Why be good?

This is not going to be an explanation of my ethical position. [this is partly a warning to you, but mostly a warning to me not to make this too long].

However, somebody Elsewhere has asked why people should live ethically, and further has made clear that they are asking those with developed ethical systems why people should follow those systems. So, within that narrow metaethical remit, I offer an answer.

The question is still too broad. It contains many different elements. First, why would someone with my ethical system follow it? Second, why should people have my ethical system (ie why is my system best)? Third, what reasoning should people who follow my system use to determine the right thing to do? Fourth, what reasons do/might people have to adopt my ethical system? Fifth – why are there ethical systems, including mine?

1. This is a common question posed about ethics, but it is not a question. It is a misfiled tautology. People do not have or need reasons to be ethical, they need reasons to do or not do things. Reasons are what link potential actions to ethics. Ethics is what reasons are based on, not what reasons justify. An analogy: a pain is felt. We cannot ask “why is the pain felt?”. We can ask why the pain is the particular pain that it is, but the pain must be felt because otherwise there is no pain. So we can ask “why is there pain?” – but that is the analogue to “why are there ethical systems?” not “why do we follow our ethical system?”: an ethical system is simply what is followed, will we or nill we. It’s like asking “why do we think our thoughts” – not “why do we think these particular thoughts” but “given that we have thoughts, why do we think them?”. What else would you do with thoughts?

2. My ethical system is not the best – not because there are any better (I don’t believe there are, or I would follow those systems instead), nor because all are equally valuable, but because the word has no meaning here. Wittgenstein asked us about measuring sticks. We use sticks to measure things. Our metre-rule says that this plank of wood is one metre long. But when your metre-rule says one thing and mine says another thing – how do we determine which is right? Which stick do we use to measure the length of our measuring sticks? Well, unless we can all agree on the One True Metre-Rule to compare things to, we can’t. And in ethics we do not all agree. So calling one ethical system better than another is using metre-rules to measure metre-rules. We do not become more objective in the iteration. So yes, my ethical system is the best – but in saying that I say nothing that is not already contained in the name “my ethical system”. Certainly I say nothing that can be proven, or even defended through reason, in an absolute sense, anymore than any evidence can show that our ruler is the length it says it is. The most we can do is give reasons why people should accept our ruler as their measure – we cannot sure it is the correct measure until it has been adopted as such.
This, incidentally, is where moral relativism fails. A moral relativist is someone who sees me disagreeing with my neighbour over which of us has a correct metre-rule, and deduces “both rulers must be the same length!”. Of course, they are – they are both one metre long, according to them. And all ethical systems are good, according to them. But the two sticks are in fact different lengths. We just don’t have any impartial way to describe this difference – we have no way to prove that they are different lengths to somebody whose eyes are deficient. For us, no proof is required – we can see the difference for ourselves.

3. Here we reach substance.

To begin with, my ethical system is unusual in not being coherent. This is down to something Nietzsche said – when we say that good things are ‘better’, we must ask ourselves ‘better for whom?’. Good and bad are relative – good for one person may be bad for another. “Better” and “worse” depend on perspective. When we talk about Good in a moral sense, from whose perspective are we looking?

My incoherence begins with the thought that no single answer can be given to this. Or rather: I cannot give a single answer. Certain perspectives can be discarded. My own perspective can be discarded – because although it matters to me whether your action is to my advantage or not I do not use the vocabulary of ethics to describe this. (I may sometimes call it ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but there the similarity ends). Ethics, it seems to me, is fundamentally a perspective that is not our own. An alternative would be the perspective of the agent in the moment – this is not our own perspective because it is relative, not absolute, and only coincides with our own perspective when considering our own actions.
But what content would such an ethics have? It would seem to be the ethics of uncontrolled hedonism. Now, many people might think that many egoists would indeed advocate such an ethics – but think what is implied. Good to the agent – the agent at that time and in that place, with no thought ahead or behind or sideways. This is the ethics of a man who’s given an orgasm button and never stops pressing it – a man who is unable to do anything, achieve anything, be anything, because the button is the best thing he can do in that instant. It may, as I’m told experiments suggest, be true that all of us are doomed to accept that ethics in the right circumstance, to be reduced below thinking beings into the moment of pleasure indefinitely, unvaryingly, impersonally extended. But I don’t think that many of us really want that. Certainly I don’t.

