Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nichomachean Ethics & the basis for Provisional Morality

In previous blogs I discussed the basis of moral provisionalism, which is the intermediate position between an absolutist morality and a totally relativistic one. The term was originally coined by author Michael Shermer in his monograph, The Science of Good and Evil. p. 168) He gives what is perhaps the best solution to the conundrum of ethics: "moral provisionalism" or what I would call: "ethical incrementalism" As Shermer notes (ibid.):

"Provisional ethics provides a reasonable middle ground between absolute and moral relative systems. Provisional moral principles are applicable to most people, for most circumstances, for most of the time - yet flexible enough to account for the wide diversity of human behavior"

It is interesting how this basis conforms very much with Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics. (Recall Aristotle was the student of Plato and subsumed many of his master's ideas, as well as expanding on them and refining them.) The most curious aspect is - like the basis for provisional ethics, Nichomachean ethics seeks to ascertain the "mean" between two extremes.

Thus, "moral virtue" (in Aristotle's book, 'Nichomachean Ethics'), is that state of character in which a person has the habit of choosing the mean between the extremes of excess and deficiency. However, this is not to be confused with a "mediocre" position, since to Aristotle the "mean" was a measure of excellence - the peak of what was "just right" given the situation and people involved.

Here, as in moral provisionalism, "just right" would mean that redounding to the benefit of the most people, not the least. In addition, the common element underscoring the moral virtues is conformity with right reasoning. That is, taking all aspects of a particular situation into account to come to a correct choice. That is, the sort of choice an impartial observer would come to.

As such an impartial observer (and using the Aristotelian definition of justice), one would also see immediately what potential actions (say even by a postulated deity) would be manifestly unjust. In his Book V of The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes:

"We see then that all men mean by the term Justice a moral state such that in consequence of it men have the capacity what is just and actually do it, and wish it. Similarly also with rspect to Injustice, a moral state such that in consequence of it men do unjustly and wish what is unjust.."

Aristotle didn't rest there, but actually demanded a proportionality to Justice in its particular expressions. As he writes:

"The Just then, is a certain proportionable thing. For proportion does not merely apply to number in the abstract, but to number generally, since it is equality of ratios and implies four terms at least (that this is the case in what is called discrete proportion is plain and obvious, but it is true also in continual proportion, for this uses the one term as two and mentions it twice, thus A:B:C may be expressed A:B::B:C. In the first, B is named twice and so, if as in the second, B is actually written twice, the proportionals will be four)..and the Just likewise implies four terms at the least, and the ratio between the two pair of terms is the same, because the persons and the things are divded similarly. It will stand then thus: A:B::C:D, and then permutando, A:C::B:D and then (supposing C and D to represent the things) A+C:B+D::A:B. The distribution in fact consisting in putting together these terms thus: and if they are put together so as preserve this same ratio, the distribution puts them together justly. So then the joining of the first and third and second and fourth proportionals is the Just in the distribution, and this Just is the mean relatively to that which violates the proportionate, for the proportionate is a mean and the Just is proportionate. "

Aristotle then goes on to note: "The Unjust is that which violates the proportionate"

In this beautiful presentation, we behold nearly the entire directional compass of the Nichomachean Ethics, and see how it can be used to expose a host of possible moral or ethical actions as just or unjust.

We can also use it to expose hypothetical actions in the same way.

For example, Aristotle's Justice would prohibit an eternal place (e.g. Hades or Hell) of punishment for temporal violations, since it violates the proportionate Justice. One simply cannot allow or have an eternal punishment in retribution for a temporary act. Let the eternal punishment be equal to infinity or oo in its intensity, and the temporal violation be equal to 1 unit of time commission, place or condition, then:

(A+oo: B+1) NOT = A:B

In other words, anything like "Hell" in the orthodox Christian sense of an eternal and infinite punishment would be disallowed in Aristotle's proportionate ethics because it imposes an unequal or disproportionate punishment. In addition, any entity imposing it would be unjust. If unjust, as Aristotle would argue, it would lack both virtue in the spheres of both personal and moral excellence and hence be imperfect as being.

Likewise this would be seen, for example, in the biblical illustration: 2 Kings 2, 23:24 which allows children to be slain by wild animals (She Bears) if they insult their elders (in this case a "prophet"). However, this is unjust since it again violates the proportionality for Justice. Just because a kid calls you "baldy" or "Bald one" you don't kill them by siccing She bears (or pit bulls in today's terms) on them to tear them asunder. More apropos would be a natural justice or natural law -motivated justice where the kids are simply reported to their parents, who then mete out a rectifatory justice (say using a few switches, or long time out).

For the same reason, Aristotle would manifestly reject as unjust the solution proffered in Deut. 21: 18-21 where any insolent son would have to be taken to the outskirts of a city by his parents who'd let the elders stone him to death. No, this again violates proportionality- by imposing a punishment that vastly exceeds the transgression. Give him a time out, or ground him for a month (even a year) but you don't kill him!

