Ethics and its Controversial Assumptions
Tibor R. Machan
Whether ethics even exists is often in dispute. For example, many believe ethics and science to be incompatible. A good many social scientists and psychologists think that people cannot be morally blamed for what they do; instead their conduct is explainable by various causes. Ordinary folks, too, are at times convinced that people act badly only because something made them do so, some event in their upbringing or some factor of the culture to which they belong. (We tend to explain our own bad conduct more readily but blame other people for theirs!)
So whether ethics is a bona fide part of human life is not self-evident, nor obvious. In order for there to be ethics, some other facts must already obtain. Consider, for example, the claim that "Judy should not lie," or "The president of the United Sates of American ought to try to restrain his powers over the lives of people." This assumes that Judy and the president have a choice about what they will do. "Ought" implies "can." This means that if one ought to do something, it must be that one can either do or not do it. It also assumes that Judy, the president and anyone who would look into the matter can identify certain standards of conduct to be used in figuring out what we should or should not do.
First, then, ethics requires that we can exercise some genuine choices, that we have the capacity to initiate some actions. If this were impossible, the idea that we should (or should not) act in such and such a fashion would have no application in human life. Second, ethics requires that some principles that apply to conduct be identifiable or objective. Unless we all can learn those very general principles, ethics has no place in our lives. It consists, after all, of such principles of conduct that pertain to all human beings. Moral or ethical principles pertain to action, how we should conduct ourselves, on what basis we should choose or select what we will do. To succeed at living a human life which is morally good, some principles would have to be followed. "Morally good" here means: being excellent as a human being in one's life but as a matter of choice, of one's own initiative, not accidentally. So being tall or talented or beautiful are not aspects of moral excellence, whereas being honest, courageous and prudent would be, if ethics is indeed a bona fide dimension of human living.
If we could not exercise genuine choices, morality would be impossible since no one could help what her or she is doing. It would all be a matter of good and bad things simply happening, as indeed they often do at the hands of nature, as it were: when tornadoes or earthquakes or diseases strike. Que serra, que serra, period.
If we could not identify moral principles, we could never make a sensible selection from among alternative courses of conduct. Depending on what we aim for, we can identify the principles that will enable us to reach our goal. This is clearly evident in such fields as medicine, engineering and business. Thus, it seems that this second requirement of ethics, that we can identify principles of conduct, might be satisfied. But we will need to explore that further to be able to tell.
Let me explore briefly whether these two assumptions are reasonable or merely prejudice or myth as some folks believe, ones who would consign ethics to the dustbin of pre-science, akin to demonology or witchcraft.
The answers I will reach cannot be considered conclusive -- there isn't enough time and space to carry out a full investigation. But we will have a chance to look at the major points for and against the assumptions. Without some idea about whether they are true, ethics itself is left unsupported -- it could just as easily be in the class of the occult, such as astrology or palmistry.
1. Free Will?
The first matter to address is whether we have free will -- not necessarily all of us, all of the time but, rather, as a rule, normally. In other words, are human beings, as they have appeared throughout history in their innumerable diverse circumstances (though not when incapacitated or significantly damaged) capable of bringing about, of their own initiative, the behavior in which they engage?
Against Free Will
Nature's Laws versus Free Will. First, one of the major objections against free will is that nature is governed by a set of laws, mainly the laws of physics. The argument here is that all material substances are controlled by these laws and we human beings are basically complicated versions of material substances. Therefore, whatever governs material substance in the universe must also govern human life.
Social science, for one, which studies human beings in their social relations, looks into some of causes that produce our behavior. So does neuroscience, a sub-discipline of biology, in its study of our individual brains-minds. In each case what is studied are the causes of behavior. So, the only difference between the rest of nature and ourselves, as far as these branches of science are concerned, is that we are more complicated, not that we are not governed by the same principles or laws of nature.
Most definitely, it is argued, no such thing as an original cause is evident in the rest of nature, something that would have to be possible for free will to exist. As one advocate of determinism puts it, "[T]he best response to the demand for an explanation of the relation between an originator and decisions is that an explanation cannot be given. We have to regard this relation as primitive or unanalyzable."1 In other words, originating or initiating some action seems nothing more than a myth or an unexplainable fact, for which no evidence or argument can be given.
