OK. Let’s start with basics:
What is right?
A few centuries ago, the above question would have been enough to start the search for an ethical system. Modern philosophy, of course, is much more devious, and back steps to an even more basic question:
Is there such a thing as “right”?
That is, an absolute right. Sure, everybody has a concept of right and wrong, and therefore these concepts exist and have meaning for people. But if everyone has a different concept, how do we know which one is correct? (Which “right” is right?) More importantly, since the very idea of trying to judge human concepts suggests that we must be able to stand outside of those concepts, is it at all possible to examine concepts normatively?
In the past, it was easy. We couldn’t stand outside our ideas to judge them, but we didn’t have to. God did that for us, and told us what was right. Don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t commit adultery. No problem.
Until people started doubting. And the thing is, there’s no proof that God really said these things. In fact—to get right down to the nitty-gritty—there’s no proof that there’s a god. So you have a choice—either accept God on faith, or view God as just one other standpoint with no special authority.
The converse of this is that there’s no proof of God’s non-existence, either. Again, in order to judge the supernatural, we’d have to be able to stand outside of the natural—and we can’t. But lack of proof of non-existence doesn’t prove existence. Nobody’s decisively disproved the Loch Ness Monster or ESP, but nobody except a few fanatics (people with faith) believe their existence proven.
So we’ll leave it open—maybe there’s a God, maybe there isn’t. Doesn’t matter, really, since you can follow God’s laws even if you don’t believe in Him, and you can disobey them even if you do. All I’m saying is that we can’t claim for these laws the authority of God that they are right. And since an idea of God is the only one that would offer some sort of authority for ethics, there is no universal, absolute concept of right that we should adhere to in order to be moral.
(There are natural laws, but obeying the law of gravity or electromagnetism is hardly moral. Morality implies a choice to do good or evil, and you don’t really have much choice with natural laws.)
So if there is to be a correct morality, it must be self-justified—correct by its own definition. (Just to let the cat out of the bag, I’ll say now that I think there is such a standard. It’s not terribly profound, but it works. See if you can figure one out by the time I name mine.) Let’s start with the old familiar Judeo-Christian morality and see if it’s justified even without God’s authority.
What does this morality say is right? Lemme whip out my handy-dandy New King James Version of the Bible… here we go:
- You shall have no other gods before me.
- You shall not make any graven images.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s.
The first ten are the Judeo- part. The Christian part basically says: Love your neighbor.
Immediately, we run into a bunch of problems with this system. For one thing, the conditions above aren’t sufficient; that is, it doesn’t cover everything that we think is wrong. Playing your stereo so loud that your suitemates can’t study isn’t mentioned at all, for example. Though maybe someone would argue that if you play your stereo that loud, you don’t love them.
The conditions also aren’t necessary—that is, some of them aren’t necessarily wrong. Murder in self-defense comes to mind. Remember, we’re looking for morals that are self-justifying, right or wrong by definition.
Thirdly, what kind of a crime is it to make graven images? I happen to like painting and sculpture. Something’s seriously wrong here. Furthermore, there’s no differentiation of degree—all these crimes seem to be equally wrong. Or if there is an order, it’s pretty warped. Is it really more important to honor the Sabbath than it is not to kill? Come on.
I’ve already mentioned a problem with the positive (i.e., Christian) side of the system: the possibility that you can wrong your neighbor yet still love him. The counter-argument that if you truly love your neighbor, you won’t wrong him in any way doesn’t hold water with me, either. What if my neighbor is a murderous, oppressive bastard?
That counter-argument, by the way, is what leads to the “turn the other cheek” theory. Since you mustn’t ever, under any circumstances, wrong your neighbor, if your neighbor attacks you, the right thing to do is just sit there. This is scandalous. Let’s take the most extreme example: you are a meek, mild, 125-pound bookworm armed only with an AK-47. Here comes your neighbor, a steroid-enhanced, 280-pound boxer on a rampage. He’s armed with a bloody hunting knife that has already taken ten lives. You’re going to be next, unless you can stop him. And the only way to do that is with your rifle.
You’re a rotten shot, so there’s no chance of just maiming him; if you shoot at him you know you’re going to kill him. And killing, you know, is wrong under both the Judeo- and Christian halves of the above morality system. The fact that he’s about to commit the same wrong on you is irrelevant. God says you should let him damn himself by murdering you.
But let’s look at this objectively. Whether he kills you or you kill him, there’s going to be the same number of deaths: one. Actually, if he kills you the total will probably be higher, since he won’t stop just with you. But even if you’re his only victim, why should you—the nice, moral person—be the death instead of him (the mean, vicious person). Not only would it be better for the present world for him to die, what about the future? Assuming only one of you will be able to reproduce after this encounter, don’t you owe it to upcoming generations to see that your sperm, and not his, enters the gene pool?
No, I’m afraid these laws are not self-justifying. Not a one is inherently right or wrong under all circumstances.
The only thing I can think of that is by definition wrong is pain.
Face it, pain is your body (or any body)’s way of saying that something is wrong. “Hey, you idiot—picking up glowing coals can destroy your hand. Maybe if I give you some pain, you’ll get the message.” (Mental pain is as much a sign of something being wrong as physical pain.)
Pain’s being wrong does not make it immoral, though; remember that morality implies responsibility and choice. Thus humans are the only moral creatures—humans are the only creatures capable of assigning meaning to actions. Everything else simply is. Let us define “moral” as “choosing to do what is right over what is wrong.” Then we have a definition of immorality—being immoral is choosing to do wrong, that is, choosing to cause something pain.
