirely into the two other sub-fields of ethics. On the one hand, I think something like a normative ethical model, a general and all-encompassing model of what is good, is what the most general and fundamental of the ethical sciences should aim to build, but based on the a posteriori phenomenal experience of our contingent appetites rather than a priori philosophizing, akin to how fundamental models of physics are build on a posterior phenomenal experience of our contingent senses. (That most general and fundamental subfield of the ethical sciences, playing the foundational role to them that physics plays to the physical sciences, is what I think deserves to be called "ethics" simpliciter.) But on the other hand, I think that the actual general approaches to normative ethics that have historically been developed can be better developed and reconciled with each other if they are instead viewed not as competing answers to the same normative ethical question, but as complimentary answers to the different questions within meta-ethics.

The primary divide within normative ethics is between consequentialist (or teleological) models, which hold that acts are good or bad only on account of the consequences that they bring about, and deontological models, which hold that acts are good or bad in and of themselves and the consequences of them cannot change that. The decision between them is precisely the decision as to whether the ends justify the means, with consequentialist models saying yes they do, and deontological theories saying no they don't. I hold that that is a strictly speaking false dilemma, between the two types of normative ethical model, although the strict answer I would give to whether the ends justify the means is "no". But that is because I view the separation of ends and means as itself a false dilemma, in that every means is itself an end, and every end is a means to something more. This is similar to how the views on ontology and epistemology I have already detailed in previous essays entail a kind of direct realism in which there is no real distinction between representations of reality and reality itself, there is only the incomplete but direct comprehension of small parts of reality that we have, distinguished from the completeness of reality itself that is always at least partially beyond our comprehension. We aren't trying to figure out what is really real from possibly-fallible representations of reality, we're undertaking a fallible process of trying to piece together our direct sensation of small bits of reality and extrapolate the rest of it from them. Likewise, to behave morally, we aren't just aiming to use possibly-fallible means to indirectly achieve some ends, we're undertaking a process of directly causing ends with each and every behavior, and fallibly attempting to piece all of those together into a greater good.

Perhaps more clearly than that analogy, the dissolution of the dichotomy between ends and means that I mean to articulate here is like how a sound argument cannot merely be a valid argument, and cannot merely have true conclusions, but it must be valid — every step of the argument must be a justified inference from previous ones — and it must have a true conclusion, which requires also that it begin from true premises. If a valid argument leads to a false conclusion, that tells you that the premises of the argument must have been false, because by definition valid inferences from true premises must lead to true conclusions; that's what makes them valid. If the premises were true and the inferences in the argument still lead to a false conclusion, that tells you that the inferences were not valid. But likewise, if an invalid argument happens to have a true conclusion, that's no credit to the argument; the conclusion is true, sure, but the argument is still a bad one, invalid. I hold that a similar relationship holds between means and ends: means are like inferences, the steps you take to reach an end, which is like a conclusion. Just means exercised out of good prior circumstances definitionally must lead to good consequences; if something bad happens as a consequence of some means, then that tells you either that something about those means were unjust, or that there was something already bad in the prior circumstances that those means simply have not alleviated. But likewise, if something good happens as a consequence of unjust means, that's no credit to those means; the consequences are good, sure, but the means are still bad ones, unjust. Moral action requires using just means to achieve good ends, and if either of those is neglected, morality has been failed; bad consequences of genuinely just actions means some preexisting badness has still yet to be addressed (or else is a sign that the actions were not genuinely just), and good consequences of unjust actions do not thereby justify those actions.

