Meditations on Ethics and Morals

I. Moral and Ethical Modality

When it comes to considering ethics and morals, it may be prudent to first study the more primary branches of philosophy–ontology and epistemology; thus my meta-ethical view is one that believes that deontology and consequentialism are complementary rather than oppositional, precisely because of the epistemological and ontological distinctions between ethics and morals.

The graphic (see fig. 1), illustrates the five major branches of philosophy, as well as the relation between the branches in descending order. In this way, metaphysics, also called the first philosophy, determines epistemology; epistemology determines logic, and so on.  This graphic is apropos in illustrating visually, precisely why and how ontology and epistemology precede the study of axiology or ethics.  Ontology is the study of existence or being, while epistemology is the study of knowledge. One can see, prima facie, that before a given concept is qualified, the concept must first exist—and this ontology may be either real and/or imagined. Logically, then, before we can assert or identify what good morals or bad morals are; and before we can evaluate and/or investigate what good ethics or bad ethics look like, morals and ethics must first be, and thus are necessarily predicated on ontological and epistemological antecedents.

Philosphy Flow chart.jpg
Fig. 1. Hierarchy of major braches in Philosophy.
Pierce, Karla. Web. 5 June. 2018

Existence and Identity are concomitant insofar as a given entity must have unique and distinct properties unto itself, in order to (be said to) have existence (Rand, Ayn). Yet, it seems likely that an entity must exist in some capacity, before that given entity assumes identifiable characteristics. There must be some-thing, as opposed to no-thing, in order to identify general and specific characteristics, qualities, and attributes. However, for the purposes of this paper, citing the conundrums concerning the tensions between existence and identity as explored in matters of  instantiation, we defer to Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Russel, Rand, and a plethora of others philosophers that existence is not a quality, or property, or characteristic. Therefore, we will say, for semantical purposes that identity follows from existence (Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason).

Identity speaks to both general and specific attributes. Surly, Sparky is a dog; having established what (something as opposed to nothing), we now look to type and kind of dog Sparky is and thus, furthering or expanding the investigation of idenity.[1]Aristotle informs that everything that exists has a specific nature, which distinguishes a specific entity, from other entities in relating or varying categories. In grammar, for instance, proper nouns name individual people, places and things— distinguishing the specific from the general. In this way, for example, the proper noun, Albert Murray, would distinguish Mr. Murray, in general from other American writers. Similarly, the proper nouns Pequod and USS Abraham Lincoln, distinguishes those particular sea vessels from other sea vessels, in general, and thus existence or being itself becomes first-order, while identity modifies or qualifies said existence (notwithstanding there is no instance of an existence without identity, hence a conundrum).

II. The Ontology and Epistemology of Ethics and Morals

 What is knowable about the nature of morality? That is, what can we know and how do we come to know information pursuant to the nature or ontology of moral principles and ethical thinking? These epistemological concerns beg answers to such questions as such; inquiring not only if morals and ethics exist, but also, perhaps more pertinent to societal life, how are morals and ethics knowable?  The implications of one’s epistemological beliefs immediately presumes force and magnitude in the wake of probing inquisitions as:  do morals exist as matters of independent facts? Are morals subjective or objective? The answer to this question—as with most all questions—depends on one’s epistemology. The answers to questions as such may look markedly different, if not wholly contradictory, within, for example a Constructivist epistemological framework as opposed to a Positivist epistemological framework. Even epistemologies that are united on many basic principles—like rationalism and empiricism—many end up with wildly different results. Are there facts? Are there opinions? How do we tell the difference between the two? What is trueness? What is falseness and how do we distinguish between the two? Also what are arguments? Are arguments (or prepositions) truth-creating or merely truth-preserving? One’s epistemological assumptions, presumptions, and presuppositions, will dictate the methodology employed in inquest.

Guiding my approach into moral and ethical thinking is a commitment to reason and objectivity. We can objectively state, however ironically, that a belief in objectivity is not unanimous among humanity. And as human beings are able to compartmentalize thoughts and emotions, it is possible to subscribe to objectivity in one aspect of life, and not others. Notwithstanding, beliefs, one way or another, do not cause or determine reality. That which exists, exists whether not some perceiver believes—albeit Bertrand Russell would disagree.

