Social Viability as the Goal of Ethical Life

            Ethics means different things in different contexts. It can mean what people learn when they learn how they should behave. In this case it is a set of rules – rules about honesty, trust, fairness, and cooperation. But ethics is also the solution to dilemmas about what rules to accept and how to apply them. We do this ethical problem-solving both on our own and in open debates on issues such as the limits of liberty, the occasions for war, and end-of-life decisions. As debates of this kind prompt still more fundamental questions, ethics turns philosophical. Then as philosophers we ask whether we need universality for valid norms, whether we can derive rights from reason, and whether egoists have a part in ethics.

            In this chapter, I treat all of these aspects of ethics – the acceptance of rules, the resolution of dilemmas, and the philosophizing on general issues – as belonging together in what I call ethical life.[1] Calling it this avoids the mistake of treating ethics as outside of life. Treating ethics as a dimension within life keeps us from isolating ethics from other projects in our lives – our concern with institutions and their changes, with our emotional lives and their stability, and with nature and our impact on it. We would make this mistake if we treated ethics as a commentary on our lives that runs parallel to them without being part of our lives.

This chapter examines the question of why we bother to make ethics part of our life. Ethical life can have burdensome aspects. It limits ambitions, calls for disciplining the young, and generates rancorous conflicts.  With such obvious disincentives to taking part in ethical life, there must be a higher reason for taking part in it. Can we find that reason in ethics itself? Critics would accuse us of circular reasoning for saying that we could find it there. We would be saying that the reason for entering ethical life is a principle of ethics itself.

Where then shall we find a reason to enter ethical life?  My view is that the purpose of ethical life is to avoid social collapse, or putting it positively to keep society viable. Only a few people would say they favor undermining society. As such, social survival can serve as a reason for building ethical life. There is no need to treat social survival as an ethical imperative itself since we pursue it even without the pressure of rules or commands to do so. I hold, then, that there is a reason for entering ethical life that is not itself an ethical norm but that lies at the root of all the norms in ethical life.

I shall devote this book to arguing for this social-survival view of ethical life and its norms. In this chapter, I begin the argument by explaining some of the ideas that are central for it. To elucidate the idea of ethical life, I compare ethical life with other dimensions of life. The idea of society is a key part of the argument, requiring that I indicate just what it is about society that is relevant. It is also important to point out here that a social view of ethics does not undermine individual responsibility. And of course, in an intellectual climate that for some time has held that ethics goes beyond the mundane, I begin in this chapter to chip away at arguments that fail to give the social its due in ethics.

1   Ethical life and the ultimate arbiter   Once someone is part of ethical life, what role does it play in their lives?  The answer is that ethical life is a place where we make evaluations of a variety of sorts. We can evaluate and establish novel ethical beliefs within ethical life. If one wants to criticize existing ethical beliefs or establish novel ethical beliefs, one does so within ethical life.  In addition, I shall consider the relation of ethical life to other forms of life. What goes on in them admits of ethical evaluation. Does this mean that each form of life has its own rules for justice and equality? If not, then how do the rules developed in ethical life apply to them?

To develop these points about the implications of being in ethical life, I first try to make the portrait of ethical life more concrete by pointing to stages in the development of ethical capacities from childhood to adulthood. Participation in ethical life has stages; some may have reached the upper stages while others, for various reasons, may not have advanced as far.  Then I try to add to our understanding of ethical life by describing its relation to other forms of life, such as legal life, class life, and scientific life. Some might claim that each of these forms of life has a distinctive form of ethics originating within it. However, I shall argue that ethical life is the ultimate arbiter for all of them.

From earliest childhood, it is hard for us to escape being at least partial members of ethical life. Before we learn to say a few words, we can recognize approval and disapproval from those who raise us. There is the joy or contentment of approval and the shame or frustration of disapproval. We learn to avoid actions associated with disapproval by others while performing those associated with their approval. A major step comes when it is no longer the approval or disapproval of others but our own evaluations of ourselves and others that count.  We are no longer merely the ones judged; we have become judges. This new status calls for feelings beyond the contentment of approval and the frustration of disapproval. As judges, we experience compassion for victims of harmful behavior and outrage at those who victimize them.

We are not merely judges of particular acts but also judges of kinds of acts.  We form generalizations for ourselves about right and wrong behaviors, or pick them up from others. In this way, we advance to a stage of considering acts as examples of kinds or classes of acts in order to judge them. These generalities –lying is bad, returning fvors is good – take on the force of rules that we suppose everyone is to follow. We begin to apply these rules to everyone we contact. We consider widespread adherence to them as a test of whether our social environment is safe.  At this point, we are well on our way to being full members of ethical life.

What remains is the development of a number of critical capacities within ethical life. One is the capacity to question familiar evaluations and to try out novel ones. This critical capacity seems characteristic of humans but not of other mammals, who may nonetheless have capacities for the previous stages of ethical life. Normally, the need humans have to question ethical norms comes in the wake of disputes, so the capacity to question norms is not a capacity of individuals isolated from society. Yet, we must emphasize that this critical capacity rests on individuals’ having individual autonomy within groups. Otherwise, individuals would be incapable of disagreeing with their group over its norms.

