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Ethics: Why Bother With Them?
Copyright © 1979, 2011


The talk presented below was given on July 22, 1979, at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church, Canoga Park, California. I present it here as a tribute to one of my favorite people, Hazel Barnes. Hazel was a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and, as the first American translator of Jean-Paul Sartre, she introduced America to existentialism. I was given a copy of her own book, An Existentialist Ethics, in 1977 while I was recovering from an accident. I was instantly captivated by Hazel's prose style, and by the ideas she presented. This in large part because she made heavy use of one of literature's most important characters: Dostoevsky's Underground Man. The underground man was important to me because I had earlier, completely by accident while attending an opera workshop at California State University at Northridge, renewed a long-ago friendship with my college English professor, Bob Oliphant. Bob had written a monologue with four songs based on Dostoevsky's famously dysfunctional character. It was inevitable that he would accompany my performance of it, and this we did at least once—at the Emerson UU Church—before I wrote this talk. We called the show The Underground Man: A Sermon With Occasional Songs. It is a jewel.

After reading An Existentialist Ethics, I read Sartre's Being and Nothingness, and became a committed Sartrean existentialist. From my two years as a philosophy major, I also had at that time a serious interest in ethical theory, and the challenge of solving the ethical problem within the context of atheistic existentialism became something of an obsession. Thus this talk. (The talk does not of course solve the ethical problem.)

At some point, I obtained Hazel's Boulder, Colorado telephone number, and made bold to introduce myself. I told her how much I enjoyed her book, and that I would be studying Sartre seriously. She was very gracious and supportive.

Years later, bold as always, I invited myself and a friend to visit Hazel and her life partner, Doris Schwalbe, as part of a road trip through the Southwest. Again she was very gracious, and Bonnie and I enjoyed a fine home-made trout dinner and good conversation. I met Hazel twice more; first at a North American Sartre Society gathering in Chicago, and again at the 1999 NASS convocation in Los Angeles. Hazel was the keynote speaker there. As always, she was friendly and gracious, and even took pains to see that I was not left alone as a layperson.

Hazel died on March 18, 2008 at age 92. I don't remember if I sent this talk to her at the time, but I would be surprised if I did not. For better or worse, here it is. (Note: the major quotes from the book are from pages 6, 8, 9, and 77. Also, I have retained Barnes's masculine pronouns "he", "his", and "himself" as she wrote them.)

Ethics: Why Bother With Them?

Let me open my discussion with an apology — I will be saying things this morning which are guaranteed to raise Unitarian hackles. First, I will be making many assertions: statements about the human condition as if they were matters of established fact. I will not be giving equal time to the other side, in traditional Unitarian Fairness. Secondly, I will be using the word "we" a good deal. This is partly a matter of style, and partly because it is easier than going through a statistical breakdown each time I want to make an observation which seems applicable to all of us, "more or less." I realize that there is probably someone in the audience to whom none of my generalizations apply. I ask this person's indulgence, and give him or her leave to ignore my talk completely.

Ethics is a difficult subject. We can ask many questions of an ethical nature, and also questions about ethics itself. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, we lose sight of the difference between these two kinds of questions. If I stand to gain substantially because of another's lack of knowledge, the question as to whether or not I should enlighten him or her is an ethical question, of more or less poignancy depending on the degree of harm which will come to the other if he or she is not told all the facts.

Perhaps the most basic question we can ask about ethics is What are they? Are ethics rules by which one guides one's conduct? Or are ethics a set of feelings about how one is conducting oneself in the world? Or, is ethics just the activity of discussing ethics? This last question leads to another, which is the kernel around which this discussion is organized: why do we, or why should we, discuss ethics at all? I confess that I don't know exactly why I discuss ethics although I have a strong inclination to do so.

It often appears that in ethical discussion we are trying, in a very disorganized way, to develop some comprehensive guide to living, but sometimes I wonder whether the talking serves any purpose other than to temporarily purge us of uncomfortable doubts regarding our own conduct, or to provide an opportunity to indulge in some safe but righteous judgment of someone else's conduct. We are all familiar with those situations which are remote enough that we can comfortably make ethical judgments about the people involved. Most phraseology descriptive of politicians is in this line, as is most talk about the goodness and wisdom of the "common people."

Sometimes, though usually by accident, the talk threatens to touch upon how we actually conduct ourselves in the world. We then notice a slight quickening of the heartbeat, a constriction of the blood vessels, a hesitancy as to what to say next. We know that we are heading in a dangerous direction. Very often at this point a sage amongst us points out that we all have our own points of view and that it is unlikely that anyone will change their opinion. Then we talk a while about everyone's right to his or her own point of view, which usually culminates in paroxysms of mutual admiration and self-congratulation at how tolerant and open-minded we are. It is great fun, and leaves us all with a warm feeling.

