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.


jen said...

you wrote:
all behavior that enhances my survival is good and desirable, whatever detracts from it is bad and to be avoided.

My Survival.

is that true globally or just westernly? Sure, we are all about me here but what about in tribes or cultures where the norm is community survival?

It's very likely that I am not entirely clear here because a. you are pretty smart and b. i am sort of headachy.

or perhaps, that is simply the truth i continue to deny.

Cecilieaux said...

I think you're assuming that "my survival" is in conflict with "your survival," when actually they're related. We all need one another. We are social beings. No human being could survive his or her first year without others -- nor any of the other years, either.

I'm suspicious of community survival. It often means the group -- or the ones in charge of the group -- at the expense of individuals.

jen said...

i have my suspicions on communal survival as well, because of the people making it about them.

See, i think they are all related as you said but i also think we favor our own gain vs. the good of man. we let people starve daily while we throw food away, right? so how is my survival dependent on theirs?

Geneviève said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie Pippert said...

Or, instead of unwittingly omitting, I opted to assume that my readers understood this foundation (and I believe they do) and to keep as focused as possible (thus as short as possible) in a blog post already running wicked long.

Also, those weren't three mutually exclusive categories in my post.

I used definitions from philosophy that made sense to me, and that allowed me to distinguish between speaking of the singular versus the plural, which, to my way of thinking, was more germane to the topic at hand.

Further, you assume I mean "values" to be a norm that exists only for one person.

Instead, it means one person's subscription. That's how I mean the word "accepted."

Your definition of normative philosophy makes sense.

However, I maintain that many values morals are dynamic and subjective. I don't think you can ascribe an immutable absolute of right or wrong to these. There are too many influences and biases inherent in our imperfect point of view.

I admit, though, it probably feels very intellectually and emotionally satisfying to do so.

Using My Words

anne said...

It may very well be the universal norm, but how depressing.

Dog eat dog.

Or maybe I just got up on the right side of the bed this morning.

Out of sync I am.

Anonymous said...

Seen your postings on

Well, as for the right to make an appeal, to proclaim innocence... I totally agree with you. Same for freedom of speech. Do you know what makes a lot of people upset? The fact that she has been in prison three times for harrassment. The way it has caused a lot of serious, stomach-sickening worry. Nightmares. Read her blog and make up your own mind.

Try and keep an oopen mind. Understand why this woman has a court order that protects 17 people. They are not wanting to bring anyone down. They are involved, as names, because there are many people who have been attacked.

Cecilieaux said...

Many things here.

First of all, the context for what I am talking about is in my as yet unfinished series on moral philosphy (start at the first post at the bottom and work your way up).

Now, to particularly comments ...

Jen, it's fascinating how we often express what we are most in need of achieving. The most selfish, domineering people end up talking a blue streak about "the will of the people." The brashest and most abrupt go to assertiveness training. And so on. So, yes, we share a common suspicion of collectivists.

As to whether life is a zero-sum game (Jen and Geneviève), I would argue that at the core, in the long run and fundamentally, my survival depends on your equitable survival, not your exploitation.

We in the "North" or First World, forget that we don't have a fair share of the world's resources. We have too much. The First World is overdeveloped. How do we know that we are "over" developed? Easy. When you look at a country of a billion people (China) attempting to replicate the West in industry and technology, you are looking at an ecological disaster that will kill us all.

When we overeat from the crops collected by startving peasants, we get diabetes and acquire a risk for cardiovascular diseases.

Our real interest is that everyone have the basic resources needed for a dignified life. If life demands that I work and exercise, I will be healthier than if life lets me laze around.

Gen (not Jen), I'm not sure what you meant by "American internetal habits" but it sounds snooty and I would ask you to be respectful of people regardles of race, color, ethnic background, national origins, sex or sexual preference. Thank you for your future cooperation.

Julie, I hope you didn't think I was criticizing you. If I didn't make it clear enough, I should now. I understood that you were grabbing certain definitions and distinctions from either the prevailing common sense or a particular unnamed source. It was the definitions themselves I was questioning.

The key sentence, I think was: "The epistemology behind these propositions is that we know truth by consent and consensus." This includes, at least in my mind, subscription.

What am I missing?

Anne, you're missing that "my survival" is precisely not dog eat dog.

Anon, the Felicity Jane Lowndes story is unfamiliar to most Americans. I think I will have to blog on this in the near future to state my current opinion and its basis.

Geneviève said...
This comment has been removed by the author.