Is Ethics a Puzzle of Uncertainties?

Discuss morality and ethics in this message board.
Featured Article: Philosophical Analysis of Abortion, The Right to Life, and Murder
Post Reply
User avatar
JackDaydream
Posts: 763
Joined: July 25th, 2021, 5:16 pm

Is Ethics a Puzzle of Uncertainties?

Post by JackDaydream »

I have been thinking about the nature of ethics in relation to uncertainty. William De Witt Hyde, in 'Practical Ethics', said, 'Ethics is the science of conduct and the art of life?' It can be asked what are the variables which come into play in this art?

One aspect is the debate between moral absolutism and moral relativism. Thomas Aquinas spoke of natural law in morality. Immanuel Kant argued for the existence of a priori principles, especially in his idea of the categorical imperative, which involves considering one's own choices being put into action on a universal scale. However, while some writers have suggested clear ways of establishing ethics, it does appear that moral codes vary culturally.

Moral choices also involve internal factors of conscience and virtue, related to the nature of duty. Also, it involves thinking of the consequences of action. This is the debate between duty based, deontological ethics and the utilitarian approaches. The idea of duty is connected to the understanding of morality as a basis for choice in contrast to that of consideration of choices. Generally, I am more inclined to an thinking about ethics in relation to the importance of consequences of acts.

That is where I began wondering about the nature of uncertainty and choice, while reading, 'The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable', by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His idea of the black swan is about the way in which exceptions arise in the course of nature and social life. His argument is:
'Almost everything in social life is produced by rare but consequential shocks and jumps; all the while almost everything studied about social life focuses on the "normal", particularly with the "bell curve" inference that tell you close to nothing. Why? Because the bell curve ignores large deviations, cannot handle them, yet makes us confident that we have tamed them.'

I hope that what I have written is not too vague or abstract, but I am thinking about how uncertainty is juggled in moral choices. Human beings are weighing up the effects of action amidst so much uncertainty. I have thought about that in regard to the decisions and policies made in relation to the pandemic and about the environment and climate change. However, unpredictability also looms before the individual, with choices about the consequences of one's behaviour in one's own life and that of others people and forms of life. It is about thinking in a fog of the unknown future So, I am asking what do you think about ethics in relation to the idea and existence of uncertainty?
GE Morton
Posts: 2809
Joined: February 1st, 2017, 1:06 am

Re: Is Ethics a Puzzle of Uncertainties?

Post by GE Morton »

JackDaydream wrote: January 14th, 2022, 11:23 am
I hope that what I have written is not too vague or abstract, but I am thinking about how uncertainty is juggled in moral choices. Human beings are weighing up the effects of action amidst so much uncertainty. I have thought about that in regard to the decisions and policies made in relation to the pandemic and about the environment and climate change. However, unpredictability also looms before the individual, with choices about the consequences of one's behaviour in one's own life and that of others people and forms of life. It is about thinking in a fog of the unknown future So, I am asking what do you think about ethics in relation to the idea and existence of uncertainty?
Uncertainty constantly besets moral decision-making, but not moral theorizing. For example, there is nothing problematic about the moral precept, "Do no harm." But uncertainty will often arise when trying to decide whether doing X WILL do harm, or whether it will do more or less harm than not doing it.

But while asking those questions in a given situation is a moral duty, answering them is not; it is an empirical, scientific (in the broad sense) problem.
User avatar
Thomyum2
Posts: 293
Joined: June 10th, 2019, 4:21 pm
Favorite Philosopher: Robert Pirsig + William James

Re: Is Ethics a Puzzle of Uncertainties?

Post by Thomyum2 »

JackDaydream wrote: January 14th, 2022, 11:23 am I have been thinking about the nature of ethics in relation to uncertainty. William De Witt Hyde, in 'Practical Ethics', said, 'Ethics is the science of conduct and the art of life?' It can be asked what are the variables which come into play in this art?

