Ethics is in many ways the most frustrating and powerful of intellectual endeavours. Most people intuitively recognise it as essential, and a foundation for human civilisation, but it remains elusive and slippery; easy to understand emotionally, but seemingly all but impossible to define rationally.
Traditionally, ethics has been defined as a general call to good behaviour. In the ancient world, it was more art than science; “goodness” was like the skill of a great doctor; half intuition, half reason and evidence, and flexible to changing symptoms and circumstances. The main virtues tended to be adjectives: Prudence, honour, justice, courage and so on.
In the medieval world, Thomas Aquinas blended Biblical and Aristotelian thought to produce a theory of ethics that determined right from wrong according to his conception of the nature of man — a precursor of Objectivist ethics. For Aquinas, murder was wrong because life is necessary, and therefore depriving someone of life was evil.
Early modernity gave us various flavours of universality, from Kant’s categorical imperative to the “all men are created equal” doctrines of the Founding Fathers. In the nineteenth century, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill developed utilitarianism, or the idea that an action was best if it produced the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Nietzsche’s deconstruction of Christian morality, the horrors of twentieth century totalitarianism and the growing skepticism regarding traditional Christian ethics gave birth to post-modernism, which produced the simultaneous paradoxes of political correctness and moral relativism.
Moralists claim that they want people to be good, and to achieve that end, they generally invent or describe a carrot and a stick. The carrot in the ancient world was happiness, which was the root of the then-surprising Soctratic doctrine that it was better to suffer injustice than to commit it, since committing injustice harmed the soul. For Aristotle, morality produced eudaimonia, or the good life, which included happiness. Other ancient philosophers rejected the equation “reason equals virtue equals happiness,” while others still — Epicurus in particular — argued that happiness was the true goal of philosophy, not just the result of virtue.
Thus most ancient philosophers encouraged people to be good by promising them secular happiness.
Most theologians, however, encourage people to be good by promising them an eternal existence of bliss after death — the ultimate carrot.
Philosophers, however, like nutritionists, know that good advice is not always heeded. One central challenge of moral philosophy is that only people who already want to be good study it — and those who want to be good are rarely evil to begin with. Thus moral texts are like diet books for thin people; evil people rarely study morality, so philosophers end up preaching to the choir, effecting little change in the immorality of those who need virtue the most. The carrot for virtue is happiness; the stick for evil is misery and punishment.
In the secular world, the carrot is freedom; the stick is incarceration and a permanent record.
Thus moralists bribe uncertain virtue with happiness, heaven, and freedom from imprisonment; the punishments for evil are misery, hell, and prison.
The first of these punishments requires a conscience, resulting in self-attack; the other two require an external agency — a punitive deity or avenging magistrate.
The combination of psychological reward and physical punishment is a tale as old as morality itself. Both the Sumerian Farmer’s Almanac and the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope advise farmers to leave some grain for poor gleaners, and promise favours from the gods in return.
This carrot and stick approach does not seem strange to us, but only because it’s been around for so long. Anything old is always suspect; as Nietzsche says:
All things that live long are gradually so saturated with reason that their origin in unreason thereby becomes improbable.
Two trends in historical ethics
In the history of ethics, two tendencies or trends stand out in particular. The first is that compared to other universal disciplines like biology, physics, engineering and medicine, ethics has made remarkably little progress in over two and a half thousand years. War, national debts, government counterfeiting, taxation, indoctrination, unjust imprisonment, arms sales, tariffs — all these (to name just a few) remains arguably as bad if not worse now than they were in the ancient world. Some advances seem to have been made; the abolition of overt slavery, growing equality for women, and a very slow recognition of the equal rights of children, but there may be another reason for this supposed progress, which will be examined further.
Think of the Old Testament commandment: “Thou shalt not murder.” Moses received these, according to some estimates, in the thirteenth century BC. Thus Judeo-Christian ethics has been attempting to curb murder for over three thousand years — how is the program going? Well, in the twentieth century alone, over a quarter of a billion people were murdered by their own governments — not including wars. This is the result of over three millennia of trying to restrain murder — this is a failure beyond measure.
The second trend worth noting in the history of ethics is that conformity to ethical norms is surrounded by hysterical threats and bribes — heaven, hell, joy, misery, freedom, cages… This only seems normal because it is so pervasive. Let’s compare ethics to science, to see how strange ethical ‘arguments’ really are. Imagine a scientific journal arguing that you have to accept the general theory of relativity in order to achieve happiness and eternal bliss after death — and if you reject it, you will be hurled in jail, and shot if you resist, and after you die, ghosts will torment you for all eternity in a bottomless lake of fire!
Hysterical bribes and punishments generally occur when something underhanded is going on. I am certain that two and two make four, and that the Earth goes around the Sun, and that gravity is a very real phenomenon — I don’t need to threaten and bribe anyone who disagrees with these basic facts. If I do feel the urge to bribe and threaten, surely it’s because I am uncertain of the truth of my beliefs.
How on earth did these very strange systems come about?
The origin of ethics
Whenever we examine something, the first place to start is its origins. Before asking why we should be good, let’s ask why goodness was invented in the first place. We can be sure that ‘ethics’ do not exist in the world, at least in the same way that rocks and trees do. Many people make the mistake that non-existence equals subjectivity, but nothing could be further from the truth. The scientific method does not exist in tangible reality, but it is the exact opposite of subjectivity. Equations and numbers do not exist in reality, but this does not make the discipline of mathematics subject to every random whim of the moment.