Before we go on, here’s a pointless metaphysical question popular these days – persistence through time. Are all our parts present at the moment, and as ‘the moment’ changes, do our parts move through time? Or are some of our parts in the future and some in our past? The latter theory is perdurantism, or ‘worm theory’ – we are spread out like a worm through the fourth dimension, and some bits of us are in the future and some are in the past. Endurantism, on the other hand, claims that although parts of us (all our parts, actually) were in the past, and will be in the future, they all currently are in the present.
I think this is an utterly sophistic debate and essentially meaningless, a question of definition and perspective not of fact. But if we adopt the perdurantist perspective, and accept that we have parts in the past and in the future, a question emerges: what is it that makes those our parts? Well, I’m identical to myself – so if that’s me and this is me, surely those things are identical? But of course they aren’t – even endurantists would accept that me now is not identical to how I was yesterday. Wittgenstein was right in disparaging the notion of identity – it’s a relation that can be used, he said, about one thing or about two things, and if it’s used about two things it’s always false because no two things are identical, and if it’s used about one thing it’s always true by definition. So the notion of ‘identical’ has no semantic content other than ‘we are talking about one thing and not two’ – so when it comes to counting how many things we are talking about, ‘identity’ in this sense is useless, as we have to do the counting before we can judge identity, in this strict sense.

If we instead talk about ‘the same’, we’re getting closer. But here we hit something called ‘sortal relativity’ (Geach). The things that make two trees the same species are not the things that make two trees the same tree. The things that make the two trees at different times ‘the same tree’ are not necessarily the same as the things that make two bicycles at different times ‘the same bicycle’ (as we can replace the parts on the bicycle one by one while keeping the same bicycle, while a tree with no parts in common is no longer the same tree. And if you don’t accept the bicycles, try countries – two countries can be ‘the same country’ across centuries, when all the people have changed and even when the physical location is different, if we imagine a country slowly creeping across the earth, losing ground on one side and gaining it on the other).
What makes two things the same X depends on the definition of the word X, which is something we have to learn. But when it comes to us, do we really believe that who we are depends on social convention? If language demanded, would we accept that suddenly the person next to us ‘was’ us and we had become them? What matters to us is not the definition but its impact on us. Why do we care about what happens to us in the future? Because it’s us. Well, reverse that – why are they us? Because we care about what happens to them, in a particular way and with a particular intensity.

So when it comes to judging future worlds and deciding whether we are in them, it’s fundamentally a matter, I think, of how we relate to them. This isn’t a simple thing – responsibility, ambition, affection, may all work slightly differently. Who we are or have been is not necessarily a simple matter.

So, above I gave the perspective of one little momentary time-slice-person and discarded it. Let’s instead look at the perspective of the whole of a man. Except that the whole of a man is not something that can be defined. Nonetheless, I think that that is one important perspective for ethics – what is best for us as a person-through-time.