On the issue of existence of a deity, Aristotle is non-committal. He does reference a "Universal Good" (Book I) that is equal in moral and intellectual virtue in all things and ways, but acknowledges each person will approach it differently because each grasps it in different ways. He writes:

"...since good is predicated in as many ways as there are modes of existence [for it is predicated in the category of Substance as God, Intellect - and in that of Quality - as the Virtues - and in that of Quantity - as the Mean - and in that of Relation as the Useful - and in that of Time - as Opportunity- and in that of Place - as Abode and other such like things] it manifestly cannot be something common and universal and one in all: else it would not have been predicated in all the categories, but in one only".

In other words, given the divergences of circumstance across the spectrum of life and conditions, one can't expect the same standards of good - say from a kid brought up in the most debased hovels of Haiti, and one raised in the ritzy high rises of Manhattan. The reason is there will be intrinsically different perceptions in terms of life quality (there'll be much less respect for life in Haitian hovels since so many more die there each day) as well as type of abode and presence of intellect or other virtues. Aristotle correctly reasons, therefore, that IF a God had pre-ordained that all be judged the same way, by the same standard of the "good" then he or It would have to have created all human conditions the same, and not permitted such inequities of place, life, and circumstances. Thus, one must naturally expect - to this degree- different determinants of the "mean" in terms of expressing moral virtue. No sane person will judge the moral virtue via the "mean" of the Haitian hovel dweller as he would the Manhattan resident with access to the best schools, facilities etc.

In this sense, Aristotle's ethics tends to a certain objecivity in terms of allowance for differing standards and expectations. This appears "relativist" to some but in fact is not, in the sense of being arbitrary or "anything goes". Rather it is because the underpinning of a given moral dimension (for a person) is relative to the objective factors impinging his or her life, and the situations faced. Clearly those encountered by a poor Haitian in a hovel - where cholera is erupting all over and one can't even get clean water, will differ for a young Manhattan debutante.

As for the purpose of life, Aristotle is very clear about it (Book I):

It is to seek the "Chief Good" (or happiness, i.e. that which all things aim at) in terms of attaining the highest usefulness and expression of all virtues - both moral and intellectual - in arriving at the most complete life.

A happy man then, is one who conducts all his actions with reason, and performs all duties, tasks well and nobly - to the extent every deed is finished off well in the excellence that uniquely belongs to it. Further:

"If all this is so, then the Good of Man comes to be a working of the Soul in the way of Excellence"

In other words, whether a god exists or not is immaterial to the working out of excellence. A man, once he grounds his directons in terms of the "moral mean" will attain that excellence by working toward a fulfilling life and end. One needs no supernatural entity to fill the vacuum of one's life, once one has the utiltiy of consciousness to ascertain the Good (via reason) and then can apply it to the end. The god -monger in this sense, comes off as a person needing a crutch to get by. Because he lacks the inner fortitude and moral compass to find his path to excellence and virtue, he must rely on the crutch of an imaginary deity.

This is important because it falls directly within the atheist purview. And while most atheists may not be familiar with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, they will appreciate and be familiar with moral provisionalist ethics which can be arrived at from many of the same principles - especially of proportionate justice.

Several examples:

1) Abortion: According to the mean of moral provisionalism, abortion cannot be ethical in ALL circumstances for all conditions. Thus, since research has found that fetal brain waves appear past 6 months, NO abortions should normally be allowed in the third trimester. The only (provisional) exceptions would be: a) the health of the mother (e.g. if she were to have the child she'd die), or b) case of incest or rape - wherein having the child would create extreme mental trauma for the victim. (By that I mean possible psychosis or severe depression, including attempted suicide).

2) War: In the judicious application of moral provisionalism, NO war would be permitted in the U.S.A. unless an actual DECLARATION of WAR by congress is made. This would give congress the opportunity to exercise its constitutional rights, and impart moral and ethical authority in rendering a war truly just. In this light, we'd have no more Vietnams, Iraqs, Afghanistans or other adventures...finagled outside the parameters of congressional validation. For too long wars have been waged “through the back door” at great financial and moral cost to the U.S. - which inflicts a disproportionate injustice.

3) Teen sexual behavior: Applying the mean of moral provisionalism, teens are warned that actual intercourse outside of a stable permanent relationship is morally toxic. As a midway position, however, teens are allowed (as former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders suggested) to obtain sexual relief via self-stimulation. This balance would immediately stop the increasing rates of teen pregnancy, though likely not without the benefit of a good sex ed. course, which must also include removing the stigma attached (by the teen and larger societal culture) to masturbation.

These are just a few examples, and many more might be cited or found. The point is that there is a middle ("Nichomachean") way, and ethically conscientious humans ought to seek to pursue it as opposed to pretensions to either a facile absolutism or equally facile relativism. One doesn't need a god or other supernatural invention to follow either direct Nichomachean Ethics or moral provisionalism, only the possession of the basic faculty of reason and the intelligence and will to employ it toward constructive self-fulfillment of the Good. Via Excellence in all pursuits.

No comments: