Sunday, April 4, 2010

Useful Distinctions

RMJ is unimpressed with Sam Harris's recent presentations on ethics, and offers to put all the germane ideas in their right boxes:
It might be fair to say morality relates to ones intentions to affect one's well-being. The same, of course, can be said of "ethics;" but here the confusion begins, and Harris only makes it worse. First, morality should be understood as something transcendent of ethics in the metaphysical sense: that is, it is impossible for me to be ethical if I find myself alone on a desert island, but it is still possible for me to be moral. One is a relationship to a community, the other a relationship to an ideal, even to a deity. This is not a common distinction but it is a useful one. Aristotle's Ethics is not so much a rule book as it is the first self-help guide. His advice is, in sum: find the happiest, most respected man in your community, and do what he's doing. Morality, on the other hand, says there are things you should do, and things you should not do, regardless of the ethos of where you are.
Whether this is a common distinction or not, I don't find it a useful one.

Back to the desert island scenario: it requires a little squinting to see how morality (as defined) would still hold there while ethics (so defined) would not, but no amount of squinting can alter the insight that a flea cannot be either moral or ethical, either on or off the island. Neither can an earthworm, wasp, rattlesnake, or leopard; and neither can a typical three-day-old human infant. All these creatures and newborns just do what they do without any concern for ideals or communities. To whatever extent they have a consciousness, it is not capable of allowing them to think through and weigh ideals and consequences: they have no capacity for moral reasoning. After Peter Singer, the insight is that they are, on that basis, not persons.

Discussions of consciousness tend to start in confusion and get cloudier from there. By drawing from Peter Singer, I may or may not match up with what Sam Harris is intending, but I redirect his claims in a way that sidestep at least some of the tangles of consciousness.

The fundamental difference between RMJ and Sam Harris is not on hermeneutics, Descartes, Kant, Wittgenstein, ethics, morality, transcendence, consciousness, or any other lengthy entry in the philosophical dictionary, save one: they differ over whether god exists.

If god exists, a person stranded on an island still has god to countenance as he engages in moral thinking about how many coconuts to eat per unit time, how to kill the fish he manages to catch, whether and to what extent he is entitled to rage at his fate, and (perhaps most importantly) how to treat Wilson, his inanimate volleyball companion.

If god does not exist, there is no community of persons in reference to which to weigh consequences, motives, rights, wrongs, and values. There is, perhaps, the necessity to take up the question of whether to kill or rescue any misguided pilot whales that happen to wash ashore  -- here's hoping a recent journal of applied bioethical research has washed up. For the person stranded on an island in a godless universe, any tussling over deontological morals will take place inside the stranded person's skull, and will die unrescued if and when the stranded person does.

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