Moral Autonomy

I’m not quite sure what kind of opening statement is best for this august body of insightful folks.  Bernie Gert, professor of philosophy at Dartmouth College, had a good one when I attended a conference on academic honesty at Texas Agricultural and Military University at College Station.  He began by asking, “How many of you believe that the Ten Commandments form a fairly sound basic ethics?”  and “How many believe that the Golden Rule does?”  The Golden Rule, you will remember, is not “Whoever has the gold rules.”, or, “Do unto others before they do unto you.”; it is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”—Well, let me try to replicate the experiment.  How many of you buy essentially into the Ten Commandments?  [show of hands]  And how many buy into the Golden Rule?  [show of hands]—appropriate response. 


Professor Gerts challenged the Ten Commandments believers by pointing out that the “Thou shalt not covet” commandment includes the line, “nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor anything your neighbor owns.”  In other words, if you buy into the Ten Commandments, you buy into slavery, for an owned manservant and an owned maidservant are slaves, plain and simple. 


His challenge to the Golden Rule is even more clever.  Suppose a burglar is ransacking the upstairs of your home.  You are downstairs near the telephone.  Should you call 911?  I think most of us in our right minds would insist that, of course, we should call 911.  However, if I am supposed to do unto others as I would have them do unto me, I need to reflect as follows: Suppose I were a burglar ransacking someone’s home and bagging all the wealth, would I want them to call the cops on me?  Clearly not. And so, if I am to act as I would want others to act toward me, I clearly should not call the cops on this burglar.


His point is well taken: A simplified code of ethics will not work in a world that is quickly pacing toward complexity.  Ten Commandments and Golden Rules are temptations for people who are afraid of straining their minds by individual thought.


Let me look at another aspect of ethics, namely the basic ethical proposition.  We are in dialog with one another when we attempt to make ethical statements or when we disagree about what line of action is proper with a particular ethical problem.  We simply cannot do away with the meta-ethical observation of the Logical Positivists, which interprets the statement “x is wrong” as “I strongly disapprove of x.”  In other words, wrongness is not a quality inherent in, say, the act of murder.  When I say, “murder is wrong,” I merely report my strong disapproval of murder, an internal state of feelings or thoughts or emotions in relation to the act of murder.  If someone were to disagree with me, we should be stuck dead in our tracks.  Person Y says, “x is wrong.”  Person Z says, “x is right.”  How do we go about determining whether Y or Z are right.  Clearly, we cannot.


Note that a scientifically clear proposition is always such that we can imagine circumstances when we would say that the proposition is false.  When I assert “All swans are white birds,” it merely takes my being able to imagine the circumstance of running across a black swan to falsify that statement.  However, I am not asserting here that all scientific statements must be false.  No way.  I merely suggest that all statements must be falsifiable.  For example, I know that if I dunk litmus paper into acid, the litmus paper will come out red.  I can also imagine circumstances under which the statement “If one dunks litmus paper into acid, it will come out red” will be false.  Note that a hypothetical is false if and only if the antecedent is true and the consequent is false.  So, I have clearly no problem imagining a day when I will dunk what truly is litmus paper into what truly is acid and I will observe that the litmus paper does not turn red; instead, perhaps it starts laughing, jeering, or simply curls up and dies.  Under any of those circumstances, the statement could be falsified.  The fact that these circumstances are not expected to happen and are highly improbable to happen has nothing to do with the fact that I can conduct a thought experiment in which the statement is falsified. 


I trust now that we are clear on falsifiability.  But even though the Logical Positivists’ Principle of Verifiability has bitten the dust of philosophical history, I do believe that verifiability also has a point in ethical debate.  So, let me explain verifiability briefly.  If I say that there is a chair in front of me, you would clearly see that the statement is true by observing that indeed a chair is there.  So, verifiability works fine for observation statements where time and place are fixed in the proposition, either explicitly or by implication of the conversational context.  However, verifiability does not work for categorical or universal statements.  Again, the litmus paper: If—at any time and at any place—litmus paper is dunked into acid, it will come out red.  The only way for me to verify this statement is to wait until the general collapse of the universe; and as we are careening into the big crunch, you could hear my voice over the grinding galaxies hollering “it really did turn red every time.”  Not a likely scenario, right?  So, for general statements, we work with falsifiability; but for specific statements, we may work with falsifiability and with verifiability. 


