Given Morality vs Critical Ethics

"...We, as revolutionaries, seek to do what’s right. Why, then, don't we have an ethical theory?"

Given Morality vs Critical Ethics

by J.K.S., originally posted on Medium here.
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“It’s the punches we don’t see coming that knock us out.”

“Trial of George Jacobs”, by Thompkins H. Matteson

When it comes to being revolutionaries, there’s all sorts of talk about political theory and economic systems and racial histories. But when discussions start getting into hazy and controversial territory, or when practice doesn’t seem to be going right and you can’t tell why, nobody ever looks into the field of ethics. We, as revolutionaries, seek to do what’s right. Why, then, don't we have an ethical theory?

This is an attempt at outlining a new ethics, an entire ethical system by which we can think clearly about what we should be doing and how we can do that, contrasting itself from the typical senses of ‘morality’ we have in the current capitalist/imperialist/neoliberal mindset of things that everybody — including revolutionaries — has been taught to think within.

A General Idea

There are, from what I’ve found, two kinds of morality that I’ll call Given and Critical.

One has a vague foundation in loose, intangible ideas of ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’, doesn’t examine the emotions that fuel it, shows an unchanging and one-sided form of thinking, and has vague definitions whose meanings can vary from one case to the next. It’s inconsistent and unscientific; even when principles show up in this form of morality, they often float loosely, not necessarily connected to other parts of an overall system (if there is one); they apply to everything! — oh, except for this. And except for that. There’s a lot of “sometimes” in this form of thought.

This form of morality is like a hot soup: shifting and evaporating, having several chunks that may have some more consistency in themselves, but are still just floating around in the broth. This is Given morality.

The other is based in a self-consistent, qualitatively-defined, careful understanding of humanity and the reality that makes it up, rooted in an epistemology (way of knowing things) where experience itself is the source of all truth, and logic is simply there to articulate what can be drawn out of experience. With this explicit foundation, every new adopted or developed principle emerges and functions within it, without contradicting the moral foundation of an ultimate goal of freedom nor the other principles among it. One can picture this form of morality as a tree growing outwards, the outer ends developing onwards as they enter new space, while the inner parts remain solidly established and consistent. This is Critical ethics.

Aspects of Given Morality:

Given morality has certain parts that can result in dangerous behavior:

Sliding-Scale Definitions: Fundamentally vague, Given morality often relies on defining things in an abstract or vaguely quantitative (numerical) way. It relies on ideas of ‘enough’, ‘high’ and ‘low’, or ‘many’ and ‘few’, as if you could measure morality with a ruler.

In practice, let’s say someone holds the moral belief that “When a person has hurt someone enough times, they are bad.”

The problem with this lies in the word “enough”. How do you know what “enough” is? All you’d have is a feeling, and only if an arbitrary number for “enough” hasn’t already been set. If ten people held that same belief and applied it to someone who hurt another person three times, with varying ‘degrees of severity’ (another example of a ‘sliding-scale’ definition), you could get ten different judgments of whether that person was “bad” or not, and even more variation on how “bad” they were. And certainly, those judgments would often not come out of the result of processing the observations through a set of mutually-consistent principles, but through undefined, vague emotional associations.

Badness And Goodness: Given morality also does not understand things in terms of what their implications are nor what someone should do about them, but rather judges things in undefined and often emotionalized labels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ — and the thinking stops there! It’s not a dynamic, developing logic, but a static reaction. It’s less about what something means, and more about how it makes someone feel. This approach is useless at best because of its uncertainty and inherent lack of a root in actual reality and a scientific method of assurance, and extremely dangerous at worst, since one could act incorrectly with an emotional conviction that takes its strength from the blind faith that its vagueness requires for it to make any sense at all.

Villains and Heroes: Related to the mistake of “bad” and “good”, the idea of ‘villains’, or “bad people”, and ‘heroes’, or “good people”, reveals a dogmatic understanding of human character. Whatever one person assigned the identity of ‘villain’ does is always somehow “bad”, and likewise, whatever an assigned ‘hero’ does is always somehow “good”. Moreover, justifications or suspicions will be made to rationalize or invalidate information contradictory to the assigned identity, and affirm information that seems consistent with the assigned identity (i.e. confirmation bias).

