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Ethics: A Very Short Introduction ‘This little book is an admirable introduction to its alarming subject: sane, thoughtful, sensitive and lively’ Mary Midgley, Times Higher Education Supplement ‘sparkling clear’ Guardian ‘wonderfully concise, direct and to the point’ Times Literary Supplement ‘plays lightly and gracefully over . . . philosophical themes, including the relationship between good and living well.’ New Yorker Very Short Introductions are for anyone wanting a stimulating and accessible way in to a new subject. They are written by experts, and have been published in more than 25 languages worldwide. The series began in 1995, and now represents a wide variety of topics in history, philosophy, religion, science, and the humanities. Over the next few years it will grow to a library of around 200 volumes – a Very Short Introduction to everything from ancient Egypt and Indian philosophy to conceptual art and cosmology. Very Short Introductions available now: ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY Julia Annas THE ANGLO-SAXON AGE John Blair ANIMAL RIGHTS David DeGrazia ARCHAEOLOGY Paul Bahn ARCHITECTURE Andrew Ballantyne ARISTOTLE Jonathan Barnes ART HISTORY Dana Arnold ART THEORY Cynthia Freeland THE HISTORY OF ASTRONOMY Michael Hoskin Atheism Julian Baggini Augustine Henry Chadwick BARTHES Jonathan Culler THE BIBLE John Riches BRITISH POLITICS Anthony Wright Buddha Michael Carrithers BUDDHISM Damien Keown CAPITALISM James Fulcher THE CELTS Barry Cunliffe CHOICE THEORY Michael Allingham CHRISTIAN ART Beth Williamson CLASSICS Mary Beard and John Henderson CLAUSEWITZ Michael Howard THE COLD WAR Robert McMahon Continental Philosophy Simon Critchley COSMOLOGY Peter Coles CRYPTOGRAPHY Fred Piper and Sean Murphy DADA AND SURREALISM David Hopkins Darwin Jonathan Howard Democracy Bernard Crick DESCARTES Tom Sorell DRUGS Leslie Iversen THE EARTH Martin Redfern EGYPTIAN MYTHOLOGY Geraldine Pinch EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY BRITAIN Paul Langford THE ELEMENTS Philip Ball EMOTION Dylan Evans EMPIRE Stephen Howe ENGELS Terrell Carver Ethic; s Simon Blackburn The European Union John Pinder EVOLUTION Brian and Deborah Charlesworth FASCISM Kevin Passmore THE FRENCH REVOLUTION William Doyle Freud Anthony Storr Galileo Stillman Drake Gandhi Bhikhu Parekh GLOBALIZATION Manfred Steger HEGEL Peter Singer HEIDEGGER Michael Inwood HINDUISM Kim Knott HISTORY John H. 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Grayling WORLD MUSIC Philip Bohlman Available soon: AFRICAN HISTORY John Parker and Richard Rathbone ANCIENT EGYPT Ian Shaw THE BRAIN Michael O’Shea BUDDHIST ETHICS Damien Keown CHAOS Leonard Smith CHRISTIANITY Linda Woodhead CITIZENSHIP Richard Bellamy CLASSICAL ARCHITECTURE Robert Tavernor CLONING Arlene Judith Klotzko CONTEMPORARY ART Julian Stallabrass THE CRUSADES Christopher Tyerman Derrida Simon Glendinning DESIGN John Heskett Dinosaurs David Norman DREAMING J. Allan Hobson ECONOMICS Partha Dasgupta THE END OF THE WORLD Bill McGuire EXISTENTIALISM Thomas Flynn THE FIRST WORLD WAR Michael Howard FREE WILL Thomas Pink FUNDAMENTALISM Malise Ruthven Habermas Gordon Finlayson HIEROGLYPHS Penelope Wilson HIROSHIMA B. R. Tomlinson HUMAN EVOLUTION Bernard Wood INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS Paul Wilkinson JAZZ Brian Morton MANDELA Tom Lodge MEDICAL ETHICS Tony Hope THE MIND Martin Davies Myth Robert Segal NATIONALISM Steven Grosby PERCEPTION Richard Gregory PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION Jack Copeland and Diane Proudfoot PHOTOGRAPHY Steve Edwards THE RAJ Denis Judd THE RENAISSANCE Jerry Brotton RENAISSANCE ART Geraldine Johnson SARTRE Christina Howells THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR Helen Graham TRAGEDY Adrian Poole THE TWENTIETH CENTURY Martin Conway For more information visit our web site www.oup.co.uk/vsi Simon Blackburn ETHICS A Very Short Introduction 1 3 Great Clarendon Street, Oxford o x 2 6 d p Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide in Oxford New York Auckland Bangkok Buenos Aires Cape Town Chennai Dar es Salaam Delhi Hong Kong Istanbul Karachi Kolkata Kuala Lumpur Madrid Melbourne Mexico City Mumbai Nairobi São Paulo Shanghai Taipei Tokyo Toronto Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and in certain other countries Published in the United States by Oxford University Press Inc., New York © Simon Blackburn 2001 The moral rights of the author have been asserted Database right Oxford University Press (maker) First published as an Oxford University Press Hardback 2001 First published as an Oxford University Press Paperback 2002 First published as a Very Short Introduction 2003 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, or under terms agreed with the appropriate reprographics rights organizations. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above You must not circulate this book in any other binding or cover and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data Data available Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Data available ISBN 13.. 978–0–19–280442–6 ISBN 10.. 0–19–280442–1 5 7 9 10 8 6 Typeset by ReﬁneCatch Ltd, Bungay, Suffolk Printed in Great Britain by TJ International Ltd., Padstow, Cornwall Also available as a larger format paperback, Being Good Preface This Very Short Introduction is shorter than Think, my other introductory book, to which it stands as a younger sibling. Think grew from a conviction that most introductions to philosophy were unnecessarily dry and offputting; the present volume grew from a parallel conviction that most introductions to ethics failed to confront what really bothers people about the subject. What bothers them, I believe, are the many causes we have to fear that ethical claims are a kind of sham. The fear is called by names like relativism, scepticism, and nihilism. I have tried to weave the book around an exploration of them. But by the end it will be up to each reader to decide whether they have been laid to rest, or whether, if like Dracula they rise again, they are at least de-fanged. I was invited to write this book by the editor of the series, Shelley Cox, whose conﬁdence and encouragement have been towers of strength to me. The actual writing was done (will date the book) at the Research School of Social Sciences of the Australian National University, perhaps the most agreeable place in the world to embark on such a project. I owe thanks to Michael Smith for the hospitality of the School. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has always given me marvellous research support, and an equally marvellous critical audience of colleagues and graduate students. Among them, I owe thanks to Adrienne Martin, who read the proofs. As always, my principal debt is to my wife Angela, whose editorial and typesetting skills are not usually at the service of an author under the same roof, and so needed matching by her equally remarkable patience and cheer. SWB 24 November 2000 Contents List of illustrations x Introduction 1 2 3 1 Seven threats to ethics 9 Some ethical ideas 49 Foundations 93 Appendix 117 Notes and further reading 125 Picture credits 131 Bibliography 133 Index 137 List of illustrations 1 Paul Klee, ‘Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other To Be in a Higher Position’ 2 7 Richard Hamilton, ‘What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ 67 2 Hung Cong (‘Nick’) Ut, ‘Accidental Napalm Attack, 1972’ 5 8 William Hogarth, ‘The Cock Fight’ 72 3 Smilby, ‘This is the wall, Foster . . .’ 28 4 Matt Davies, ‘The Human Genetic Code, Deciphered’ 36 5 William Blake, ‘The Soul Exploring the Recesses of the Grave’ 58 6 William Blake, ‘The Just Upright Man is Laughed to Scorn’ 60 9 Leunig, ‘Gardens of the Human Condition’ 74 10 Eugène Delacroix, ‘Liberty Leading the People’ 82 11 George Grosz, ‘Waving the Flag’ 85 12 Francisco de Goya, ‘As If They Are Another Breed’ 99 Introduction We have all learned to become sensitive to the physical environment. We know that we depend upon it, that it is fragile, and that we have the power to ruin it, thereby ruining our own lives, or more probably those of our descendants. Perhaps fewer of us are sensitive to what we might call the moral or ethical environment. This is the surrounding climate of ideas about how to live. It determines what we ﬁnd acceptable or unacceptable, admirable or contemptible. It determines our conception of when things are going well and when they are going badly. It determines our conception of what is due to us, and what is due from us, as we relate to others. It shapes our emotional responses, determining what is a cause of pride or shame, or anger or gratitude, or what can be forgiven and what cannot. It gives us our standards – our standards of behaviour. In the eyes of some thinkers, most famously perhaps G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), it shapes our very identities. Our consciousness of ourselves is largely or even essentially a consciousness of how we stand for other people. We need stories of our own value in the eyes of each other, the eyes of the world. Of course, attempts to increase that value can be badly overdone, as Paul Klee shows (Fig. 1). The workings of the ethical environment can be strangely invisible. I was once defending the practice of philosophy on a radio programme where one of the other guests was a professional 1 1. Paul Klee, ‘Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other To Be in a Higher Position’. A comment on the servility often involved in the ambition for respect. There is a story about a physicist visiting his colleague Niels Bohr, and expressing surprise at ﬁnding a good-luck horseshoe hanging on the wall: ‘Surely you are not superstitious?’ ‘Oh, no, but I am told it works whether you believe in it or not.’ Horseshoes do not, but the ethical climate does. An ethical climate is a different thing from a moralistic one. Indeed, one of the marks of an ethical climate may be hostility to moralizing, which is somehow out of place or bad form. Thinking that will itself be a something that affects the way we live our lives. 3 Introduction survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. He asked me, fairly aggressively, what use philosophy would have been on a death march? The answer, of course, was not much – no more than literature, art, music, mathematics, or science would be useful at such a time. But consider the ethical environment that made such events possible. Hitler said, ‘How lucky it is for rulers that men cannot think.’ But in saying this he sounded as if he, too, was blind to the ethical climate that enabled his own ideas, and hence his power, to ﬂourish. This climate included images of the primordial purity of a particular race and people. It was permeated by fear for the fragile nature of this purity. Like America in the post-war McCarthy era, it feared pollution from ‘degenerates’ outside or within. It included visions of national and racial destiny. It included ideas of apocalyptic transformation through national solidarity and military dedication to a cause. It was hospitable to the idea of the leader whose godlike vision is authoritative and unchallengeable. In turn, those ideas had roots in misapplications of Darwinism, in German Romanticism, and indeed in some aspects of Judaism and Christianity. In short, Hitler could come to power only because people did think – but their thinking was poisoned by an enveloping climate of ideas, many of which may not even have been conscious. For we may not be aware of our ideas. An idea in this sense is a tendency to accept routes of thought and feeling that we may not recognize in ourselves, or even be able to articulate. Yet such dispositions rule the social and political world. Ethics So, for instance, one peculiarity of our present climate is that we care much more about our rights than about our ‘good’. For previous thinkers about ethics, such as those who wrote the Upanishads, or Confucius, or Plato, or the founders of the Christian tradition, the central concern was the state of one’s soul, meaning some personal state of justice or harmony. Such a state might include resignation and renunciation, or detachment, or obedience, or knowledge, especially self-knowledge. For Plato there could be no just political order except one populated by just citizens (although this also allows that inner harmony or ‘justice’ in citizens requires a just political order – there is nothing viciously circular about this interplay). Today we tend not to believe that; we tend to think that modern constitutional democracies are ﬁne regardless of the private vices of those within them. We are much more nervous talking about our good: it seems moralistic, or undemocratic, or elitist. Similarly, we are nervous talking about duty. The Victorian ideal of a life devoted to duty, or a calling, is substantially lost to us. So a greater proportion of our moral energy goes to protecting claims against each other, and that includes protecting the state of our soul as purely private, purely our own business. We see some of the workings of this aspect of our climate in this book. Human beings are ethical animals. I do not mean that we naturally behave particularly well, nor that we are endlessly telling each other what to do. But we grade and evaluate, and compare and admire, and claim and justify. We do not just ‘prefer’ this or that, in isolation. We prefer that our preferences are shared; we turn them into demands on each other. Events endlessly adjust our sense of responsibility, our guilt and shame, and our sense of our own worth and that of others. We hope for lives whose story leaves us looking admirable; we like our weaknesses to be hidden and deniable. Drama, literature, and poetry all work out ideas of standards of behaviour and their consequences. This is overtly so in great art. But it shows itself just as unmistakably in our relentless appetite for 4 gossip and the confession shows and the soap opera. Should Arlene tell Charlene that Rod knows that Tod kissed Darlene, although nobody has told Marlene? Is it required by loyalty to Charlene or would it be a betrayal of Darlene? Watch on. Reﬂection on the ethical climate is not the private preserve of a few academic theorists in universities. After all, the satirist and cartoonist, as well as the artist and the novelist, comment upon and criticize the prevailing climate just as effectively as those who get known as philosophers. The impact of a campaigning novelist, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dickens, Zola, or Solzhenitsyn, may be much greater than that of the academic theorist. A single photograph may have done more to halt the Vietnam War than all the writings of moral philosophers of the time put together (see below). 2. Hung Cong (‘Nick’) Ut, ‘Accidental Napalm Attack, 1972’. 5 Introduction Philosophy is certainly not alone in its engagement with the ethical Ethics climate. But its reﬂections contain a distinctive ambition. The ambition is to understand the springs of motivation, reason, and feeling that move us. It is to understand the networks of rules or ‘norms’ that sustain our lives. The ambition is often one of ﬁnding system in the apparent jumble of principles and goals that we respect, or say we do. It is an enterprise of self-knowledge. Of course, philosophers do not escape the climate, even as they reﬂect on it. Any story about human nature in the contemporary climate is a result of human nature and the contemporary climate. But such stories may be better or worse, for all that. Admiring the enterprise, aspiring to it, and even tolerating it, are themselves moral stances. They can themselves ﬂourish or wither at different times, depending on how much we like what we see in the mirror. Rejecting the enterprise is natural enough, especially when things are comfortable. We all have a tendency to complacency with our own ways, like the English aristocrat on the Grand Tour: ‘The Italians call it a coltello, the French a couteau, the Germans a Messer, but the English call it a knife, and when all is said and done, that’s what it is.’ We do not like being told what to do. We want to enjoy our lives, and we want to enjoy them with a good conscience. People who disturb that equilibrium are uncomfortable, so moralists are often uninvited guests at the feast, and we have a multitude of defences against them. Analogously, some individuals can insulate themselves from a poor physical environment, for a time. They may proﬁt by creating one. The owner can live upwind of his chemical factory, and the logger may know that the trees will not give out until after he is dead. Similarly, individuals can insulate themselves from a poor moral environment, or proﬁt from it. Just as some trees ﬂourish by depriving others of nutrients or light, so some people ﬂourish by depriving others of their due. The Western white male may ﬂourish because of the inferior economic or social status of people who are not Western, or white, or male. Insofar as we are like that, we will not want the lid to be lifted. 6 I therefore begin this book with a look at the responses we sometimes give when ethics intrudes on our lives. These are responses that in different ways constitute threats to ethics. After that, in Part Two, we look at some of the problems that living throws at us, and in particular the clash between principles of justice and rights, and less forbidding notions such as happiness and freedom. Finally, in Part Three we look at the question of foundations: the ultimate justiﬁcation for ethics, and its connection with human knowledge and human progress. 7 Introduction Ethics is disturbing. We are often vaguely uncomfortable when we think of such things as exploitation of the world’s resources, or the way our comforts are provided by the miserable labour conditions of the Third World. Sometimes, defensively, we get angry when such things are brought up. But to be entrenched in a culture, rather than merely belonging to the occasional rogue, exploitative attitudes will themselves need a story. So an ethical climate may allow talking of ‘the market’ as a justiﬁcation for our high prices, and talking of ‘their selﬁshness’ and ‘our rights’ as a justiﬁcation for anger at their high prices. Racists and sexists, like antebellum slave owners in America, always have to tell themselves a story that justiﬁes their system. The ethical climate will sustain a conviction that we are civilized, and they are not, or that we deserve better fortune than them, or that we are intelligent, sensitive, rational, or progressive, or scientiﬁc, or authoritative, or blessed, or alone to be trusted with freedoms and rights, while they are not. An ethic gone wrong is an essential preliminary to the sweat-shop or the concentration camp and the death march. This page intentionally left blank Part One Seven threats to ethics This section looks at ideas that destabilize us when we think about standards of choice and conduct. In various ways they seem to suggest that ethics is somehow impossible. They are important because they themselves can seep into the moral environment. When they do, they can change what we expect from each other and ourselves, usually for the worse. Under their inﬂuence, when we look at the big words – justice, equality, freedom, rights – we see only bids for power and clashes of power, or we see only hypocrisy, or we see only our own opinions, unworthy to be foisted onto others. Cynicism and self-consciousness paralyse us. In what follows we consider seven such threats. 1. The death of God For many people, ethics is not only tied up with religion, but is completely settled by it. Such people do not need to think too much about ethics, because there is an authoritative code of instructions, a handbook of how to live. It is the word of Heaven, or the will of a Being greater than ourselves. The standards of living become known to us by revelation of this Being. Either we take ourselves to perceive the fountainhead directly, or more often we have the beneﬁt of an intermediary – a priest, or a prophet, or a text, or a tradition sufﬁciently in touch with the divine will to be able to communicate it to us. Then we know what to do. Obedience to the 9 divine will is meritorious, and brings reward; disobedience is lethally punished. In the Christian version, obedience brings triumph over death, or everlasting life. Disobedience means eternal Hell. Ethics In the 19th century, in the West, when traditional religious belief began to lose its grip, many thinkers felt that ethics went with it. It is not to the purpose here to assess whether such belief should have lost its grip. Our question is the implication for our standards of behaviour. Is it true that, as Dostoevsky said, ‘If God is dead, everything is permitted’? It might seem to be true: without a lawgiver, how can there be a law? Before thinking about this more directly, we might take a diversion through some of the shortcomings in traditional religious instruction. Anyone reading the Bible might be troubled by some of its precepts. The Old Testament God is partial to some people above others, and above all jealous of his own pre-eminence, a strange moral obsession. He seems to have no problem with a slave-owning society, believes that birth control is a capital crime (Genesis 38: 9– 10), is keen on child abuse (Proverbs 22: 15, 23: 13–14, 29: 15), and, for good measure, approves of fool abuse (Proverbs 26: 3). Indeed, there is a letter going around the Internet, purporting to be written to ‘Doctor Laura’, a fundamentalist agony aunt: Dear Dr Laura, Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from you, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18: 22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the speciﬁc laws and how to best follow them. a. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacriﬁce, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. 10 They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. How should I deal with this? b. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as it suggests in Exodus 21: 7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her? c. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15: 19–24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense. d. Leviticus 25: 44 states that I may buy slaves from the nations that are around us. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? e. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35: 2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated f. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellﬁsh is an abomination (Lev. 10: 10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? g. Leviticus 21: 20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here? I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am conﬁdent you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging. Things are usually supposed to get better in the New Testament, with its admirable emphasis on love, forgiveness, and meekness. Yet the overall story of ‘atonement’ and ‘redemption’ is morally dubious, suggesting as it does that justice can be satisﬁed by the sacriﬁce of an innocent for the sins of the guilty – the doctrine of the scapegoat. Then the persona of Jesus in the Gospels has his fair share of moral quirks. He can be sectarian: ‘Go not into the way of the Gentiles, 11 Seven threats to ethics to kill him myself? Ethics and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt. 10: 5–6). In a similar vein, he refuses help to the non-Jewish woman from Canaan with the chilling racist remark, ‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs’ (Matt. 15: 26; Mark 7: 27). He wants us to be gentle, meek, and mild, but he himself is far from it: ‘Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ (Matt. 23: 33). The episode of the Gadarene swine shows him to share the then-popular belief that mental illness is caused by possession by devils. It also shows that animal lives – also anybody else’s property rights in pigs – have no value (Luke 8: 27–33). The events of the ﬁg tree in Bethany (Mark 11: 12–21) would make any environmentalist’s hair stand on end. Finally there are sins of omission as well as sins of commission. So we might wonder as well why he is not shown explicitly countermanding some of the rough bits of the Old Testament. Exodus 22: 18, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’, helped to burn alive tens or hundreds of