Dramas of the Mind
by Kenneth Smith
WHAT IS ETHICS? The normative controls by which we shape our actions and attitudes, the quality controls on our sense of responsibility: ethics is how we structure our obligations, ideals, and inptentions, everything about us that can be right or wrong, just or unjust, too much or too little. Ethics includes the elaborate or simple reasons by which we try to understand, select, justify, or criticize those controls.
WHAT MAKES ETHICS POSSIBLE? Unlike most animals, we project ourselves constantly into the future — we anticipate, foreordain our actions and reactions. We script our lives in advance, because we think and understand in terms of possibilities and tendencies. All human life involves willing, intending, and promising: this kind of self-structuring prior to the reality is built upon the natural base of purposing, the teleological and (in the case of humans) conscious character of actions that makes them aim at some end that we believe to be good. We also naturally or inherently evaluate: we assess, measure, or judge everything we deal with — this is the root of sapiens, the function that makes us a discriminating or wise ("tasting") creature. As active and reasoning individuals, we evaluate ourselves as well as others; in the course of enhancing our powers, we even come to evaluate values, to compare and criticize them. We do these things naturally but can only be fully competent at them if we are deliberately ethical.
WHAT MAKES ETHICS NECESSARY? There is an irreducible experience of freedom or responsibility in our lives: our acts and decisions originate with us, they are our own. No matter how we obscure or abdicate that responsibility, we ourselves are responsible for obscuring or abdicating it. Metaphysically, we are fated to be free and individuated, however much our culture, politics, education, psychology, etc., may help or hinder the realization of that fate. It is against this primal fact of unique accountability that individuals are constantly defining themselves: they either accept and cultivate that responsibility, or they attempt to evade and diminish it. Either way, they confirm its primitive authority over them. We must choose, and we must have criteria so that we may choose; we must evaluate, and we must evaluate the values by which we make judgments. Ethics is an art that is minimally forced on us as an indispensable part of the art of living. Optimally, we need ethics if we are to be completely competent — self-mastering, autonomous, free — and if we want to honor the best potential that is in us.
WHAT MAKES ETHICS DESIRABLE? The old saw, that virtue is its own reward, is hardly even a half-truth: the social and individual fruits of ethics are diverse. A consciously responsible person in a context of mutual respect is a confident being in an enabling environment: irresponsibility, injustice, corruption, etc., are all ultimately divisive forces, and ethics is the key ligament in the integrity of a whole life. The cultivation of responsibility is a clarifying and stabilizing pursuit; the cultivation of respect is a harmonizing and liberating experience, releasing individuals from petty psychological preoccupations.
Ethics confirms an individual's sense of purpose, his being in control over the components of his motivation. Ethics helps us check the delusions that vitiate our intelligence: in many respects ethics simply secures realism and objectivity over against the subjective illusions of what we want to believe. Ethics coordinates individual and communal needs, special and general interests; it establishes a continuity of strategy between short- and long-term purposes, present and future consequences of action. Ethics consolidates corporate morale by guaranteeing reciprocity of rights both within and without the organization. Ethics is ultimately an art; it is organizing potential, the architectural coherence between individual and corporate interactions. Ethics is our structuring intelligence, providing normative scripts or scenarios of expectation by which every interaction should be governed.
CONTENT OF ETHICS? Ethics is the contribution of many tributaries, present and past: it is individual conscience with its particular upbringing in morality, its education, and its self-formative effects. Directly or indirectly, conscience is the carrier of value-pools that are the residues of our founding cultures. It is only in the form of individual character that these values and other ideals are effective, and only in the form of individual example that value and character can be communicated: example proves that these ideals are practicable, gives a living illustration of the wholeness they effect, and resonates with subtlety and implication in a way that abstractions cannot.
Ethics is the formsetting or architectonic factor, the formal or structural ingredient in the shaping of our lives: value is the material or engineering factor, the organizing or persuasive force that enables our psychology to conform to ethical demands. Ethics is the obligatory or commanding component, values are the enabling or logistical component: ethics is our moral demand-system, values our moral supply-system. Ethics without values is impotent; values without ethics are blind.
