Mike Hosken's

"Hinges and Loops"



  1. Argument
  2. Intuitionism
  3. Making the Best of a Bad Lot
  4. An Answer
  5. Where Do We Go For Guidance?
Chapter Eight ended in something of a state of confusion. We weren't able to reach any definite conclusion at all. So it may well be that we are destined to have a bit of an argument if we are going to try and arrive at anything that could be regarded as a coherent morality. And there's nothing wrong with having arguments as such. It is slightly artificial for an author to try and write both sides of any heated discussion but it does have the advantage of breaking the text up a bit. So I will presume on your interest and good nature and set out in the next section some of the feelings that I think you could perhaps be experiencing.

§9.1 Argument

READER: I'm not quite sure that you are right about the usefulness of any argument here. You started looking at ethics just in the hope of something useful emerging, without any guarantee that it would. In fact you said before you started on the details that the different systems didn't agree.

But most of Chapter Eight seems to have been simply an exercise in making a mockery of the whole thing. Ethics, the life-controlling concepts of right and wrong, morality, call it what you will, the subject deserves serious thought and review, not just an over-simplified look-at-this-stupid-lot summary. The fact that you have included intuitionism as a system of ethics and then simply put 'Depends on you' right across the summary table just goes to show how flippant you have been.

And while I'm beefing, you said there could by definition be no such thing as a bad ethic and then you include this so-called Will to Power and Hitlerism. If that isn't a bad ethic then ... well, I'm lost for words.

M.J.H.: I'm not altogether surprised at your reaction, because we have certainly not achieved what we set out to do. It was in §8.3 that the search began for a better question - for a question that might yield some insight into either the nature of ethics or some general basis for its authority or ... something. That we have manifestly failed to find. The more deeply we enquire the more confused does the picture become. Indeed, there simply isn't one picture at all: rather is there one picture per system and some parts (at least) of each picture can be seen only as fuzzy or confused. We seem to be left with only negative outcomes if we run through the list again ...
  • We find we cannot reasonably use human fulfilment as a universal criterion of right and wrong, though it may appeal to certain individuals.
  • Utilitarianism is more popular (if that in itself may be a merit or criterion). But it can logically be popular only with those who are vegans in favour of hanging.
  • Intuitionism? Perhaps the less said about that the better, as you imply, though it does have its adherents.
  • A categorical imperative is not a lot of use if it leads to secondary problems with diametrically opposite alternative solutions. So universalisability is not enough.
  • The Golden Rule of you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours must be a clear favourite for the anti-hanging vegans.
  • The will of God shifts the centre of responsibility altogether, but given an effective means of communication should be ideal for coping with some if not all knotty problems.
  • The Will to Power has the great merit of being clear, unconditional and definite. For that alone it must deserve a good "Best Buy" score.
The vegans thus have a nice clear choice: the pro-hangers go for utilitarianism and the antis for the golden rule. Can the rest of us codge something up by combining bits of all the different systems?

READER: Well, I let you run on a bit, to see if you could get anywhere, but really! WHAT A LOAD OF NONSENSE! "Codge something up" if you please! If you're a vegan then you can do this or that! Looking for a "Best Buy" ethic!

M.J.H.: Ah. Mmm. Yes, I must admit that the whole enterprise does seem to have got itself back to front. We weren't supposed to be finding out which ethical systems were acceptable to vegans and so on: we were hoping to find a true, real, universal analysis of right-action so that we could decide whether or not to be or become vegan and/or hang murderers and people who park on double yellow lines and/or approve of voluntary euthanasia.

READER: There you go again - being flippant and stupid! Nobody in their right mind suggests we should hang people for parking on double yellow lines. Keep a sense of proportion or you make a mockery of the whole thing.

M.J.H.: Hold it right there a moment. I wonder if that is the missing ingredient - a "right mind", or common sense perhaps. If the logic of utilitarianism means that people who park on double yellow lines could (even on the tenth conviction) be eligible for hanging then so much the worse for utilitarianism: it simply proves that it cannot sensibly be of universal application.

I don't know you as a person, of course. I don't know what you think of as a "right mind". It may be your belief, for instance, that nobody in their right mind can turn to God and seek answers to problems through prayer. Or you may be quite certain that no other course but just that can be sensible.

At another extreme you have a perfect right to feel affronted by the will to power. But on what basis can you reject it? It seeks the advancement of Mankind. It is undeniably AN ethical system. Or can you deny even that?

