How should we hold our ethical theories? Is it ethical to be committed to ethical theories? I’ve met people who say that everyone should choose the ethical theory that is “right for them,” or that everyone should decide their ethics for themself. But there are principles that some would count as ethical that others count as unethical, and ethical principles that cause harm to other people, to animals, life, and the world. There are ethical principles that affect the world and which others believe it is affecting negatively. So this principle seems like something we should reject.
On the other hand, there are people who believe their ethical theory should be everyone’s ethical theory: or that a certain set of principles should be everyone’s set of principles. And that if those principles are not adhered to, then violators should be punished. Sometimes severely. If there was only one possible candidate for such an ethical theory, then perhaps there may be some truth here. But regardless of that statement’s truth, we certainly live in a world in which there are countless competing ethical theories that each claim to be the correct one. So this principle too seems like one we should reject.
Communities–from communities as small as a small circle of friends, neighborhoods, and businessess–to communities that are much larger, such as large cities, provinces, nations, the global community of people, the global community of sensing creatures (most animals), the global community of living things, and the global community of all terrestrial things (including oceans, rock formations, atmosphere)–require an ethical system in which to persist well, sustainably.
Are your ethics important to you? Do you believe they are important to you, and to your community? Are they part of your identity? If yes, then should we not accept that others have the same relationship with their ethics? Even if their ethics seem wrong and vile to us.
A society’s ethics are different than the individual ethics of members in that society. Some of us say, “if a culture has a set of ethics that appears wrong to us, we shouldn’t judge.” But what if that culture’s ethics permits the mutilation of an adolescent girl’s genitalia? What about her ethics? And if someone at the age of 14 accepts or rejects a set of ethics, are we in agreement that she is capable of making the decision not only for her self, but for her future self too? (And is the future self the same as the past self–yes and no. See Part III: Life as a river).
To have a set of ethical principles is not the same thing as acting in accordance with them. On its surface, a well functioning society depends not on an agreement in ethical principles, but on the agreement of people acting according to a set of ethical principles.
What would it be like to have an ethical system in which it is ethical to adhere to a set of community ethics that runs counter to one’s personal ethics? Is this necessarily an immoral principle? Even if it were the case, it cannot be valid in every situation: there must be some moral justification for violating a law that one sees as unjust. But how do we determine what is unjust? Only by whether or not it conflicts with one’s own ethical theory? As a general rule this means: my individual ethics trump the ethics of a community. But if that is justified, then we justify whenever anyone believes their evil acts are morally justified. It excuses much of immoral behavior, except insofar as as a person violates their own well defined ethics. And the only way a community or jury could determine if someone violates their own ethics is if the accused admits they have a different set of ethics or if they kept some record of their ethical values.
Wittgenstein on “language-games.” Depending on how one interprets his “Philosophical Investigations,” Wittgenstein may be saying something like this: there is no single way in which one can understand how language works for all of language. Rather, language is used differently in different cases, and they have their own sets of overlapping rules. Even the same word can operate according to different logical rules in different situations.
“Don’t let it bother you that languages (2) and (8) consist only of orders. If you want to say that they are therefore incomplete, ask yourself whether our own language is complete–whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in to it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language. (And how many houses or streets does it take before a town begins to be a town?) Our language can be regarded as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses with extensions from various periods, and all this surrounded by a multitude of new suburbs with straight and regular streets and uniform houses.”
Perhaps we need to think about global and community ethics like Wittgenstein sometimes talks about language: that in different situations, ethics works according to different sets of rules, and yet they are all ethical systems that do not contradict one another from a logical perspective, even though something can legitimately said to be good from one perspective and evil or bad from another perspective.