April 1, 2010

Ethic, Morality, and Values

Filed under: Axiology,Ethics,Philosophy — Omid @ 6:30 am
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Reflections on Ethic, Morality, and Values

In the American society, we ubiquitously hear phrases such as “ethics and religion must not stay at home when we go to work”, “the U.S. President urged us to maintain our moral clarity”, or “family values remain a core issue for Americans”. But, what are “ethic”, “morality”, and “values”? In my assessment, these terms are definable and understandable only within the framework of social activities and relations. Outside this framework, the three terms seem to be obsolete as they have always been germane to and descriptive of human conducts within the framework of social relations.

While the three words definitionally bear certain relations to one another and are oftentimes used synonymously, there are elusive distinctions between them. Moreover, due to the abstract nature of the three concepts, it is a difficult task to unambiguously define and understand them outside a specific context of human activities. They are often defined differently or with certain nuances depending on the contexts (such as business, law, politics, medicine, sociology, philosophy, or religion) in which they are expressed. In addition, It is not rare to find inconsistent constructions for each of the terms within a given context. Throughout the history of Western civilization, the three concepts have been differently construed by different groups of people; nonetheless, a common thread seems to run through them.

This is a brief reflection, which is very limited in scope, on the concepts of ethic, morality, and values from a philosophical perspective. Although my thoughts on these concepts may seem unconventional to a lesser or greater degree, I believe they are complementary to the conventional understanding of the concepts. My principal intention is not to examine what an ethical, moral, or valuational act is like, but to try to understand what makes an act ethical, moral, or valuational. These are such convoluted concepts that I am not sure to what degree I have done them justice in this discourse.

§1. Ethic (Being Able):

“Ethic” is commonly defined as “a set of principles of right, human conduct”. While this definition is helpful and adequate, I am going to take a different approach toward a more fundamental understanding of the term. What does make “principles of human conduct” fundamentally possible? What do all such principles across societies have fundementally in common?

The word “ethic” is said to have originated from the Greek word ēthika (meaning, “ethics”), which is said to be a derivative of the Greek word ēthos, (meaning, “character”). And, in turn, the word ēthos is said to have Indo-European roots in the Sanskrit word svadhā (meaning, “self-will” or “strength”). The word svadhā is composed of two Sanskrit words: sva (meaning, “self”) and dhā (meaning, “deed”). In my opinion, these qualities—i.e., “self-will”, “self-deed”, “strength”, “character”—are not only at the heart of the discipline of ethics, but also are pivotal in understanding the concept “ethic”.

“Ethic” is still a term that is categorically applied only to human beings and their spheres of social activities and relations. Ethic does not apply to the sphere of inanimate, botanical, or zoological objects. For obvious reasons, we do not hold a stone, flower, or ape as an ethical being. Human beings possess a strength (cf. svadhā) that invests them with unique abilities (which are neurobiologically based) which seem nonexistent in physical inanimate objects, plants, and animals. As such, ethic is significative of an enabling propensity or disposition. And, it seems to me that the ethical finds direct expressions in qualitative states of being able.

The ethical is deemed categorically concomitant with the human ability to think rationally, the ability to choose deliberately, and the ability to act of one’s own accord. Without the ethical, humanity, as we know it, would seem utterly impossible. For Greek philosophers Plato ( c. 427– c. 347 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC), the human natural capacity to reason is what distinguishes humans from other beings. And, for them, the role of human reason is indispensable and intrinsic to ethical conduct. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) had a more radical approach:

“When one speaks of humanity, the idea is fundamental that this is something which separates and distinguishes man from nature. In reality, however, there is no such separation: ‘natural’ qualities and those called truly ‘human’ are inseparably grown together. Man, [even] in his highest and noblest capacities, is wholly nature. . . . Those of his abilities which are terrifying and considered inhuman may even be the fertile soil out of which alone all humanity can grow in impulse, deed, and work.” (Homer’s Contest, translated by Walter Kaufmann)