READER: Can anything that advocates blatant uncaring elitist discrimination be described as moral? I know to the very core of my being that Hitlerism, gas chambers, the concentration camps, the holocaust, slavery were wrong, wrong, wrong - abhorrent - "immoral" is hardly a strong enough condemnation.

M.J.H.: OK, so you are an intuitionist. It is your intuition, "the very core of your being", that gives you a verdict on that one.

So what about voluntary euthanasia? That whole topic seemed to be full of ifs and buts, conditions and counter-arguments. The will to power was the only one that produced a definite verdict but we shall bow to your view and ignore that one from here on in. Under all the other headings there were, I think, quite a lot of pros and cons. Do you agree?

READER: Well yes, but it certainly wasn't terribly clear which were pros and which were cons: there was no way of sorting out the ideas within each system and fitting them together to come to a final conclusion. But I certainly do know that it would be wrong to kill off old Auntie B simply because she gets to be a bit incontinent, say.

M.J.H.: How did you reach that knowledge? - or that opinion? You said it cannot have been through use of any of the ethical systems being considered in detail. So it must have come from some other source. Being realistic, was it intuition? Do you just know?

Before you try and answer that one we may as well run through the others in this new context.
  • If you get the feeling that eudaimonic fulfilment is fine but it's not really what distinguishes right from wrong - that that is something deeper and more significant - then you are an intuitionist.
  • On the other hand, if you have agreed whole-heartedly with eudaimonism then you are going to need some other way of dealing with the problems that eudaimonism poses. Capital punishment may well be approved in principle but how will you decide which criminals under what circumstances are deserving of the death penalty? Will it have to be your good sense, your intuition, that you will use to adjudicate on individual cases? If so you are an ethical intuitionist.
  • The matter of utilitarianism runs exactly parallel. You can't just shrug off the problem of how far down the criminal culpability scale the death sentence should extend: you may finish up with someone like me advocating it for parking on double yellow lines! So anyone believing in utilitarianism must have some intuitive standards in applying it to real-world problems. A pure utilitarian is an impossibility: for the ideas to be applied in practice you need to be a utilitarian intuitionist. To put it another way, happiness and pain can't be scientifically measured, so to gauge what's best in any particular case you simply have to use your best guesses - your intuition.
    Another problem. Your intuition may have told you that people do have rights: even criminals who park on double yellow lines have some rights. But for the pure utilitarian it would be morally right to chop up a healthy inhabitant of the dole queues or prisons in order to yield organs required to save the lives of some other people of greater happiness-potential. It wouldn't even have to be a matter of saving lives: the argument would hold even if it were just to increase the happiness of the recipients if the benefit were great enough. Utilitarianism is simply a matter of maximising the units of happiness. But my intuition would object: I hope yours would too.
READER: Yes, certainly. I can see that when all else fails, at least, we've only got our own prejudices to fall back on. You can call those prejudices "intuition" if it sounds better but the whole thing hardly hangs together at all, let alone "coherently" as the Chapter heading suggests.

And can I go on to another quibble? When we were looking into utilitarianism you quoted just one sentence of John Stuart Mill. You concluded that since that sentence made no reference to human or to our happiness Mill must have meant to include animals too. I wasn't too happy with the logic there. His book must have had a bit more in it than just that one sentence!

M.J.H.: Yes, of course. Like so many texts it is a matter of selection and interpretation.
  • On the one hand he pours scorn on the pleasures of swine, maintaining that utilitarianism "could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character". Meat-eaters would generally reckon that pigs and bullocks, grouse and cod hardly qualify as regards nobleness of character. So the carnivore lobby will take it that Mill is excluding the pleasures and pains of animals.
  • But on the next page of Chapter 2 of "Utilitarianism" Mill is justifying "the rules and precepts for human conduct" -

    and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.

    This is music in the ears of the vegans, leaving "the nature of things" as the only possible consolation for the carnivores.
But again, this is the wrong order of things: ethics are to guide actions, not the other way round. Does one accept the "nobleness of character" exclusion clause and stick with roast dinners or support "the whole sentient creation" and turn vegan? How will you decide? Gut feeling? Sympathy? Logic seems not to be a lot of use so will you have to fall back on intuition?

READER: There certainly doesn't seem to be any more positive alternative available.