Another critical capacity is the philosophical one that compels us to ask questions about ethical life itself. How do we justify norms; is ethics about human perfection; is power inseparable from ethics; are norms universal; do norms come from God?  Some would say these are meta-ethical issues, thus stressing their separation from ethical life. I think this is mistaken, since views on issues about ethical life affect which norms we accept and our readiness to criticize the norms of others.  In the absence of critical discussions about how norms are justified, people are more likely simply to accept as valid norms from which they derive benefits because of their nationality, class, or gender, to the detriment of their communities.  It is best, then, to include all the critical stages along with the earlier stages under the big tent of ethical life. I also note that calling some stages “ethics” and others “morals” merely adds confusion in view of the many different ways of distinguishing these terms. I use “ethics” throughout but without intending a distinction from “morals.” [2]

Of course, those who belong to ethical life do not necessarily live up to its standards. What distinguishes those in ethical life is that they have a sense of right and wrong which they can examine critically. They can use this sense to warn against taking some paths and to encourage taking others. They may act in ways that, on more reflection, they would consider wrong; their error does not remove them from ethical life. Some humans, though, are outside ethical life. Among them are those who think that, despite its critical aspect, ethical life aims ultimately at an excessively restrictive conformity to rules. This leads them to discount the approval and disapproval they receive from those in ethical life. Others lack the capacity to participate in ethical life, including infants, who have yet to enter ethical life, those with certain mental handicaps, who never enter it, and the elderly victims of extreme dementia, who have already left it.

I turn now from this developmental perspective on ethical life to consider how it fits with other forms of life. No other form of life can dictate to ethical life from outside of it. In attempting to do so, another form of life would not succeed in showing its supremacy over ethical life. Why not? It would succeed only in transforming itself into a part of ethical life. Thus, the aims of criminal life or entrepreneurial life have no authority to bend the norms of ethical life. An exception would be made if these other forms of life become parts of ethical life in guises that condone criminality and entrepreneurship, as for example when loyalty to a criminal establishment or the principles of the free-market are absorbed into a society’s ethical norms. A shift like this from outside to inside ethical life leaves intact the claim that ethical life serves as an evaluative context for other forms of life, containing as it does the norms by which to judge them.  Since ethical life is the place for ethical evaluations, there is no ethical arbiter outside it. We must be careful to distinguish cases where the ethical life of a people absorbs norms from outside of it from cases where agents act out of mere expediency. Surrendering to expediency involves stepping outside ethical life rather than refashioning ethical life. It means advancing personal, group, or corporate aims despite overriding the demands of ethical life.

Although it is ultimate arbiter, ethical life is responsive to the events outside of it. We constantly face new ethical disputes that arise from changes in the world. Consider the impact of inventions such the cotton gin, advances in knowledge such as the discovery of radioactivity, or natural events beyond human control such the 2004 tsunami in theIndian Ocean. The cotton gin increased the demand for slaves in the fields of the US South, thereby intensifying the ethical conflict pushed energetically by the abolitionists. Discovering radioactivity led to the nuclear age and its debates over the ethics of nuclear deterrence. Replacing fishing villages destroyed by the 2004 tsunami with luxury hotels became a flash point in the dispute between the rights of native peoples and the demands of global capital.  Clearly then, making ethical life the ultimate arbiter does not lead to cutting it off from influence by other spheres of life.

The connections between ethical life and matters beyond it work both ways, since ethical life also has effects on the world it belongs to.  It can create contentment in those who feel they have acted rightly or it can create frustration over the difficulty of doing what is right. More importantly, there are the intended effects of engaging in ethical life. As noted earlier, ethical life – like other forms of life – is a project we engage in. Its aim is to avoid threats of social collapse. The success of an ethical project is, then, social viability. This viability is a condition of society and hence of the world we live in rather than a part of ethical life, in which we are taking steps to secure this condition for society. If our efforts within ethical life fail, this failure affects the world through a weakening of society.  So, the results of the project in ethical life are outside this project. This point is important since validity in ethics should depend on something external rather than internal to it. In short, we want validity in ethics to be objective.

A different view of ethical parcels ethical life out among various spheres of life without giving it a niche of its own. We would then have business ethics in the sphere of business, religious ethics in the sphere of religion, and environmental ethics in the sphere of environmental concerns. Ethical life would be a component of each sphere of life without itself being a sphere of life.  In the realm of business, the ethical component would call for an efficient use of resources, which one realizes only with competitive markets. In the realm of religion, respect or love for what is sacred and holy becomes the general theme of a religious ethics. In the realm of the environment, the ethical message is to consider the environmental impact of decisions. Perhaps this approach is better at taking account of the special circumstances of different spheres of life. Should we give up talking about ethical life as applying to all areas?

There is a powerful reason not to give up the general approach. It is that many of the most serious ethical disputes involve conflicts between different spheres. They cannot be resolved ethically within any sphere involved in the dispute. If they admit of ethical resolution, this will be because all parties to the dispute share in ethical life. They can then debate the issues while participating in the common project of ethical life, whose goal they will share.  If the entrepreneur’s concern for the competitive market conflicts with the environmentalist’s concern over impact on nature, then they can develop their disagreement within the context of a shared agreement about the goal of ethical life. Of course, this is no guarantee of settling the dispute, but it is a big step ahead of lacking a common framework altogether.

