Ethics

We do not undertake the exposition or understanding of a viewpoint by beginning with a blank slate.  We have beliefs, values, and opinions that we bring to the table.  That is probably a good thing, because likely it means that we already have several things in common.  For example, you probably already believe that in some sense you exist, that other people exist, and that there is a world that exists independent of our consciousness; you probably already believe that the world consists, in part, of means that one can use to harm or benefit oneself or other people.  Those are some core beliefs that we need to clarify ethics.

It may be good to question particular beliefs or values, while it may be bad to abandon them.  For example, we may question whether it is unethical to kill an innocent person, but ethically we do not have the license to explore our doubts by randomly killing innocent people.  Whether one should question or uphold one’s beliefs or values is a matter of ethics; just as whether one should agree or disagree with another is a matter of ethics.  Previous philosophies that sought a completely “presuppositionless” starting point were mistaken.  From a rational standpoint, it is impossible to be completely presuppositionless; from an ethical standpoint, the effort to be completely presuppositionless is simply wrong.

If you do not believe that you or other people exist, then it is silly to argue about it, as you will be involved in a performative contradiction; that is, rational discourse already presupposes interacting agents—for example, you and me.  If you do not value rational discourse, then there is probably not much we can do for you, because that means you have no motivation to reach a mutual understanding of how the world is or should be.  Here too, in any case, one is likely to be engaged in a performative contradiction, as expecting or asking for an argument for rational discourse already presupposes it.

Ethics presupposes the possibility that other people exist.  Ethics also presupposes a reality that determines the possibilities for action or interaction.  For example, whether you can fire a gun depends on whether a working gun exists that is within reach; whether you should fire the gun is an ethical question.  The instrumental quality of the gun—its usefulness—is tied to means, ends, agency and consciousness, but its material existence and position—its “thingly” quality—is still independent of consciousness.

Consciousness itself determines to some extent the possibilities for action.  For example, whether you can fire the gun depends on whether you are aware that the gun exists.  Moreover, the prior production of the gun required agency, means, and ends.  Here again, doubting the existence of consciousness, agency, means, and ends involves a performative contradiction, as the act of doubting and asking for an argument for consciousness, agency, means, and ends implicitly presupposes them; at least, one expects another to exercise their consciousness and agency by providing an argument in the form of communication.

This still leaves us with the question: how do we know when we actually encounter other minds?  We do not experience other minds directly, but must conjecture their existence and state-of-affairs via discovery and interpretation of overt manifestations of meaningful human action.  Fortunately, our shared biology, language, culture, and background help to make this a manageable task.  Certainly there are examples of extreme psychosis and damage or illness to the brain where it is difficult to determine whether we are dealing with a mind at all.  A more mundane example would be where one’s companion effectively mimics a mannequin among real mannequins.  In this case, she must eventually move and overtly manifest meaningful human action—let’s say, by shouting, “Gotcha!”  We typically grow up among others in the process of socialization.  In this way, we absorb the language and culture of proximate others.  Skilled with a multiplicity of shared meanings, it becomes easier for us to determine when we encounter another person and to decipher what their behavior means.

With these preliminary observations, we are ready for our first attempt to get at the core of ethics: every person should respect every person as one who should actively seek happiness.

This is the Principle of Collective Individuation.  By wording ethics in one sentence, we are not suggesting that all of ethics can be deduced or derived from it.  It is, of course, ridiculous to expect the full specification of an ethic in the form of a single sentence.  It merely points the way.  It entails that one should respect oneself as one who should actively seek happiness, according to the principle of individuation; and that one should respect every other as one who should actively seek happiness, according to the principle of liber(aliz)ation.  One should actively seek happiness only because every person should be respected as one who should actively seek happiness, therefore one should neither define nor bring about one’s happiness in a way that does not respect other people as ones who should also actively seek happiness.  Stated positively, one should define and bring about one’s happiness in a manner that respects other people as ones who should also actively seek happiness.

Happiness is associated with “the good life”. However, that idea has become debased by our culture due to excessive commodification and widespread preoccupation with monetary gain. Accordingly, the person on the street tends to understand “the good life” as a life of material luxury for the sake of conspicuous consumption.  Aristotle was critical of confusing material luxury with flourishing. Actually, he even saw this vulgar understanding of “happiness” as widespread during his time.  People also mistakenly associate flourishing and happiness with reputation–and ultimately, in current times, with fame.  One’s flourishing and happiness cannot depend on merely other people’s opinions or evaluations, because in order for other people to give one proper or substantial honor–and for one to accept it as such–one must use a standard of flourishing that is beyond mere reputation. If one’s standard for assessing reputation is merely reputation itself, then one’s justification for valuing reputation is at best circular and at worst baseless.  It is also a mistake to associate flourishing with merely being industrious. Aristotle associated ultimate happiness with understanding and actualization of the good life. To be sure, acquiring this state means securing basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, and companionship, but it does not require a life of luxury, fame, or constant activity.