The human drives which are deemed “terrifying” and “inhuman” can be destructive if they find unchecked expressions. Yet, Nietzsche insisted that such drives are fundamental to human life, in the sense that enhancement of life is considerably contingent on “sublimating”, not suppressing, these basic drives. Ethic, as a social phenomenon, seems to be fundamentally rooted in the human impulse system—that is, in human neurophysiology. As Nietzsche put it, “If we subtract the nervous system and the senses . . . then we miscalculate—that is all!” (The Antichrist, 14)

The ethical entails taking a conscious, deliberate stance on one’s own being and conducting it in relation to oneself and other selves. In a strict sense, normative judgments such as “right”, “wrong”, “good”, or “bad” are not always or necessarily admitted in the sphere of ethical. In this sphere, what is paramount is being ablenot just being capable (i.e., having the capacity or potential), but being able—without which no principles of human conduct are practical.

§2. Morality (Becoming and Responsibility):

A prevalent definition of “morality” is “a system of morals”, that is to say, “a system of right and wrong conduct”. Alternatively, it is defined as “the quality or state of being in accord with principles of right conduct”. In addition, morality has an “evaluative” or “judgmental” function with regard to human conduct. For a more fundamental understanding of morality, I posit the following questions: What does make morality fundamentally possible? And, what do morals have in common fundamentally?

In etymological terms, the word “morality” is said to be a derivative of the Latin noun mōs or mōr (meaning, “manner”, “way”, “rule”, “regulation”, or “law”). Morality, precisely like ethic, is a term that is unconditionally applied only to human beings and their spheres of social activities and relations. Morality seems expressive of what, why, how, under what circumstances, and to what end the human capabilities are to be cultivated and implemented. We know we are capable of deceit, greed, and lust, but should we incorporate these behaviors in our relations toward others? If an answer is “no”—why, how, under what circumstances, and to what end should we not be deceitful, greedy, and lustful? Here, the role of human reason or intellect is central to answering these moral questions.

Being able, i.e., being ethical, is a necessary precondition for becoming moralIf one is somehow deprived of the strength to freely (ably), consciously, deliberately, and rationally choose one’s own course of action in thoughts and in deeds, then one’s action under this destitute condition is not moral. Becoming moral seems to be a free (enabled), conscious, deliberate, and reasonable actualization of one’s ethical abilities. Of course, this does not imply that lack of such qualities automatically makes one immoral. A newborn child in whom such potentials are not actualized yet is not characterized as immoral. The child is a capable being that has the potential to become a moral being.

Ethically being is the sine qua non of morally becoming. In this framework, morality presupposes freedom (“strength” or “being able”). In other words, ethic is the possibility of morality. In this sense, the “freedom” to think and act precedes a moral deed whereas “responsibility” (the ability to respond) proceeds from a moral deed. While ethic is about “being”, morality is about “becoming”; while ethic is about “being able”, morality is about “what” to do with the ability, and “why”, “how”, under what “circumstances”, and to what “end”; while ethic is about “freedom”, morality is about “responsibility”. How can one be responsible (i.e., act morally), if one is not free (i.e., enabled) in one’s own actions? No court of law would hold an ape responsible for stealing a banana. Apes have neither ethical, hence, nor moral capacities.

In more concrete terms, morality seems expressive of principles or criteria that give humans the means to evaluate, judge, qualify, and/or choose a proper course of action under various circumstances. The role of the human ability to reason seems pivotal in making such evaluations, judgments, qualifications, or choices. In this context, if a mentally sound and reasonable adult member of this society, for whom murdering is categorically wrong, murders someone on impulse (without reflection) in the passion of the moment, then the murderer acts as a “moral agent” (i.e., free agent), but perhaps under extenuating circumstances. Therefore, the murderer is expected to take responsibility for his action. As another example, if a murder was committed willingly and deliberately in cold blood by a mentally sound individual, then the murderer has acted as a moral agent, and his act was in that sense morally wrong and, hence, “immoral”, besides being illegal, in the eyes of the society. On the other hand, if a one-year-old child (whose behavior is naturally impulsive at that age) happens to find a knife on the floor, picks it up, and pokes his mother in her eye, the child’s action is construed as neither moral nor immoral, but simply amoral. The one-year-old child is not a moral agent yet; consequently, the child is not held responsible.