We are ready now to turn to the core of ethical life – its goal. We have touched on enough aspects of ethical life to avoid the temptation to say that the relations of norms to one another exhaust ethical life. Examining the goal of ethical life will provide an understanding of how to give the other features of ethical life their appropriate roles. People may enter ethical life for many different reasons, but once in it, they find themselves engaged in a project larger than their individual reasons for being in it.


2   The goal of ethical life   Treating ethical life as a project commits us to treating it as having a goal. Uncovering the teleology of ethical life is the key to understanding it. I shall test my claim about the goal of ethical life in different ways throughout this book. The claim is that ethical life is a project whose aim is to protect the viability of a society’s most basic social relations, relations without which the society would collapse and its members would suffer isolation. We execute this project by adopting norms that if followed would avoid threats to our society’s viability. To understand this view of the goal of ethical life, one needs here a clear idea of avoiding threats to society.

There is no need to talk of doomsday scenarios like a world populated only by insects after a major exchange of nuclear weapons. Less dramatic scenarios serve to communicate the idea of threats to social survival. A threat to social survival might come from damaging a society’s economy, spreading suspicion among its people, denying them a sense of social identity.  Two things need emphasizing here. First, the thesis is not that the common occurrence of a type of action that is ethically wrong will inevitably create social collapse. It is instead that it will pose a threat to social survival. We can end a threat, before it creates damage, by removing it or counteracting it.  Second, a genuine threat to social survival is one we could connect with a social collapse through a chain of steps that are a feasible outcome of current circumstances. Otherwise, claiming a threat exists is premature. Thus, to criticize a type of action as unethical needs support from a plausible view about its potential in the circumstances to lead to undercutting society.

In serving a society’s viability, ethical life will develop norms with different scopes. Some norms will be relevant to all members of a society, whereas others will be relevant only to those with particular roles in it. Norms intended to reduce violence and promote honesty apply to all. But norms for the wages and work conditions of employees apply to employers, and norms for proselytizing apply to religious teachers. Whether relevant to all or only to some, no norm should put a society that adopts it in peril.

In addition to the difference within ethical life between norms with broader and narrower scopes, the ethical life of any one society will differ from that of another. For example, one may have a religious and the other a secular ethical life. When the norms of a society’s ethical life focus to a significant degree on what respect or love for the sacred and holy require of us, we can speak of this as a religious ethical life. But when the norms focus on issues of national unity, economic development, or personal liberty, we are dealing with a secular ethical life. Despite such a difference, I argue in Chapter 6 that both a religious and a secular ethical life will strive to avoid threats to social viability.

Christian ethics and Islamic ethics differ in multiple ways, but each sees its ethics as a vehicle for avoiding threats of a collapse of society, understood as a breakdown that would leave people without a community of others they could trust and depend on. Often, religious writers express the social potential of religious ethics in visionary claims, but behind these claims is the idea that a genuine religious ethics is a bulwark against tendencies that would destroy basic social relations. For example, in southern Iraq in 2005, several years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, a senior official in the Moktada al-Sadr movement, Sheik Abdul Bahadli, said that, “If Shariah [Koranic law] exists everywhere in the world, everyone will be happy.”[3] In the same year, the American evangelical Jim Wallis wrote, “The prophets always begin in judgment, in a social critique of the status quo, but they end in hope – that these realities can and will be changed.”[4] It is this hope that society can escape the crisis tendencies threatening to undermine it that helps motivate active membership in ethical life.

Does this emphasis on the social as the goal of ethical life deny the individual person a role in ethical life? Certainly not! As I noted, entering ethical life calls for both accepting and testing norms. These activities involve us as individuals as well as social beings. Moreover, we play a role as individuals not just in resolving ethical issues we face personally but also in resolving ethical conflicts between groups. Persons struggle within themselves over ethical issues, but the results of their struggles affect those around them. Of course, one can decide to sit out certain ethical battles, abandoning one’s ethical autonomy to let others decide what might best avoid social collapse. But this just passes on the inner struggles to others. So, making social viability the goal of ethics does not change the fact that personal reflection and innovation are of critical importance in the ethical life of a society.

A familiar mistake looms up in talking about the role of internal personal reflection in ethics. The mistake is to think that, because such internal personal reflection is important for having ethical life, each person has their own personal ethics. Here, a personal ethics is one whose validation comes from the mere fact that the person with it has feelings, beliefs, and goals that would support it. Its validation would not depend on whether acting on these personal feelings, beliefs, and goals would satisfy the basic requirements of living together with others. Yet as we normally think of it, ethical reflection and innovation by individual persons is not valid simply because the individual thinks so. According to the viewpoint advanced here, the validity of personal ethical reflection would be subject to the goal of social survival, to the requirements of living together. Satisfying such requirements would be a common goal – something each wants for all rather than exclusively for themselves. It is, then, a mistake to infer that each person has his or her own ethics from the fact that the project of ethical life needs individual persons to scrutinize, propose, and accept ethical views.[5]

