Monday, 11 July 2016

How Shall We Re-establish Ethics in Our Time?

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
We have nothing to show today, writes Simon Blackburn, for ethical foundations. At the beginning of the 21st century, we are ethically adrift. Not reason, not religion, not intuition now seem adequate for grounding our behaviour.
Not only does this present us with a philosophical problem. On a social level, we are conflicted and disorientated with multiple ethics, while on a global level, our ethics increasingly seem to have come apart – with deepening poverty, social disintegration, and environmental destruction being the order of the day.

Philosophically, it was David Hume who first observed that we cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. We cannot, on the basis of a handful of facts, derive any values. Gradually, over the following centuries, this idea took hold – until, with Ludwig Wittgenstein, it achieved a wide acceptance. 'Whereof one cannot speak,' he wrote, 'thereof one must be silent.' He was referring, most importantly, to ethics.

How, then, shall we re-establish ethics in our time?

Many, today, would consider the very question to be foolish. Yet given two simple conceptual prerequisites, I propose that we may indeed re-establish ethics, philosophically:
• Prerequisite 1. The fact-value distinction would have to be set aside. This, I believe, should be possible by ridding ourselves of facts – and with facts, of things (facts are, after all, about things). This may not be as difficult as it seems.

• Prerequisite 2. We would need to reduce our world to relations, and only relations – without the existence of facts or things. Ethics – together with all other fields of inquiry – may then be defined in terms of relations, and relations alone.
With regard to the fact-value distinction then, it is important that we first understand that this rests on Hume's notion that all knowledge is subdivided into relations of ideas on the one hand, and matters of fact (and things) on the other. On closer examination, however, we find that this view cannot be sustained.

It was Francis Bacon who observed that the definitions of words have definitions. Similarly, we know that the features of words have features. Words, I have myself proposed, represent 'relations within relations'. Given that this is true, there can be no self-contained 'things'. Rather, our words (and thoughts) reach into an infinity of relations, and we speak about 'things' only by way of a truncated shorthand.

If, then, there are no self-contained 'things' in this world, and if our words (and thoughts) reach into infinity, then this must mean that we cannot speak truly about our world on the assumption that it is a closed system, in which we begin with axioms, origins, or specific reference points. This flies in the face of what we have before us. Rather, we need to step back from all systems, to view our world as an infinite canvas of relations.

I propose that we shall find, when we do this, that relations as a whole possess certain features – call them meta-features – many of which may only be recognised from a bird's eye view.

These features hold the promise of new ethical foundations:
• Feature 1. As we survey the infinite canvas of relations, we realise that some of the relations which we trace in this world do not in fact exist – and those relations which do not exist cannot form the basis of an acceptable ethics. Falsehood and deceit are, at bottom, attempts to trace non-existent relations.

• Feature 2. Since relations represent an infinite canvas – and any containment of relations detracts from this – the relations which we trace should range through all the world. The more we limit the scope of the relations which we trace, and the more we view things in isolation, the more we are at risk of fault or shipwreck, in any field.

• Feature 3. Since the relations which we trace should range through all the world, our ability to trace relations should not be obstructed or manipulated. This means that secrecy, propaganda, and misrepresentations are ruled out. Above all, an ethics of relations would favour an open society, since openness is a prerequisite for arranging our world.

• Feature 4. Relations are infinite, yet our minds are finite. Since our minds are capable only of encompassing limited regions of relations, this means that there will inevitably be relations which lie beyond our power to explain – and beyond our control. We need therefore to be acutely aware of our limitations of thought. There is no place for hubris.

• Feature 5. Infinite control is required to conquer infinite relations. Therefore our limitations may create within us powerful totalising urges. In view of our limitations therefore – which preclude any final ability to master our world – any ethics should avoid such totalising tendencies.

• Feature 6. When we elevate any given values above others in an infinity of relations, our (justified) fear that such values are empty and illusory grows. This may lead to a dysfunctional ethics, which drives us to fundamentalism – where fundamentalism is resistance to the fear of finding one's foundations to be exposed as baseless.

• Feature 7. We need to consider that we live in a world where new relations are continually emerging, which did not exist before, and in many cases were unimaginable just so many years ago. This means that ethics does not and cannot stand still.
Finally, when we view our world as an infinite canvas of relations, and only relations – having banished both 'facts' and 'things' – we may now define fact as those relations which are as we think they ought to be, and value as those relations which are as we think they ought not to be. In both cases, then – in all cases – we speak, at bottom, of 'ought'.

With careful consideration, we come to see that all of the natural and the human sciences, and all of our common life, represent value, not fact. Thus we escape the albatross of the fact-value distinction, and bring back ethics into the fold of philosophy.

For a deeper exploration of these themes, one may refer to the author's Metaphysical Notes.


