So far I am deeply impressed by Peter Singer’s Ethics. It is the best Introduction to Ethics anthology I’ve come across in years of teaching ethics. In particular, I’m very pleased by the first section of the book. Singer’s first section is organized not around the question “what is ethics?”, presenting the students with a collection of readings from the tradition presenting a variety of different ethical theories, but rather begins the text with the question “what are the origins of ethics?” “Where does ethics come from?” What follows are selections from Plato, Aristotle, Mencius, Hobbes, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Freud, Darwin, Gilligan, and others.

Why is this so important? It’s important because how we answer this question is going to have an important impact of how we conceive the project of ethics. If Mencius and Rouessea are right, and we are naturally good and only subsequently become bad, then we will focus on producing environments that allow natural goodness to express themselves (Mencius) or reforming and abolishing those social institutions that undermine our natural goodness (Rousseau). If Thrasymachus is right and “morality is the advantage of the more powerful”, then we will either be suspicious of all moral claims, seeing them as tools deployed by the powerful to exploit the week, or finding ways to create “moral” tools to better exploit the powerful. The question of the origin of ethics makes a tremendous difference as to what ethics is about.

read on!

Today, in class, we started in with Socrates’ encounter with Thrasymachus. Thrasymachus, of course, is notorious in all subsequent philosophy for having dared suggest that morality doesn’t really exist at all, that the social world is composed entirely of struggles for power and advantage, and that morality is merely a tool that the ruling powers use to dupe that weak into acting against their own advantage and on behalf of the advantage of the strong, believing their actions to be “good”. Although we all have a fun time pointing out all the problems with Thrasymachus’ conception of “justice”, the “good”, and “morality”, I think we also laugh nervously whenever we encounter this theory. It seems uncomfortably close to the awful truth of the world in many circumstances.

To illustrate Thrasymachus’s thesis, I drew on the examples of patriotism and fairness and the flat tax. The key question for anyone who thinks like Thrasymachus is always going to be “who benefits from the belief that x is good?” Many believe that patriotism is good and is a duty. Thrasymachus, I think, would ask “who benefits from patriotism?” And the answer of course, would be war profiteers who make money through the deregulation of national businesses and resources (this was among Bremer’s first moves following the invasion of Iraq), as well as those who make money from the production of weapons and all those contractors that provide support to the military. If people are patriotic, they will be more likely to join the military and support war, therefore creating these fertile business opportunities. And, of course, it’s those that go to war that risk their lives and stand to lose the most. Their conception of the good here ends up working against their advantage.

The case is similar with concepts of fairness and that application of the concept of fairness and equality: the ever popular American idea of a “flat tax”. Rather than having graduated taxes where the wealthiest pay more than the middle and working class, the flat tax would have everyone pay exactly the same percentage of their income in taxes (such a policy was also among the first things implemented by Bremer following the take-over of Iraq). Although this would lead to the wealthiest paying a smaller portion in taxes than they’re now paying, the idea is that this is nonetheless fair. Why should the wealthy pay a greater portion of the income than the middle class and the working class? Kant’s categorical imperative dictates that we should treat all people the same.

Again, the question is that of who here benefits. And once again, it is the wealthy. And boy do they benefit! The wealthy arguable benefit more from government than do average folk. They have greater access to elected officials and are therefore more equipped to have contracts thrown their way and legislation enacted that works to their benefit (here in Texas, for example, we’re in a “Right to Work” state that gives disproportionate power to owners and management, making it far more difficult for employees to lobby for better wages, more benefits, and better working conditions). The wealthy get top notch infrastructure in the form of, for example, highways that allow them to transport their goods. They get an educated and skilled populace that provides them with great employees. They get all sorts of tax breaks, even when they offshore their production. They get a military and law enforcement that protects their interests. And, indeed, the American navy often accompanies oil tankers and container ships off the shores of Somolia and also guards some of the most productive ocean oil rigs off the coast of Iraq, protecting oil tankers as they fill up. Big business benefits far more from government, infrastructure, and military than average citizens and therefore should give back more. However, if we can convince people that a very abstract notion of fairness is “good”, then we can get average citizens to support “fairness” in tax structures, leading them to enact policies that work against their own welfare. Again, Thrasymachus’s thesis.

What really surprised me was that for many students, this way of talking and thinking about talk about values came as something of a revelation. It seems that it had never occurred to them that talk about values, morality, the good, etc., in the public field can, in fact, be a tool for domination and exploitation. In other words, for a number of my students it seems that it had not occurred to them to ask “who benefits?” Given our media saturated environment, this is a rather frightening thought.

In its own way, however, it’s also somewhat heartening. I tend to think that “evil is in the eye of the beholder.” Now, it’s important to understand what I mean by this. When I say “evil is in the eye of the beholder” I am not saying that one person’s evil is another person’s good and one person’s good is another person’s evil. I am not making a claim about the relativity of evil. What I am saying is that the eye that sees evil everywhere in the world is the eye of the person that harbors malice within himself. The person sees reflected in the world the nature of their own desires, motives, and wants projected outwards. Beware those people you encounter that are perpetually denouncing everyone else. The fact that there seemed to be so little cynicism among many of my students, that there was such an absence of “critical consciousness”, suggests that these are good hearted people. They don’t see malice in the words and actions of others because they don’t harbor that sort of malice within themselves. Of course, this raises all sorts of frustrating questions about how to avoid being exploited when we see the world through this sort of good hearted lens.

At any rate, Thrasymachus’s thesis as to the origins of morality is probably the best place to begin an introduction to ethics class, precisely because he describes the world as it largely appears to be. Thrasymachus poses the ethical problem par excellence and what any and all ethical theories must respond to: The question of how we distinguish between talk of ethicals that is merely a cynical tool for exploiting people and what, if it exists, is genuinely ethical. A number of my students said “but what if I act for genuinely altruistic and good hearted motives?” This still doesn’t quite get us off the hook does it, for the powerful fill us with beliefs about the ethical and the good, precisely with the aim of exploiting us. In other words, even if we hold that our beliefs are ardently our own, that they are that which constitute our most intimate core of convictions, these beliefs still often come from elsewhere and can function as tools that lead us to act against ourselves. Isn’t it interesting, for example, that in fundamentalist discourses the economic dimensions of Jesus’s thought are perpetually downplayed such that we hardly hear anything about them at all, while focus is always directed at the meek and the “deviant” (homosexuals and “loose, single women” in the United States). Isn’t this a way of bringing people to think they are doing good in fighting these things, while ignoring what is truly obscene?