Sources of Ethical Authority

Ethical Authority Bases

Copyright 1997, 1999 David E. Cortesi

It is often assumed that any ethics is useless unless it gains moral force and authority by appeal to some principle higher than the individual. Consider these thoughts from an opinion column by Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe (extracted from the San Jose Mercury-News 11/5/97).

[Discusses how former Cambodian dictator Pol Pot claims not to be guilty of murder.]

If Pol Pot is capable of having a clear conscience, ... anyone is. He may be the greatest mass killer alive today, but like everyone else, he can justify his behavior. ... His clear conscience is the ultimate refutation of the belief that human beings can reason their way to goodness. Logic alone does not dictate that murder (or anything else) is bad. In the absence of God, religion, and the Sixth Commandment, it is just as reasonable to conclude that murder is good. Why shouldn't Pol Pot's conscience be clear? As far as he's concerned, the killing fields served a noble purpose.

...Rationality by itself cannot make people ethical. (It is no coincidence that "rationalize" is our word for justifying the unethical.) Without a universal moral code which means without a God and a religion that emphasize kind and decent behavior anything goes.

This is not to say that religious people are all moral or that moral people are all religious. It is to say, as the ethicist and author Dennis Prager [note] has formulated it, that "if there is no God, there is no good and evil there are only opinions about good and evil." We may think that slaughtering Cambodians in order to bring about a radical agrarian Marxist state is bad; Pol Pot thought it was good. Who's to say we're right?

...if you don't believe in a God who demands that human life be treated with reverence, what's wrong with slaughtering men, women and children indiscriminately? If "Thou shalt not murder" is just a suggestion, not a moral absolute, who can condemn Pol Pot? "The Nuremburg Trials," says Prager, "were predicated on the belief that there is a universal law. But where does universal law come from? The universe? Neptune?"

The human conscience is not a computer hard-wired to respond to the ethical teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It can just as readily be programmed to operate on a different set of values: those of "Das Kapital," for instance, or "Mein Kampf" or "If it feels good, do it" or "Greed is good."

This is the lesson of Pol Pot: No one is more dangerous than an anti-religious ideologue. Dostoyevsky summed it up in "The Brothers Karamazov" long ago. "If there is no God, everything is permitted." [note]

Jacoby nicely expresses a very common cluster of opinions about morality, including several common confusions. I want to address just one of them here: the question of what, other than a belief in God, can possibly can supply the force, the authority, that makes an ethical code binding? Let us see how different ethical systems argue for Pol Pot's guilt.

(But first, parenthetically, I would like to point how easily a religious apologist can turn into a witch-hunter. In the one sentence, "No one is more dangerous than an anti-religious ideologue," Jacoby demonstrates how necessary, and how tenuous, is our Constitutional protection against government by religion.

The syllogisms are easy:

A. People who don't believe in God have no morals.

B. People with no morals are dangerous.

C. Hence, people who don't believe in God are dangerous.

D. People who teach others not to believe in God create additional dangerous people.

E. Hence, "No one is more dangerous than an anti-religious ideologue."

Speaking as one who might, in a bad light, be mistaken for an anti-religious ideologue, I find this rather frightening.)

Scriptural Authority

An ethics that uses a scripture as its authority is binding on the people who subscribe to the religions based in that scripture, but of course has no special force for people who don't. The Ten Commandments have the widest base of scriptural authority because the book of Exodus is accepted as scripture by both Christians and Jews (and possibly by Christian derivatives like the Mormons). But that means that these rules have no authority with believers in other religions, or with Unbelievers.

Those other people might be happy to affirm ideas taken from the scripture in question. For example, Sikhs might affirm several of the Ten Commandments. ("Thou shalt not murder" is hard for anyone to deny.) However, when the Ten are considered as a package, they are offensive to anyone who is not a Christian or Jew. The population of California is diverse. How would a student from a Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Shintoist family and all of these can be found in my suburb feel about seeing this on the playground fence?

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

If this student feels threatened, alienated by this assertion, how should the student react? At best, by rejecting the entire decalogue poster as yet one more inscrutable piece of officialese from the school.

It is clearly hopeless to look for broad, cross-cultural agreement on an ethical authority based in scripture. And, the parochial Jeff Jacoby to the contrary, those who find the Bible binding are a minority in the total world population. To the news that the Bible told him not to kill, Pol Pot (who, if he had any religion, would have been brought up as an animist or Buddhist) would just look blank.

Where else can we look? What other authorities are possible? Is there any authority that could sanction an ethical framework that is accepted across a wide range of cultures and religious beliefs?

Traditional Authority

Some teachings gain authority by being of great antiquity. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism are of these sorts. (The Bible/Torah is of roughly the same age, but it claims authority based on being the Word of God. The antiquity of the Bible is normally cited only a secondary proof of its authenticity.)