Nevertheless, if morality exists objectively, then what might this justification look like?  We have previously established that questions pursuant to the nature and existence of morality is situated within the philosophical domain of ontology or first philosophy, and buttressed, secondarily by epistemological concerns; and therefore, investigations of morality must start in the realm of the a priori. Jason S. Baehr, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in the entry of necessary versus contingent distinctions that:  “It is reasonable to expect, for instance, that if a given claim is necessary, it must be knowable only a priori. Sense experience can tell us only about the actual world and hence about what is the case” (Baehr). In simpler terms, Baehr asserts that: all necessary conclusions are a priori, though not all a priori conclusions are necessary.  Yet remember, there is some-thing as opposed to no-thing. In this way, existence (life/being) becomes necessary, as all other concepts presuppose existence, identity, and consciousness, and that without assuming the above, nothing can be said because there is no-thing to say or anyone to say it. There would be, absolutely, no-things.

Supposing that reason is the vehicle through which human beings can learn a priori truths about the world around us—both within and without ourselves—and moreover, that all human beings are capable of reason; and further, given that good and bad, (i.e. morals), are rational concepts rather than material conditions: as a matter of consequence it follows, then that good and bad, may be deduced with the same level of certainty as other a priori and analytic concepts that inform of actual world.

III. Ethics: the Application of Morals

It would also follow that the same moral principles are discoverable by virtue of reason, to every being with the capacity for reason. Good-ness or bad-ness; wrong-ness or right-ness, of ethics is not determined by the fact that itself, but our conception of good and bad must come from a realm set a part, in order to have an intelligible discussion about ethics and morals. That is: good and bad must be logically distinct and independent in for “good consequences” or “bad consequences” to have any adequate meaning or practicable value.  A bad act (the unethical) presupposes the very idea or concept of bad. A good act presupposes the idea of good; and thus intuitively, we can see that morals and ethics are not synonymous or interchangeable, but more accurately, that morals inform ethics; and thus morals derived from deontological thinking can refine and inform the application of consequentialism. Morals are the substance of ethics. When ethics is understood in this way, ethics may be more accurately described as: accepted behavioral norms that may or may not be in accordance with or reflective of moral principles. In America, for example, slavery was ethical—slavery and white supremacy are as American as apple pie; subsequently, the abhorrent institution of slavery, and the vapid myth of white supremacy functioned as the vade mecum of American life, predominating both law and custom, and thus may be described as ethical. However, there are few who would argue that slavery or and white racism is not moral, despite being accepted throughout.

Conversely, if one believes morals are subjective, then ethics are justified in and of themselves. Furthermore, if morals are subjective, there is no such thing as good and bad at all, and it makes little sense to evaluate ethics (actions) in any terms outside of the ethical context that one finds it in. itself. In each case, “good” and “bad” would be relative to some intent, some purpose, and thus, dependent on some agent or reasoner. In other words, good and bad would be determined circumstantially.

IV. Conclusion

If Kant’s Categorical imperative provides a reliable way to investigate morality, Consequentialists, like John Mills, through emphasizing the relationship of the means to ends, or morals to consequences, provide a reliable way to: (1) apply moral principle amongst human beings, and (2) enable us to determine the effectiveness of the application of moral principle.  The merging of these two systems is not without difficulty, however and therefore, many important questions must be answered. Like for example, what is morality’s relationship with the physical environment? How does objective morality interact with chance/randomness? And are there degrees of objective morality? Are just a few questions that might be considered in the construction of a unified theory, guiding man’s relation to man.

[1] In reality, existence and identity occur simultaneously because existence entails identity in every case. Any entity without a distinct and unique identity cannot be said to exist at all. However, for sake of argument here, existence will precede identity for the purpose of semantics, and the fact that we cannot simultaneously conceptualize the distinctions of existence and identity.

4 thoughts on “Meditations on Ethics and Morals

    1. By objectivity, I am referring to the recognition of the fact(s) that there is: only one true answer; that truth is not automatic, but acquired through reason, according to logic.

    1. What’s your aim here? I don’t mind defining these terms, but there are books dedicated to explaining these things—I dictionaries
      —that may be a bit more enlightening. With that being said, a fact is something that exists. A fact is a fact because no one decides what it is, but rather, facts determine or necessitate what things are. Some examples of a facts are: existence, consciousness, and identity.

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