“Ethics” in the 21st Century

According to the banner on its cover, Ethics is currently “celebrating 125 years.”  It describes itself as “an international journal of social, political, and legal philosophy.”  Its contributors consist mainly of a gaggle of earnest academics, all chasing about with metaphysical butterfly nets seeking to capture that most elusive quarry, the “Good.”  None of them seems to have ever heard of a man named Westermarck, who demonstrated shortly after the journal first appeared that their prey was as imaginary as unicorns, or even Darwin, who was well aware of the fact, but was not indelicate enough to spell it out so blatantly.

The latest issue includes an entry on the “Transmission Principle,” defined in its abstract as follows:

If you ought to perform a certain act, and some other action is a necessary means for you to perform that act, then you ought to perform that other action as well.

As usual, the author never explains how you get to the original “ought” to begin with.  In another article entitled “What If I Cannot Make a Difference (and Know It),” the author begins with a cultural artifact that will surely be of interest to future historians:

We often collectively bring about bad outcomes.  For example, by continuing to buy cheap supermarket meat, many people together sustain factory farming, and the greenhouse gas emissions of millions of individuals together bring about anthropogenic climate change.

and goes on to note that,

Intuitively, these bad outcomes are not just a matter of bad luck, but the result of some sort of moral shortcoming.  Yet in many of these situations, none of the individual agents could have made any difference for the better.

He then demonstrates that, because a equals b, and b equals c, we are still entirely justified in peering down our morally righteous noses at purchasers of cheap meat and emitters of greenhouse gases.  His conclusion in academic-speak:

I have shown how Act Consequentialists can find fault with some agent in all cases where multiple agents who have modally robust knowledge of all the relevant facts gratuitously bring about collectively suboptimal outcomes, even if the agents individually cannot make any difference for the better due to the uncooperativeness of others.

The author does not explain the process by which emotions that evolved in a world without cheap supermarket meat have lately acquired the power to prescribe whether buying it is righteous or not.

It has been suggested by some that trading, the exchange of goods and services, is a defining feature of our species.  In an article entitled “Markets without Symbolic Limits,” the authors conclude that,

In many cases, we are morally obligated to revise our semiotics in order to allow for greater commodification.  We ought to revise our interpretive schemas whenever the costs of holding that schema are significant, without counterweight benefits.  It is itself morally objectionable to maintain a meaning system that imbues a practice with negative meanings when that practice would save or improve lives, reduce or alleviate suffering, and so on.

No doubt that very thought occurred to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, enhancing their overall fitness.  The happy result was the preservation of the emotional baggage that gave rise to it to later inform the pages of Ethics magazine.

In short, “moral progress,” as reflected in the pages of Ethics, depends on studiously ignoring Darwin, averting our eyes from the profane scribblings of Westermarck, pretending that the recent flood of books and articles on the evolutionary origins of morality and the existence of analogs of human morality in many animals are irrelevant, and gratuitously assuming that there really is some “thing” out there for the butterfly nets to catch.  In other words, our “moral progress” has been a progress away from self-understanding.  It saddens me, because I’ve always considered self-understanding a “good.”  Just another one of my whims.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

5 thoughts on ““Ethics” in the 21st Century”

  1. Lorenz, Methuen & Co ltd, University Paperback edition, 1967, P37.
    “Some time ago collaborators of Robert M Yerkes made the extraordinarily interesting observation that chimpanzees, animals well known to be capable of learning by imitation, copy only higher ranking members of their species.”

    We feel not the need to have the Church tell us that God does not exist, in fact we recognise that the Church is locked in this delusion, why then do we expect the church of moral/ethics to stand and confront its failings, and if they did just who would be high enough in the ranking to free us from the need to continue.

  2. 13/08/2015
    I’ve entered the date as you have put in a few more posts since this one and my comment is a broad sweeping generalisation/maybe.
    Your theme of self understanding, the obvious reversal of reality in the blank slate debacle, the role of the academics, etc strikes me as you being spot on.
    Now my comment is really a question.
    The ruling elite have always used a lack of self understanding, most predominantly religious, to weaken the peasants and strengthen their position.
    I read somewhere that ‘On Aggression’ was bedside reading for one of the US Secretaries of State.
    If you were running a super power (or for that matter a third world tin pot island), would you not want to limit the number of people who actually operated to their full potential?
    Therefore, would you not encourage your academics to have a quasi religious element, ie humanism and the blank slate etc, and deny the basic rules of human nature?
    Now a slight tangent, when we look at the box office in the regard to self understanding, there are millions of books sold on the other side of the ledger, the salesman of illusion and delusion are selling millions, the greatest selling books have all been fairy tales.
    Lastly, the ruling elite, who ultimately control our education systems, (I have no reason to believe that the current nonsense taught in many universities is some form of objective fact!) Are acting quite according to a more predictable understanding of said human nature. In fact the ruling elite would be self defeating if they were to promote a rigorous and reality based version of the soft sciences?
    Further, the poor peasants have shown a great aversion to reality. Here we have a rich field for exploration, why is man so easily led?

  3. “Therefore, would you not encourage your academics to have a quasi religious element, ie humanism and the blank slate etc, and deny the basic rules of human nature?”

    You could be right. I can only speculate, but I doubt the Blank Slate was such a conscious attempt to deceive. It was what Solzhenitsyn called a “sharashka” in his “The First Circle,” a lie so big that even the people telling it believed it. I had some thoughts on the subject here.

    Apropos books, I’ve been reading Panksepp. Amazing! Thanks for the tip. He reveals a whole new world where the Blank Slate is still alive and well. Of course, the “anthropomorphism” allergy and the denial that animals have feelings were part of it, but he limits himself strictly to his own bailiwick, as if he’d never heard of the whole “human nature” debate. He only mentions some of the old ethologists, like Tinbergen, in passing, and yet what he is talking about is really just another part of the overall picture. I haven’t finished the book, and have no idea what was at the bottom of his differences with his co-author. I guess my reaction is that it’s very encouraging to see that such work is going on. That’s really the whole point of the fight against the Blank Slate. Not to force a particular theory down anyone’s throat, but simply to make sure that the Panksepps of the world are free to do their research with some hope of being published.

  4. Re Panksepp, I’m not sure where he popped up but I’m unaware of him.
    Re books have you read Lorenz’s book, “Behind the Mirror”, I’m thinking of ordering a copy, the whole epistemological question strikes me as at the core of this discussion.

  5. You’re right, another commenter suggested Panksepp. His “The Archaeology of Mind” is excellent. He presents the neuroscientific evidence of the similarities between the evolution of emotions and feelings between man and other animals. The Blank Slaters had an allergic reaction towards anything that smacked of “anthropomorphism,” and Panksepp addresses the subject from his own point of view. It turns out that the Blank Slate is still alive and well in that bailiwick.

    I wouldn’t recommend “Behind the Mirror.” Lorenz should have stuck to his scientific specialty. When he tried to philosophize he thought he had to imitate the 19th century German philosophers, and doesn’t really get beyond commonplaces expressed in their high falutin’ language.

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