thousands of women in Europe and America between around 1450 and 1780. It would have been helpful to suffering humanity, one might think, had a supremely good and caring and knowledgeable person, foreseeing this, revoked the injunction. All in all, then, the Bible can be read as giving us a carte blanche for harsh attitudes to children, the mentally handicapped, animals, the environment, the divorced, unbelievers, people with various sexual habits, and elderly women. It encourages harsh attitudes to ourselves, as fallen creatures endlessly polluted by sin, and hatred of ourselves inevitably brings hatred of others. The philosopher who mounted the most famous and sustained attack against the moral climate fostered by Christianity was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Here he is in full ﬂow: 12 Under Christianity the instincts of the subjugated and the oppressed come to the fore: it is only those who are at the bottom who seek their salvation in it. Here the prevailing pastime, the favourite remedy for boredom is the discussion of sin, self-criticism, the inquisition of conscience; here the emotion produced by power (called ‘God’) is pumped up (by prayer); here the highest good is regarded as unattainable, as a gift, as ‘grace’. Here, too, open dealing is lacking; concealment and the darkened room are Christian. Here body is despised and hygiene is denounced as sensual; the church even ranges itself against cleanliness ( – the ﬁrst Christian order after the banishment of the Moors closed the public baths, of which there were 270 in Cordova alone). Christian, too, is a certain cruelty toward one’s self and toward others; hatred of unbelievers; the will to persecute . . . And Christian is all hatred of the intellect, of pride, of courage, of freedom, of intellectual of joy in general. Obviously there have been, and will be, apologists who want to defend or explain away the embarrassing elements. Similarly, apologists for Hinduism defend or explain away its involvement with the caste system, and apologists for Islam defend or explain away its harsh penal code or its attitude to women and inﬁdels. What is interesting, however, is that when we weigh up these attempts we are ourselves in the process of assessing moral standards. We are able to stand back from any text, however entrenched, far enough to ask whether it represents an admirable or acceptable morality, or whether we ought to accept some bits, but reject others. So again the question arises: where do these standards come from, if they have the authority to judge even our best religious traditions? The classic challenge to the idea that ethics can have a religious foundation is provided by Plato (c. 429–347 bc), in the dialogue known as the Euthyphro. In this dialogue, Socrates, who is on the point of being tried for impiety, encounters one Euthyphro, who 13 Seven threats to ethics libertinage; Christian is all hatred of the senses, of joy in the senses, sets himself up as knowing exactly what piety or justice is. Indeed, so sure is he, that he is on the point of prosecuting his own father for causing a death. euth. Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious. soc. Ought we to enquire into the truth of this, Euthyphro, or simply to accept the mere statement on our own authority and that of others? What do you say? euth. We should enquire; and I believe that the statement will stand the test of enquiry. soc. We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. The point which I should ﬁrst wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved Ethics of the gods. Once he has posed this question, Socrates has no trouble coming down on one side of it: soc. And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro: is not piety, according to your deﬁnition, loved by all the gods? euth. Yes. soc. Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason? euth. No, that is the reason. soc. It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved? euth. Yes. soc. And that which is dear to the gods is loved by them and is in a state to be loved of them because it is loved of them? euth. Certainly. soc. Then that which is dear to the gods, Euthyphro, is not holy, nor is that which is holy loved of God, as you afﬁrm; but they are two different things. 14 euth. How do you mean, Socrates? soc. I mean to say that the holy has been acknowledged by us to be loved of God because it is holy, not to be holy because it is loved. The detour through an external god, then, seems worse than irrelevant. It seems to distort the very idea of a standard of conduct. As the moral philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1824) put it, it encourages us to act in accordance with a rule, but only because of fear of punishment or some other incentive; whereas what we really want is for people to act out of respect for a rule. This is what true virtue requires. (I discuss these ideas of Kant’s more fully in Part Three.) We might wonder whether only a vulgarized religion should be condemned so strongly. The question then becomes, what other kind is there? A more adequate conception of God should certainly 15 Seven threats to ethics The point is that God, or the gods, are not to be thought of as arbitrary. They have to be regarded as selecting the right things to allow and to forbid. They have to latch on to what is holy or just, exactly as we do. It is not given that they do this simply because they are powerful, or created everything, or have horrendous punishments and delicious rewards in their gifts. That doesn’t make them good. Furthermore, to obey their commandments just because of their power would be servile and self-interested. Suppose, for instance, I am minded to do something bad, such as to betray someone’s trust. It isn’t good enough if I think: ‘Well, let me see, the gains are such-and-such, but now I have to factor in the chance of God hitting me hard if I do it. On the other hand, God is forgiving and there is a good chance I can fob him off by confession, or by a deathbed repentance later . . . ’ These are not the thoughts of a good character. The good character is supposed to think: ‘It would be a betrayal, so I won’t do it.’ That’s the end of the story. To go in for a religious cost-beneﬁt analysis is, in a phrase made famous by the contemporary moral philosopher Bernard Williams, to have ‘one thought too many’. stop him from being a vindictive old man in the sky. Something more abstract, perhaps? But in that mystical direction lies a god who stands a long way away from human beings, and also from human good or bad. As the Greek Stoic Epicurus (341–271 bc) put it: The blessed and immortal nature knows no trouble itself nor causes trouble to any other, so that it is never constrained by anger or favour. For all such things exist only in the weak. Ethics A really blessed and immortal nature is simply too grand to be bothered by the doings of tiny human beings. It would be unﬁtting for it to be worked up over whether human beings eat shellﬁsh, or have sex one way or another. The alternative suggested by Plato’s dialogue is that religion gives a mythical clothing and mythical authority to a morality that is just there to begin with. Myth, in this sense, is not to be despised. It gives us symbolism and examples that engage our imaginations. It is the depository for humanity’s endless attempts to struggle with death, desire, happiness, and good and evil. When an exile reminisces, she will remember the songs and poems and folktales of the homeland rather than its laws or its constitution. If the songs no longer speak to her, she is on the way to forgetting. Similarly, we may fear that when religion no longer speaks to us, we may be on our way to forgetting some important part of history and human experience. This may be a moral change, for better or worse. In this analysis, religion is not the foundation of ethics, but its showcase or its symbolic expression. In other words, we drape our own standards with the stories of divine origin as a way of asserting their authority. We do not just have a standard of conduct that forbids, say, murder, but we have mythological historical examples in which God expressed his displeasure at cases of murder. Unhappily myth and religion stand at the service of bad morals as well. We read back what we put in, 16 If all this is right, then the death of God is far from being a threat to ethics. It is a necessary clearing of the ground, on the way to revealing ethics for what it really is. Perhaps there cannot be laws without a lawgiver. But Plato tells us that the ethical laws cannot be the arbitrary whims of personalized gods. Maybe instead we can make our own laws. 2. Relativism So instead of anything with supernatural authority, perhaps we are faced simply with rules of our own making. Then the thought arises that the rules may be made in different ways by different people at different times. In which case, it seems to follow that there is no one truth. There are only the different truths of different communities. This is the idea of relativism. Relativism gets a very bad press from most moral philosophers. The ‘freshman relativist’ is a nightmare ﬁgure of introductory classes in ethics, rather like the village atheist (but what’s so good about village theism?). Yet there is a very 17 Seven threats to ethics magniﬁed and validated. We do not just fear science, or want to take other peoples’ land, but we have examples in which God punishes the desire for knowledge, or commands us to occupy the territory. We have God’s authority for dominating nature, or for regarding them – others different from ourselves – as inferior, or even criminal. In other words, we have the full depressing spectacle of people not only wanting to do something, but projecting upon their gods the commands making it a right or a duty to do it. Religion on this account is not the source of standards of behaviour, but a projection of them, made precisely in order to dress them up with an absolute authority. Religion serves to keep us apart from them, and no doubt it has other social and psychological functions as well. It can certainly be the means whereby unjust political authority keeps its subjects docile: the opium of the people, as Marx put it. The words of the hymn – God made the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate – help to keep the lower orders resigned to their fates. attractive side to relativism, which is its association with toleration of different ways of living. Nobody is comfortable now with the blanket colonial certainty that just our way of doing things is right, and that other people need forcing into those ways. It is good that the 19th-century alliance between the missionary and the police has more or less vanished. A more pluralistic and relaxed appreciation of human diversity is often a welcome antidote to an embarrassing imperialism. The classic statement occurs in Book III of Herodotus’s Histories. The Greek historian Herodotus (from the 5th century bc) is criticizing the king Cambyses, son of Cyrus of Persia, who showed insufﬁcient respect for Persian laws: Everything goes to make me certain that Cambyses was completely mad; otherwise he would not have gone in for mocking religion and Ethics tradition. If one were to order all mankind to choose the best set of rules in the world, each group would, after due consideration, choose its own customs; each group regards its own as being by far the best. So it is unlikely that anyone except a madman would laugh at such things. There is plenty of other evidence to support the idea that this opinion of one’s own customs is universal, but here is one instance. During Darius’s reign, he invited some Greeks who were present to a conference, and asked them how much money it would take for them to be prepared to eat the corpses of their fathers; they replied that they would not do that for any amount of money. Next, Darius summoned some members of the Indian tribe known as Callatiae, who eat their parents, and asked them in the presence of the Greeks, with an interpreter present so that they could understand what was being said, how much money it would take for them to be willing to cremate their fathers’ corpses; they cried out in horror and told him not to say such