Category Archives: Metaethics

Hume’s Metaethics

He is a non-cognitivist and even emotivist, as is clear from passages like:

To have the sense of virtue, is nothing but to feel a satisfaction of a particular kind from the contemplation of a character. The very feeling constitutes our praise or admiration.

We go no farther; nor do we inquire into the cause of the satisfaction. We do not infer a character to be virtuous, because it pleases: But in feeling that it pleases after such a particular manner, we in effect feel that it is virtuous.

The case is the same as in our judgments concerning all kinds of beauty, and tastes, and sensations. Our approbation is implied in the immediate pleasure they convey to us. (3.1.2)

However, later on in the same chapter he proposes a powerful objection to his own theory.

Remember that the proper metaethics is (1) cognitivist, (2) actuated by 1st-order desires, (3) externalist. But the proper conception of physical goods is (1') non-cognitivist -- a thing's goodness (for me) is expressed in my enjoyment of it, (2') also driven by 1st-order desires, and (3') internalist, wherein the connection between judgment and motivation is that the motivation to pursue a pleasure causes the judgment "it is good" to be true.

If, following Hume, we mistakenly deem metaethics to be non-cognitivist + internalist, then how do we tell apart metaphysical goods (say, the nobility of charity or the wickedness of murder) from physical goods (say, the pleasure of eating ice-cream or the awfulness of the screech of monkeys)? "If virtue and vice be determined by pleasure and pain, these qualities must, in every case, arise from the sensations; and consequently any object, whether animate or inanimate, rational or irrational, might become morally good or evil, provided it can excite a satisfaction or uneasiness." Hume's first reply is that the pleasures and pains associated with virtue and vice are "peculiar" and presumably uniquely different from any pleasure produced by a merely material object.

Hume will then say than a wine, music, and man are good because they cause pleasure but for different qualities; thus, wine is good for its flavor; music, for its harmony; and man, for his virtue. But there is a problem. Wine and music are my bitches. They exist solely for my pleasure and are thrown away with contempt and indifference or even hatred when I find them tiresome. On the other hand, a girl is not a mere device that assists my masturbation. A human being is not a consumer good. At the very least, then, we must acknowledge that good wine is good physically, and a good man is good metaphysically. Hume is indicating that the goodness of both is, despite this obvious distinction, fully derivative from the pleasure they cause to us. This is plausible for wine. But wouldn't the man still be good, such as charitable or brave or loyal to his friends or cause even if I never knew of him? Isn't it in fact a test of my moral goodness to admire him for these virtues? I am not at this moment distinguishing between subjective vs. objective goodness, though this is a worthy subject in its own right; merely between judgment that is obtained from sentiment in physical good vs. sentiment that is obtained from judgment in metaphysical good. For the former, I love X, and then and because of it, X becomes good. For the latter, Y is good, and then I had better love Y (or else).

Hume's second argument is problematic, as well. He writes that the peculiarity of the feelings that virtue excites in us lies in their nature of pride / humility and love / hatred. I have written that the former are aspects of self-love. Regarding the latter, hatred for a fellow man is unnatural, as in, never justified, thereby being below human nature; at the same time loving another human being is impossible without divine grace which is above nature. (Thus, falling in love is due to the bestowal of grace; and mothers, too, I think, are given grace to love their children.) Since his book is a treatise on human nature as opposed to beastliness or deiformity, Hume is not allowed to invoke hatred or love in his arguments.

Hume: Is Reason a Slave to Passions?

Refer to the following table:

Part intellect power will
Pre-temperament Barely Human (higher) humanity Monster
Gender yang fruit yin
Part character duty ideal
Temperament (approved of) personality Guardian Idealist
Gender fruit yin yang
Narrow Happiness
Part plan execution enjoyment
Temperament Rational Artisan (true) happiness
Gender yin yang fruit

Hume is correct that reason (plan-making - yin) is a slave to passions (procuring of enjoyment, fruit), but only in the narrow happiness trinity. There, the reason is indeed reduced to cranking out means to arbitrarily chosen ends.