Within the context of ethical discussion, this is an informal manifestation of ethical relativism, the approach to ethics which denies, or defines away the existence of moral absolutes which we often seem to want as a foundation for our personal ethical system. For me ethical relativism as criteria for the validity of an ethical system is very vague, but seems to be based on the sincerity with which the beliefs are held. In our culture, one criterion for validity has been popularized in the motto "if it feels good, do it." There is an unspoken assumption here that we will not feel good indulging in conduct which is harmful to others, and thereby adherence to the motto will automatically lead to beneficial, or at the least, harmless action. Another assumption is that if one does what feels good, then one may find oneself more often wanting to act in specifically ethical ways, such as helping disadvantaged children or other such activities.

Now there have been many areas of human conduct which have been unnecessarily proscribed under the aegis of moral law, but to consider "if it feels good, do it" as a paradigm of moral law leaves a good deal out of any matureconsideration of human conduct. It is too simple to account for children who pull the wings off, flies, or grownups like Adolf Hitler.

Hazel Barnes, in her book An Existentialist Ethics laments the popular trend today to identify as an "ethics" any personally chosen value system or code of behavior. She deplores this approach because it robs the terms "religion" and "ethics" of any positive meaning whatever. She asserts that

"it is not true that every person is committed to his particular ultimate concern (his religion), or to a specific mode of conduct designed to further his personally selected values (his ethics). What characterizes many, if not most, people is precisely a lack of commitment and consistency ... One can not truthfully say even that they have chosen to respond spontaneously to each new situation as it occurs, for their responses are frequently not genuine, but only what they feel is expected. To apply the term 'religious' or 'ethical' to this sort of aimless, desultory, semi-mechanical living is to do such violence to language as to destroy the possibility of communication."

This approach has a strong two-fold appeal, however. We are protected from the possibility of enduring another's negative judgment, but are free to bask in the glow which attends the use of language which has strong metaphysical or spiritual connotations, which is often characteristic of ethical discussion.

Eric Fromm, in Man for Himself (or in today's vernacular, Persons for Themselves) also touches on this ethical relativism. He takes the psychological profession to task for eliminating the ethical question altogether from the study of the human condition. Fromm asserts that Freud's relativism with regard to values has had a negative impact on ethical theory, and upon psychology itself. Jung does not fare much better.

While Jung recognized the importance of philosophical and moral problems for psychology, he established the unconscious and the myth as the new sources of revelation, each superior to rational process just because of its non-rational origin. From calls this a pseudo-religious obscurantism, and calls for more reason to correct the errors of a one-sided rationalism. He considers that "the problems of ethics can not be omitted from the study of personality, either theoretically or therapeutically ... Neurosis itself is, in the last analysis, a symptom of moral failure (although "adjustment" is by no means a symptom of moral achievement). In many instances, a neurotic symptom is the specific expression of moral conflict, and the. success of the therapeutic effort depends on the understanding and solution of the person's moral problem"

I personally consider ethical discussion to be a risky and difficult business. This is just because ethical discussion makes heavy use of rational process, accompanied by an emotional factor stemming from our understanding that we are ultimately talking about ourselves in terms of right and wrong, and that we may be seriously challenged to actually change our way of being.

At this point, I will throw off my camouflage of unbiased discussion of why we discuss ethics and say that, for me, ethical discussion as simply a way of cleverly passing time is an empty activity and that its only worthwhile purpose is as part of a search for an actual guide to living. This sounds very ponderous, and it can be if one is not careful. Actually, I see room for a good deal of humor and some fun in ethical discussion, but for me it is important that it be treated with more seriousness than talk about sporting events, or who did what at last night's party. (Although judging by the fervor with which these topics are often discussed, one is tempted to believe that there is not much else of importance in life.)

A natural question at this point would be: Just how do we distinguish between "serious" and "frivolous" ethical discussion? The question is in the right direction, but it is as yet too early to attempt an answer. There are more basic aspects to the notion of ethics which must be looked at first.

Now that we (or I, at any rate) have decided to be "serious" about our approach to ethics, we must look squarely at the fundamental assumption without which this decision is literally meaningless: that we are free to choose both our conduct in the world, and our attitude toward those conducts we have chosen. The philosophic problem of free will is one of the largest in the bag, and I had originally intended to mention it only in passing; in the nature of an assertion that we are free, and that our freedom is the absolute basis of any ethic. But, I realized that no discussion of ethics can be fruitful without looking at the problem of freedom. And, to my mind, the problem is not just the question of whether or not, and how we come to be free, but also, what are our attitudes towards freedom, whether we are free or not.