Now back to our ethical proposition.  “X is wrong.”  I have already suggested that wrongness and rightness cannot be imagined as characteristics inherent in the act itself.  I can take a look at a chair to determine that it’s yellow or blue or beige.  But I cannot, with equal facility, take a look at events to determine whether they are wrong or right.  What I can do is to observe that the equivalent proposition, “I strongly disapprove of x,” is verifiable or falsifiable.  In other words, this statement is a report of an internal condition of mine.  It is true if and only if I do indeed disapprove of x; and it is false if and only if I do actually approve of x or am indifferent to the wrong/right status of x.  I might even come up with some evidence that we can check for verifiability or falsifiability.  If I say “x is wrong” but do indeed engage in sex with an intern, then my disapproval is certainly called into question.  Or if I say “x is right or amoral” but I do nonetheless vote for impeachment, then the statement should also be found to be falsified.  So, protocol sentences, as Rudolf Carnap has called atomics of the language, about internal states are clearly sufficiently like scientific statements to be workable in scientific discourse.  However, they do not help me establish the wrongness or rightness of the ethical act itself.  And so are of little use in ethical debate.


I must also point out that we do engage in ethical dialog all the time.  Most letters to the editor, most heated debates are about normative statements or “should” statements.  So, we debate ethics. Wouldn’t it be a sad state of affairs if we now had to conclude that ethical debate is not possible?  In fact, I make an effort at teaching ethical debate in a course at Embry-Riddle University.  So, I would feel as though I were a major hypocrite if I were to believe that I am teaching something that is not possible.


Let me begin by suggesting that there is a surprising unanimity in our view of ethics.  For example, I do not believe that I would get any dissent if I were to suggest that making people miserable in and of itself is not a good thing to do.   Let’s do this one with a show of hands also.  How many of you think that making other people miserable is in and of itself a good thing to do—and we want to exclude vendettas of personal vengeance against, say, one’s mother-in-law or one’s lousy neighbor or morons in traffic?  —show of hands—


This result is not unlikely to be fairly consistent across the world.  Even the Marquis de Sade sought exquisite pleasures; he did not simply want to make people miserable.  Even Machiavelli did not seek pain for the people; he sought the refined state, which ultimately was to be of benefit to all.  Even Adam Smith did not seek the misery of lower classes; he thought that the invisible hands of self-interest would right all wrongs.  Even Al Capone sought advantages for some, not misery for the general population.  So, while I made fun of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule as basic principles of ethics, it is nonetheless self-evident that there exists far greater commonality than diversity in basic ethical assumptions. 


As a basic slip of good taste, I let myself be persuaded to take a look at the film “Ice Age” not too long ago.  The film is typical Disney: three animals struggle to save a human child.  And the animals have conflicts since we are grouping a mammoth with a sloth and a saber-tooth tiger.  The mammoth utters ethical theory at the point where it helps out the tiger in some predicament by saying, “That’s the way to do it in the herd.”  As a herd animal ourselves, we also do it as it’s done in the herd.  Ethical behavior is probably a result of thousands of years of social conditioning in consequence of the survival of the most ethically fit clan, tribe, or nation. 


