So What Happened to Ethics?

I wrote earlier about the problems with modern ethical theories. The short version: they focus too much on general ethical dilemmas which bear little resemblance to the actual demands of ethical life. Ethics wasn’t always this way, though. The ancient Greeks explicitly thought of ethics not as ‘making better choices’ but as ‘trying to become a better person’. Utilitarianism and its rule-obsessed uncle, deontology, are newcomers to the ethical scene. They date roughly from the 18th century – around the same time as the Enlightenment and the rise of science.

I’m arguing that both these ethical modes are a result of philosophers trying to ape the success of science, and that both form part of a general ‘scientization’ movement that cut across all academic disciplines.

Hume criticized Newton for promoting an ‘atomic’ mode of thought that viewed everything – from the structure of ideas to the arrangement of people in a nation-state – as composed of objects of a common type equally subject to several laws of Nature. It’s easy to see how this atomic thinking gave us utilitarianism. How should we act ethically? Well, let’s consider ethical life as made up of a series of acts, equally subject to one or many laws of ethical behaviour. Deontology, too, was an attempt to discover the fundamental laws that governed proper ethical conduct.

The problem, of course, is that atomism works – to a certain extent – for atoms and little else. Is life a series of ‘actions’ or is it one long changing ‘action’? What’s an action, anyway? Is there even a unified ‘me’ that makes these actions? We are undeniably made up of atoms, acting in predictable ways (or not, pipes up quantum mechanics) but the structure of thought and identity is the incomprehensible result of a hundred billion neurons firing in parallel, kludged together by billions of years of evolution. It does not model well.

We can see the negative effects of the Enlightenment in the crackpot notion of ‘primitive’ and ‘advanced’ cultures that infected anthropology for so long (although we can blame colonialism for that as well). We can see the scientization of human experience in the enormously baroque categorization of mental illness and the proliferation of useless treatments in the last few hundred years. Anthropology took a long time to recover, and it is only relatively recently that the postmodernist reaction is beginning to shrink the DSM. When, you might ask, will we see a similar revolution in philosophical treatment of ethics?

It’s happening now, and has been going on for quite some time (although it hasn’t yet penetrated to undergraduate ethics courses). Next I’ll begin outlining some non-atomic ways to do ethics.


2 thoughts on “So What Happened to Ethics?

  1. Pingback: Virtue Ethics | kierkeguardians

  2. SoundEagle

    SoundEagle agrees with you on all accounts. Moreover, a large part of anthropology and sociology tends to favour cultural explanations to the exclusion of biological, sociobiological, evolutionary, genetic and epigenetic explanations, not to mention the gulf and tension between qualitative and quantitative methodologies.


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