Ethics & Epistemology

In ethics, justificationism on 16/06/2011 at 5:02 pm

What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant…. What’s this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil? (Ashoka)

Some people think that there are no grounds on which to judge different cultures. The cultural practice of ‘honor’ killing is as equally justified as cultural practices that ensure freedom of speech, for instance. That’s how the argument goes.

In a (qualified) sense, I agree. There are no foundations one can appeal to, no (so far as I can tell) justification for human rights or human dignity that extend beyond culture. What I’m getting at is that we ought to remain agnostic over the existence of any ethical code that is inherent to the universe.

This same claim is directed towards different cultural theories of knowledge (Feyerabend, et al.): who am I to say that, since all theories of knowledge are cultural constructs, reading the entrails of goats is any better than the Western process of scientific discovery?

Again, I would have to agree (with some qualification): yes, there are no foundations to knowledge; all theories of knowledge are cultural constructs.

A justificationist is then in a bind: she has no way to justify the preference of some cultures over overs. However, I think that even though cultures differ, some cultures are better (as far as I can tell) than others, both ethically and epistemically, without resorting to any sort of justification for this preference.

Instead of asserting that there exists externally to culture an ephemeral justification for ethics or epistemology, I can say that some forms of behavior produce some results while other forms of behavior produce other results. This is noncontroversial.

Take the next step: Which kinds of results do I want? I make a choice to prefer freedom over slavery, or nonviolence over violence. I prefer an admittedly fallible cultural system that convicts violent criminals based on argument and evidence over a dogmatic culture that sees it proper to burn the face off of children that want to learn how to read.

I make the meta-theoretical choice to prefer what Popper calls ‘Open’ societies or cultures over ‘Closed’ societies or cultures. This applies equally to ethics and epistemology. I choose to prefer nonviolence; I choose to prefer science. Why do I choose them? Initially, I make my choice as follows: Both of these positions embrace the fallible attitude. We don’t know if we’re right.

If I don’t know if I’m right in my proposals for ethical action or conjectures, perhaps silencing someone who disagrees with me would be a mistake. Therefore, if I want to correct my mistaken ideas, it is not productive to squash all competing ideas. If I want to fix my mistakes, I want to hear productive criticism from all different sorts of viewpoints. Furthermore, if I stone a woman to death because her actions go against my ideas of what is right, my idea of what is right could be in error. If I am mistaken, I do not want blood on my hands.

Thus, fallibilism provides two reasons (but not justifications) for choosing my behavior:

  1. if I were wrong, I could stay wrong if I refrain from listening to competing ideas
  2. if I could be ethically wrong, harming another person I think deserves harm may in fact be an unethical action.

If someone thinks my choices to prefer nonviolence and science are wrong, they’re more than welcome to argue against ‘Open’ societies and in favor of ‘Closed’ societies. They’re also more than welcome to argue that my preferences will not produce the desired results. I may be wrong and they may be right, but they won’t convince me with a gun.

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