appalling things. So these practices have become enshrined as customs just as they are, and I think Pindar was right to have said in his poem that custom is king of all. 18 Why does Herodotus show such scorn of Cambyses? It is conventional to drive on either the right or the left, since each is an equally good solution to the problem of coordinating which side we drive. Presumably, then, just because of that, a latter-day Cambyses who mocked our slavish obedience to the one rule or the other would be mad. Certainly, there is only here the law of custom. But it is necessary for there to be some rule, and hence there is nothing at all to mock about whichever one we have hit upon. In turn that suggests a limitation to the relativism. For now there come into view norms or standards that are transcultural. In the United States and Europe they drive on the right and in Britain and Australia on the left, but in each country there has to be one rule, or 19 Seven threats to ethics There are two rather different elements here. One is that the law of custom is all that there is. The other is that the law of custom deserves such respect that only those who are raving mad will mock it. In our moral climate, many people ﬁnd it easier to accept the ﬁrst than the second. They suppose that if our standards of conduct are ‘just ours’, then that strips them of any real authority. We might equally well do things differently, and if we come to do so there is neither real gain nor real loss. What is just or right in the eyes of one people may not be so in the eyes of another, and neither side can claim real truth, unique truth, for its particular rules. Arguing about ethics is arguing about the place of the end of the rainbow: something which is one thing from one point of view, and another from another. A different way of putting it would be that any particular set of standards is purely conventional, where the idea of convention implies that there are other equally proper ways of doing things, but that we just happen to have settled on one of them. As the philosopher says in Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers, ‘Certainly a tribe which believes it confers honour on its elders by eating them is going to be viewed askance by another which prefers to buy them a little bungalow somewhere.’ But he also goes on to point out that in each tribe some notion of honour, or some notion of what it is ﬁtting to do, is at work. Ethics chaos reigns and trafﬁc grinds to a halt. Funerary practices certainly vary, as Darius showed, but perhaps in every community, ever since we stopped dragging our knuckles, there have been needs and emotions that require satisfying by some ritual of passing. If an airliner of any nationality goes down, the relatives and friends of the victims feel grief, and their grief is worse when there is no satisfactory ‘closure’ or suitably digniﬁed way of identifying and interring those who are lost. In Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone (441 bc) the heroine is torn between two unyielding demands: she must obey the king, who has forbidden burial to his dead opponents in battle, and she must bury her brother, who was among them. The second demand wins, and not only the ancient Greeks, but we today, understand why. The play translates: Antigone’s sense of honour makes sense to us. So we are faced with a distinction between the transcultural requirement ‘We need some way of coping with death’ and the local implementation ‘This is the way we have hit upon’. This is what qualiﬁes the relativism. If everybody needs the rule that there should be some rule, that itself represents a universal standard. It can then be suggested that the core of ethics is universal in just this way. Every society that is recognizably human will need some institution of property (some distinction between ‘mine’ and ‘yours’), some norm governing truth-telling, some conception of promise-giving, some standards restraining violence and killing. It will need some devices for regulating sexual expression, some sense of what is appropriate by way of treating strangers, or minorities, or children, or the aged, or the handicapped. It will need some sense of how to distribute resources, and how to treat those who have none. In other words, across the whole spectrum of life, it will need some sense of what is expected and what is out of line. For human beings, there is no living without standards of living. This certainly suggests part of an answer to relativism, but by itself it only gets us so far. For there is no argument here that the standards have to be fundamentally the same. There might still be the ‘different truths’ of different peoples. 20 We can approach the idea of universality a different way, however, and a way that brings into focus what is for many a serious moral dilemma. We saw above that toleration is often a good, and we do well to put many imperialistic certainties behind us. When in Rome do as the Romans do – but what if the Romans go in for some rather nasty doings? We do not have to lift the lid very far to ﬁnd societies whose norms allow the systematic mistreatment of many groups. There are slave-owning societies and caste societies, societies that tolerate widow-burning, or enforce female genital mutilation, or systematically deny education and other rights to women. There are societies where there is no freedom of political expression, or whose treatment of criminals cannot be thought of without a shudder, or where distinctions of religion or language bring with them distinctions of legal and civil status. Here it is natural to look to the language of justice and of ‘rights’. There are human rights, which these practices ﬂout and deny. But the denial of rights is everybody’s concern. If young children are denied education but exploited for labour, or if, as in some North African countries, young girls are terrifyingly and painfully mutilated so that thereafter they cannot enjoy natural and pleasurable human sexuality, that is not OK, anywhere or any time. If they do it, then we have to be against them. Many people will want to take such a stand, but then they get confused and defeated by the relativistic thought that, even as we say this, it is still ‘just us’. The moral expressions of the last two paragraphs embody good, liberal, Western standards. They are 21 Seven threats to ethics Here we have a clash. On the one hand there is the relativist thought that ‘If they do it that way, it’s OK for them and in any event none of my business’. On the other there is the strong feeling most of us have that these things just should not happen, and we should not stand idly by while they do. We have only perverted or failed solutions to the problems of which standards to implement, if the standards end up like that. cemented in documents such as the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Appendix; an extract is below). Article 1 All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Article 2 Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national Ethics or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty. Article 3 Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. Article 4 No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms. Article 5 No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. 22 Article 6 Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. Article 7 All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights: The First Seven Articles We can, of course, insist on our standards, or thump the table. But while we think of ourselves as doing no more than thumping the table, there will be a little voice saying that we are ‘merely’ imposing our wills on the others. Table-thumping displays our conﬁdence, but it will not silence the relativistic imp on our shoulders. This is illustrated by a nice anecdote of a friend of mine. He was present at a high-powered ethics institute which had put on a forum in which representatives of the great religions held a panel debate. First the Buddhist talked of the ways to calm, the mastery of desire, the path of enlightenment, and the panellists all said, ‘Wow, terriﬁc, if that works for you that’s great.’ Then the Hindu talked of the cycles of suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release, and they all said, ‘Wow, terriﬁc, if that works for you that’s great.’ And so on, until the Catholic priest talked of the message of Jesus Christ, the promise of salvation, and the way to life eternal, and they all said, ‘Wow, terriﬁc, if that works for you that’s 23 Seven threats to ethics But are they any more than just ours, just now? And if we cannot see them as more than that, then who are we to impose them on others? Multiculturalism seems to block liberalism. great.’ And he thumped the table and shouted, ‘No! It’s not a question of if it works for me! It’s the true word of the living God, and if you don’t believe it you’re all damned to hell!’ And they all said, ‘Wow, terriﬁc, if that works for you that’s great.’ Ethics The joke here lies in the mismatch between what the priest intends – a claim to unique authority and truth – and what he is heard as offering, which is a particular avowal, satisfying to him, but only to be tolerated or patronized, like any other. The moral is that once a relativist frame of mind is really in place, nothing – no claims to truth, authority, certainty, or necessity – will be audible except as one more saying like all the others. Of course that person talks of certainty and truth, says the relativist. That’s just his certainty and truth, made absolute for him, which means no more than ‘made into a fetish’. Can we ﬁnd arguments to unsettle the relativist’s frame of mind? Can we do more than thump the table? If we cannot, does that mean we have to stop thumping it? We return to these questions in the ﬁnal section of this book. Meanwhile, here are two thoughts to leave with. The ﬁrst counteracts the idea that we are just ‘imposing’ parochial, Western standards when, in the name of universal human rights, we oppose oppressions of people on grounds of gender, caste, race, or religion. Partly, we can say that it is usually not a question of imposing anything. It is a question of cooperating with the oppressed and supporting their emancipation. More importantly, it is usually not at all certain that the values we are upholding are so very alien to the others (this is one of the places where we are let down by thinking simplistically of hermetically sealed cultures: them and us). After all, it is typically only the oppressors who are spokespersons for their culture or their ways of doing it. It is not the slaves who value slavery, or the women who value the fact that they may not take employment, or the young girls who value disﬁgurement. It is the brahmins, mullahs, priests, and elders who hold themselves to be spokesmen for their culture. What the rest 24 think about it all too often goes unrecorded. Just as victors write the history, so it is those on top who write their justiﬁcation for the top being where it is. Those on the bottom don’t get to say anything. Sometimes, indeed, ethical conversations need stopping. We are getting nowhere, we agree to differ. But not always. Sometimes we shouldn’t stop, and sometimes we cannot risk stopping. If my wife thinks guests ought to be allowed to smoke, and I think they ought not, we had better talk it through and do what we can to persuade the other or ﬁnd a compromise. The alternatives may be force or divorce, which are a lot worse. And in our practice, if not in our reﬂections, we all know this. The freshman relativists who say, ‘Well, it’s just an opinion,’ one moment, will demonstrate the most intense attachment to a particular opinion the next, when the issue is 25 Seven threats to ethics The second thought is this. Relativism taken to its limit becomes subjectivism: not the view that each culture or society has its own truth, but that each individual has his or her own truth. And who is to say which is right? So, when at the beginning of the last section I offered some moral remarks about the Old and New Testaments, I can imagine someone shrugging, ‘Well, that’s just your opinion.’ It is curious how popular this response is in moral discussions. For notice that it is a conversation-stopper rather than a move in the intended conversation. It is not a reason for or against the proffered opinion, nor is it an invitation for the speaker’s reasons, nor any kind of persuasion that it is better to think something else. Anyone sincere is of course voicing their own opinion – that’s a tautology (what else could they be doing?). But the opinion is put forward as something to be agreed with, or at any rate to be taken seriously or weighed for what it is by the audience. The speaker is saying, ‘This is my opinion, and here are the reasons for it, and if you have reasons against it we had better look at them.’ If the opinion is to be rejected, the next move should be, ‘No, you shouldn’t think that because . . . ’ That is, an ethical conversation is not like ‘I like ice-cream’, ‘I don’t’, where the difference doesn’t matter. It is like ‘Do this’, ‘Don’t do this’, where the difference is disagreement, and does matter. Ethics stopping hunting, or preventing vivisection, or permitting abortion – something they care about. The conversation-stopping response is tempting because of a philosophical view. This is that ethics is somehow ‘ungrounded’. The view is that there is nothing to show that one view or another is right, or nothing in virtue of which an ethical remark can be true. Ethics has no subject matter. This kind of thought has a potent philosophical backing. We suppose that the world is exhausted by what is the case. A creating event only has to make the physical world, and everything else, including humanity, rolls out. But the physical world contains only is and not ought. So there is no fact making ethical commitments true. Nor could we detect any such fact. We can have no senses (ears, eyes, touch) for responding to ethical facts, and no instruments for detecting their truth. We respond only to what is true, never to what ought to be true. Thus nihilism, or the doctrine that there are no values, grips us, as well as scepticism, the doctrine that even if there were, we would have no way of knowing about them. I come back to this later, at the end of Part Three. But however the philosophy pans out, it is premature to think that discussion about who or what to admire, how to behave, or what we owe to each other should cease because of it. There must be a course between the soggy sands of relativism and the cold rocks of dogmatism. 3. Egoism We are pretty selﬁsh animals. Perhaps it is worse than that: perhaps we are totally selﬁsh animals. Perhaps concern for others, or concern for principle, is a sham. Perhaps ethics needs unmasking. It is just the whistle on the engine, not the steam that moves it. How can we tell? Let us think about method for a moment. On the face of it, there are two fairly good methods for ﬁnding what people actually care about. One is to ask them, and gauge the sincerity of 26 their response and the plausibility of what they say. The other is to see what they do and try to do. Neither method is infallible. People may deceive us. And they may be deceived about themselves. Incidentally, this is not, as is commonly supposed, an insight due to Freud. It has a philosophical, literary, and theological pedigree probably stretching back to the origins of thought itself. A nice early example is the idea of the Greek Stoics that all ambition is due to fear of death: if a man wants statues raised to himself, it is because unconsciously he is afraid of dying, but of course he is not likely to realize that. A permanent strand in Christian thought is that we have no insight, or even lie to ourselves, about our heart’s desires. Does our nurturing father really care for his children? Fallibility still threatens. Life and literature throw up cases where everything looks in line with one interpretation, yet another one seems to be hovering. Maybe this model father is scared of his wife, and knows that behaviour that apparently indicates concern for his children is what she expects. Or he may be scared of public opinion, or be angling for a certain kind of reputation to further his political 27 Seven threats to ethics Ordinarily, we can cope with fallibility by shrinking the likelihood of a mistake. We can check on what people say by seeing what they do. A man may present himself as a dutiful and nurturing father, and believe himself to be such. But if he never makes or takes an opportunity to be with his children, we have our doubts. Suppose, though, he does make such opportunities, and gladly takes them, and shows few or no regrets for what other pleasures he may be missing by taking them. Then the thing is settled: he cares about his children. In other cases, the diagnosis of smoke screen and hypocrisy beckons. The British government, not unlike others, currently uses the rhetoric of moral duty, civilized missions, and the rest in order to sound good about putting peace-keepers into many of the one hundred or so countries to whom it regularly and copiously sells arms. It is not too difﬁcult to see the mask of concern for what it is. Everyone likes to have the words of ethics on their side (as Smilby illustrates on the next page). 3. ‘This is the wall, Foster. We’d like you to knock up some sort of apt and symbolic mural – you know the sort of thing – The Chairman and Board presiding over the Twin Spirits of Art and Industry as they rise from the Waters of Diligence to reap the rich harvest of Prosperity while the Three Muses, Faith, Hope, and Charity ﬂanked by Enterprise and Initiative, bless the Corporation and encourage the shareholders.’ (Cartoon by Smilby.) career. We can look at the settled pattern of his behaviour as well as his sayings, and still wonder whether things are as they seem. We can, but again we have methods to follow. Suppose the man’s wife disappears, but he goes on nurturing as before. Or suppose his political career dies, yet he still carries on as a good father should. This rules out the idea that it was fear of his wife or hope of ofﬁce that motivated him. The natural interpretation, that he cares for the children and enjoys being with them, is the only one to survive. Keeping our feet on the ground, we should ask what distinguishes appropriate or accurate use of this method from mere fancy. The philosopher Karl Popper (1902–94) told a story about describing a case to the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler. Adler listened to the 29 Seven threats to ethics In the 19th and 20th centuries, these homely methods began to lose ground. As the Stoics did, people bowed before the idea of hidden and unconscious meanings, uncovered only by a Grand Unifying Theory of human nature. The idea had one foot in ‘hermeneutics’ or the practice of interpretation. This was originally the enterprise of discovering hidden ‘signatures’ written by God into natural features, so that, for example, the shape of plants might indicate what they would cure. It also meant uncovering the hidden meanings behind the analogies, parables, and apparently unbelievable historical reports of Scripture. In its modern application, to the hermeneutic eye things may be similarly far from what they seem. So we get the view that paciﬁsm conceals aggression, or a desire to help masks a desire for power, or politeness is an expression of contempt, or contented celibacy expresses a raging desire to procreate. Perhaps everything comes down to sex, or status, or power, or death – hermeneutics is very good at one-word solutions. It is also good at one-word dismissals of any rejection of its one-word solutions: the truth is repressed; it is hidden by false consciousness. In fact, the subject’s resistance to any proffered hermeneutic interpretation can become an index of how true it is. The ideology becomes closed. Ethics description, and unhesitatingly pronounced castration anxiety, father jealousy, desire to sleep with the mother, or whatever it was. When he had ﬁnished, Popper asked him how he knew. ‘Because of my thousand-fold experience’, came the reply. ‘And with this new case’, said Popper, according to his own report, ‘I suppose your experience has become a thousand-and-one-fold.’ Grand Unifying Theories do not often stoop to offer themselves to empirical test. We have strayed here from ethics into fascinating general issues in the theory of knowledge. I will make only one further remark. A Grand Unifying Theory can go along with good insights. It can unify otherwise disparate and puzzling human phenomena. In his famous book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), the sociologist Thorstein Veblen noticed a whole slew of strange facts along the following lines. First, itinerant workers who earn reasonable money tend to be ‘showy’, carrying ﬂashy jewellery and large bankrolls, going in for high-stake poker games, and the like. Rooted peasants who could easily afford it never do so. Second, people deplore the taste of others who are just a little beneath them in wealth and social status, more than they deplore the taste of those a long way beneath them. Third, an aristocrat will prefer an able-bodied man as a butler or footman, rather than a female or someone handicapped who could do the job equally well. Fourth, a well-kept lawn or park is a good thing round a nice house. Veblen uniﬁed these odd facts and many others with the theory that people have a need for wasteful display in order to manifest their status. The itinerant has to display this status on his person, and hence the ﬂashy appearance. We need to shout that we are not like those just beneath us on the social ladder, for whom we might be mistaken, more than we need to shout that we are not like those a long way beneath us, for whom we won’t be mistaken. The aristocrat (who might, after all, be impoverished) can better signal plenty by keeping able-bodied servants in unproductive jobs than if he keeps otherwise unemployable ones in their positions. Hence footmen and butlers. Similarly with gardens, lawns, and parks, 30 which are beautiful just because they are ornamental and unproductive (Veblen thought the need controls aesthetic judgements as well). Veblen’s insight is summed up as the doctrine of ‘conspicuous consumption’. But the label is in fact a misnomer. The rooted peasant does not consume conspicuously. He does not have to, just because everyone he cares about knows to within an atom what he is worth. Most Grand Unifying Theory, and particularly what we might dub Grand Unifying Pessimism, is not so well-favoured. Consider the dispiriting view that everybody always acts out of their own selfinterest. It can be very unclear what this means, but taken at face value it is obviously false. People neglect their own interest or sacriﬁce their own interest to other passions and concerns. This neglect or sacriﬁce need not even be high-minded: the moralist Joseph Butler (1692–1752) gives the example of a man who runs upon certain ruin in order to avenge himself for an insult. Friends with his interest at heart might try to dissuade him, but fail. What this man may need to do is to act more out of self-interest, so that anticipating his ruin checks his desire for revenge. But if his desire had been for the welfare of others, or for the preservation of the rain forest, or for the reduction of Third-World debt, the fact that he was neglecting or sacriﬁcing his own interest might have seemed 31 Seven threats to ethics The view that consumption has a lot more to do with vanity or status than we might have supposed is immediately plausible and was anticipated by many other thinkers, including Adam Smith (1723–90). But once Veblen has stated it in a more precise form, we can test it against our own experience and ﬁnd if it works. It has the hallmarks of a good scientiﬁc theory. It is simple. It gives a uniﬁed explanation of otherwise diverse and disconnected patterns of behaviour. It is predictive (for instance, it would predict the pressure on the rooted peasant to put on a suit for his journey to town, where his worth is unknown). And it is falsiﬁable: for we might come across instances where the theory seems not to work, and it would need adjusting or abandoning in the light of them. Ethics irrelevant. It is what the situation calls for in his eyes, and if we share his standards, perhaps in ours as well. If he spends his fortune or ruins his health on these objects, he may regard himself as only having done what he had to do. There is a trick to be guarded against at this point. Someone might read the last paragraph and complain: ‘That is all very well if we think of someone’s self-interest only in terms of money, or career, or even health. Certainly, people sacriﬁce these to other concerns. But then we just have agents whose real interest or full self-interest includes these other things: the revenge or the rain forest or the Third-World debt. They are still just as self-interested as anyone else.’ The reason this is a trick is that it empties the view of all content. It kidnaps the word ‘self-interest’ for whatever the agent is concerned about. But just for that reason it loses any predictive or explanatory force. With this understanding of interest or selfinterest you could never say, ‘Watch, the agent won’t do this but will do that because, like all agents, she acts out of self-interest.’ All you can do is wait to see what the agent in fact does, and then read back and boringly announce that this is where her interest lay. The move is not only boring but a nuisance, since, as Butler puts it, this is not the language of mankind. It would have us saying that if I stand back in order for the women and children to get in the lifeboat, then my self-interest lay in their being in the lifeboat rather than me. And this is just not the way we describe such an action. It appears to add a cynical reinterpretation of the agent, but in fact it adds nothing. Perhaps surprisingly, we can see the general falsity of egoism by thinking of particular cases where it is indeed true. These are cases where an appearance of some larger concern does in fact disguise self-interest. Suppose two people give to a charity. Suppose it comes out that the charity is corrupt, and proceeds do not go to the starving poor but to the directors. And suppose that on receiving this news the ﬁrst person is irritated and angry, not so much at the directors of the charity, but at the person bringing the news (‘Why 32 bring this up? Just let me be’); whereas the second person is indignant at the directors themselves. Then we can reasonably suggest that the ﬁrst person prized his own peace of mind or reputation for generosity more than he cared about the starving poor; whereas the second has a more genuine concern for what goes on in the world, not for whether he is comfortable or how he stands in the eyes of others. Fortunately, however, we are not all like the ﬁrst person, or not all the time. We can be indignant at the directors, just as we are indignant at many things that go on around us. We don’t always shoot the messenger, and we can want to be told the truth because it is a truth that concerns us. There exists a vague belief that some combination of evolutionary theory, biology, and neuroscience will support a Grand Unifying Pessimism. Indeed, most of the popular books on ethics in the bookstores fall into one of two camps. There are those that provide chicken soup for the soul: soggy confections of consolation and uplift. Or, there are those that are written by one or another life scientist: a neuroscientist or biologist or animal behaviourist or evolutionary theorist, anxious to tell that ‘science’ has shown that we are all one thing or another. Once more we stand unmasked: human beings are ‘programmed’. We are egoists, altruism doesn’t exist, ethics is only a ﬁg-leaf for selﬁsh strategies, we are all conditioned, women are nurturing, men are rapists, we care above all for our genes. There is good news and bad news about the popularity of this genre. The good news is that we do have a relentless appetite for self-interpretation. There is a huge desire to ﬁnd patterns of behaviour, enabling us to understand and perhaps control the human ﬂux. The bad news is that we will accord authority to anyone in a white coat, even when the science is over (for as we are about to see, talking of the signiﬁcance of science is not talking science). 33 Seven threats to ethics 4. Evolutionary theory Ethics We should only venture into this literature if we are armed against three confusions. The ﬁrst is this. It is one thing to explain how we come to be as we are. It is a different thing to say that we are different from what we think we are. Yet these are fatally easy to confuse with each other. Suppose, for instance, evolutionary theory tells us that mother-love is an adaptation. This means that it has been ‘selected for’, because animals in which it exists reproduce and spread their genetic material more successfully than ones in which it does not. We could, if we like, imagine a ‘gene for mother-love’. Then the claim would be that animals with this gene are and have been more successful than animals having only a variant (an allele) that does not code for mother-love (this is likely to be grossly oversimpliﬁed, but it’s a model that will make the point). The confusion would be to infer that therefore there is not really any such thing as mother-love: thus we unmask it! The confusion is to infer that underneath the mask we are only concerned to spread genetic material more successfully. Not only does this not follow, but it actually contradicts the starting point. The starting point is ‘Mother-love exists, and this is why’; the conclusion is that mother-love doesn’t exist. In other words, an evolutionary story, plausible or not, about the genetic function of a trait such as mother-love must not be confused with a psychological story unmasking a mother’s ‘real concern’. We should not rear a generation of children taught to turn round and say, ‘You didn’t really care about me, you only cared about your genes.’ Perhaps nobody would make this mistake so baldly in this instance. But consider the idea of ‘reciprocal altruism’. Game theorists and biologists noticed that animals frequently help each other when it would seem to be to their advantage not to do so. They asked the perfectly good question of how such behaviour could have evolved, when it looks set to lose out to a more selﬁsh strategy. The answer is (or may be) that it is adaptive insofar as it triggers reciprocal helping behaviour from the 34 animal helped, or from others witnessing the original event. In other words, we have a version of ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. To guard against this confusion, contemplate sexual desire. It has an adaptive function, presumably, which is the propagation of the species. But it is completely off the wall to suppose that those in the grip of sexual desire ‘really’ want to propagate the species. Most of the time most of us emphatically do not – otherwise there would be no birth control, elderly sex, homosexuality, solitary sex, and other variations – and many people never do. Some moralists might wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t (see Fig. 4). So, this ﬁrst confusion is to infer that our apparent concerns are not our real concerns, simply from the fact of an evolutionary explanation of them. The second confusion is to infer the impossibility that 35 Seven threats to ethics The explanation may be perfectly correct. It may provide the reason why we ourselves have inherited altruistic tendencies. The confusion strikes again, however, when it is inferred that altruism doesn’t really exist, or that we don’t really care disinterestedly for one another – we only care to maximize our chance of getting a return on our investments of helping behaviour. The mistake is just the same – inferring that the psychology is not what it seems because of its functional explanation – but it seems more seductive here, probably because we fear that the conclusion is true more often in this case than in the case of mother-love. There are indeed cases of seeming altruism disguising hope for future beneﬁts. But there are of course cases in which it is not like this, and shown to be such by the methods of the last section. The driver gives the penniless hitch-hiker a lift; the diner tips the waiter he knows he will never see again; they each do it when there are no bystanders to watch the action. 4. Matt Davies, ‘The Human Genetic Code, Deciphered’. such-and-such a concern should exist, from the fact that we have no evolutionary explanation for it. This is unwarranted, for it may well be that there is no evolutionary explanation for all kinds of quirks: no explanation for why we enjoy birdsong, or like the taste of cinnamon, or have ticklish feet. The cartoon says it all. The third confusion to guard against is to read psychology into nature, and in particular into the gene, and then read it back into the person whose gene it is. The most notorious example of this mistake is in The Selﬁsh Gene, by Richard Dawkins. Here the fact 37 Seven threats to ethics These traits may be side-effects of others that are adaptive, or they may be descendants of traits that were once adaptive but are so no longer, or they may be nothing to do with adaptations, but just due to chance. Or they may be adaptations but only because they affect the ‘eye of the beholder’: perhaps it is more pleasurable to be with a partner who has ticklish feet, and then a mechanism of ‘sexual selection’ kicks in to boost the prevalence of the trait. That throws us back onto the question of why the pleasure and the preference exists, but perhaps it just does. Female peacocks go for the huge, beautiful, but apparently dysfunctional tails of the male, and female Irish elks went for the male practically immobilized by the biggest antlers. It is not easy to see why, and this problem can unﬁt explanations in terms of sexual selection for some purposes. For instance, if we ﬁnd the human propensity for art or music puzzling because we cannot ﬁnd a survival function for it, it doesn’t immediately help to suggest that females prefer artistic and musical men, since we won’t be able to ﬁnd a survival function for that female preference, either. What this means is that the explanation has to continue. It might continue by showing that females recognize that artistry and musicianship indicate other survivalenhancing traits, such as industry or cunning (the peacock’s gaudy tail may indicate freedom from disease, or the elk’s antlers indicate its strength). Or, it might postulate a ‘trembling hand’ – a random jerk in the evolutionary process, such as the inaccurate copying of a gene, that just happened to entrench itself. Ethics that genes replicate and have a different chance of replicating in different environments is presented metaphorically in terms of their being ‘selﬁsh’ and indulging a kind of ruthless competition to beat out other genes. It is then inferred that the human animal must itself be selﬁsh, since somehow this is the only appropriate psychology for the vehicle in which these little monsters are carried. Or at least, if we are not selﬁsh, it is because by some strange miracle we can transcend and ﬁght off the genetic pressure to be so. Dawkins has since repudiated this idea, but it maintains a life of its own. To state this train of thought is to expose its silliness. Genes are not selﬁsh – they just have different chances of replicating themselves in different environments. Not only may they do better if the person carrying them is unselﬁsh, altruistic, and principled, but it is easy to see why this should be so. A society of unselﬁsh, altruistic, and principled persons is obviously set to do better than a group in which there are none of these traits, but only a ‘war of all against all’. Furthermore, the environment in which we human beings ﬂourish is largely a social environment. We succeed in the eyes of each other. Hence, a principle like that of sexual selection kicks in: if these are traits we admire in each other, they are likely to be successful not only for the society as a whole, but also for any individual who has them. And we do admire them. We see more of the association between being good and living well in section 17. 5. Determinism and futility The other implication of the life sciences that threatens ethics, in many peoples’ minds, is the threat of determinism. The idea here is that since it is ‘all in the genes’, the enterprise of ethics becomes hopeless. The basket of motivations that in fact move people may not be as simple as the Grand Unifying Theories have it, but they may be ﬁxed. And then we just do as we are programmed to do. It is no use railing about it or regretting it: we cannot kick against nature. 