Value Ethics; or, At Home in a Foreign Land

Greek *and* Latin, because Authority.

Greek *and* Latin, because Authority.

I’ve been working away at the Nichomachean Ethics for a while now – put on hold after it was shelved during a thorough tidy, I’ve dug it out and am attacking it in earnest.

As I think I’d mentioned elsewhere, I did for a long while, at least the first years of my demi-adulthood, count myself a Kantian, or at least a Deontologist. There was something comforting about being able to point to an absolute, a well-supported base that could be universally applied. As I was to learn upon closer examination, i.e., a reading of the First Critique (catalyst for the emergence of some mental health fun I’m still working through)i, the whole system collapses if you take a loosely Judeao-Christian God out of the equation. Rather than standing up by the strength of its own architectonics, its rigid formulae, the compulsion of the dicta was surrogate. The whole apparatus was an empty vessel, and, without the Holy Ghost animating it, sits lame and inert.


An attempt from earlier in the summer, featuring maybe the reason it didn't stick.

An attempt from earlier in the summer, featuring maybe the reason it didn’t stick.

I cannot accept a god of that sort, and so I find myself sealed off from the enjoyment of an ostensibly airtight ethics. I don’t know that that precludes Deontology altogether, but it is difficult to move from a preset group of universalised principals without an external force to lend them power. If the system itself doesn’t provide the validity, it has to come from somewhere. This is one of the strengths of Utilitarian systems – built from the ground up, they don’t really need the universality of a Deontic system – you set your assumptions (which is where the problems start) and then the whole thing skips along. Historically, those assumptions have been mistaken, and the apparatus is invariably too clumsy to actually grasp the nuances of the world itself, but at least there is a pleasing mechanistic coherence about the whole thing.

So, top-down Deontology doesn’t work for me, without God at the crank making sure it keeps running it’s simply empty. I’m not especially interested in a Utilitarian ethics – I have an intuition-level distaste for it, which I’ve shored up in a post-hoc form several times, but should really take the time to chew on. What then of Value Ethics? Fine grained enough to get a hold on the world, and doesn’t seem to need external authority. So far, so good.

The trouble, and this was something I noticed in my initial skim back in uni, is that so much of, at least what Aristotle’s formulation presents, is prey to the rankest of societal relativism. I realise that it would be anachronistic to project our own standards of logical rigour backwards, but there exist many fundamental assumptions in the Nichomachean Ethics that simply don’t pan out when you get beyond folk-wisdom. Declaring virtues to be a known element to “all men” works nicely if you’re talking about a single population, within a limited time-frame and geographical spread, but, as we know from experience, what one society takes as patently obvious is the far edge of the alien to another.

It’s not a novel complaint, by any means. I guess I’m just left a bit disappointed that it collapses so readily into relativism. Mind you, it’s not as if the take-away portion of the system – the pursuit of eudaemonia, that human flourishing produced by valorous conduct – could be anything other than a very specifically, societally bound affair. I suspect it’s directly related to how nuanced and fine-toothed the approach is that it gets so thoroughly tangled in individual cases.

Alongside concerns about Kantian Deontology, it was also in preparation for reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s works (his earlier, Marxist works) that I took on the re-reading of Aristotle. It’s interesting, then, that he confronts this issue of cultural relativism in After Virtue. The way out is a fallacy, its true, but this is a messy world. In defence of Value Ethics, MacIntyre and others admit that there is a significant problem with cultural relativism. So too, they say, does every other form of Normative Ethics. Worse they, in fact. As much as Virtue Ethics may be mired in cultural concerns, Consequentialism and Deontology have it just as bad – the generalised goals of Consequentialism, every time, are chosen within the blinders of a culture. The best Deontic system, as I’ve already said, had a massive deity-shaped crutch. Tu quoque, but at least Virtue Ethics owns it.

One of the more attractive elements of MacIntyre’s position, from what I’ve read of it, is the onus on humans-as-members-of-communities. MacIntyre’s position from the outset is to reject the individualist thrust of modern (Renaissance/Enlightenment forward) ethical systems. By situating humans in relations with one another, in something more robust than mere actor/acted upon, we arrive at a better way of conceptualising proper behaviour in society. For what it’s worth, this dovetails with the common-sense approach to ethics – no one, no honest person, would say that American society owes nothing to the victims of slavery, or genocide. And yet, no one of my generation has owned slaves, or driven Native Americans off their land. Clearly, we believe in some degree of historical culpability – “I am born with a past, and to cut myself off from that past in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships,” MacIntyre says. I suspect the ways in which this aligns with my politics to be readily evident.

I’ll finish the Nichomachean Ethics, and I’ll grab MacIntyre’s After Virtue, as well. I guess I’ll just have to get used to having a more bounded, localised ethics. I’m not sure what metaphysical baggage I’ve loaded myself with, yet, but I’ll wriggle out of it without too much trouble – I still fly the flag of the Vienna Circle, even if it is 2/3 in self-mockery. It’ll be a shame to not know that I’m always right, categorically, anymore though.

i. More so the difficulty of the text and what this meant for me as a scholar – the whole God thing I’d gotten over half a dozen years before.


Posted on October 13, 2015, in Maunderings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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