The determinist claims that all our actions, including decisions, are more sensibly taken to be effects of some prior events. It is the determinist's view that everything we do is the effect of some set of causal circumstances. This makes better sense, say the determinists, than leaving things unexplained, mysterious.
Affirming Initiative: Now, in response one might argue that nature exhibits innumerable different domains, distinct not only in their complexity but also in the kinds of beings they include. There are, to be sure, many domains where we find the familiar cause and effect situation clearly evident -- for example, on the billiard table, in geological movements, and in the motion of the planets. But there are areas were something else appears to be going on. For example, is the cause of a musical composition, the composer, itself some effect of a prior cause, so that the composer makes no original contribution?2
So, "causal" reasoning does not necessarily rule out that there might be something in nature that exhibits agent or original causation, the phenomenon whereby a thing causes some of its own behavior. Causal interactions depend on the nature of the beings that interact, what they are. So one cannot rule out, a priori (before investigation), that some beings could have the capacity to act on their own initiative.
Thus it seems that there might be in nature a form of existence that exhibits free will. Whether there is or is not is something to be discovered, not ruled out by a narrow world view or metaphysics that restricts everything to being just one kind of thing so that everything has just one kind of causal characteristics. Nature appears to be composed of many types and kinds of things and thus does not have to exclude free will.
So, free will seems to be possible, even in a world of causality. Whether free will actually exists we'll examine shortly.
We Cannot Know of Free Will. Now, another reason why some think that free will is not possible is that the dominant mode of studying, inspecting or examining nature is what we call "empiricism." In other words, many believe that the only way we know about nature is by observing it with our various sensory organs. But since the sensory organs do not give us direct evidence of such a thing as free will, there really isn't any such thing. Since no observable evidence for free will exists, therefore free will does not exist.
We Can Know Free Will. But the doctrine that empiricism captures all forms of knowing is wrong -- we know many things not simply through observation but through a combination of observation, inferences, and theory construction. (Consider, even the purported knowledge that empiricism is our form of knowledge is not "known" empirically!)
For one, many features of the universe, including criminal guilt, are detected without eyewitnesses but by way of theories which serve the purpose of best explaining what we do have before us to observe. This is true, also, even in the natural sciences. Many of the complex phenomena or facts in biology, astrophysics, subatomic physics, botany, chemistry -- not to mention psychology -- consist not of what we see or detect by observation but is inferred by way of a theory. The theory that explains things best -- most completely and most consistently -- is the best answer to the question as to what is going on.
Free will may well turn out to be in this category. In other words, free will may not be something that we can see directly, but what best explains what we do see in human life. This may include, for example, the many mistakes that human beings make in contrast to the few mistakes that other animals make. We also notice that human beings do all kinds of odd things that cannot be accounted for in terms of mechanical causation, the type associated with physics. We can examine a person's background and find that some people with bad childhoods turn out to be decent, while others become crooks. Free will, then, amounts to a very helpful explanation. For now all we need to consider that this may well be so, and if empiricism does not allow for it, so much the worse for empiricism. One could know something because it explains something else better than any alternative. And that is not strict empirical knowledge.
Free Will Is Weird? Another matter that very often counts against free will is that the rest of (even living) beings in nature do not exhibit it. Dogs, cats, lizards, fish, frogs, etc., have no free will and therefore it appears arbitrary to impute it to human beings. Why should we be free to do things when the rest of nature lacks any such capacity? It would be an impossible aberration. Some opponents of the free will idea, such as the behaviorist psychologists B. F. Skinner, have stressed this objection (for example, in the book Beyond Freedom and Dignity [Bantam Books, 1972])
Free Will is Natural. The answer here is similar to what I gave earlier. To wit, there is enough variety in nature -- some things swim, some fly, some just lie there, some breathe, some grow, while others do not; so there is plenty of evidence of plurality of types and kinds of things in nature. Discovering that something has free will could be yet another addition to all the varieties of nature. Determinism seems to depend upon adherence to a very specific ontology, in terms of which everything must be a given kind of thing, one that can only move when prompted by something else, and this is not something that can be shown to hold universally so as to preclude free will.