An antique system claims that so many people have followed and approved its teachings for so many generations, there must be something to it. The falsity of the argument is evident to a moment's thought. (Well-known errors, like the demon-possession theory of disease and the flat-earth view of geography, are also of great antiquity. Anyway, to the extent that antique teachings contradict each other, does age help you choose the correct one?)

Pol Pot would no doubt reject the traditional teachings of Confucianism or Taoism as irrelevant to a modern state, or as superceded by Marxist dialectic.

Parental Authority

When an ethical framework is taught to children, the first authority is the parent's "Because I said so." The value of "Because I said so" should not be overlooked. The parent is the moral authority to a young child, and "Because I said so" is absolute, for a few years. If you memorize and internalize the ethical framework during those years, it can retain unquestioned authority until maturity teaches you how to elaborate it.

Pure Philosophy

Two of the candidate frameworks that I examine in the main paper were derived from first principles of philosophy. Starting from two fundamental axioms, the Cogito of Descartes and the assumption that no God exists, Sartre claims to show that "there is not a single one of our acts which does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be." Invert this to make a prescriptive policy, "At every moment I'm obliged to perform exemplary acts." In fact this is Sartre's restatement of the Categorical Imperative that Kant also derived from first principles.

But is philosophical reasoning from first principles an acceptable basis of authority? Clearly not, since agreement on the selection of first principles is so hard to come by. In this particular case, Sartre's chain of logic absolutely depends on atheism. If a creator God exists, man's essence is predetermined by God, and all of the structure of Existentialism collapses. On the other hand, Believers of any type see no authority in Sartre's Rule.

Any philosophical structure of logic is only acceptable to those who buy its first principles. It is hard to imagine a philosophy that does is not founded on an assumption for or against a creator God, so any ethical framework sanctioned by a philosophy will probably be rejected by either Believers or Unbelievers.


One ethical base that has been elaborated mostly by philosophers is the idea that acts that are right, self-evidently right because they are useful, constructive, or helpful in some way to the person who does them. When this is true, it is easy to be ethical; you just act out of self-interest. When philosophers try to codify the details of utilitarian systems they tend to get bogged down in special cases because sometimes, the clear short-term best interest of the individual is served by an act that is clearly not ethical.

Pol Pot would say to the utilitarian, that when he commanded political murders, he did so for the greater good of the entire state as he saw it.

Buddhist ethics stake their authority in utilitarianism, in a way. The Buddha said that it required a clear, unperturbed mind to understand what he had to teach. Actions the contradict the Five Precepts inevitably lead to a clouded mind, one obsessed with maintenance of an ever-deeper tangle of lies, self-delusions, and self-justifications. Ethical actions engender simplicity and calm; unethical ones, confusion and anger. Because of this basis in self-interest, Buddhists do not refer to ethical acts as "right" and unethical ones "wrong"; they call them "skillful" and "unskillful."

The doctrine of Kamma (or Karma) was the Buddha's solution to the problem that short-term benefit can follow unethical acts. This doctrine asserts that the evil effects of "unskillful" behavior will work themselves into the doer's life, sooner or later. The working-out of kamma over time may be exceedingly indirect and subtle, but they are (the Buddha asserts, and Buddhists essentially take on faith) inexorable.

Pol Pot, had he been a practicing Buddhist, would not have been able to argue utility for the state as excusing executions. The first precept, do not take life, is absolute, and the kammic consequences of violating it are always seen as the worst.

Social Science

Paul Kurtz, an ethicist and Humanist philosopher, asserts that we can see universal ethical principles in operation around us:

Can critical ethical intelligence discover any prima facie general principles that transcend the limits of cultural relativity and apply to all human beings, no matter what their social condition? Are there any ethical principles that we can affirm to be objectively true, independent of whether there is a God who has declared them to be binding? I submit that there are, and that they are so fundamental to human intercourse that they may be characterized as the "common moral decencies."

Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism; 1988; Prometheus Books

You can verify the general truth of Kurtz's assertion. Just observe that most people behave ethically most of the time. People under great stress of homelessness, poverty, disaster, war; people in every society from the most primitive to the most urban; people of every religion and no religion: all refrain from violence, lies, and theft, keep their promises, and fulfill their obligations, almost all of the time.

Yes, it is true that individuals commit crimes; and it is true that whole societies can become murderously, insanely violent. There are plenty of examples of both in the modern world. Yet even during the worst times in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Lebanon, or Nazi Germany, the great majority of people, most of the time, continued to behave ethically toward most other people.

If what everyone can call "decent behavior" is a universal of human behavior, could we make a short, simple list of these "common moral decencies" and use it as an ethical framework? It is not a new idea, for example, Martin Gardner writes

A social science can describe human behavior. It cannot tell us how we should behave without specifying goals based on the needs of a common human nature. I have in mind such posits as that it is better to be alive than dead, better to be healthy than sick, and better to be happy than miserable. On the basis of such assumptions it is possible, I believe, along with John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, and many other thinkers, to construct a naturalistic ethics that avoids the absurdities of extreme cultural relativism.

