Re: Science and Philosophy

Dan Fabulich (
Thu, 9 Sep 1999 20:27:40 -0400 (EDT)

On Thu, 9 Sep 1999, Brian Manning Delaney wrote:

> -What's ethical?
> - [Your answer here.]
> ---------------------------------------------------
> Actually, I imagine your answer would be very long, and don't expect you to give
> it. But I've found that most answers to that question come back to utility. So
> there's still a circle, but just a slightly more complicated one.

Well, frankly, yes, my answer would be quite long. :)

However, as regards ethics, it is certainly wrong, ethically speaking, to conclude that ethics is a circular/pointless endeavor. I've made this argument several times on this list before; Eliezer uses a similar argument as the underpinning of his theory of the Interim Meaning of Life.

Basically, the idea is this: ethical theories describe what action we should perform. So suppose we're trying to decide between action A and action B. Let's also suppose that we have an Ethical Theory (tm) which claims that we should perform action A.

Now consider the possibility that the whole ethical question is necessarily circular in nature, and that therefore it does not matter what we decide. Well, the possibility that "it doesn't matter" does not provide me with any reason to make any decision over any other; if my theory tells me to choose A, I'm not going to choose B simply because it doesn't matter which I choose. More to the point, the claim that "it doesn't matter" will NEVER give me ANY reason to change my mind either way; thus, when making a decision, this possibility drops out of the equation. Thus, I can always ACT as if (ie assume that) the ethical question is not pointless, as long as there is some possibility that it isn't.

Thus, unless you are absolutely certain that no action is better than any other, even if it's only better from your perspective, (which is a pretty implausible view to take, IMO,) you should not conclude that ethics is a pointless endeavor. And, thus, we can safely assume that the question of ethics is not circular.

Of course, this proof doesn't tell you which theory of ethics is actually correct, but it does at least show that the project is not hopeless.


-unless you love someone-
-nothing else makes any sense-

e.e. cummings