38 This raises the whole thorny topic of free will. Here, I want to look at only one particular version of the problem. This takes our genetic make-up to imply the futility of ethics, meaning in particular the futility of moral advice or education or experience. The threat is the paralysing effect of realizing that we are what we are: large mammals, made in accordance with genetic instructions about which we can do nothing. The answer is No, because whatever our genetic make-up programs us to do, it leaves room for what we can call ‘input-responsiveness’. It leaves room for us to vary our behaviour in response to what we hear or feel or touch or see (otherwise there would be little point in 39 Seven threats to ethics A moral enterprise might be hopeless because it tries to alter ﬁxed nature. A prohibition on long hair may be enforceable, say in the army or the police force. But a prohibition on growing hair at all is not, since we are indeed programmed to do it. An order forbidding hunger or thirst is futile, since we cannot control them. Some cases are less clear. Imagine a particularly ascetic monastic order, whose rule not only enjoins chastity, but forbids sexual desire. The rule is probably futile. It cannot be obeyed because it is not up to us whether we feel sexual desire. At the right time the hormones boil, and sexual desire bubbles up (lust was an object of particular horror to early Christian moralists just because of its ‘rebellious’ or involuntary nature). The chemical instructions are genetically encoded. There may indeed be marginal technologies of control: yoga, or biofeedback, or drugs. But for most young people most of the time, any injunction not to feel desire is futile. This is not to say that the injunction has no effect at all. It may well bring shame and embarrassment to those who ﬁnd that they cannot conform to it. This may even be its function, since it may thereby reinforce their subservience in the face of the implacable authority that commanded it. It can increase the power of churches or parents to keep their dependents in a state of guilt or a state of shame. But the rule is directly futile: it cannot be obeyed. So the question is, are all rules similarly futile, because of genetic determinism? Ethics having these senses in the ﬁrst place). It leaves room for us to vary our desires in accordance with what we learn (discovering that the glass contains sulphuric acid, I lose the desire to drink it that I had when I thought it contained gin). It leaves room for us to be inﬂuenced by information gathered from others. Finally, it leaves room for us to be affected by the attitudes of others. In other words, it makes us responsive to the moral climate. If we liked paradox, we might put this by saying that genetics programs us to be ﬂexible. But there is no paradox, really. Even an inanimate structure that is literally programmed can be made to be ﬂexible. A chess program will be designed to give a different response depending on what move its opponent has just made. It is input-responsive. Inﬂexible traits (growing hair) are not inputresponsive because no matter what beliefs, desires, or attitudes we have, they go on just the same. But many of our own beliefs and desires and attitudes are not like that. They show endless plasticity. They vary with our surroundings, including the moral climate in which we ﬁnd ourselves. It is an empirical matter how ﬂexible we are in any particular respect. Thus, consider language. Many theorists believe that the extraordinary facility with which children pick up language requires a dedicated ‘module’ or structure within the brain that has this as its function. Its function is not to pick up English, German, or Latin, for any child can pick up any language. Its function is to pick up whichever language the child grows up with: its mother tongue, or tongues if it is lucky. After a time, the evidence suggests, this ﬂexibility is substantially lost. Beyond about the age of twelve, it is almost impossible to pick up a language so as to speak it like a native. The responsiveness diminishes or vanishes. We are no longer so good at copying the inputs and ﬁnding ourselves falling in with the grammar of what we hear. So, for all genetics tells us, a child may be disposed to become kind and loving in a kind and loving environment, vicious and aggressive 40 in a vicious and aggressive one, intellectual and musical in an intellectual and musical one. Or, these dispositions may in turn be liable to be displaced if other factors inﬂuence things. We just have to look and see. Very possibly, what we may ﬁnd is greater receptivity at some stages, and relative inﬂexibility thereafter, rather as in the case of language. If this is so, far from sidelining the importance of the moral environment, the excursus through determinism will catapult it to the head of the agenda. That is where it should be if it turns out that, once we have been weaned into an atmosphere of violence, aggression, insensitivity, sentimentality, manipulation, and furtiveness – the everyday world of television, for example – we can never or almost never climb out. 6. Unreasonable demands I have argued for moderate optimism about human nature, at least blocking the Grand Unifying Theories – the ones we called Grand Unifying Pessimisms – we have met so far. But we have to be realistic, and we should not demand too much from ourselves and each other. Then the threat arises that ethics does just that, and not in some overblown, over-demanding version, but at its very core. And then we get the reaction that ‘It’s all very well in principle, but in practice it just won’t work’. As Kant remarked, this is ‘said in a lofty, disdainful tone, full of the presumption of wanting to reform reason by experience’. Kant ﬁnds it especially offensive, contrasting the ‘dim, moles’ eyes ﬁxed on experience’ with ‘the eyes belonging to a being that was made to stand erect and look at the heavens’. However, the threat is real, and we can consider several versions of 41 Seven threats to ethics There are threats of futility other than determinism. There is the mood in which all human life is futile. I discuss this in section 10. Ethics it. First, consider a morality centred on a simple and abstract set of rules. One of them may be ‘Thou shalt not lie’. Now of course when we think of central examples of this rule, we are apt to approve of it. We should not abuse other people’s trust in us, and a deliberate, manipulative, barefaced lie may well do that. But there are other cases. There are white lies, socially expected and condoned. There are lies told to people who shouldn’t be asking, because it is none of their business and they have no right to the truth. There are desperate lies, told because telling the truth will be catastrophic (the classic is lying to the mad axeman who asks you where your children are sleeping). There are lies told in the service of a greater truth (‘There is no danger’ may be literally false, but it puts the passengers in a more appropriate frame of mind than ‘The risk is quite small’). There are lies we perhaps in desperation tell ourselves, and come to believe, before we tell others (‘It’s not the harmful kind of cancer, dear’). Some philosophers, most notoriously Kant, have grasped the nettle and forbidden even such lies. It was central to Kant’s moral scheme that the prohibition remained simple and absolute: no exceptions. Suppose we agree with him. Then a perfectly reasonable reaction from anyone muddling along in society, or from the mother facing the axeman, or from the pilot calming the passengers, would be, ‘To heck with that. If that’s what morality demands, then I’m opting out.’ Here is a second example where the stringency of ethics can lead to its rejection. Many theories of ethics highlight the impartial and universal nature of the moral point of view. It is a point of view that treats everyone equally: every person has equal weight. Unless there are further factors, it is no better, from the moral point of view, that I should have some goods and you should not, than that you should have them and I should not. If the person without the goods is starving, and the person with them has plenty, then morality demands a split: the money is needed more by the starving. The starvation of the poor demands redistribution from the rich. 42 It is easy to preach this, but much harder to practise it. Indeed there is usually something ludicrous about the well-fed parson preaching charity, or the even better-fed academic arguing that justice is not served unless we have voluntary or involuntary redistribution programmes which carve the entire cake equally, perhaps leaving every single person just above a poverty line. If we accept, though, that morality demands this of us, then again a natural reaction is to shrug off its demands. It’s not going to happen; it’s impractical; we can ignore it. A different example of a bid to escape the stringency of behaving well is the excuse of ‘dirty hands’. It’s a bad business manufacturing arms, or selling cattle prods to various regimes. But, says the manufacturer (or the government), if we don’t do it someone else will. Then they have the jobs and reap the rewards. The arms and prods get made just the same, so why should we sacriﬁce our wellbeing for the beneﬁt of our competitors? The moralist, standing erect and looking at the heavens, is simply out of touch with the needs of the market. Ethics is all very well, but perhaps we cannot afford it. At least the dim mole earns his living. 43 Seven threats to ethics I do not think it is easy to ﬁnd a stable attitude to the stringency of the prohibition on lying, or still more to the duty of charity. But I do think something has gone wrong if extreme demands are placed squarely in the centre of ethics. The centre of ethics must be occupied by things we can reasonably demand of each other. The absoluteness of the fanatic, or the hair shirt of the saint, lie on the outer shores. Not wanting to follow them there, or even not able to do so, we still have plenty of standards left to uphold. We should still want to respond to the reasonable demands of decency. We may not be able to solve all the world’s problems, but we should do our best with the ones we can solve. So the right reaction is to look for moral principles that are not impractical, and not limitless in their demands. Adhering to anything more stringent might be saintly, and admirable, but it is not demanded of us. In the standard phrase, it is above and beyond the call of duty. There is something grubby, not only to Kant but to most of us, about the excuse that this argument offers us. We have some sense that we should keep our own hands clean, however much others will then dirty theirs. The excuse is not open to a person of strict honour or integrity, however convenient it may be in practice. In many areas, it is not over and above the call of duty to keep our own hands clean. 