But narrow happiness is the last human end. Before one can pursue it, he must attain the first end or "higher humanity" in the nature trinity and the second end of "approved-of personality" in the virtue trinity. Things are different there.

Yang uses yin in order to produce fruit. Thus, for nature, an evil will or hatred for fellow men results in one's committing crimes against person and property. Criminals are hanged and lose their lives. There is no pursuit of virtue or narrow happiness for corpses. Hence, one must so bend the desires with his reason as to obtain the nature of willing good to other citizens in order to avoid prison or execution. Then the person will be socially free and able to live his life as he pleases and seek his own personal ends.

The intellect straightens out the will for the sake of survival, bodily and even ultimately spiritual.

For virtue, intellect is the fruit, understood as self-knowledge and peace with the sort of person one is. A virtuous person feels no shame for who he is nor regrets for what he's done. The yang-will, understood as self-love drives the yin-duties to build a permanent character. Here, the natural and primordial passion of self-love serves the self-making of a person and the end of knowing oneself, since unexamined narrow happiness is not worth pursuing.

One wills to follow a dutiful routine which turns into habits which turn into character for the sake of calm, luminous, and confident self-knowledge.

Without a "big picture" like this, disputes between Hume and his opponents will be unintelligible.

For example, when Hume writes that "it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger," we initially get stunned from the apparent plausibility of a proposition so outrageous. The solution to the puzzle is to notice that desiring the destruction of the whole world is evil, and if Hume attempted this, he'd be killed physically by his intended victims who would defend themselves and perhaps even go to hell. He won't get the chance to enjoy his success. As a result, before Hume could scratch his finger, an innocent desire belonging squarely to narrow happiness, he'd have to purify his own corrupt will by some kind of penance. There is no pleasure in this, to be sure. But a necessity would lie upon him, as he cannot will his own death. He'd have to upgrade his temperament from Monster to something better first.

The Attraction of Relativism

The plausibility of moral relativism may lie in the fact that each person most ordinarily is a member of numerous civil associations. Thus, I am a member of my family, I am Catholic, I am a philosopher, I live in Pheasant Run in Akron, Ohio, I play Hearthstone on occasion, and so on. The rules for dealing with fellow members of these communities differ from one to another. I treat my next-door neighbors differently from fellow philosophers. Then people rush to judgment that all interhuman law is "just" a convention.

In each of these associations, other members are closer to me than complete strangers. But is it really the case that complete strangers have no claim on me at all? A little reflection shows that they do. "You shall not kill" commands each person not kill precisely strangers. Rules of this sort are known as natural law. Each person is free to associate with those he likes and to love them more than strangers and to acquire special rights and duties that go beyond basic justice, but natural law is still no joke, specifying as it does the minimum consideration other people ought to be given.

A question can arise whether people can "by convention" agree to renounce some of their natural rights. For example, while normally assault is everywhere prohibited, two boxers can agree to beat each other up in the ring for money to entertain spectators. I think there are some fairly remote possibilities where each member of a community can vote away their natural rights, but usually such arrangements are moral perversions and are avoided.

Ideal Subjectivism, 2

Note the rider in the previous post: "nonmorally informed, impartial, ..." This causes ethical subjectivism to be different from the divine command theory of morality, because God is presumed to be perfectly moral, whatever that means exactly.

As a result, many different ideal observers can still disagree because each is an idealization of a particular individual whose own personal judgments determine right and wrong; it's just that a judgment 1) no longer belongs to him as he is right now but to some nebulous far-out ideal counterpart, and 2) is purified perhaps of some especially egregious "irrationalities," whatever that means, as well.

As a result, even the ideal subjectivists' moralizing will differ; though they will all be alike non-morally, they will still differ in their moral outlook, sentiment, and grasp of the issues.