Normative judgments such as “good”, “bad”, “right”, “wrong”, and et cetera belong to the moral domain. Without depreciating human emotions or feelings, the role of human rational reason seems critical in making moral judgments. Morality, at individual or social level, creates a condition that makes it possible for human beings to reasonably judge human thoughts and actions as morally good or bad, right or wrong, worthy or unworthy.

Plato believed that reason is the distinguishing feature of human nature. For him, the moral life is closely tied to reason; man can know and do what is good by applying reason itself. Indeed, according to Plato, by acting in accordance with “reason” and the “good”, people can fulfill their true nature. Further, according to Aristotle, appetites and emotions motivate animals to act. When human appetites and emotions are directed by reason, he believed the non-rational part of human psyche would be in the proper condition. A person then possesses what he called the “moral virtues”. Plato and Aristotle held that man is also an animal who must concurrently fulfill her/his bodily impulses and desires, under the guidance of reason, in order to attain happiness.

According to German Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the choice to live as a free human being is the supreme act of “self-respect”; it is the most important moral choice open to humans, and all other moral choices flow from it. For him, morality or moral laws are fundamentally related to the idea that we are free, rational beings. Kant fiercely opposed the attitude that freedom must include freedom from laws or restrictions. To his thinking, freedom is not vitiated or extirpated when human life takes on a particular shape and design, eliminating alternative lives that one might have led. Freedom is lost only when the shape and design of human life is the work of human impulses, somebody else, or some other intervening factor—when one is denied the freedom of choice. Restrictions do not entail lack of freedom but lack of prudence or wisdom. For instance, a man’s lack of self-restrictions on his excessive drinking habits can cost him his own life. Kant championed a freedom that both expresses and arises out of reason, rather than a freedom expressing human desires and inclinations. It is a freedom of self-mastery, not self-indulgence. For him, moral freedom is rational.

Kant insisted that human beings could prove they are free in “practice”, not in theory, and by living to the best of their abilities as they believe a free person should live. One does not claim one’s freedom just by thinking, but by acting. Later, German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) restated this view as follows: “The self is the series of its actions.”

In regard to the relation between morality and happiness, Kant stated:

“Morals is not really the doctrine of how to make ourselves happy but of how we are to be worthy of happiness . . . [O]ne must never consider morals itself as a doctrine of happiness, that is, as an instruction in how to acquire happiness.” (Critique of Pure Reason)

Morality, in Kant’s view, is not about pursuit of pleasure; it is not a doctrine of human happiness; it is not concerned with enjoyment of life; it is not based on individual human interests; it is not troubled with human feelings; it is not based on human inclinations. Morality is based on reason, not desire; it is rational, not impulsive; it is about “self-respect”, not self-love. For him, morality and happiness—happiness as the highest and most respectable form of self-love—can be at times coincidental, but they are not identical; conversely, demands of morality and happiness can run into conflict.

Kant argued that reason is at the center of moral life. That human beings are capable to become rational means that they have purposes or ends. As Kant insisted in his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, “Rational nature is distinguished from others in that it poses an end to itself.” Kant was convinced that our ultimate end is to realize our own rational nature. As rational beings, humans not only have ends, but also they are ends in themselves. “The human being is thus fitted to be a member in a possible realm of ends to which his own nature already has destined him”, wrote Kant. Further, he expressed, “Such a being is an object of . . . respect, i.e., a being whose existence in itself is an end. Such an end is one for which no other end can be substituted . . . without them, nothing of absolute worth could be found.” Purposes of humans shape their actions, and they provide a basis for judging their success or failure in performing them. Without possessing rational nature, Kant believed they would formulate no purposes at all and would be reduced to their biological necessities; they would have only short-term, immediate goals, such as escaping from danger, finding safety, or procuring food akin to the rest of the animal kingdom.