One aspect is the debate between moral absolutism and moral relativism. Thomas Aquinas spoke of natural law in morality. Immanuel Kant argued for the existence of a priori principles, especially in his idea of the categorical imperative, which involves considering one's own choices being put into action on a universal scale. However, while some writers have suggested clear ways of establishing ethics, it does appear that moral codes vary culturally.

Moral choices also involve internal factors of conscience and virtue, related to the nature of duty. Also, it involves thinking of the consequences of action. This is the debate between duty based, deontological ethics and the utilitarian approaches. The idea of duty is connected to the understanding of morality as a basis for choice in contrast to that of consideration of choices. Generally, I am more inclined to an thinking about ethics in relation to the importance of consequences of acts.
...

I hope that what I have written is not too vague or abstract, but I am thinking about how uncertainty is juggled in moral choices. Human beings are weighing up the effects of action amidst so much uncertainty. I have thought about that in regard to the decisions and policies made in relation to the pandemic and about the environment and climate change. However, unpredictability also looms before the individual, with choices about the consequences of one's behaviour in one's own life and that of others people and forms of life. It is about thinking in a fog of the unknown future So, I am asking what do you think about ethics in relation to the idea and existence of uncertainty?
Hi JackDayDream,

I think you've hit exactly upon what makes ethics and morality so challenging: the fact that we are faced with such uncertainty and limitations on our ability to know the ultimate consequences of our actions. It may seem silly to say so, but I often think of Gandalf's admonition in The Fellowship of the Ring: "Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends." For this reason, I tend to think that Kant was onto something essential in understanding that one's intentions are more important than anything else: "It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good will."

Ethics isn't an area in which I have a lot of expertise or confidence, and is sounds like you've likely read more broadly on this topic than I have, so I won't try to say too much more. But there's famous lecture by one of my favorite philosophers, William James - The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life - that I'd highly recommend if you haven't read it already. It's had a profound effect on me personally and on how I think about and understand moral questions. One of my favorite passages, which I find very insightful is as follows: "Abstract rules indeed can help; but they help the less in proportion as our intuitions are more piercing, and our vocation is the stronger for the moral life. For every real dilemma is in literal strictness a unique situation; and the exact combination of ideals realized and ideals disappointed which each decision creates is always a universe without a precedent, and for which no adequate previous rule exists." I agree with this - I think that we can be guided by rules and by experience, but ultimately each moral choice is one that we face alone and that we can only make it ourselves. And we each must rely on our own good will and our intuition - in other words to look within ourselves - in order to make it. There is no certainty in it other than that which we find within our own being.
User avatar
JackDaydream
Posts: 763
Joined: July 25th, 2021, 5:16 pm

Re: Is Ethics a Puzzle of Uncertainties?

Post by JackDaydream »

@Thomyum2

Yes, it does seem that Kant was perhaps correct in placing important on intentions rather than simply ends, simply because it is not always possible to see the furthest consequences of a given act. Just say, for example Gabriel gives money to Leonardo, who is in poverty, and this prevents Leonardo from being evicted. However, a month later, Leonardo has a bad argument with his next door neighbour, Rupert, because he thinks Rupert is flirting with Sophie, who is Leonardo's partner. Leonardo attacks Rupert with a knife and kills Rupert. Gabriel hears of this and regrets giving money to Leonardo as an act of good will. This little example gives the way in which acts which are 'good' may not help in the complex chain of events which unfold in life. But, any person can be conscious of intent.

The way it appears to me is that the juggling of potential consequences of actions and intention is a delicate balance. It may be made based partly on intuition, especially in the spontaneity of the moment. On a longer term basis, where decisions are being made there may be more weighing of the pros and cons of certain acts, especially where there are clashes, such as a decision to help Susan or Jane, if this involves conflict of interest and having to make choices.
User avatar
JackDaydream
Posts: 763
Joined: July 25th, 2021, 5:16 pm

Re: Is Ethics a Puzzle of Uncertainties?