“Ideal Observer” Ethical Subjectivism

Roojen presents it as follows: "An action is right iff it is disposed to elicit approval from an observer who was fully nonmorally informed, impartial, disinterested, omnipercipient, consistent, and otherwise normal, in normal conditions."

So, let Smith say that action X is right. Jones feels it is not right. Smith proclaims: "You, Jones, are not being an ideal observer. If you were, then you'd feel as I do." Jones replies: "You pathetic worm! How dare you insult me so gravely? It is you who are failing to be the ideal observer!" Their disagreement cannot be resolved on this version of subjectivism any better than on simple subjectivism.

This "theory" is probably best explained as an attempt by the philosopher advocating it to elevate his own ego to the status of the "fully nonmorally informed, impartial, disinterested," etc. judge. The philosopher imagines himself to be the supreme legislator, and any who disagrees with him is a contemptible villain. The philosopher is always right and his will is law.

If the main appeal of subjectivism is its affirmation of the practicality of morality, then the ideal observer theory seems to destroy it quite thoroughly without adding much of value.

The Ramsey-Lewis Method

Fisher presents it as follows: "Imagine that we are trying to define 'neutron,' 'electron,' and 'proton' but in a way that does not rely on any theoretical physics. ... The basic Ramsey-Lewis method is to tell a story something like this":

There is one kind of thing, and another, and yet another; instances of the first of these orbit a clump of instances of the other two; instances of the first and the second are attracted to each other; instances of the first repel each other, as do instances of the second; instances of the third exhibit no attraction or repulsion to other instances of its kind; some strange force keeps the members of the second kind together in a clump despite their mutual repulsion; and so on.

So, we can apparently name the first thing a1, the second thing, a2, and so on. Having listed their properties and relations, we then rename a1 to electron, etc.

First of all, notice that we link names with things by ostension. This, we say pointing at an object, is going to be called a1. We are focusing on a real elementary particle. This seems less tractable for moral terms. Regarding "right," "wrong," "good," "evil," what object whose essence we want to grasp are we pointing at?

Second, we only know that a1 is in fact different from a2 once we have ascertained that they have different properties. We subject various particles we can't yet distinguish to many different empirical tests and see if they react to these tests differently. An assertion like "there is one kind of thing, and another, and yet another" is part of the conclusion of the Ramsey-Lewis method not its premises. For moral terms, we are supposed to distinguish between our m1 and m2 by conceptual analysis. But it seems to me that in the beginning our m1 is simply undefined, and the project cannot even get started. If, however, we assume that m1 is distinct from m2, as right is distinct from wrong, then one, this begs the question against both non-realism and non-naturalism; and two, why bother with the Ramsey-Lewis method rather than simply describe the nature of moral terms?

Mackie, 3: A Note

If I say, "the taillights are red," what is the truth-maker of this proposition? Clearly, it is my subjective experience of the color red. It is somewhat obscure whether "the accident of redness subsists within the substance of the taillights." It's hard to say whether redness "really" exists "out there." But the proposition "the taillights are red" is made true because it corresponds to the fact of my sensing the color red.

"Murder is wrong" cannot be rescued in this manner. Murder is not wrong because I am in the process of subjectively making a judgment of its wrongness. This statement must be proven differently, e.g., as indicated in the previous posts.

Mackie, 2

Fisher interprets Mackie as proposing three arguments against moral realism.

Argument 1. Mackie thinks that moral values, even if they were objective and categorical, would have to be accessed by a mysterious special faculty which he calls "moral intuition":

None of our ordinary accounts of sensory perception or introspection or the framing and confirming of explanatory hypotheses or inference or logical construction or conceptual analysis, or any combination of these, will provide a satisfactory answer to how we might access moral values.

