The Epistemology of Ethics

Epistemology is the study of Knowledge.  It attempts to answer questions like, “How do we know what we know?”  Much of this blog deals with questions of epistemology.  Given most people have an intuitive sense of ethics, and there is seemingly wide disagreement on ethical conditions, understanding “how we know what we know” becomes important.  Deriving these answer can get a bit esoteric

We can find certainty in ethics the same way we find certainty with all other knowledge and understanding; via good questions.  Knowledge and understanding of everything in the physical world is brought about by our interaction with the world – observed realities via our senses which we construct mental models of.  We test our mental models, stated as hypothesis, with experimentation which can be repeated and verified by ourselves and others.  This methodology is formally called the Scientific Method.  Scientific fact is verifiable reality.

The realities of the abstract world: think mathematics, physics, etc are derived in a similar way.  Abstractions, due to their inherent nature are a type of convention.  Conventional systems are somewhat arbitrary – relating to their formation (and therefore can be irrationally based) – but quite strict in their functions; as all parts of the conventional system are defined and typically exist in a logical domain.  Items are either “A” or “not A”.

A stop sign is a good example of a conventional abstraction.  A red, octagonal, sign with white letters that says “STOP” is our signal for stopping at an intersection.  Why red, why octagonal, why white letters, why not “Arrest” instead of stop… Why ask these questions?

It turns out a stop sign could be just about anything; its a conventional abstraction.  Once a conventional abstraction is selected however, it becomes a thing; an important thing.  A stop sign provides you with information, it tells you to stop.  Furthermore, once the symbols are defined and the rules set, truths about a conventional system can be derived, thus proven to be true.

Things in a conventional system are true or false; right or wrong.  Conventional right and wrongs are not the same as ethical right and wrongs, even though the same words are used and sometimes conventional systems overlap ethics ones.

Things in an ethical system are right and wrong but statements of absolute true or false can be hard if not impossible to achieve.  Ethics exists in a gray world, it is conditional, so better or worse is sometimes the best result from an ethical analysis.

We do not sum ethical decisions, we weight them.  Therefore logical proofs are not a valid way of deriving ethical truths.  We will discuss these overlaps in great detail later.

Ethical knowledge is a type of abstraction but one that is rooted in the physical world as well as the mental world; this adds to the paradoxical nature of ethics.  We know about ethics because we can feel sensory input (physical input) and we understand emotions (mental, non-physical input).  We not only understand our own emotions, we can understand the emotions of others.  These core human (and possibly not just limited to human) abilities provides us with innate knowledge of ethics.  “I feel, therefore I know ethics” is a fundamental axiom of ethics.

Knowledge and Understanding are not the same thing.  Knowledge requires that one knows what something is (have the ability to acquire and use information).  For example, you know that the symbol “A” is the letter “A” (an abstraction), that “A” is part of the alphabet (a system of abstractions), the symbol has certain sounds, letters form words, etc.  Understand requires that one can apply their knowledge in a meaningful way.  Understanding the abstract symbols of the alphabet and their sounds allows you to understand words, create sentences, create original work, etc.

You have inherent knowledge of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.  You know what your own emotional state is.  You can understand that another person’s response would be similar to yours for a given scenario concerning harm/care or fairness/reciprocity.  An understanding of others physical and emotional state is what we call empathy.  This basic understanding is the foundation of ethics.

So if you know ethics, why don’t they know it?  Why don’t they know that they are wrong?  This question and many others will be address in this blog.


4 thoughts on The Epistemology of Ethics

  1. my first time to know the difference between knowledge and understanding, ethical system and conventional system. I remain log in to this site, for more teachings.

  2. Is “intuitive sense of ethics” to be taken to mean some sort of experience-independant knowledge?

    • Yes. We are born with the innate ability to sense harm/care (physical and emotional). Our sense of fairness is part of our emotional harm/care abilities). We are born with this knowledge; we know-how to feel pain without being taught. We understand empathy, very early in development without being taught. Knowledge (know-how) of harm/care & fairness/reciprocity and understanding (know-why) that others can feel the same as us is the foundation of ethical understanding. We use this innate knowledge and understanding to derive ethical truth.

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