Is a Science of Ethics Possible

From The Righteous State
by Severin Christensen

5.—Is a Science of Ethics possible?

Can Ethics be called a science? About this there are very diverse views. If one should judge from the confused condition up till now, when almost on a daily basis new moral systems appear, leading to a never resting war among those already established, one rather gets the impression that Ethics is a collection of personal opinions more than a general thesis build on scientific research. But it would not be right to be staying by this phenomenon, since it could be a historical coincidence and imperfection. Of far more interest it is to look at this from behind and ask: is there any principle obstacle to hinder that an ethical science could be proposed?

The answer must be: no, there could be an ethical science, if one had the courage with a rash cut to take away all the personal-coincidal, which until now has been connected to the so-called moral rules and teachings. If instead of aiming at “the highest good”, the ideal, the useful etc. – all of them goals, which are individually determined – the ethical purpose was looked at as a universal, limited interest, a naturally defined field of research and furthermore the central in the perceptions of moral at all times. If one still could show, at the ethical rules for acting, which such a moral teaching decreed, were tied closely to a determination of said aim, that they in other words expressed a natural social law, and if such rules of actions could finally be worded in such a way that they shaped truly objective norms (rules of action), valid in all instances without exception and practically applicable, then such a moral teaching would hour all conditions to be deemed scientific.

But until now the title Ethics have been misused as an attic of a number of very uneven and personally coloured themes. As such no one has distinguished between what human beings rightfully could ask of each other (an objectively assessable figure), and what de could wish from others (something completely subjective).

Let us take an example:

My doorbell is sounded. A man is standing outside and presents me with a gas-bill. I pay it, and he leaves. A moment later, the doorbell goes again. Now, it is a man, who asks for a contribution to a children’s institution. Is it not possible for everyone to see, that there is a world of difference between these two claims? In the first instance it is a legitimate claim, in the second it is a request. And even if I should feel obliged to honour them both, is there not a glaring difference in the sentiment, by which I do it? In the first instance I feel bound to pay; I acknowledge, that I am in debt, and that the man has a legitimate claim on me, since I realize that if such a claim is not honoured, all social co-existence becomes impossible. In the second instance I am very much feeling free in another sense; if I supply a bit it is only because of willingness to do so, that I do it; I do not acknowledge that I am obliged to, so that one legitimately can come and demand it of me, or that social co-existence is determined by my doing so. And this completely independent of, whether the present purpose really is, what it is said to be: a worthwhile philanthropic aim. Even though no doubts about the usefulness exist, I still feel free to decide. Is it not obvious how confusing it is to treat these two situations from the same point of view? And not just confusing to the layman, but also unscientific, since science is based on recognition of nuance and strict order. But to bundle demand and devotion, duty and ideal action together goes directly against scientific strife in all other fields.

The purpose which an objective morality aims at is the peaceful, confident co-existence between people, who have no special relations to one another (friends, family, special sympathy and such). That this is a universal aim, is immediately obvious; it does not need proof, and neither can it be used as evidence. Since this is, what has been called “an ultimate purpose”, an interest which lies deeply rooted in human nature, and which cannot be diverted by others or merged with others. To deliver “proof” of a deepest-lying mental basis of feelings is a contradiction, and such a requirement is also not demanded in other sciences. To economy, for instance, material wellbeing is the ultimate aim, but one does not demand that such an aim should be proven (i.e. its logical truth be demonstrated). No, one simply convinces oneself that this is just as universally important to human life than any other purpose to practical science (for instance, bodily health, security against crimes etc.), and thus worthy of a scientific treatment.

And the characteristic of this is, whether these aims are actually strived for. It is life itself, which points out what should be the aim of scientific treatment. In the moment when it is obvious at the social relation of confidence really has a worth, which people universally aims at, in that moment the aim is a worthy object to science. Then it becomes he task of the “practical science” to find a method, which according to experience invariably realises this aim; that which makes it possible to bring forth solid basic principles for its decisions.

To prove this supposition, which we in this text bring forth, that a very certain determination between the principle of justice and the abovementioned aim exists, for instance, there could be pointed to the importance, which the development in trade has had on the social co-existence. The progress of trade from barter to credit defines a continuously growing respect for the importance of the meaning of equal compensation, and it turns out that everywhere when this respect comes forth, the co-existence becomes easier and more complete. The most everyday experience concludes that if a promise is broken, inevitably it will lead to that the one, who gave the promise, in the future will be mistrusted by those, who received the promise. A new promise will not very easily be built on personal assurance alone, but will need more real guaranties. The one, who once has been disappointed, will also easier mistrust others, his confidence has once and for all been shaken, which damages the co-existence in wider circles.