But of course the enigmatic faculty has been known since time immemorial as wisdom. What is wisdom? St. Thomas answers: "it belongs to wisdom to consider the highest cause. By means of that cause we are able to form a most certain judgment about other causes, and according thereto all things should be set in order." But setting things in order means grasping the relations between them, in particular, between God, men, and nature. Thus, we can say that the master / slave relation is less just than the tax-lord / tax-serf relation which in turn is less just than the relations between members of a capitalist society. The relation between man and nature is for man to "be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it." (Gen 1:28) Relations can be equality, hierarchy, or complementarity. And so on regarding the highest causes in particular genera such as medicine or architecture, or the cause that is simply the highest, which is God.

The senses of balance of permanence and change, of unity and complexity are also part of wisdom.

So is grasp of unity, truth, beauty, and indeed goodness. Thus, another definition of wisdom is "knowledge of good and evil."

Argument 2. Mackie's reasoning that moral values do not exist is that "if there were objective moral values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe."

Surely, values as such are not strange. I like ice-cream. That's a value that can make ice-cream, if I choose it, a physical good, i.e., when ice-cream is loved, and it ought to be.

Nor are metaphysical goods strange. One is commanded to love his neighbor as himself. A human being is and ought to be loved. Judgment of a human being as valuable in himself or metaphysically good compels our emotions, or would always if we were not sinners. Thus, "you shall not kill" your neighbor is a proposition whose reasonableness constitutes an objective-real moral value. It is objective because mind-independent: everyone is obligated to love their neighbors. It is real, because the goodness of a human being which generates our metaphysical-moral duties inheres in him.

Moreover, "you shall not kill" is not just a famous divine command. It is also a proposition of natural law and can be rigorously proven.

Argument 3. Fisher phrases it as follows: "Mackie challenges the moral realist to explain why, if there are objective moral values, different people, groups, and cultures have different moral codes."

First, the moral codes do not differ that much. Some differences are clearly due to the difficulty of positive science. For example, ethics, especially its branch of political philosophy, depends intimately on economics. And economics is not yet fully worked out and is full of controversies anyway. Everyone may know the facts but differ as to their grasp of the law.

Fisher has a counter to that. "For although there is a variety of views in science, we think that if people knew all the facts and reasoned correctly, then they would agree. Yet the same is not true in the moral case. Arguably, in the moral case two people can agree on all the facts and reason correctly but still have different moral views."

This isn't 100% right. Reasoning correctly is reasoning wisely, and wisdom is the last and most precious intellectual virtue. A lot of people are simply foolish. Not everyone's opinion is worth heeding. "The wise inherit honor, but fools get only shame." (Prov 3:35)

Non-Realism: Mackie’s Error-Theory

Miller describes it as "the claim that the positive, atomic sentences of [moral] discourse are systematically and uniformly false."

Now "murder is wrong" and "it is not the case that murder is wrong" cannot both be true; that's a point of logic not ethics. Hence the "positive, atomic" qualifier. Both "murder is wrong" and "murder is right" are false. How can this be?

Consider that "protons are green" is false, and, while "protons are not green" is true, "protons are blue" is also false. "Triangles are clever" is false, but so is "triangles are dim-witted." Color (green, blue) cannot be predicated of protons, nor level of intelligence (clever, dim-witted) of triangles. Similarly, moral judgments (wrong, right), according to Mackie, cannot be made of actions. Actions are just not the sort of things that can be judged. So, Mackie denies that it makes sense for people to make moral judgments or, for that matter, express feelings, though he is a cognitivist. Should anyone make a judgment of murder to be wrong (or right), he would be as mistaken as someone who imagines triangles to be clever (or dim-witted). It seems we have arrived at a version of non-realism without the need for the non-realist to be a materialist.

"Wrong," etc. do not necessarily become meaningless; it is possible that they remain of use in other contexts, such as "X is the wrong means to your end"; just not in the moral context.

Mackie then says that the reason for the discipline of ethics is to help promote social cooperation. Moral judgments, though not true, are useful. I presume this means that, for example, while we cannot assert that murder is wrong, we can still outlaw it and punish murderers.

