Brian Matthew Kessler 27 November 1997
Brian Matthew Kessler
27 November 1997
As humans, we are confronted with many decisions throughout our lives. As responsible humans, we endeavor that these decisions should be morally and/or ethically correct. To achieve this goal, we must either adopt or construct an ethical system and hope the conclusions this system guide us to in our decision making process will prove correct.
Among 6.5 billion humans, across the millenniums of history, we find that many different people and societies have drawn vastly different conclusions upon these questions. There has never been either a universal vice or a universal virtue. Thus, we must accept that definitive answers to these questions are by no means obvious.
There are four primary sources for defining good and evil. These are: Religion, Society, Law, and the Self. Each of these systems contain their own set of problems. Before discussing my solution, I would like to address these problems.
First, religion. Defining good and evil in terms of religion may be all well and good if we KNOW what religion happens to be the correct religion. But as things stand, at best, we can only have FAITH in the matter; as much as some might insist faith can be knowledge, I don't feel compelled to accept this argument, especially when so many people carry so many contradictory faiths. This objection is only one amongst many. Let us assume that we have isolated the "one truth religion": is it necessarily true that the god(s) of this religion are moral? If Jove shall sin, who shall be his judge?(1) We know we'll find some judges amongst our peers. Thus, between the multiplicity of religions and the possible immorality of god(s), while religion may give rise to moral or ethic systems, religion can not be considered an adequate foundation for ethical knowledge.
Second, society. As with religion, we again encounter the phenomena of plurality, with different societies coming to different conclusions -- assuming that the society even can reaches a conclusion, which is not necessarily so. And why should it be? Society is a group of INDIVIDUALS, each of whom has his own experience, manner of reasoning, and therefore personal conclusions. At best, we may define society's viewpoint by consensus, bringing us to the concept of a "consensus reality"; but the problem here is that real people don't think that way. Even if people agree to abide by the social norms, their actual thoughts are not necessarily a reflection upon what the majority of people perceive, thus consensus reality does not truly exist. But let us assume people could think this way; appeal to majority is a logical fallacy. If the majority of people still believed the world was flat, it would not make the world any less round. Thus, the perception of the majority can be wrong and therefore society is unreliable as a source of ethical knowledge.
Third, law. Law is a synthetic construct based both upon the traditional morals and ethics as rooted in religion and upon the modern morals and ethics as enacted and voted upon by current society. Need I point out that from the outset it therefore suffers all the problems of both? And upon those problems, we may then heap upon it the corruptions of megalomania and political maneuvering. Thus, law is impossible as a source for ethical knowledge.
One source remains to us: Self. Let it be clarified, that by Self, I refer to Self as the SOURCE of ethical and moral belief, and NOT as the GOAL. The initial difficulty we encounter upon this course is that of defining The Self. This is by no means obvious when we consider the possibilities of reincarnation and multiple personality disorders. We will take the Self to mean the one singular conscious entity which pilots one specific human body in one specific instance of time. I am aware that this may draw objections from psychology and religion -- however, such issues are red herrings to our search for ethical knowledge and therefore may, should, and must be put aside. By accepting this working definition of the Self, we should immediately notice an advantage over its competing sources; that is, the Self has singularity whereas all the others suffer multiplicity. Although there are at least as many selves as there are people presently living(2), at any given instance of time, only one Self will be immediately and directly accessible to the person attempting to construct an ethical system or make an ethical judgement. While this singularity suffers, perhaps dangerously, from any necessary property upon which it may /must check itself against, it at least escapes the confusion of our other possible sources(3).
Now, the reason we strive for ethical knowledge is to guide our decision making process so we may make morally and ethically correct decisions for our Self, it seems fitting, that the Self should play a significant (if not exclusive) role in the process. As our goal is a form of knowledge, it seems necessary that we should build this knowledge upon our other and previous knowledge. This, of course, leads us back to Descartes's famous question: What can I really know? To which, he answered "I think, therefore I am", following upon the logic of Aristotle "To be conscious that we are perceiving or thinking is to be conscious of our own existence."