Post by JackDaydream »

@GE Morton

You suggest that uncertainty affects moral decision making but not moral theorizing. This really means that life is more complicated than the theories. Of course, theory can be a basis, but I do wonder if theories should reflect more of the nature of the 'black swans' of uncertainty in order to make the theories more robust and useful, rather than theories being too abstract to apply to real life. I am not trying to say that the basic ideas, such as utilitarianism, should be disregarded but need to be addressed in relation to the recognition of the 'black swans' of uncertainty. Also, Kant's idea of the categorical imperative was useful for thinking of the universal application of moral principles. However, it overlooked the specifics of situations as a generalisation and the unique aspects of moral decision making.

Basically, what I am trying to say is that the theories are a useful basis but thinking about ethics needs to be about aiding decision making rather than remaining as abstract theories. However, I am sure that in some areas of life, such as law all the unique situations, such as factors involved in crime, are looked at to make evaluations about people's moral actions.
stevie
Posts: 219
Joined: July 19th, 2021, 11:08 am

Re: Is Ethics a Puzzle of Uncertainties?

Post by stevie »

According to Merriam Webster I take "ethics" to be a 2c : a guiding philosophy
from which one's 2b: principles of conduct are derived. As such ethics are goal oriented and based on certainty [about one's goals].
GE Morton
Posts: 2809
Joined: February 1st, 2017, 1:06 am

Re: Is Ethics a Puzzle of Uncertainties?

Post by GE Morton »

JackDaydream wrote: January 15th, 2022, 8:45 am @GE Morton

You suggest that uncertainty affects moral decision making but not moral theorizing. This really means that life is more complicated than the theories.
Sure. Reality regularly proves itself more complicated than theories describe. Physicists would be the first to admit that.
Of course, theory can be a basis, but I do wonder if theories should reflect more of the nature of the 'black swans' of uncertainty in order to make the theories more robust and useful, rather than theories being too abstract to apply to real life.
How might they do that?
I am not trying to say that the basic ideas, such as utilitarianism, should be disregarded but need to be addressed in relation to the recognition of the 'black swans' of uncertainty. Also, Kant's idea of the categorical imperative was useful for thinking of the universal application of moral principles. However, it overlooked the specifics of situations as a generalisation and the unique aspects of moral decision making.
It didn't overlook them; there is simply no way to embrace them. Rules are necessarily general.
User avatar
chewybrian
Posts: 1256
Joined: May 9th, 2018, 7:17 pm
Favorite Philosopher: Epictetus
Location: Florida man

Re: Is Ethics a Puzzle of Uncertainties?

Post by chewybrian »

GE Morton wrote: January 15th, 2022, 2:02 pm
JackDaydream wrote: January 15th, 2022, 8:45 am @GE Morton

You suggest that uncertainty affects moral decision making but not moral theorizing. This really means that life is more complicated than the theories.
Sure. Reality regularly proves itself more complicated than theories describe. Physicists would be the first to admit that.
And libertarians might be the last.
"If determinism holds, then past events have conspired to cause me to hold this view--it is out of my control. Either I am right about free will, or it is not my fault that I am wrong."
User avatar
JackDaydream
Posts: 763
Joined: July 25th, 2021, 5:16 pm

Re: Is Ethics a Puzzle of Uncertainties?

Post by JackDaydream »

@stevie

It may be that goals are extremely important and part of the problem with this is that it may be that many people are not clear about their goals. Also, there are conscious ones and others which are subconscious. This may explain why there are often incongruities in behaviour..

As far I am concerned, I can identify goals but I think that I often fail to meet them, often with negative effects for myself more than other people. I broke my own New Year resolution to cut out alcohol for a month by going out for a drink on New Year's day. I also buy too many things when I am out. I think that I lack discipline, but I do respect and others and try not to upset people. But, generally I think that even if people have ethical ideals it can be hard to live up to them. Having been brought up as a Catholic, I am aware of people going to confession and it is not long before they go out and commit the same sins again.
User avatar
JackDaydream
Posts: 763
Joined: July 25th, 2021, 5:16 pm

Re: Is Ethics a Puzzle of Uncertainties?