It seems clear to me that our attitude towards freedom is ambivalent, and I will go so far as to say that we are often plain dishonest regarding it. We all like to feel that we are free agents, and usually act as if we are not subject to forces which originate deep within us, and which work their way into our overt behavior through unknown, and perhaps unknowable, psychological laws. That is, until we must face consequences of our acts for which we are not quite prepared to take responsibility. When we reach this point, we usually look for an escape route, and there are several , which I will touch on in a moment.

To my mind, we search for excuses so as to avoid two very heavy burdens which unavoidably accompany acceptance of freedom. First is our knowledge that no matter how well we have "gone over" a situation, either for the purpose of deciding what our conduct will be, or to weigh the consequences of an act against the hopes and intentions which motivated it, we can never be sure that we have made the right decision. And here I do not mean "right" according to some absolute value inherent in the structure of things, but in the sense of fulfilling our own more or less well articulated goals and values, which may then also come into question. Secondly, the acceptance of freedom requires acceptance of our responsibility for our acts, in two inseparable aspects: first, the knowledge that we are the sole creators of our acts, without excuse; second, the recognition that regardless of the consequences of our act, we have preferred those consequences over any others which would more or less likely have resulted from a different act, or from no action.

I suggest that it is the unwillingness to face this second aspect of our responsibility that is the primary motivation for the search for excuses when things go wrong. One such excuse is a fallback to determinism: "I couldn't help myself." Another is a plea of ignorance: "I never dreamed that this would happen." A third, and I think most attractive, and certainly most often heard, is to treat one's action as reaching only so far as the next person to take it up. Thus, this undesired and inimical result is all the fault of those who took my ethically proper and well intentioned action and perverted it for their own evil purposes. My development of virulent bacteria in Pentagon laboratories is a praiseworthy exercise in pure research, and it is certainly not my fault if those germs find their way into the population. Now, I take this stance if I am being blamed for the undesired result. If, by chance it is another who is bearing the blame, I might magnanimously allow that he or she transformed my good act into a bad result out of ignorance.

Now, excuses come after the fact. However, for those of us who have experienced the very melancholy discomfort which can result from facing full responsibility for uncertain and unguaranteed action, there is available an intellectual slight of hand by which we can avoid the discomfort altogether. This is to make a vigorous questioning process our dominant value. As this skepticism—which can easily evolve into cynicism—becomes a way of life, the need to commit oneself, and possibly suffer the negative consequences which commitment can bring, simply never comes up. And this goes unnoticed, because a vigorous skepticism is a pleasing thing in itself, evoking imagery of iconoclasm and courageous opposition to stodgy dogma. This is not to say that a healthy skepticism is not desirable; certainly more good than harm has come from it over the years. But, if it is carried too far, it can be as much a pitfall for those who reject dogma as blind faith is for those who cannot live without it.

Probably the most straightforward approach to the problem of freedom is just to deny outright that we are free to choose our conduct in the world. And in fact, this denial is often made, and with a great deal of heat. But, since denial by assertion is just as unsatisfactory as proof by assertion, an argument much like this is usually conjured up: I desire to do something, and find t hat I am "unable" to do it . This "something" may be physical (like lifting a truck, which only Superboys can do) or mental, like the fantasies I have had of being a great mathematician. Since I get nowhere in my attempts, it follows that I am not free to choose my action in the world. This is a weak argument, but it can be convincing if given vociferously enough. There is a clear logical flaw in the intimation that because I cannot do whatever I might want to do, like lift a great weight, then I am somehow the victim of compelling forces when I do something wretched, and which I naturally abhorred even in the act of doing it.

It seems to me that in this argument there is also a confusion between "my" possibilities, and the possibilities of others. I see the results of a great mathematical mind at work, and project this mathematical creativity onto my own self-image. But, it still remains outside of me, because I am thinking about it, not unreflectively living it. I think that "my" possibilities are somehow extrapolations of what I have actually done, and that I must build "my" possibilities upon what I know I can do. But, we do know that we must act somehow, and it seems clear that freedom to choose our conduct does not mean the freedom to do anything at all. We still must decide what attitude to take towards freedom. It seems to me that the most difficult position to take is that sometimes we are free, and sometimes we are determined by inner forces. This position requires at least an attempt to distinguish between free and determined conduct in the world, even for such trivial actions like the "choice" of a seat here this morning. Most of us feel that we chose our seats freely, and I will challenge this intermittent determinist to show why this action is free (if he or she is so inclined to believe) as opposed to "compulsive" drinking.

