Feb 14, 2014

Ethics: A Possible Origin by Samuel Bucker

Ethics and morality are rules or guides on what is right or wrong; good or bad. In this essay I would like to examine the origin of the dominant morality in our society today.

Morality is a type of ideology that is developed over time since birth and comes from a variety of sources including parents and society (teachers, friends, the media). As such, it is not a concrete concept; it changes over time and varies between different cultures and societies. For example, even within Canada some believe it is immoral to have extra-marital sex, and other believe that this kind of activity is perfectly fine. Anyone that has studied history knows that morality changes over time, and anyone that has traveled extensively knows that it changes between cultures. Morality is not law, although some laws do reflect the dominant morality of the society it governs. Morality is defined by the society that you associate with. If you are a church goer church will form a major basis of your morality. Your career, the friends you associate with, and any other influence you allow forms your morality. Morality as such appeals to no logical system, it just simply exists and can provide illegitimate reasons for action or inaction.

Ethics, to make a distinction from morality, is something that should be more applicable throughout various times and societies; it takes the form of a system. Ethics appeals to some sort of logic; an explanation of its reasoning. An example of an ethical system is utilitarianism, which states that which is acceptable is that which provides the most good for the defined society. These broad-form systems often do not provide a practical guide in everyday life; no one is expected to measure the impact of each of their actions throughout the day. Another system of ethics is to determine the best action by reference to a 'rule-book'. The most obvious example in our society is the Bible. This is also unsatisfactory because there are situations that are not covered at all by the Bible, and people can interpret the Bible differently. Our dominant morality originates from appeals to ethical systems and cultural tradition.

One theory on ethics is that ethics is sourced from biological desire mixed with intellectual evaluation. To illustrate what I mean by this let us imagine a single agent: A man alone with himself trapped on an island. The man may have numerous desires but foremost in his mind right now are fatigue and hunger. It would be considered 'good' if he were able to satisfy any of these desires, but his intelligence will tell him that he should post-pone rest in order to catch a rabbit because he knows that if he sleeps now he may starve to death (Russell, 1927). We see this kind of dominance of desire take place between two agents as well, I may very well want to murder a man but society has a stronger desire to have me not commit murder. The origin of ethics is in this internal as well as external judgement. The external judgement, over time, is internalized by the original agent. I believe that it is unethical to commit murder because my society has convinced me it is.

This brings the discussion back around to the legitimacy of morality. The original ethics was sensible, but morals are extraneous and possibly destructive. A young man has the desire to have sex, and decides that this desire can be overcome by masturbation. But, if the young man is a Christian he has been taught that masturbation is "immoral" and he internalizes this opinion and it factors into his internal evaluation of desire. Thus, when our young man does decide to masturbate he can not help but feel 'bad' about his actions.

So where do these seemingly irrational moral values, such as the "no-no" to masturbation, come from? A possible answer is that these values are illegitimate; they have been implanted in our social consciousness as a form of control. Nietzsche's analogy of the lambs and eagles could help to support this hypothesis:
…That lambs bear ill-will towards large birds of prey is hardly strange: but in itself no reason to blame large birds of prey for making off with little lambs. And if the lambs say among themselves ‘These birds of prey are evil; and whoever is as little of a bird of prey as possible, indeed, rather the opposite, a lamb – should he not be said to be good?’, then there can be no objection to setting up an ideal like this, even if the birds of prey might look down on it a little contemptuously and perhaps say to themselves: ‘We bear them no ill-will at all, these good lambs – indeed, we love them: there is nothing tastier than a tender lamb.’ To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a will to overcome, overthrow, dominate, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, makes as little sense as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength.
In this analogy the lambs want to assimilate the birds of prey into their ideology and to take control of their actions by denoting them as 'evil'. Once the birds of prey accept that their actions are evil, when they internalize the judgment, they will either cease to commit the actions and become lambs or despair in their inability to. This type of morality argues that birds of prey can become lambs and blames the birds of prey for failing to do so. In our on-going example, the man is wrongly told that masturbation is bad, and then is further demonized for his inability to curb his sexual desire. The judged person could, however, be more like the contemptuous bird of prey who refuses to admit the legitimacy of the lambs' claim.

We should govern our actions by listening to our higher order desires (the one that tells us to put off sleep to chase that rabbit), which requires dedication and self-control. Society restricts our actions by putting in laws that reflect its higher order desires; which is, hopefully, to increase the welfare of its people. Unfortunately, often one of our higher order desires is to simply fit in to society and have social relations; unfortunate because it often requires conforming to pre-existing moral values that may interfere with our other desires, such as the religious boy who desires to follow his church and fulfill his sexual desires. The bird of prey, with all of his strengths, will be forced to not express them and assimilate into society.

Samuel Bucker
Reconsidering his values in Kelowna, BC
April 2014


Bertrand Russell, Outline of Philosophy
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic

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