We may debate whether happiness is about contemplation of the good or actualization of the good (which are one in the same for Aristotle according to some interpretations). However, full actualization of the good life will always reach beyond merely money, luxury, fame, and industriousness.  Lastly, flourishing does not involve domination over others; according to the principle of collective individuation, one should neither define nor bring about one’s happiness in a way that does not respect other people as ones who should also actively seek happiness.  We will address flourishing and prudential concerns more fully when considering the personal system.  For a preliminary clarification, we can understand happiness as the ongoing attainment of the greatest possible fulfillment of one’s needs and desires.  Needs can be food, clothing, shelter, and companionship; while desires can be anything from helping other people to trying out a new food.

For a preliminary clarification of respect, we can understand persons partly in terms of their body, property, and authority.  One’s body is simply that, one’s lived corporeity; her property is matter or energy that she has applied toward seeking happiness; her authority is her ability to create original literary or artistic works, to enter and exit relationships, and to give or refrain from consent.  We respect another person by acknowledging that her body, property, and authority are meaningfully situated with respect to her seeking of happiness; that is, they are involved in her ongoing projects.  Insofar as we legitimately interact with another person, we maintain her consent with regard to actions involving her body, property, and authority, just as we maintain mutual understanding of them.  Rape is an example of the failure to respect another person’s body.  Theft is an example of the failure to respect another person’s property.  Forgery—such as “identity theft”—is an example of the failure to respect another person’s authority.  In all three cases, an illegitimate disturbance of the other person’s seeking of happiness takes place; and such a disturbance entails a failure to respect another as one who should actively seek happiness.

The term illegitimate disturbance refers to something inherently anti-social.  It is almost synonymous with violence.  In order to understand illegitimate disturbance, we can engage in a simple thought experiment.  To do so, I will draw on the traditional Robinson Crusoe model—with a twist.

Imagine the person Friday on a tropical island.  We assume that no other persons are on this island, no other persons have an interest in the island, and that he therefore does not encounter the ongoing activity of another person.  Friday’s tribe was on a neighboring island, where they were wiped out by a tsunami, leaving him as the sole survivor.  He builds a shrine to honor and mourn for his ancestors.  He builds a shelter presumably for himself.  The sticks and branches he uses for this shelter are meaningfully situated with respect to his ongoing project of having-shelter.  He cooks a fish over a fire.  For Friday, these means are assumed to be available or ready-to-hand.

When we introduce Crusoe onto the island, he has various possibilities for interacting with these meaningfully situated items.  Naturally, when Crusoe discovers human products on the island, and they appear recently used or well-maintained, he has reason to suspect that they may be meaningfully situated with respect to someone else’s ends—that they are intended to be available for another or ready-to-another’s hand.  Insofar as Crusoe respects this situatedness, we have the rudiments of the notion of property, body, and authority.  If Crusoe fails to respect this situatedness, then we have the rudiments of the notion of illegitimate disturbance.

If Crusoe encounters, for example, the fish being cooked over a fire, we would consider it rude if he deliberately knocks the fish onto the ground.  If he finds the shelter, we would consider it disrespectful if he demolished it.  If he finds the shrine, we would consider it violent and cruel if he destroyed it.  This is because Crusoe has failed to respect that these items—indeed, the very area he has entered—are already meaningfully situated with respect to another person’s ends—in this case, Friday’s ends.  Crusoe’s disregard has caused an illegitimate disturbance within the meaning-context of Friday’s life.  This, in turn, entails a failure to respect another person as one who should actively seek happiness.

Illegitimate disturbance can of course also take place with respect to body and authority.  Crusoe could rape Friday.  This entails a failure to respect that Friday’s body is meaningfully involved in Friday’s ongoing pursuit of happiness.  Likewise, we can imagine a situation where a third person arrives on the island.  This third person first encounters Crusoe outside Friday’s encampment, and Crusoe proceeds to tell him that he can eat Friday’s food and sleep in Friday’s shelter, that Friday says, “It’s okay.”  Nevertheless, Crusoe has lied.  Friday did not give his consent.  When the third person proceeds to eat Friday’s food and sleep in Friday’s shelter, this again leads to a type of illegitimate disturbance.  In this instance, Crusoe has failed to respect Friday’s authority; and he has failed to respect Friday as one who should actively seek happiness.