Does God Allow Free Will? There is also the theological argument to the effect that if God knows everything, he/she knows the future, so what we do is unalterable. If someone knows that some future event will occur, e.g., that Haley's Comet will come nearest to earth at some given time in the future, then whatever is involved in that event cannot have a choice about it. So if God knows that you will have three children, then you have no genuine choice about that matter. It has to turn out that way.
God's "knowledge" is Mysterious. But God's knowledge is not likely to be the kind human beings have, indeed, it is a mystery just what it is. So nothing much can be inferred from it. It is mistake to confuse what would follow from a human being's knowing the future versus God's "knowledge" of the future. The latter is entirely different from the former and so the implications wouldn't be the same either.
For Free Will
Let's now consider whether free will actually does exist. I'll offer four arguments in support of an affirmative answer. (They are not uniquely my arguments but ones that have been proposed throughout the philosophical community.) Thus far we have only considered whether free will is possible. But does it exist? The following points support that contention.
Are We Determined to be Determinists -- or not? There is an argument against determinism to the effect that, if we are fully determined in what we think, believe, and do, then the belief that determinism is true is also a result of this determinism. But the same holds for the belief that determinism is false. There is nothing you can do about whatever you believe -- you had to believe it. There is no way to take an independent stance and consider the arguments in an unprejudiced manner because all the various forces making us assimilate the evidence either cause us to believe or disbelieve in determinism. One either turns out to be a determinist or not and in neither case can we appraise the issue objectively because we are predetermined to have a view on the matter one way or the other, ad infinitum.
But then, paradoxically, we'll never be able to resolve this debate, since there is no way of obtaining an objective assessment. Indeed, the very idea of philosophical, scientific or judicial objectivity, as well as of ever coming to know anything, has to do with being free. Thus, if we're engaged in this enterprise of learning about truth and distinguishing it from falsehood, we are committed to the idea that human beings have some measure of mental freedom. This view was put forward by Immanuel Kant, the important 18th century Germany philosopher, as well as by Nathaniel Branden, a psychologist who defends free will in his book The Psychology of Self-Esteem (Bantam Books, 1969).
Should We Become Determinists? There's another dilemma of determinism. It starts with noting that the determinist wants us to believe in determinism. In fact, he believes we ought to do so rather than believe in "the illusion of free will". But, as the saying goes in philosophy, "ought" implies "can". That is, if one ought to believe in or do something, this implies that one has a free choice in the matter; it implies that it is up to us whether we will hold determinism or free will as the better doctrine. That, in turn, assumes that we are free.
In other words, even arguing for determinism assumes that we are not determined to believe in free will or determined but that it is a matter of our making certain choices about arguments, evidence, and thinking itself. We run across this paradox when we find people who blame us for not accepting the view that people's fate is not in their hands so we should not blame them. Blaming some while denying that anyone should be blamed is a paradox, one which troubles a deterministic position. In one book defending determinism, the author ends by posing the following question: "If ['Left Wing politics is less given to attitudes and policies which have something of the assumption of Free Will in them'], should one part of the response ... be a move to the Left in politics? I leave you with that bracing question."3 Yet can this be a genuine question, if the answer is predetermined and one either will or will not move Left or Right and has no choice in the matter? I t cannot, which is the idea advanced by Joseph M. Boyle, G. Grisez and O. Tollefsen, in their book Free Choice (University of Notre Dame Press, 1976).
We Often Know We Are Free. In many contexts of our lives introspective knowledge is taken very seriously. When you go to a doctor and he asks you, "Are you in pain?" and you say, "Yes," and he says "Where is the pain?" and you say, "It's in my knee," the doctor doesn't say, "Why, you can't know, this is not public evidence, I will now get verifiable, direct evidence where you hurt." In fact your evidence is very good evidence. Witnesses at trials give such evidence as they report about what they have seen. This invokes, in a certain respect, introspective evidence: "This indeed is what I have seen or heard." It involves reference to something we recall from memory and is thus within us, not evident to others without our reports. Even in the various sciences people report on what they've read on surveys or seen on gauges or instruments or studies. Thus they are giving us introspective evidence.