The reference groups of ethical behavior are changing throughout times. We know of the chosen people myths, the dominating race, and the best-culture-of-the-world myth as bought into by the Lake County School Board some time ago.  But essentially, the circles of ethical reference-persons are widening in our ethical awareness. Jesus already moves into that direction and away from the chosen-people myth when he tells the story of the Samaritan, who was not one of the chosen people and yet considered another Jewish person his ethical reference-person.  And these circles are widening now since we have a much more improved means of sharing news all over the world.  In fact, at times our communication technology outpaces our ethical stamina as illustrated by Peter Singer’s example of our attitude toward distant suffering.   He tells the story of an academic’s going to graduation ceremonies in his cap and gown.  Off to the side of his path, a little child is drowning in a retention pond.  He reasons that, if he jumps into the pond, he will ruin his cap and gown and will have to face a bill of at least $35.00 for the cleaning. And so he declines to jump in and lets the child drown.  I think all of us would agree that his action was terribly wrong, would we not?  Now suppose that same academic receives a letter in the mail. The letter comes from UNICEF and says, “Unless you pay $35.00, five kids will die in Somalia of starvation.”  The academic looks at the bill and tosses it into the nearest waste basket; and in Somalia, five kids die of starvation.  Would anyone here blame him?  I think not; we do it all the time, don’t we?  And yet, the suffering is greater than the suffering imposed by the retention pond. The only meaningful difference is the distance from us.  So, suffering at greater distance seems to impose on us a lesser “must help” constraint than suffering near by.


And, of course, also that is changing.  Most of us have to come up with elaborate excuses or disengagement mechanisms for our not acting to help distant suffering.  We can point out how much money simply gets stuck in the administrative echelons of the charity organization, or how little difference our tiny contribution is going to make, or how the government ought to first stop spending so much on defense, or how those people ought to get their country as in order as we have ours and they wouldn’t suffer anymore, and on and on.  But we can also gauge change by way of increased participation in international organizations such as Amnesty International, UNICEF, OXFAM, Doctors Without Borders, and so on.  We are becoming more and more aware of greater community as we are condemning Nestle for its selling its own formula in Third World countries by spreading the wrong myth that breast-feeding is bad for infants, as we condemn pharmaceutical companies for considering their patent rights more dearly than the death of AIDS-afflicted persons in Africa, as we condemn multi-nationals for sweatshops and unfair wages in Third World countries, as we condemn the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for their chokehold on domestic industrial evolution in Third World countries, and as we condemn Shell Oil in its indirect participation in the hanging death of Nigerian poet and Nobel laureate Ken Sarawiwa.  All this shows that we clearly are broadening our ethical sensitivities.


At the same time, we are more and more looking away from the silly preoccupation with our bodily functioning as a basic ethical demand.  Many of us still focus on “morality” as something having to do with “sexuality.”  However, we are waking up to the fact that what we do with our sexual apparatus is of little moral consequence in and of itself.  Sex is not a moral issue; the contact with others and the impact that we have on others is. And sometimes that impact may be sexual and so may be indirectly of moral consequence.


So, some of the underlying principles of awareness of our world are changing.  I suggest that these principles consist of observation statements and hypotheses, which we can discuss and become clearer about.  Let me show what I mean by way of a specific example.


Let me take a look at homosexuality.  Hitler Germany had §175 which considered homosexuals outcasts of society. They were committed to concentration camps.  Even after the war, I recall statements about the perversion of clandestine—no way to have them public—same-sex unions.  In the fifties and sixties, attitudes were changing slightly. We considered homosexuals to be sick and felt that prolonged psychiatric treatment would cure them of their aberrations.  It’s not until fairly recent times that our thinking has changed. For me, it changed in the early seventies in Muncie, Indiana, where I went to school.  Weekend evenings would find me and the clique I was hanging with at a local bar that showed old cinema every evening.  The restaurant and bar was frequented almost exclusively by academics from Ball State University and was run by a homosexual couple, who, though they would squabble frequently, had clearly a life-long commitment to one another.  I also became aware of several faculty, who were identified but not ostracized as queens.  The times they were a-changing.  In 1992, when I was presiding over the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian-Universalist Society of the Daytona Beach Area, the building was rented every Sunday evening to the Hope Metropolitan Community Church, a gay church.  In that year, we only had one threat by way of a phone message from a person offering to blow up the building if we were to continue renting to those fags.  But other than that, tolerance seemed to be the order of the day, even though the churches were lagging behind and still are lagging behind with the “hate the sin, love the sinner” dictum.  And today—the churches notwithstanding, we are talking gay rights, same-sex marriages or civil unions, and social benefits for same-sex partners, as the Disney Corporation has done already.


