There is a prevalent idea that moral considerations presuppose ethical principles. But how does it arise? It makes our ways of talking about difficult issues resemble consultations between states at the negotiating table, invoking various solemn declarations:
- “Under the principle of happy consequences, you should lie here; otherwise, many will be hurt.”
- “According to the principle of always telling the truth, it is right to tell; even if many will be hurt.”
This is not how we talk, but maybe:
- “I don’t like to lie, but I have to, otherwise many will be hurt.”
- “It’s terrible that many will suffer, but the truth must be told.”
As we actually talk, without invoking principles, we ourselves take responsibility for how we decide to act. Lying, or telling the truth, is a burden even when we see it as the right thing to do. But if moral considerations presuppose ethical principles of moral rightness, there is no responsibility to carry. We refer to the principles!
The principles give us the right to lie, or to speak the truth, and we can live on with a self-righteous smile. But how does the idea of moral principles arise?
My answer: Through the need to intellectually control how we debate and reach conclusions about important societal issues in the public sphere.
Just as Indian grammarians made rules for the correct pronunciation of holy words, ethicists make principles of correct moral reasoning. According to the first principle, the first person reasons correctly; the other one incorrectly. According to the second principle, it’s the other way round.
But no one would even dream of formulating these principles, if we didn’t already talk as we do about important matters. The principles are second-rate goods, reconstructions, scaffolding on life, which subsequently can have a certain social and intellectual control function.
Moral principles may thus play a significant role in the public sphere, like grammatical rules codifying how to write and speak correctly. We agree on the principles that should govern public negotiations; the kind of concerns that should be considered in good arguments.
The problem is that the principles are ingeniously expounded as the essence and foundation of morality more generally, in treatises that are revered as intellectual bibles.
The truth must be told: it’s the other way round. The principles are auxiliary constructions that codify how we already bear the words and the responsibility. Don’t let the principles’ function in the public sphere distort this fact.
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