Monday, 12 May 2008

Are there ethical substantive principles?

This was a question that came up in a recent forum conversation and is a very important point in the approach I am developing here. Simply put there are no such principles, but people believe that there are, do operate unwittingly and deliberately according to such fictions and, I have recently realized, that this is one of the factors in corrupting the pre-existing natural processes from being effective.

Desire Fulfillment
Desire Fulfillment is an ethically natural theory, that is there is nothing to naturalize since it describes what is already natural. Desires exist, the states of affairs that are the target of desires can exist and the relations between these two exist. And that is all there is and required here. Once you have analyzed a situation in terms of desires, state of affairs and their relations there are no additional moral facts of the matter.

Discouraging desire thwarting
People seek to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires. One of the impediments to achieving the state of affairs where a desire is fulfilled is by others directly, indirectly, accidentally or deliberately preventing this state of affairs. Given this occurring, one already has another desire - a reason to act - to discourage such impediments to realizing the desire in question - since it makes no sense to say that one acts to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires, when one does not so act. Now the same way you have a reason to act to discourage other desires whose fulfillment prevents the fulfillment of the desire in question, others too have exactly the same type of motivation - reason to act - to discourage your desires whose fulfillment would prevent their fulfillment. This is mutually and reciprocally reinforcing, that is everyone already has a reason to act to discourage other desires where these thwart their own desires. So, all things being equal, once could say it is in everyone's interest to discourage each other from thwarting one's own desires. Now most of the time this is indeed what occurs, whether the actions that result are in the moral, social, business, sports or other domains. That is there is no need to posit a distinct ethical principle that one ought to discourage desires that thwart your own, it is what we do most of the time anyway!

Ethical Reasoning
Now note in the above that I did not ask you to evaluate your own desires in terms of whether they thwart other's desires or not, that just makes life simpler knowing that if you do not others will react to discourage you, again all things being equal. And the key issues are what desires are being fulfilled and thwarted and what are the most effective and efficient means to discourage your own desires from being thwarted and vice versa. Sometimes this easy to establish and sometimes it is hard, sometime you have enough time to work this out and sometimes you do not but this, I argue, is the only relevant type of reasoning needed over such "ethical" issues.

All things are not equal
Well I think we can all agree that all things are not equal in the real world and so there are plenty of situations where this itself is prevented from occurring, that is not just the direct attempt to fulfill one's own desires but rather the attempt to discourage others from preventing one's own desires from being fulfilled and vice versa. Now there are many reasons for this such as status, money, power, influence, health, age, looks, in versus out group membership, self-belief, confidence, commitment and so on but here we are concerned specifically with how certain moral beliefs themselves - here so-called ethically substantive principles - can, ironically, interfere with this process.

I will briefly mention two "ethically substantive principles" that are clearly problematic and two that are generally not, still none are needed and all serve to question the necessity of such such principles.

Divine Command
This is the morality of some theists, the principle that whatever is good or bad is as god commands, desires or are oughts that are constitutive of it, regardless of anything else. There are many more problems with this than just about any other moral theory, however popular this still is today. The point here though this can lead one to falsely encourage - such as through praise and reward - desire thwarting desires contrary to the natural principle, discussed above everyone otherwise tries to operate by, since this approach theoretically completely ignores the facts of the matter in terms of desire fulfillment. To name but one example - the Catholic church's adoptions agencies in wanting to thwart the desires of both the UK government, homosexual couples and parent-less kids. There are many other examples.

Moral Relativism
Here we look specifically is the ethical principle of normative relativism - that one cannot judge the morals of another culture. Again there are many issues with this but here let us focus on the intermingling of cultures within one society as implemented recently in the UK by Labour's multiculturalism. We here have ended funding Political Islamists and teaching Wahhabism in schools encourage desire thwarting behaviour and beliefs such as bigotry, racism, violence as a response to free speech and supporting terrorism in the UK ( these themselves being other examples of the flaws of Divine Command, of course).

Secular Humanist Ethics
Here I am specifically thinking of Paul Kurtz's arguments which mostly lead to similar conclusions to Desire Fulfillment. This is because his view is based on treating all humans as equals without exception and impartially which is equivalent, mostly, to treating all desires equally without exception. However it suffers from the same mis-direction as the view stated next.

Proscriptive Golden Rule and Sophisticated Tit-for-Tat
This was my own previous ad hoc solution to the problem of ethics. I believe that these can be derived and substantiated by the Desire Fulfillment I am now arguing for. However they suffer, when considered in isolation from Desire Fulfillment, from being subjective ideas that one ought to follow but why should one?

Both this and secular humanistic ethics offer the illusion of a choice when, in effect, there is none, rather the point in this post is that even the belief in ethical substantive principles that are in agreement with what I am arguing for here are misleading. After all one could still carry on searching for other "better" such principles and there is no guarantee that one could not end up with Divine Command or Normative Relativism, for example, since all these choices are in the end subjective alone.

The first two brief examples highlights the danger of thinking they are necessary and must be followed. The second two highlights the danger of thinking they are sufficient, that is all that is required. So I conclude that a substantive ethical principle is at best useful and at worst dangerously misleading. They are neither necessary nor sufficient.