Week 5 Day 4 Ethics

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A cynical definition of moral philosophy is the finding of excuses for doing what we like. But have you noticed how politicians and functionaries say, "There's only a moral responsibility" when they mean there's no money involved? That shows what a lot of people think about the status of ethics.

This line of thought was perfectly illustrated in Orwell's novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying, where he has Gordon Comstock discover that the modern world has gone through I Corinthians XV printing the word "money" where St Paul wrote "love" or "charity". Thus, "If I have not money, I am nothing ... ", etc.

There are more serious considerations. For example, at times, in one breath, we insist that morality is "a matter of personal opinion" - something about which people should "make up their own minds" - and in the next breath we talk about universal human rights.

This idea that morals are personal value judgements is very new. It goes back only as far as the 1930s and the so-called "emotivist" view of ethics taught by A. J. Ayer and C. L. Stevenson. According to this theory, when I say that something is right or good I am only expressing a personal feeling and, perhaps, trying to persuade you to have this feeling as well. But if morality is only a matter of feelings, what becomes of moral argument and rational persuasion? Surely I want the passer-by to buy one of my flags because he thinks my charity is a good cause, not just because he happens to feel like it.

Disconcertingly, both Ayer and Stevenson agreed that, if reasonable persuasion fails in ethical disputes, then logically force is no worse as a persuader. And this philosophy was in its heyday while Hitler's cronies were providing the libretto for Cabaret!

Can you do good by accident, or must you intend it? If good is defined merely as pleasant consequences, then it would seem that the will has no place in morality - but that is just where most of us would like to think that the will is of supreme importance. Incidentally, perhaps someone will help me out with a difficulty in Christian morality I have never been able to surmount. Here we are enjoined, nay, commanded, to love our neighbour. As I look at my neighbour I realise that this requires an enormous act of will. But it is precisely the will which is impotent according to St Paul, who defined our moral predicament more acutely than anyone before or since: "The good I would, that I do not; but the evil if I would not, that I do." Ten out of ten for psychological acuteness Paul, but where does it leave me morally?

Secularised democracies measure right and wrong by the amount of pleasure or pain occasioned by them. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) even went so far as to devise a pleasure-pain calculus, the more accurately to work out ethical consequences. The system is known at Utilitarianism - and it was scorned by Nietzsche as "pig philosophy."

How do we measure pleasure and on what scale do we rate it? Is Bach better then Sid Snot and the Drifters? Bentham was an unabashed egalitarian, and he reckoned that when it comes to the measurement of pleasurable consequences, "pushpin is as good as poetry." Some pure and non-elitist strain in us all wants to agree with Bentham, but then a little voice pipes up within: "then what is the purpose of education - something else about which the modern professes to be very keen?"

Are there any moral absolutes? The Book of Exodus gives us ten commandments, but Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) seemed to understand that there can only ever be one moral absolute: prescribe more than one and you lay up impossible moral dilemmas for yourself, when the occasion arises that two of your absolutes come into conflict. What, for example, if it comes to a choice between not telling lies and protecting the innocent? Asked what we should do, Kant replied that we should do our duty. But isn't that just a tautology? What else should I do except my duty, when my duty means what I should do? Kant tries to answer this through his doctrine of the Categorical Imperative: act always so that the maxim of your action can be willed as a general rule (What if everybody did it?). Unfortunately, this "imperative" allows you to formulate your own version of the intention underlying your action.

Existentialists do things differently. Sartre (1905-1980) denied all moral systems in the name of freedom. I am not essentially obliged to do anything - because my existence precedes my essence. He said, "It is unfortunate for Existentialists that God doesn't happen to exist." And if there is any morality it consists in doing what I like. To do otherwise is to act "in bad faith". It can also be unfortunate for Existentialists that humankind with its tiresome ethical theories exists. As Sartre - like the baby screaming in his playpen - complained, "Hell is other people."

Tomorrow: Truth