Saturday, September 16, 2006

Ethical ruminations

How may ethics be justified given a non-theological, naturalist ontology? That sounds fairly obvious, but I suggest it is more problematic than many realize; and I tend to share the views of the later Freud in so far as he suggests violence, sadism, "thanatos" and unethical acts are really the norm (even within civilized society--ie. WWI and WWII), and that ethics/morality are generally exceptions, and typically done in furtherance of "eros." It's more complex than that, but a text such as Civ. and its Discontents in some way as valuable to "meta-ethics" as are the traditional ethics texts. It would be swell if everyone performed the Kantian imperative routine, consider their potential act in context (as a rule binding on all) and then do the right thing, but they don't: one of the great failures of ethics is assuming that at some point rationality and ethics will coincide. Like Hume, Freud realizes that's mostly unfeasible (as do various machiavellians of left and right).

I would not claim there are any innate ethical tendencies: there are instincts, desires, passions, as Hume says--and Hume not so far from biological determinism and Freudian desire of some sort- and there are thoughts, concepts, ethical beliefs or actions based on, or at least having some relation to those instincts and passions.

In contrast to Humean hedonism, the late ethicist Alan Gewirth attempted to construct an axiomatic formulation of ethics which transcends the mere subjective "desire-based" ethics of Hume and the utilitarians (and Hobbes as well in that school). Gewirth understands that utilitarianism (or simply giving up on rational ethics altogether) in all of its forms easily leads to saying whatever the majority decides on is correct. So there must be some other basis for ethics (or objective rights' claims), than consensus, and for Gewrtih it's a matter of viewing yourself and other human-agents as more or less equals in terms of rights claims: you claim, or at least require, some degree of freedom to pursue your goals and economic necessities; thus you must acknowledge other normal human-agents have the same need for some degree of freedom. Gewirths' Reason and Morality is quite a bit more complex than that, but Gewirth does offer a way out of Hume/utilitarianism, hedonism, and the problems of the cat. Imperative.

That said, the most Gewirth can say then is that selfishness, greed, conservativism, monarchy etc. are inconsistent or possibly irrational; so when you refuse to help the starving family (say in a jungle or forest when they have no other means of support) you are acting irrationally.

Gewirth is arguing for a rational right (yet secular) prior to the construction of society (where Hobbes would say in nature there are no rights or laws or ethics at all). Yes, if measuring socities by that sort of natural right, human history may appear to be a record of various murderous factions which never acknowledged that rational right to economic/social entitlement, but then even catholics often say the same, or postmodernists for that matter. Which is to say, if you yourself claim a right to self-sufficiency (if not requiring economic/biological resources), don't you have to grant that other normal human-agents have the same, or nearly equal right to self-sufficiency and economic/biological resources? It would seem so. I am not sure it is necessary , but quite a cogent argument.

Without clearly defined economic rights and social contracts which are enforced by the sovereign, we are more or less in a Hobbesian state of nature; tho some people do succeed and so forth. Yet Hobbes does hold that once people agree to form covenants and seek peace instead of living in anarchy, participation in the economy is a given: thus I would say Hobbes agrees with Gewirth's agent-identity idea for most part ( tho not completely), once social contracts/covenants have been established--citizens are entitled to more or less equal distribution of resources one of his givens, and indeed one that the Royalists did not admire. Which is to say Leviathan is quite a radical text and not so far from some socialist or marxist theory.

Where or when does this covenant-construction occur Master Hobbes? He's not really suggesting it had occurred: but that it should; that people should, for their own interests, form social contracts and seek peace. Of course that may not happen, and indeed Hobbes raises the spectre of the powerful baron (with his own army, say) who refuses to form any covenants. Yes the other people might have to force him to join, or presumably, eliminate him.

Obviously a marxist (or fascist or Nietzschean for that matter) simply gives up on rights-speak or contracts and suggests the proles revolt, create a non-democratic State and then implement various economic policies. Yet Stalin (or nazi statism) shows what sorts of results are produced from politics which have no basis in rights. That said I do think there may be pragmatic reasons to oppose pure democracy ( or Hobbesianism), but more along the line of neo-behaviorism, if not Plato's Republic, than marx or fascism.

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