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September 28, 2009

9:41 PM

The concepts of life, consciousness and volition are central to any ethical claim or system



The term ‘deontology’ may be taken to refer to the theoretical study and foundation of ethics, without initial preference for any particular ethical system; another term for this is ‘meta-ethics’. This philosophical discipline is concerned with the form, rather than the content of ethics – how ethical systems are structured, the logical forms and arguments used in them, how standards or norms might be first established (‘axiology’), and indeed all ontological and epistemological issues relative to ethical judgment.

Deontology will, for instance, emphasize that the concepts of life, consciousness and volition are central to any ethical claim or system.

  • Ethical discourse can only concern living beings. Inanimate entities (e.g. a table or a molecule) have nothing to lose – for their defining boundaries are fluid and arbitrarily set. We may break a diamond or disintegrate it – but ‘it’ has lost nothing. Living beings, on the other hand, have things to lose – their limb and life, which may be harmed or destroyed. A microbe is not just a mix of matter; kill it, and the matter remains but it no longer behaves as a living cell.
  • Ethical discourse is of no use to unconscious organisms, since they have no way to gain knowledge of it. We do consider that some things are conducive and others are detrimental to plants or microbes – but knowledge of such things concerns us, not the plants or microbes. Such knowledge tells us humans how to cultivate them, presumably so as to eat them or otherwise use them – so it is really a subset of human ethics. Animals can acquire knowledge of sorts, and so may conceivably learn facts or behavior (e.g. from their parents) that protects and furthers their life.
  • Ethical discourse presupposes volition. If the conscious organism has no volition, no ethical proposition concerning it is meaningful – since it can do nothing other than whatever it happens to be doing in the circumstances concerned anyway! Ethics is for organisms with freewill, meaning humans and higher animals.

Ultimately, of course, ethics is the prerogative of humans – who are not only alive and conscious and volitional, but moreover able to reason about ethics in general, to formulate and understand particular ethical propositions, and to monitor and manage their own behavior systematically. There is no point researching and writing an ethics, if the subject of it is unable to read it or follow it.

Imperatives, prohibitions, permissions and exemptions – all such statements, whatever their specific contents, logically presuppose an acceptance that the subject has some rationality and free will . It is absurd (self-contradictory) to make or imply statements like: “don’t refer to the concepts of consciousness or volition in your discourse” – since to say “do not” implies one has awareness and choice.

Of course, volition is something very hard to fully define and prove, because it is – like consciousness and like feelings – a primary object of experience. It is not like something else, to which it might be compared and reduced; it is something sui generis, a basic building block of experience. There is no logical basis for excluding volition from the realm of existence, just because it cannot be entirely described in terms of material or mental phenomena. It suffices to point out that it is something we experience distinctively (through ‘self-knowledge’, ‘introspective intuition’ or ‘apperception’ – however we choose to call it). We do not, note well, merely conceive it as a generality – but distinctly experience particular acts of volition within us.

Most human propositions and reasoning about causality are really about volition and allied concepts. Although the world of nature, or causation, is of course of great daily concern to us – we are also all the time greatly involved in thinking about our place in that world and in society, as well as our inner world, and all such thought is essentially to do with volition and allied causal concepts, including ethical concepts.

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