Sunday, March 25, 2007

Minimal Ethics?

I am thinking too much today. For some reason I remembered the conclusion of the vegetarian debate that Sam and I had before. It started here, and ended up here (not without going through here and here). The last word on this was Sam's. After I kept pushing against the 'in principle' part of being a vegetarian for ethical reasons, Sam said: "well, of course it all depends on whether you think or not that humanity is intrinsically valuable." I said nothing afterwards. It felt like the right response, and it still does. I am certain that much of what philosophers argue concerning ethics and value is contingent on whether we do or do not think that humanity is intrinsically valuable. I have a few thoughts to add on this.

First, if the answer is correct, then we must have reached the bottom line. Since we must presuppose something as fixed (e.g., human life is intrinsically valuable) in order to determine what to do - if we are consequentialists, but also even if we are deontologists: e.g., treating humanity, in myself as in others, as an end in and of itself - this sounds like a good place to stop (or we get into an infinite regress).

Second, if we are not compelled by the claim that human life is intrinsically valuable, then that fixed pivot point up there is gone.

Therefore, third, if we don't think human life is intrinsically valuable, there is (at least) no systematic way to determine what to do in which cases. In other words, there is no such thing as 'an ethics' or 'the ethics' as some philosophers might want it to be.

Suppose, then, that we don't share that thought. So what? There is nothing inconsistent about it. To believe that humans are not intrinsically valuable is not an impossible mental state (not even humanly impossible). It is also not a contradictory mental state. Furthermore, it is not something I believe in. So, again, what follows?

Well, if it is true that to determine what to do - regardless of your favorite philosophical (or metaethical trend) - you must get a fixed point, why not be more humble and let that fixed point change by context? But, I hear the voice of the biologically informed philosopher (of the evolutionarily informed thinker) we have evolved as a species with morality, language, and thought, with social capacities, and cognitive capacities. But not only, also poetic capacities, and political capacities, and philosophical capacities too. Isn't that intrinsically valuable? My answer is, of course, NO. We also evolved with the capacity to kill and destroy (even among our own); why isn't that also intrinsically valuable? Your answer is, of course, that it goes against the goal of evolution (but evolution is supposed to eliminate goals!!!!). And my reply is, of course, that (thanks to evolution) I could not care less about evolution when I determine what to do. There is no inconsistency, no impossibility, in just aiming at the destruction of a species (after all, we do it all the time). So what, then?

Well, then, I will say again that I do not intend to vanish moral claims and ethical distinctions. I just intend to keep a low ethical profile by assuming that, in principle, there is no principled manner to determine the right actions. In other words, there is no chance for an ethics if by that we mean 'a principled way of telling us what to do and how to live'.