A Short History of Ethics and a Possible Future

Ancient philosophers concerned with ethical matters were preoccupied with the question of how one should live. Their answers to that question required the existence of a cosmological order to which a good life must conform—an ideal of human nature built into the very structure of reality or advanced via God’s word.

Among philosophers, belief in that cosmological order had eroded by the time of the Enlightenment and so they began to ask a different question—How should one act? Which actions are justifiable from a moral point of view? With this question, philosophy doesn’t legislate the kind of life we ought to live as long as we honor our obligations. How one should live is for each individual to decide if the rights of others are not violated. This approach to morality doesn’t require a cosmological order to which we much conform, thus making it compatible with modern science. But it did require a conception of reason built around logical consistency to which our deliberations must conform that could generate a concept of obligation. It also had the drawback of abstracting from life, divorcing one’s actions from who one is and the kind of life one leads. Unfortunately, a conception of universal reason sufficiently robust to precisely demarcate right from wrong with the subtlety required for the complexities of life has proved elusive. Furthermore, most of us think pretending to be Spock (or your favorite logically precise android) when confronted with a moral dilemma was less than useless anyway.

So contemporary philosophy has a new trick up its sleeve.

If we think of language, knowledge, or ethics as a practice that requires certain norms to function, then philosophy’s job is to try to understand the logic of those norms. A practice/norm approach is probably the dominant tendency in contemporary philosophy. This doesn’t require eternal human essences, foundational reasons, or metaphysical speculation, only stable norms that enable our social lives to function well. If we can articulate those norms and their logic, people can get their actions to conform to them since the quality of their social lives depend on doing so.

But this approach is not without its problems.

Thinkers such as Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida as well as feminists have exposed the fault lines in our thinking that raise suspicions about contemporary norms. Determinism was the evil for Sartre, binary linguistic categories for Derrida, historically contingent operations of power for Foucault, and patriarchal relations for feminists. In each case, they warned that our social norms cannot be taken at face value. Why think the norms and practices that govern our social lives are defensible, especially when undermined by these conceptual cages?

My own approach to this has been to argue that our practices require that we care about something—most importantly, but not exclusively, other people. It’s not just about having reasons or following norms but about assessing the real needs of what we care about. If you care about (x) then a moral stance toward (x) is logically and emotionally required. In theory, this mitigates worries about rigid determinisms, Derridian binaries, patriarchal relations, and Foucauldian power structures. Care requires we avoid norms that bury the cared-for in conceptual cages, although in practice they’re hard to avoid.

But then the issue becomes what sort of things should we care about, and we are right back in the soup of trying to justify a way of life (involving particular kinds of cares) without presupposing the norms that are in question or invoking metaphysical foundations. Appealing to our inherent social natures to justify following moral norms won’t do, because even some people who clearly care about their social lives prefer a life full of conflict and exploitation. It’s simply not true that scoundrels are acting against their real desires and few of them find a life of solitude appealing. Their pro-sociality gives them the opportunity to be scum.

The problem is that desire lies at the bottom of all our actions and deliberations, yet desires cannot be caged by reason or social norms—reason and social norms are themselves a product of desire. Human beings easily find their way to the dark side where the mechanisms of rational persuasion are neutered. It’s then often fruitless to appeal to someone’s better nature because there might not be one. Philosophy has yet to find a way to deal with the chaos of human desire.

The only way out of a personality that thrives on bad desires is to change those desires. If appealing to reasons is unlikely to change someone drawn to the dark side, appealing to their imagination might. And that means thinking about how one’s life might unfold differently. This is the crucial question that is seldom treated as a profoundly moral question, although you could view philosophers such as Nietzsche, Bergson, Heidegger, or Deleuze as its advocates.

There is no guarantee that someone drawn to the dark side will come to see the point of adherence to moral norms. But without considering alternative ways of life, it will never happen. No one’s life is a cakewalk. There is always impetus to change if a way out can be found. Finding that way out is not a matter of logic but of imagining a different and more satisfying life.

How might one’s life be different is an ethical question because it forces us to think about one’s own capacities and potentialities and those of the people around us as well. Care about what we might possibly become encourages the kind of experimentation that can break with destructive desires, although it can be fraught with danger. Desires are not reliably subject to rational control. Only by changing one’s life by engaging in new activities and new relationships will desires shift their trajectory and find new expressions. But there is no guarantee those new expressions will be better.

Perhaps along with that book of logic we order for our students, we should include a pair of dice.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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