For centuries, discussion of ethics has focussed upon the idea of the moral law – a set of rules or criteria that dictate what is permissible or required. This debate has been substantially focussed on two battlefronts: firstly, the long and pointless dispute between advocates of a duty approach (deontology or Kantian ethics) and an outcome-focussed approach (Consequentialism). Secondly, the more recent conflict between all ethical beliefs and the deep suspicion that there is no moral law (Nihilism). The former disagreement has been fruitful but misguided, while the latter has become deeply counter productive.
As I have argued previously, disputes between different moral approaches fall down when they presume that morality must be (or ideally must be) dictated by one system. Just as a mathematical formula can be expressed in many different forms and still be equivalent, moral statements are largely transformable between different views. The oldest form of morality, virtue ethics, expresses ethical thought from the perspective of the person acting, while Kant's duty ethics express the same concepts in terms of rules or rights affecting the actions that can be taken. Both can also be expressed in terms of outcomes in what is termed Consequentialist ethics. Each perspective has advantages and disadvantages. For instance, outcome ethics comes closest to a mathematical expression, duty ethics is the easiest to render as verbal laws, and virtue ethics is the most intuitive and easiest to teach. Conversely, virtue ethics is difficult to formalize, duty ethics can be inflexible, and outcome ethics risk a dehumanizing obsession with numbers.
The tiff between different approaches (which boils down to 'my ethics are closer to the good than yours') is a sideshow, however. The main event of the last century has been the challenge foreshadowed by Nietzsche: can any kind of ethics be sustained in the wake of the collapse of our horizons. We now recognise that different cultural circumstances lead to different ways of life, and different conclusions about moral concerns – and this seems to catastrophically undermine the concept of a viable moral law. The resulting crisis can be expressed in a simple question: if there is no single, true ethical system, can there be ethics at all? Terrified by this possibility, even secular ethicists like Derek Parfit have felt a powerful need to defend the idea of a moral law, and have mounted impressive arguments in it's defence.
Yet this rally to the cause of moral law, while admirable, has been misguided. Nihilism is not a plausible scenario, since it cannot be the case that an absence of absolutes disproves morality absolutely. The oxymoronic confidence of the Nihilist mirrors the premature certainty of the law ethicist: morality, it has been presumed, must be like logic: some things are true and others false. However, even logic is dependent upon premises, and we are not bound to accept the presuppositions of either moral law or its nihilistic mirror image. Morality could be more like fractal mathematics – a variegated moral landscape in which not everything is possible or permissible, but which supports a diversity of ethical possibilities.
We live amidst a moral chaos, and it is perhaps time to accept the merits of chaos ethics. Moral law has been valuable – our human rights agreements descend from Kant's duty ethics, and could not have come about otherwise. But just as a non-foundationalist stance in epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) has provided a valuable new perspective on our understanding of the world, a non-foundationalist approach to ethics can take us into new and interesting moral spaces.
Moral chaos is not a monster to be slain, but a possibility to be explored. Neither is this a new occurrence: the competing claims of alternative moral laws were already a clue that the ethical endeavour might not be resolved in unity. Moral law is invaluable – we have enough common ground to allow for substantial agreement. But moral chaos is also valuable – it protects us from what Feyerabend called 'the Tyranny of Truth', and allows for a freedom that can be threatened by narrow conceptions of truth and value. To truly benefit from the potential for good our imagination grants us, we must learn to strike a balance between moral law and moral chaos. This is not a new way of life, but an ancient wisdom we somehow came to forget.
This year I'll be working towards my first book of moral philosophy, Chaos Ethics. I hope you'll join in the discussions here in the Game as I explore the issues.
The opening image is Black Chaos by Marilyn Myrlrea, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement was intended and I will take the image down if asked.