Normative Ethics III

I still have some difficulty in figuring out the problem about normative ethics expressed on the Abhinavagupta forum. There is obviously something that bugs people, but I cannot make out what it is.

1. First, about the counter evidence. If the Indian film censor board is a statutory body, then it derives its powers from the laws that have brought such an entity into being. Its tasks (viz. whether it is an advisory organ or can enforce its decisions, for instance) would be defined by the laws that govern such an entity and the same laws should also make it clear what ‘obscenity’ is. (Assuming that such an entity has the task of censoring ‘obscenity’.) Establishing such an entity tells us something about the conceptions regarding the state and underlying such conceptions would be some normative doctrine about the relation between the state and citizens. (For instance it could be about the state guarding the ‘public morality’ or the educative role of the state or whatever else.)

2. Even if the Censor board functions as the ‘moral police’, this role is circumscribed and defined by the law. As such, they are stipulations made by the law-giver and the obligatory character of such stipulations has to do with the nature of laws and not with the nature of ethics.

3. There is only one way to recognize an ethical statement and that is by looking at its linguistic structure. Invariably, such statements make use of the word ‘ought’. This ‘ought’ is the moral ought and we can recognize that it is a ‘moral ought’ because of its logical and linguistic properties. Examples are many: one ought not to kill a fellow human being; one ought not to torture human beings; one ought to respect fellow human beings; and so on. These are the norms that ‘ought’ to govern human conduct. The presence of such norms in a human community does not tell us anything about whether these norms also, in fact, do govern the behavior of the members of such a community.

4. One could always ask the question ‘why ought I follow such norms?’ Answering this question is to answer questions either about the foundation of individual norms or about the foundation of ethics. There are many answers available about the foundation of ethics: from the answer that they are God’s commandments to the claim that we have biologically inherited them through the evolutionary process. Individual norms could be justified by referring to the consequences of following or not following such norms, or by reflecting about the nature of ethical rules or whatever else.

5. These norms, as their formulations make clear, are considered valid independent of time, place, culture and person. ‘One ought not to kill a fellow human being’, period. Because of their generality, application of such norms to the unique individual situations always require interpretations: what does ‘to kill’ mean? Would the killing of, say, Hitler, when he was thirty years old, an immoral or a moral act? Or what does ‘respect’ mean? etc. Such discussions are ethical discussions that involve evaluations of actions using some or another moral norm. Such discussions could make use of some or another theory about the nature and foundation of moral norms and thus might or might not justify the action, say, of killing Hitler when he was thirty years old.

6. Even though we express such norms in some or another natural language, the claim is not that language is the foundation of moral norms. There exist many theories in the market place that explain the origin of moral norms: our ‘conscience’; God’s commandments; their usefulness to society; their consequences to the character of those who follow them… Using such norms, one judges some or another action as either good or bad or morally neutral. Of course, as I said already, the general nature of these norms require interpretation whenever we have a unique action to judge.

7. Let me formulate the above in the form of simple statements. Western ethics (both religious and secular ethics) makes the following claims. (a) Human beings formulate moral judgments; (b) These judgments are guided by criteria; (c) These criteria are moral norms; (d) Such norms, when formulated explicitly, make use of the ‘moral ought’; (e) These ‘oughts’ have recognizable logical and linguistic properties; (f) Ethical discussions are mostly about the defensibility of such moral norms; (g) These norms are universalizable, i.e. they ‘ought’ to hold independent of time, place, person, and culture.

8. Almost every English-educated Indian claims to understand the above 7 paragraphs. Many such people would also claim that these paragraphs are true. It is my suggestion that such people misunderstand the above paragraphs even though they claim the opposite. We are so profoundly bewitched by the western culture and so thoroughly insulated from our own culture that, when we put on the hat of intellectuals, we become ignorant of our own ignorance.

Let me add a few more theorems I will be proving in my book:

(a) Western normative ethics is a subset of Indian (Asian) non-normative thought;

(b) Under special assumptions, and as a limiting condition, normative ethics is derivable from non-normative moral thinking. That is, Indian non-normative ethics is richer than the western normative ethics;

(c) Western thinking claims that it is the nature of ethical thought to be normative. I prove the opposite.

(d) Moral laws are assumed to hold universally. That is, it is supposed to be context, person, time, and person-independent. I show that this is not a linguistic or logical fact about ethical statements but a result of secularization of Christianity (and is compatible with Judaism and Islam).

And so on.