7. False consciousness Ethics In sections 3 and 4 we met Grand Unifying Pessimisms that tried to discover hidden unconscious motivations, things that really move us, leaving ethical concerns exposed as mere whistles on the engine. We resisted their claims. But there is still room to argue that the social role of morality is tainted. Even if the motivations of its practitioners are sincere enough, this is because they have been somehow sucked into a system. And the system may not be what it seems. Consider, for instance, a feminist criticism of a piece of male behaviour. The man holds open a door for the woman, or offers to carry her parcel, or gives up a seat for her. The feminist ﬁnds this offensive. She does not have to say that the man intends to demean the woman. His behaviour, the feminist maintains, is part of a ‘system’ or ‘pattern’ of such events whose net effect is a signal that women are weaker or in need of male protection. And this she ﬁnds offensive. Of course, the man in turn may ﬁnd her offence offensive, and up start political-correctness wars and gender wars. The feminist may go in for the kind of hermeneutics we have met, saying that the man unconsciously intends to demean the woman. But that is unnecessary. She need not work at the level of individual psychology. All she has to say is that the man behaves as he does because of a system or socially institutionalized set of behaviours that are entrenched in the society, and that the function of the system is to demean women. This is enough for her critique to gain a hold. 44 For another example of this kind of critique, imagine a sincere cleric wringing his hands over his parishioners’ sins. He is genuinely upset. He believes they are doing wrong, and fears for their souls. His heart goes out to them. There is nothing, so far, wrong with him. But he may be a part of a system with a rather more sinister function for all that. The Church that taught him may be an organization dedicated to its own power, and as we already suggested, controlling peoples’ sense of shame and guilt and sin is an instrument of power. It works best if the pawns, the individual clerics, do not realize that, either consciously or unconsciously. There may be a good deal of truth in some of these critiques. We can think of local elements of morality, at particular places and times, that certainly seem open to some such diagnosis. The passion with which the rich defend the free market can invite the raised eyebrow. A morality with or without the religious ﬁg leaf we met earlier, that gives us the right to their land, or the right to kill them for not having the same rituals as us, invites a similar diagnosis. The self-serving nature of systems of religion, or caste systems, or market systems, can be almost entirely hidden from view to those who practise them. There is something a little off-colour, as well, about some of the ways morality sometimes intrudes into people’s lives. The judge, or the priest, or a panel of the great and the good may tell people what they must do, but they do not usually have to live with the 45 Seven threats to ethics So a critic might now suggest that ethics as an institution (I shall write this, ‘Ethics’) is a system whose real function is other than it seems. A feminist might see it as an instrument of patriarchal oppression. A Marxist can see it as an instrument of class oppression. A Nietzschean may see it as a lie with which the feeble and timid console themselves for their inability to seize life as it should be seized. A modern French philosopher, such as Michel Foucault, can see it as a diffuse exercise of power and control. In any event, it stands unmasked. Ethics consequences. If the girl is not allowed the abortion, or the family not allowed to assist the suicide, they have to pick up the pieces and soldier on themselves. Those who told them how they had to behave can just bow out. An impartial moral law can bear very unevenly on different people, and it is little wonder if people become disenchanted by an ethics largely maintained by those who do not have to live it. Anatole France spoke ironically of the majestic equality of the laws which forbid rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. Although we may well accept examples of this kind of critique, I don’t think it could possibly be generalized to embrace all of ethics. The reason is implicit in what we have already said: for human beings, there is no living without standards of living. This means that ethics is not Ethics: it is not an ‘institution’ or organization with sinister hidden purposes that might be better unmasked. It is not the creature of some concealed conspiracy by ‘them’: Society, or The System, or The Patriarchy. There are indeed institutions, such as the Church or State, that may seek to control our standards, and their nature and function may need to be queried. But that will mean at most a different ethic. It does not and cannot introduce the end of ethics. Every so often there arise movements for ‘free living’, based on doing without the restrictions and prohibitions of bourgeois morality. Usually this means in the ﬁrst place free love – a natural enough ambition for some of the young. (I remember in my ﬁrst year at university joining a society called the Theoretical Amoralists, which sounded rather rakish. To my disappointment all the other members were men. In any case, it remained theoretical.) But experimenters in free living ﬁnd they face a dilemma. Either standards are introduced: standards of truth-telling, privacy, space, use of materials, job rotas, and so on, eventually apt to include property rights and rights connected with sexual bondings, or the commune breaks up. If the scene is set so that it cannot break up (more often in ﬁction than real life), disaster follows. 46 Central elements of our standards do indeed have a function, and it may be hidden from practitioners. An ordinary person may just be shocked at a broken promise, and that is the end of it. They do not have to reﬂect on the function of promise-keeping. But if they do reﬂect, then the point of the ‘institution’ of promising may come into view. Its point will be something like this. By giving promises we give each other conﬁdence in what we are going to do, thus enabling joint enterprises to go forward. That is a point we can be proud of; without something serving that point, ﬂexible plans for coordinated action become impossible. Here the description of the hidden function is not an ‘unmasking’ or a deconstruction. If anything, it gives a boost to our respect for the norms surrounding promise-keeping. It shows that it is not just something about which we, the bourgeois, have a fetish. As I like to put it, it is not a debunking explanation, but a bunking one. There may be yet other threats to ethics. We can become depressed by the role of luck in our lives. Suppose two drivers go down the same road, each showing the same small degree of carelessness. One arrives safely; the other kills a child who darts out in front. This 47 Seven threats to ethics Other central elements of morality don’t even get this kind of explanation. They are less of a human invention than is the device of giving promises. Gratitude to those who have done us good, sympathy with those in pain or in trouble, and dislike of those who delight in causing pain and trouble, are natural to most of us, and are good things. Almost any ethic will encourage them. Here there is nothing to unmask: these are just features of how most of us are, and how all of us are at our best. They are not the result of a conspiracy, any more than the enjoyment of food or the fear of death are: they just deﬁne how we live and how we want to live and want others to live. Nietzsche indeed tried to ‘deconstruct’ the benevolent emotions, railing against them as weak or slavish or lifedenying, but the attempt is unconvincing and unpleasant, a kind of Hemingway machismo that regards decent human sympathy as unmanly. difference of luck affects how we think of them, how they think of themselves, and even the penalties imposed by society and by the law. Luck can do more to sway the ways our lives go than virtue. Yet people are curiously unwilling to ackowledge this; we relentlessly take responsibility, as the myth of original sin shows. It seems we would prefer to be guilty than unlucky. Ethics Again, even when we live benevolent, admired lives according to the standards of our times, we can fear that had things been tougher we would have joined the fallen. If we are good, it may be because we were never tempted enough, or frightened enough, or put in desperate enough need. We can also fear the restless evil in the human heart. We know that neither success nor suffering ennobles people. In such a mood, we can be overwhelmed just by the relentless human capacity for making life horrible for others. The right reaction is not to succumb to the mood, but to reﬂect that the cure lies in our own hands. 48 Part Two Some ethical ideas In the ﬁrst section we deﬂected some sceptical challenges to ethics. There is more to be said, particularly about the threats of relativism, nihilism, and scepticism, which still lurk. But for the moment I turn from that in order to sketch some of the elements about which we need to think. An ethic will crystallize our attitudes to the most important events, such as birth and death. It will determine our attitude to life and what makes it worth living. It will encapsulate notions of human nature and human happiness, telling us what it is for a human life to go well. It will describe desire, and freedom, and our rights to the opportunities and powers that we need in life. None of these notions is easy. Some of them are open invitations to confusion. 8. Birth Throughout human history we have had only a few ways to control how many children get born, and who they are. We could control the gene pool, up to a point, by controlling who mated with whom. This could be done directly only by selection of a partner, or socially by arrangements of marriage and norms governing it. We could control how many got born, by abstinence and perhaps by abortion. We could also control which of those that were born got to grow up, by infanticide or selective standards of upbringing. This is still far more important than is generally realized. The Nobel prizewinning 49 Ethics economist Amartya Sen has calculated that there are over 100 million ‘missing women’ worldwide. That is, birth-rate statistics from not only the developed world, but sub-Saharan Africa as well, tell us that slightly more females should exist than males. But, in fact, there are 100 million fewer living women than we should expect – 44 million fewer in China and 37 million fewer in India alone. The difference is due to inequalities in medical care and sustenance, as well as deliberate infanticide, together making up the world’s biggest issue of justice for women. When we use any of these methods of control, we interfere with what would otherwise have happened. We might be said to interfere with nature. If ‘interfering with nature’ is, as some people suggest, ‘playing God’ and therefore wrong, then we have always played God. But that is not as bad as it seems. In that sense, we play God as well when we put up an umbrella, interfering with the natural tendency of rain to wet our heads. As humans, we are bound to attempt to cope with the natural world, making things happen that otherwise would not have happened, or preventing things from happening that otherwise would have happened. The charge of playing God has no independent force. That is, people only raise it when the interference in question upsets them. If we have already determined that some natural process must be allowed to run unchecked, or that interfering with it is too risky or too radical, we might use the words as a way of crystallizing our worry when people propose to interfere. When anaesthetics were discovered, some moralists complained that their use was impious. It was playing God. Genetically engineered crops generate the same heat today. The question is whether the upset and the worry are well-founded. Most of us think it wasn’t in the case of anaesthetics, and the jury is still out on genetically engineered crops. As our technologies of control increase, so do the new questions about how to use them. In particular, the question of genetic control trails hideous historical baggage: that of the ‘eugenic’ movement, with its associated assumptions of racial superiority and racial 50 purity, not to mention a simplistic science of heritability. Eugenics may look set to come back with a vengeance as science continues to unravel the genetic code, raising Frankenstein-like visions of human beings designed to order out of the genome parts store. But such visions are premature, at least. We saw in Part One something of the extent to which plasticity rules. The fantasy of a Hitler clone, therefore, complete with fascist ambitions and a little moustache, forgets the fact that Hitler’s genetic instructions, followed in a totally different environment, would have resulted in a totally different person. Or, if not totally different, still nobody knows what interesting similarities would be likely to remain. Certainly not speaking German, obsession by racial theories, or interest in politics. In this short book it is impossible to go over