Now of course, even someone who insists that some moral propositions are true can agree that ethical reasoning can be of use to society. Far be it from moral realism to be unconcerned with social cooperation and the human civilization that we're trying to build. But he can object to Mackie that even if society will not collapse from widespread acceptance of Mackie's error-theory, much of valuable human experience will be lost if we refuse to render moral judgments or good and bad, right or wrong, just or unjust.

So, the words "right," "wrong," etc. become pretty useless. Well, let's employ them creatively by defining "right" (or "good" or whatever) as "socially virtuous" or "tending to further social cooperation," and "wrong" as "anti-social" or "tending to retard it."

One possibility is that these definitions make all positive, atomic moral propositions, including "murder is wrong," have seemly truth values, in which case the "error-theory" is nothing of the sort. Mackie would then have accomplished a reduction of the content of moral judgments, but this reduction must be justified in a separate argument.

The other is if "murder is wrong" and its fellow propositions are still all false, then "murder injures social cooperation" would be as false as "murder furthers social cooperation" by definition; consequently, no pragmatic public policy would follow from such nonsense. Mackie would then need a different explanation of what the point of moral discourse is.

Re: Why It Is Good to Be Good

I'm rather in awe how much identical stuff I and John H. Riker have discovered independently.

A dominating feature of his work is the idea that one's friends act in the capacity of "self-objects." The ideal existence cannot be the Thomistic contemplation of God or even sciences, because each person, far from being self-sufficient, is in fact "fragile, interdependent, and needing a trustworthy matrix of self-objects."

This makes it particularly aggravating that he does not define or give examples of the work performed by a self-object. My guess is that a self-object does things like: agree with, sympathize with, praise, encourage, argue with, fraternally correct, offer acceptance to, etc. a subject. E.g.:

"And he, like, takes out a handkerchief and blows his nose into it."
"Eww, gross!"
"I go: that's what disposable tissues are for!"
"You don't see that every day."
"I know, right?!"

Read that out loud, and you'll feel a certain communion going on.

His reasons for being ethical is that a bad person cannot do two things: 1) he cannot empathize with other people, therefore have true friends, therefore enjoy and himself supply self-objects relations; 2) he cannot create a self and so find true happiness.

In my terminology, that translates into 1) that a bad person cannot progress from hatred of others to indifference to love for them or himself be truly loved in the nature trinity, 2) that he cannot create his own personality and through that find narrow happiness (such as because such people "have unjust souls that are anarchically controlled by whims"), therefore true happiness when nature, virtue, and narrow happiness are combined.

I was influenced by St. Thomas' description of love as involving union, mutual indwelling, ecstasy, and zeal. I am further in full and passionate agreement with 1 Cor 13. But if we add Riker's insight of what a loving friend does for another, i.e., perform self-object services, than we see exactly what crucial goods a bad person cuts himself off from.

Ethics: Some Definitions

Character = a harmonious union of a number of well-defined and known virtues: courage, prudence, humility, magnanimity, modesty, justice, etc.

Self = a collection and solidification of permanent pleasures, interests, loves, projects, and life's works.

Personality = character + self = the virtue trinity.

Persona = social roles, such as one's job, public accomplishments, objects of pride.

Character is built, self is discovered.

It may be asked, if one (though not the overriding) purpose of life is soul-making, why would not God create us with perfect character and full self-knowledge? Because the process of character-building and self-discovery is everlasting. There is no such thing as a fully completed human soul. Might as well start at zero.

Id = desire (potency) / enjoyment (act) in the narrow happiness trinity.
Ego = intellect + power in the happiness trinity.
Superego = demands of natural law in the nature trinity and self-imposed ideals in the virtue trinity.

