Friday, 8 February 2013

Morally Circular Definitions

In earlier articles, I have almost entirely restricted discussion of the prisoners’ dilemma, and a variant of it discussed by Hume, to terms of winning.  This is despite the fact that the paper from which these articles are drawn is about ethics.  Single-minded pursuit of success is not normally correlated with ethical behaviour.  We did see, however, that what might appear to be irrational behaviour – ethical co-operation – is actually rational if the players inside a game choose to play against a third party, rather than each other.

Is it possible that apparently irrational, yet ethical behaviour is indeed rational behaviour in ‘games’ played between members of social groups and that doing the ‘right’ (morally good) thing means little more than positioning oneself to win against the ‘right’ (appropriate) opponent?

This question forces us to back up a little and ask: what is ethics? or more accurately, how do we define ethical behaviour in decision making?  Furthermore, is there a difference between moral behaviour and ethical behaviour?  If so, what is that difference and does that difference matter in our considerations?

In both standard and philosophical dictionaries, the definition of ethics is universally associated with morality.  In the Merriam-Webster for instance the definition of ethics is:

1 plural but sing or plural in constr: the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation
2  a: a set of moral principles : a theory or system of moral values <the present-day materialistic ethic> <an old-fashioned work ethic> —often used in plural but singular or plural in construction <an elaborate ethics> <Christian ethics>

Many people find it difficult to distinguish between morality and ethics and many don’t distinguish at all.  The forbearance of the reader is requested while we delve briefly into definitions in a search for understanding.  In the Merriam-Webster, the definition of morality is:

1 a: a moral discourse, statement, or lesson b: a literary or other imaginative work teaching a moral lesson.
2 a: a doctrine or system of moral conduct b: particular moral principles or rules of conduct.
3: conformity to ideals of right human conduct.
4: moral conduct.

Thus to understand ethics and morality more fully we clearly must seek to understand not only the term ‘moral’ but also the term ‘principles’.  The relevant definitions from Merriam-Webster follow:

1 a: of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behaviour: ETHICAL <moral judgments> b: expressing or teaching a conception of right behaviour <a moral poem> c: conforming to a standard of right behaviour d: sanctioned by or operative on one's conscience or ethical judgment <a moral obligation> e: capable of right and wrong action <a moral agent>

1 […] b (1): a rule or code of conduct (2): habitual devotion to right principles <a man of principle>

Clearly, according to Merriam-Webster at least, morals are about the concepts of right and wrong whereas principles seem little less strongly correlated with those concepts and more towards obedience to laws or codes.  Unfortunately, however, we come upon a problem when we attempt to find a definition for ‘right’ and follow through:

2: being in accordance with what is just, good, or proper <right conduct>

2 a (1): acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good: RIGHTEOUS <a just war> (2): being what is merited: DESERVED <a just punishment> b: legally correct: LAWFUL <just title to an estate>

2 a (1): VIRTUOUS, RIGHT, COMMENDABLE <a good person> <good conduct> (2): KIND, BENEVOLENT <good intentions>


2 a: having or exhibiting virtue b: morally excellent: RIGHTEOUS.

1 a: conformity to a standard of right: MORALITY b: a particular moral excellence.

1: acting in accord with divine or moral law: free from guilt or sin.
2 a: morally right or justifiable <a righteous decision> b: arising from an outraged sense of justice or morality <righteous indignation>
synonym see MORAL.

So much for dictionaries.  Ethics is about morality which is about what is right.  What is right concerns righteousness and virtue.   However, righteousness and virtue is about morality (in fact ‘righteousness’ is a synonym for ‘moral’ while in one sense virtue is morality).  In other words: moral (or ethical) behaviour is right because it is moral; and moral because it is right.  If one relies on dictionary definitions, it seems that there is no sound basis for morality.

One argument against this, aside from the nonsense of using a dictionary to work out what is moral, is that there are certain things which appear to be absolutely right or absolutely wrong.  Acting in accordance with an absolute right is moral while acting in accordance with an absolute wrong is immoral.   But where do these absolute rights and wrongs come from?  A purely mechanistic universe has no place for absolute rights and wrongs, so the answer seems to be that absolute rights and wrongs must be divinely inspired in nature - that is, they come from a Supreme Being, or perhaps a number of Supreme Beings.

A major problem with this argument is that the major religions all share a very similar morality and even the most strident atheists seem to have very firm ideas of what is right and wrong, ideas which align closely with those of theists.

We’ll look at divine command theory, very briefly, in the next article.


This article is one of a series.  It was preceded by Ethical Farmers and Zero Sum Games and is followed by Divine Command Theory.

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