This first post may be longer than most.
For the opening of this blog it may be useful to lay out several of my presuppositions. To begin, I am a person who takes the ethical life rather seriously. By that I mean not that I am a proto-Kantian or a “prude” but rather that I recognise that there are such things as moral truths and that whether we live accordingly or not makes a difference for us here and now (and later). Hence, I am a moral realist; some things are good and others bad, some right and others wrong. And, moreover, we can have knowledge of these “things” to a great extent.
Now, let us suppose for arguments sake that such as what is listed above is the case. There are moral truths and we can know them. What does this mean for the living of my life? Let’s back up even further, however, and lay down a guiding principle. It is rational for a person to attempt to discover what the nature of the universe, cosmos, existence is and upon discovering (not inventing or deciding) said nature attempt to align their life in accordance. Conversely, it would be irrational of a person to discover what the nature of the universe is (and by this I mean it to include the nature of that person as well, not just rocks and trees etc) and yet decide not to live in accordance with that nature. This understanding is built into the definition of a rational person and such a definition is analytic, not synthetic. It is impossible to disagree with (the best kind of definition I think) without thereby being irrational; try it.
It is a truism, then, that if one can discover the nature of the cosmos and of himself then there is a working foundation for the building of an ethical theory. Flat out, there is not an is/ought problem. If I know that what it means, at the very least, to be a human person is to have a rational nature then I ought to try my hardest to actually have a rational nature, otherwise I am consciously or unconsciously denying what it is to be what I am and hence not actually living. If one then asks “why should I care if I am actually living or not” we have no answer to them except that they are deeply irrational and a sad excuse for a human being. We all do this every day, however, so we are all sad excuses for human beings.
Ethical theory, then, begins in metaphysical investigation. It does not begin in calculations of utility or within the depths of one’s subjective desires. It is not simply useful to be good and thus expect to be good; how foolish! Who cares at that point (and, before someone says “society cares” please remember that society is not a concrete entity but rather is an abstract entity, made up of concrete persons). Quite naturally this leads us to a fundamental starting point in ethical discussion, and that is the realisation that if there is a way the world is (and by world I mean reality in general) and there is a way that I am, then there is a the way that I am and the way that I should be (since that which I should be is included in the understanding of reality as a whole). Hence, ethics is the deceptively simple study of the processes that leads one from the man-which-he-is to the man-that-he-ought-to-be. (Here is, simply put, where the role and concept of virtue enters, but more on that in some other post). Some would deny that we have any conception of such a thing as “man-as-he-ought-to-be” and vigorously attack this position. There are several responses. One is that if they do so attack and yet wish to maintain that ethical theory remains possible and we may legitimately say X is bad and Y is good, then they are hopelessly incoherent. One cannot coherently admit that there is no conception of the ideal person, as it were, and yet wish to maintain morality. Either admit the one or give up the other.
Unfortunately, this is for the most part a rhetorical point as many have been all too happy to give up on ethical theory. To those who do I ask simply: really? Have you no concept of what a person is? It is not such a difficult matter, although I do confess that it has consequences. There is only one honest reason why anyone should believe any given proposition or fact and that is when there is no overwhelming concern as to its falsity. But I digress, as I am roving far afield. There is a motivating thought behind all these others which has driven me for the past few years and it is this: how can we know what we should do if we do not first know what we can do, and how can we know what we can do unless we first know what we are. This would seem so obvious as to be beyond any reasonable discount; somehow some manage to pluck up their courage and deny it. As we used to say in Guyana, “cockroach eat out their conscience.”