Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

A Skeptic's Reflection on a Possible Ethics: An Open Letter

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

A Skeptic's Reflection on a Possible Ethics: An Open Letter

Article excerpt

Lee Davis, Dept. of Soc/Anth, SCSU, 720 4th Avenue South, St. Cloud, MN 5630¡-2298

I am not at all sure I can write this essay, since I have discovered that I really have no usefully precise idea what "ethics" is. I think one quarrel is not with any formal and definable "ethics" but with the practice of social sanction for o∂enses against moral norms, a ubiquitous cultural practice of all societies- indeed, we might characterize it as the practice that creates and maintains societies. There are probably relations between a properly conceived "ethics" and these practices of moral sanction, but I would not know what they are. In any case I despair of discerning what is morally (ethically?) to be preferred and limit myself to the task of trying to see as clearly as possible. Moral entrepreneurs seem to muddy the waters by declaring certain problematic matters o∂ limits to both investigation and debate. To ask is to reveal oneself unfit to ask.

The Use of Moral Judgment (Ethics?) to Defend a Preference

I think my initial quarrel is with the practices of religions, political groups, movements, etc. whereby adversaries are declared immoral. Ganging up on adversaries by a priori declarations of their immorality and the immorality of their beliefs (or practices) is a way to shortcut the twin burdens of analysis and discussion. If we can declare an argument (or practice) immoral even to express, then we can continue to entertain beliefs that we judge important and avoid having to examine or defend in any way what we believe. And, at least partially, such a declaration allows us to continue to suppress any lingering doubts within ourselves while wielding a powerful weapon to recruit and maintain allies (with the threat of sanction over their heads should they waiver in their certainty).

The Appeal to Moral Judgment as Justification

The appeal to moral judgment as justification has a social dimension. A behavior judged ethically "bad" or "evil" is at the same time an appeal to stop the behavior. It is a call to all right thinking people who would consider themselves, and who would want others to consider them, "good" people to eschew the behavior. It is also a call to all right thinking people to consider such "evil" behavior in a third person as "evil" and, often enough, to consider those who engage in the behavior as "evil" persons. It is a call for unity against the "evil" perpetrators. And it is a boundary-marking activity celebrating solidarity with other individuals within a community of understanding.

However, the very concept of evil is problematic, and relates to the community of understanding. As an extreme example, the religious believers who crashed their hijacked jet planes into the World Trade Center have been characterized by many in the U.S., including famously the President, as themselves "evil" and their enterprise as itself "evil," yet their defenders characterize their actions as selfless sacrifice for the "good" of the hijackers' communities. What could be more in accord with the surrender demanded of Islam? For that matter what could be more Christian, since self-sacrifice was a central point of the crucifixion, was it not? Are we to characterize this as an ethical question? And is this "good" or "evil"? And does one's answer depend on which community or communities one is a member of ? Is "ethics" (positive good) dependent on one's community membership? Are questions of "ethics" really boundarymaintenance questions that have the added virtue of making the person passing judgment feel better about him/herself and his/her community?

The Justification of Mischief by Appeal to Moral Considerations

Much mischief is prompted by presumed "ethical" judgments. If one identifies all abortion as "evil," should not a moral person do everything pos- sible (including elimination of presumably "evil" abortionists) to stop the practice? If the practice of non-belief by non-believers is "evil," should not nonbelievers be eliminated? …

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