The values and hierarchical rankings of values in our society have genealogies tracing back to the cultures that authored them — the ancient Greeks, Judeo-Christian religion, the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, and so on. As a tradition that lives only through individuals, ethics is always evolving: we need values that are responsive to unprecedented situations, and history is always revealing new variations on human nature and human potential. In the absence of formative or structuring resources such as ethics and values, a kind of cultural entropy — a lapse into disorder, obscurity, confusion, anomie, and the like — will mark that loss of control. Ethics and values are our civilizational capital, our fund of solutions and authority against the anarchic, idiosyncratic conditions that human beings naturally generate. Ethics enables us to rise toward universally valid understanding and structure, and to hold our institutions and systems accountable as servants of the needs and rights of individuals. Embedded in ethics and values is our working formula of what we are and can be, our most profound and most practical self-conceptions.
MORALITY AND ETHICS. Morality is the acquisition of the child: it demands self-mastery, impulse-control, dominion and responsibility over our natural urges. It is the primitive installation of character and scruples (limit-concepts of what is conscionable) under the inspiration of example. It is the assimilation of a stabilizing context, a way of fixing psychological flux: it is acculturation. Ethics, on the other hand, is the acquisition of the adult: it is competence to adjudicate value-conflicts, the assay of different perspectives, the incorporation of trans-individual resources for self-direction or autonomy (historical, professional, political, religious, and other resources). Ethics is the assumption of responsibility over one's own stabilizing context: nurturing the medium that sustains the moral quality of life for oneself and others, managing the moral capital of a society or civilization, it requires performing structural maintenance on values (health, justice, freedom, intelligence, etc.) by means of our professional or parental practice.
Morality is acquired in a heteronomous condition of subjection (tutelage) to other persons' judgment and authority, but it establishes the preconditions for autonomy. Ethics is cultivated in an already-established condition of autonomy, and enables a person to assume proportional responsibility for sustaining a public world, a civilizational order, in which autonomy and other preconditions for moral-ethical life will continue to be feasible.
Morality effects an individual regime of responsibility over psychological and biological forces, a regimen over immediate needs and desires: it makes individuals masters over their appetites and egos. It is this personal regime that is defective when we call a person immoral (only adults or near-adults are so chastised, just because children as minors are still in training — their lapses are usually attributed to those in authority over them). Ethics is the superstructure of a more mature form of responsibility the raw materials of which are morality, tradition, contemporary culture, competing political perspectives, institutional or organizational priorities, etc. Human beings are unquestionably animals, but, more distinctively and even uniquely, we are zookeepers over ourselves as no other animal is: we police, doctor, judge, educate our own kind. We devise and effect an ordered cosmos for us to live in, a regime to which a child is passively subject but to which an adult is expected to make an active contribution in whatever degree (as parent, citizen, professional, etc.).
Morality fights a sort of trench-warfare with primitive psychology, an intimate combat; ethics on the other hand conducts a more abstract, more strategic air-warfare — as the circumspect or eagle-eye viewpoint that seeks a more cosmopolitan and Olympian sense of proportion (wisdom, synoptic or architectonic understanding). Morality is fighting to secure a beachhead for will — self-discipline, reliability, structure — amid the cloying distractions and entropic tendencies of psychology. Ethics is fighting to protect and defend the regime of rationality, the civilizational order anchored in history and extending over generations and centuries. What is at stake in immorality is personal matters and the abuse of oneself and others as particular use-objects, subject to bio-psychological appetites; what is at stake in unethical behavior is social justice, the structures of interpersonal coordination, and ultimately barbarism, the extreme compromise of civilizational order.
Although in form morality performs a universally significant function — the consolidation of structured will, a chain-of-command within individual personality — in content morality is conventional, accidental, and variable. Its perspective is provincial, conformist, unresisting, because it has no developed criteria of its own; it is engaged in the primitive acquisition of moral capital. It is passively exposed to de facto influences, and thus it is all the more critical for authority to install ideal standards before peer-pressure begins its seductive work on bio-psychological appetites: whatever consolidates first shuts the other out.
