1.Ethics and Meta-Ethics:
Ethics is about how we should behave. Meta-ethics is about what we’re doing when we’re doing ethics. That is, meta-ethics asks why we should behave as we should.
Note that it won’t do to say because we should. That would just be the ethics of ethics. But the ethics of ethics is still ethics. Rather meta-ethics wants to know what behaving ethically is doing for us. And why would we want to know that? Because form follows function. If we want to know how best to do something, it would help to know what we’re doing it for.
2. God, Adam, Crusoe and Friday:
However we answer that question, this much is certain. Ethics is an emergent property of being with others. Robinson Crusoe had no need of ethics until his man Friday came along. For that matter, neither could God have had any ethical properties prior to His having created Adam. He might have had dispositional ethical properties, i.e. properties He would have if and when He brought Adam into being. Likewise Robinson Crusoe no doubt had some vestigial ethical properties, i.e. the ones he’d acquired and deployed before he was shipwrecked. But with a disposition and/or a vestige plus 35 cents one can make a local phone call. So again: having any ethical properties at all requires that there be at least one other person around.
Interesting side-question. What if I think I’m not alone but in fact I am? Can my concern for a non-existent other count as a moral concern? My intuitions tell me it can, for reasons I’ll rehearse a tad later. But in the meantime …
Some people think – albeit without thinking – that human beings are social beings because they live in groups. False. Social beings do live in groups, but not all groups are social. A bacterium will live on its food source even if it were all alone, whereas social organisms live in groups for a reason, namely that they depend on each other for survival. Or, if not for survival, then, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “sometimes their delectation only”.
Our anthropologists tell us we were already in groups when we came down from the trees. How far back on the evolutionary tree we’d have to go to find us living like bacteria I have no idea. But living symbiotically with each other is about as characteristic of our species as the opposable thumb.
Note that I say ‘characteristic’ rather than definitive, because I don’t want to say that neither the hermit nor the thumbless is human. That said, what does count as human – or more instructively, why does being human count – is probably something we’re going to want to know. We’ll have to see.
4. Agents and Patients:
So the sine qua non of morality is mutual dependence. I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine. (And when we do it simultaneously it’s called a hug.) But need there be mutual dependence? Or will an asymmetrical dependence do? For example, suppose you can’t reciprocate because you have no arms? Or perhaps you’re completely paralysed. For sure you’re not a moral agent, because no matter what your intentions you can’t actually do anything. But are you still a moral patient? That is, can there be any moral properties to whatever is done to you?
Though for different reasons, Emmanuel Kant and I both think not. We think the set of moral patients is coextensive with the set of moral agents. Which is not to say if you can repay me neither a kindness nor an injury then, well, to hell with you. It’s to say only that if you have no agency, then how I treat you is not a moral matter. If I take care of you, which I probably will, it’ll be because I want to, not because I have a moral duty to.
So for Kant this kind of unilateral caregiving is (what he calls) a hypothetical imperative, not a categorical one. The test he sets down for an imperative being categorical, and therefore moral, is: could I make it a universal law that we take care of those who can’t take care of us or themselves? Obviously not, because then the only permissible animal husbandry would be, well, animal husbandry. We fatten up our cattle, if we do, not because they’re members of (what Kant calls) the kingdom of ends. We do it so we can eat them.
5. Animal and Human Husbandry:
So why the exception for infants, for the infirm, for future generations, for people with Downs syndrome? Are we to care for them if but only if we just happen to want to, not unlike why I might spend a few hours this weekend polishing my hobby car?
Most people think the moral distinction between animal and human husbandry is self-evident. It’s not. This is not to say we should treat animals the way we do humans. Though it might be we should treat humans the way we do animals. We’ll have to see. For consider the following:
1) We feed our cattle well to fatten them up for slaughter.
2) A slave owner feeds his slaves well to get the most work out of them. And
3) a business owner treats his employees well to maximise their productivity.
