The Foundations of Ethics

There aren’t any.

Let’s take an example.

If you’re arguing with Joe Schmoe about the ethics of some new voting ID law, he might say, “Requiring an ID to vote prevents fraud.” You might counter with, “Requiring an ID makes it harder for many of the poor to vote, since they often face a maze of fees and legal barriers when trying to get an ID.” In other words, you pin your argument to fairness, and Mr. Schmoe pins his argument to fraud.

But you both agree that fairness is good, and fraud is bad. You have a common foundation.

Imagine you met someone, a certain Mr. Evil, who had the opposite moral framework. He likes stealing because it gets him money. He thinks murder is kind of neat, as long as he’s not the one getting killed.

What do you say to someone like that? How do you make a logical case for the “good” system of ethics?

You can’t, because there isn’t one. At the center of our moral fabric lies a gaping hole. That isn’t a judgment on us; it’s the nature of reality.

Believing in God, following His laws, doesn’t help this particular problem, because you still have to decide whether to obey God or not. If you simply say, “God is Love, but I’m not really into all that,” someone can respond with “That’s crazy!” but that’s about it. There isn’t a counterargument to make.

What about Buddhism – do they have an answer? I’ve never been a practicing Buddhist, so it’s hard to say for sure. But I’ve studied Zen pretty in-depth, and it doesn’t look promising. Buddhism is about avoiding suffering, attaining enlightenment, achieving universal compassion. All good things, but beside the point.

Some people claim that evil is logically inconsistent, because it doesn’t make sense to hold yourself to a different standard than the rest of the world (i.e. I’m ok with hurting others, I’m not ok with them hurting me). I call shenanigans. It makes perfect sense – when other people get hurt, I don’t feel it. Subjectivity matters.

(This argument also doesn’t have an answer for people who want total chaos, who embrace suffering in themselves as well as others, people who – like the Joker – “just want to see the world burn.”)

Philosophers call this the “Is-ought problem.” There’s no defensible connection between how the world is, and what we ought to do.

At this point, you may be wondering if I’m really serious. I can’t honestly think that right and wrong are just a matter of opinion – can I?

Well, yes and no.

Of course I feel very strongly about ethics. Of course I want to do the right thing. Of course I don’t want to hurt anyone. Of course I care.

But can I justify that? Can I argue for “Thou shalt not kill” any more convincingly than for “This sweater vest is nifty”?

No, I cannot.

Maybe this doesn’t matter to you. Maybe it all seems needlessly abstract. You might say, look, you know the right thing to do, so do it. What does the logic matter?

Well, I’m a computer programmer. I believe in the power of science. To me, the logic matters.

What about you?

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13 responses to “The Foundations of Ethics

  1. Ah, my friend you have thrown down a gauntlet and I must reply. Thanks for the idea for my post today. I’ll post a link to my comments at 1pm.

  2. Pingback: The Truth Is Out There | Ben Trube

  3. While it’s true that ethics are a human construct and not a concrete thing to be observed in the world, I think it might be a bit hasty to claim that they don’t have a basis in logic. Logically speaking, humans who band together and create a set of shared ethics will set up a relatively stable society under which human life itself can flourish. Ergo, more humans are born, passing on the ethics to their children so that that society can continue to grow and expand and create more humans. Obviously, the ethical system is constantly in flux and is not created out of hard and fast absolutes, but that doesn’t make the attempt to live under an ethical code an illogical aberration. Maybe ethics themselves are “illogical” (and I’m not sure I agree, I just don’t know that I have a strong enough sense of the word logical to really argue that), but the reason they exist at all is perfectly straightforward.

    • I agree the reason for ethics existing is perfectly straightforward. No argument here. The reasons for the existence of murder, the sun, the element carbon, all these are fairly straightforward.

      I’m not talking about why our system of ethics exists. I’m talking about making the case that right is better than wrong. That’s what I have a hard time with.

