Friday, September 07, 2007

Values vs. Ethics

In attempting to define the terms "values," "morals" and "ethics," Julie Pippert proposes what I see as three normative levels: one defined by oneself, another by society and yet another by subgroups of society. She elides, unwittingly I think, the whole point of norms in moral philosophy, namely to distinguish between right and wrong.

One of the first themes of this blog was my still-unfinished series on moral philosphy. Having chucked the existence of a god or gods out the window, I turned to looking for some basis for normative ethics. I insisted, against the grain for many people in cyberspace, on a universal grounding.

I would like to suggest three problems with the definitions as given.

If a norm only exists for you, it is useless to me. We might as well all go back into the jungle. (OK, yes, what do I mean "back"?)

If a norm is what a society says it is, then it is akin to Anglo-Saxon customary law, forged by precedent rather than by principle; it can be false, misleading and ultimately immoral. How are two societies with different norms to settle their differences?

If a norm is merely a series of ideals chosen by various clubs, they might as well not exist. We all know that clubs make awards and canonize the behavior of those members who curry popularity most successfully.

The epistemology behind these propositions is that we know truth by consent and consensus.

This is not without problems. Just believing the moon is made of green cheese, won't make it so. Even if we were to agree that the earth rotates round the moon, for example, that grass is blue and that water is dry, none of these things -- understood in their everyday sense -- would become true.

Galileo was right: "E pur si muove" (And yet it moves.) The common "knowledge" of his day was wrong.

I would contend that normative philosophy attempts to discover what is truly right and truly wrong. One might question whether the proposals of a given philosophical system or thinker are correct or true, but right and wrong is an irreducible dyad. One can't be equal to the other and viceversa.

As I wrote three years ago, the universal norm of human behavior is that "all behavior that enhances my survival is good and desirable, whatever detracts from it is bad and to be avoided." At the time (amazing how quickly time flies when you're blogging!), I was hesitant to affirm it, but at this writing I am every day more convinced that this is the universal norm par excellence.

I welcome contrary opinions, although I am nearly certain this is an unassailable proposition. Not because I have chosen it (OK, I do listen to myself a little), but because in my observation it is warranted as true and factual, as well as intellectually and emotionally satisfying.
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