If a particular discipline has failed at its specific goal, but has continued for thousands of years, we must look at what other goal it is actually achieving. For instance, all moral systems ban murder, and yet over a quarter of a billion people were murdered by their governments over the last century — not even including wars. If we include wars, the total could reach close to half a billion.
Moral theories have aimed to eliminate murder for almost three millennia; the result has been a century of the highest body count in the history of mankind.
This is not success.
Moral systems have also tried to eliminate theft from society, what has been the result of thousands of years of work to this end? So, counting national debts and unfunded liabilities — not to mention endless financial scandals — the last hundred years have seen the greatest levels of theft in all of human history.
Normally, when something fails so catastrophically for so many thousands of years, we would tend to question it. If something which fails so obviously is never questioned, it is because it is succeeding at its real objective.
So — what is the real objective of ethics? Two characteristics of ethical systems constantly emerge — the first is that they claim universality, and the second is that they create exceptions for those in power.
Socrates argued that the majority were ignorant fools, and knew that laws came from the will of the majority, but argued that morality demanded obedience to the laws.
Aristotle, as a good empiricist, knew that morality could not be reduced to legality and like Locke was less of a foe to civil disobedience than Plato was — not that that would be hard — but he still accepted the rule of the minority in the form of the State.
As the ultimate universalist, Immanuel Kant demanded that all moral commandments be absolute and universal — but also that citizens had to obey the commandments of their rulers.
Morality is always portrayed as universal — but exceptions which are not explicitly defined are always made for the ruling classes. Martin Luther tried to square the Biblical moral circle of “an eye for an eye” versus “turn the other cheek” by saying that the former principle applied to the King punishing his subjects, while the latter was required of subjects, but even if they were being unjustly punished by the King.
“Thou shalt not steal” — versus “render unto Ceaser what is Ceaser’s.”
“Thou shalt not kill” versus “Onward Christian soldiers.”
Universal moral rules apply to citizens, but exclude rulers — and this exclusion is almost never described, except for some theists, who fall back on the excuse that God places rulers over mankind.
God himself commands “thou shalt not kill” — and then slaughters almost all the world in the great flood.
Universal moral rules are for citizens; rulers not only can, but must do the opposite, to be moral — but this complete reversal of moral rules is rarely if ever touched on, let alone explained.
The reason for this, of course, is simple. Once you create moral exceptions, you break universality, and thus you are no longer talking about morality, but obedience to power.
How can we explain this very bizarre — but almost universally consistent — aspect of moral theories? How can we explain that they are presented as universal, while opposite exceptions are always made for the ruling classes?
Well, shocking though it may seem, the answer is quite simple — morality was not invented to promote goodness among mankind, but to make the evil of our rulers more profitable. Imagine that you are the only thief in the world; your occupation would be pretty easy, since no one would bother locking their doors, protecting their goods and money, so you could just wander around taking whatever you wanted.
The easier a thief’s life is, the more people want to become thieves — this trend swells the ranks of the nimble-fingered until growing punishments and protections make thieving less and less profitable.
On the other hand, if everyone becomes a thief, everyone starves, since no one produces anything.
If you can become a thief and escape punishment, that is very efficient and attractive. If you can become a thief and have everyone send their money to you, rather than having to get off your throne and pilfer it yourself, that is even more attractive! If you can reclassify your theft as virtuous — through inventing the word “taxation,” say — that is the most attractive of all!
Thus the most efficient way to become a thief is to convince everyone else not to steal, while reserving for yourself the right to steal. If you can convince others that stealing is evil for them, but virtuous for you, you will truly have it made.
This is the most rational explanation for the history and development of almost all ethical systems.
The most important thing to remember in this context is that there is no such thing as an objective history of anything — particularly ethics and philosophy. The history of philosophy is really the history of philosophers who served the interests of those in power. Until quite recently — in particular with the advent of the Internet — philosophers could only speak and publish with the express permission of the ruling classes. (More recently, this hard censorship has been somewhat displaced by the soft censorship of grants and tenure.) Thinkers who went against the grain of heavily-propagandised prejudice also found few adherents.
Since it is most profitable to steal when you can convince others to respect property rights, those philosophers who encouraged universal morality to the general citizenry, while promoting the exact opposite behaviour among the ruling classes, were in general the most popular and famous philosophers.
Ethics requires universality, but if universality is extended to include the ruling classes, the ruling classes are demolished, since now none can justly steal or murder. If we understand the history of ethics to be “propaganda which makes evil more profitable for the ruling classes” — and that claiming universality is the most effective way to promote that end, then taking universality seriously is very dangerous indeed. Taking a tool of enslavement and turning it into a tool for liberation is like trying to grab a gun from a mugger.
Thus when you say “taxation is theft,” you are met with confusion, fear and hostility. The phrase “taxation is theft” directly contradicts the central purpose of historical morality, which is to argue that “theft is bad for citizens” but that “paying taxes is a virtue.” Initiating force to transfer property is evil for us, but virtuous and necessary for our rulers. Theft is universally wrong, but universally right for the rulers. It is universal and not universal at the same time. Theft is both evil and good at the same time — and this contradiction can never be explicitly identified, save by the very few and largely unknown. Counterfeiting is evil for you, but good for the rulers. Profiting from indebting others is evil for you, but virtuous for the rulers. Can you think of other examples?
Thus has historical ethics done its job serving the rulers at the expense of everyone else, for many thousands of years, claiming countless lives in the process.