Not only does internal personal reflection fail to imply that each person has their own ethics but also the very idea of such a personal ethics is questionable. Different people will have different feelings, beliefs, and goals. However, satisfying basic requirements for social survival is a common goal – and thus becomes something each wants for all rather than exclusively for themselves. Ethical life tries to give assurances that we can get on with our lives despite our differences without constant suspicion. We would like some assurance that the person we confide in will not betray us, that the official we elect will refuse bribes, and that the manufacturer we buy products from will not endanger us.  But personal ethics, which is potentially different for each person, cannot offer the uniformity needed for these assurances. With only personal ethics to rely on, the social fabric could be torn to shreds without our having had the chance to make a successful ethical appeal to repair it. So, as important as personal reflection is for ethical life, there is a need for other aspects of ethical life. Specifically, we need shared norms with the common goal of protecting society.[6]


3   What is a society?  Since my thesis is that avoiding threats to a society’s viability is crucial in understanding why we are part of ethical life, we need to elaborate on the idea of society. It is not necessary to attempt here a full theory of society. Instead, I shall spell out four features or dimensions every society displays that we need for ethical life. I depart from views emphasizing exclusively the cohesiveness of societies by stressing as well the important role of conflict in them.

A society must be able to rely on a diversity of skills among its members, an ample supply of resources to support life, and institutions for developing the use of skills and the acquisition of resources. I shall call this the functional dimension of a society. It is necessary in order for a society to be a relatively self-sufficient unit.[7] A medical association, for example, lacks this feature since it does not provide a full basis for supporting its members lives. It cannot call on them to do such socially sustaining things as set building codes, run kindergartens, or engineer fuel efficient cars. Of course, no society is completely self-sufficient; societies do depend on each other to some degree to provide life’s necessities. The self-sufficiency called for is never total. The different ways societies have of organizing this functional dimension constitute differences in their economic systems.

A society will not be monolithic. Instead, it will have members expressing different ideas of how best for it to survive. Since the goal of survival is at the root of these internal dialogues, I say that each society has a teleological dimension. A society may write its history as though there were no struggles within it over how best to realize the common goal of social survival, but in fact without these struggles a society would perish for its inability to adapt to change. By introducing a common goal around which disagreement over means is organized, ethical life provides a unity within a society’s diversity.[8]

Societies can be different in many ways. But in a viable society we find trust in most others rather than suspicion of almost all. There is widespread solidarity in the sense of wanting to help others even where one cannot expect reciprocity. And there is conviviality felt in the company of others when there is a break in attending to common concerns. These three – trust, solidarity, and conviviality – make up a great part of what we commonly think of as the social bond.  We can say that maintaining trust, solidarity, and conviviality add up to a reason for avoiding threats to a society’s viability.  But one can go beyond saying it is a reason someone might have for acting to protect society. We can actually say that since most people want trust, solidarity and conviviality among those in their society, they have a feeling of fidelity to the society they live in. This feeling of fidelity to a society helps motivate us to avoid its collapse.  This feeling, which develops out of trust, solidarity, and conviviality, is the motivational dimension of society. Even in a society with conflict, people experience a fidelity to their society.

Finally, people in a society need a way of saying who they are as members of it. They need an identity that may not be limited to a single attribute. This identity might include attributes that are a form of culture, of politics, of personality, or of economics. So, we add a formal dimension to social life. Societies can be nomadic, capitalist, prosperous, Islamic, poetic, or close-knit. They can identify their societies by their revolutions, prophets, geographies, or music. Here too there will be differences arising from struggles, but this time they are differences over identity – over who we are as a society. One group may try to exclude another by claiming its aspirations work against “who we are.” Identity is vital but contested.[9]

It is important to note how each of these dimensions of society is open to radical changes. But even these changes must occur within limits. Thus, a society needs to have a base in skills and resources; some sense of the best options for it to realize its goal of survival; a bonding through trust, solidarity, and conviviality; and some sense of its identity. Nevertheless, a society can survive despite radical changes in each of these four dimensions. It can survive the change from mechanical to digital to realize its needs, from feudal to mercantilist to realize survival, from tribal to humanistic to realize bonding, and from prosperous to poor in its identity. Ethics is not about saving the specific forms these dimensions have today, but  it is about preserving the four dimensions in some form.

In subsequent chapters, I stress the motivational dimension. This makes sense since failures in the other three dimensions do damage within the motivational dimension of trust, solidarity, and conviviality. For example, an economic failure that leads to homelessness and starvation breaks down trust by creating individuals and small bands competing desperately for their own physical survival. Class, race, or religious divisions can create so much turmoil that solidarity across these divisions gives way to indifference towards others. Finally, when social identity blurs and a people are no longer sure who they are, the expectation that one can trust others and enjoy pastimes with them recedes.

Who though are the members of a society? Those who are full members of ethical life articulate general norms and discuss their validity. To include only them in society would be too restrictive.  It would leave out infants, those with certain mental handicaps, and those who, by scoffing at the idea of behavioral rules, refuse to participate in ethical life. Along with including these groups in society, it also makes sense to widen the circle even farther to include certain other sentient beings. Some of them, like companion animals, have bonds of solidarity, trust, and conviviality with many of us. Our empathy for suffering animals leads us to demand reforms in the way they are treated. They are not part of ethical life, but as participants in our individual and social lives, we ascribe rights to them.[10] Rather than relying on empathy, which is often fickle, a firmer basis for justifying animal rights comes through investigating the consequences to society, in this extended sense, of denying them basic rights.


