Bootstrapping Ethics … The “Anthropic” Paradigm

skepticHerewith this week’s six-pack of heresies:

  • To found ethics on the categories of “good” and “evil” is to guarantee confusion from the get-go
  • The first point is all the more true, given that religion – specifically monotheism – is usually the context used to define “good” and “evil”
  • There is nothing at all necessary about the first two points, i.e., there are other bases for ethics than monotheistic religion: we have alternatives
  • Human reason is entirely adequate for stating those alternatives: we do not need supernatural revelation … which tends to only obfuscate, not clarify, anyway, as the bloody pre-Enlightenment religious history of Europe amply illustrates
  • The basis of any alternative starting point for ethical reflection should be – in fact, must be – the welfare of the human community (keep reading and you will find out why this is not circular reasoning)
  • The best place to begin is with the task of ethical reflection itself, i.e., in the process of “unpacking” the task of ethical reflection we discover certain ethical principles that may be elaborated

So I am arguing in favor of "bootstrapping" ethics -- i.e., founding the act of ethical discourse on the very deed of ethical discourse itself -- in other words, for “anthropic ethics”. The very fact that we are doing ethical discourse / reflection implies certain ethical principles, and that, if you deny those principles, either (a) the human community itself will cease to exist or (b) the human community may exist but ethical discourse / reflection will be impossible. “Anthropic ethics” is the ethical analog of the (weak) “anthropic principle” in cosmology.

The weak anthropic principle in cosmology says – this is a non-technical paraphrase – that the reason things are as they are is because they were as they were as they were. Sounds simple, right? But there are profound consequences. For example, the reason intelligent life (as we know it) exists in the Universe is because physical conditions were such as to foster the evolution of life and intelligence. Locally, this means that the earth is close enough to the sun for the earth to be warm – and yet far enough away that water, a requirement for life, can exist as a liquid. There are more subtle parameters, e.g., Newton’s gravitational constant is strong enough to permit stars to form, yet not so strong that stars burn out in a few thousand, or hundred thousand years, i.e., too quickly for life to evolve. There are dozens and dozens of circumstances that, were their values different by a few percent, or in some cases a fraction of one percent, life of any kind, certainly intelligent life, at least as we know it, would not be possible. The anthropic principle – the weak version – says that the Universe gives the appearance of being “fine-tuned” for intelligence because intelligence – as we know it – can only exist within a certain rather narrow range of physical constants. The point is that, once you posit intelligent life (as we know it), you implicitly posit the circumstances that make that life possible – without even necessarily knowing that you do so. In order for things to be as they are, they have to have been as they were.

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(I keep emphasizing “weak anthropic principle” because the strong version of the principle accommodates purpose, which would require something like supernatural intervention, and I am concerned to argue that no such principle is necessary. A strong anthropic principle tends toward intelligent design.)

An analogous case can be made for ethics – and entirely on the basis of logic without supernatural intervention: once you posit that ethical discourse / reflection happens, you likewise implicitly posit the circumstances that permit the doing of ethics, circumstances – in this case, ethical principles instead of physical constants – that must prevail in order for ethical reflection to be possible. Let’s take a simple example. Consider murder. Every society prohibits murder, both criminally and religiously. I would argue that, for purely “anthropic” reasons, the prohibition against murder is not only justified but necessary. Why? Well, consider what would happen if society permitted willy-nilly, unrestricted killing. At the very least, ethical discourse would be impossible. In fact, society itself would be impossible. The very fact that we engage in ethical reflection / debate presupposes that murder is prohibited. Notice that I did not mention any religious justification for the prohibition of murder. Again, why? Again, simple: it is not needed. The fact that we (= society-as-a-whole) engage in ethical discussion means that we place a high premium on life. (In fact, even more fundamental than the prohibition  of murder is the "anthropic" value that Life Is Good, good in an "anthropic" sense. If we did not consider life good, we would not bother preserving it, in which case ethical discourse would grind to a halt:  very little ethical discourse takes place in graveyards.) As with cosmology, so also with ethics: things are as they are (murder is unlawful) because things were as they were (a prior judgment that murder makes society, including ethical discourse, impossible).