Introspection is one source of evidence that we take as reasonably reliable. So what should we make of the fact that a lot of people do believe and say things like, "Damn it, I didn't make the right choice," or "I neglected to do something." They report to us, furthermore, that they have made various choices, decisions, etc., or that they intended this or that but not another thing. They, furthermore, often blame themselves for not having done something, thus implying that they know that they made a choice (for which they are taking responsibility).
In short, there is abundant evidence from people all around us of their experience of the existence of their own free choices. This cannot just be ruled out, since it would also undercut much else we take very seriously, indeed treat as decisive, coming from such sources.
Science Discovers Free Will. Finally, there is also the evidence of the fact that we do seem to have the capacity for self-monitoring. The human brain has the kind of structure that allows us, so to speak, to govern ourselves. We can inspect our lives, we can detect where we're going, and we can, therefore, change course. The human brain itself makes all this possible. The brain, because of its structure, can monitor itself3/4that is, its higher regions can influence the rest3/4and as a result we can decide whether to continue in a certain pattern or to change that pattern and go in a different direction. This is how we change habits, restrain impulses, control our temper, "watch what we eat," alter our developed motor skills in, say, how we play the piano, or even change our established opinions. That is the sort of free will that is demonstrable.
At least some scientists, for example Roger W. Sperry -- in his book Science and Moral Priority4 and in numerous more technical articles -- maintain that there's evidence for free will in this sense. This view depends on a number of points I have already mentioned. It assumes, for example, that there can be different kinds of causes in nature and, also, that the functioning of the brain as a complex neurophysiological system could manifest self-causation. An organism with our kind of brain could cause some mental functions to occur via what Sperry calls a process of "downward causation." (Sperry argues that there is some evidence of such causation even apart from how the human organism's higher mental activities occur, for example, in the way water freezes.)
Now the sort of thing Sperry thinks possible seems evident in our lives. We make plans and then, upon reconsideration (which at times takes but a fraction of a second) revise them. We explore alternatives and decide to follow one of these. We change a course of conduct we have embarked upon, or continue with it. We resist temptations, act despite the desire to do something else, and gradually build up good habits which, at first, were difficult to exhibit. In other words, there is a locus of individual self-responsibility or initiative -- or, to use Ted Honderich's term, "origination" -- that is evident in the way in which we look upon ourselves, and the way in which we in fact behave.
Some Cautionary Points. There clearly are cases of conduct in which some persons behave as they do because they were determined to do so by certain identifiable forces beyond their control. A brain tumor, a severe childhood trauma or some other intrusive force sometimes incapacitates people. This is evident in those occasional cases when a person who engaged in criminal behavior is shown to have had no control over what he or she did. Someone who actually had no capacity to control his or her behavior, could not control his or her own thinking or judgment and was, thus, moved by something other than his own will, cannot be said to possess a bona fide free will.
Compatibilism. Those who deny that we have free will would seem to be unable to make sense of our distinction between cases in which one controls one's behavior and those in which one is being moved by forces over which he or she has no control. When we face the latter sort of case, we still admit that the behavior could be good or bad but we deny that it is morally and legally significant -- it is more along lines of acts of nature or God by being out of the agent's control. This is also why philosophers who discuss ethics but deny free will have trouble distinguishing between morality and value theory -- e.g., some utilitarians, Marxists. Morality concerns how we ought to act (or the rightness of conduct), whereas value theory deals with what is good and bad and why. It is possible to address the latter field without taking a side on the free will issue. But that is not so with the former.