  1. Dear Thomas,

    An ethics of relations. It sounds so beautiful and even simple, logical, natural, human….

    Taking a closer look, what appears so simple becomes obstructed. Maybe because every relation, which I understand as a difference placed in-between (me and the tree f.e.) is filled with illusion. Illusive is also my knowledge to call the tree a tree I surely did not nominate tree myself. But tree, oxygen, gas, fire, table etc. are relations in other relations. Those relations have become logic. When I light the fire I know there is gas inside the wood, but I do not question how much gas the wood contains and for how long it will burn. If I would question this I might decide to chop a different tree that would render fire over a longer time and would chop less trees, but would chop all those trees that contain more gas and risk to eliminate a species. (To cut short!) Ethical questions. I can relate differently to the tree, imagining while cutting the tree I chop the legs of Driade, I can thank the tree for warming me etc. but it seems that every ethics I look for has to face its own unethically being ethical.

    So I question; I do not grasp to the moon because I know I cannot take the moon into my hand. If I would not ascribe value to my knowledge, I might actually try. If I put aside relativity and measure everything to my own body, I might actually believe I can grasp the moon. My knowledge keeps me from experience, my primary state keeps me from experience. Now human being seems to oscillate between these two states and a kind of schizophrenic being comes out of it. To re-establish ethics we might have to understand better these relations?

    I do not believe we are as limited as we often think to be, but want to be limited. Even when limits serve, how to establish a limit? How to escape the ‘ought’? We ascribe value to relations, but how to create ethical values that move beyond the contradiction in your features?

    Could you give an example?

    1. I wonder whether your question is not like Sartre's: 'If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts.'

      What I have sought to provide is general foundations for a new ethics. This is the part, I think, which you call beautiful, simple, and so on. But what then do we do with the particular? Which relations should I trace, in my own world?

      In one sense, this cannot be known. It cannot be known because I can only begin where I am.

      However, the broader features of relations give us some direction for our everyday. They lift our eyes above mere personal obsessions and parochial interests, they warn us of totalising tendencies, and reject those (purported) relations which do not exist – among other things. This is a start.

      I have starting points, but I have no goal. I cannot see the goal, I cannot proclaim it, nor can I predict it. I can only begin with concepts which I have in hand, to see where this leads me.

      Perhaps this helps?

  2. Thanks Thomas and Tess for those 'question raising' insights.

    I've a few thoughts on this too.

    First of all, and not just to quibble. Wittgenstein. You say:

    <'Whereof one cannot speak,' he wrote, 'thereof one must be silent.' He was referring, most importantly, to ethics.>

    My understanding is that he was not referring to ethics which he was content to dismiss (at this time) as empty assertion, devoid of any 'logical' interest. He was rather referring to truths that cannot be expressed in natural language - the kind of religious insights attained by meditation, for example.

    But the main argument that ethics is essentailly about relationships seems reasonable. It reminds me of Chuang Tzu's insights.

    Making everything relative
    The Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu produced this great argument for the relativity of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. One of the three great sages of Ancient China, ‘Chusi’ (for short) stressed the unity of all things, and the dynamic interplay of opposites. 'Good' and 'bad', he pointed out, are like everything else, interrelated and interchangeable. What is 'good' for the rabbit is 'bad' for the farmer (to offer a rather limp example of my own). The book attributed to him and called the, 'Chuang Tzu', is lively and playful, a mixture of stories and poetry as well as philosophical arguments.
    The 5-minute argument. Here is how Chuang attempts to show the relativity of moral judgements. Okay, assume as some sages say, that killing is wrong, then is it wrong to kill a hare when it was the only way to save yourself from starving? Surely not. Perhaps, though, this only makes killing animals okay. How about people? Suppose first that, yes, it is always wrong to kill another human being. But what then about a human being who is a robber intent on killing and robbing a lovely, innocent family? Surely it is then not wrong to kill him, assuming that this is the only way to stop him?
    Chuang’s point is that all moral knowledge depends in this way on context and situations - it is relative.
    The flaw. It could be argued that the Chuang makes his own categorical and not-at-all-relative assertions about right and wrong here, in the process of proving his point. For example, he says that if the only way to save the lovely innocent family from a robber is to kill a robber than you can kill the robber. This itself looks a pretty categorical and ‘universal’ moral judgement.

    Going back to the beginning, then, I tend to agree with Tess, if I understand her right, in sying that ethics is beyond a logic of formal relations.

    1. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy writes that Wittgenstein 'ends the journey with the admonition concerning what can (or cannot) and what should (or should not) be said, leaving outside the realm of the sayable propositions of ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics'. And so, to reflect my own emphasis, I write that Wittgenstein refers most importantly to ethics, rather than above all to ethics. Yet the big picture is that Wittgenstein would seem to mark the final loss of a foundation for ethics, insofar any one mark is better than another.