Personality grounds pursuit of happiness, because one seeks the happiness made proper to himself by his self. These pleasures will not be undone in the future. But both virtue and happiness trinities are in a flux, at the very least in constant development. So they may be aligned well at t1 and misaligned later at t2. Ideally, the process of harmonizing pursuit of 1st-order pleasures with development of personality (and in addition with improvement in nature such as learning to love) is always proceeding and effective.

The key advantage of getting a self is that without it, commitments to long-term projects are problematic, because of the spiritual chaos in one's heart. It makes no sense for me to embark upon complex and long endeavors, if today I like X, tomorrow I dislike X. I begin a task and abandon it only a little later. I'm a "quitter." So my pleasures are of a primitive kind capable of being immediately satisfied: food, sex, games, and the like.

Moreover, while a long-term goal is being achieved, all one does is pay the costs of it. The revenues lie far in the future. A person without a self, even if he resolved to see a project to its end, may find the present pain unjustified by the future pleasure and again, quit.

Development of self is organic, as change-amidst-permanence, so there is always a core self, even if it grows more interesting and complex with time.

Vertical Splitting and Time

Following St. Thomas, we can construct a very fast and loose hierarchy of life-forms.

At the bottom, there are plants who possess only the "nutritive" or "vegetative" soul.

Then there are animals like oysters who have senses but are immobile.

Then we have higher animals who "transcend space," i.e., who can move about, like parrots and lions.

Up at the very top, we have humans who as rational animals transcend both space and time, i.e., are 4-dimensional, operating in all 4 periods, past, present, future, and timelessness.

To quote from my book,

Notice how seeking narrow happiness by a vicious person is nugatory. For if later on in life Smith decides to "become a better person," whatever exactly that entails for him, then he may have to reject, abandon, and purge those very desires that he struggled so valiantly to satisfy, making all his previous efforts entirely vain.

In other words, suppose Smith once felt that drinking himself into a stupor and wallowing in his own filth like a pig was a fine way of living. Then he wakes up and tries to pull himself together. Here's the thing: recalling his past pleasures will not be a happy experience for Smith but rather full of shame and pain. The pleasures will be despised, and Smith will want to forget his past. It's as if his past is condemned, and his very life thereby shortened.

Such will be the fate of all people without a coherent self.

Vertical Splitting

This means in psychology that "the only way one can both retain a sense of self-worth and engage in the immoral activity is to split off the part of himself that carries his self-image from the part that is performing the action. When persons engage in vertical splitting they are conscious of what they are doing but disavow its reality or its wrongness." (Riker, 100)

In Summa Against the Keynesians, I make this conflict the centerpiece of the virtue trinity formation, i.e., when a person does not approve of what he enjoys and does not enjoy what he approves of. In the book it may be expressed in a somewhat formulaic manner, but then it is an economics not psychology treatise.

Therefore, when a personality grounds the pursuit of happiness, it must be that one strives for all and only those ends which he morally approves of.

Do Humans Have Intrinsic Worth?

This question comes down to whether humans are metaphysically good, in which case if they are, then they ought to be loved. Which is certainly the case.

Note the difference with physical goods.

It is not true that vanilla ice-cream has any claims on us such that it ought to be loved; it is perfectly Ok if one can't stand ice-cream. Moreover, if one does like it, and he chooses it at the expense of other goods, then it straightforwardly ought to be.

Whereas no non-existing human being ought to be.


metaphysical good = is and ought to be loved
physical good = is loved and ought to be.

Update. Humans can be physical goods to each other insofar as one person may be useful to another. Thus, in choosing between applicants for a job, an employer may think that one ought to be working for him, while the rest are set aside. The new employee and the boss are physical goods (with unique properties) to each other.

But this fact is in addition and accidental to both men being great metaphysical goods in themselves.

Why Be Just: Externalism Rightly Understood

Recall that there are 3 reasons not to be an asshole toward other human beings: charity, inner peace, and fear of punishment.

