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Ethics in 20th-Century Western Thought

Objectivity and Ethics

Skepticism is not a modern phenomenon. Skeptics existed and debated even in the days of ancient Greek thinkers like Socrates and Plato. A skeptic is one who doubts what can be known. An extreme skeptic can drive you insane by trying to show to you that what you take for real may not be real at all - you could be dreaming, for instance, and all criteria you can come up with to show that you KNOW that you are awake cannot be 100% certain: for instance, you have vivid impressions when you sleep sometimes; and there are dreams that have no break in continuity or coherence; and even when it comes to performing very complicated operations, think of the example of Coleridge who conceived 300 lines of a poem when under the influence of hallucinogens. Why are we discussing this? Clearly, knowledge is related to ethics: Can we know ethical objects like duties and responsibilities? A related question is: Are there such objects? Should I call them objects at all? They would be very strange if they were objects in the material world. But, we still have no difficulty saying that, perhaps, standards of right and wrong are real even though they are not tangible in the way natural objects are. So, skepticism about knowledge enters the picture at this point. Along with this, you need to take into account the peculiarly modern phenomenon of a decline in the belief that objective knowledge is possible. If objective knowledge is impossible - if only individual perspectives are possible, for instance, then, it seems that it is impossible to do ethics. How would we define responsibility toward others if we cannot even discuss it across our individual and insular perspectives? Even ethical egoism would be out - because if I choose, through my perspective, to neglect even myself, you do not have any independent and objective standpoint from which you could criticize me and argue with me. This is a frightening picture - for the possibilities of knowing, communicating, discussing, acting, and of course for ethics.

The ancient skeptics at most doubted our senses: Maybe our senses deceive us. When we are sick, sugar tastes bitter to us. If this can happen once, how can we know that it is not happening all the time? Yet, ancient skeptics did not doubt that there is something out there - a universe. Whether it can be known is a different matter. In modern philosophy, starting with Nietzche, the frightening possibility arises that the entire notion of a 'world' is a myth. This would mean that 'world' is a myth whether we are referring to an external world or even to the stable reality of our ideas and perceptions. How then did we come to thinking that a world exists in the first place, for Nietzsche? He notices that an animal with memory and anticipation - the human animal, which was accidentally thrown into the world, is cursed with living in time: this animal not only recalls what happened before but it also anticipates. It is this animal that invents the world as an object - be it an object out there or even in as an idea in our heads. Humans did this to avoid the stunning paralysis that results when you know that there is a future and yet are unable to figure out ANYTHING about that future. Without a 'world', there is absolutely nothing that can be taken for granted. This animal would remain riveted on the spot, paralyzed, until the next animal - a 'dumb' animal, one without the capacity to anticipate - came around and conquered. Humans would not have survived, they would have become extinct, unless they invented this drape of the 'world' to throw over what Nietzsche considers an abyss. If this is the case - if the objective world itself is kicked out - what happens to ethics? Can anything be KNOWN about values - what is right and what is wrong? Nietzsche's response is HEROIC ARISTOCRATIC: of course, there are no objective values, he asserts. There is only an arbitrary creation of values - and even meanings are created, they are not objectively there either in the world or in the mind's capacities to do things. What happens here is this: the 'artist' becomes important. Not this or that individual artist, but the artistic ability of human beings - their creative capacities. Even meanings - and values themselves - are created. So, what kind of ethics results from this? A few rare natures, says Nietzsche, have the genius to create. The rest must obey them; the rest have a 'duty' to make it possible for geniuses to create and for more creative geniuses to arise. This theory is known also as PERFECTIONISM: things exist for the sake of the most perfect specimens that can originate - perfection here understood in a naturalistic way and by also assuming that human nature is indeed creative. There is, of course, a question here: if Nietzsche claims that there are no objective truths whatsoever, then, how can he claim objective validity for his own ethical view of PERFECTIONISM? Nietzsche's answer to this is not clear. Sometimes, it seems that he reverts to a 'might is right' theory of what is just [go back to your reading of the discussion between Socrates and Thrasymachus, in Singer, pp. 21-29.] Or, maybe, Nietzsche presents his ethical view not as an objective truth but as an aesthetically beautiful possibility. Even so, he must still be assuming, of course, that there are objective standards, right? Deep down, what is objective in this picture is nature's accidental generation of genius: some people are born as Beethovens or Einsteins but most people - the vast majority of people - are not so dramatically talented; for Nietzsche, this means that the vast majority of humanity lack value. If the average human being lacks value - is worthless - even traditional moral theory might agree that there can be no duty toward average people. This is a very anti-democratic and elitist point of view. You must be surprised that western intellectuals in the 20th century have been mesmerized by this, as, at the same time, the trend in modern times has been toward greater democratization, expansion of individual rights, and passionate faith in human equality. And, yet, this is really the picture in the 20th century. How is ethics possible in this intellectual universe? Well, you will notice in this course that the main ethical theories are utilitarianism and Kantian ethics - and a few others. Nietzsche had already criticized both theories with passion and even abusively. And, yet, these are the theories we are still working with even though. Of course, Nietzsche could be wrong but even intellectuals who take Nietzsche's insights seriously are still working with ethical theories he criticized. You can guess why, of course: How could we possibly put Nietzsche's perfectionism into practice? Think of what Nietzsche said and ask yourself if you wound consent to this: The deaths and maiming of thousands, he said, are JUSTIFIED [a moral concept] in the building of such a monument to human greatness as the pyramids. Would you assent to being treated like a dispensable laborer? Of course, this does not mean that Nietzsche is wrong either. Perhaps ethics does not have to do with what we think individually - what is right is right and there is no use asking anyone about it. Surprisingly, we are back to a more dogmatic view of ethics - after all, I told you above that Nietzsche's view is naturalistic to a great extent - he does seem to bring back from the backdoor standards supplied by nature.