In the everyday world, we are immersed in a nexus of relations among bodies, properties, and authorities.  The collective meaning-structure within which they are embedded, known as the lifeworld, is enormously complex.  As a friend once put it, we confront a world more like that of Moll Flanders than that of Robinson Crusoe.  We find the basis for differentiating legitimate from illegitimate relations of body, property, and authority in the principle of liber(aliz)ation; but this does not mean that it is an easy task.  Many existing relationships involving body, property, and authority are the result of (previous) violent interaction.  One of the most notorious examples of illegitimate disturbance is the expropriation of lands from indigenous people during the colonial era.

Oddly, however, even a thief can have a sense of body, property, and authority.  The thief knows quite well that the item he targets belongs to someone else, yet he nevertheless disrespects this.  Indeed, it appears that an awareness of the other’s body, property, and authority is an element of criminal intent.  In establishing and maintaining liberated/liberalized society, the challenge is often to establish respect for others’ body, property, and authority rather than to overcome a complete ignorance of it.  Collective individuation embodies a sense of justice and forgiveness consistent with the principle of collective individuation.  That sense of justice focuses on reparation and restitution, while the sense of forgiveness provides liberation from the past.

In our quest for collective individuation free from illegitimate disturbance, we are obliged to establish mutual and trusting relationships and to respect promises and commitments with and among others.  This entails honoring contracts where those contracts do not themselves require the violation of the principle of liber(aliz)ation.  It also entails that if one opens a place of business—for example, a diner or grocery store—one should not exclude others from participating in it merely on the basis of their race, sex, gender, or sexual orientation.  Such exclusion entails a failure to respect the excluded persons as ones who should actively seek happiness.  Accordingly, respect for another’s body, property, and authority is a necessary but not sufficient condition for respecting her as one who should actively seek happiness.

Within a liberated/liberalized society, people will dwell within a sufficiently shared understanding of the social world.  Within the lifeworld, they will often assume others’ consent with regard to body, property, and authority.  Such consent will have typically been established implicitly or explicitly through previous communicative action.  For example, I might visit close friends or relatives where it goes unstated that I am welcome to raid the refrigerator.  That is, I have permission to grab a cold drink without asking.  Likewise, we know we are welcome to enter a diner because they are “open for business” and we can see other people inside; once within, a “seat yourself” sign makes it clear that we can situate ourselves at our preferred, unoccupied table.  Within a relatively liberated/liberalized society—that is, within a society that embraces something like the principle of liber(aliz)ation—we maintain sufficiently common definitions of our situations in terms of body, property, and authority that set limits to and establish possibilities for what actions we can legitimately undertake.  Crucially, however, the principle of liber(aliz)ation does not require an explicitly and imperiously unanimous consensus that permeates all relations of body, property, and authority.  It is more about avoiding non-consensual interventions and non-consensual interactions with authorities, bodies, and properties than about establishing a panoptic understanding of them.  The mutual respect that the principle of liber(aliz)ation requires includes respect for boundaries and allows for peaceful dissent.  Peaceful dissent and boundaries allow for privacy and mystery.  In a liberated/liberalized society, one can ultimately withdraw one’s authority, body, or property from non-consensual participation; at the same time, others are obligated to avoid non-consensual interventions and non-consensual interactions with one’s authority, body, and property.

This is, of course, a preliminary understanding of respect for other people; just as this is a preliminary understanding of ethics in general.  In reality, our respect goes beyond body, property, and authority.  As the paramount example, we may give our lives for another.  Compassion is not compelled.  It nevertheless exists.  We respect another as one who should actively seek happiness by voluntarily helping them if they are not able to provide for themselves.  If it would not cause death or undue suffering to oneself to help another, one should help them to help themselves without being forced to do so.  At the same time, one should try not to be a burden on others.  Hence, insofar as we help one another, we must help each other as much as possible to help themselves.

We show respect for others by embodying the principle of liber(aliz)ation according to the principle of collective individuation: every person should respect every person as one who should actively seek happiness.  As I will elaborate below, this principle should ultimately determine the active relevancies and projects according to which one differentiates and engages the world.  The degree to which we dwell within its requirements determines the degree to which we embody a just society.  An ethic can therefore be a good thing where it seeks to uphold and clarify the core beliefs and values that sustain the moral-practical project of collective individuation free from illegitimate disturbance.

[References forthcoming.]

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