Charity and union of souls are the most perfect expressions of "natural sentiment," admittedly a superb term of referring to relations between strangers in civil society. One wants to do good; the profit of the beloved is his profit, as well. This corresponds to love of friendship, and of course, it pays greatly to have friends.

Inner peace has to do with indivisibility of virtue. Remember that true human happiness is composed of 3 parts: nature, virtue, and narrow happiness. Unless one does his duty to fellow men, he cannot create his own personality which also involves doing duties. Other-regarding virtues are a foundation for self-regarding ones. Criminals are shameless, yet "it must be exceedingly difficult if not impossible to feel no compunction at murder yet feel bad at a breach of modesty or temperance or some other self-regarding virtue."

One who is unjust to others will be unjust to himself, yet without a holy personality, no lasting narrow happiness can be had. This corresponds to love of self.

Finally, fear of being punished is the last barrier standing between a man and perdition. This corresponds to love of concupiscence.

As per the lemma in the previous post, customized ideal threats all the way up to eternal damnation prevent all crimes. This is the reason why we are ultimately externalists regarding natural law and interpersonal ethics. The first two reasons can fail, but not the last one.

No crazy bastard, no matter how stone-cold and inhuman, can fail to heed the horror of hellfire and mend his ways posthaste.

Lemma: Ideal Prisons

Why do we imprison people? For two reasons. First, to isolate incorrigible reprobates from society so that they can't harm it. Second, to reinforce the deterrent incentive or stimulus against those who are thinking of committing crimes, to show that the state is serious about punishing lawbreakers, to strike fear into the hearts of the morally lax.

Here's why neither of the two reasons require actual people in prisons.

First, the very fact that some temperamental Monsters are in prison means that they were not deterred by the existing threat of punishment. Very well, what if we up the stakes? Let us consider an ideal situation in which everyone's punishment is personalized to him. "Is 5 years in jail enough to deter you from stealing a car? No? How about 10 years? Still not enough? 12 years in solitary confinement? Also severe beatings every day? How about we'll have rats devour your hands and feet? Also genitals?" And on we go ratcheting up the brutality, until our Monster trembles with terror at his fate and refrains from stealing the car.

If there is a chance one can avoid detection, the punishment is to be increased still more to compensate for it.

Second, ideally, the threat is credible to Barely Humans even without actual evidence (trials and sentencings) that the legal system works efficiently.

In an ideal world, then, prisons would exist but be empty.

Ethics and Ideology

We don't have or bother speculating about any ethical rules or precepts for how masters should treat their slaves, because living in a capitalist society, we do not consider master-slave relations to be legitimate. An attempt to enslave (such as by kidnapping a person and keeping him in a hole on one's property) is a crime and that's all there is to it.

In this sense, ethics depends upon ideology understood as "a doctrine of the mutual relationship among the members of society." (Mises, Liberalism, 192)

Virtues and Human Diversity

John H. Riker suggests that "for Aristotle all good persons are alike...; Aristotle's ethics cannot respond to issues of diversity -- cannot respond to different groups of people valuing genuinely different forms of life," especially given "the radical individualism of modernity in which the singularity of each person is affirmed." (Why It Is Good to Be Good, 5)

This is scarcely a problem for my system in which virtue is explicitly set off against on the one hand nature and on the other hand narrow happiness.

As a result, when asked, "What's your poison?" nothing prevents St. Smith from saying "I study and collect butterflies"; St. Jones, "I am a Vegas high roller" (gambling as such is not a sin in Catholicism); and St. Robinson, "I love airplanes and flying them."

Their saintly character -- through which they are indeed somewhat, though hardly 100%, alike -- is compatible with an immense variety of ways of pursuing narrow happiness, as well as of the environment including people around them in which this pursuit proceeds.

Choices and Institutions

Let's say there are 4 types of pastries I can buy with $2: a bear claw, a cobblestone, a pecan braid, and a blueberry scone. I can only pick one. If I choose to enjoy a cobblestone, then the cobblestone ought to be, and every other alternative, though also loved, ought not to be. This is a categorical ought, unconnected with any "is."