What IS best for us as a person through time? Well, as a person-through-time it is important that we are indeed through-time. Self-preservation is the highest ethic on this account. But I have said that persisting through time is at least partly a matter of relation, of our own identification, not just a matter of material persistence. Both sides of that debate are wrong – nothing persists through time, in a material sense. All there is is atoms and void. Schopenhauer follows the Indian traditions in saying that the world is, ultimately, one, and that our principium indivitionis (sp?) is what brings the apparent world into different things. Let’s say the opposite – the world in itself has no unities in it at all, only division, and we create objects in our perceptions not through breaking up the world but through putting the world together. What makes this pencil the same object as this pencil yesterday, when so many of its atoms have been lost from its surface and other atoms settled upon it – what even makes the pencil and the table different objects from one another and not two parts of the same? Only our own definitions. So likewise with our own survival – it is a matter of definitions. So can we live forever simply by defining it so? When I’m dying perhaps I’ll just pick someone else to ‘be me’. Well, we do that to a small degree with our children – we envisage the future world through their perspective as though it were our own. And we do it too with our own corpses. This is what so puzzled Epicurus, when we saw that men cared deeply about what happened to ‘them’ when ‘they’ were dead. If they were dead, they could not care at all, nor suffer in any way – why care now about what happens to that hunk of meat? Well, people care because they perceive, to some degree, that their body would still be ‘them’ – they have grown so accustomed to that association over their lives. but of course the fact that something is done by us does not make it something free. We are not simply free to define ourselves as we will, anymore than we are ‘free’ to love or hate who we will, on a whim. We are confined by our natures.
“Self-preservation,” then, is a complicated thing. It involves a certain continuity across time – to some degree a continuity that we ourselves decree, but at the same time one that is forced upon us. but let us not think that ‘us’ or ‘not us’ is a binary thing. When a man thinks of his corpse as ‘him’, he still knows that in another way it is not him. And so, when we imagine a man in the future, or remember one from the past, and consider whether that man is us, it is not binary, but rather we may embrace him with one hand and reject him with the other, or else with both hands bring him partly to us and yet at the same time keep our distance.
This attitude that defines self, this solidarity, is a matter of similarities. Similarities of shape, of character, of memory; constrained by a certain thought of death that begs for transititivity. It is easier to imagine someone to be ‘us’ if they are likewise connected to other ‘us’es. It is hard to say ‘I began last year; before that it was not me’ – because we address there the question of death – somebody before us must have fallen into death, and we arisen from death. We prefer to trace ourselves back into the unfathomable, into the untraceable, where the death we were born from can be hidden away from us. Usually this is in early childhood; some may claim even their foetus as themselves. But we can also imagine, as philosophers do, an old general reflecting on the deeds of a young child many years ago, who believes that he is no longer the same person as that child. He does not think there was a point of change between the two of them, but rather a dwindling of the one and an arising of the other, comingled together in illimnable change. And likewise this lust for continuity prevents us from easily embracing a doppelganger as ‘us’ – though if he were similar enough we would likely find ourselves doing so to some degree. And if we found him identical not only in nature but in past, as the characters of some science fiction do, confronted with parallels from other dimensions or from other points in time – I think the temptation to consider him ‘us’ would be extremely strong indeed.

Self-preservation is a matter of similarity, but there are many things that can be similar – body of course, but memory also, and opinions and beliefs and convictions. The perspective of self-preservation therefore calls for constancy – for us to be able to say wholeheartedly at each moment ‘that’s me’. This is why the perspective of instant hedonism does not appeal. We look at the man pressing the button and we do not feel that he is us – he lacks all the mental characteristics, the hopes, thoughts, desires, intentions, that we have. To be reduced to that, not briefly for a moment (and perhaps in light of what I am saying it is no surprise that the orgasm, the moment where the paraphenalia of personhood are no longer relevent, has indeed been called ‘the small death’, and ‘die’ was once in english a euphemism for orgasm) but for an inescapable forever, is a kind of death. And so also men may well choose death before dishonour – because dishonour is its own kind of death to such a man, and for such a man it is to willingly discard his honour that is the true and unforgivable suicide.

Self-preservation; and self-preservation is what we mean by freedom. When we are unfree, we act yet cannot claim our actions as our own. We are not fully us. Those who speak of ‘inner’ freedom, of freedom from the passions and the appetites, are right in emphasis but wrong in explanation. Nietzsche said that they were fools to talk of overcoming our drives – what overcomes is only another drive. There is no ‘us’ divorced from our drives, ruling over them. True – and extend it over time for the real explanation. A man gives into lust against his better judgement and regrets it later – it is not that his passions have overcome him, but that for a time he acted differently. He acted in a way that abandoned his earlier ideals; that paid no heed to his later troubles. In surrendering himself to lust in that way, he renounced his fellowship with past and future selves for ‘his’ own sake – and for that he is treated with contempt by all those of his selves that are sober.

