Dear Picket Line —
Maybe this is a dumb question, but… You’ve embarked on this bold experiment of yours, and it looks like you’re hoping other people will join you. My question is: why do you care? I mean, what is your ethical center? Where do you get the notion that we should all treat each other in a decent fashion?
— Salmos Catorce
Dear Salmos —
That’s not a dumb question. That’s one of those advanced, extra credit, smart questions.
My ethical philosophy started where most people start: absorbing the ethical guidance from the people around me when I was a child, trying to systematize that advice into principles I could apply in a more general way, and looking to law, philosophy, or the God hypothesis to try to find some sort of concrete grounding behind these principles.
Most of these principles, and certainly most of the hypothetical foundations behind them, disintegrated from their own contradictions, absurdities, and unlikelihoods as I got older, and so eventually I became an ethical skeptic.
I didn’t think there was any way to objectively ground ethics, and I figured it was probably effectively a subset of aesthetics. And so I started to live a life freed from concern about transgressing phantom ethical boundaries — not even as an egoist, but something more haphazard and arbitrary.
Had I been of the mettle of a Nietzchean übermensch, I might have become a Nietzchean übermensch, or maybe a Randoid demi-hero, or quite possibly just a dick. As it was, I mostly became sophomoric and inconsiderate.
Somewhere along the line, I discovered that I’d misevaluated ethics as being something that must either be given a rigorous foundation in reason or must be discarded as a superstitious façade covering up or justifying social manipulation, personal prejudices and cultural convention.
I realized that I was making ethical evaluations all the time, as much as I might pretend to believe that no such things were possible, and that these ethical evaluations were as real parts of my experience as, say, color. I couldn’t run away from them without going through grotesque internal distortions of reality (like trying to pretend that I didn’t see “blue” because I couldn’t find a rational foundation for color).
So I decided to bite the bullet and try to accept ethics rather than try to rationalize it away. So my “center” is an ethical “sixth sense” where I look at some situation and intuitively know “that’d be wrong” and steer away from it. Perhaps that means that ethics reduces to aesthetics after all.
Reason is a participant in my ethical evaluations, and in my evaluation of my ethics, but I don’t expect it to take the lead, and I don’t expect ethics to be derived from reason. There may be no reason to serve God and not the Devil at any particular moment. A lot of religion seems to be an attempt to invent reasons — God’s commandments, or divine judgment with punishment in the afterlife, for instance. But I’m kind of fond of imagining the existentialist atheist saying — ha! there’s no God, and no reason to serve God and not the Devil, but I’m going to serve God anyway! Wheeee!
It’s a performance I’m putting on for myself. Or a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book writ large.
Nothing matters, ultimately, except to the extent that we decide that it matters. No God will fill out a performance evaluation for me. I won’t be reincarnated as a prince or a lamprey. Our suffering and triumph means nothing in the greater scheme of things. Cruel and evil people prosper and then die old and satisfied in their sleep while innocent children have their arms ripped off by bombs and die of dysentery. Neither get redemptions from a heavenly accountant — from the perspective of eternity, their books are already balanced and their accounts are of no account. My bones will crumble to dust in no time at all, and my name will be forgotten as quickly. And I am going to try to be a good person anyway because that’s what I want to do with my life.