Morality comports with not yielding to bodily impulses and self-indulgence in comfort, pleasure, easiness, and laziness. Moral codes demand victory over animal instincts. According to Nietzsche, moral codes of nations have one thing in common: they are significative of the “will to power”. He wrote,

“A table of virtues hangs over every people. Behold, it is the table of its overcomings; behold, it is the voice of its will to power. Praiseworthy is whatever seems difficult to a people; whatever seems indispensable and difficult is good; and . . . the rarest, the most difficult—that they call holy.” (Thus spoke Zarathustra)

Hence, the will to power is portrayed as the will to attain self-mastery, to overcome oneself. To his thinking, moral goodness evokes us to do what is difficult, not common. What is easy holds less moral weight and may not be self-constructive at all. A moral act is not an impulsive act; the former ought to overcome the latter. To be moral is to overcome one’s impulses. Paradoxically, however, if one possesses no impulses, one is not moral, Nietzsche proposed. Castration of human impulses does not make one moral. For Nietzsche, moral behavior is a sign of vitality, not weakness. If human impulses are too weak to entice and excite one, then there may not be any hope. In his Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, philosopher Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980) wrote,

“Nietzsche insisted . . . that there was more hope for the man of strong impulses than for the man with no impulses. . . . Nietzsche believed that a man without impulses could not do the good or create the beautiful any more than a castrated man could beget children. A man with strong impulses might be evil because he has not yet learned to sublimate his impulses, but if he should ever acquire self-control, he might achieve greatness.”

For Nietzsche, power consists in employing or sublimating one’s impulses—not in considering them evil and declaring war against them.

Surrendering to human impulses in their unsublimated forms renders one a slave to their forces, with no control over them. However, becoming rational and reflective gives one control and mastery over oneself. Nietzsche considered reason as a manifestation of the will to power, inasmuch as it is capable of harnessing, organizing, integrating, and harmonizing the “chaos of impulses” and, hence,—making man the non-accidental master of her/his own destiny. Nietzsche wrote,

“‘Giving style’ to one’s character—a great and rare art! It is exercised by those who see all the strengths and weaknesses of their own nature and then comprehend them in an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason . . . under a law of their own.” (The Gay Science)

“Sublimation”, a concept tantamount to “spiritualization” for Nietzsche, signifies the triumph over human impulses. He conceived of “sublimation” as a creative act to harness destructive human impulses. He construed “the sublime as the artistic conquest of the horrible”. Perhaps, one can portray this phenomenon in a parable as follows:

Once upon a time, there was a ferocious water current which, out of its will, erected a dam against itself . . . Now, it is more powerful than ever—it possess character; it has depth of soul; it is worthy; it is spiritualized!

In his Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche depicted man as “a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss.” Nietzsche’s Zarathustra proclaimed, “I teach you the Übermenschen [overman]. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” Self-overcoming—i.e., harnessing or sublimating the human impulses—is the nucleus of morality.

It has been a subject of endless debates whether morality is a private or social affair. Can morality serve any practical purpose outside the boundaries of a society? Does it mean anything outside the context of social relations? If social morality is somehow reduced to individual morality, then morality becomes a set of principles that primarily serves the interests of the individual over the society. Yet, paradoxically, individual or artistic moralities of certain individuals such as Mozart or Beethoven have had tremendous social benefits. Their eternal music is a testament to this fact. Mozart and Beethoven were cognizant that to create new music, the old laws had to be broken or modified. In his Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann wrote,

“The weak needs to rely on the rules of others. Man should be able to generate his own standards, if only he were powerful enough. The will to power is essentially a creative force. The powerful man is the creative man; but the creator is not likely to abide by previously established laws. A genuinely creative act contains its own norms, and every creation is a creation of new norms. The great artist does not stick to any established code; yet his work is not lawless but has structure and form. Beethoven did not conform to the rules of Haydn or Mozart; yet his symphonies have form throughout. Their form and law Beethoven created with them. To create involves going ‘beyond good and evil’: established codes must ever be transcended by men who are creative.”

§3. Human Values (Modes of Relations):

A frequent definition of “value” is “the property or quality of something concrete or abstract that makes it important, admirable, desirable, useful, worthy, or an object of interest”. Sometimes, the term refers to “a principle or standard of human behavior”. Values are often popularly grouped into classes such as ethical values, moral values, religious values, and et cetera.