Consequentialist models of normative ethics concern themselves primarily with defining what is a good state of affairs, and then say that bringing about those states of affairs is what defines a good action. Deontological models of normative ethics concern themselves primarily with defining what makes an action itself intrinsically good, or just, regardless of further consequences of the action. I think that these are both important questions, and they are the moral analogues to questions about ontology and epistemology: fields that I call teleology (from the the Greek "telos" meaning "end" or "purpose"), which is about the objects (in the sense of "goals" or "aims") of morality, like ontology is about the objects of reality; and deontology (from the Greek "deon" meaning "duty"), which is about how to pursue morality, like epistemology is about how to pursue reality. In addition to consequentialist and deontological normative ethical models, there is a third common type, called areatic or virtue ethics, which holds that morality is about the character, the internal mental states, of the person doing the action, rather than about the action itself or its consequences. I hold that that is also an important question to consider, and that that question is wrapped up with the question of what it means to have free will. And lastly, though it's not usually studied as a philosophical division of normative ethics, there are plenty of views across history that hold that morality lies in doing what the correct authority commands, whether that be a supernatural authority as in divine command theory or a more mundane authority as in some varieties of legalism. That concern is of course wrapped up in the question of who if anyone is the correct authority and what gives their commands any moral weight, which is the central concern of political philosophy. So rather than addressing normative ethics as its own field, I prefer approaching those four questions corresponding to four kinds of normative ethical theories as equally important fields: teleology, deontology, the philosophy of will, and the philosophy of politics. I would loosely group these together as "meta-ethics" in a slightly different than usual sense, they being the questions necessary to answer in order to pursue the ethical sciences I propose above; in a way analogous to how the fields of ontology, epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of academics (which we might likewise group together in a slightly unusual sense as "meta-physics") address the questions necessary to answer in order to pursue the physical sciences.

In general, I view the correct approach to prescriptive questions about morality and justice to be completely analogous to, but also entirely separate from, the correct approach to descriptive questions about reality and knowledge. This is different from views that hold that one set of questions reduces entirely to the other set of questions, as I've already argued against in part of my earlier essay against cynicism. But it is also different from views such as the "non-overlapping magisteria" proposed by Stephen Jay Gould, who held that questions about reality are the domain of science, with its methodologies, while questions about morality were entirely separate in the domain of religion, with its wholly different methodologies, which I have already argued against in my earlier essay against fideism. I hold, like Gould, that they are entirely separate questions, but that perfectly analogous, broadly-speaking scientific, methodologies can be applied to each, and that religious methodologies have historically been (wrongly) applied to both of them as well. This is largely for reasons explained already in my earlier essay on meaning and language, in which I lay out my views that prescriptive assertions and opinions are generally analogous in every way to descriptive assertions and opinions, differing only in a quality called "direction of fit".

Over the next four essays I will lay out in more detail my views on those fields of teleology, deontology, will, and politics, that I hold analogous to the fields of ontology, epistemology, mind, and academics. But before I do, I will leave off here with a broad overview of the analogous process I advocate:

When it comes to tackling questions about reality, pursuing knowledge, we should not take some census or survey of people's beliefs, and either try to figure out how all those beliefs could all be held at once without conflict, or else (because that likely will not be possible) just declare that whatever the majority believes is true. Neither should we rather feed people's perceptions (instead of beliefs) into such a process, nor should we rather declare that some privileged authority's opinions (instead of the majority's) are correct. Instead, we should appeal to everyone's direct sensations or observations, free from any interpretation into perceptions or beliefs yet, and compare and contrast the emperical experiences of different people in different circumstances to come to a common ground on what experiences there are that need satisfying in order for a belief to be true. Then we should devise models, or theories, that purport to satisfy all those experiences, and test them against further experiences, rejecting those that fail to satisfy any of them, and selecting the simplest, most efficient of those that remain as what we tentatively hold to be true. This entire process should be carried out in an organized, collaborative, but intrinsically non-authoritarian academic structure.

When it comes to tackling questions about morality, pursuing justice, we should not take some census or survey of people's intentions, and either try to figure out how all those intentions could all be held at once without conflict, or else (because that likely will not be possible) just declare that whatever the majority intends is good. Neither should we rather feed people's desires (instead of intentions) into such a process, nor should we rather declare that some privileged authority's opinions (instead of the majority's) are correct. Instead, we should appeal to everyone's direct appetites, free from any interpretation into desires or intentions yet, and compare and contrast the hedonic experiences of different people in different circumstances to come to a common ground on what experiences there are that need satisfying in order for an intention to be good. Then we should devise models, or strategies, that purport to satisfy all those experiences, and test them against further experiences, rejecting those that fail to satisfy any of them, and selecting the simplest, most efficient of those that remain as what we tentatively hold to be good. This entire process should be carried out in an organized, collaborative, but intrinsically non-authoritarian political structure.


Continue to the next essay, On Teleology.