Beyond knowing I exist, I also know I possess a set of perceptions and thoughts. I can not know of the exact nature of their existence or their exact relations to any supposed external reality, but I do know that acting(4) upon or neglecting these thoughts and perceptions may result in feedback and I may perceive this feedback as being either a form of pleasure or a form of pain. Thus, I know of the existence, be it however subjective, of both pleasure and pain.
While I may not know the true or exact nature of my existence, I perceive a physical body which feeds my mind certain perceptions and behaves as my mind instructs it to. Although this body may be delusional, I know that neglecting this body can generate experiences of pain and answering the needs of this body can generate experiences of pleasure -- these experiences are both decidedly real.
I very often perceive causal chains, whereas actions may result in reactions, which may result in further reactions, etc. While some of these actions / reactions may seem random, I very often note that there are patterns and consistencies to these patterns. These patterns and consistencies may be beyond explanation and ultimately fictitious. However, they have thus far proven a sufficient tool in both the production of pleasure and the avoidance of pain; they therefore should not be ignored nor neglected.
Using the perceived senses in the perceived body, I very often perceive the existence of bodies that seem similar in nature to that body which I perceive to be my own. I can no more know of their actual existence than I can know of my own (indeed less), but having perceived consistency to my universe, it seems likely that whatever forces(5) may have given rise to my own existence may well have acted in such a manner as to create other similar beings who have similar perceived connections to their bodies as I have to my own, including experiences of pleasure and pain. This may be false -- however, disregarding the wants and needs of these other perceived beings has a tendency to result in their similar treatment of my own. This results in a knowable increase in pain and can therefore be considered undesirable.
To recap a bit before continuing: I have knowable experiences of pleasure and pain. I have perceived experiences of other beings who are like myself in their wants, needs, and in pleasure / pain experiences. Acting upon the perceived wants and needs of others can sometimes predictably and sometimes unpredictably result in pleasure and pain for myself. And this is where things get tricky: I can neither know nor disprove the existence of those other beings. Nor can I know that any act shall ultimately result in either pleasure or pain for myself or for others.
Beyond this point, we must make a leap of faith. We must either admit the existence of others or deny the existence of others(6). We can not know whether this decision is actually correct beyond our perceptions of the feedback our further actions based on this judgement results in.
Let us take the position that we shall deny the existence of others. In this position, the pleasure and pain of others is a moot point and we need not concern ourselves with any regard beyond whether our actions result in feedback of pleasure or feedback of pain. As we can not always predict the result of any action as being of one sort nor the other, and as it may sometimes happen that we may control our environment enough that an act which might sometimes result in pain feedback will consistently result in pleasure feedback, upon this foundation we can build neither system, principles, nor rules, for any form of moral or ethical behavior. The end product is amorality. While this position is not necessarily false, as would-be-ethical-decision-makers, this position is unacceptable(7). Thus, as would-be-ethical decision-makers, we must accept the possibility that other beings similar to ourselves exist and act as if this possibility is true.
So, we may now add into our formula that others like ourselves exist. Though we may not know this, by choosing to ask the question and seek an answer, it seems both implicit and necessary that we at least accept this as knowledge. The next question, before I can build a system of ethics, becomes: how shall I judge these other beings in accord or in opposition to myself. Having admitted their existence seems to infer that they have some importance that puts them beyond a state of complete neglect in the decision making process.
On the other hand, as there is extreme variation within the human species, it seems absurd to judge all humans as inherently equal to each other -- this truth may be ugly and may make the process of constructing an ethical system difficult, but it seems obvious and unavoidable. It also seems that the knowable should have some precedence over the assumed, and as I am the only knowable being, at least when I consider myself in regard to someone else who I would otherwise consider equal, that person is still not my equal. We must also consider the possibility that the other being may seem greater than oneself -- one must then decide how much weight to give to his own self certainty as opposed to the superior characteristics of the other. Depending on what those characteristics (physical, mental, emotional, academic, etc.) might be and how you have perceived them will lead to different conclusions on this matter. It seems unlikely that any easy formula could be set forth, only a general rule that when one must choose between the needs and wants of oneself and one of dubious superiority, then the Self should likely prove the greater. Self sacrifice (by which I mean either foregoing of pleasure or undergoing pain) should only be done for an individual when the individual is clearly greater than oneself.
