Hummingbirds & Groundhogs
Play with Fire on Bytten

Proem for the Ethics Campaign

The Ethics Campaign will begin on Thursday 17th May 2007.

This follow up to last year's popular yet rambling Metaphysics Campaign will continue my peculiar philosophical investigations in public, with the help and hindrance of whomsoever wishes to participate. Why do I call it 'a campaign'? This is in reference to my characterisation of this blog as a non-fiction role-playing game. I will not be "campaigning for ethics", per se, simply exploring the subject area in a manner dictated in part by my own will, and in part by the dialogue that will take place with the other players in the comments of the relevant posts.

I have not studied or written about moral philosophy before, and thus this is very much a new area for me. I only started reading about it late last year. As a field, I locate it somewhere between metaphysics and political philosophy. It is not my intent to delve too deeply into the political at this time, although some forays this side of the border will be inevitable. Similarly, we will have to nip back into metaphysics here and there, but my hope is to stay focussed on the issue of ethics - and personal ethics in particular.

We will be sailing close to philosophy of religion (since I see ethics as part of the domain of religion), and I will inevitably take some side excursions into philosophy of science and language as well. As ever, I find these regions tend to diffuse into one another... I don't have a specific course charted, but I have something of a map, even if I lack a definite destination.

I'm going to be largely assuming that everyone reading will fall into one of the following rather broad camps:

  • Someone with a priori ethics, for example, someone who identifies a religion with an explicit ethical stance such as Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism.
  • Someone who derives their ethics from reason, for example, a Humanist, or an atheist who does not identify a religion.
  • Someone who is not clear about their own ethical stance, but believes they have one, or at least would like to have one.

Importantly, I don't want to get too bogged down addressing issues peculiar to ethical nihilists who do not believe in ethics. Just as a I largely ignored solipsists in the Metaphysics Campaign, I intend to largely ignore nihilists in the Ethics Campaign.  You are free to choose these philosophical dead ends if such is your wish, but in doing so you are inherently choosing to live alone, and there is no reason we should be interested in what you have to say. Why not try a different belief system for a while? It could be fun!

For reference, I fall mostly into the third camp above. Although some a priori belief systems have greatly influenced my ethics, especially the teachings of Jesus (which I grew up with and still greatly value) and the teachings of the Buddha (such as I interpret them), I am largely uncertain of my own ethical stance except in the broadest of strokes, and am looking forward to clarifying it.

I hope you will enjoy the posts to come on the subject of Ethics, and I greatly look forward to the discussions we will have together on matters both abstruse and provocative.

Are you intending to be a player in this campaign? Feel free to share some thoughts on your own ethical background in the comments!


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Intriguing... looking forward to this campaign. Especially since my own ethical 'camp' from the article and my background are notably similar to yours.

This should be entertaining. I fall exactly into the referenced camp of ethical nihilists: "Ethical nihilism or moral nihilism rejects the possibility of absolute moral or ethical values. Instead, good and evil are nebulous, and values addressing such are the product of nothing more than social and emotive pressures." (from your link).

Nevertheless, I am extremely interested in the (I posit) relative moral and ethical systems that spontaneously appear in human groups as they self-organise into societies. The long-lived ones tend to have remarkably similar features, and I have considerable sympathy with (for example) the teachings attributed to Jesus on how to live as a member of a productive society (note the nice distinction between this and living as a productive member of a society). Could it be that in order to have a long-lived society, certain features are required?

Does this mean you're not interested in what I have to say on the topic? :-)

Rik: welcome aboard! I think we're going to have fun with this one. :)

Peter: I should have checked that link more carefully... :) That sounds to me to be a description of cultural relativism, not what I would consider ethical nihilism. An ethical nihilist in my book denies that ethics are a meaningful area for discussion on account of cultural relativism. As it says at the start of that link: "Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated."

But believing that ethical values are culturally rooted is not the same as saying they are baseless. A culture is a base for values, after all, even if it is a relative base.

Ethics can deal with the good (good and evil) but can also deal with the right, which need not be connected to the good. If you believe that some behaviours are right or wrong, even if only in a relative context, that does not make you a nihilist in my book. Relativism and nihilism are disjunct propositions as far as I am concerned.

A nihilist in the context I mean considers ethics *pointless*, not merely relative.

I hope to show almost immediately that all ethics are relative, but this does not in any way render them irrelevant. ;)

So if I am right that you are a relativist and not a nihilist, then I am very interested in what you have to say. But if you truly believe that ethics are pointless, and not merely relative... well, at the very least, I cannot square this with my prior knowledge of you. ;)

Best wishes!

Looking forward to this!
As it turns out, my own PhD was on the ethics of computer games, so I hope I can be somewhat active.
As for my school, I am a weird blend of Virtue Ethicist and Information Ethicist. I prefer just "moral being", though ...

I consider myself a relativist, and was rather surprised to see that definition.

"If you believe that some behaviours are right or wrong, even if only in a relative context, that does not make you a nihilist in my book."

Ah. Right and wrong are trigger words for me. I believe that some individual acts are Bloody Stupid for that individual, but that's not the same as a "wrong" in the way it seems to be used by convention. Then again, I rather suspect this is one of the areas we'll be discussing, or at least passing pointers to.

Miguel: I'm excited to find a Virtue Ethicist! :) It is out of fashion in philosophical circles, but it seems like an interesting position to me. If you have a book you recommend on the subject, I would welcome it!

Peter: "Bloody Stupid" is surely analagous to "wrong" if the criteria for your ethics is sensible behaviour? ;)

I hope to review my criteria for ethics during the campaign, as it's becoming unpleasantly clear that I have (at least) double standards in some areas - not least that I have an allergic reaction to "wrong", even with a small "w", but that I'm fighting shy of finding any other term that can be used. It's odd; in your terms, I suspect I have in the past played in a high-stakes language game where I then found out that the meanings other players ascribed to "right" and "wrong" (also "good" and "evil") were not those I ascribe, and I got bitten rather hard as a result. Wish I knew when it happened, I might be able to do something to reduce the allergy!

In the mean time, I'm going to bow out of this area until the campaign proper starts, and try to work out how to manage my response to these terms.

(wanders off, looking bemused, shaking his head and muttering under his breath)

Here's another veteran signing up for a second campaign--watch out! :)

Glad to hear you've got a place and will be commencing with the move--after you've settled in, I'd love to be able to pay you a visit in your new home. I ended up cutting the European leg of my trip short and so I'm home in Illinois now, not terribly far from Kentucky.

Hey Jack! Welcome back to the States! Let me crawl out from under the chaos and then we'll see what we can do about a visit. But it's one more State southwards, I'm afraid, in Tennessee. :) Best wishes!

It seems to me we need to start 'playing the campaign' before we throw our hats in the ring, as we should, if playing a game, rightly all play by the same rules. And by way of Huizinga (absolutely binding rules) and Wittgenstein (language defined by use), our first rules should be the language in use.

So Chris, how shall we define 'ethics'?

Well you'll have to wait until May 17th for such things, I'm afraid. Only two weeks now... ;)

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