4    Formal ethics and ethical judgment   Part of the attraction of approaching ethics from the perspective of ethical life is that it ties our thinking about what ethics is to people’s lives. As a dimension of our lives, ethical life includes our motives, our goals, our needs, and our dependence on others. If we ignore these features, that part of ethical life dealing with the validity of norms becomes a formal undertaking.  Indeed, it becomes too formal to fit into a project of social survival and hence into ethical life.

Most writers on ethics try to avoid restricting themselves to the forms of ethical norms, derivations from these forms, and the relations they have to one another.[11] Nonetheless, they are caught up in asking questions like the following: Can the norm I act on be acceptable if applying it to all leads to a contradiction? Can a distribution be just if it is not an equal division? Can we derive human dignity from our ability to reason about what is right? Is moral duty conditional on needs or is it categorical? Focusing on these questions of structural design in ethical life leaves little room for considering what it is about ethical life that makes it important for people. The importance people give to differences between right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust, rights and prohibitions, and obligations and permissions comes from the connection between these concepts and their personal and social interests. For them, these interests are not extraneous to why they are ethical. For many philosophers, the lure of a formal ethics is that it transcends all interests, except an interest in its being formal. Behind the attraction of structural design in ethics lies uneasiness about facing the basic motivational question: When people make and follow ethical judgments, what do they hope for?

Consider the case of Specialist Joseph M. Darby, who was a military policeman assigned to Abu Ghraib, near Baghdad, while it was operating as a USprison. He supplied photographs to his superior officers of the abusive treatment of Iraqi prisoners that took place there in 2003. He did so along with the comment that such treatment was “very wrong.”[12] Some military personnel involved thought he was a “snitch.” But their accusation seemed intended to deflect criticism from their complicity. Their accusation lacked weight by comparison to his.  What, though, was the point of his ethical judgment? It makes sense to interpret Darby’s judgment as a way of telling the world that ignoring these events would lead down a path of increasing brutishness that would break down traits like the trust and solidarity needed for social existence. He was not just bringing attention to a formal connection between the Abu Ghraib events and ethical ideas. He did not attempt to conceal or minimize the abuses under the guise of military solidarity. Instead, for him ethical life didn’t stop at the military’s doorstep.

Specialist Darby had several options he did not follow. In turning the pictures over to the military, he could have abstained from making a judgment by deferring to military judgment. Or he could have tried to obtain a legal judgment from an international court, which would look at his photos from the perspective of theGenevaconventions on the treatment of war prisoners. Being unwilling to abdicate his role in ethical life, he voiced his own ethical judgment to his superiors in saying that the treatment was very wrong. A national military court and an international court for treatment of war prisoners could say that the behavior at Abu Ghraib was incompatible with military goals or with the conventions on prisoners of war. But in these courts, what matters are the needs of a national military force or the established limits on the behavior of nations at war. The issues in these courts are narrower than those of ethics. In judging that it was “very wrong,” Specialist Darby reached beyond the range of these courts to the issue of social survival.

This case raises the question of the relation of ethics to law. In the legal world in general and in that of Genevaconventions in particular, there is a goal, just as there is a goal in ethical life. It is an important goal tied to the idea of governance rather than to that of social survival.  When a government makes a law, many considerations enter into its passage. But the law proves itself only by contributing to the ability of the government to govern within its jurisdiction. A governing body may easily forget that this is its mission in passing laws. But when it does forget, it is likely to diminish its ability to govern. This is not to say that the protections offered by the law always fail to protect society. The law will have strong ethical backing when the damage it limits or avoids would tend to weaken the society. Nonetheless, the law’s goal of governability is different from ethical life’s goal of protecting social viability. [13]

When a government passes laws that it takes to be ethically valid, it may provoke an opposition strong enough to keep it from carrying on essential matters of governance. Passing anti-discrimination laws in 1920 in the US, because discrimination was undermining the society and hence ethically wrong, might have created enough White unrest to make governing impossible. Conversely, a government that views itself as threatened may pass a law that is unethical because it promises to allow it to govern. In this case, the proper criticism of such a state is ethical rather than legal.  Also, to protect its governability, a state may not want laws that would deter its citizens from certain forms of unethical behavior, since the absence of such laws allows it to use unethical behavior to strengthen its ability to govern.[14]

There is now no global state, so we cannot say that the basis for present international conventions, like the one on war prisoners, is that such a state requires them for its governance.  Instead, individual states receive such conventions for their adoption. They become signatories of such conventions only when they feel their individual tasks of governance require that they join others in abiding by the conventions.


5   Two kinds of evaluation   To some it will be futile to look to the goal of ethical life for the reason to be ethical. They will say that no goal will be a reason to be ethical unless it has a positive ethical value. But how can one evaluate such a goal? We would have to go to ethical life for such an evaluation, since only it can be the ultimate arbiter for ethics. The rub is that the evaluation of the goal of ethical life would be circular when made by norms justified by that very goal.

To avoid this circularity we might try to find ethical norms that are independent of the goal of ethical life, and use them for the evaluation. However, in this case we would deny ethical life its importance since we would have divorced the goal of ethical life from its role as a source of validity. Rather ethical life would then be important only because the norms in it are valid. But since these norms cannot tell us of their own importance, we would have to abandon the search for a rationale for being ethical.