If an finished work is paid over its value, the payer will suffer a likewise loss. Since it is physically impossible to overpay all work, a comprehensive overpayment will inevitably lead to that some get too little, and that co-operation comes to a stop.

If a work is underpaid, the worker will suffer an equivalent loss. He will seek to move to somewhere, which offers him a full compensation. Should it be tried to keep the salary down through co-operation between employers, it will lead to a continued state of war between the two parties, i.e. actually away from social community, or the employee will break the co-operation to try to work on his own.

Is good and bad work paid alike, it will after a shorter or longer term lead to that the good work no longer is achieved.

In the co-operative industry it is perhaps more observable than anywhere else that even the least derivation from the legitimate output paralyses the solidarity. Any loss, which weakens the society, weakens each member, any breach of promise by a single member brings insecurity into the whole life of the society and paralyses its appearance to the outer world; any promise, which is kept, any secret, which is preserved, strengthens the totality.

The social co-operation rests first and last on mutual confidence to the sense of justice in each other. No declaration concerning the output of work, no trade can be put in effect, no promises can be given or contracts be signed, if the parties do not fully trust that the other party will deliver full value according to the rule of measure for measure. The mutuality or the compensation is the daily bread of social life.

The natural tendency, which spurs each individual to seek his losses compensated, and which we find in every single society independently (“what is lost to the outwards, must be regained inwards”), must in the mutual relations between more come to expression in the request of measure for measure, since this is the only method, how losses on either side can be avoided. When the relation is hostile, violent reparation is sought for the losses, the surroundings cause to the organism; in the peaceful co-existence the declarations (in trade, contracts etc.) aim at voluntary compensation in the form of measure for measure. Wherever the social forms of co-existence are investigated, one will find them based on this principle; all forms of business, primitive as well as developed, all exchange of values, be it either in cash or through means of credit, all promises, all working deals rest silently or openly on this. And it must rest on this, if not one of the parties should receive a loss; a principle which led to predominantly risk that one party or the other would get the worst of it, could never be maintained as a universal social principle.

So experience gives us a wealth of examples, how just, even compensation creates solid, open, trustworthy ways of co-existence. Therefore, it can be considered settled from experience that determination controls this area. But furthermore we understand the connection, since this law based on experience can be derived from the universal underlying natural urge within the organism, that under no circumstances shall it suffer a loss, not even when it seeks co-operation with others. Securing this is the preliminary minimal condition to go ahead with a peaceful co-operation. By that the rule of measure for measure received an objective universal character as the key to all connections which are not built on special interests; the only norm which can objectively be articulated, and which can be expected preliminary to be condoned by all, who without any special preconditions are asked to co-operate.

Axel Dam articulates it like this[1]: “The moral of justice could on the other hand turn out to be the universal and necessary, if maxims (solid rules) for co-existence are, what is wanted, since they principally are minimal demands for a peaceful co-existence, necessary and universal conditions not for this or that individually wanted sort of welfare or the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, but the necessary and universal condition to have the greatest number of people, which is everybody, freely can create and exhort the greatest possible happiness and welfare, which the individual possibly can, which is the one which is possible without obstructing the strive for happiness by others. The objective validity of the legal claim does not only lie in their reciprocity, but that the reciprocity is inherent in them… respect for the rights of others is the price I must pay to have my own right respected… mutual robbery, violation is a matter in itself collapsing senselessness, mutual tutelage likewise. But also mutual self-sacrifice is it… the question as to whether there should be an objective moral or not is therefore the same as whether one wants to recognize the legal principle or not; any other objective morality does not exist, since it is an expression of the only possible form of objectivity in the various rules for human co-existence, that is full reciprocity: measure for measure.”