The true danger of this mistake emerges when it permeates an entire group of people and leads them to push a targeted person/group to internalize their assigned identity. Assigning and reaffirming, dogmatically, an identity of ‘villain’ in somebody can drive even truly genuine and well-meaning people to abandon any efforts to “redeem” themselves in the eyes of the accusers and simply explore the freedoms of becoming a monster as they internalize the delusion that they can do no good.

On the other hand, dogmatically assigning and reaffirming the identity of ‘hero’ to somebody can inflate their ego and make them also fall into the delusion that they can do no wrong — and even criticism from others may not resolve this, since an entire group of people, often turning themselves into sycophants for their miniature god, will remain to reaffirm their ‘hero’ identity, even when the ‘hero’ themselves doubts it.

In both cases, when one tries to leave the ‘villain/hero’ identity, they face the massive roadblock of their accusers/sycophants enforcing their identity. Assigned ‘villains’ have no path to redeem themselves (a path which would be forgiveness, which is more about the accusers than the people being “allowed” to redeem themselves), and assigned ‘heroes’ have no chance to return as a member among the community, and not above it, which complicates their ability to grow as human beings, and not as deities. Metaphorically speaking, “those in heaven or hell cannot return to the living.”

Of course, however, there are people who do objectively good and bad things. However, those people are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in some sort of inherent individual nature; their behaviors come from how they think, what they’ve experienced, what they can do (physically, systemically, mentally), and so on. What they do is simply the reproduction of what they’ve lived through.

Moreover, we must understand that people change and develop so long as they are alive. With this in mind, it is our duty to help people grow for the better alongside them, unless the costs needed to do so infringes on the growth of others. It’s far more efficient to spend your limited time convincing a crowd of receptive people to do the right thing than it is to convince a single, stubborn, militant Nazi.

We must abandon all static notions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people, instead taking up the understanding of people as a living process and not as a finished product.

Punishment and the Demand of Regret; Reward and Lionization: A major signifier/aspect of Given morality is the seeking of a ‘solution’ to a moral issue in the form of a target person or group’s regret, shame, or punishment. From the onset, when Given morality faces a problem, it does not seek a solution of informed and productive action, but one of cathartic emotional satisfaction. When somebody has done something ‘bad’, the solution is not to actually address the results of that action, but rather simply for the ‘sinner’ to feel bad about it, or even for them to be destroyed or suffer (e.g. ‘punishment’), the demand for which comes out of a desire to fulfill that emotional itch rather than to fulfill an ethical goal.

The fundamental mistaken idea here is that suffering and regret can solve all problems. They don’t. Only taking correct routes of action — which can only emerge from consciously-applied principles consistent with each other and with reality — can do that.

This dynamic can even be turned inward by somebody who accuses themselves to be a ‘sinner’. A clear example of this is when a white liberal may enter into a (knowingly or unknowingly) performative display of intensive, sometimes even excessive “white guilt” and its subsequent self-flagellation. However, no matter how many white people try to suffer for the sake of black people, no matter how intensely or harshly, that suffering alone will not help black people. If white people really do have to suffer, it should just be as an indirect (and probably temporary) side-effect of correct actions in helping black people free themselves.

On the other side of things, Given morality drives an impulse to reward and praise people who have been identified as ‘heroes’, despite what they may genuinely think of their actions. The issue with this reaction is that it kills the process of maintaining good practice by suggesting to both the target and the people giving praise/rewards that “your hard work is over” — they’ve done a good thing, now they can go and do as they please, now they can loosen up whatever makes them do the right thing. Taken a step further under the hood of this logic: “Now it’s okay if you do something bad”. This is dangerous, as it only ultimately serves to eat away at the momentum of people’s growth by pushing them to believe that growth has a stopping point, that they’ve reached it, and that reaching it even once is all that matters. Rather we must understand that growth is change, and change only stops with death.

Blame and Credit:
Given morality also pins the entirety of the ‘harm’ or ‘good’ of an event or action onto one person or group of people, rather than on the multitude of factors, human and non-human, that resulted in something happening. Related to the idea of Villains and Heroes, this mistaken thinking says that the cause of something comes not out of the various tangible factors for its existence (including ideas spread throughout society), but rather from the abstract notion of somebody’s “character”. Bad people can be blamed for bad things; good people can be credited for good things.

The need to blame or accredit somebody shows a fundamental misunderstanding (or ignorance) of cause and effect. In its unspoken internal logic, Given morality demands that when something bad happens, someone must be blamed, and when something good happens, someone must be accredited.