The problem of distinguishing between free and unfree action is so large as to make acceptance of one of the other two alternatives seem a practical necessity; either we are never free, or we are always free. If we choose the former, we can breathe easy; we are off the hook for good. Tempting as this might be, I think we would all reject it, as it is psychologically abhorrent. I accept the other alternative, that we are always free, and for some positive reasons besides the negative ones given here, but which are outside the scope of this discussion.

I think that acceptance of our total freedom is supported by our own intuition about it; our inclination to judge another's act as if it were possible to have done otherwise; the existence of guilt when we have done something which we ourselves cannot approve of in retrospect; and the fact that we deny our freedom only when we want to avoid responsibility. Existential philosophy rests totally on human freedom, and sees the fact of anguish before choice as proof of it. Sartre has written: "Man is everywhere free and everywhere without excuse." For the rest of this discussion, I will proceed as if we are free.

The question now is: "How do we use our freedom in our search for an ethic?" Our freedom has been expressed by the assertion that we are free to choose our action in the world. Let me put it another way: We are never compelled to commit any specific act. This implies that we are free to choose our action, since we can always choose to do nothing. For me, this is highly relevant to our question, since we are right at the interface of our freedom, manifested in the fact that we are never compelled to do any particular thing, and our knowledge that we must do something, unless we value a life vegetating in a corner.

At this point, I will confess that by a roundabout, and perhaps logically suspect route, I have worked this discussion around to an exposition of Hazel Barnes's introduction to her work on ethics, and the point where this discussion will finally end.

Barnes asserts that, just as one can choose not to be religious, so one can choose not to be ethical. She uses Dostoevsky's Underground Man as the destructive paradigm of this choice, and asks whether there is an "ought" which underlies the ethical choice itself. I am not sure that Barnes has answered this question, but I personally find her working definition of the ethical to be compelling in itself.

"Usually the idea of ethics is associated with the notion of obligations, the recognition that acts have consequences, and the idea that consideration of more remote aims may act as a check on immediate impulses. Ethics, in this aspect, is an inner control which the individual exercises over himself. Another aspect is that an ethical system serves as a set of reference points by which one adjudicates conflicts of interests—whether this conflict is within a single person or in personal relations with others."

There is also something more basic involved in the choice to be ethical: "the recognition of the need to justify ones life." (Parenthetically, let me say that I think the idea of "need" is out of place in this context, and that the term "choice" would be consistent with the existentialist position.) "To put it another way," says Barnes,

"the decision to be ethical is a choice of a particular value: "the sense of satisfaction derived from knowing that one may judge one's own life as one would judge another's, and find it good. ... The ethical calls for continuity between the moment of decision, the act, and the later judgment passed upon it. In the justified life there is harmony and perfect continuity between the subjective process which one is, and the objectified self he has become in his relation to the world, and others—outside himself."

This choice is independent of

"conformity with God's judgment or the opinions of [others]. ... The choice to be ethical as such involves only the bare inner demand for justification as a necessary relation between actions and judgments by and within the same individual."

Now, this idea of justification, and its attendant corollary of judgment seems to me to be not only just contrary to the ethical relativism discussed earlier, but anathema to it; and also to the biblical injunction: "Judge not, that ye be not judged." Ethical relativism is the secular representation of this biblical command, held to fervently by many who feel that they have rejected the major dogmas of traditional religion. A paraphrase of Barnes's position might be "Judge, and be prepared to be judged." This is also supported by her observation that: "No matter how unformulated or flexible the standard of judgment may be, there is nobody who does not approve or disapprove of the specific conduct and personality of others." Albert Camus, a writer closely associated with existential philosophy, wrote simply: "To breathe is to judge."

This idea of a justified life is as far as I am going with this examination of ethics this morning. Judging, and being judged are heavyweight activities, and one can reasonably expect a payoff for assuming the burden of this approach to ethics. So far, it seems clear that the choice of a justified life does not imply any particular mode of conduct or choice of being in the world. It appears that both a Hitler and a Schweitzer could honestly say that they had made this choice, and that they were each therefore ethical. There is certainly something unsatisfactory about an approach to living which can not distinguish between these two lives.

I believe that Barnes, in the remainder of her work, has successfully shown the direction which a search for a particular ethic should take. To paraphrase and embellish a bit on Barnes's conclusions, I see this search as being rooted in the fact that none of us is innately privileged (by birth, status, ability) and in the question: "How does this particular way which I am exercising my freedom increase or restrict the freedom of others?" The more our exercise of our own freedom restricts the freedom of others, in light of the fact that none of us is privileged, the more we can be said to be unethical. If I can say that my life has impinged on others so as to increase our freedom to the highest practical degree, then my life is subjectively justified. If others can say the same of my life, then my life has been objectively justified. The choice to be ethical is a choice to strive for both justifications.

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