 Now let’s look at an equally simple case where a given prohibition makes no sense in terms of inhibiting or preventing ethical discourse: gay sex / marriage. In the case of murder, the destructive effects on society are too obvious to need pointing out. Are the effects of homosexuality on society analogously destructive?  So the salient question is essentially the same as for murder: is homosexuality per se destructive of ethical discourse and organized society? The prohibition against murder is justified on purely “anthropic” grounds. There is no evidence indicating that the same is true of homosexuality per se. (Yes, there are irresponsible LGBTQIA people, just as there are irresponsible heterosexual people. But the question pertains to homosexuality per se and tout court, not the behavior of homosexual -- or heterosexual -- individuals.) That we engage in ethical reflection and discussion presupposes that we prohibit murder by placing a premium on life, for if we did not, society would devolve into “the state of Nature” and ethical discourse would come to a halt. "Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" is not the name of an old Bulgarian law firm. But homosexuality is not analogously destructive. That we do ethics presupposes that murder is prohibited. But that we do ethics does not presuppose a similar prohibition on homosexuality. Being a murderer is “anthropically” anomalous. Being LGBTQIA is not.

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Again, note that in neither case – murder or homosexuality – did we invoke a religious justification for our conclusion. And that points up the advantage of “anthropic” ethics over its religious counterpart. Many of the ethical judgments incorporated into the code of criminal law are also affirmed by religion. In fact, more often and not, religious law and civil law coincide.  Murder is not only socially destructive, but is also judged to be sinful. Ditto theft. Ditto lying (at least under certain circumstances, e.g., filing a spurious crime report, falsifying income tax returns, perjury, etc.). What is problematical with religiously grounded ethics are those cases in which certain forms of conduct are prohibited (occasionally commanded) with no corresponding “anthropic” justification. Sexual / conjugal relations among sexual-orientation minorities are an excellent, by now almost “classical”, example. So-called “blue laws” requiring businesses to close on Sundays used to be another, as are most a priori forms of gender discrimination. I would argue that, at least in the US and western Europe, there has been progress, often tectonically slow, often in a “two-steps-forward-one-step-back” way, in secularizing the legal system, in the sense that the purely religious regulation of conduct has been, in the civil realm, subordinated to a recognizably “anthropic” ethic. The latest examples in the US were the cases of Windsor and Obergefell. The regulation of conduct within religious communities, of course, is protected by, e.g., the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment. So, e.g., religious communities are quite free to forbid their members to work or do business on Sundays. This is as it should be, if for no other reason than that government intervention in matters of conscience is “anthropically” anomalous, much like murder. We have a much better idea now than we did even a century ago about where Mr. Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between Church and State should properly run. This is not perfection, of course, but it is progress.

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Finally, a few more important points should be made more explicit:

(1) When words like "good" and "evil" are used in an anthropic context, they should be interpreted "anthropically", i.e., not as referring to any ethical system where good and evil are defined with reference to the character of a god or gods. "Anthropically" speaking, "good" simply means "tending toward the preservation of life and human society"; "evil", the opposite.

(2) There are plenty of instances where "good" and "evil" are simply neutral, whether defined "anthropically" or religiously, e.g., which side of the road to drive on, the colors of traffic lights, how to denominate currency, etc. These issues, being purely matters of convention, are adiaphora, to borrow St. Augustine's term.

(3) There are also plenty of issues that remain ambiguous -- but that were no less ambiguous when ethics was defined in terms of religion. Perhaps the most obvious such examples pertain to "life" issues. I am generally pro-choice, but I would also argue that the termination of life in the womb is, under certain circumstances, a legitimate region for concern on the part of the government. This is basically the argument of the Supreme Court in both Roe and Casey. One can justify both pro-life and pro-choice positions with reference to "anthropic" ethics. Analogous remarks hold for, e.g., assisted suicide and euthanasia.

(4) People argue in favor of religiously based ethics on the grounds that human beings and human reason are fallible, and that we do not know enough about what makes human beings and human societies tick to undertake ethics based on nothing more than human reason. My rejoinder:  we know even less about God -- Who is alleged to be infinite -- than we know about humans. So, on the basis of the "exhaustive knowledge" justification, religiously based ethics should be the first approach to ethics ruled out.

(5) There is considerable "play in the joints" of ethical judgments when ethics are done according to an anthropic paradigm. Some judgments do not change because they are always and everywhere inimical to human society and ethical reflection, e.g., murder is always destructive. But other judgments will vary with varying circumstances  and historical periods. E.g., is "democracy" always and everywhere a good thing? Probably not. Try practicing democracy in 13th-century France or in the Holy Roman Empire of the 1500s. The most likely outcome would be even greater chaos and bloodshed.

Perhaps the best paraphrase for the anthropic approach to ethics is to ask the question "Does the matter at issue eventuate to the detriment of society in general, and to ethical discourse in particular?" In other words, "What harm?" Even if we disagree about the answer -- see (3) above -- we at least know we are asking the right question.

James R. Cowles

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