      I'm thinking on Chuang Tzu ...

    2. Probably, when we seriously question Other, we have to admit one value is not more valuable to another, even when other values can be shocking, we first have to understand our own. Most of what we value, we have not created ourselves but others have done for us. This creates a kind of blind spot I do not think we can ever truly consciously vision. Values as you mention are relations, but they were not raised in the logical, somehow they cannot be for there is no such vast plane to say that a particular value values more. I think that out of this awareness however you search for a coherence. But every involvement requests different values for we kind of lack coherence within transforming relations. Back to Martin, indeed I think ethics is beyond a logic of formal relations.

      What I understand is that you would like to undo the rigid character that hides behind values to defend - and give raise to itself, to find a more modest and conscious way of being in relation. I do not think this is possible if not in very subjective realities that each will have to face in the proper illogicality of its own believes. That process is made of subtleties, and not always conscious.

      To turn back to Alice (last time, I promise!):

      ‘… no use Your talking about waking him,’ said Tweedledum, ‘when you’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you’re not real.’
      ‘I am real’ said Alice and began to cry.’
      ‘You won’t make yourself a bit realer by crying,’ Tweedledee remarked: ‘there’s nothing to cry about.’
      'If I wasn’t real,' Alice said,… ‘I shouldn’t be able to cry.’
      ‘I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears?’ Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.

    3. Implicit in an ethics of relations is that one acts on the relations which one traces, which is the way in which one has arranged the world in one's mind. In keeping with this, a murderous robber has his (or her) ethics. The family man has his. At issue, I think, is not who will now do what and why. They will do what they do. Yet what will happen to their ethics as one applies the meta-features which I propose?

  3. An interesting and informative discussion of ethics, Thomas. I realize your notion of ‘relations’ stands, in its originality, on its own two feet by means of a new 'foundation', but I also see it being a comfortable fit within secular humanism. The model assumes a benign form of human centrality—‘benign’ because the model is devoid of doctrinaire ideology, instead importantly acknowledging that though some universal goods may uniformly cut across societies, it also shares kinship with cultural relativism. Relations therein are key.

  4. I think this is a perceptive assessment.

    My ethics incidentally would relativise inalienable rights, such as the right to property or the right to liberty, insofar as these would become referenced to larger considerations.

    Yet at the same time, in so doing, my ethics should make such rights more sure, since these would seem merely to be axiomatic today.

  5. A very captivating essay, Thomas. Obviously, there are a couple of aspects I still have to ponder on. One that springs to mind is that I wonder, if the world is made up of relations – and I understand a relation to be something between something and something else –: what are those two 'things' (understood here in the truncated shorthand' way you mention) between which a relation is posited? Or, put in a different way: is the relation the most basic unit, or are there constituting parts/elements of it?

    Anyway, I like the idea of infinite interconnectedness that I sense being referred to. In addition to that, awareness of our limitations of thought, avoidance of totalitarian tendencies etc. are worthwhile implications to be derived from an ethical stance. Although the fact that I seem to be able to arrive at a position of agreement may indicate that there are alternative ways of coming to similar conclusions. Well, as I said, it provides a lot of food for thought!

  6. Thank you Christian. You have hit on a vital point.

    By way of analogy, think on our physical world. The closer one examines it, the less seems to be there. It may all in the end prove to be mere energies, if not perturbations of nothingness. Now think on the words we use (and the ideas in our heads) in the same way.

    Our words (and concepts) are on the surface of it relations between things. But it is a crudity which we use for the sake of getting on – a kind of unfinished haste. Let me put it differently today. We treat words as if they were objects so to speak, which refer to referents which are objects. The Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics says that words are the union of an invariant form with an invariant meaning. That is the model we all work with today.

    But it isn't really like that. Here are two reasons why. In English I say 'deer'. In German you say 'Tier'. What changed, through the centuries? 'Town' and 'Zaun'. 'Dish' and 'Tisch'. These are meaning shifts and form shifts. So what now of the Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics? Now to approach it from another angle, take these two sentences: 'I walked into the meeting. The karma was bad.' The second sentence does not refer to the first. Or rather, it implies that a meeting is about karma, and the fact is that everybody understands it immediately, and thousands of such sentences besides.

    So what I wish to show is that our words and thoughts are not what they always told us: atomic elements of language, or bundles of necessary and sufficient features. Inside those words are worlds of relations, which dance and play and shift and change and advance and recede. And if we understand words in this way, then we have the key -- more modestly, a key -- for solving the deepest problem of ethics -- its disjoint from facts.

    With regard to your second paragraph: ah, but was it an alternative way, through which you came to the same conclusions? ;-)