Ethics is the performance of mature and autonomous judgment: it seeks universal and rational law and criticizes shifting and relative conventions. Its intellectual and moral capital is fertile and enables the person to be an authority, to promulgate new judgments out of the codes and formulae the individual has already mastered. As a completely structured will and conscience, the ethical individual does resist encroachments on his prerogatives of autonomy and initiative. In ethics, the individual necessarily relates to formulated abstract principles, no longer to inarticulate intuitions, about right and wrong: these principles define issues that are essential and perennial.
Morality fixes the individual in a societal matrix by enabling him to rise above his immediate and idiosyncratic needs: through morality he is enabled to become extraverted, to express purposes and beliefs with more than merely private significance. The objectivity of language and reasoning is grounded on this conversion: a successfully moralized individual is no longer the captive of bio-physical idiocy. As such a captive, he would be secluded from true communication, and would be a merely generic being, a work of nature not of culture. His only coordination with others would be through mass needs and mass reactions, what Arendt terms behavior.
Ethics frees the individual to be individuated: to form his own principles of action, to be exceptional and innovative. Ethics governs the individual in his risk-taking, unprecedented action: action is a form of communication, a way of expressing unique character and purpose in a public medium for the benefit of others as well as oneself. Action is a way of philosophizing practically, exploring the ultimate shape of life's meaning in such a unique way that the process of action and exploration can go on interminably, without ever exactly repeating itself. What is established in the ethical example of one individual's action is common property, able to be appreciated by all while being consumed by none: political and ethical good is thus an infinite or inexhaustible kind of value, by contrast with depletable-divisive economic goods. Paradoxically, as ethical beings, we coordinate with others through our autonomy and individuality: we live our lives for ourselves and for all, and there is no exclusion of one purpose from the other.
Moralization is thus a process that an ethically unindividuated person (normally a youth or malefactor subject to rehabilitation) is put through to consolidate his self-discipline, even though the motives for it originate heteronomously: it aims at making what would otherwise be a derelict into the captain of his own ship. Competent captaincy is its only goal — effective chain-of-command within the individual — not admiralty over other ships: morality validates an individual as an individual, able to account for himself, but not yet for the matrix of norms that sustains him. He becomes through morality a structured being, informed by norms, but not yet any sort of authority over himself or others. Moralization must be exogenous, conducted by an authority not oneself.
Morality thus enforces conformability, reciprocity, a common code of conduct, standards of normality: perversely, during our formative phase it can even make us accessible to nothing but the heteronomous control by the appetites of others. Ethics by contrast enforces individuality, independence, a code of honor, exceptional accountability in the sense of rising above the ordinary conditioning of morality. Where morality tends to impose generic obligations — the same degree of responsibility for all — ethics must create order in a world of differential responsibilities, duties that devolve only on oneself because of one's unique potentialities. Uniformity can be an effective argument in morality, but not in ethics.
Morality is an explicitly social function, and only implicitly rational: it lays the foundation for social control but only the potential for self-mastery. Ethics is explicitly rational and requires the full cultivation of that potential: it serves social structure only indirectly, through the exercise of individual responsibility and judgment.
Morality governs our immediate and private life, our bio-psychological needs: these are our primitive interests, motivated by passion, appetite, and a compulsive selfishness. This is the "self" over which we rise to self-mastery in morality, a lower self that is radically needy, "given," and unfree. In contrast, ethics governs our mediated or sublimated life, our extended range of acquired and symbolic values: economic wealth, political power, our assumed (vicarious or fiduciary) responsibilities over others, our supposedly impersonal or disinterested (altruistic) relations. These passions and appetites are more abstract and therefore more inflationary (not curbed by the limits of satiability of natural appetite). The sense of "self" at stake in ethical abuses is not immediate (direct sensual gratification) but mediated through the eyes of others and the impact we have on them (reputation, privilege, power, etc.).