So, what happens to ethics after Nietzsche? Can we criticize Nietzsche's view in the same way we criticized Rand's Ethical Egoism? There are important differences between the two - and these differences make it harder to criticize Nietzsche's philosophy. The trick might be this: Nietzsche has a dramatic view about knowledge, the universe, and everything else. And it all hangs together in very interesting ways. It is not all consistent but sometimes the inconsistencies themselves help in making his position difficult to repudiate. Maybe we should just ignore Nietzsche and continue with the business of ethics - very much as everyday life, with its ethical dilemmas and tasks, continues. And this is what has been happening. Nevertheless, in the continental European tradition, most notably in Existentialism, Nietzsche's challenge has been taken more seriously. Jean Paul Sartre is clearly impressed and mightily influenced by Nietzsche - he won't always admit it or acknowledge it. You read a few pages from Sartre's "Existentialism is a Humanism,' [Singer, pp. 152-154.]

Sartre starts by echoing the agonized cry uttered by a protagonist in a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky: 'If there is no God, everything is permitted.' This is related to what I told you above. God is the guarantor of objectivity. Even if we are deluding ourselves about what we take for real, God could still guarantee that what we think of as real in our minds is sufficient, coherent, and in a deep sense objective. Or, go back to a pagan - Plato - and think of Plato's universe: this universe has something divine about it and it guarantees, so to speak, that there can be stable and objective truths, from which we can derive ethical meanings as well. So, whether you are religious or philosophical - whether you believe in a universe created by God or in a universe that is not created but is meaningful in itself - you are still holding on to a guarantee of certain truths that cannot be denied. Modern science - especially evolutionary biology - has presented us with an aimless, accidental universe. And, with faith in God gone, how can we anymore know standards as objective and stable truths? So, how can we have standards for what is good and what is evil? How would we even know the difference between good and evil? So, why would anything be prohibited? Everything is permitted, then. More accurately, it makes no sense anymore to speak of what is permitted and what is prohibited because to do this we need standards and criteria that tell us what is to be permitted and what is to be forbidden. At least, we need a certainty that standards - any standards - are stable enough - are guaranteed to mean something meaningful. It seems that moral choice is impossible. This is the background against which you need to place Sartre's thoughts.

Sartre's way of referring to this view of a blind universe is this: If you believed in God, you would be believing that we were all conceived in the divine mind before we came to exist biologically. In other words for the religious - and for the Platonic - view of the universe, essence precedes existence. But, now that we 'know' that God does not exist, and science has shown that the universe is not ruled by an intelligence, we must admit that what comes first is [biological] existence, not essence. Only when the human animal accidentally comes into the picture, there is something that spins 'essences' and meanings in its head before it builds things. But, in the universe as a whole, existence came first - blindly, purposely.

Can ethical choice fit into this view of the world? Sartre's example involves a young man form Paris who is thinking whether he should join the resistance against the Nazis or stay with his ailing mother. He has a duty - traditionally understood - toward his mother who will surely wither away and die without him. And he has a duty - traditionally understood - to fight for liberty and against the evil Nazi regime. How can we test these duties if there is no possibility of objective standards? Here is Sartre's response: Indeed, no stable, objective standards of what is right and wrong are possible. This, however, does not mean that ethical choice is impossible. Ethical choice is something like creating anew, or like breathing, which you have to do always as if it were the first time ever. [You can't say that you don't need to try to breathe anymore before you have already done it in the past.] With ethical decision making, everything is at stake every single moment and for every one of us. In a sense, this means that we are free in a radical sense - and freedom is indispensable for ethics; you cannot have ethics unless human agents are free to act in pursuing right or wrong. We are radically free, for Sartre, precisely because we are not bound by anything: no God to command, no nature to give us truths, and even no stable criteria - including our own - to guide us for ever after. Every time I am about to act I cannot look into anything or anyone to tell me how I should act: so, I am really free to act.

There are problems with Sartre's position. Sartre assumes that I still care about acting ethically and this care [to act morally] is after all objective and it seems to e a true and objective duty. Do you see that this contradicts his philosophical position? Moreover, Sartre assumes that we are still able to weigh our decisions - the radically renewable decisions - against some standards: What if the young man in his example decides to act morally by joining the Nazis, after all? Wouldn't that be the morally wrong decision? But, to point out that this is a morally wrong decision, we are assuming that there are some standards that are not up for grabs. Sartre's case shows that thinking about ethics - indeed, about the possibility of ethics - has become a complicated matter in 20th century western thought. In this context, you should also read the excerpt from Camus' 'Myth of Sisyphus' [Singer, pp. 224-228.] Camus also tries to show how it can be that, even if life is absurd [no stable, reliable, objective standards or purposes in the universe], we are still bound by duty. Camus does not succeed in showing how we can speak of duty without assuming at least one, or a few, standards - for instance, the fact that we are human or the fact that human beings are capable of improving their situation and the situation of other human beings around them. It is interesting to note that even jaded intellectuals will not give up trying to find a place for ethics - for ethical decision making.

{To be further Updated.}, Odysseus Makridis.