Post by JackDaydream »

@GE Morton

It is hard to know how ethical theories could give exact guidance on uncertainty. However, it may be more in relation to applied ethics, such as in medical ethics. This probably comes into play in awareness of risks. It may be that ethics may be about assessing risks, benefits and disadvantages. This would be more a way of seeing action in a practical way rather than in an emphasis on goodness. I believe that Kant's philosophy of morality was bound up with an emphasis on piety and I believe that he lived like a monk and never had sex with anyone. But, many religious people did believe that it was better to be celibate and that masturbation was a sin.

In some ways, the idea of virtue in itself may have been more important in a religious society, although I am sure that independently of whether God exists, many people do wish to consider themselves as being good. I think that Carl Jung makes an important point, however, in suggesting that Christianity emphasises perfection in the idea of the imitation of Christ. He argued that this resulted in failure because it was unattainable, and he suggests that wholeness is more helpful. He maintained that people need to be able to integrate their shadow, the aspects which are repressed and suppressed in the process of socialization. Nevertheless, the idea of integrating the shadow is a difficult task. It could be interpreted a bit like Nietzsche's idea of going beyond good and evil, and, in some respects, it has some comparison because it may include an emphasis on the 'niceness' of convention. But, it could be that the path to integration of the shadow in itself paves the way for many mistakes.
.
stevie
Posts: 219
Joined: July 19th, 2021, 11:08 am

Re: Is Ethics a Puzzle of Uncertainties?

Post by stevie »

JackDaydream wrote: January 16th, 2022, 4:24 pm @ stevie

It may be that goals are extremely important and part of the problem with this is that it may be that many people are not clear about their goals. Also, there are conscious ones and others which are subconscious. This may explain why there are often incongruities in behaviour..

As far I am concerned, I can identify goals but I think that I often fail to meet them, often with negative effects for myself more than other people. I broke my own New Year resolution to cut out alcohol for a month by going out for a drink on New Year's day. I also buy too many things when I am out. I think that I lack discipline, but I do respect and others and try not to upset people. But, generally I think that even if people have ethical ideals it can be hard to live up to them. Having been brought up as a Catholic, I am aware of people going to confession and it is not long before they go out and commit the same sins again.
That's why a guiding philosophy is important and it must be a philosophy one is really convinced about its appropriateness (for oneself). The goal(s) set must derive from that philosophy as must one's conduct. Goals and conduct mustn't cause cognitive dissonance and initially missing achievement of the goal(s) has to be an integral possibility/part of the guiding philosophy.
User avatar
JackDaydream
Posts: 763
Joined: July 25th, 2021, 5:16 pm

Re: Is Ethics a Puzzle of Uncertainties?

Post by JackDaydream »

@stevie

The problem with what you are saying is that it is too based on the conscious application of philosophy. Okay, as the people on the forum have chosen to join it is likely that there will be people here who think about philosophy to some extent. But many people in the world don't think about philosophy, or the underlying source of values consciously. So, in that context, for many morality and ethics is make it up as you go along. That means that it is mixture of conscience, as the internalised voice of social norms, alongside some moral feelings, with some rational logic.

In an ideal world, it would be beneficial if people were able to explore goals and develop ethics based on philosophy but it is probably not happening for the majority of the population in Western society, at least. The nearest to it happening is through self awareness gained through psychology, which is far more prominent than philosophy. In cognitive behavioral psychology based techniques, the basis of one's beliefs and assumptions and goals are focused upon so that enables people to be able to do this, so it is nearest possibility of people being able to understand and develop clear goals.
stevie
Posts: 219
Joined: July 19th, 2021, 11:08 am

Re: Is Ethics a Puzzle of Uncertainties?