That the legal principle really is the only principle, which invariably has this effect on co-existence, could at first sight seem rash. Cannot just one of the abundant moral orders, laws and prescripts, which through the centuries have been upheld and kept by religious tradition or scientific authority claim to a similar experiential considerate influence as the legal principle? When it says: you shall honour your father and mother, you shall not commit fornication, you shall (always, and under all circumstances) speak the truth, you shall love your neighbour etc., how could these specific theses not just as well give grounds as that fundamental principle? Not in front of a universal and constant aim of undisturbed passing by the ways of co-existence. Those writers, who attribute such sentences the same moral importance as the principle of duty, have let themselves be led astray by their high degree of constancy. For instance, Buckle[2] presumes, that they are eternal laws related to the natural laws: “There is nothing in the world which has experienced so little change as the great dogma, from which the moral systems have been concocted. To good onto others, to love thy neighbour as thyself, to forgive your enemy, to tamper your desires and demands etc.; these and a few others are the only main claims of moral; but they have been known through thousands of years, and not one spot or jot has been added to them.” If Buckle had gone back yet another couple of thousand years, which has nothing to say in such matters, he would have found that not a single one of these aforementioned dogmas were given, which not at a given time had had the opposite subject matter. To do evil to others, to hate your neighbour, to take revenge on your enemies, to follow your least desires and demands – all this had in its time been at least as durable dogmas as those, which Buckle calls “the only main claims of moral”, and there are no guarantee for the future in that respect. Earlier, it was moral to abandon children, now it is not just immoral not to guard and care for them, but to neglect their spiritual development; abortion is nowadays plainly considered immoral, and are there any limit to the moral prescripts about incest? It is hardly saying too much that every human condition goes through the complete scale of what in reality is fathomable, and everything is at a given time moral.

One has to dig deeper, if one wants to find principles which unconditionally defy the ravages of time. Not a single one of the aforementioned claims, without pointing to the closest dependence of time and place can be determined. Take instead a rule like this: you must keep your word, adhere to your duties! How far one goes back in time and civilisation, not one single society can be found, in which a break of this principle would count as a virtue. When Lubbock mentions a few tribes, which are “without sense of moral”, he only backs it up by referring to that murder, robbery and such are the order of the day, he does not distinguish between the characteristics, which make co-existence brutal, and characteristics, which would make that impossible; one would certainly be hard pressed to find just one society on earth, in which breech of promise would be considered something laudable.

At fulfil ones duties is a rule, which enjoy renown unaffected by time and place, even though the method varies. What seems more diametrically opposite that the rule, which suggests bloody revenge over manslaughter, and the one which suggests peaceful reconciliation, and yet both subscribe to the notion of duty as in a higher unity. Time and place lead to shifts in the assessment of values, men to no cancellation of the principle of assessment itself. So when people in a distant time only can be satisfied by bloody reparation, but a people of a later time receive money and refrain from violent reciprocation, it lies in different assessment of personal, bodily perspective and economical gain. But in both cases the utmost consideration is taken to the relation of guilt. This historically provable unyieldingness by the power of the place and time can only help to sustain the impression, one may have received of the unfailing nature in the duty of a universal and constant aim: we are facing a principle, which conditions the human co-operation in itself; irrespective of the actual circumstances, irrespective of which level of civilisation, the community could not exist, if it was cast aside. Something like that cannot be proved in the case of the so-called moral rules, since we find exceptions for them all even in societies, which is at the top of its flowering, and which lead comprehensive co-operative lives.

Had Buckle’s eye caught this principle, he would have been right in wondering about the constant nature of moral, and he could safely had gone back as many thousand years in history, he would have been able to; how far he would have gone back, and how much he would have gone to the sides – overall he would have met this principle working. But since he only glanced at the singular isolated moral rules, that should rather be cause for wonder, and it can only be ascribed to his restriction to later epochs that he has not found their great variability surprising. Instead, the so-called historical school of Ethics has had a very different eye for the changeability, so much so at it, wherever it turns its eye, only sees variable moral rules and as a result of that refuses that any absolute character of moral truths can be given independent of the historical development. What is right depends of the purposes, it says, the purposes change constantly. It overlooks that aims are given, which are biologically provided and close-knit with the living conditions of the family.

Neither Buckle nor the historical school are therefore right; both fail from a kind of short-sightedness, as they only point their interest towards the arbitrary form of single moral quotes and overlook that with the for all times unchangeable aims there can be given and is given just as unchangeable principles of action, which based on experience lead to these ends, that both aim as well as means are borne by all forms of co-existence, even the most varied, the in time and place most deviant.

All these attempts to present these many admonitions of doing good unto others, to honour your father and your mother, to love thy neighbour as thyself, to forgive your enemies, to tamper your desires and demands, to work for welfare to so many as possible etc. as universal demands will on the other hand be completely hopeless; but this was exactly an important condition to be allowed to be part of a scientific Ethics.