Thus far, we have only considered the Self in relation to one other being at a time. However, it has been my perception that there is more than one other being. We must then judge how to act when two or more people are involved. Having not taken for granted that Mr. A is equal to myself, it can no longer be taken for granted that Mr. A plus Mr. B is greater than myself. Thus we again have a difficult task, since there is no way to quantify human quality and therefore no way to quantify any sum thereof. Thus it is again, ultimately a subjective matter with no fast rule when any collection of people is to have a worth that merits any form of self sacrifice.
Which brings us to the next question: when an individual or group is judged greater than oneself, how much self sacrifice is sensible? As we have already shown, quantifying human qualities or the sum thereof is subjective and difficult. So too is self sacrifice. Thus, it is small wonder that this question will defy any attempt at an easy formulaic answer. It will rely on individual judgements based on the ethical crisis. Although I again shy from presenting any hard and fast rules, I would suggest that very few circumstance, if any, ever merit a decision of actual martyrdom -- except whereupon the self faces perceived destruction through lack thereof.
And now we must discuss ethical crisis. By ethical crisis, I mean any situation in which you find your perceived self confronted by a decision which is likely to effect both your Self and other perceived beings(8). So long as an act(9) can result in naught but pleasure for all concerned, it seems both fair and unobjectionable that we should call this act necessarily good. So long as an act can result in naught but pain for all concerned, it seems both fair and unobjectionable that we should call this act necessarily evil(10). In such situations, whether it is the Self, others, or both who are effected, the crisis is easily resolved.
Often, however, the pleasure of others may be dependant upon some degree of pain for the self. Or the pleasure of the Self may depend upon some degree of pain for others. We shall call an act contingently good if that act may result in pain for the some but will result in definate pleasure for others. We shall call an act contingently evil if that act may result in pleasure for the some but will result in definite pain for others.
As should be realized, acts that are contingently good and evil are not necessarily good and evil. They rely on the circumstances surounding the individual case to be decided as being either actually good or actually evil. On the other hand, all acts that are necessarily good are actually good and all acts that are necessarily evil are actually evil.
To clarify contingently good and contingently evil, it should perhaps serve if I set forth examples.
Mr. C. kills Mr. D. If nobody would benefit from this act, this act would be necessarily evil(11). However, if anyone had any potential (money, pride, etc.) to benefit from the act, it would be contingently evil as Mr. D. suffered from this act(12). If we add to our knowledge of the circumstance and learn that Mr. D. was threatening the well being of Mr. C.'s friend Mr. E. and Mr. D. had no justification for doing so, we can see that circumstance justifies Mr. C.'s act and this contingently evil act is therefore actually good.(13)
Mr. F. releases Mr. G. from unlawful imprisonment. If Mr. F. causes no pain by this act, this act would be necessarily good(14). If anyone had any potential harm (i.e., Mr. H. is distressed because he can't find the keys to his basement), this act would be contingently good. If Mr. G. was unlawfully imprisoned for unjustifiably killing Mr. H.'s family and then bribing the judge and jury to be legally aquitted and thereby untouchable, and if Mr. F. knew the circumstance of the case, this contingently good act would be actually evil(15).
As most acts are either contingently good or contingently evil, relying on external properties to qualify their actual state, we must recognize there are no absolutes and make due with circumstantial ethics where no act is necessarily good nor evil as all cases have causes (some beyond knowing) and effects (some unpredictable and/or some beyond knowing). Thus, the ethics of the Self must be seen either as no ethics at all or circumstantial ethics.
