The Ethics Of… Ethics (Part 1)

Well I’ve been promising this post ever since I started this website 8 months ago, but must admit I’ve been putting it off. It’s not so much that the hardcore philosophy underlying practical ethics is particularly dry material – though it definitely can be in the wrong hands – but rather that what I’m about to summarise in 2-3 pages here is an entire field of study spanning over 2000 years of furious debate. To put it bluntly, it’s going to break some brains.

But after last week’s post on Hitting a Woman received a frankly absurd number of views, and before we get stuck into some extremely controversial stuff in the upcoming April ‘Month of Blood’, it’s time we get the foundations sorted out.

And it’s about time that I gave an explanation as just why it is I reckon I have the right to be sticking my nose into every issue I can find. What exactly makes ethics so important anyway? How do we even know that ethics are right?

Well, brace yourself internet, I’m about to rock your world.

When it comes to philosophy, there are three major questions that attract most of the shouting:

  1. Metaethics/Metaphysics (How stuff is)
  2. Causality (How stuff interacts), and
  3. Normative Ethics (How to do stuff)

I’ll be breaking this into three separate posts to save our sanity (and my website hits – please don’t abandon me! Month of Blood coming up! It’ll be awesome, I swear!).

Metaethics/Metaphysics – how stuff is

This is the ground floor of philosophy. The questions asked here are the sort that wankers at parties occasionally flash out to make themselves sound smarter and will make you groan purely by instinct.

“What is truth?”, “How can we ever hope to understand a reality that we are part of?”, or perhaps the exceptionally nonsensical “Reality is just a construct of our collective consciousness”. Blegh.

What this sort of pompousness hides however are two very, very serious questions that underlay every opinion and perspective that you will ever encounter in life; Ontology (the study of how reality exists), and Epistemology (the study of how us human perceive that reality).

Don’t let the big words get to you too much. Despite what certain academics would have you believe, these are actually pretty straight forwards concept that you have more than likely toyed with a few times in your youth. Is reality actually real? How would we know? Is there stuff going on that we just can’t perceive? Can we change the world just by thinking about it?

Big, BIG scary questions. Fortunately, and surprisingly, there are actually some answers.

Ontology

With the exception of God, it doesn’t get a lot bigger than this – How does reality actually exist? If humanity were to disappear entirely tomorrow, would the universe just keep on keeping on? Or would it change? Is reality partly or even completely dependent on us perceiving it for it to exist?

As you’d expect, there’s plenty of debate over this, but it tends to fall into three schools of thought;

  • Objectivist – Reality exists totally independent to people. We could be wiped out tomorrow and nothing would change for reality.
  • Constructivist – Reality is partly, or perhaps entirely altered by human perception of it. Quite literally, if a person is not perceiving a thing, that thing does not exist.
  • Illusionary – Commonly known as the ‘Brain in a tank’ theory, it argues that what we think and see and feel exist only within our own minds – for all we know, we are just brains in a tank, hooked up to a simulation. Think ‘The Matrix’.

Most of you will be looking at those last two options and wondering how anyone in their right mind could take them seriously, yeah? Well what if I was to tell you that those theories are not only taken seriously, but that Constructivism in particular underlays some of the most powerful political and social theories out there today? (We’ll get to that in a sec)

It’s important to note here that, as wacky/obvious as they may sound, none of these theories can be proven conclusively true or false because we have no way of stepping outside of reality to measure it. Sure, it might sounds outlandish that we’re all just brains in a tank, but the important thing here is that it’s definitely possible.

So how do we resolve this mess if any answer is possible? Well the same way we do any science – we look for evidence supporting a claim and evidence refuting it. Following this process we get an answer pretty fast – literally all reliable evidence we have tells us that, no, the coffee table does not cease to exist when we cease to observe it, a fact that most people’s shins can attest to. Nor are there any serious cases out there of someone altering reality purely with their mind – regardless of what certain people may claim, they tend to fail spectacularly (and hilariously) under controlled conditions.