There is a way around these problems. The problem of circularity only arises when we assume that the goal of ethical life must itself be a positive ethical value. This is a mistake. Ethics does not exist for itself but for something broader than itself.  We avoid the mistake by noting that, if something is the goal of ethical life, then it stands outside ethical life and hence is not an ethical value. But we need to add that, if we are to account for ethical life, not just any goal will do. The goal must be reasonable for this purpose. The requirement of reasonableness holds generally for goals people adopt.[15] The important thing here is that a goal can be reasonable without being an ethical value. My claim is then that we can say an action or a type of action is ethical if it helps advance a goal that is reasonable, though not itself an ethical value. Such a goal acts as a link between the ethical life and life more broadly. Having such a link is essential for resolving the issue of circularity just raised.

The issue is then whether there are such goals, goals that provide reasons for the validity of ethical norms without themselves having to pass muster as valid ethical norms. The problem addressed by this distinction between norms and goals haunts Western ethical theories and has led to some of its most creative solutions. In these theories, we find leaps to valid ethical norms from a goal that then becomes the criterion of valid norms. While not being an ethical norm, the goal makes a reasonable basis for ethical norms, a basis whose reasonableness does not depend on its being a valid ethical norm. Such a goal provides an answer to the question: Why be ethical?

In Plato, the Good is beyond all Forms, including the ethical ones. It serves as a goal to which knowledge of , and hence action based on, the Forms tend. In Aristotle, the well-functioning political community is the goal to which those with virtuous capacities contribute. In Hume, benefitting society becomes the standard for good habits. And in some texts of Kant, the autonomy of humans in the act of making an ethical rule becomes the test of the validity of that rule.[16] These philosophers assume the reasonableness of the goals they claim ethics will promote. It is not hard to make a case for the reasonableness of their goals. What would life be like without things that are good for us, without a well-functioning political community, without support for society, or without the autonomy to make our own rules? Perhaps they would agree that life would be miserable.  If so, they might agree that it is reasonable to say we are obliged to prevent such catastrophes.

To clarify the role of such goals in the ethical project, consider the analogy with some commonly recognized goals in other projects. Chemistry serves the goal of better living. With this as an assumed goal of chemistry, should we evaluate this goal by the principles of chemistry? That would make no sense. Nonetheless, we could ask if better living is a reasonable goal for chemistry, even though chemistry is inevitably the source of so many harmful products. One might say that the criminal justice system serves the goal of reducing people’s vulnerability to crime. But we should not evaluate the system’s success in reducing vulnerability by finding out if officials in the system actually follow the adopted practices for policing and judging. Those are practices people hope will serve that goal, but nor measures of success.  Yet, one can ask if the goal of reducing vulnerability is a reasonable one for the system. Perhaps it is a utopian goal in face of oppression from above and crime from below.

The analogy between these cases and ethical life allows us to say that we should not use ethical norms to evaluate the goal that ethics serves. So now we can ask the question that is relevant here: What makes social viability a reasonable goal for ethics? As the goal that ethical norms serve, we cannot evaluate social viability by these norms. The best reply is to have a look at what life is like or might be like where there is social collapse, be it from famine, occupation, earthquake, civil war, expulsion, global warming, or bombing. The lack of security, the scarcity of food, the separation from loved ones, and the end of employment are the kinds of reasons one can give for saying that social viability is a reasonable goal on which to base obligations. The disruption of life visible during and after social collapse is so clearly undesirable that it makes social viability a reasonable goal for ethics.

We have then the two kinds of evaluation.  The one we have just discussed is an evaluation of the goal of ethical life by reasons. The other is an evaluation of ethical norms by the goal of ethical life. With these two kinds of evaluation, we keep an ethics that has a goal – a teleological ethics – from having a purely arbitrary goal. For example, it is not arbitrary to want to avoid the atomization, bewilderment, and despair of social collapse.

With these two tiers of evaluation, we can now say why we choose survival rather than some other goal, such as progress, as the goal of the ethical project. We need to examine the kinds of ethical norms that a different project would call for. Then we need to examine in non-ethical terms the reasonableness of that project. Let us do this now, taking progress as the alternative goal.

If ethical life took progress as its goal, we could expect it to entail norms of personal improvement and of social achievement. So, people should plan their lives so they realize their highest capacities fully, and societies should develop their political and economic capacities fully. These demands on persons and society emphasize personal and social greatness at the expense of ambitions that we commonly take to have positive ethical significance. The career of a great lawyer would be preferred over that of a social worker in a ward for the terminally ill. The path to a great empire would be preferred over the more tranquil road to internal equality and environmental sustainability. In short, the norms associated with progress, though not necessarily bad, need not obligate people or societies.

As regards the reasonableness of a project with progress as the goal, the results are equally discouraging. Failure to pursue progress, whether for personal or social greatness, to the exclusion of other goals does not create a situation as dire as social collapse. A person or society may fail to reach greatness while still being able to cope. Indeed, people and societies may be content to balance progress with other goals. It would then be unreasonable to insist, despite personal and social contentment with less, on a project of progress toward greatness. In some circumstances, a lack of progress could make it impossible for a society to survive. But then the reasonableness of the project of progress would depend on the more fundamental project of social survival.