The word “value” is said to be a derivative of the Old French word valoir (meaning, “to be strong”, “be worth”), which is derived from the Latin word valēre (meaning, “to be strong/powerful”). Within the context of the web of psychophysical relations between human beings and the world in which they find themselves, values appear to be relational modalities. Human values seem to be expressive of: the modes or ways the psychophysical relations are constructed between a person or social group and the world in which they find themselves. I propose that, human values fundamentally seem manifestive of modes of projecting and relating ourselves to ourselves, to other selves, to physical objects, to circumstances, to events, and to abstractions (such as qualities, ideas, ways of being, ways of doing things, and so on).

On the surface, this indicates that, as an example, if a woman values vegetarian diet, it may mean that she has the possibility to “relate” herself to that kind of behavior and incorporate it into her lifestyle if the circumstances would allow it. Or, if a man needs a car and values a BMW over a Ford Escort, it may mean that he will possibly “relate” to and purchase a BMW if he has the financial means. Or, if a woman does not value theft, then she possibly will not choose to “relate” herself to a person who is a thief if the conditions in her life are conducive to this choice. Or, if a woman values and commits herself to Buddhism, it is perhaps because she is of the conviction that Buddhism somehow positively “relates” to the order in her life. As abstract and intelligible as they are, human values seem indicative of the “ways” humans relate to or interact with the world in which they find themselves.

Human values seem circumstantial and purposive, meaning that every situation presupposes particular mode(s) of relating ourselves to ourselves, to others selves, to objects, or to other factors in order to accomplish an end. If one lives in the comfort of a modern city, then one would be more likely to value a cellular phone over or more than a box of matches. However, if the person is stranded and lost alone in the middle of Antarctica, then the person would be more likely to value the box of matches (to make fire and keep warm) over the cellular phone, given that there are no cellular signals. Or, if the person is stuck alone in middle of the Nefud desert, known as “God’s furnace”, then the person would be more likely to value a jug of drinking water over the cellular phone and matches. The point is that, human beings seem to fundamentally value, relate to, or interact with what enables them under the extant circumstances to achieve their ends or to sustain their existence.

It seems to me that values are like bridges between us and the world with which we interact, between us and our ends. Moreover, it seems to me that values are, by analogy, like hooks that do not change, but what we hook them to (be it a cellular phone, box of matches, or else) do change. In other words, the person who valued the cellular phone over the matches in the city and conversely valued the latter over the former in Antarctica—did not change the value, but what he related or attached the value to changed. Contrary to the popular wisdom, human values—if fundamentally construed as expressions of the psychobiological energy that is supportive of the human organism in its relation to the worlddo not change. In his Will to Power, Nietzsche suggested that the state of the world at any time depends entirely on how the “power quanta” are temporarily organized and related. He wrote,

“My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (—its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement . . . with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they conspire together for power. And the process goes on.”

The science of physics generally defines the concept “energy” as follows: Energy is that property something has that enables it to do work. No energy, no work. In biological terms, no energy (i.e., adenosine triphosphate or ATP), no cellular activities, which means the death of the biological organism. As such, it seems to me that in the spheres of human activities and relations, the tendency toward attainment of energy, power, force, or strength is a fundamental human drive—which can be instrumental in explaining certain aspects of human behavior. In their activities and relations, human beings fundamentally seem to value that which is construed to empower them, to facilitate the attainment of their goals, to invest them with qualities/qualifications conducive to their ends.

To sum up, human “strength” is the fertile ground of human ethic (being able); ethic (enabling freedom) is the possibility of morality and moral responsibility; and morality (“what” we do with our abilities, and “why”, “how”, under what “circumstances”, and to what “ends”) under the guidance of rational reason makes moral valuations and evaluations possible. Accordingly, moral conduct—as a mark of having overcome our impulses—is a sign of strength. Within the social framework, the correlation between one’s ethical disposition, moral conduct, and values constitutes one’s character. One’s values (i.e., how one relates to oneself, to others, and to the world) in alliance with one’s ethical enablement and moral directives influence one’s conduct. At last, ethic, morality, and values as social phenomena seem to be natural outgrowths of the neurobiology of the human species.