Post by stevie »

JackDaydream wrote: January 17th, 2022, 4:48 am @ stevie

The problem with what you are saying is that it is too based on the conscious application of philosophy. Okay, as the people on the forum have chosen to join it is likely that there will be people here who think about philosophy to some extent. But many people in the world don't think about philosophy, or the underlying source of values consciously. So, in that context, for many morality and ethics is make it up as you go along. That means that it is mixture of conscience, as the internalised voice of social norms, alongside some moral feelings, with some rational logic.

In an ideal world, it would be beneficial if people were able to explore goals and develop ethics based on philosophy but it is probably not happening for the majority of the population in Western society, at least. The nearest to it happening is through self awareness gained through psychology, which is far more prominent than philosophy. In cognitive behavioral psychology based techniques, the basis of one's beliefs and assumptions and goals are focused upon so that enables people to be able to do this, so it is nearest possibility of people being able to understand and develop clear goals.
Neither do I refer to "people" nor do I refer to "morality" (my definition of ethics above is amoral, i.e. non-moral. The "philosophy" I am referring to is one that has evolved in oneself, not one that may be adopted from another although the philosophies of others one comes across certainly do contribute to the evolution of one's own philosophy.
Post Reply

Return to “Ethics and Morality”

Upcoming Philosphy Books of the Month

Emotional Intelligence At Work

Emotional Intelligence At Work
by Richard M Contino & Penelope J Holt
January 2022

Free Will, Do You Have It?

Free Will, Do You Have It?
by Albertus Kral
February 2022

My Enemy in Vietnam

My Enemy in Vietnam
by Billy Springer
March 2022

2X2 on the Ark

2X2 on the Ark
by Mary J Giuffra, PhD
April 2022

The Maestro Monologue

The Maestro Monologue
by Rob White
May 2022

What Makes America Great

What Makes America Great
by Bob Dowell
June 2022

The Truth Is Beyond Belief!

The Truth Is Beyond Belief!
by Jerry Durr
July 2022

Living in Color

Living in Color
by Mike Murphy
August 2022 (tentative)

The Not So Great American Novel

The Not So Great American Novel
by James E Doucette
September 2022

Mary Jane Whiteley Coggeshall, Hicksite Quaker, Iowa/National Suffragette And Her Speeches

Mary Jane Whiteley Coggeshall, Hicksite Quaker, Iowa/National Suffragette And Her Speeches
by John N. (Jake) Ferris
October 2022

Previous Philosophy Books of the Month

The Biblical Clock: The Untold Secrets Linking the Universe and Humanity with God's Plan

The Biblical Clock
by Daniel Friedmann
March 2021

Wilderness Cry: A Scientific and Philosophical Approach to Understanding God and the Universe

Wilderness Cry
by Dr. Hilary L Hunt M.D.
April 2021

Fear Not, Dream Big, & Execute: Tools To Spark Your Dream And Ignite Your Follow-Through

Fear Not, Dream Big, & Execute
by Jeff Meyer
May 2021

Surviving the Business of Healthcare: Knowledge is Power

Surviving the Business of Healthcare
by Barbara Galutia Regis M.S. PA-C
June 2021

Winning the War on Cancer: The Epic Journey Towards a Natural Cure

Winning the War on Cancer
by Sylvie Beljanski
July 2021

Defining Moments of a Free Man from a Black Stream

Defining Moments of a Free Man from a Black Stream
by Dr Frank L Douglas
August 2021

If Life Stinks, Get Your Head Outta Your Buts

If Life Stinks, Get Your Head Outta Your Buts
by Mark L. Wdowiak
September 2021

The Preppers Medical Handbook

The Preppers Medical Handbook
by Dr. William W Forgey M.D.
October 2021

Natural Relief for Anxiety and Stress: A Practical Guide

Natural Relief for Anxiety and Stress
by Dr. Gustavo Kinrys, MD
November 2021

Dream For Peace: An Ambassador Memoir

Dream For Peace
by Dr. Ghoulem Berrah
December 2021