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Beyond the Conjunction


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As we discussed in our newest episode Is/Ought, ethics is hard. It is much more nebulous than what we like to think — it feels so much better to say that some things just are objectively good, other things just are objectively evil, and that we have figured out definitively which is which. We like certainties, and ethics guides so much of our lived experience that it is deeply unsettling to acknowledge that the ethics framing our actions and lives are ultimately… constructed. Eesh.

Me pushing away the reality that ethics are constructed. DO NOT LIKE.

Part of what makes ethics hard is simply that, as Hume argued, these judgments and values cannot ever be proven or definitively settled by any statement of fact. Just because something “is” doesn’t mean that that is the way it “ought” to be. Just because something is pleasant, doesn’t mean that it is something we can allow people to do, or something we should establish as a norm of interpersonal behavior.

For example, as this great little video uses as an illustration, just because humans have evolved to eat meat (an “is”) doesn’t mean humans should eat meat (an “ought”).

As vegetarians and vegans would argue, there are many other “is”es that need to be considered — the effect on animals, the effect of meat-eating on the planet, etc. But even then, if all the ises are considered, no number of “is”es will ever build a perfect bridge across the value gap and get us clearly to an “ought.” It just can’t be done.

Even though I do believe Hume is right that there is no way we can “prove” any ethical system or norm is the “right” one, it’s clear that humans will continue, and should (ha) continue, to create ethical norms based on what they believe “is” true about the world. So really, if we want to improve our ethics and if we want to be “better” people (whatever that means), the best thing we can do is continually check to see if our beliefs truly reflect the world as it is.

We should make a habit to ask ourselves, from time to time, questions like:

  • What do recent and well-corroborated studies show about this behavior of mind? What effects does this behavior actually have on the environment/myself/those around me?

  • Whose “is"es should I be considering here that I’m not? Am I taking my “is”es from the right sources, or the right variety/mix of sources?

  • Are the beliefs I hold about someone (stranger, partner, colleague, etc.) fair? Are those beliefs leading me to treat them well or to treat them poorly?

  • THE QUESTION WE SHOULD ALWAYS ASK OURSELVES: Is there something else I should try to find out before making a value judgment about something/someone, or before making a judgment about what the “right” thing to do is?

Our values and norms are always made better by getting more information and by honestly critiquing the beliefs that underlie them. Chances are when we do that we’ll end up with a more nuanced view of the situation and will be able to make more good-producing ethical judgments about what should be done.

If, before doing a deep-dive into your ethical beliefs, you’d like a deeper dive into Hume’s Guillotine (BEST NAME EVER), as always, I recommend the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry. Solid philosophical explanatory gold.

Then, if you are like Diane and terrified of Roombas taking over the world, here is a video of cats on Roombas. I can’t tell if the cats or the Roombas are winning…. probably the Roombas. They are our doom.

FINALLY, if you get tired of philosophy, Roombas, and ethical quandaries, Diane is right: this video of Natalie Cole and the Hudson Horns is LIFE-GIVING. I love it so much. Watch it and try not to smile. I dare you.

There is no “is” that will convince me that video is not the best and that you should not watch it. You absolutely should. All the “is”es say so.

As always, thanks for listening and reading! I’m not saying you should leave a comment with your thoughts about ethics, but I am saying it would be good (for you AND for us!) if you did. TAKE THAT, HUME.

Until next time!

xoxo, Jana

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