How do we know Ethics?

If Ethics is the foundation of knowledge of right and wrong, how do get that knowledge? From what foundation do we derive an understanding of Ethics?

Knowledge and understanding are two separate things, so let’s address the knowledge of ethics first.

The axiom, “I think, therefore I am” was made famous my Rene Descartes. It is a simple proof of existence. If one is questioning whether or not they exist, the fact that there is an “I” thinking, is proof of existence. Questioning one’s existence may seem odd, but so is questioning whether or not ethics exist. Just like existence itself needed a proof, ethics requires the same.

“I feel, therefore I know ethics” is a philosophical proof that takes into account the physical and emotional requirements of ethics. If a thing can feel physical input and emotional distress, it has knowledge of ethics.

3 thoughts on How do we know Ethics?

  1. That is interesting. Almost stating that I know pain, so I know what not to do. I feel emotional distress, I know what not to do. Or I know pleasure, I know what to do.

  2. Wouldn’t it be more along the lines of, I feel, therefore I “know” sentiment? Isn’t ethics largely based upon the reactions received by an observer for performing or not performing a certain action? If you had never been taught not to steal, you may feel despair for what has been stolen, but it shouldn’t be inferred that you then know not to steal. you could just as easily infer that you should steal as well, and many real life examples could support claim. Knowing ethics would mean that we are justified in believing that a moral claim is true or false, but can we ever be certain? It’s debatable whether moral claims are even truth-apt.

    • If you stop your statement at “know”…the next question is “know what?” For eons people have danced around the idea that ethical understanding requires some irreducible innate knowledge from which to build off but nobody quite nailed down what that was. The statement, “I feel, therefore I know Ethics” provides a foundation of innate, irreducible knowledge to build from.

      We are born with the ability to feel pain and harm in many forms. Our sense of fairness and empathy are developed very early, they are pre-wired, self taught abilities so ‘innate enough’ from a developmental stand point. An allegory would be rolling over, standing up, walking, etc. Children are born with the ability to do these things in early development. They don’t have to be taught, a child will self discover them without help. Same rules apply to ethics at a basic level.

      Like all talents, one can hone their skills with practice. Ethical understanding and wisdom does take some effort and practice, like any skill. See the driving analogy for more on this concept.

      Your point about understanding ethics is valid to some extent and I discuss the reasons for why we don’t all agree on ethical matters in diving into the gray” section of the book. In your example the person is reacting to a negative ethical action and taking the rather nihilistic approach that if bad exists, then there must be no good, or why should I be good?

      To answer the first point, if you can tell something is bad from an ethical perspective, it just takes a moment of introspection to ask yourself why? The foundational question of ethics is, “How would I like it if someone did that to me?” If the answer is bad, then it’s a bad act. If you don’t want people to treat you poorly, don’t treat them poorly. If you feel the need for reciprocity/justice to wrongful acts (if someone steals from you), so will others (if you steal from them). So the reason to act for the good of others can be selfish or altruistic but acting good should be the path of least resistance most of the time and ought to be its own reward.

      Ethical claims can absolutely be determined to be true or false provided the example in question is relatively straight forward. When ethical matters get complex, then the only better or worse may be obtained, but even then the better and worse path should be relatively easy to derive asking a few basic questions as they relate to harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.

Leave a Reply