The Nature of Promethean Ethics

By Kohl, Marvin | The Humanist, January-February 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Nature of Promethean Ethics


Kohl, Marvin, The Humanist


Promethean ethics is that emphasizes the a proto-theory approach one should take toward ethics, rather than the exact formulation of a mete ethics or normative theory. It is based upon Greek mythology and the differences between the brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus. It asks that we be actively concerned about the welfare of humanity as a whole through acts of sympathetic imagination and beneficence. It reminds us that fear, whether it be of the gods or physical nature, ultimately gives rise to a self-defeating conservatism. Most importantly, it insists that we cannot be forbidden to bestow value on the ground that the nonhuman world does not value it. Nor can we be compelled to admire anything because it is "ordained by nature" Philosophers often express this in technical terms when they say that "ethics is logically in dependent of nature or metaphysics"

Promethean means forethought and commitment to a future world that is considerably better than the one we presently have. Prometheans do not accept preventable misfortune or suffering. When necessary, they defy nature or the gods in order to improve the human condition. They understand that, in the absence of knowledge, unexpected harm may be done by a new departure from nature. But they also understand the need for risk taking. For example, I do not think even the most ardent apostle of nature would want Prometheus to return the technology for fire making simply because it needs to be supplemented by another unnatural institution--namely, the practice of fire safety.

What about the notion of providence? What about the belief that there is a transcendent benevolent god standing outside the world who guarantees that things will always work out for the best? Or the belief that nature itself is kindly, that there is a depersonalized, benevolent immanence in things which guarantees that beneficence will prevail? The Promethean rejects both of these views and maintains that there is little evidence that "nature" is benevolent and overwhelming evidence that it is not--or at least that it is neutral. The Promethean believes that the concept of providence is an illusion, a palliative device. That, aside from the illusions which seem necessary for mental health, humankind has the best chance for attaining enduring happiness by living within the scaffolding of a theory of truth dominated by reliable evidence.

It is true that Prometheus represents the desire for a better world: the will to aspire to the power of the gods and to stand against unnecessary suffering and the evils of the status quo. It is also true that Prometheanism en courages bold innovation. But it is one thing to be bold and another to be foolish. Prometheanism rejects the claim that "if it is feasible, it is desirable" or that "science discovers, industry applies, and man conforms." Instead, it substitutes the injunction that "whether it be audacious or not, if there is clear and reliable evidence of benefit, then it is desirable to try it." Similarly, Prometheanism does not believe that "guilty until proven innocent" is a safe guide to action. It maintains that our task is to understand that innovation involves risk, and that great change involves great risk. For example, how many of us would want to deny the value of antibiotics because they are "unnatural" or because they cause the death of those who have severe allergies?

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