The Good-in-itself versus the Good-for-Oneself (an excursus in grounded meta-ethics)
The term ‘meta-ethics’ first presents an inherent contradiction. Ethics is, by definition, about the space of action in the world. It is grounded only in the sense that it occurs in medias res, on the ground, whilst running along. It is perhaps typical of analytic philosophy to make the goal an ‘in itself’ and then the means to it quite contextual. The leap of faith is simple enough: can we establish a principle – in this case, about the essence of morality – based upon all that is unprincipled in itself. This faith does not, perhaps ironically, include a moral judgment, for ‘unprincipled’ is meant to suggest only that which is relative to condition. Think of Durkheim’s understanding of ‘deviant’, which was highly statistical, and in which the normative was equally seen as simply that which most people in fact do, or believe. It is the same, and even more so, for his kindred concept of ‘pathological’, which is deliberately contrasted with the stark and even jarring term ‘normal’, so disdained today. The social fact, to again borrow from the same thinker, that everyone is ‘normal somewhere’, belies without entirely betraying the sense that our shared condition is not experienced in an identity relation with itself. But if one seeks a principle, one would either have to assume that there are actions which lend themselves to a choate whole as in a structure made of differing but corresponding elements, or that at some point, with the presence of enough of a certain kind of action or sets of actions, that a Gestalt belatedly arrives which can be thenceforth named ‘morality’, or some other like category.
As a hermeneutic thinker, I am cautious about such claims. Ethics is never by itself, or thus an ‘in itself’. It is quite unlike physics in these regards, which, though certainly not acting in the proverbially ‘closed system’, it is nevertheless highly predictable in its correlative effects, and can be, with great aplomb, analytically worked out backwards, as it were, to specific precipitates and even ‘causes’. Now it is not that ethics so named is random, entirely spontaneous, or improvised on the spot every time. Clearly, there is some relationship between the action of the good and the good in principle, and it is thus a matter of discovering more exactly what that connection may be, how it has altered itself over time, and how living human beings perceive it. But unlike the formal study of meta-ethics, what I will suggest here is that we begin quite inductively and without any principled goal in mind, by attempting to understand a Verstehen of Verstandnis, if you will, which ultimately returns to a Selbstverstandnis. This ‘selfhood’ is not, in the end, oneself, but rather about the self as it is currently experienced and acted out by our contemporaries in the world as it is. Insofar as it is not overly personal nor overtly subjective, this selfhood should contain within it at least a semblance of a principle.
Let us begin then by taking a familiar example in which the contrast between action and order may be glimpsed. It is very often the case, in teaching undergraduates of any age or possessed of any credo, that they imagine that their personal experience can by itself generate facts, or that what they have known is the whole of social reality. Long ago, when I was still myself possessed of a sense of experiential superiority, I responded to a hapless young student who, in reacting to the statistic about youthful marriage which, at the time, had it that 85% of marriages entered into before the age of 26 ended in divorce, objected that her parents had been high school sweethearts, meeting one another at age 14, married at 18, and were yet together some decades later. Congratulate them, I replied, they are part of the 15%. This generated buckets of belly-laughs from the rest of the class and I am sure the poor thing was humiliated. That I only felt some minor bad conscience about it years later, suggests that ethics, at least of the pedagogic variety, had been conspicuously absent in this specific case.
At the same time, such an event served the wider case quite well, as it pointed out, rather pointedly, that one’s own experiences were not enough to understand fully the human condition. Now, if we take the same sensibility to ethics, we might argue that since one’s own actions in the world are not representative of any kind of morality which might be known by other means, they are also not the fullest expressions thereof. What is meant by this latter remark? If one does not know the good, one cannot be either a representative of it, nor can one express it through one’s actions. This is a moral statement, and as such, it evaluates the value of the principle, not by its enactment, but rather, to borrow from Foucault, by virtue of its ‘enactmental complex’. The status of morals in society is one of the salient variables for analytic philosophy’s idea of what meta-ethics might be. The term ‘status’ implies both its state and its value, what it is in itself and how we esteem it, even if we do not precisely know what it is, or what else it may be, unto itself. The old-hat problem of our perception of the world comes immediately to mind, but morality, as Durkheim for one stringently reminded us, is not of ‘this’ world at all. It is social alone, for, as he calls it, ‘there is no other moral order apart from society’. Before Vico, one could read ‘not of this world’ as implying an otherworld; in the premodern sense, one of divinity but also one of spirit. With the Enlightenment, ‘spirit’ disconnected itself from the divine, became ‘objective’, as it were, and whether dialectical in nature or more simply existential, the one thing it no longer was, was essential; spirit had become its own deep deontology.