What has changed?  For one thing, we have learned to listen when people said, “I cannot help myself.  This ambivalent sexuality is the way I came equipped.  I must accept myself and so you must accept me also.”  And we also have learned to listen when some scientists have suggested that there are actually structural differences between the brains of homosexual males and those of heterosexual males.  And we have also begun to realize that homosexuality may be a group response to overcrowding, shortness of resources, and overpopulation because in experiments with Norway rats, overpopulation seemed to increase instances of homo­sexu­ality.  I recall one of my students, a homosexual man, saying that he was not aware of being a social mechanism of that sort; all he knew was that his sexual focus was not like the sexual focusing that he saw at work with his male siblings and other male friends.  And, of course, we would not expect an individual to be aware of the more general forces that may have exerted pressure on his individual behavior.  In other words, we know that people are much more predictable in the aggregate than as individuals, a curiosity that does lead to the belief that macrocosms and microcosm are perhaps ontologically much more different than we might think.  And, no, I am not prepared to wander off into an ontological discussion of this thorny problem.


In relation to homosexuality, let me mention another instance where my eyes were opened recently.  I think we are all aware of the existence of hermaphrodites, humans who are born with both genders. That is, they have a penis and a vagina and may later also develop breasts.  During the dialog about homosexuality, one of my students pointed out that her high-school biology teacher had said, “People are either male or female; there is no middle ground.”  So as you can see, misinformation runs rampant in our educational system. 


That very misinformation probably informs much of the moral stances on this issue.  Our normal treatment of hermaphrodites has been to ask the parents what gender they would prefer, to remove evidence of the other gender surgically, and to feed the human being that results with hormones to bend him-her into the proper shape.  German TV, which I now can enjoy daily as a consequence of satellite technology, brought an interview with a forty-ish hermaphrodite, who was forced into male-ness by his parents at his birth, who was beaten severely and frequently at school for being a fag, who lived a life of misery in his masculine role that he did not feel comfortable in, and who finally made a commitment to being what he was born as: an hermaphrodite.  A group of similarly afflicted persons have now begun to form a group to force the state to stop the practice of forcing one sexuality on hermaphrodites at birth.  Knowing the misery these people were subjected to, one would have to be a major insensitive curmudgeon or near-moron not to agree with their plea for being left as they are at birth.  So, here again, you can see that when we expand our view of the factual basis of our world and when we abandon our “two genders only” thought model, our ethical stance falls in line behind our awareness. 


While we cannot shape ethics by showing the ethical proposition to be either wrong or right, we can shape ethics by analyzing and understanding our world more fully.  That process of comprehension to me is a move toward ethical autonomy.  I know that we will not take all steps simultaneously toward formulating an ethical stance, but an ever fuller understanding of our world and an ongoing dialog about this understanding is most likely to lead to ethical maturity, though none would advocate that we could ever reach full and complete agreement in ethical matters.  Not reaching full agreement, however, is not the same as accepting a rampant relativism.  I am not advocating that anyone’s decisions are as good as anyone else’s.  I think, for example, that the KuKluxKlan, the NAZIs, Pol Pot, and Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia are sadly misguided examples of ethical thinking.  I think that we can show that genocide—whether conducted by Joshua of Old Testament fame, Bob Cherry, or Adolf Eichmann—is clearly wrong given the fact that we inhabit a fairly tiny planet as members of the same moral community and that, so far, only very few and increasingly fewer organizations have had the nerve to excommunicate anyone from that moral community. As I said before, the circle of moral community is expanding; it is not become narrower for most cultures and individuals.  Certain ethical universals of human behavior seem to crystallize.