From this perspective, then: preserve yourself, which is to say live free, which is to say ensure that you are always yourself. To return to Nietzsche: imagine that you are going to recur, that every moment of your life will happen again and again without ending. What sort of man could embrace that future without weeping? A man who could look at every moment of his life and embrace it, who would not want to reject or renounce or disown any part of it. From this perspective: live like that man.

But that is not the only perspective. What others are there? Well, if we’ve accounted for me, what about me and the guy next door? It’s viable. If we decide which of our selves we are to count, why not include others? Our family, our friends, our neighbours. Fine. But this is a hybrid case, I think. On the one hand there is us, our little thread through time that we are trying to weave together. On the other hand there is the universe… but that perhaps is just a little grand. What can we imagine about what is best for the universe. Let us bring it down to human beings. We should do what is best for human beings – in one perspective. And yet we cannot judge too finely here, without intruding on their right to define their own natures, without intruding on their own freedom. We cannot force others to be free, for then they are no more free under our rule than under another. A universal ethics can only, I think, be founded on a universal measure. That measure is presumably in some way related to happiness, to utility, as that issues from the success of our endeavours.

We can identify, then, two distinct ethical visions. One, which we might call ‘virtue’, is individual, founded on individual freedom and continuity and the individual characteristics and choices that promote that. It is about who we are, and how we are. The other, which we might call ‘morality’, is universal, founded upon universal utility in some consequential way, calculated with a calculus of profit and loss across the whole species. It is coarse, and impersonal. And between these two may sit a raft of other ethical systems, varying from the intimate to the austere with the scope of their concerns.

And there is no way to judge between them. Which perspective should we choose to judge from? We may perhaps agree that some are bad – but both of those extremes hold great power for us. Oftentimes, their dictates coincide. Perhaps we might think that in a perfect world they always would – and we can distinguish ‘what would be best in a perfect world’ from ‘what is best now’ – and a third, troubling option, ‘what is best to make this a perfect world’, which may not be the same as either of the other two options. And in choosing between conflicting systems… there are no reasons. Everything beyond this point is a matter of taste (as Nietzsche says).

4. Another big question. I was going to write a fair bit on this, but I’ve been writing too long this evening. I wanted to do other things too…

Everybody has their own reasons. They follow their own ethical system. Ethical systems are, in my view, incommensurable – but that does not mean that they cannot engage with one another. This is because ethical systems are also, by and large, vague and ill-defined. Even those who try to be precise in their ethical systems can only focus on one part at once and leave the rest in shadows. When two ethical systems are compared, some tenants of one may slip into the penumbra of the tenants of the other. At certain times, there may be a chain of reasoning in one that follows closely that in another. At this point, which ethical system is being followed is indeterminate. Leaving this passage, the agent himself may determine which path he has been following, and in the process may emerge with an altered ethical system. Through a series of such encounters, one ethical system may be replaced with another, one atom at a time, allowing both change and continuity.

Other people might, then, adopt my ethical system because of commonalities between mine and theirs, real or imagined. An example – some people may have seen in parts of my account above echoes of things they think themselves. They may, as it were, mistake my thoughts for theirs – and losing their way and thinking they have found it when they have not, may follow the road home and arrive at my house rather than their own.

We cannot say which reason will be shared between two systems. That depends on the systems. There are, however certain commonalities in human thought (universals or otherwise), and other commonalities dependent on social environment.

5. Because we think and act.

I give up, there is no answer to this question. Many people have tried to answer it and they have all failed. It simply isn’t possible to move from the existence of the physical world to the existence of ethics (it is certainly possible from naturalist principles to predict certain elements of popular ethical systems, given our evolutionary background, but that is very different from explaining the existence of ethics tout court – because, I believe, ethics is so basic to human thought that it is impossible to conceive of its absence, and thus to explain its presence. And it is possible to have complicated organisms without consciousness).

But, a throwaway suggestion: if we assume the existence of an ethical system, we would be forced to deduce the existence of a material reality. But if we assume material reality, we need not deduce ethics. Perhaps, then, ethics is where we should start, and view material reality as its necessary product?
(I believe Fichte said something similar).


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