§4. Application

In certain respects, examination of human values (hereinafter interpreted from a different angle as the rationales, motivations, fundaments, or rudiments that underlie our choices and deeds) can have psychoanalytical implications. One’s attempts to unconceal the values underlying one’s own choices and deeds can often be an uneasy task, a task that may reveal one’s uncertainties, insecurities, anxieties, or fears in one’s relation to oneself, to others, or to other factors. For instance, we all have reasons as to why we pursued or did not pursue a college degree, why got married or divorced, or why behaved in certain ways at critical moments in our lives. Whatever the case might be, what were the “values” (distinct from “reasons”) beneath our choices when we made them?

In the hypothetical case, discussed above, of the woman who became committed to practice Buddhism, one can ask evaluative questions such as: What was her problem to which she construed Buddhism as a solution? Under what circumstances and state of mind did she reach the conclusion that Buddhism is an answer to her issue? What was the “value” underlying her choice, which made her feel that she would attain the desired “state of being” she was aiming for? Once the value is excavated and brought to conscious acknowledgment, she may realize that Buddhism is actually not the solution to her problem, and that it might be diametrically opposed to a definitive solution which may had escaped her at the time. Or, she may realize that Buddhism is actually masking the problem, or she used it as an excuse to distract herself from the problem. Or, she may realize that her problem was a subconscious fabrication concealing her actual problem. Alternatively, she may realize that Buddhism is a proper resolution to her issue.

Although our values often tend to elude capture, they are communicative of our self-knowledge and self-worth. Human values are subtle, but not unintelligible to the mind. In his Some Elementary Lessons in Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) wrote about a case wherein a doctor hypnotized a patient of his and instructed him, while under hypnosis, as follows: I am going to leave the ward, but upon my return you are to bring my umbrella and hold it open over my head. Thereafter, the doctor brought the patient out of hypnosis and left the ward. When he returned, the patient grabbed the umbrella, opened it, and held it over the doctor’s head. The doctor asked him why he did that. The patient became embarrassed and gave a fictional “reason”, such as that he thought it was raining outside and the doctor would need his umbrella. The point is that, the patient’s “reason” for why he acted the way he did belies the actual “cause” of what he did. Here, a distinction is made between the “cause” of the patient’s action (the “cause” of which he was unconscious) and the “reason” for his action (the “reason” of which he was conscious). Likewise, often “causes” precede our actions, while our “reasons” proceed from the actions. We commonly fabricate reasons for our choices or deeds—reasons that conceal, not reveal, the values that underlie our decisions or actions. Upon honest examination of the values underlying our choices and deeds, we may realize that many of our choices and deeds are subconsciously carried out without being consciously aware of them. It is, as though, we are put on automatic pilot, acting with minimal conscious, deliberate effort until we suddenly realize that a mistake has been made!

Think about a mistake, a regrettable mistake, that you made in the past. I mean, more particularly, a kind of mistake that did not entail conditions such as lack of health, energy, time, and/or money. And if it did entail such conditions, they could have been reasonably overcome with some efforts. Whether you were fully consciously aware or not, prior to making the mistake, you had envisioned an ideal or goal to realize. Accordingly, you took certain actions toward realizing the ideal, but instead you reached the mistake. What did make it a mistake? Or, perhaps, I should ask: What did you pretend not to know about yourself and the surrounding circumstances before realizing the mistake?

What were the conditions under which you made the mistake? What was your state of mind in which you projected and committed yourself toward that which turned out to be the mistake? Before you realized it was a mistake, did you evaluate to see if you were on the right track toward your goal, or did you distract yourself somewhere along the way? What could you have done differently to avoid the mistake and attain what you had actually aimed for? Then, why didn’t you do it? Pay heed that opposite of the mistake might be the underlying “value”—i.e., the “mode of being” you had envisioned. Ultimately, one’s values are expressive of how one evaluates one’s own worth in relation to oneself and to others. The questions of value can be quite challenging and perplexing to answer, and it often takes courage and honesty to be face to face with them.


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