These ideas are, of course, clearly false. Things that can harm or help humanity do not need the direct, conscious involvement of human beings to happen. Even when people have taken actions that gave good or bad results, their actions can never be the sole cause of those results — moreso, their personhood is less a factor, especially when the ideas of ‘villain’ or ‘hero’ are only fictional. Even if someone’s actions were somehow the only reason something happened, all the factors that made them who they were to do what they did came from a larger world beyond their own selves.

Nobody can be at whole fault, nobody can be given all the credit. What to do about something does not have a necessary relationship to who did what, simply rather what was done. Fault or credit is irrelevant.

Personalized Criticism and Praise: Another feature of Given morality is the mistake in understanding how criticism should be used. Instead of using criticism to help someone correct/prevent/salvage mistaken actions and using praise to confirm which actions were helpful, Given morality directs criticism and praise not on what somebody does, but on who they are.

This mistaken behaviour is what creates ‘heroes and villains’ by subtly and consistently associating somebody’s mistakes or correct actions with their “fundamental character”. It confuses the result for the cause: “People who do good things must be naturally good people to begin with, and people who do bad things must be naturally bad people”. It ignores all the reasons people do what they do and fails to understand that the actual ‘nature’ of humanity changes to fit its surroundings.

Protection For and Protection Against — Coddling and Exclusion: Given morality can also take up a seemingly kind and “positive” form when it appears as an attitude of protection for some and an exclusionary defensiveness against others. This form of Given morality shows up in, for example, “helicopter parenting”, where parents will ‘protect’ their children from a kind of ‘threat’ that goes insufficiently defined; in this case, protection has no limit because neither does the threat — an example of sliding-scale/quantitative thinking. Likewise, if someone or something is misunderstood as a threat (namely by seeing them as ‘Bad’), that thing or person/people will become a threat-with-no-limit.

When ‘evil’ has no limit, neither will ‘justice’; when ‘danger’ has no limit, neither will ‘protection’. Anything can be sacrificed because there is no qualitatively defined way to actually address the real problem — a problem which itself goes undefined. Taken to the inevitable extreme of sliding-scale thinking, any actions taken to combat a ‘threat’ are justified. Police can shoot down fleeing and unarmed black “suspects” because the officers “feared for their lives”.

NOTE: This is not a complete list of every aspect of or form of Given morality. There are many forms and possibly more fundamental aspects of it, and these are just the ones I can remember experiencing. Maybe you know more manifestations — you have to be the one to judge reality! You can disagree with what I’ve written here! Please be critical. The same applies for this following section on Critical ethics.

Aspects of Critical Ethics

The Ethical Mission: Critical ethics has a clearly-understood goal underlying everything that is built around it. Such a goal serves as the foundation for what one should or should not do. Things are not “bad” or “good” just because they simply are, but because they relate to the fundamental goal in some way.

Accurate Understanding of Things: Though I could take the time to explain every principle I personally hold about the nature of reality and human beings, that would bloat this article. Instead, I’ll simply describe the role of an accurate understanding of reality to Critical ethics:

In order to successfully fulfill a goal, you have to understand how reality is going to respond to what you intend to do. To win at a chess game, you have to know how people respond to certain moves. If you don’t know how to play, you can’t win.

Likewise, if you have inaccurate ideas about how people behave, how the world works, what makes people feel a certain way or think a certain thing, then you cannot fulfill a goal that depends on an accurate understanding of how those things work. Having an accurate understanding of reality for your actions to make the intended results is the pragmatic element of Critical ethics.

A Consistent System of Principles: Critical ethics also demands that all ideas held to be true in a system of thinking must not contradict each other; if there is contradiction, it must be resolved by seeing which ideas actually hold up in practice (testing via reality), or by finding a way to reconcile the ideas so that they become compatible with each other (usually by finding a new idea to help make sense out of the apparent conflict).

A principle can be a defined approach to problems, an understanding of how something works, or even a poetic take on having behavior productive for the goal’s fulfillment. However, all principles must be clearly defined, taking care to avoid the vague errors of Given morality (e.g. sliding-scale definitions, Goodness and Badness, etc.)

Also, principles cannot be at odds with each other, nor should they even be neutrally detached from each other. Principles must find a way to connect with other principles, eventually leading back to the fundamental ethical goal, like leaves on a tree leading back to the roots. There must not be a gap in logic; “skipping” a connection in principles makes that principle only something that may be considered and maybe eventually integrated into the system, but not something that can be acted upon yet, as actions have real consequences. New leaves can grow as part of the tree, defining new spaces that were before unexplored, but if a leaf or a branch is not part of the tree, it is dead.