The values of morality are implicit, embedded, and presuppositional: as a merely moral person, one cannot define the limits of their validity or protect the preconditions that make them possible. The values of ethics, on the other hand, are formulated, articulated, consciously cultivated: they must be brought into systematic interrelations of whatever sort and secured against hostile counterconditions. The difference in defensive competence — capacity to resist the destructive effects of conflict, to adjudicate differences and sustain against adversity the preconditions for one's own beliefs — between child and adult accounts for the protectiveness or moral solicitude shown toward a minor.
The rights of morality are pre-individuated: they are undifferentiated, generic rights that derive from membership in some group among whom comparison and criticism are significant and persuasive. The rights of ethics are individuated: they entitle the individual to exercise a dimension of sovereign autonomy and to generate his own criteria and principles.
The difference in modality between morality and ethics is naturalistic: it is a distinction between immaturity and maturity, the metaphysically or naturally defined entelechy of human beings per se. It is a distinction recognized if not respected in every human culture, even in our own (in the form of legal minority and majority, an irrational traditional concept that has come under increasing criticism from rationalist-egalitarian ideology). The modal contrast between morality and ethics — between the status of rightful or naturally justifiable tutelage, and the status of full self-accountability — involves not just a moral-psychological transformation but indeed also cultural values that have been relativized out of authority in modern societies. Just to the extent modern societies have been modernized, they have volatilized the traditional norms that define adulthood, or moral maturity as modulated into ethical responsibility. The norms of materialist-utilitarian consumer society are indeed the norms of pre-moral childhood writ large, indefinitely extended throughout life: this is the naturalistic-psychological source of the sub-democratic and slavish dependency, the financial imprudence, the cultural barbarism, the intellectual myopia, and libidinous appetite by which contemporary mass society is marked. These are patently the vices of what indeed deserves to be called "youth culture," the mores of self-indulgence, wanton improvidence, and the zero-horizon of those who live in an Eternal Now.
To say that we do not, as a civilization, know any longer with authority what a human being ought to grow into, is to say we have no morally effective, value-laden concept of human existence: intellectually we have no concept of teleology in force, either within or without the human order. The conscientious constraints of the traditional values of maturity — wisdom, self-mastery, foresight, competence to adjudicate value-conflicts — may still be felt privately by at least some individuals, but those constraints are not reinforced or consolidated by any objective institutions. By our ideologies and social forms we have made the norms of maturity into spectral and subjective feelings and nothing more: they are on a par, as all values are on a par, with all other feelings in radically subjectivist society. The work of ethical responsibility, the task of sustaining and developing a civilizational order of values and the professional codes specific to the various aspects of that order (justice, intelligence, health), has lapsed into a kind of rear-guard reaction against forms of our civilization's own entropy. Ours is an unorchestrated civilization, a fractious society now in explicit collision with itself, not an order at all but a dissonance: Nietzsche was right to have defined the crisis of nihilism as our own highest values self-destructing. The values definitive of our peculiar historical culture — Christianity, capitalism, science — have become radically antipathetic (as will be argued later) to the ethical and philosophical intelligence without which they cannot keep themselves alive and organized.
VIRTUE AND VICE. Hardly any concepts are more central to morality and ethics than are virtue and vice, yet exactly these concepts (as Alasdair MacIntyre has argued in After Virtue) have been rendered utterly unintelligible by the methodological and ideological turns of modern ethical theory. Virtue, in its original ancient context, described not just a moral-psychological strength (the ennobling or enabling power of certain values in our character) but a whole metaphysically or teleologically significant way of life: virtue is the path of challenge, of one's highest potentialities, the leavening of spiritual energeia — the life of contest (agon), the pursuit of excellence (arete). Virtue is bound up with the metabolism of self-transcendence, the imperative of freeing oneself from inertia and habituation. Vice by contrast is not simple weakness but again, metaphysically, the dysteleological way of entropy, dissolution, dissipation, decadence, inertia: vice is a modus vivendi that drains the morale out of one's highest potentialities, it is a disposition to take the path of least resistance — it is spiritual sloth and intellectual lethargy, Nietzsche's "spirit of gravity."
