We tend to view logical laws and ethical principles as foundational: as more basic than ordinary discourse, and “making possible” logical and ethical reasoning. They set us on the right intellectual path, so to speak, on the most fundamental level.

I want to suggest another possibility: logical laws and ethical principles are derived from ordinary discourse. They constitute a schematic, ideal  image of what it means to make truth claims, or ethical claims, in our language. They don’t make the claims and forms of reasoning possible, however, but reflect their familiar presence in daily discourse.

Consider the logical law of non-contradiction, which states that a proposition and its negation cannot both be true simultaneously. Does this law implicitly set us on the path of non-contradictory talk, from morning to night? Or does it have another function?

Here is an alternative way of thinking about this “law of thought”:

The impression that others contradict themselves is not uncommon. When this occurs, we become uncertain what they actually say. We ask for clarifications until the sense of contradiction disappears. Not until it disappears do we recognize that something is being said.

The law of non-contradiction reflects this general feature of language. As such a reflection, however, it is derived from language and doesn’t function as a foundation of human truth-telling.

I want to make a similar proposal for ethical principles. Ethical principles – for example, of beneficence or respect for persons – reflect how people already view certain aspects of life as morally important and use them as reasons.

Ethical principles don’t “make” these aspects of life moral reasons. They just highlight, in semi-bureaucratic language, the fact that they are such reasons for people.

Consider this way of reasoning, which is perfectly in order as it stands:

  • (A) “I helped you; therefore you should help me.”

This moral reasoning is familiar to all of us. Its presence could be acknowledged in form of an ethical principle, P; a Principle of Reciprocity (“Sacrifices require services in return” etc.).

According to the view I want to leave behind, the fact that I helped you doesn’t constitute a reason until it is linked to the ethical principle P:

  • (B) “I helped you; according to Principle P, you therefore should help me.”

Ethicists typically reason the latter way, (B). That is alright too, as long as we are aware of its derived nature and don’t believe that (B) uncovers the hidden form of (A).

Ethical principles summarize, in semi-legislative language, how humans already reason morally. They function as appendices to moral reasoning; not as its backbone.

Why do we need to be aware of the derived nature of ethical principles? Because when we genuinely don’t know how to reason morally – when there are no convincing arguments of kind (A) – it is tempting to use the principles to extrapolate moral arguments of kind (B)… appendices to claims that no one makes.

Viewing ethical principles as foundational, we’re almost forced to turn to them for guidance when we are in genuine moral uncertainty. But perhaps we should rather turn to the real-life features that are at stake. Perhaps we should focus our attention on them, try to understand them better, engage with them… and wait for them to become moral reasons for us in ways we might not be able to anticipate.

As a result of this open-ended process of attentive and patient moral thinking, ethicists may discover a need for new ethical principles to reflect how forms of moral reasoning change in the process, because new aspects of life became moral reasons for us when we attended to them.

Consider as an example the ethical problem whether incidental findings about individual participants in biobank research should be returned to them. At this very moment, ethicists are working hard to help biobankers solve this genuinely difficult problem. They do it by exploring how our present canon of ethical principles might apply to the case.

Is that not a little bit like consulting a phrase book when you discover that you have nothing to say?

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog