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True Ethics

True Ethics

Good is good is as close to a moral 'truth' as you are ever likely to get in the study of ethics. The logical nature of deductive proof seems to dictate that moral truths cannot be anything but tautological; it is as impossible to formally lay out a set of fundamental moral truths as it is to coin a concept such as beauty or emotion using a fixed set of criteria. So good is good, for example, or P, therefore: P, to put it in formal logical terms, is the best you can do. Similarly, evil is evil, fairness is fairness, etc. etc. You can't sincerely argue with those statements without going headfirst into a logical contradiction. To use formal logic in an attempt to prove any kind of moral truism isn't tautological you would need to state that one virtue or vice bore a degree of equivalence to another, and further, that you could go above and beyond the meaning of the first term in deducing the second. Just to be clear, to set out a deontological, formal ethical code you would have to reduce your morality, or an aspect of your morality, to a set of statements which are irrefutable; hence they would have to be deductively proven, in which case they would need to be formally verifiable. This means certain qualities or predicates would have to be definitively pinned down as understood to be of a certain moral value. When I come to some examples I will show why such attempts to set out a perfect or absolute moral code are always tautological (although some sense can be made of moral discussion in specific contexts in spite of such a code or criterion).

You might say some words, in the language of morality, can be shown to be derivatives of other words and moreover contain meanings which extend further than those words they are derived from. You might say, for example, kindness is a positive form of behaviour, positive forms of behaviour are for our benefit, moral instruction should be for our benefit, therefore kindness is a cogent moral instruction.

I would not argue for a moment that kindness is not a virtue or of any value, however I would argue it is not a policy which can, alone, guide people, with any real valuable instruction, and with generality, through any moral circumstances, whatever their specific nature. The reasons behind this view are tied up with each other, between the context-bound nature of ethical decision-making and the essentially tautological nature of this and any other absolute moral truth. Which still leaves a great deal of scope for discussion of the 'right thing to do' as it is often described, but does have implications for legal principles insofar as they can be interpreted without recourse to the particular circumstances of a wrongdoing.

Going a little deeper into the discussion of what constitutes good and evil types of behaviour (which exist, of course, but there are not, as I am arguing here, absolutely deductively demonstrable moral 'laws', neither am I assuming that the existence of rules or laws in themselves is not helpful - merely that the morality they are based on is not able to logically codified), kindness is a concept which can take on a huge variety of forms, and 'a kindness' in one context could quite conceivably be a deviant activity in another. Precisely the same action in one set of circumstances could be an aid to deception in another, because kindness is not a strictly defined form of behaviour with specific physical attributes. Kindness could be a smile. Or it could be a donation. Or it could be constructive criticism. Or it could be a deception (a contrivance) - in which case it isn't kindness, right? Yes - but what constitutes kindness is debatable, unless you pre-define it as kindness or in synonymous terms. Kindness isn't necessarily desirable, but kindness definitely is kindness - a tautology.  Kindness is good, you might also attest, but I would argue it is only good insofar as it is precisely synonymous with goodness, and thereby unconstitutional of anything outside of the concept. Anything outside of goodness's essential properties, such as generosity in kindness, is not necessarily so truly good as a consequence. Generosity can be a mistake. Of course, we know kindness when we experience it, it's just we can't go beyond the subjective experience to give it specific attributes the contravention of which would imply an insufficient description of kindness.

One of the most contentious forms of moral terminology is the use of the word 'wrong'. Wrong has a different application in science to the one it has in ethics. Although it is useful in both spheres, its place in science or maths is almost a world apart from the place it takes in ethics. Wrong in maths is the same thing as 'incorrect'. Were we to use the term 'incorrect' in morality we would need to apply it with a degree of laxity, as there is an objective-subjective distinction of the highest level between the two. Correctness in ethics is obligatory, correctness in science is fact. We make use of the word 'wrong' in ethical discussion, and rightly so, but it is still a context-bound evaluation, a paraphrase of a verbalisation of the idea of 'immoral behaviour' as the speaker sees it. It should not be transposed from its literal meaning in the sciences to a similarly literal interpretation in ethics. Human behaviour may be wrong, but not deductively proven as such.

Similarly, 'evil' is something of a cul-de-sac in ethics. Someone may perform an evil act as it is viewed, but to describe a person as naturally evil is really to assume they were born evil, which seems to be a drastically cynical analysis of any human being whatever the crime. What would it even mean? An evil baby? 'Evil' is descriptive, and should always be subjectively, even if meaningfully, applied, and to behaviour rather than in absolutely irredeemable condemnation of a person's character.

To re-emphasise, it makes sense to describe some actions as right or wrong, good or bad, kind or malicious, however we should always bear in mind we are dealing with human behaviour, not physics. Moralities evolve with circumstances, whereas actual laws of physics (known or thus far undiscovered) were always there. Moral codes are forward-looking, ideally. Those of science, backward looking. We want to take care of the future with the prescriptions of our moral dispositions, and refer to the intrinsic and concrete nature of our physical reality as it has always operated with our scientific comprehensions. Moral truth may exist, but moral law, deontology, is at best tautological and only inductively verifiable through experience, at worst contentless and misleading and open to misinterpretation or maladministration. Good is not evil, but only if you already have a grasp through experience of wherein examples of such behaviour consist. Logic will not tell you. In ethics, as in social behaviour itself, life will always give us choices in how to behave where we have to think for ourselves about the best course of action and cannot rely upon logically codified moral laws, only on experience-based appreciation of the meaning of words such as 'good' in the eternally and irrefutably valid moral maxim 'good is good'.

 

 
 

 

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