Virtue and vice remind us of the original normative natural-law context of ethics as a form of spiritual hygiene. They make little sense to us without an understanding of the Greek concept of a middle voice between active and passive: philosophically most important of all our forms of action, our self-action is our liability to better or to worsen ourselves by a kind of essentially internal metabolism between ourselves and our aims. Virtue is an enabling, vice a disabling attitude: we enhance or diminish ourselves, make ourselves noble or petty, magnanimous or pusillanimous. As Nietzsche so well captured the peculiar Greek fatalism, we only become what we already are: through our self-actions, through the rebounding of our own will's consequences back upon itself, we evoke our own more ultimate, more profound potentialities.
Virtue is power, confidence, clarity, decisiveness: virtue is a kind of moral capital, the thrust of self-compounding energies and values. Vice is thus not only weakness but a vitiating disorder — a virulent and self-aggravating negativity, which goes on to compound itself in the very area it has most distorted our judgment about. Both virtue and vice are the basically pregnant or dynamic condition of human character and moral resources: our forms and values are the seeds of our future state. The worldview of natural law dictates that the world is structured by natural consequences that amount to natural justice — morally we become what we deserve to be, we deserve to be made into what we want. Ethics is ultimately a matter of character (which, as Heraclitus said, is fate): we live out our actions within a circularity between what we are and what we do. This dynamic and fatalistic concept of character takes for granted that every life, for better or for worse, is a process of self-cultivation: this concept and process are radically opposed to the axioms of modern-abstract egalitarianism, which posit personality as a static, sterile, and undifferentiated identity. Where the Greeks conceive of human character as not radically different in kind from the self-governing organisms of teleological nature, moderns incline to a belief that their essential self is more like a mathematical entity abstracted from real, dynamic existence. Because of this assumption, the two dominant forms of modern ethical theory — a rationalism deriving from Kant, and a utilitarianism from Bentham — have both imagined that ethics could be turned into some form of abstractable science, instead of the concretely engaged art as which the ancients conceived it. Modern ethics is a theory and a code for a manipulative-abstract ego that does not ultimately suffer the influences of the concrete media of existence (history, culture, nature, language, etc.).
The whole concept of virtue/vice is contrary, thus, to the modern abstract-undevelopable-barren self: virtue/vice demonstrates we are accountable for ourselves, not just for what we do (as modern ethics takes for granted) but also for what we are (as unthinkable in modern practice as in modern theory). We make ourselves into what we are by a long, slow cultivation, by the reactivity of what we most profoundly want — our values — on what we are: the telos of the sort of character we are bound to become is ordained by the values we attract and are attracted to. The correlativity of character and value, with Nietzsche as with the Greeks, constitutes a natural relativism utterly unlike the shallow and abstracted relativism based on the arbitrariness of rational-conscious will.
Contrary to modern value-neutralist assumptions, we are at heart an evaluable-evaluating being: we invite and deserve, and orient ourselves by, a profound ad hominem. Below the irrational surface-repulsion/attraction that makes us abuse or approve of others in our judgments and understanding, there is a more profound ad hominem where we engage essence-to-essence with others and with ourselves. Not just a mindless mannerism — a facile formality or ritual — defines good and bad taste and makes moderns abhor ad hominems: it is, rather, a structural reaction, an intuitively ingrained ideological conviction that demands moral identity should be assumed to be abstract, disengaged from psychology as well as from the whole realm of practical effects the will is capable of. What we are as moderns is a metaphysically remote function, a nearly mathematical sort of entity that has no real metabolic reciprocity with the concrete world, with nature, with norms. We take ourselves, as we take life, just the way we come: it is a dissociated, alienated self-relation, in which both aspects of the self — concrete and abstract — are mutually indifferent to and unaffected by one another. The whole realms of culture and nature lose their vitality as value-sources just because of this dissociation, this scrupulous abstractionism. We conceptualize ourselves as something that has no life, no growth, no power or potentiality, at its heart: a dead self, desiccated of the waters of life, flattened without the leavening of spirit. Greek and Christian cultures would have had nothing in common with that castrated entity we call self: where is its unrest, its visceral discontent to be merely what it is? Where is its spirit?