M.J.H.: Quite so. And then again, do you recall this, in §8.5, about the categorical imperative of universalisability:

Here we were thinking that systems of ethics were supposed to tell us how to behave, and Kant simply presents us with a way of asking us how we should behave.

If that really is the case then, as I said at the time, intuition may be the only way of deciding between cases that deserve the death penalty and those that don't. On animal rights too there was a conflict that Kant couldn't have sorted out on the basis of his categorical imperative of universalisability alone. You will remember the alternatives.
  • If we were to let nature have its way universally then we could continue eating meat with a clear conscience.
  • But if A had to be free universally to eat B then we might well prefer to be vegan rather than become a morally justified B!
So that decision has to be a matter of intuitive priorities, of purely right-seeming principles, in making the choice between competing universalisables.

READER: I can see a whole morass of difficulties when it comes to thinking about the ethics of animals. It isn't just rights and duties that are at stake. And there's no quid pro quo of course. I've never seen a herd of cows holding a discussion about whether or not it would be right for them to push through a weak part of the hedge. My dog only has a guilty conscience when I actually catch her doing something she's not supposed to do: she'll try almost anything on if she thinks she might get away with it.

And yet I can't think that it would be right for us to do the same. Does the mere fact that we can control animals, on farms say, mean that we can morally do whatever we like with them? It sounds a bit too much like your friend Nietzsche and his concentration camps again.

M.J.H.: Oh please! Nietzsche isn't my friend: it's just that I thought we ought not to pre-judge the issue before we began so we had to think about every possible ethical option. But enough of that. Surely the do-as-you-would-be-done-by ethic is OK? - is quite unexceptionable? There is that small reservation about it rather assuming that we all share the same interests, ambitions, emotions, and so on but perhaps some clever wording can get round that.

READER: Yes that seems to be alright at first sight. And yet I'm not even a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. And frankly I don't fancy having to become a vegan either. Perhaps a Golden-Rule-For-Humans-Only might be justifiable?

M.J.H.: Well there we go again, trying to use intuition to gauge an ethical system instead of the other way round. There is certainly no logical or ethical higher authority that we can call on to resolve the problem.

If absolutely certain ethics were easy to come by there would be no need for philosophy. It's too late to run back to Mummy when philosophy shows that you have got to be responsible for your own morality. [If that sounds curiously familiar, take another look at the end of Chapter Six.]

So as it's you who has to decide your actions it must necessarily be you who decides the ethical answers by which those actions are going to be directed. You can use any of the frameworks we've looked at as a help in clarifying your ideas in general terms, but as we've seen all too clearly, when the chips are down it's you who has to make the decision. And that decision is virtually certainly going to have to be based on intuition.

It seems yet again as if intuition is the very touchstone of ethics. With your permission we'll end our discussion there and I'll devote the rest of this Chapter to looking into it in a bit more detail.

§9.2 Intuitionism

Our enquiry seems to have reached the stage that some interim conclusions might be drawn.
  • No ethical system has proved able logically to fulfil what is looked for in a system of practical guidance in right versus wrong actions.
  • In default of a logic-based ethic recourse can be had only to:
    • prayer to a source of divine authority
    • the individual's authorisation system known as intuition.
What a thoroughly unsatisfactory situation to be in! Prayer is only for the faithful. Intuition doesn't have any authority and it's often just plain wrong: think of the number of occasions on which philosophers, scientists, mathematicians and we ourselves in earlier Chapters have commented that what we have discovered to be factual is "counter-intuitive".

What indeed is this faculty of intuition? The cynic will reply that it is but the murky residue of an average upbringing and an inefficient education bent and twisted by a lifetime (thus far) of prejudices. Certainly there are or were formative elements, absorbed perhaps rather than taught in childhood. But the prejudices may not all have been distortional:
  • An appreciation of logic may not produce its own ethic but does at least serve to outlaw some and show the weaknesses of others.
  • A capacity for introspection - the ability really to examine one's own thought processes - must be involved in some way.
  • Careful analysis too could be a useful, I think some might say vital component.
However I shall not seek to utter the last word on intuition since my own conviction is that intuition varies a great deal from person to person - it is idiosyncratically subjective. I have the impression that for some people there is an element of spirituality in intuition on which I am simply not qualified to comment. Certainly the development of human intuition involves rather more than does training a sheepdog.