And those universals are not instances of absolute ethics either.  Note that the command-of-god ethicists—who are absolutists—have a devil of a time with their notions of ethics.  At the bottom of their theories lies a thorny problem that Socrates had already touched upon.  He asked, “Are things holy because the gods love them, or do the gods love them because they are holy?”  What a question!  Is holiness an inherent quality in some things?  Or is the thing sanctified by virtue of the gods’ rather arbitrary selection?  Perhaps this problem won’t stir you as much as when we translate it into the “goodness” problem.  Let us ask, “Are actions morally good because God commands them?  Or does God command those actions because they are morally good?”   If x is good because god commands it, we are facing potentially whimsical action on the part of God.  God may command us to burn witches first, to make women equal later, and to get rid of the glass ceiling later yet.  And it’s all OK.  God may command rains to annihilate the world, set a rainbow as a sign of a covenant never to do this again later, command Joshua to take out the town of Jericho and kill all in it, and condemn the Jews as god killers to the gas ovens also.  It’s all possible under a command-of-god theory of this first sort.


But suppose God commands things because they are good.  In that case, God’s no better off than the rest of us.  He may have access to an absolute morality that he must abide by and so is not really the sovereign which the religious want him to appear to be.  Furthermore, I am not sure that such an absolute morality that is in the back of divine inconsistency through the ages and through the various religions and holy writs is going to be too terribly helpful to us, who clearly are dependent on a very imperfect line of communication between the deity and ourselves.  I mean, even the theologians must certainly admit that, for an omnipotent being, God’s certainly one of the lousiest communicators we have every run across.  On the other hand, perhaps God does not have access to an absolute morality at all.  Perhaps, he, too, must abide by a moral law that he clearly knows imperfectly because, like us, his ethical awareness is evolving as his comprehension of the world is evolving.  Any of these possibilities do not make sense in terms of, say, Jerry Falwell’s condemnation of Disney Orlando as a modern-day Sodom and Gomorra about to be eradicated by storm, hail, and fire for offering special benefits to homosexual couples.  No solidity of ethical judgment is supplied by appeal to the deity since the deity is clearly either whimsical, incomprehensible, or in the same precarious pickle as we are. 


I think you all remember Andrea Yates.  She is the one who drowned her five children in an unimaginably heroic effort to make sure that they’d go to paradise. To truly appreciate her action, you must pretend for a moment that you do believe sincerely that there is a paradise to come and that some of us will get there while some of us will not.  Her killing her children assured those children a place in paradise.  It also assured her a place in eternal damnation.  And yet she readily accepted eternal damnation to assure her kids a place in paradise.  Think about the motivations for a moment!  Try to place yourself fully into her philosophical shoes! Let it sink into your awareness what that woman thought she had done!  Did she believe that god had commanded her self-sacrifice?  Or did she feel that she could bargain with God in some legalistic sense of some absolute ethics?  Either way, who is to tell her otherwise and how?  Her action clearly shows the bankruptcy of religious guidance in moral action.


Don’t get me wrong: I do admire many clerics and many believers for their forthright moral fortitude that they generate from their beliefs.  There is probably nothing wrong with considering a god to be part of the society which one considers in one’s ethical decision making.  Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were outstandingly admirable and courageous human beings in their time and place.  Nonetheless, the debacle of the Catholic clerics’ sexual adventures and the many Protestant ministers who seduced the women they counseled all show clearly that religion is not and cannot be the moral force that sundry people want it to be.  Good persons who adhere to a religion would probably also be good persons without their adherence to a religion.  Religion simply cannot be a motivating force since it engenders as much dastardly action as it does good action.  For every religious charity, we have a Northern Ireland conflict; and for every Simon Wiesenthal or Eli Wiesel, we have an Ariel Sharon; and for every Bonhoeffer, we have an Adolf Hitler, who also claimed guidance by divine providence.


What I’ve tried to make a point of here is to say that our ethical commitments can grow and change as we are aware of more aspects of our world, a process which is at the heart of ethical autonomy. And I’ve tried to remind us that divine action or revelation cannot be the source of ethical responsibility at all.