Above all, principles must be consistent with reality, including your experiences. If a principal proves to be inaccurate, you must alter or discard it to fit reality.

An example of a principle could be “just because something hasn’t happened yet does not necessarily mean it is impossible to make it happen.” Principles should serve goals; they describe how to turn intention into reality, to translate purpose into change.

Principles relate to the “Accurate Understanding of Things”; this section is here to show you how you can tell your understanding is consistent and rooted in experience.

An Ability to Grow and Revise: Like a tree, Critical ethics uses a scientific method to develop the worldview it needs to fulfill its goal. As such, it is constantly under growth. It constantly needs to answer questions it has never faced before to remain ‘alive’; when a tree stops growing, it dies. As such, Critical ethics constantly adds and connects new principles in continuity with old ones, and is also not afraid to clarify and define unspoken assumptions that came from the incompleteness of the current state of the ‘established’ parts of the ethical system, like filling in the last bits of white space in a test bubble. It must never assume it is complete, it must understand (as a fundamental assumption) that change is the only constant, so that it must always be ready to solve new problems. A Critical ethical system is never “complete”.

Qualitative Thinking: A basic but crucial feature of a working system of Critical ethics is the clarity with which everything (from goals to principles) is defined. Whereas Given morality leaves its ideas more or less up to quantitative pseudo-definitions, which have no limit to their extremes and thus essentially no explicitly-defined meanings, Critical ethics puts things into clear terms based on the qualitative aspects by which something can be understood.

For example, if you told a crowd of people that they each needed to bake a lump of dough at a “high temperature” for “a while”, many of them would have varying results where some breads came out burnt and others came out undercooked. However, if you described to them the qualitative features of well-baked bread, such as a golden-brown tint after a slight deflation in its rise in the oven, far fewer mistakes would be made, because people would have a tangible grip on what it is they needed to recognize.

Qualitative thinking explains how to approach the infamous “moral grey areas” of any situation. In Critical ethics, there is no such thing as “grey”, simply lots of black and white pieces that are very close to each other, seen at from a distance. What this means is that what may appear to be a “grey” area is simply a matter of improperly defining the terms by which a problem should be approached, and not having the detailed and qualitatively-defined principles needed to really get to the root of the problem. It is a way to avoid ethical ‘cold feet’ and have the practical conviction that your decisions are the right ones for the goal.

Emotion/Intuition as the Front for Growth: Emotion and intuition must not be misunderstood as inherently useless or harmful simply because of its strong role in Given morality. In fact, it is the driving force for understanding problems, articulating questions, finding vulnerabilities, and developing defined guides-to-action.

Simply put, emotions/intuitions are thoughts that are waiting to be articulated. They are the human mind’s way of helping people experience what they don’t yet have the words for, and they must be understood fully to the point of where there’s no longer a need to feel that feeling, because whatever problem or vulnerability was calling for that emotion or intuitive calling has been sufficiently understood — and when you really understand something, there is no need to directly feel about it anymore. In a sense, the ‘point’ of emotions is to resolve them by understanding where they come from and what they mean, all so that you can then encounter ‘better’ problems, built on the solutions you’ve found before, when you feel the new emotions that come with them.

When you experience a feeling, you may notice that the thinking around that feeling is murky. To put that feeling to rest, you have to understand it — you have to listen to it. When you feel uncomfortable telling somebody about a past experience, try to understand why, using the prior tools of Critical thinking/ethics. Even when you feel good or in awe about something, you should try to articulate why you feel that way. Some of the greatest atrocities in history were committed by people who were caught up in the apparent beauty of an actually horrible thing (personally, I’m thinking of the example of how fascism rose in Japan in the early 20th century — and how nobody even knew what it was, and couldn’t even articulate why it eventually made them feel uneasy).

Collective emotions also present immense opportunities for discovery, as they signal a problem, question, or vulnerability that affects many people in a similar way. As such, when these emotions are finally understood and ‘translated’ into a qualitative meaning, many people, together, can understand what common problems affect them all, what common questions concern them all, and most importantly, what common plan-of-action they can all take together.

The negation of emotions is not a process that makes you a cold stoic robot. It is the process by which human beings turn experiences into articulated thoughts, and articulated thoughts into effective actions.