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Life Amidst Moral Chaos

Black Chaos Can there only be a meaningful ethics if there is just one true moral law? Or might there be value in embracing moral chaos?

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.


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I'm a bit confused by discussions like this. What is the basis for an obligation to one type of morality versus another? Or is it all about self imposed or self determined obligation?


Good question! The interesting thing about morality in practice is that the question you ask here simply doesn't come up most of the time - people have their moral intuitions and the question of one version of morality versus another seems to be in the background. However, when you study ethics you find attempts to formulate morality into systems and these systems seem (at least initially) to be incompatible - suggesting that different people are operating in different moral frameworks.

My deep suspicion is that these distinctions emerge partly from a difference in focus and partly from different motivating ideals - for instance, if one is motivated by an image of "the Good" (as the ancient Greeks and modern Christians often are) one reaches different moral conclusions than if one is motivated by an idea of "maximising happiness" (as Utilitarians aim to do). The variety of ideals that motivate morality is one of the things that lead to what I'm calling moral chaos - and I see this as a positive thing.

The question of how moral obligations arise, which you hint at here, has become in contemporary discussions the question of whether moral obligations are even possible - hence the "battle" over Nihilism. If there is no way of grounding our moral obligations (it is presumed) there can be no ethics. I disagree with this conclusion. We are starting to realise that we can have useful knowledge without that being grounded in anything permanent (what's called non-foundationalist epistemology - what a mouthful!). I believe we can gainfully deploy a non-foundationalist morality as well, although precisely what this means is no short topic of discussion.

Ultimately, I can't force a moral obligation upon you - but as long as you have some moral ideals you have some sense of right and wrong or good and bad to orient yourself ethically. This isn't entirely self-imposed or self-determined because ethics, like much of life, occurs between people. Just as the rules of a sport only make sense in the context of multiple players, so ethics are (non-foundationally) held together in the context of multiple beings. In fact, I favour a strong parallel between the rules of a game and ethics. Sometimes people cheat, but in order to cheat you must already have acknowledged that there were rules that could be broken. ;)

Hope this comment is at least partially illuminating! :)

It was illuminating, so thanks for your response. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this topic.

I am reading an article at the moment on political obligation, which involves the idea of a moral obligation to obey the laws of the state, and is therefore indirectly related to what you're discussing. That's why I'm interested in how chaos ethics and moral obligation relate to one another.

Maybe the next time you post on this topic it might be helpful to use some examples of particular applications of chaos ethics to specific scenarios to help people like me understand the idea a little better. So, if there are different sets of "rules," does that mean a murderer (at least, a thoughtful and self-reflective one) simply has different rules to everyone else and cannot be obliged (morally) to do otherwise or is it that they have a contradictory and incoherent set of rules (I can kill others but they can't kill me) and it's on that basis they are wrong? Or neither? No need to answer that specific question, but it's questions like that I have in my head when this kind of topic is discussed (I was similarly confused when someone else advocated an approach that revolved around what amounted to evolutionarily optimal strategies as the basis of morality, e.g. theft is immoral because it is not an effective survival strategy, as you will eventually get caught, excluded from the group and not live long enough to pass on your genes - unless you mean a cave women who is into bad boys ;)

teejay: I'm not sure how I'm going to approach the new content yet, but I will need to carefully lay out some of my new ideas (or rather, new spins on old ideas as this is based on my earlier moral philosophy).

"I am reading an article at the moment on political obligation, which involves the idea of a moral obligation to obey the laws of the state"

From a chaos ethics perspective what interests me here is civil disobedience, in which the moral and political obligations conflict. I don't think it's necessarily the case that we are morally obligated to obey the laws of the state when they conflict with our moral ideals - but there is a vast grey area here to be explored.

The murderer example is an important counter-case well worth discussing. Different moral systems would deny the murderer a claim to ethical behaviour on different grounds - including some that you mention here. For me, the really interesting case is the murderer versus the Viking raider - the latter murders just like the first, but the Vikings were ethical *towards each other*, it was just that their victims were not part of their moral world. I might well write something about this in the Spring, so watch this space.

The use of evolutionary optimality as an ethical foundation is hilarious to me - it's another case of using evolution as if it were functionally the ethical component of a religion (and in fact, thanks to T.H. Huxley, evolution was exactly that before it became a viable scientific theory). The person advocating this view still has to explain why individuals are obligated to use evolutionary strategies as the basis for their ethical behaviour, something that they will in practice find impossible to do. They are free to use this moral system if they wish, just as advocates of pre-modern Divine Command moral theories are entitled to their beliefs, but they certainly will not be able to inflate them into a moral system applicable to everyone.

All the best!

I look forward to your future posts. And I appreciate the time and effort you have put into replying to my questions.


Necro-comment - sorry!

"Sometimes people cheat, but in order to cheat you must already have acknowledged that there were rules that could be broken."

Mmm. I'll point to relativism again. Who asserts that the person has cheated? Can a person who believes that they're playing a game to different rules than another legitimately believe they haven't cheated when the second player believes they have?

Peter: The community of players are the source of allegations of 'cheating' - or at least, the validation of accusations therein. A player can believe they are playing by different rules, but still face 'charges' for being a cheat. Relativism is no more a defence here than it would be in a court of law - "your honour, I was playing a different monetary game than the shop". :)

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