This column is the first in a three part series concerning ethics, human happiness, and their connection to “the things that last.”
Searching for a Lasting Foundation
Ethical inquiry can be summed up into two basic questions: “What is the right[i] thing to do and how do I accomplish it?” We can see from these questions that ethical inquiry is especially related to practical action. To ask an ethical question is to be concerned with the way things ought to be in the real world. Over the centuries a myriad of different ethical systems have been developed to try and answer these two fundamental questions. Stoics claim that ethical decisions are in accord with nature and that the ethical person will be detached from all emotions. Utilitarians claim that maximization of pleasure and minimization of pain is the key to ethical decision making, while deontologists claim that ethics consists in carrying out one’s duty and following moral rules. Virtue ethicists claim that mere duty and rule following are not enough; a cultivation of personal character though right decision-making that is in accord with our various ends and capacities as human beings is what the ethical life consists of.
My goal in this series is not to argue for the verity of one system of ethics over another. That is a project which would have to span over several book length treatments. What I want to flesh out in this series, to the extent possible, is that ethical inquiry, i.e. the desire to know and do what is right, implies that the object(s) of our ethical inquiry have to be things that last and that we as human beings cannot be happy without those things. That is to say, what we search for when we want to know what is right is an unshakeable foundation of action upon which we can stand and find fulfillment. We don’t just want to be ethical today, or next year, or tomorrow. To desire living a life that is ethically upright is to desire doing what is right in every situation in life and to be happy.
The point may seem like an obvious one to some, but in a culture that values almost unbridled autonomy, free choice, and relativism such as ours, it can easily be missed. It often seems in our day and age that right and wrong are a purely subjective affair, and so there’s no sense to be made of “things that last” either in ethics or any other inquiry. Since relativism has been addressed by those more competent that I, and since most philosophers in history have not been ethical relativists, I will put the issue of relativism to the side in this series. Now if ethics is an objective affair, then we can inquire in a systematic way about the nature of ethical inquiry. That is, we can try to understand what constitutes the intrinsic character of rightness and wrongness as such. In other words, given the objectivity of ethics we can seek to understand not merely which particular actions are right or wrong, but what constitutes rightness and wrongness in themselves.
That there is an objective sense of right and wrong and that we can study and know them is something upon which all ethical systems agree. Consider the ethical systems mentioned above. All of them presuppose that ethical inquiry can tell us something real about ourselves and the world in a systematic way. But not only that, these systems purport to give us a guide for human conduct in every situation. Even if the above systems have room for exceptions (and they do) the claim is that the exceptions can be accounted for and do not undermine the system. The implication behind each system of ethics then is the claim that the system possesses the correct understanding of rightness and wrongness as such, and can guide our ethical decision-making. In that case, by following the system we will choose the right and avoid the wrong. Since every system of ethics presupposes the objectivity of ethical inquiry and an understanding of rightness and wrongness as such, is there anything we can say about rightness in general without getting into the disputes between the various ethical systems themselves?
Objectivity of Ethics
In order to answer that question, let’s looks briefly at other inquires and determine if we can draw out some relevant similarities with ethical inquiry. Sciences like physics and chemistry and other fields like economics are inquiries which strive towards objective knowledge about the way things are in the world. If one wants to engage in these pursuits then one is required to conduct himself in a certain way. For example, a physicist must pursue his study in such a way so as to single out and test the quantifiable aspects of reality. This often means constructing complex mathematical formulas and using advanced testing equipment. The economist too must use various methods and formulas to study and understand the fundamentals and complexities of the exchange of goods and services. Having a particular method and singling out certain aspects of the world for further study, therefore, seem to be necessary for a pursuit that aims to investigate and give objective knowledge about features of the world and human experience. Therefore, if ethics is a pursuit which can give us objective information about the world and ourselves, it too must have its own particular method and scope of inquiry.
The scope of ethical inquiry seems to be certain qualities found in human actions. Those qualities are rightness and wrongness. What is the method of finding such qualities? Generally, the method involves measuring actions in accord with either nature (construed differently according to different ethical systems) or moral rules or both. So ethics has its own method and its own objects just as other pursuits do. Obviously the methods of science, economics, and ethics differ. However, is there any similarity in their objects?
The Things That Last
Economists study the exchange of goods and services; scientists study the quantifiable aspects of the material world, and ethicists study the quality of human actions. The objects of economics are always changing and very unstable. Economies can vary widely from country to country and they have changed drastically over the centuries. Economics is notoriously a very complex and difficult field to comprehend and master for these reasons. Scientists study the material world which does undergo many changes. However, the objects of the sciences are the principles behind these changes. Scientists seek discover the explanation for the order and complexity of material reality. In this sense then the objects of the sciences don’t change even though their various manifestations like atomic particles or chemical structures do.
I would argue that the objects of ethical inquiry seem to be similar to the objects of the sciences in the respect that they do not change. Indeed it seems problematic to say that ethical qualities associated with human actions change. One reason for this is the fact that ethics is concerned with objective features of the world. As such the objects of ethical inquiry have to have stability. Otherwise if rightness and wrongness can completely change with times and circumstances then we seem to be embracing the very relativism that was discarded at the beginning of this column. Consider the ethical quality of wrongness associated with actions like murder and adultery. I would maintain that once someone understands what murder and what adultery are, it is self-evident that such things are morally repugnant, and always have been and always will be. Of course, not all human actions are as repugnant or clearly wrong as murder and adultery.
It is oftentimes difficult to discern what is right or wrong in a given situation. Nevertheless to maintain that ethics is a legitimate pursuit of objective features of the world coupled with a rejection of moral relativism seems to lead the ethicist to the conclusion that moral qualities, which are the objects of ethical inquiry, do not change with times or circumstances. This does not imply that there are no circumstances or conditions capable of mitigating the guilt or responsibility incumbent upon particular persons for their actions. It simply means that the moral qualities themselves, which are associated with human actions, are not subject to change. As Bishop Sheen put it, “What’s wrong is wrong even if everybody is wrong. What’s right is right even if nobody is right.” The objects of ethical inquiry then are moral qualities that do not change. Therefore, what we search for in the ethical life are the things that last.
This leads us to another related concern. Even if what has been established is true, i.e. ethical inquiry is concerned with unchanging moral qualities (things that last), it doesn’t follow that all people desire such qualities. Not everyone desires to be a scientist or an economist. If someone does not pursue the sciences or economics we do not impute any failing on his part. We simply say science or economics is not for everyone, nor should they be. Is ethics the same way? Is the pursuit for unchanging moral qualities only for certain people? Or do all people desire the things that last? We shall explore this question in the next installation of the series.
[i] Whenever I use the word ‘right’ in this series I mean morally permissible unless otherwise noted.