Thursday, June 06, 2013

Do the right thing

When we speak of ethics, do we mean this?

The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement. And we say that serious things are better than laughable things and those connected with amusement, and that the activity of the better of any two things-whether it be two elements of our being or two men-is the more serious; but the activity of the better is ipso facto superior and more of the nature of happiness. And any chance person-even a slave-can enjoy the bodily pleasures no less than the best man; but no one assigns to a slave a share in happiness-unless he assigns to him also a share in human life. For happiness does not lie in such occupations, but, as we have said before, in virtuous activities.

If happiness is activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be that of the best thing in us. Whether it be reason or something else that is this element which is thought to be our natural ruler and guide and to take thought of things noble and divine, whether it be itself also divine or only the most divine element in us, the activity of this in accordance with its proper virtue will be perfect happiness. That this activity is contemplative we have already said.
 Or do we mean this?

And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it.
The first is Aristotle; the second, Wittgenstein.  The question arises because there is a grand to-do at large in the Internet among the cognoscenti that morality (or ethics; the terms are used interchangeably, although that is a problem) is not only possible without religion, but preferable.  And the problem, as usual, is with how we define "ethics" (or "morality") as well as "religion."  Not that we can satisfactorily define any of these three terms; but we still have to begin there.

What, for example, does Aristotle mean by "virtuous"?  Older men having sexual relations with young boys, because it is more aesthetically pleasing than the animalistic rutting of procreation?  Being a good master to one's slaves?  Treating wives somewhat better than Socrates treated Xanthippe?

Was, in fact, Socrates virtuous?  Why, or why not?  Which is to say, by what standard?

We can appeal here to Rawls' Theory of Justice and appeal to his concept of the "original position."  But the Greeks didn't.  Can we say they were not virtuous?  Traditional Muslims in the "Middle East" (but not, I think, in Asia or many parts of Africa) insist virtue comes in a woman fully covered; not in a woman displaying her limbs, her decolletage, even her face.  Are they wrong, because we don't agree with them?  Is their appeal to the Koran about such things any better grounded than the appeal to 1 Corinthians 14:34?  Are they not virtuous because they aren't virtuous as we are virtuous?

You see, we already have a problem.  There can be but one virtue; but virtue, and my virtue?

Aristotle doesn't quite have this problem.  He can declare non-Greeks barbarians, and treat them as Medea was treated, or as the Romans treated non-Romans (who were not saved because they were either outside the reach of the Empire, or would be punished for rejecting the salvation of Caesar and Rome).  Pretty easy to identify virtue when you understand everyone who doesn't agree with you is by definition not virtuous.

Which is how we can leapfrog history and get to Wittgenstein's point:  if a true book about Ethics could be written, it would destroy uncertainty and ambiguity, and so "destroy all the other books in the world."  It would be true once and for all, and destroy all other books because they would no longer be necessary and we would, as Aristotle set out to discover by logic and observation, how we should then live.  We would know, and there would be nothing else to it.

And what is that, if not a religious claim?

It might be virtuous to treat all people with equal dignity, both before the law and between people.  It might be virtuous to treat all people as human beings deserving of mutual respect and decency in their living.  It might be, but it doesn't have to be.  There is nothing universal about virtue, and if we base our ethics on it, we are no further than Aristotle was:  "ethics" in Aristotle's Greek just means "customs."  The virtues Aristotle extols (without cataloging) are the ones acceptable in his community.  They are not universal, though he might have thought them superior to those of other societies.  If we remove ethics from religion, we are left only with what we are most comfortable with.  Of course, if we include ethics within religion, we have another reason to claim our own moral superiority.

But solving one problem doesn't solve all others.

The problem is on of definition.  Is ethics merely custom or habit (έθος).  Or is it what is "right"?  And what is that?  Is it good thoughts, good intentions, the right attitude toward certain people and certain behaviors?  Is morality fear of punishment, of the smiting of the Almighty who will be almightily displeased with misbehavior?  It is far too easy and glib to say ethics can exist without a concept of a single, all powerful, all encompassing god, without saying what is meant by "ethics" or even "morality" in the first place.

Wittgenstein struggled with it, rather than tossing off glib and pointless observations (pardon the length, please):

For it is clear that when we look at it in this way everything miraculous has disappeared; unless what we mean by this term is merely that a fact has not yet been explained by science which again means that we have hitherto failed to group this fact with others in a scientific system. This shows that it is absurd to say 'Science has proved that there are no miracles.' The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle. For imagine whatever fact you may, it is not in itself miraculous in the absolute sense of that. For we see now that we have been using the word 'miracle' in a relative and an absolute sense. And I will now describe the experience of wondering at the existence of the world by saying: it is the experience of seeing the world as a miracle. Now I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself. But what then does it mean to be aware of this miracle at some times and not at other times? For all I have said by shifting the expression of the miraculous from an expression by means of language to the expression by the existence of language, all I have said is again that we cannot express what we want to express and that all we say about the absolute miraculous remains nonsense. Now the answer to all this will seem perfectly clear to many of you. You will say: Well, if certain experiences constantly tempt us to attribute a quality to them which we call absolute or ethical value and importance, this simply shows that by these words we don’t mean nonsense, that after all what we mean by saying that an experience has absolute value is just a fact like other facts and that all it comes to is that we have not yet succeeded in finding the correct logical analysis of what we mean by our ethical and religious expressions. Now when this is urged against me I at once see clearly, as it were in a flash of light, not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance. That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.

Which is not, finally, to say that ethics (or morality) is impossible without religion; but that religion and ethics, ultimately, partake of the same concepts, flow from the same streams, and the attempts to discuss ethics does run "against the boundaries of language."  But that merely makes ethics, like religion, "a tendency of the human mind," and to try to reduce it to something smaller, more manageable, closer to a "science," is to stop discussing ethics altogether.

Where you go from there, is a different problem.

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