Some, though, will defend the view that even if we have no ultimate control over our actions -- even if our behavior, the judgments which we make, or our character is controlled by forces such as the environment or our genetic make-up -- we may still speak of ethics or morality. They are called compatibilists. They would mean by the term "ethics" or "morality" something different from what the terms would mean if we did possess free will, however. Ethics would concern good behavior, conduct in conformity with standards of right regardless of how it came about that one conformed or did not conform to those standards. Ethics, in line with the compatibilist position, might concern itself with values and how to secure them, without implying that one could of one’s own initiative exert control over whether these values would be achieved. Accordingly, then, without personal responsibility or agency, where one is the cause of what one does, whereby one initiates or originates one's significant actions, ethics would amount to something drastically different from what we usually mean by the term.
Given the way compatibilists conceive of their doctrine—namely, that it is possible to have both a causal explanation of human conduct as well as its being the agent’s responsibility to have engaged in that conduct—the theory does succeed better than all others, including the one dubbed agent causal or libertarian free will. But the compatibilist doctrine does not in fact allow for personal moral responsibility, however much its proponents so insist. No bona fide, ultimate personal responsibility can be attached to behavior that is, so to speak, softly determined. If one’s character has been molded so that one will be honest, generous, and so forth, and then one is indeed honest, generous and so forth, one cannot reasonably be said then to be responsible for being honest, generous and so forth. It is whatever molded one’s character that would explain one’s honesty, generosity and so forth. Any kind of moral pride or credit would amount to an illusion, not something well deserved.
Is Free Will Well Founded?
So these several reasons provide a kind of argumentative collage in support of the free will position. Can anyone do better with this issue? I don't know. I think it's best to ask only for what is the best of the various competing theories. Are human beings doing what they do solely as the consequences of forces acting on them? Or do they have the capacity to take charge of their lives, often neglect to do so properly or effectively, make stupid choices? Which supposition best explains the human world and its complexities around us?
I think the free will view makes much better sense. It explains, much better than do deterministic theories, how it is possible that human life involves such an array of possibilities, accomplishments as well as defeats, joys as well as sorrows, creation as well as destruction. It explains, also, why in human life there is so much change -- in language, custom, style, art, and science. Unlike other living beings, for which what is possible is pretty much fixed by instincts and reflexes -- even if some extraordinary behavior may be elicited, by way of extensive prodding in laboratories or, at times, in the face of unusual natural developments -- people initiate much of what they do, for better and for worse. From their most distinctive capacity of forming ideas and theories, to those of artistic and athletic inventiveness, human beings remake the world without, so to speak, having to do so! This, moreover, can make good sense if we understand them to have the distinctive capacity for initiating their own conduct rather than relying on mere stimulation and reaction. It also poses for them certain unique challenges, not the least of which is that they cannot reasonably expect any formula or system to predictably manage the future of human affairs, such as some of social sciences seem to hope it will. Social engineering is, thus, not a genuine prospect for solving human problems -- only education and individual initiative can do that.
Yet, it should be noted that free will does not contradict social science if the latter is not conceived in strict deterministic terms and the former is understood to allow for long range commitments, chosen policies, strategies, institutional involvements, etc.
Human beings make choices, some of which, however, commit them to a course of long range behavior which can be studied in terms of their impact on various features of the social world. People choose to enter schools, careers, relationships, to form institutions, to carry out plans, etc., and often their choices justifies expecting them to stick with a reasonably predictable course of conduct.
In economics, for example, one may be studying the market place as an arena wherein human beings make various free choices concerning how they will be earning a living, what they will be producing and consuming, how they will be marketing their products, bargaining for prices, wages, and benefits, etc. The discipline examines the various permutations and consequences of these choices, as well as various regularities that are evident in the overall sphere of their activities.
Nonetheless, people are free to do what they do as commercial agents in various ways, embark upon their tasks more or less intensely at various periods of their lives, for various reasons of their own or because of circumstances they face. None of this needs to be determined and all these actions are open to moral evaluation.5
Yet this does not take away a good deal of orderliness, even predictability from people's economic activities, provided one does not expect that they behave like Haley's comet or a subatomic particle, according to impersonal laws or random forces. If social science appreciates that human beings have free will, they do not necessarily give up being scientific about human life, quite the contrary. They could, instead, be closer to dealing scientifically with human life.
