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July 23, 2021 / Congau

A Foundation for Ethics

There is a difference between right and wrong. Right? Well, we assume there is, so most of us would not be terribly cruel even if we could get away with it. At the same time, many of us love to play the skeptic citing subjective emotions and arbitrary habits as reasons for even our strongest convictions. It is as if we don’t take ourselves quite seriously, at one moment claiming to be right and at the next shrugging it off as just another whim. We say that x is right and are willing to die fighting for it, but in the abstract we deny the rightness of any xs and leave everyone to pursue their personal taste in indifferent liberty. This is inconsistent, to put it mildly.

If something is right, it is absolutely right, or else the term would be meaningless. A mathematical equation has a definite answer based on the principle of mathematics, and if there are no such principles, there is no answer at all – not even an approximate or tentative one. Now, the field of ethics is a lot more complicated than mathematics: In practical life there are always myriads of indeterminate variables floating around making the quest for absolute certainty impossible in practice. Nevertheless, we must assume there exists a possible answer to the question “What is the right thing to do?” or else we would not be looking for it. “Should I kill this enemy of mine?” you ask. I am not so liberal that I magnanimously shrug my shoulders and declare that that is perfectly up to you. Whether or not it is morally permissible for you to kill him, the question has a right answer. It may be hidden from us, but it is necessary that we look for it and we must believe that it exists, or else why are you asking it at all? 

It is true that other types of considerations do not admit of objective answers, one thing may be as subjectively beneficial or pleasing to you as another, but an ethical question has the property of some general validity and as such it is in the realm objectivity; it is assuming that a person in the exact same situation as you are ought to do the same as whatever you ought to do.

But to make such a claim, which in fact all of us frequently do, there needs to be a firm foundation for it – not necessarily as something explicitly formulated in our consciousness, but at least as an implicit prerequisite. Just like mathematics has its elementary premises that gives truth to a calculation, ethics must also have a basis if we are to make judgments that are more than a fleeting hunch.

But can such a thing exist? It has to, or else the ground under our feet would disappear and we might as well stop caring about anything. There would be no real reason to be ethical at all. To ask “Why be ethical?” is to ask for the foundation of ethics.

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