The marxist sees no difference between (2) and (3). The so-called capitalist does. The slave is not free to leave his employment, whereas the worker is. Well no, counters the marxist, not if he has nowhere to go. So fine, slavery is a matter of degree. But what justifies, and marks, the difference between how we treat animals and how we should treat people?
The theist thinks she has an answer. Unlike the beasts of the field, humans are created in the image and likeness of God. Well, so is the figure on the right on the ceiling of the Cistene Chapel. So what? Okay then, try: God has a special love for humans, so we should too. Non sequitur. God can love whomever He likes. But how are His affections incumbent upon mine? Okay then, one last try: God loves humans because He created them to love Him. And one way to love Him is to love what He loves. Nope, that won’t work either. My father sired me because he wanted me to fulfill his own frustrated dream to be an architect. So I shouldn’t have gone into philosophy?!
So theology won’t help us here. For that matter, nor will it help if we’re looking to justify that people should all be treated alike. Maybe they should. But if so we’re going to need an argument for it. It won’t do to say we’re all equally human. That’s just banal. What we need is a way to get from that banality to the anything-but-banal claim that therefore they ought to be treated equally.
One answer – a pretty stupid one – is the rhetorical “How would you like it if someone did that to you?”, followed by the inanity, “So do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” I don’t like losing. No one does. So every chess game should result in a draw.
Yet another answer- equally stupid – is that equality of rights is just an application of the like-alike axiom. That is, the sine qua non of any cognitive system is to treat like things alike. All people are alike, so treat them alike. But you and I are not alike. I’m me and you’re you. If two things are alike in every respect then, by the identity of indiscernibles, they’re not two things. What we need are the properties they share that are morally relevant. But that’s just the question we’re asking.
7. The Reduction of Morality to Game theory:
Enough of this stupidity. The right answer – I’m assuming you wanted to know – is that morality is an intramental response to patterns of otherwise dilemmatic interactivity. Such as? Well, not so much such as as almost exclusively prisoners’ dilemma and variations thereon.
What’s a prisoners’ dilemma? Each of us can either cooperate or defect. Unilateral defection would be a windfall. Unilateral cooperation a disaster. But neither of us is stupid enough to cooperate while the other defects. So we’ll both defect, which is the penultimately worst outcome for each of us, whereas mutual cooperation would be the penultimately best. Morality, then, is the disposition to cooperate conditional on assurance one’s co-player will do likewise. And so why be moral? Because not always but more often than not, nice guys finish first, provided they can find another nice guy to play with.
8. Inequality Revisited:
And with that, we’re now in a position to revisit our discussion of distributive justice, only now with something intelligent to say about it. To this end, note that where the cooperative dividend is indivisible – that is, when it’s not up to us how we’ll divvy it up – either we cooperate or we don’t. If we do we reap the benefits, if we don’t we won’t. But as often as not the distribution of the cooperate dividend is itself up for negotiation. And this gives rise to (what we call) the bargaining dilemma. Why is it a dilemma? Because a bargain dilemma consists of layers, as in an onion, of chicken dilemmas, one for each of the possible ways the cooperative dividend could be distributed.
How does chicken differ from prisoners’? In the latter mutual defection delivers only our penultimately worst outcome. But in chicken it delivers our worst. So a condition of mutually cooperating is solving the bargaining dilemma first. And, as anyone trying to avoid a strike knows, bargaining comes down to who can out-bluster the other.
What’s important for our purposes here, however, is that the cooperative dividend is almost never split fifty-fifty. One party is almost invariably in a better bargaining position. Hence equality is more the rare exception than the rule.
Are there ways the subaltern can play the hands she’s dealt better? Of course there are. But crying, “Hey, that’s not fair!” isn’t one of them.
9. On a More Personal Note
Some people think – no, make that almost everyone thinks – morality should be something prettier than this. These are the same people who are deeply disappointed to discover that humans are, after all, animals. And that nature red in tooth and claw abides no exceptions, even for those made in the image and likeness of God. My own view, for what little it’s worth, is that whether it was designed by God or by natural selection, instilling us with morality is nothing either God nor natural selection need be ashamed of.
Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy
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