Similarly, it may be entirely true that we are all brains floating in tanks or batteries hooked up to The Matrix, but since we have no evidence of that being true or any way of ever finding out, why bother with it? Since all evidence with no exception points towards an Objectivist Ontology, this is the one we should embrace.

With me so far? Trust me, I’ll get to why all this matters really, really soon, I swear. Ok then, next up we have;

Epistemology

The study of how us people perceive the universe, opinions on which also falls broadly into the three categories:

  • Objectivist – that what we observe about the world is a totally accurate understanding of reality
  • Subjectivist – that human understanding of the world is limited by our senses and tiny, tiny brains, meaning our understanding will always be incomplete/flawed.
  • Constructivist – basically an extension of the Constructivist Ontology; Our perception of reality alters or creates that reality.

This one is a bit easier to resolve since, thanks to science, we know how humans perceive things to a large extent. We know that we rely on our senses and that those senses are limited – we can’t see ultraviolet light for example, or feel magnetic fields. As such the Objectivist school of thought is sunk pretty fast.

The Constructivist school of thought sort of bypasses these objections by basically not being an Epistemology at all – perception of reality and reality itself are actually the same thing. Happily, the same objections that apply to a Constructivist Ontology then also apply to a Constructivist Epistemology and we can turf the whole thing as nonsense.

So for all practical purposes, a Subjectivist Ontology is the way to go.

So where does that leave us: Reality exists regardless of how it is observed, and human perception of that reality is flawed. Got it? Awesome.

(Incidentally, that sound you can hear is the screams of a million philosophy students horrified at how badly I just simplified this whole debate. I’m sure I’ll get a few nice long emails about this in due course…)

So why the hell should I even care?

This is why:

Everyone will have at least heard of The Secret, but some will not be totally familiar with what The Secret actually is. Basically put, The Secret claims that in order to get the things you want in life, you need to really, really focus on having those things – they call this the Law of Attraction. By focussing your mind and truly believing it will come about, you will literally make it a reality. Want that promotion? You can make it happen! Want a million dollars? Think it hard enough and it can come true! Want an awesome robot hand? It’s all within your grasp if you just believe hard enough.

Just to be clear, this is not just saying that a positive attitude will help you maintain motivation to reach your goals – they are literally saying that your success is literally created by your attitude towards it.

It’s a Constructivist Ontology/Epistemology down to a T. Reality is altered/created by our perception of it – what you order is what you get. And it’s god damn huge. The Secret (the book) has sold 19 million copies, a movie and thousands of self-help courses that just happen to make a pretty penny for those who run them.

But who cares, right? It’s a nift scam, but a fool and his money are quickly separated right? Sure, right up until you take a closer look at this philosophy and what it implies about the unsuccessful.

If reality is indeed created by how we perceive it, and as The Secret claims, thinking positively about good things will actually bring them to you, then what does that mean about people who get bad things? If thinking positively gets you a promotion, then if you missed out on that promotion, then doesn’t that make it your fault? What if your house gets robbed? That would have to be your fault as well. And what about the millions dying of preventable diseases in developing countries? Too bad they didn’t focus on high quality affordable health care.

Suddenly our fluffy idea grows teeth – teeth that gets exceedingly nasty when you realise that this would also imply that those who screw over other people, say by robbing someone’s house, are actually ethically justified in doing so under this theory. No one at The Secret will ever endorse that view of course, but the logic is clear – if you create your quality of life through your own attitude, then it is the victim that is to blame for their misfortunes, and the criminal is actually totally entitled to what they steal, you know, since they must have been appropriately positively focussed and all.

But no one takes it that seriously, right? I mean, it’s not like you see people running around saying that “We should cut social services because poor people cause their own poverty!” do you? Oh, wait, they totally do that. But they’re just random nutjobs – no one important or influential take this philosophy seriously, so they? Oh, they totally do and the subsequent attitude underpins a significant portion of right-wing ideology?

Well…shit.

Tune in next week for part 2: Causality, where we will explore whether free will exists or not (it doesn’t) and totally crush your sense of individuality, leaving you bereft of all sense of identity or responsibility, naked before the void of your own insignificance.

Fun fun fun!

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