To avoid any fathomable misconception it must insistently be sustained that I in the above written only mean to have pointed out that the un-rightful actions have many natural possibilities to destroy the social co-existence. Since actually one could object that the determination mentioned not can be proved in every single case. It is often the case, one would say, that the one, who lies, will be believed, and that co-operation with him goes just as smoothly; and such cases will be shown to us.

This does not, however, refute the determination, since the proposal does not go any further that the one who speaks the truth through that is naturally conditioned towards co-operating in a satisfactorily manner, and that the one, who gives improper compensation by doing so has done a deed in harm of the co-operation. What it does not talk about is which elements apart from these which could also influence it. If cause and effect should be considered the various elements which are part of the specific actions must be kept apart, pure examples must be analysed; only that way scientific experiences can be gained. In an area like this, in which experimental research is difficult the experiences must be dealt with very meticulously. If one takes care of this it will never be possible to demonstrate that lying, cheating or underpayment should safeguard co-existence; it would be found out that what makes many forgeries to apparent exceptions are that other elements are added to the mix. As such it is only these who are excellent at lying and cheats warily, who apparently comes to make an exception, but that is not by lying or cheating in itself, that he delivers an exception; it is by his ability to simulate truth and honesty which makes it possible for him to muddle up the naked effect of the fraud.

The one who wants to interpret a single experience in the opposite direction is prone to lift the evidence that no other elements have played a part so that what happened has become muddled and it has become impossible to keep the just elements and other moments, which have hidden it, isolated from each other; it is also possible that the effect (and the cause for it) has been so poor that because of this it has been impossible to observe. But a reaction can be present even though it cannot be observed. It can be deducted that a single drop wholes out a stone even though it cannot be seen, when one knows that 100.000 drops do the trick.

That the fraudulent tendency in itself (the tendency which hidden behind a mask of honesty is to supply too little) should have any effect, which normally benefits the co-existence we consider impossible to prove. That the forgery can bring with it some personal advantages if it is carried through in a sufficiently cautious manner might be proven – never that it could accomplish social advantages. Since sociality is not a benefit to you or me it is a benefit to the mutual co-operation, the function in itself. One might be able to as a principle for the fulfilment of certain personal desires to produce the sentence: be careful to cheat so well, that is as cautiously as possible! As a principle of progress in social co-operation one cannot produce it. The one who cheats does two things: objectively, he unsettles the material balance between the two parties; then he even more masks it. But it can in no way be demonstrated that a single one of these two acts or that they collectively have effects, which are of a nature to benefit co-existence.

Furthermore we proposed the claim that the principle should be able to formulate as a universal rule for action which demonstrates a secure objective means to the end and not just leaves the acting party to support him on a subjective estimate.

All Ethicists agree that it is not sufficient to an ethic to propose a universal aim for our deeds. Whether one defines the purpose as welfare for as many as possible or as the consolidation of the social matter of trust it is necessary to impose one or more maxims as a guideline for ones decisions in each case. The purpose of these maxims is to define more precisely the characteristics of the kind of means which always lead to the end. This is a necessity, demanded by practice. The individual will not always alone be able to unravel the determination between a certain act and its ethical purpose. He must possess a descriptive mark by which he can measure his acts and which can be an unfailing mark of to acknowledge that he is on the right track. This descriptive mark has experience once and for all determined and expressed in the maxim so that it without further ado can be used.

As we demand that the maxim only expresses such characteristics of the act, which is determining the aim, this will just mean that the maxim is completely trustworthy as a means to the end and allows no exception. Such an obvious condition to a moral principle has the current ethical systems not dared to demand.

The demand must in other words not be less than that a moral principle, which will claim to be universal must be built on a natural law. What is a natural law? As not to use some rash use of scientific expressions let us stay with the explanation from John Stuart Mill. It is custom in science, he says, that when some kind of regularity is observed the sentence which describes the nature of this regularity is called a law; but the expression natural law is used about the regularities in nature, which cannot be reduced to more common laws.

Now there is no doubt that we are inclined to call the determination between honest ways of acting (according to the principle of compensation) and peaceful confident co-operation for such a natural law. We just have to remember what we sustained above, that premonitions cannot be done because we are in a field, where so many different sources cross each other. We can go no further than to conclude from the laws of human nature used in a specific condition of society that a certain cause will work in a specific direction, if it is not counteracted. In a similar way it relates to economy, for instance. It considers people to be only interested in acquisition and use of wealth and it can explain and predict which way of acting the people in society would choose if this motive was the only relevant one.