Having chosen the pastry, I now ought to pay the $2 for it. This is a hypothetical ought, derivable from the "is" in a straightforward manner as a means to an end.

Consider now a doctor who ought to follow the ethical guidelines of his profession, or a person who, after promising to meet another for lunch, ought to keep his promise, or a chess player who ought to obey the rules of the game. Are these oughts different from the 2 above?

For a clue, consider what Mises says about slavery:

As soon as a man has decided in favor of his subjection to a hegemonic system, he becomes, within the margin of this system's activities and for the time of his subjection, a pawn of the director's actions.

Within the hegemonic societal body and as far as it directs its subordinates' conduct, only the director acts.

The wards act only in choosing subordination; having once chosen subordination they no longer act for themselves, they are taken care of. (HA, 196)

Somewhat similarly, the young person's choice to become a doctor is categorical; his obligation to conduct his business ethically is hypothetical to his wanting to stay a doctor. If he behaves unethically, then it is questionable whether he understands what "being a doctor" means.

A man who makes a promise chooses categorically to accept the institution of promising; having chosen thus, he is bound to behave according to the rules of the institution.

Insofar as one decides to start a chess game, this decision is categorical; but now that the game is in progress, he needs to abide by the rules of chess if his actions are to have any meaning.

A single exchange is a contract; a marriage is a covenant, till death do us part, etc.; the difference being that no one exchange necessitates another; but marriage is a life-long relationship, and once two people have married (in so doing accepting the institution of marriage), they need to do and keep doing right by each other if they are to stay married.

We can see that our distinction between categorical and hypothetical oughts remains, and rule-bound institutions are a special case of it: the end chosen is to benefit from the institution; the means to the end is to respect that institution's nature.

An Easy Ethical Puzzle

Geoffrey Thomas attributes the following argument to Thomas Nagel:

1) Any practical judgement assertable from a personal standpoint must be assertable, with the same content, from an impersonal standpoint.

In other words, all reasons are objective reasons since subjective reasons are assertable from an impersonal standpoint.

2) Practical judgments from a personal standpoint have motivational content.

3) Practical judgments from an impersonal standpoint have motivational content.

Suppose that I assert "I have a reason to eat a sandwich." That's a subjective judgment from my own personal point of view. It has "motivational content" because it indicates my desire to eat a sandwich. According to this, however, it follows that the proposition "Dmitry has a reason to each a sandwich," when expressed by some Smith, is true. But this, being a mere rephrasing of the original situation, must by that fact also have motivational content. As a result, just as I have a reason to act for my sake, so, Smith, too, has a reason to act for my sake, because my reason allegedly compels Smith.

In an attempt to reconcile "justice" and "self-interest" Nagel has muddied the waters considerably. For remember from previous posts that sandwich = X is a physical good to me if and only if I enjoy it and it ought to be. And it ought to be only if I have chosen it usually at the expense of less valued goods. Those other goods that I have set aside in order to obtain X ought not to be and so are not physical goods despite being loved.

But for a second party the situation is not the same. True, X is still loved or enjoyed by me. But the person choosing between X and other goods is now different. It is Smith. Smith has his own values scale which is different from mine. It may be that he values my happiness so much that he will assist me at obtaining X. But he does not have to act or choose this way. He may choose some Y such that it will be precisely X-for-me that will be set aside, ought not to be, and hence turn out not to be a physical good for Smith.

Nagel's error then is thinking that personal judgments and impersonal judgments will have identical "motivational content." But that need not be the case, and my choosing X does not entail that any other person is bound to servitude to me to bring about X.

In addition, individual interests often compete directly. If I and Smith are rival businessmen, then Smith may well be hoping that my plans to invent a better mousetrap will go awry. Smith then may actually be desiring that I fail to attain X.

So much for the "possibility of altruism."