Thursday, February 7, 2013

Ethics for Atheists, Agnostics, and other Immoralists (Pt. III)

Any ethic or religion that includes a set of propositions or uses a text to ground its morality and ethics is for this reason not all-inclusive and universal in its message. To see the truth of this it suffices to examine how the labels of truth and error come to be attached to ideas, propositions, and beliefs. Every judgment that such and such is true or false has its own unique prehistory of thoughts, feelings, and experiences in the mind of the individual making the judgment. The experiences that go into the making of a judgment are unique to each individual. The nuances and subtleties of each experience contribute their unique influences to the eventual judgment of truth or falsity. It may be a necessity of communal life to imagine that the experiences of other people are largely the same as mine. A human being is born into a particular family in particular circumstances. Who would deny that if they were born into a different culture that they would believe differently about their place in the world, or that each family exercises a unique influence over its members? If further proof is needed, consider that  witnesses to an event (a mugging for example) give accounts that differ in details as well as in what is emphasized. Eventually the various accounts are synthesized into one account of the incident. That account will be the “truth” of what happened, and yet it is an account from none of the witnesses.  The mugging is analogous to the propositions and texts used to ground morality. Each individual will approach those texts and propositions with their own unique history. Does this mean that therefore people are unable to communicate with one another?Obviously not. Communal life means giving up the rough edges of one’s character.

Where does this leave ethics? A universal ethic is still possible but at the cost of meaningful content. An ethic that would apply to everyone would have to be so general and abstract that it would be not worth the effort. One dramatic possibility is to declare the death of ethics. But this would apply only to universalist ethics. Ethics can still be developed for individuals and groups of people. Instead of searching and arguing for propositions that every person must follow in order to be “good,” ethics would concern itself with the questions, “How am I to live? What am I to strive for? What are the good things in my life?”

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