2. Moral Skepticism
We now turn to the second assumption and briefly discuss the pros and cons.
Let's once again recall what's at stake: is there any basis for our ethical or moral judgments? When a politician is denounced, a newspaper criticized for its practices, or a teacher (or even a text book author) praised or blamed for his or her product, can any of this be made out? Is it possible to justify such judgments or claims? When one claims that one's parents have mistreated one or one's physician engaged in malpractice, is this just hot air or the expression of displeasure? Is it that we simply know this without any justification, without any basis for that knowledge? Is ethics, perhaps, some kind of realm where we can be right without any justification?6 Or perhaps there are standards we can identify that can help us show that what we claim is true?
Our discussion, here, will again certainly not exhaust the topic. There is much more to be considered in a thorough study, but what we will do should help lay the foundation and give a clue as to what the debate involves.
Moral Diversity vs. Objectivity. There are too many moral opinions, so how can there be one, true moral standard for all? Clearly, across the globe and throughout human history great diversity exists and has existed concerning what is supposed to be right and wrong in human conduct. Indeed, apparently decent and intelligent people differ very seriously on the topic. Surely that suggests very strongly that no common, objective standard is available as to how we ought to act. It is mostly cultural anthropologists who advance this view -- e.g., Ruth Benedict, in her famous book Patterns of Culture.
No Evidence of the Senses supports Moral Claims. Moral judgments are not verifiable by observation, as are many other judgments we make. We can pretty much decide what color hat one is wearing, how many people are sitting in a class room, where China's borders are, how bright the sun is at noon, and other subjects we want to know about, by means of the diligent use of our sensory organs. Yet, no such use is going to enable us to decide whether we ought to tell the truth, write a letter to mother, help the poor, avoid pornography or ban abortions. Accordingly, moral disputes appear to be impossible to settle. This is an argument stressed by members of the philosophical school logical positivism -- e.g., A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (Dover, 1936).7
The Gap Between "Is" and "Ought" No judgment of what is the case can support a conclusion of what one ought to do -- the "is/ought" gap argument of the philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). The rules of sound reasoning, good judgment, require that when one draws a conclusion from premises, the terms that are present in this conclusion also appear in the premises. Yet if one begins an argument with claims about this or that being so and so, there is no "ought" or "should" present, whereas in a conclusion having moral import it is just those terms that would have to appear. Clearly, then, such moral conclusions cannot be derived from non-moral premises.
Morality is Against Nature Nothing else in nature is subject to moral judgment or evaluation, so applying moral judgment or evaluation to human beings is odd, arbitrary, unjustified. Consider anything -- rocks, trees, birds, fish or whatever, and there is no place for praising and blaming in our understanding of these things. So bringing morality into the picture when we consider human affairs is arbitrary, out of the blue, unjustified. John Mackie argues, for example, that moral values, if they existed, would be "entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe."8
Diversity is More Apparent than Real. (A) Moral opinions tend to differ about details, not basics. (B) Some persons have a vested interest in obscuring moral standards lest they be found guilty of moral wrong doing or evil. (C) Some persons are professional "devil's advocates" and propagate skepticism because they are testing, questioning, making sure (even if they do not act as if they were skeptics, e.g., toward their children, friends, political reps).
Perceptual Knowledge is Not All. In complicated areas observations do not suffice to verify judgment -- e.g., in astrophysics, particle physics, psychology, crime detection, etc. Moral judgments may require verification by way of a fairly complex theory or definition of, e.g., what "good" or "morally right" means. (Moral theories propose such theories and definitions.)