We might be more precise by being a tad redundant, and say that being immoral is choosing to cause unnecessary pain; after all, if something is necessary, then you don’t have much choice in the matter, do you? But if this isn’t stated, it leaves the door open for the return of Christian cheek-turning: “But it’s wrong for me to cause this berserker pain! I must let him kill me if I am to remain moral.” Think again—there’s going to be pain no matter what. This pain is unfortunately necessary.
In fact, one might go further and say that acting morally is acting to reduce pain; and that given a homicidal maniac’s tendencies, killing him now will reduce future pain and is thus moral. I wouldn’t say this, though, because there is no way of knowing that the said maniac won’t change his behavior and be moral in the future. The best that can be said for your killing him is that it isn’t immoral. And since his killing you would definitely be immoral, the proper course of action is for him and not you to die.
I can hear a voice piping up in the background: What if you kill someone painlessly? Is that also not immoral? First of all, keep in mind all the mental anguish you’d cause the survivors… but let’s go ahead and tackle the most extreme hypothetical case: while traveling in the Sahara, you meet an orphan whose existence is not even guessed at by anyone else in the entire world. Although you have plenty of supplies, he’s wearing a ring you like. You wait until he’s asleep, then painlessly kill him to take the ring. Isn’t this immoral?
I think we’d all say yes, but seeing why isn’t so easy under the above definitions. That’s because the above stuff isn’t complete. Pain isn’t the only wrong, it’s just the only immediate wrong. There is another wrong—the opposite of right. Just as we said earlier that acting morally was acting to reduce pain, so can acting immorally be acting to reduce what is right. The catch is figuring out what is right…
But excelsior! as they say in New York. Is there anything that is intrinsically correct? Something right in and of itself, without which it is impossible to do right?
It would be wrong to say that life itself is right, for there are times when death is just as right; the world would be in a sorry mess, not to mention pretty stale, if no one ever died. So life is not necessary for rightness; nor is it sufficient—what if everyone in the world suddenly slipped into a coma? They’re all alive, they’re not in pain, but something is seriously wrong.
Nevertheless, there must be something about life that is right, as I think we’d all agree again that there would be something wrong if everyone on earth died.
(Something wrong from our viewpoint, which after all is the only way we can examine things. To The Universe there would be nothing wrong if earth vanished, but then only sentience can be wrong or right. In a universe devoid of sentience, not only would nothing be “right” or “wrong,” those terms wouldn’t even exist. The whole discussion of values presupposes self-awareness. Thanks to Descartes, we can proceed on the assumption that there is self-consciousness, so it is safe to discuss values; and these values can only have meaning in relation to the sentience that creates them.
(This should not give rise to complete relativism, the idea that right and wrong are defined differently by different consciousnesses. There is something common to all sentience that allows for common definitions of basic experiences like pain.)
Well, the most fundamental difference between being dead or in a coma and being normally alive is that the normally alive are able to do things. Doing things is obviously not “right,” though, since it is possible to do wrong. Nor can the mere ability to do be called a good or “right;” animals can do, but “good” and “right” apply only to humans.
Let’s go back a step: why are the normally alive humans able to do things? Because they choose to do. Is “choosing to do” a good? No; once again, a wrong might be chosen. What about the ability to choose?
I am not sure that choice is intrinsically right, but it is something without which right could not exist (something that you must do is neither right nor wrong; like the universe, it simply is). For this reason, I think choice or freedom would qualify as a proto-right—it is good because good could not exist without it. This is isn’t a knock-down argument, but it’s the best I can up with at the moment.
And besides, nothing else fits the bill. At least, I can’t think of anything that is in and of itself—always and regardless of circumstances—right. Can you?
So let us add to our earlier definition of acting morally (acting to reduce pain) a new definition: acting to increase choice.
Now we have a nice duality—freedom as the summum bonum, the highest good, and pain as the greatest wrong. Aristotle and John Stuart Mill and others have called happiness the highest good, but this is a mistake—happiness is the secondary good (it’s the opposite of the greatest wrong, which does make it good, but it is not good of itself). After all, happiness should not be prized above freedom; sheep are happy, but only humans can be free. (As you’ll see, I encompass a lot within this word, “free.” I use freedom and choice more or less interchangeably, as I see freedom as the ability to choose. That is, choice implies an ability to fulfill itself.) Even the Declaration of Independence declares that all men are entitled to life and liberty—but only the pursuit of happiness.
Choice is directly derived from self-awareness (we make choices by reflecting on various postulated options), but this does not make self-awareness the highest good; nothing we do will alter sentience. It is beyond morality. Freedom can obviously be increased or decreased, though—depending on the choices people make.
Let’s make a quick assessment of commonly accepted virtues and vices in stock of this duality before moving on to its ramifications…
Honesty: a definite virtue. Not only do lies deprive people of choice by representing reality falsely, but they often cause a great deal of pain. “Little white lies”—vice or no? What say you?
Knowledge: another definite virtue. Without knowledge of options, choice is severely limited. Knowledge is power, because it gives freedom. (I conceive of knowledge as an understanding of Truth; therefore, to have Truth is to have knowledge, and the pursuit of one is the pursuit of the other. You can sort of think of Truth as reality—the honesty part comes in correctly presenting reality to others, the knowledge part in correctly presenting reality to yourself.)
Patience: not a virtue. There is nothing moral about being patient nor anything immoral about being impatient. Though it could be argued that being patient will spare you the pain of frustration, and so is a virtue after all.
Chastity: not a virtue. Hey, sex is pleasureful. Must be safe, though—giving someone an unwanted pregnancy could both cause much pain and severely curtail their freedom. Also, dealing with sex can cause a lot of mental anguish in someone who’s not ready for it. So be careful with this one.