1. In the Bible, there is a scene where God informs Abraham that He is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, whereupon Abraham reacts by explaining to God that this would be wrong to destroy the rightous with the wicked [Genesis 18:23-32]. Return
2. Human vegetables may be exceptions by some accounts, however that issue is another red herring. Return
3. Not that the confusion itself would be enough on it's own to eliminate any of these sources, but as discussed above, Religion, Society, and Law are have other complications beyond this. Return
4. Whether these acts actually occur physically or just in my mind is ultimately unknowable, but a moot point. I still perceive both the act and the feedback. Return
5. Whether these forces are control by god(s) is unknowable and irrelevant. Return
6. Although it may be possible to withhold judgement on the issue in theory, in practice, I have never heard of it being done. Therefore this possibility has no practical purpose to our argument. From a merely theoretical viewpoint, at least in terms of ethics, it can be shown to be meaningless.
Let us assume Mr. A. withholds judgement and chooses to not believe but merely assume one possibility or the other for the purposes of being able to proceed with his life. If he assumes others do not exist, then the end result is the same as believing others do not exist. If he assumes others do exist, then the end result is the same as believing others do exist.
Let us assume Mr. B. withholds judgement and refuses to even assume either possibility. Mr. B. will their either be trapped into inaction (at least when a decision requires an ethical judgement) or be forced to plan for either contingency to be true. This latter means, he must accept all the moral and ethical constraints of both positions, so he would only be able to act in a manner that both would conclude as being either good or at least not evil. As shall be shown, the position of denying the existence of others logically results in amorality so Mr. B would have no other morals nor ethics than those he would adopt by merely accepting the existence of others. Return
7. Obviously, the dilemma is avoided by choosing not to be an ethical decision maker, but then this whole issue is a moot point (accept for as a justification for amorality -- but if you are amoral, do you have a need to justify yourself? And to whom if you have already denied the existence of others?). Return
8. Or potentially perceived beings (i.e. people you never met, but have reason to believe exist). Return
9. By act, I mean either the performance of an act or the conscious failure to perform that act. These failures to act may often be as an avoidance of evil. For example, it may give me pleasure to rehearse killing a room full of people in my mind, but not wanting to cause others pain, I forgo the pleasure. This forgoing is "good" or at least "not evil", but as nothing occurs, nothing is recognized as occurring). The failure to act may be an avoidance of good. For example, I am upset with Mr. X, so rather than give Mr. X a lift home, even though it is on my way and no trouble for me, I fail to do him this favour, possibly causing him numerous problems.... this foregoing is "evil" or at least "not good". Whether "good" and "not evil" or "evil" and "not good" are two pairs of synonyms are beyond the scope of this paper. Return
10. Not to be confused with necessary evil. However, the ideas are related. Necessary evil depends upon an act being defined as necessarily evil. As can be seen in a later footnote, I will doubt the actual existence of necessarily evil, which is my first problem with the concept of necessary evil. The second problem is that I doubt the concept of ultimate necessity. It may be necessary to act in some manner to achieve some goal, but is any goal necessary in itself? It may be necessary to breath in order to live, but is it ultimately necessary to live? In fact, necessity seems to be but justifiably desired. Does it make any sense to speak of justifiably desired evil? Return
11. Of course, if Mr. C. had no potential benefit, not even pleasure, would he have taken the time and energy to act? Thus we may question the actual existence of necessarily evil. Return
12. We shall neglect the possibility that Mr. D. died a painless death and ceased to exist afterwards. Though this may be possible, we have no way of knowing his death was painless nor that this death did not cause a painful afterlife. Return
13. If Mr. D. had no justification, would he actually act this way? Thus, we may question our the ability to actually know of actual good. Return
14. In reality, he may cause Mr. G. to feel humbled and therefore diminished since Mr. G. needed help to escape rather than manage it on his own. Thus, we may question the actual existence of necessarily good. Return
15. However, we may also question whether Mr. G. would have acted in this way if he had
no justification. Thus we may question whether it is possible to know actual evil. Return