  4. This is an interesting post! Have you ever read any Nietzche? He talks about something similiar, about how our good and evil value system as he looks towards its roots. He’s a very intersesting philosopher if you’re interested in reading him. I’ll post some books by him with the interpretor you probably want if you’re interested.
    Anyway, the good and evil value structure is interesting. It was created, If I remember correctly, by slaves who started the christian church as well. before then, we had a good/evil value structure where whatever the person in power did was good, basically. (Talk about loyalty. . .). Over the years the christian church gained power, and now even if it only has like, a billion member or something (I don’t have the exact number) almost everyone in the u.s. at least uses its value structure, as well as most countries that have gone through the industrial revolution.
    Thanks for posting!

  5. First of all, I want to say I enjoy reading your blog. Even if I don’t agree with it all, it at least can make me think.

    I suppose this is as much a reply here as to your comment on your friends blog about religion being wrong at times.

    My question back to you is that is not science wrong at times?

    I mean sixty years ago science thought the tectonic plates had been the same forever (i.e. no continental drift), that Global Cooling was a current concern, that the dinosaurs must have been cold blooded, among many other things. Who is to say that 50 years from now we will be looked back on and laughed at for our uninformed scientific beliefs of this time?

    Just because a religion does not change over time, like our scientific beliefs do, does not make it less true. Yes, we have to sift through the religions to find truth, but that is no more difficult than sifting through climate data and figuring out what really is going on with global warming. (No more difficult intellectually I’d say, but much more profound.) If something is right–truly perfectly right–the first time change can only make it wrong. It no longer needs to seek truth because it is truth.

    To get back to science for a moment, the problem I have with it is that it is not often logical. Logic is seeing connections between observable phenomena and extrapolating it to find simple answers to what is not seen. When scientists observe the universe which has such an even spread of matter that the simplest answer is that we are the center of the universe, scientists instead say we can’t be that special and therefore what we observe must only be part of a vast unobservable universe and since what we see is so small it seems like we are the center.

    I could go on, and would gladly at a later time if desired, but I have an aversion for too long of rants in comments. 🙂

    • Okay, glad I stopped, I realized looking back at my comment I got a bit off topic.

      I guess at the end my question is, if science can be wrong then do we throw out science and leave ourselves only basic observable logic or do we sift through science to find the truth, just like we should do with faith?

      (Still a bit off topic to morality being logical, but this pushes us at least a bit closer to the topic at hand.)

      • Hi Tim!

        Of course you’re right that science does get things wrong. No good scientist would deny this. But it’s important to understand *why* it happens. Broadly speaking, I think science can be “wrong” in two ways:

        1. Scientists make a mistake in the experiment. They measure inaccurately, they goof the calculations, whatever.

        2. Scientists simply don’t have enough information yet. They form a worldview based on an experiment, and it turns out to be wrong because their early data led them the wrong way.

        In the first case, it wasn’t really science that failed, but the people attempting it. The solution here is not to abandon the scientific method, but to pursue it even more diligently. The first case also illustrates how science tends to be self-correcting, as later experiments demonstrate mistakes in the earlier ones.

        And in the second case, well, yes, if you don’t have enough data, you’re going to get things wrong sometimes. Science leads you toward the best answer based on what you know. The best answer is not necessarily the perfect answer. That’s just the way life is.

        To your point about not being in the center of the universe, I think it’s perfectly simple. We’re not in the center of the Earth, the solar system, the galaxy, or the local galactic cluster. Why would we just happen to be in the center of the universe? If something’s so far away from us that light doesn’t have time to reach us, then we won’t see it; hence, an unobservable universe. Makes sense to me.

        Now let’s look at faith. My problem with using faith alone as a basis for belief is that I see no particular connection between someone believing something, and it actually being true. People have deep, passionate faith in all sorts of things that are wildly inaccurate. This isn’t just an example of someone doing faith incorrectly (as in case #1) or getting as close as possible to an answer based on incomplete knowledge (as in case #2). It’s just the nature of faith. Believing something doesn’t make it so.

        You said that if something is perfectly true at the beginning, there’s no reason for it to change. Why, then, would we have to sift through multiple religions to find truth? Science doesn’t claim to be perfectly accurate, whereas most religions do.

        It’s getting late and I don’t want to get into a comment rant either, so I’ll stop here. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Tim!

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