The ethical rules use a quite similar limitation. Since the research must as far as possible isolate the cases and assume certain tendencies exclusive to human nature it can when it proposes a universal theory only speak about which tendency this or that way of acting will have; it cannot predict anything about the final result in this specific case, because of the collision between this and other tendencies. Therefore the objection, which has been voiced against the law of compensation, does not hold that it “could be suspended”. If a thought is hidden in this it must be that the influence of the compensation can b counteracted. But each of the specific forces of nature can be counteracted. The law on the other hand cannot be suspended, as true as each natural law can be rephrased to a hypothetical sentence: if the assumption is such and such, this and this will happen. Other natural laws cannot be traced either in physics or in the economic or ethical world.

But on the other side it can with assurance be assumed that the tendency unconditionally and inevitably works in every case. This is a consequence of the established determination; so that we always and unconditionally can trust the consequence of the action in this specific direction. This Stuart Mill seems to disparage, since he says that rules of conduct only are created for the most numerous cases or the most common, so that one not always can count on them. This is not true. If the rules are not universally applicable, that is if the prescribed tendency of an action is not always and unconditionally found it is because there is no true determination between end and cause; and then the theory is not incomplete or less ideal, but completely without merit and untrustworthy.

It the ethic does not merit to propose rules, which contain effects, we can trust without reservations; if the rules are not universally valid prescriptions (norms); if in other words they are not based on a determination, which is working in the most unlikely of circumstances – then it is not scientifically motivated.

In order to compare let us look at a principle like the one, that one should consider the welfare of as many as possible in all of ones acts. Is it possible to find universal rules for such actions? One has never seen them articulated, and that is also most likely never to happen. But that is a necessary condition for claims, which should meet universal recognition: that they can be articulated as a norm, which always because of an unbreakable determination in the interest of everybody leads to the known result. This condition has the welfare moral as little as other moral systems fulfilled. It has just been content by producing an aim of such a nature that it had to be left to each individual to understand from it as he best could and to find ways to it, as he was able to, instead of pointing to a cause of action, which always leads to the end.

Apart from this can it be seen that Stuart Mill openly admits to this lack in the means of action of the welfare moral. He says that they “are created for the most, and the most frequent cases”, that they just “shows the way, in which it is the least dangerous to act.” (Logic II). But it is also clear that when the purpose itself is so undecided and personally arbitrary as “the use”, then the principles of action, which leads us to it, even more be of an approximate kind.

Any claim necessarily aims at showing some degree of self-sacrifice. But how much self-sacrifice do the moral claims ask for? This is exactly where the current moral systems abandon us. Some take recourse in the tragic solution of demanding the highest degree of self-sacrifice, which is at all possible, if only it is useful. To the further misgivings of this claim comes the difficulty of answering the question: what is possible? That is subjectively diverse – so here we also do not arrive at some rule. Only the moral of justice fulfils the condition of giving motivated, objective indications of how much the claim should be.

That a system like the welfare moral has not been able to propose universal rules of action is of course rooted in the overall subjective character of its purpose. The one who asks of doing justice and pay ones debts has by this proposed a rule of action for the aim of social co-operation. That this can be done is because it is possible to objectively assess what the social co-operation consists of and to point to its conditions of existence. But it is not nearly as easy to agree on or prove what the welfare of the neighbour and the many others is. One comes and begs for a coin to an asylum for naughty children. How am I to know if this contribution will do most good or harm? Is it really useful that such institutions exist? Is it not rather harmful to put all the naughty children in the same place? Is the actual principal capable of running it? Etc. etc. In philanthropic matters it is not enough to follow the closest chain of effect and cause, as one is normally wont; it is the accumulated effects one must be able to judge. Often enough one sees how the so-called human effort of both private and public enterprise bites the dust, because they only look at the closest; effects which had not even been thought of turns up later and proves that it all was in vain. With most steps of this sort, one hardly knows what one is doing. To expect to do something good to anyone else such an enormous personal knowledge about the individuals and their circumstances are required, such a great foresight that it is more than preposterous to expect that claims from individuals to others about doing deeds aimed at such things should be respected. Does the best of all things require that I pay my tailor in due time or should I for once let him wait and spend the money on a stay in a sanatorium, so that I in the future can become of use? How can any person truly decide on this? But if a single person hardly can agree with himself in such matters about the “moral” action to take, how can one think that the principle of welfare should be of use as a claim onto others.

[1] Axel Dam: Livets værdiproblemer. Lectures at the University of Copenhagen 1921.

[2] H. Th. Buckle: Civilisationens historie i England.