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Revisiting Ethics, Epistemological Interdependence and Trust.

Hi! welcome back.

In the April of 2017 I wrote a three part piece on Ethics, based around a reading of Nigel Warburton's - philosophy the basics. In this article, what we might call "part 4" of the trilogy, I'm going to revise some of the points I made, and reevaluate my stance on the issues of Ethics in the present day, given the 2 year time span since I "penned" the originals. I do recommend that you go read the original's first, it might help...

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3 but if you don't have time, or just want a brief recap here's the main points.

1) Theoretical models of morality

Duty based theories:

i Christian -judaeo tradition ethics

Religious views of morality are by design dependent on the teachings of the religion in question. Most - though not all - religions suggest an all powerful creator being. That being's will is said to be supremely good, therefore by extension anything deemed as "good" by that being must be morally and ethically sound.

ii Kantian ethics

Emmanuel Kant took a view that it was ones duty to act in a moral way. He posed the question "what is a moral action?" As a result he devised things called Maxims, which he defined as the "thought behind the action" what we today might call a motivation. Crucially Kant devolved this process from any emotional input. It is a purely rational thought mechanism.

Consequentialist theory

This problem with Kant's view of morality brings us nicely onto the next ethical model. That of consequence. Consequentialism, as the name implies, looks at the outcomes of actions to determine the nature of whether that action is moral or not. The best known of these is utilitarianism. The underpinning principle of good moral action in this case is defined as "that which brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people"

It is a system that very broadly encompasses much of the legal systems of the western world. Since rule based utilitarianism could be said to be a version of "law" by which people live their lives.

Virtue based theory.

Rising from a study of Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics, Virtue theorists considered the question,

"How should one live their life?

The answer was to cultivate the virtues, and thus "flourish", leading a successful and prosperous life. This you might think is very similar to the Kantian ethics version of a Maxim, which it is, but with one critical difference. Virtue theorists included the emotional aspect of human intention. 

Bringing emotion into a central role allowed discussion of things like compassion, generosity, and charity. It raised the issue of why we might act to benefit our fellow humans from one of mere duty to one of empathy, and being able to appreciate the consequences of their situation through a form of kin ship with them. 

It encourages one to look for the similarities between different peoples, actions, viewpoints etc, and base ones actions from those observations.

2) Meta Ethics

Meta Ethics. that is the study of theories about those central theories, and applications of them


In essence a theory that postulates formations of value based ethical judgments following on from directly discoverable scientific facts. Born from utilitarianism, and a  description of human nature, which leads to how we ought to behave. At it's core it presupposes a biological or naturally occurring reason for things to be as they are and moral judgements  as to what to do about that knowledge follow from that.

Relativism.  Consider two areas of the world. Saudi Arabia and the UK. the laws in each country for the basis of their moral structure for ma societal POV. Yet one can be killed in Saudi, for committing an offence that in the UK would not even be considered so.

This is "moral relativism". The theory that different societies have differing views fright and wrong and thus an individuals perception of right and wrong is dependent on one's society. Which as we know is an accident of birth.


"homosexuality is wrong"

Torture wrong"

"telling a lie is wrong"

"going against gods will is wrong"

Emotivism would suggest all these statements above, which are ethical statements of position, are meaningless. That is to say that, in and of themselves, they give no facts only opinions. And as such should be accorded the same level of legitimacy. 

This it perhaps a weird one to get ones head around, especially when one asks the question "why" of any of these statements. In doing so and opening the debate we then move from statement of opinion into discussion of reason why, factual or conceptual arguments as to evidence or moral theory. Thus Whilst once can quite easily see that bare statements have limited intrinsic value, the value of exploration of these statements cannot be understated. 

The major criticism of Emotivism is that it reduces significant and very weighty matters to mere triviality. If we simply decided that the statement "torture is wrong' was a matter of personal choice, it's not hard to see the consequences for society as whole. 

So there you have it. Three "meta ethical"theories of what "right" and "wrong" might mean. Theories that lean on the 1st level descriptions of ethical thought and attempt to further define Societal Ethical questions. In a sense, one can think of the first order theories being concerned with the individual relating to the world, and the second order meta ethical ones taking a broader societal view. One of humans examining how we deal en mass with societal ethical questions rather than individual ones. 

3) Application

Applied Ethics.

Consider the theatre of politics. Very often lobby groups will push their agenda and may, via quiet meetings with various people, agree to support certain other agenda's or goals - IF their own needs are met. This in essence is the very spirit of collaborative working and compromise, but the driver, or "maxim" to use Kant's expression, is merely a vested interest in a certain type of outcome.

Arguably an immoral use of a system.

BUT if that lobby group happens to be trans rights, or funding for pre natal hospital care, or women's access to health care, or ACLU, the Gun lobby, Oil industry, even evangelical groups etc, then people will make various decisions regarding the morality of the lobbying process based on the cause that is being lobbied for.

Me for instance, I'd suggest trans rights would be a "good cause" but judging by the comments section in the lower third of the internet, I'm sure many would disagree. The reasoning behind a decision as to the morality of a given goal or methodology could be the application of the consequential, or maybe duty bound theories.

