Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Ethics: Three Tiers

     I believe we’ve had enough about the Mueller Report (and the Democrats’ hysteria over not finding a pony buried in all that manure). As for the Sri Lanka bombings, what is there to say that I haven’t already said many times? That makes this Tuesday in the Year of Our Lord 2019 a fine opportunity to talk a little philosophy.

     While the term morals is often used to subsume ethics, if we go by their etymologies there’s an important difference between the two words. The former term is descended from the Latin mores, which in classical Latin means customs. The Romans used it to describe the restraints they were expected to observe when in public. It is noteworthy that Roman mores applied mainly to the behavior and carriage of persons of the patrician class. The plebeians were not expected to conform to all the mores, for reasons beyond the scope of this tirade. (Slaves were, as usual, considered beneath contempt.)

     By contrast, ethics derives from the Greek term ethos: a code of conduct that specifically regulates one’s treatment of others. Public deportment that affects only oneself would be outside the ethos. Thus, one could flout the customs pertaining to proper dress or speech, for example, while still remaining within the prevailing ethos.

     The evolution of Western thought was more concerned with the refinement of ethical concepts than with moral ones. Moral ideas did receive attention, but ethical ones were the ones emphasized, especially during the flowering we call the Enlightenment.

     A brief digression here: Ponder the Ten Commandments of the Decalogue. Just in case you don’t have a list handy, here they are (Catholic enumeration):

  1. I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before Me.
  2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
  3. Remember thou the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
  4. Honor thy mother and thy father.
  5. Thou shalt not murder.
  6. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  7. Thou shalt not steal.
  8. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
  9. Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.

     The first three Commandments pertain to respect for Divine prerogatives rather than the treatment of another individual. Thus, while they could be called moral precepts, they don’t qualify as ethical ones. Commandments Four through Eight are explicitly ethical:

  • Honor thy mother and thy father: Observance of familial obligations.
  • Thou shalt not murder: The right to life.
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery: Fidelity to promises solemnly made.
  • Thou shalt not steal: Property rights.
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor: The proscription of fraud.

     According to the histories, the great Hebraic thinker Hillel summarized all of Judaic law this way: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto another. The rest is commentary; go and study it.” This, which has an equivalent in Confucian thought, has come to be known as the Brazen Rule.

     Organized ethical thought must begin with Commandments Four through Ten, whether or not one concedes their Divine origin. No other basis holds water.

     Following from the above, an eagle’s-eye view of ethical thought partitions its various scholia into three tiers. While there are many variations among schools of ethical thought, three tiers will suffice to define and distinguish their most significant elements.

     The lowest of the three, which places the fewest restrictions on the individual is usually called the philosophy of power, or “might makes right.” Ethics of this level passes no judgment on anything an individual might do as long as he can get away with it. Thomas Hobbes implicitly predicated his philosophy of rulership, best expressed in Leviathan, on this sort of ethical code: not on its superiority in any sense, but on his conception of the ruler-less “state of nature,” in which he claimed that no rule that restricts individuals’ conduct could or would prevail.

     The middle tier is characterized by a precept generally called the Brazen Rule. According to the histories, the great Hebraic thinker Hillel summarized all of Judaic law this way: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto another. The rest is commentary; go and study it.” This has an equivalent in Confucian thought.

     Thus, middle-tier ethical codes tell us not to harm one another, but they do not command us to do any more than that. While this is more advanced than Hobbesian “dog eat dog” ethics, it has an “every man for himself” character that distinguishes it from subsequent developments in ethics.

     The highest tier of ethical thought compounds the Brazen Rule with a command to contextually qualified beneficence toward others. Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed its overarching command: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is the justly famous Golden Rule, by which the Son of God expanded upon Judaic ethical teaching to mandate charity toward others when the circumstances warrant it:

     And when the Son of Man shall come in his majesty, and all the angels with him, then shall he sit upon the seat of his majesty. And all nations shall be gathered together before him, and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left.
     Then shall the king say to them that shall be on his right hand: Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.
     Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee? Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee?
     And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.
     Then he shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me not to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave me not to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me not in: naked, and you covered me not: sick and in prison, and you did not visit me.
     Then they also shall answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to thee?
     Then he shall answer them, saying: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to me.
     And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life everlasting. [Matthew 25:31-46]

     I contend that every school of ethics can be placed in one of those categories.

     As an ethical code constitutes a set of fundamental rules, it is in the nature of things that its dictates cannot be proved correct in some abstract fashion. Principles are like that. They are beneath all other elements of thought and conception, and must be regarded as postulates. We cannot prove a proposition that lies at the foundation of all out tools of thought. C. S. Lewis was eloquent on this matter:

     The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar. 'In ritual', say the Analects, 'it is harmony with Nature that is prized.' The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being 'true'.

     This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as 'the Tao'.... It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.

     And subsequently:

     From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. We must therefore either extend the word Reason to include what our ancestors called Practical Reason and confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved (though they can support themselves by no reason of the sort that Gaius and Titius demand) are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself; or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of 'rational' value behind all the sentiments we have debunked. [From The Abolition of Man]

     Either a particular code of ethics is built into the natural order, and thus is “enforced” (if it is) by natural processes, or it’s nothing but fantasies and word conjuring: “shoulds” for which the only substantiation is someone’s preferences. But while we cannot prove the correctness and completeness of an ethical code, we can observe societies founded on various codes and compare their characteristics. Granted that any evaluation of one society as “better” than others will be a personal matter, there’s a remarkable tendency for men’s preferences to flow toward societies based on the highest-tier codes: those of the Golden Rule.

     Draw your own conclusions.

     Needless to say, a “professional” philosopher would disdain the above as insufficiently detailed at best, naive at worst. (Union members can be like that.) However, as a starting point for the study of ethical concepts and the consideration of the consequences for those societies founded on them, I believe it to be adequate. The core of the thing is simple enough: ethics is about how individuals must, may, and must not treat one another. All else belongs in some other bucket.

     Within every culture known to Man we can find a set of ethical precepts. Correlating the dictates of those precepts with the society’s success or failure (by one’s own standards) is the logical next step. It is also the path toward understanding such trivia as contemporary migration patterns, but that’s a screed for another time.

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