Saturday, March 8, 2014

Morality and Ethics

Ayn Rand called her theory of egoism "Objectivist ethics." In her essays, she wrote mostly about morality and very little about ethics. She took the English language as she found it. Despite the fact that she knew perhaps four languages (Russian, French, German, and English), Rand did not delve into linguistic analysis. In other languages, "ethics" and "morality" do not exist as separate words. In English, we commonly use the words interchangeably, just as we do for "weight" and "mass" or "speed" and "velocity." When we have technical discussions, the distinctions become important. 

On the "Galt's Gulch" discussion site of the Atlas Shrugged movie producers, the question was posed, "Is Morality Absolute?" (Read all 100+ posts here.)  My response was that morality is absolute, but moral choices are not, or they would not be choices. Rand was very clear on why a rational, volitional being needs morality. 
The work you choose depends on who you are.

Who you are also determines your work ethic.

Alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe could choose to fish, or plant, or hunt. But he had to choose. The fact of choice is a moral absolute. The content of the choice is not: it is contextual. In society, pursuing a specific career is a moral choice. Many options are available. The fact that you must choose something - even choosing to be a moocher - is a moral absolute. What you choose is not absolute, but contextual; and context determines what is objectively moral, regardless of the ethical implications. 

Ethics is social conduct. I look to the fact that ethology studies the behavior of animals without any presumption of "morality."   In academic philosophy, the confusion between ethics and morality prevented any rational discoveries. Generally, when considering egoism, academic philosophers ask if egoists can be moral. They assume altruism (as an absolute) and measure all conduct (ethics) against how nice you are to other people.  In Rand's doctrine, social conduct for an egoist begins with an assumption of benevolence towards others - and expectation of the same in return. Every day we all say "Thank you" to customers and suppliers. 

In that discussion in the Gulch, frequent poster khalling challenged me to explain the difference between objective and absolute. It was an important question, a point that often confuses admirers of Rand's novels and non-fiction, especially Atlas Shrugged. In that story, the Washington gangs and their coteries of looters and moochers deny the absolute: for them everything is relative, except their demands.  But Ayn Rand called her philosophy Objectivism, not Absolutism.  The objective is that which is empirically observable and rationally explicable.  The rational-empirical method depends on certain absolutes, and does discover absolute truths, but, largely, it is contextual, especially regarding human affairs. The standard of life is absolute; your choices for your happiness depend on your context. So does ethical conduct in society.

Completing a masters in social science, I took a graduate class in "Ethics in Physics." I found that technical societies for geologists, geographers, engineers of all kinds, have different statements of professional ethics. They all boil down to "be nice; do no harm." But they are all different in detail, and properly so. The work of a geographer is materially different than that of a geologist. 

I also attended a seminar in the teaching of ethics to graduate students in counseling. As I recall, their statement of ethics runs 25 pages. Moreover, the point of the seminar was that to practice as a counselor - to practice ethically - you need to do more than attempt to apply the ethics document. Life is more complicated than that: the document is a guide. Ethical choices are highly contextual. 

I was working in transportation when a colleague suggested that I take a class in computer programming "so the people in data processing can't hand you a bunch of baloney." I took a class and liked it. I went to work as a programmer. On a project, no one wanted to write the user manual. Having published a few articles and two small books, I did the documentation. I became a technical writer. When the current recession started, I took a part-time job as a security guard. As the economy continued to slide, I needed a four-year degree to even apply for work as a technical writer, so I earned one in criminology. Those were all moral choices, but ethics had nothing to do with it. 

khalling wrote: "Ethics and Morality are blood brothers just like geometry and algebra can be expressed in similar ways." In fact, of course, blood brothers are genetically unrelated. Becoming blood brothers is more like a marriage ceremony. If you look at any modern textbook in geometry for mathematics majors, you will find no drawings. It is all algebra. I understand the point: proper ethical conduct in society depends on a correct morality of self-interest. As for the analogy to geometry and algebra, having re-read Introduction to the Objectivist Epistemology for a discussion on "Galt's Gulch", I now just started George Boole's Law of Thought - and I had a similar observation: reading Boole after Rand was like finding the algebra in geometry.

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