On Philosophy

April 26, 2007

Society And Ethics

Filed under: Ethics,Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Last time I described several functions of society, each of which had to be preformed well in order for society to achieve its purpose. I described one of those functions as ethics. Unfortunately that terminology is a bit misleading, and there are other complications as well, so here I will elaborate more on the connections between ethics and society.

Saying that society has a particular function, such as to create wealth, is to say that society needs to be organized in accordance with certain principles in order to best achieve that goal. So, for the sake of clarity, we can talk about the principles of society that lead to the fulfillment of its functions. The principles of economics create wealth, the principles of liberty give the members of society liberties, the principles of justice organize society so that it can resolve and prevent internal disagreements (create harmony), and the principles of law/politics structure society so that large-scale projects can be implemented. Of course I have left off the principles of ethics. This is because if I say “principles of ethics” it sounds like I am talking about acting ethically. Obviously though societies can’t act ethically, to describe a society as being ethical is a category mistake, only the people who make up a society can be properly described as ethical. So, for lack of a better description, I will describe this last kind of principle as principles of ethical attitudes.

So what exactly are the principles of ethical attitudes? Well, they are a way in which society is organized so as to promote positive attitudes towards ethical behavior in its members. This is partly reflected in the culture of the society; a society that has successful principles of ethical attitudes has a culture that celebrates ethical behavior and denounces unethical behavior. And partly it is reflected in the legal system, which punishes unethical behavior in order to discourage it. Of course it is important to keep in mind that the principles of ethical attitudes are not the only reason that culture and legal system of a society are structured the way that they are. The legal system, for example, also exists in order to enforce the direction given by the political system, which in turn exists because of the principles of politics.

It is important to keep in mind that ethics and the principles of ethical attitudes are distinct. Most societies are imperfect, and so society may promote a flawed ethics, meaning that it may on occasion promote unethical behaviors and try to discourage ethical ones. This is what I think yesterday’s post was most unclear about; by describing the principles of ethical attitudes as ethics I may have given the impression that ethics was dictated by society, which isn’t true. Note that it is in society’s best interests for people to act according to the ideal ethical principles, and not the flawed ethical principles it may actually promote. However, society does not have a guiding intelligence, it can’t realize that the ethical attitudes it is promoting are flawed, which is why there can be a disconnect between real ethics and the ethics promoted by society.

As I have described them the principles of ethical attitudes may make the principles of justice seem superfluous. The principles of ethics already guarantee that we will promote ethical behavior by punishing criminals, and if we are successful in promoting ethics then it would seem like harmony would be guaranteed by that, and thus make justice redundant. This might be an accurate assessment if human beings cared only about ethics, and if they were always perfectly informed as to what the right action is in a given situation, but neither of those is the case. People don’t just care about ethics, people have other desires as well. And the point of society was to allow them to pursue those desires, not to ignore them. And of course we can’t all get what we want, sometimes our desires will pit us against each other. People may also become dissatisfied if they feel they are being treated unfairly, if society is taking advantage of them so that the desires of other people are given more attention than theirs without good reason. Obviously the idea of what is and isn’t fair will vary between different cultures. In our culture we seem to think that it is fair for someone to be better able to pursue their desires because of wealth; in other cultures birthright has been seen to grant that advantage. Obviously we need a way to resolve these problems. Society needs to be structured so that when people are brought into conflict by their desires those conflicts can be resolved without giving either of them a reason to be dissatisfied with society. And similarly with the overall structure of society; the principles of justice exist to ensure that the overall structure of society is acceptable to everyone. Of course my point here is not to elaborate on the principles of justice, but merely to point out that there is work for them to do in addition to the principles of ethical attitudes.

The final point I would like to make is that ethics is thus doubly normative. It is normative because the principles of ethical attitudes encourage individuals to value ethics. This makes acting ethically about as normative as everything else society promotes, for example specific standards of dress and language and so on. So this is somewhat weakly normative. Ethics is also normative for internal reasons, which are separate from the pressures society puts on us to be ethical. We have reason to act ethically because we realize that we are part of society, and so that what is in society’s best interest has the effect of furthering our own desires. And we further realize that our actions are not disconnected from the rest of the world. If we act unethically it encourages other people to act unethically. So in terms of normativity this pull is much stronger, and this why when the ethics promoted by society and ideal ethics are in conflict we should prefer ideal ethics.

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