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Ethics and Absolutes

Philosophical Reflections IX

To Be: Metaphysics

Reality exists. Those two words are the most important in philosophy, for they describe the fundamental nature of the universe, and therefore define the only valid metaphysics.

Reality has two irrefutable aspects, the Two Absolutes: my consciousness exists, and a reality external to it exists. This concept is so central that I will use the term "Duality" to mean the two Absolutes in the sense of each-separately-and-both-together. Individually, I will refer to these two aspects of reality as "consciousness" and "the world".

Any philosophy which attempts to deny that reality exists, that tries to get around the fact that the real world out there is the real world out there, is invalid at the root. Furthermore, it is of no use to the life of a human being: for the simple reason that we have no choice but to live in the real world out there. We exist, and it exists: and that's that. Thus to disconnect philosophy from reality is to make it useless as well as, by definition, false.

To Know: Epistemology

Consciousness exists and the world exists. Implicit in this duality is that consciousness is separate from the world: we do not carry the world in our heads. Consequently, it is impossible for us to have direct, omniscient knowledge of the world. As the world is external to our consciousness, the facts of the world are external too, and the only knowledge we can have is indirect, from the way the world interacts with us. But the world exists. Therefore it does impinge on us, and does so in accordance with its own nature and its own laws: and does so in ways critical to our continued existence, which it can sustain or end. Thus, implicit in Duality are the Prime Principle and Axiom: I must learn about the world – because it interacts with me; I can learn about the world – because it interacts with me.

Reason is our primary means for learning, for connecting our beliefs to reality, using our senses, memory and experiments as its data. Reason is primary because its laws are the reflection in consciousness of the nature of reality . The fundamental law of reason is: A is A. That is, a thing is itself, it cannot be both X and not-X at the same time. This is not an arbitrary law. It is grounded in the nature of reality itself, which is: reality is consistent. Things in reality are themselves. Therefore, true contradictions cannot exist; therefore, any apparent contradiction simply reveals an error in understanding. It follows that the role of reason is non-contradictory identification, and the essence of rationality is to integrate all of your knowledge. This means: to ensure all your beliefs are consistent with each other and with the totality of the evidence of your senses.

A philosophy which denies reason invalidates itself. Not only does it make itself inconsistent with reality at its most fundamental level, but if one could indeed dismiss reason then one could have nothing more to say. Anyone who dismisses reason and then continues to argue and reason is a liar: he continues to use reason himself while trying to disable it in his audience. He who dismisses reason genuinely is not a problem, as he has only two paths: give up human consciousness altogether and survive by conditioned reflexes (still mildly hypocritical, as he survives by the less efficient neural and subconscious analogues of reason); or direct his actions consciously without reason, and die at the next zebra crossing.

To Do: Ethics

We have no unerring instincts that tell us how to live. Because we are conscious, rational beings, we have free will: we must decide how to act and choose how to live, and we are morally responsible for those choices.

The question is, how do we choose? Can we have rational goals and valid values, or is there no basis for behaviour beyond who is strongest, who has the biggest gang, or what you can get away with? Should we live by principles, or by the expedient of the moment? Do we act by reason, or by whim? Do we deal with one another by force, by sacrifice, or by something else? To answer these questions is the task of the third great branch of philosophy: Ethics. The philosophy of ethics is the study of how human beings should act. It is the study of what is good and what is bad: the philosophy of morality.

Duality and Ethics

Duality is fundamental to ethics. Ethics require and derive from the existence of both Absolutes.

Consciousness exists. Ethics pertain to conscious choices: without choice, there can be no ethics; without consciousness, there can be no choice. Therefore, in the absence of consciousness there can be no ethics. Ethics are not something existing in external reality: such a concept is meaningless. They exist only as the product of consciousness, created for the sake of consciousness.

The world exists. If such a thing as an isolated consciousness could exist, then it would have no need of ethics. It could do (to the extent that it could "do" anything) whatever it pleased, because nothing it did could have any consequences. That is what the world provides: consequences. But the world does not merely provide consequences, it enforces them: which is why valid choices cannot be subjective, based on whim and beyond reason. As a conscious being, you can make any choices you like: but because external reality exists, the consequences of those choices are determined by the nature of that reality, and cannot be wished away.

Ethics are something of and for consciousness, that must be validated by reference to the real world.

