I can easily imagine that some readers find the
question posed above provoking. Unlike most systems of thought in the normative
realm of affairs, it seems to put doubt on the usefulness of any
ethics - a viewpoint at which the mind boggles. Let me assert, at the outset,
that I think there might be a role for ethics, but if there is, I consider
it to be rather different from the role assigned to it by most other thinkers.
In this regard, I have come to change my mind over time - and so might
In brief, what I propose to argue is that ethics
can be useful for delineating which states of affairs, or changes thereof,
are good and which are bad. However, it cannot be used for assessing the
moral status of an actor influencing some state of affairs. That is, it
is possible to say that a certain action is good or bad but not whether
the actor bringing it about thereby is good or bad. My argument is about
depersonalizing ethics, about confining ethical assessments to actual or
Now, this clearly leaves room for ethics, in the
sense of providing normative benchmarks against which states of affairs,
or changes thereof, can be appraised. But it is hardly possible to characterize
matters or persons as moral or immoral, since these terms imply a scope
for moral accountability that I view as illusory. I shall try to convince
you that I am right.
II. Free Will
At the root of this inquiry is the realization
that man’s existence is determined and that, as a consequence, he has no
free will (on this, see Professor Ted Honderich’s useful book How Free
Are You? The Determinism Problem, Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1993, and Professor Galen Strawson’s fine article "Luck
Swallows Everything: Can Our Sense of Free Will Be True?", The Times
Literary Supplement, 26 June, 1998). That is to say, no person is capable
of acting, thinking, or behaving in any other way than the way in which
he actually does act, think, or behave. A person is not causa sui,
the cause of himself, but rather, in all relevant respects, the result
of external influences in the form of genes and social milieus of various
sorts. There is no independent "self" which can freely choose between various
courses of action - thinking that there is constitutes an illusion that,
admittedly, is appealing but nonetheless nothing but an illusion. (For
those into the jargon of philosophy, this is a position of incompatiblism.)
If this is so, then it implies that no man can
be held accountable for any action he undertakes. Doing x, which
is bad, or omitting to do y, which is good, is not something for which
a person can be blamed; and doing y, which is good, or omitting to do x,
which is bad, is not something for which a person can be lauded.
What does "good" or "bad" here mean? Merely that
states of affairs x and y are being viewed, by some evaluator, as in or
out of line with what he considers desirable.
But can this really be correct? Yes, I believe
it is, but I realize that this line of reasoning goes against how we usually
think of moral matters and ourselves. It seems as if we cannot cease to
believe that we are ultimate masters of our thoughts, inclinations, and
actions, perhaps because life otherwise would seem to us bland and meaningless.
But here, I think it important to note the distinction between what
is and what one would want to be. That is to say, someone might
dislike a certain thing being the way it is, but this sentiment does not,
se, render the thing incorrect. Next, I will try to elaborate somewhat
on what can be said about the role of ethics and the meaning of life, given
the character of the world as it is.
III. The Best Possible Use of Ethics
If no person can be held accountable for his actions,
then ethics may seem superfluous. This, I submit, is too hasty a conclusion.
On a pragmatic and essentially consequentialist basis, it could be deemed
expedient to use moral language as if it was true, in cases where
doing so influences people to act in a way that renders the outcome of
actions sufficiently better. Two tings need to be spelled out a little
First, evaluating the usage of moral language
(e.g., saying that a person acted morally wrong when performing act x)
entails balancing costs and benefits. The benefit refers to people acting
better when contemplating the negative effects of being considered immoral
for bringing about a state of affairs viewed as worse than could be by
those uttering condemning statements. This argument rests on the idea that
people respond to incentives. If people notice a higher cost of performing
an act, they will become less inclined to perform it. The demand curve
does, as economic theory teaches us, indeed slope downwards. The cost refers
to using terms which one knows are incorrect (as the person performing
act x could not have acted morally wrong) - possibly a somewhat corrupting
activity. When the benefit is thought to outweigh the cost, using moral
language is thought to make the world better. This is probably often de
facto the case.
Second, it might seem puzzling to refer to expressions
such as "good" or "bad" if ethics is depersonalized and thereby emptied
of much of its content. Still, I do not think it strange. Whatever one’s
metaethical position on the
nature of ethics, most people agree that there are values of some sort.
Whether thought to be subjective, based in emotions, or whether thought
to be objective, independent of human beings, values exist. And that is
all it takes to enable us to utter normative categorizations of outcomes.
We cannot say that a person is immoral, but we can say that what results
from his actions is good or bad. Hence, this is not an exercise in value
An implication of this reasoning is that punishment
can never be justified on retributive grounds. It can be justified, however,
but solely if it is thought to improve matters in the world, perhaps by
reforming the offender, by keeping him detained, unable to bring harm to
others, or by making him less inclined to hurt others in the first place.
My main argument can be stated as follows. Since
man does not possess a free will, he cannot be held responsible for any
action he undertakes. This makes it impossible to ever term a person immoral,
or to say that he acted morally wrong. Ethics can, in spite of this and
in a certain restricted sense, be useful: it is possible for us to evaluate
the normative status of outcomes, based on the values we hold. In realizing
that people respond to incentives, better outcomes may be achieved by using
moral language as if it was true. But clearly, it is not.
Lastly, most people probably intuitively react
against my argument. For this they cannot, of course, be blamed. In fact,
holding the belief that what I argue is untrue may be considered good,
in accordance with the pragmatic reasoning explicated above. That is, the
odd conclusion emerges that it may be better, from my point of view (being
the preference utilitarian that I am), if people do not believe what I
am saying in this essay. Nevertheless, I think what I am saying is true.