Thursday, February 16, 2017

On Ought – Slim Version

While the majority of the human race has lived and died unaware that their lives require metaphysical and meta-ethical foundation, philosophers have painstakingly dedicated their lives to answering questions no one required the answer to.  Though while argumentation in metaphysics (the Realist/Anti-Realist debate) has no value in people's lives, meta-ethics arguably could.  What if the ‘ought’ I thought I ought to have is not the ‘ought’ I ought to?  What if something I thought was right is instead wrong and my beliefs are erroneous?  This ethical skepticism is certainly useful on some level – without it no one would question the social mores of their culture and many things like slavery and child labor could still be legal.  But what of a deeper, more fundamental questioning of ‘oughts?’  Skepticism that doubts the very notion that we ought to be happy, healthy and have well-being in our lives however one wishes to describe and define it.
It is this ought that I wish to demonstrate lacks foundation.  Basic or axiomatic ‘oughts’ that are required to have any of the secondary ‘oughts’ (I ought to go to the store, because I ought to get eggs; we ought to raise taxes on the wealthy for we ought to use said capital to provide national healthcare for we ought to be healthy) that we live our lives on.  Though I will demonstrate it is problematic for human beings to create rational foundation for ‘oughts’ this is not tantamount to Ethical Nihilism just as Anti-Realism is not tantamount to Metaphysical Nihilism.  The stance that there is an epistemic barrier between Man and Reality (whether descriptive or normative) is not synonymous with the stance that no such Reality exists or to claim we know the descriptive and normative accounts of things are erroneous.
The argument against normative claims of knowledge derives from Hume’s is-ought distinction[1].  Regardless of whether what we see in the world represents the thing-in-itself, and regardless of whether induction is valid there is at the very least with descriptive claims some indisputable account of an exterior world and things happening similar to as they have before.  However, with normative claims there is no starting point for us to begin upon.  If we cannot deduce normative claims from factual or descriptive ones alone then for there to be any oughts we can know there must be one we can know without reference to any other knowledge whether descriptive or normative – it must be axiomatic.  To refer to another normative claim to ground what was meant to be our grounding ‘ought’ ad infinitum would be a problem of infinite regress. 
Philosophy has yet to come up with this axiomatically true ‘ought.’  Until it arrives we remain in a position of tentative Moral Falibilism.  I say tentative because unless it can be demonstrated that axiomatically valid ‘ought’ claims are impossible one might present itself.  Just because all the ought claims in the past lacked foundation does not mean that one which has foundation cannot arise in the future – to say otherwise would be to commit an error in inductive reasoning.
But if this is so, is there anything left for normative discussion?  Yes.  There are two remaining aspects of ethics we can discuss without requiring reference to a valid normative premise.  The first is the law of non-contradiction.  Just as we do not know whether trees truly exist we do know that if trees exist they cannot be both all red and all green, for this violates the law of non-contradiction.  This applies to normative cases as well.  An example being someone claiming the good is to live in a state of maximal pain and pleasure forever.  Assuming a being cannot experience this state it is a contradiction and we can reject it for another reason we rejected other normative claims.  We are also rejecting it in a different way.  Preference Ethics, Divine Command Theory and Deontology are ethical claims that we can’t verify or ground in reason.  That is different than knowing they are wrong.  We simply cannot affirm they are right.
The second way we can discuss ethics is in the descriptive realization of an assumed normative claim or value.  Regardless of whether or not we ought to be healthy, we can give a descriptive account of how to achieve this (consuming tablets of Vitamin C for example).  If someone did not believe this, or asked us how they could improve their immune system, we could refer to scientific data that showed the likelihood of this descriptive account of human biology.  Just as in the realm of politics we can show differing accounts of the effects of taxation and regulation, regardless of whether or not we agree or it can be shown that we ought to be happy and our freedoms (whatever account of freedom we have) protected.  Even if I cannot demonstrate that the American people ought to have a certain standard of living, I can still demonstrate that said standard of living can be achieved through imitating the Scandinavian model for example.  Like Kierkegaard’s Judge Wilhelm in Either/Or, we have to make a choice on non-cognitivist grounds of what our oughts ought to be, or what we value, but once we make that choice, once we have created our Ethics, then we can utilize reason to attempt to implement it[2]
As I stated in my opening, what we have before us is a purely philosophical problem.  People live their lives pursuing their own personal normative evaluations and goals (mostly driven by Egoism) completely ignorant of the meta-ethical problems that philosophers immerse themselves with.  Just as if God (hypothetically a being I assume the validity of) told me I was a lobster, I would not run to the sea and attempt to crack snail shells with my hands, so if He told me what is morally correct is maximizing the amount of acorns in the Universe, I would not spend every waking moments hatching schemes to maximize their quantity. 
Most people seem to have within them intuitions of morality that conform with a basic notion of Pragmatism.  But this is a purely descriptive account of people’s ethics.  What determines our ethical choices descriptively and normatively will differ radically.  Using knowledge of psychology, genetics and insight in up-bringing we can determine what choice a person will make in what he or she ought to do.  But a descriptive account of this and the normative argument for or against this decision will differ as radically as a scientific explanation of emotions against the actual experience of turbulent passions in motivating our actions.
Though it cannot be grounded in reason, the pragmatist approach seems the soundest, if for no other reason that while we do not know if God exists or if the Categorical Imperative is valid we do know we are alive so we should live the best life while we’re doing it.  Ultimately the problems of ethics are not what should we value but how do we attain it.  This is a problem both of descriptive knowledge and of action.  We have made great strides in the former but are largely where we were and likely shall remain in the latter – since problems in action arise typically in errors of a person’s character and will power and not upon knowledge and capacity to reason[3].  Problems the majority of ethicists describe in accounts of human moral weakness.


[1] In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
[2] This being so, you will perceive again here why I said previously and go on saying that the Either/Or I erected between living esthetically and living ethically is not an unqualified dilemma, because it actually is a matter of only one choice. Through this choice, I actually do not choose between good and evil, but I choose the good, but when I choose the good, I choose eo ipso the choice between good and evil. The original choice is forever present in every
succeeding choice.
[3] It is possible to conceive of a very virtuous man in whom the better consciousness is so continuously active that it is never silent, and never allows his passions to get a complete hold of him.  By such consciousness he is subject to a direct control, instead of being guided indirectly, through the medium of reason, by means of maxims and moral principles.  That is why a man may have weak reasoning powers and a weak understanding and yet have a high sense of morality and be eminently good; for the most important element in a man depends as little on intellectual as it does on physical strength.

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