How not to Deduce but to Derive Ought from Is (A) Hume was arguing against those who believed that moral conclusions can be deduced from premises stating various facts. But not all arguments consist of deductions, a formal statement linking premises to conclusions by nothing other than its logical structure and the essential meaning of the terms. Thus nothing strictly new is ever established by way of deduction, nothing that isn't true implicitly already. There is, however, reasoning that's not deductive but, roughly, inferential. Based on our observations, reflections, economical theorizing, and the like, we forge or develop an understanding of the world. When detectives explain a crime, they do not deduce -- contrary to Sherlock Holmes -- but infer who did it. Scientists work from evidence to conclusions in other than a strictly deductive fashion. They reach their understanding of what is what by developing valid, well founded concepts and theories that best explain what they see and have previously learned about. Indeed, most often we are concerned to establish definitions which are not the product of deduction but generalization, abstraction, the formation of ideas.
Accordingly, (B) the premises of moral arguments could include theories or definitions as to what "good" or "ought to" mean and thus give support to particular moral judgments. For example, "the will of God is Good," "Good is what everyone ought to do," thus, "the will of God is what everyone ought to obey." Or, "Goodness is Living (for human beings)," "Living (for human beings) is furthered by thinking," thus, "Goodness is furthered by thinking." These definitions or theories cannot be just dismissed. There is a possibility that one of them captures accurately what the relevant terms mean and from this we could infer moral conclusions.9
Nature is Diverse Enough to allow for Major Differences As in the case of the free will hypothesis, there is nothing odd about something new emerging in nature that does invite judgments. Mary Midgley puts forth a very interesting idea, in The Ethical Primate (Routledge, 1994), to the effect that human beings are precisely distinctive in nature by having a moral nature, an ethical dimension to their lives. Indeed, this view was advanced by Aristotle, as well. This is evident enough when we consider how really extraordinary human life is3/4what other aspect of nature gives us board games, museums, symphony music, philosophy or the novel?
The Best Theory is As True as Can Be
When we put all of this together what is at issue is whether we get a more sensible understanding of the complexities of human life than otherwise -- do we get a better understanding, for example, of why social engineering and government regulation and regimentation do not work, why there are so many individual and cultural differences, why people can be wrong, why they can disagree with each other, etc. It may be because they are free to do so, because they are not set in some pattern the way cats and dogs and orangutans and birds tend to be. In principle, all of the behavior of these creatures around us can be predicted because they are not creative in a sense that they originate new ideas and behavior, although we do not always know enough about the constitution of these beings and how it would interact with their environment to actually predict what they will do. Human beings produce new ideas and these can introduce new kinds of behavior in familiar situations. This, in part, is what is meant by the fact that different people often interpret their experiences differently. Yet, we can make some predictions about what people will do because they often do make up their minds in a given fashion and stick to their decision over time. This is what we mean when we note that people make commitments, possess integrity, etc. So we can estimate what they are going to do. But even then we do not make certain predictions but only statistically significant ones. Clearly, very often people change their minds and surprise us. Furthermore, if we go to different cultures, they'll surprise us even more. This complexity, diversity, and individuation about human beings is best explained if human beings are free than if they are determined.
That is, at least, what is required for ethics to be a bona fide, genuine subject matter of concern.
1 Ted Honderich, How Free Are You? The Determinism Problem (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 42-3.
2 Even in physical reality, as in the freezing of water, the causal relationship isn't exactly what it is in other domains. The freezing occurs by way of what has been called "downward causation," instead of the more familiar "action-reaction" causation.
3 Ibid., p. 129.
4 New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1983.
5 For more on this, see Tibor R. Machan, ed., Commerce and Morality (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1988), especially "Ethics and its Uses."
6 This view is advanced in the name of Ludwig Wittgenstein by Johnston, op. cit., Wittgenstein and Moral Philosophy. But see, in contrast, Julius Kovesi, Moral Notions (London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), who also approaches ethics from Wittgenstein's teachings.
7 A very helpful discussion of the type of argument Ayer advances can be found in Laurie Calhoun, "Scientistic Confusion and Metaethical Relativism," Ethica, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1995), pp. 53-72. See, also, Renford Bambrough, Moral Scepticism and Moral Knowledge (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, Inc., 1979).
8 J. L. Mackie, Ethics (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 38.
9 For more along these lines, see W. D. Falk, Ought, Reasons, and Morality (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), especially "Goading and Guiding" and "Hume on Is and Ought."