6    Ethical contingency   The approach to ethics of the kind that accords secondary importance to goals and the motives for pursuing them is an effort to escape contingency in ethics. The urge to escape contingency through an ethics of a formal nature has its historical roots in a theological ethics that makes the authority of ethics depend on a divine reason as the source of the moral law found in created human reason.[17] A secularized version of this theological ethics appeared during the Enlightenment. It lodged the moral law in human reason without having it put there from outside.[18] Nonetheless, both versions came from the urge to escape contingency in ethics. But can ethical norms escape contingency of this sort?

Defenders of the escape from contingency trust reason to guide us. But for them reason dictates categorically, telling us to do this or that apart from any condition. This makes it difficult to believe that they are dealing with reason rather than authority. If reason is the source of reasonable decisions, then it should reveal the conditions under which they are reasonable. Among the conditions that make decisions reasonable will be the goals we want to pursue. Far from escaping from contingency, ethical norms depend on the goals we pursue and hence on our incentive to pursue them. When we look a bit closer at texts that allegedly reject contingency, we find even there an acceptance of it. The deity of the Bible gave His people instructions on how to behave in order to avoid social disruption.[19] The enlightenment figure, Immanuel Kant, made advancing to the goal of a cooperative society – a Kingdom of Ends – a test of whether our maxims were ethically valid.[20] Social survival is the goal in both cases.

The sentiments associated with pursuing social survival help us understand the contingency of ethics as a project. Our attachment to society varies in intensity from time to time and from person to person. Our trust in others, our willingness to help them, and our drive to seek companionship vary in intensity. We neglect the project of ethical life, and hence its norms, when these sentiments weaken. Their weakening is a sign of a society under stress, since a strong society caters to these sentiments. The variability in the intensity of these sentiments lies behind anxiety about the contingency of ethics as a project. To avoid this anxiety, we look for ways ethics can escape its contingency.

In desperation one might say that ethical norms will hold even when the project of ethical life weakens. But imagine that the conditions have changed so much that selfishness overwhelms the sentiments that motivate a project of ethical life. The order of the day becomes lack of respect for others, power grabbing, and refusal to cooperate. In these circumstances, no ethical project exists within which a discussion of norms can take place.[21] And there is no place outside an ethical project for ethical norms to be. But if we were in a functioning society, would we not have norms to follow? Of course we would. But where we stand when we make this hypothetical claim could be outside any ethical project.

            In this neoliberal era, the triumph of selfish pursuits over social sentiments threatens to kick away the supports for society and hence for ethics. As the goals of different parts of society diverge, there a splintering of society into parts without a shared ethical life. Little remains to regulate the clash of these fragments. As the advantages of society disappear, there seem to be no reasons for supporting it. People cannot find reasons for keeping society together. Support disappears for the many ways – from living wages to respect in debate – in which people have the opportunity to try to make society work.[22] This kind of de-centering is seldom longstanding; the demand to overcome it emerges by saving what there is of society even after economic bubbles burst and distribution grows dangerously unequal. Nonetheless, some will object to tying ethics to a project of social survival whose support depends on sentiments as variable as trust and solidarity. But the only escape from the contingency of society and the disposition supporting it is an ethics without a goal, a formal ethics without relevance to life.

I want to end with a question about ethical contingency. It concerns the contingency of ethical validity rather than of our motive to avoid social collapse. A norm may contribute to social viability, and then due to some change, fail to continue to do so. Does this imply a change from ethical validity to non-validity for the same norm?

As an example consider the institutions and ethics of segregation in theUSin the period after slavery. Those segregationist institutions were part of a way of life for the white majority in theUSuntil the 1960s. Once the black minority and its white allies mobilized against those institutions, that way of life was threatened. Without ending the most egregious aspects of segregation, conflict might have intensified leavingUSsociety in shambles. In fact, the way of life of the segregationist majority did change. So my question becomes, was segregation ethically valid until the change of circumstances and invalid thereafter? One way of answering would be to say that, yes, segregation was valid before but not after the changes of the 1960s since it was not threatening society. Another way to answer is to point out that, even though there was no wave of revolts matching that of the 1960s, segregation was wrong after slavery and before the 1960s. The uprisings of the earlier period were enough to indicate a buildup of resentment against segregation that would explode in the widespread and prolonged struggle of the 1960s. There was no need to have to wait until the 1960s to say that the segregationist way of life was undermining the society. The first way of answering makes validity contingent on changing circumstances in a way that the second does not. To decide between the two, one must dip into the facts and can’t rely on formal ethics.


[1] “Ethical life” (“Sittlichkeit”) is the title of Part 3 of G.W.F. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1821). He discusses the term in Paragraph 141 of that work. Its use here agrees with his in referring to something concrete, a part of human life – connected to feeling, thought, power, and institutions – in which people structure their activities to realize certain social goals.  In other respects, Hegel’s view of it is different.