For example I believe it (trans rights) an ethical cause because the outcome of success would see an improvement in peoples lives, and improvement in their access to the universal goods listed above. An opponent might disagree on religious or scientific grounds, since they subscribe to a view that the concept of "trans" isn't a legitimate way of being and thus to promote it is ethically wrong, since its harmful in wider sense, regardless of the consequences of such a view point to a given indivudal.

Ok... all caught up? Nearly? Great ... so grab a cuppa and settle in for the new bit....

Part 4. What the feck was all that about?

Two years have passed since my initial thinking and writing around ethics, almost to the day in fact. (I penned part one on the 5th April 2017 and today is 4th April 2019) As you might imagine quite a bit has occurred in that time frame and this morning I felt the need to revisit some of these thoughts and .. perhaps unravel something of a personal view point. Epistemological Interdependence

The idea that "knowledge" is not created individually, if you like, the concept of social learning. I first came across this term in a video by philosopher Oliver Thorn (I'll put a link in the references below) and it raises an interesting point in regards to "trust", a particularly thorny issue that I myself have some degree of difficulty with. Do we take people at face value? Can we believe what they say? What counts as evidence? can we trust testimony? Can we actually assume unless otherwise proven that a performance, whether of self, knowledge, affection, or literally anything, is a) honest and b) authentic as a result? So much of the enquiring critical mind is built on forever searching for "why", that face value can seem ...well... superficial at times. Oh? Really Sarah? and why is that? (case in point - see what I mean?) "face value" is often proven to be nothing more than a performance of what people wish you to see, rather than "a truth" of who they are or whatever. (Politicians do this on a wider stage, but also parents do it when attempting to teach children, and some others may do it for reasons that never become fully clear, perhaps simply to hide their true intentions and motives, or for self protection) Thus, since trans people (including this one) perpetually live in a performative assumption of fraud, foisted upon them by others, (Every. Single. Day, the hell of the other as Sartre described it) distinguishing the honest enquires and personal interest from the disingenuous fetishist is tricky. Why? Because we at first have to "trust" face value. And from a distance those two faces can look very similar. You'll remember Kant from above? He of the categorical imperatives? One of the outcomes of Kantian thought is that if one is to Lie then the person being lied to is denied the ability to make an informed choice, since their information is false. Therefore ethically Kant would say that the lie and the responsibility for all of its outcomes rests with the one lying, because the act of "lieing to" someone treats them as a means to your ends, ignoring any that they themselves might have. But.. heres a thought:

"What if the person lieing to you is basing their lie in what they perceive as a true justified belief, but you "know" it is false and furthermore also "know" has been unjustly presented to them as a truth?" To push this concept a little further, perhaps this was done by an authority figure? A teacher, confidant, friend, coach, parent, etc? this information has therefore perhaps been given an unconscious "authority" and thus was believed with little question due to social context. But regardless, we thus arrive at a collision of both ethical and epistemological arguments since we have to qualify the terms "truth", "lie", and "know" (in brief a known thing is usually said be a result of a true justified belief - which may or may not help and I've done a podcast on the nature of knowledge here ) As you might expect my central problem here revolves around peoples perceptions of gender, and inferences I might make from performative actions of their meanings, categorisations (identity and or sexuality) and the extrapolations of definitional stances from all of the above. When people begin to question gender, be that their own, that of other people, or the entire social construct, they rely on the epistemic assumptions that they have internalised from prior interactions and acquire new versions of that as they go. As such they become prey to those who present plausible but harmful versions of a narrative that perpetuates some form of desirable outcome for the proponent, leaving them at risk of forming either a "self concept" or a "concept of the other" that is deeply, deeply flawed. (I'm currently working on an article about "the self" so I'll link that in when its done.) But if they believe they are acting on a true, justified belief, then are they themselves lieing? Can they be held accountable for their actions based on a falsehood? "I didn't know" isn't a great defence in court after all. I feel this leans into emotivism, since the definition of "true" and "false" are (at least in this context) somewhat subjective opinion based concepts with varying and conflicting degrees of empirical back up. What one could say is that once they know the true justified belief is not longer so, then to continue to act as though it were would be lieing. A counterpoint to this would be the subjective nature of "a truth") (This relies on a concept of transformation of knowledge: and the idea that truth is malleable as justification shifts - in short our ability to learn) What is incontrovertible is that the false hood here rests one step removed from the major players in our little "thought experiment" as written. but to form an ethical judgement on those protagonists, we would have to gain insight into their "maxim's". They could be using vested interest, control, dishonesty, or simply well meaning ignorance, a good faith engagement and wish to learn. Which of course we can never know. because.. if we asked them could we "trust" that testimony?

The eternal climb This forms two separate possibilities.We are left like climbers on a rock ledge, choosing between two untested epistemic ropes formed from the twisting together of many many strands of thought, held onto the rock face of time by empirical pitons. descending into the infinite sociological past, and ascending wherever we might climb. do we use the rope made of deception and wilful manipulation, that may break if tested, or the other simple ignorance mistaking itself for knowledge, but with the ability to hold the weight of new ideas. We cannot tell which is which, but in order to move ourselves, up or down, we have to grab one of those ropes, clip it into our climbing gear and trust it, trust its makers, it's links to the rock face, and hope ti will hold our weight should we fall. Or, we could live our life on a tiny little rock ledge. Wondering. References Philosophy tube Notes on Kantian ethics

Notes on epistemology Nigel Warburton's book - Philosophy the basics.

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