The word "conscience" has not featured in this Chapter so far. What is not at all clear to me is how that and ethical intuition relate one to the other. My impression is that conscience is simply the ethical intuition's policeman: others may rate it as their spiritual guardian. Be that as it may, conscience is known to be malleable (or do I mean ductile?): heat and pressure can change it. So too can re-education, but perhaps that is due to the pressures of logic - or perhaps of brain-washing.

We don't seem to be getting anywhere very fast. We have dismissed each and every logical system of ethics and suggested that in the real world the only sub-divine ethical authority is unreliable and subjective. And I'm sorry to say that that's how it has to be.
  • If you believe in a loving God then you must also believe that the beings He creates have free will. (One example is the matter of whether or not to believe in such a God and his works.)
    • That will would not be free if it were genetically programmed.
    • There would be no free choices if all could be deduced by logic.
  • If you believe in neo-Darwinism then the most advanced creatures have to be those with the greatest breadth of opportunity. Such versatility cannot be achieved by multi-programming specific procedures but only through intelligence. Ant ethics are rigidly determined, 'hard-wired' on the pattern of the neural connections of each ant's instinctive control system. If higher-being ethics were simply more-complicated-but-still-determined ethics then it seems quite likely that we should have evolved with an inbuilt ability to answer practical questions instead of wondering what the ethical questions are.

§9.3 Making the Best of a Bad Lot

So it's time to stop being negative and to look instead at the more realistic problems. If intuition is the only coherent system we've got then what can we do to maximise its usefulness and reliability?

Just before we get down to that, let's get rid of a red herring. The one question you are not allowed to ask is, "SHOULD I be guided by my ethical intuition/conscience?" The reason is that the question involves interpreting itself since "should" is what we are trying to define. So the question would become "Is it ethically right for me to try and behave in an ethically right way?". Alternatively, "When I am being guided by my ethical intuition/conscience am I doing so in accordance with the dictates of my ethical intuition/conscience?"

Right, then: safeguards. What we want to do is to make intuition as reliable as possible, undeterred by the fact that it cannot be totally logical. The way the problem of guidance and control has traditionally been tackled by, say, a government department charged with the task of regulating some activity, is to devise a whole series of rules and regulations governing the activity in question.
  • It is a very time-consuming and tedious business.
  • Most people remember only the outline gist of the regulations.
  • The clumsiness of the rules is amply illustrated when industrial action takes the form of a "work to rule".
  • It proves in practice never to be totally comprehensive since odd cases arise not catered for in the regulations.
To train ourselves to learn enough rules and regulations to get us through life would be a daunting prospect, and one carrying no guarantee of effectiveness as reward for the effort involved. We shall not attempt it.

In its more enlightened moments even a government can get the right idea. If you can't write regulations telling people how you want them to achieve something then just tell them what they must achieve on their own initiative instead. The classic example is the Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act. This incorporates no detailed safety or welfare regulations at all. Instead it places duties on organisations to "safeguard as far as may be practicable the safety, health and welfare" of everyone involved - workers, management, visitors, and members of the public who might be affected. The most the Act is prepared to do is to insist that each organisation make for itself a Safety Policy and set up a means of implementing it: but no government department wants to see a copy of that Policy. The effect is totally comprehensive since ANY accident or even a dangerous practice means that sufficient safeguards were not installed: a prosecution may be considered to determine whether or not such safeguards would have been "practicable".

Section 40 of the Army Act is of much earlier date, but it is entirely negative. It allows Commanding Officers to deal with any "conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline". It saves having whole books full of detailed regulations about polished boots, politeness, moderate intoxication and so on. It is much more discretional than logically infallible.

Even earlier, but more positively, there was a Chap going round the Middle East saying that instead of having any rules at all the best thing was to have the right attitude: He summed it up by saying that one should love one's neighbour - even one's enemy. That's not quite a reformulation of the Golden Rule since it doesn't ask me to treat my neighbour as I would wish to be treated but rather I am to try and work out how best to further my neighbour's best interests. That is certainly universalisable - perhaps by definition - but that is a necessary coincidence rather than the main underlying reason.

It seems as if morality is not a two-element process -

Rule >> Action

but a deeper concept altogether, multi-layered like this -

Attitude >> Intuition >> Interpretation >> Action.