Values and Virtues

Two primary concepts in ethics are value and virtue.

The world exists and your consciousness exists. The consequence of this is that there are things in the world which you want but do not have, and there are things you have and want to keep; and to get or keep them you must act. These are your values: things which you act to gain or keep. Values are central to ethics because ethics are concerned with how a man should act, and values are why a man acts. All action ultimately derives from seeking to gain values (or avoid disvalues, which is the other side of the coin): every conscious action has a motive, and at the root of every motive lies a value.

As implied, values derive from Duality. All values are either things in the world, such as diamonds, food or someone you love; things in the world as perceived by consciousness, such as beauty; or qualities of consciousness affected by the world, such as happiness. And all such things are values only when valued by a consciousness. In the absence of consciousness, "value" has no meaning, for the same reason as "ethics". They are things you (or any other conscious being ) act to gain or keep.

Virtues prescribe how a man should act; as his values are why a man acts, it follows that virtues are how a man achieves valid values. Virtues too derive from Duality. Gaining and keeping values doesn't just happen, it is something you must do in the world. It requires action, and the action requires conscious volition. This defines "virtue": an action, or the conscious process behind it, that helps you obtain true values.

Thus the philosophy of ethics is the study of first, what values are proper for a man? And second, what behaviours then constitute virtue in a man? The proper values must be decided first, as these determine what is virtue. For example, if the glory of the Fatherland, the purity of the Master Race, and the extermination of Jews are valid values for men, then blind obedience and murderousness are virtues; if individual human rights are a value, then both qualities are immoral.

The nature of values and virtues determines how to evaluate moral claims. If someone claims that something is a virtue, they must first answer this: "What value is it meant to achieve for the virtuous person, and can it really achieve it?" The claimed value must then be shown to exist in reality, and to be actually or potentially of value to someone: if not, both the claimed value and its derived virtue are empty, meaningless claims. The final question is whether the value is in fact valid. If not, then neither is the virtue.

Context and Universal Values

As values depend on reality, they are contextual. Your particular values will depend on your circumstances. However, philosophy is concerned with the broadest context of reality, with principles. It is interested in what is ethical for a rational consciousness as rational consciousness; in our case, it is also concerned with what is ethical for a human being as a human being.

It is possible to derive such general principles because any true values must derive from the nature of reality: the nature of rational consciousness and of the physical universe. The nature of the former is not arbitrary, because it depends on the latter. The nature of the latter is not arbitrary, because "arbitrary" implies alternatives: and reality just is. Thus, rational consciousness, like everything else, has a nature (A is A), which determines its proper values, which therefore are common to all rational consciousness. The same applies to man, as man.

Values relating to our particular circumstances are derived values, which help us achieve the more fundamental values that pertain to men as men, and to rational consciousness as rational consciousness. Philosophy aims to determine the general principles which apply to all men: these can then be applied to particular circumstances by each person, or by specialist philosophies (such as the Philosophy of Law, Education, or Business).

Valid Values

This returns us to the big question: can values in fact be validated? That is, can we determine generally applicable values; is the nature of reality, of consciousness and the world, such that there are proper values? Or is the only general principle we can derive from the nature of reality this: there are no absolute ethical principles, so values are inherently beyond validation?

If values are indeed beyond validation, then at root they are nothing more than whim: and there is no basis on which to make any moral judgements, by which to say what is right and what is wrong, other than by social agreement. And social agreement based on nothing but whim means simply this: we do what is allowed or demanded by whoever happens to have the biggest gang or the best guns.

If that is the case, then rational ethics reduces to this: expedience. The rational man, knowing it is all whim anyway, simply goes with whatever values the current gang demands. He knows there is no point in holding or expounding principles, because at root none can be upheld. He cannot say Nazism was "evil": our gang beat theirs, but the only thing "better" about our values (one whim is as good as the next) is that they happen to be ours. For the results of this philosophy, see the worst aspects of the Twentieth Century

However, values can be validated. Within the words above – "the rational man, knowing it is all whim anyway, simply goes with whatever values the current gang demands" – lies the seed of the answer. That is be the topic of my next chapter.

* Note that this restriction of values to conscious beings differs somewhat from Ayn Rand's Objectivism, which defines values as things sought by any living thing, including plants. The latter is also a valid formulation in its context.

© 1993, 1996 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.