Now however this may strike us, one day as liberating, the next, alienating, and either way, certainly as a foreground to our favorite modernist expression, that of ‘freedom’, the deontology of morality did little enough to thenceforth favor ethics as any kind of ‘in itself’. Ethics, in our day, is more often thought of in the context of business, the white collar professions, medicine, or the law. We do not regularly hear of ethics as a stand-alone discourse, and when I tell people that I am an ‘ethicist’, or that is one of my philosophical areas of study, they always ask, ‘do you mean professional ethics or business ethics or…’ and so on. It is clear enough that ethics, recently divorced from morality, has accomplished what Aristotle began only through the sleight of hand of popular language in use. And while morality is itself shunned as both dreadfully old-fashioned as well as avoided since it is perceived as a prime candidate for interpersonal conflict, ethics has almost vanished entirely from the ‘open space of the public’. And if one gets a bemused response to being an ‘ethicist’, just think of how people might react if one introduced oneself as a ‘moralist’!
The foregoing should not be seen as a digression. Just as personal experience does not in itself comprehend the world, the actions based upon each of our individuated experiences cannot in fact construct an ethics, let alone a morality. In our day, the quest for principles is either a mirror for the ventures in technique and technology which seek indefinite perfection – research in stem cells, in artificial intelligence, in extraterrestrial contact, in cybernetics or cyber-organicity including portable or downloadable-uploadable consciousness – or it is simply another one of the same type. The moral objection to each and any of these is that they are the latter-day Babel, and can thus only be the products of an arrogant but still mortal mind which seeks to be as a God already and always is. One could ask the question, in return, ‘are moral objections always in themselves moral?’ but this would take us beyond the scope of this brief commentary. Instead, though not in lieu of, let me suggest that meta-ethics as framed by analytic thought is fraught with a problem similar in likeness to that of making something perfect, or at least, superior to what it had been. One, we are not sure if morality is in fact superior to ethics: the timeless quality of moral principles is obviated by history. History slays morality just as disbelief murders Godhead. We know from both our personal experience and our more worldly discourses thereof, that what is good for one goose is not necessarily good for the next, let alone the ganders, diverse in themselves. Two, what is it about the character of ethical thought, and the witness of ethical action, that necessarily requires us to hitch it up to a more static system of principles? We have already stated that ethics is not about the random, and if we take our proverbial chances in the world each day, we do so with the prior knowledge that almost all others are very much aware of doing the same thing, and thus as a society we are alert to a too egregious over-acting, and that of all kinds. Durkheim’s sense of the source of morality again comes to the fore: here, morality is understood as a working resource which expresses its historical essence through the action of ethics. As such, there is nothing to be gained by esteeming morality for its own sake or even contrasting it with the discourse of ethics in a manner that exalts its status.
The virtuous must be decided not by a grounding, but rather on the grounds of all that which is at first needful of some kind of adjustment. How we access the frames by which we make ethical decisions is certainly of interest, but I suspect that most people do not refer to principles in so doing. Instead, they rely on what has worked for them in the past, their ‘previous prejudices’, which can appear to them as if they were a set of principles in spite of what we have just observed about the essential parochiality of personal experience. In a word, prejudice is not principle. Certainly, morality attempts, and mostly in good faith I imagine, to overcome the individuated quality of merely biographical self-understanding. All the more so is it not present to mind when we act. It is not that morality is utterly moribund, a relic alongside other ontotheological constructs fit only for the museum of thought and never for the world as it is, but we would do better to work on a more effective discourse concerning ethics and specifically, ethical action, with the only pseudo-ideal present perhaps the irruptive figure of the neighbor in mind. This anti-socius works against the moral order of society and thus momentarily stands outside of ethical discourse as well. But the action of the neighbor serves as an expression of the essence of our truly shared condition and as such, reminds us of the radical authenticity that must be present in order for ethics to have any reality at all.
G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.