The Ultimate Moral Computer?

Chaos Ethicists vs Law Ethicists

Order vs Chaos Who are the Chaos ethicists, and who are the defenders of Law ethics?

Those moral thinkers who expound an ethical (or meta-ethical) theory in which it is necessary to prefer one moral perspective over another are what I am calling here Law ethicists. The strongest example of a contemporary figure in this space is Derek Parfit, who vigorously defends a kind of Kantian consequentialism based on his strong beliefs about reason. Parfit recognises that ethics changes over time, and can indeed be improved, but believes that there can be (indeed, must be) a true account of moral judgements. This is the hallmark of Law ethics.

Conversely, what I am calling here Chaos ethicists either do not recognise, deploy, or prefer a single system of moral thought (e.g. Nietzsche) or propose a form of ethics which is inherently non-systematic in nature (e.g. Kierkegaard). The subtle difference between these two positions rests between a denial of any kind of absolute ethics, and the resistance of the negative consequences of faith in an absolute ethics, both of which can be found in the moral philosophy of Alain Badiou, who typifies the contemporary exponent of Chaos ethics with his ‘ethic of truths’.

I actively encourage discussion and assistance in my attempt to crudely divide this list of historical figures from moral thought into these two caricatural camps. A question that divides the two in each case could be imagined to be: “Is there in principle one correct answer to every moral question?" or, equivalently, “Can all moral questions be resolved by appealing to reason?”


Law Ethicists

Jeremy Bentham?
Philippa Foot
Shelly Kagan
Immanuel Kant
Christine Korsgaard?
John Locke
Muhammad? (except on Sufi accounts)
Thomas Nagel
Derek Parfit
John Rawls?
Thomas Scanlon
Friedrich Schiller
Arthur Schopenhauer?
Henry Sidgwick
Peter Singer
Baruch Spinoza
Paul of Tarsus
Judith Jarvis Thomson
Allen Wood?


Chaos Ethicists

Alain Badiou
Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha
Albert Camus?
David Hume
Jesus of Nazareth
Søren Kierkegaard
Emmanuel Levinas
Alasdair MacIntyre?
J.L. Mackie
G.E. Moore
Friedrich Nietzsche
Robert Nozick


All help and discussion welcome!


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Your distinction is poignant in light of a podcast I was listening to, namely Jonathan Haidt's appearance on Point of Inquiry, where he makes a point (among other points) that philosophers have a tendency to consider a 'unitary' system of morality as part of a cultural/intellectual obsession.

I like your list, and it certainly seems provocative. I was reading 'The way we eat' by Singer and Mason and they gave an anecdote about Kagan. Kagan said that he is ethically speaking a vegetarian, but if he was in a situation where he's on a plane and the only in flight meal contains meat or animal products, then he will eat it as an ethical obligation.

I don't know much about Kagan's own academic work (although his teaching is amazing), but his point was that circumstances matter within his rule-following behaviour as a vegetarian. I still think this puts him in as a 'law ethicist'.

I appreciate there is a difference between 'chaos' and 'law' ethics in the centrality of a single principle or system of morality. Looking within systematic morality, there is scope however for multiple actions. Utilitarianism, or duty based ethics will keep in mind that circumstances may change what one may be ethically obliged to do. So your distinction potentially cuts across realism/relativism lines.

...just to make it even more complicated for you.

I like your list of chaos ethicists and I imagine it must be quite hard to come up with such a list. I also imagine that influential chaos ethicists are few in number. However with fictional characters (like Christopher Nolan's Joker) they are probably numerous!

Great post invoking some interesting dividing lines.

Michael: great to hear from you! I was nervous about this coarse grained division because of its artificiality, but I need to make these kind of broad statements if I'm to present moral philosophy to a wider audience in an interesting way. This step away from the presumption of a single moral law seemed like a great place to start!

Regarding Kagan, I know of no contemporary philosopher about whom more anecdotes are in circulation! :) Perhaps by being so strong-viewed, he invites this. This situational vegetarianism is something I've also encountered with some world travellers, who arriving in a remote mountain village felt it would essentially be rude not to eat the meat stew offered as a gift. I hope in the same situation I would feel able to do the same, although I worry that after twenty years without meat it might be more rude to throw up the repast that was offered! :o

I think you're right that this distinction cuts across realism/relativism - but then, I think this distinction is close to being unproductive. For Parfit, he attacks this as Cognitivist versus Non-cognitivist - but it seems to me that both non-cognitivist and relativist positions are seldom *claimed* identities, they are more commonly *accusations*. Even Feyerabend - the relativist par excellence - never really accepts this title. (I'm not quite certain about the non-cognitivist issue, though, as it only really came to my attention via Parfit).

Your right that the chaos ethicist list was not easy to construct... how I tortured myself as to whether Hume could fairly considered a chaos ethicist! :) But there are some slam-dunks here, since Badiou expresses direct opposition to moral law approaches in his ethics, and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche really open up the space that what I'm calling chaos ethics moves within.

Aristotle is one I find hard to call. Have you read his Nicomanchean Ethics, or anything else that bears on the problem?

Best wishes!

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