[2] There is no consistent distinction between morals and ethics among philosophical writers. Some take ‘ethics,’ a term with a Greek origin, to concern the normative practices of a group while taking ‘morals,’ a term with a Latin origin, to concern only what could have universal recognition. See Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, translated by W. Rehg (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1996), 96-97. Others treat ethics as a broad field that includes morality, which focuses more narrowly on obligation and duty. See Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 6, 174.  Others see ethics as about the kinds of lives that are good or bad for a person to lead, whereas morality is about principles for how a person should treat others. See Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (PrincetonNJ:PrincetonUniversity Press, 2005), 230-237. Still others would like to treat ethics as the philosophical endeavor to find the conditions for the validity of norms, while treating morality as an empirical study of the origins and uses of norms. Despite this variety in ways of drawing the distinction, the common purpose is to separate what seems most central from what is less so. Yet, I try to show that it is futile to try to separate questions of validity from those about power, feeling, and social groups. To bring these issues together, without treating some of them as peripheral, it is helpful to start by talking about ethical life, where they all come together. I would be just as content to talk about moral life, since I see no need to rely on a distinction drawn in so many conflicting ways. In the text I shall use ‘ethics,’ ‘ethic,’ and ‘ethical’ without intending anything different when occasionally, out of respect for what the ear is accustomed  to, I use ‘morals,’ ‘morality,’ and ‘moral.’  Thus I would not change Mill’s “moralized by social feeling” to “ethicalized by social feeling.”

[3] Quoted in Edward Wong, “Shiite Morality Is Taking Hold in Iraq Oil Port [Basra],” New York Times, July 7, 2005.

[4] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 346.

[5] The view that the need for personal reflection in ethics requires thinking of ethics as validated by the personal rather than the social can be found in Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (New York: Penguin, 1993), 362-363.

[6] The idea of personal ethics also arises in connection with personal capacities. It is not restricted to validating personal states like feelings. Martha Nussbaum represents this personalist view of dignity and human worth when she says “… this worth is a power of moral choice” within humans. See her Sex and Social Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 57ff. So, this inner capacity to make moral choices means we must treat humans as worthy of respect. But how does one decide what capacities call for having human worth? What insight is she relying on here? I suggest that we humans deserve mutual respect not because of any inner capacity but because not giving respect has proven to lead to fissures that threaten human society.

[7] In his account of the polis, Aristotle highlights this functional dimension (Politics 1261a10-30).

[8] Bruno Latour in Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) makes the point that a society should not be treated either as a substance or even as an explanatory entity. When I claim that ethics is a project for ensuring the survival of society, I am appealing to society in a sense compatible with Latour’s. I am claiming only that an acceptable ethics ensures that actors could rely on the types of relations among themselves that we normally call social. Latour’s positive alternative to explanation by appeal to society is explanation based on the trajectories of individual actors. This leaves him with a problem he fails to resolve. Aggregating individual trajectories does not make a unity. Yet social life is characterized by common goals – ones each wants for all – which provide society with its unity. Searle avoids the limitations of appealing to individual trajectories through his use of the idea of collective intentionality in accounting for social facts (John Searle, Making the Social World (NewYork: Oxford University Press, 2010), chapter 3.

[9] With the identity of a society contested from within, it is unrealistic to claim that behavior in a society follows rules that members of the society generally follow and share. People will want to save their society, but will differ over what rules can save it. For an opposing view, see David Copp, Morality, Normativity, and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), chapter 7.

[10] Bob Torres, Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights (OaklandCA: AK Press, 2007), chapter 4.

[11] The distinction here between ethics as a network of connections among norms and ethics as playing a role in a concrete social order parallels one in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Paragraph 137). For him “morality” is abstract, lacking a connection with institutions – the family, civil society, and the state – in which it could become practical. However, it is in “ethical life” that norms embody the demands of social structures.

[12] Seymour M. Hersh, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 24-25.

[13] On the theme of governability and state justice, see Milton Fisk, The State and Justice: An Essay in Political Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 157-163.

[14] In discussing the case of the “outing” of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent by someone in the George W. Bush administration, columnist Molly Ivins said in a July 17, 2005, column that Bush’s political advisor Karl Rove could not use the law to hide ethical wrong-doing. She argued that, “If the prosecutor cannot prove a crime, Rove should still be fired … because what Rove did is ethically disgusting.”

[15] See the discussion of teleology from the perspective of the appeal to reasons by T.M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 79-87.

[16] Plato, Republic 508b-509b; Aristotle, Ethics 1094b8,1169b3, and Politics 1252b9, 1337a11-12; David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1777), Section 3, Part 2; Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785), translated by H.J. Paton (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), chapter 2, 98, 108.

[17] E.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, Q100, A3.

[18] Kant exemplifies, in the enlightenment period, this urge to overcome contingency with the requirement that ethical imperatives be categorical rather than conditional upon a goal. See his Groundwork, 84-88.

[19] Isaiah 42:1-9.

[20] Kant, Groundwork, 100-101.

[21] Zsuzsa Ferge discusses the “decivilizing” effect of the attacks on the welfare state in her “What Are the State Functions that Neoliberalism Wants to Eliminate?” in Not for Sale: In Defense of Public Goods, editors A. Anton, M. Fisk, and N. Holmstrom (Boulder CO: Westview Press, 2000), 181-204.

[22] Setting aside ethical arguments, Jack Welch, former General Electric chief executive, said that the ideal location for a corporation would be on a barge in international waters. Managers would be able to exercise total control over labor without government regulation. This “slave ship” fantasy of absolute exploitation avoids having to deal with the task of trying to build a cohesive social unit involving labor and management. Jack Welch with John A. Byrne, Jack: Straight from the Gut (New York: Warner Business Books, 2003). In 2005, SeaCode Company converted Welch’s fantasy into a plan to put a software development factory on a cruise ship offCalifornia’s coast, out of reach toUS immigration and labor law.