I have the feeling that we may be nearing the stage of finding out what the most coherent question is. Might it be something like this?
How can we develop in people appropriate attitudes so that their intuition and intelligence produce decisions which yield outcomes which we nowadays in our society regard as desirable?
I would not suggest that vast intellect is necessary for making moral decisions. But some measure of intelligence is needed in interpreting a principle in a particular context - in working out what the implications of a particular attitude are in novel circumstances. A dog can be trained to behave as if it had a conscience: but difficulties can arise when it comes to explaining that exceptional extenuating circumstances apply in some cases!

Some may feel disappointed that the concept of absolute right and wrong can find no place in any coherent scheme. But the real world is such that attitudes change with time and place. You would be ill advised to advocate veganism to a matador, and it is unlikely that we shall again take to throwing people we don't like to hungry lions as a Saturday afternoon entertainment.

§9.4 An Answer

Having found a question it is then, as so often, a relatively trivial matter to find an answer. Attitudinal change or reinforcement is a difficult but well-studied aspect of applied psychology. It is the very justification of much of education and the bread and butter of the advertising industry. As such it would be more sensible to refer the interested reader to appropriate books on those subjects rather than attempt any detailed development here. We shall content ourselves with an answer couched in principles rather than details.

Morality is, then, a matter of right attitude. The precise meaning of "right" is society-dependent, changing from time to time, from place to place. It is made up of elements which include love, reason, respect, honour, unselfishness and their compounds such as unselfish love in altruism. How it actually works in practice depends very largely on matters of interpretation, as for example in the breadth of the animal kingdom to which respect is extended.

As such it is open to individuals and pressure groups to seek changes in either attitudes or interpretations in any aspect on which they have strong feelings or more experience than most people in society. At the time of writing (1994) Britain is witnessing efforts by government, educationalists and advertisers to convince us all that it is immoral to use anything more that a necessary minimum of energy. Using up non-renewable resources and polluting my environment have come to be recognised as matters of practical morality.

As life becomes more complex your new rules have to fit your moral system, not mine. This means there is room for conflict, that you and I may not agree, that your system and mine may be irreconcilable. But if you know you are right you must act accordingly, preferably including some effort to convince me of the error within my system. So, for instance, when you change your job it is you who has to decide whether, in any conflict of loyalties, your first duty is to your first employer or to your new, present one. Do you, for instance, take with you your intellectual property, ('trade secrets') developed in the first firm's time, to benefit the second? In the end it's your conscience you have to live with: you can't be happy if you don't approve of what you're doing.

§9.5 Where Do We Go For Guidance?

That leaves a nasty gap, since we can't then use this ethic to help us sort out new problems such as those to do with genetic engineering, human embryo research, and in fact any aspects of technology as it or society evolves.

Well, reference has been made to intuitionism as a coherent ethic. It could be insightful to compare coherence and intuition. It turns out that they are structurally similar in many ways:

Build up from the database of childhood by selective additions allied with editing out where necessary. Build up from the rulebase of childhood by selective additions allied with editing out where necessary.
Assign a high status to rules revealed by divine authority (if any). Assign a high status to propositions revealed by divine authority (if any).
Sense data and testimony are each acceptable, selected on coherence and probability criteria.Introspection and testimony are each acceptable, selected on coherence and probability criteria.

From these close parallels it would perhaps then be clear that for me, and I presume for you too, what was wrong with the Will to Power was that it was not hoskentic (as defined in Chapter Six) - it lacked the coherence, desirability and beauty by which acceptability into an intellectual structure is judged. Christian ethics would be richly hoskentic for many of us. Buddhism would not form a natural expansion from a Christian upbringing, but it is easy to appreciate that for people brought up in a different culture the coherence could be strong. So the criterion for adopting a new rule of morality (or for accepting a proposition as being knowledge) is that so doing increases the coherence, utility and beauty of our intellectual system - of our ethics or our beliefs. Each case is personal, idiosyncratic, and subjective.

So I can argue with you about whether you should accept or reject the claims of, say, homeopathy or astrology, of spiritualism or the Gaia hypothesis. But it is only you who can make a decision as to what you do with each one - assign it a crucial place within your edifice or on an outer limb perhaps, hold it in a mental "pending" tray or consign it to the dustbin of rejects.

Objective moral standards are not available to mere mortals. Rather than bemoan the fact or waste time in exploring in the wrong directions for inappropriate answers to the wrong questions it is better to be reconciled to the situation. In the real world we need the best system of morals we can get. In this context, the "best" system is the one each of us insightfully chooses as best.

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The next chapter concerns Religion.
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