The Night Is Large, 1996; introduction to part II

The problem, however, is once again authority, only now one level higher. Who do you trust to analyze human behavior and distill out the elements of decency? Kurtz presents his list in the book cited above (and I immediately spotted a number of what I feel are flaws in his list).

Still, imagine you could convene a panel of the world's anthropologists and social psychologists to write an ethical framework based on real observation of behavior. The result would surely be more widely accepted than any scripture-based framework could ever be.

Universal Compassion

In his book Ethics for the New Millenium, His Holiness the Dalai Lama asserts that all people (indeed, all sentient beings) seek to avoid pain and seek happiness. This is verifiable by observation and introspection, and there is no reason to doubt that it is a geniune universal.

His Holiness makes this one universal the basis of his secular view of ethics. He does not put it this way, but my interpretation would be to state it using this logic:

This rule is at least as universal as belief in God. It is an excellent answer to Jeff Jacoby's rhetorical question,

...if you don't believe in a God who demands that human life be treated with reverence, what's wrong with slaughtering men, women and children indiscriminately?

Because "slaughtering" anyone provides the ultimate in pain and terminates their search for happiness, and is clearly, by this rule, unethical. Also, His Holiness's rule could be used to clarify and simplify the philosophy of Utilitarianism, by disentangling the individual from the universal.

Darwinian Philosophy

An even more fundamental basis for an ethical framework is the modern Darwinists' assertion that sane behavior is oriented toward survival survival of the individual first, and of the individual's genetic heritage second, and survival of related genetic lines next. Ironically, Darwinism, the bogeyman of the religious right, can provide sound authority for an ethical system.

We see that most people behave ethically most of the time, so it must be that ethical behavior is survival-oriented behavior. You, or your genes, or at the very least the genes most like yours, must survive best when everyone behaves ethically. If that were not so, any inclination to behave ethically would have been bred out of our species long ago!

Nevertheless, pop sociobiologists, followers of Edwin O. Wilson, flatly deny that it is possible for people to act out of anything but direct, reproductive self-interest. This is undoubtedly a Darwinian truism:

However, sociobiologists tend to focus narrowly on the crudest, most direct type of survival, as if we were all still living in caves, dodging sabertooth tigers. They label any behavior that does not directly benefit the individual or the individual's children as "altruistic" and dismiss it. But for a few million years as hunter-gatherers, people have lived in small, stable social groups larger than the single family. And for hundreds of thousands of years at least, we have had the ability to reason and make plans for the future. These two facts drastically expand the possible meanings of "reproductive fitness."

First, your siblings have one-half your genes, and your nephews and nieces have one-quarter of them. There is clear reproductive benefit in aiding your kin; it helps to propogate genes like yours. (Supposedly, evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane was asked if he could ever lay down his life for his brother. He thought about it and replied that he would lay down his life for no less than two brothers or sisters, four nephews or nieces, or eight first cousins.)

Second, the work of Robert Axelrod (The Evolution of Cooperation, 1984) demonstrates that there is a demonstrable, mathematical advantage to cooperation, in the context of small stable groups (just such groups as humans have lived in for much of their existence). Cooperative, trusting behavior, backed by a willingness to retaliate immediately whenever your trust is violated (the "tit-for-tat" policy), works best, and leads to a greater-than-zero-sum gain for both the individual and the group. There is thus no Darwinian pressure to breed away from trusting, cooperative behavior. On the contrary, there is a positive, if indirect and slow-acting, tendency for "trust genes" to be favored by natural selection. People whose first attitude is to trust and to cooperate with others, do better; and groups of such people do better than other groups.

Evidence that "trust genes" are favored is easy to find: for example, our brains contain a powerful pattern-matching engine specifically designed for the recognition of human faces. We can spot a familiar face much more easily than we can pick out any other kind of learned visual pattern. This is precisely the ability that is needed for the tit-for-tat strategy to work: instant recognition of people with whom we've interacted before.

Finally, humans have a different relationship to their progeny than (other) animals do. An animal's ability to aid the survival of its genes ends when the children grow up. For example, a wolf clan's ability to help cubs survive ends when the cubs leave the den.

Because we humans can plan and bind time, we are able extend our help much further. We can enhance the survival of our genetic heritage in endless ways, right through young adulthood and into the next generation as doting grandparents. But more: for at least 100 generations, much of the environment in which our children will live and reproduce is a human artifact. We are not living in a state of nature; since the invention of the farm and the village, we have been living within a structure largly created and managed by human beings. We can contribute to the survival of our genes for not one or two generations ahead, but for endless generations, by helping to elaborate, enrich, and stabilize a society that protects and fosters those future generations.

In this sense, any constructive effort to improve the community, or to gather knowledge, or to add capital of any sort to the human endowment, is a direct contribution to the better survival and propogation of one's own genetic heritage. Even when one doesn't have children, constructive activity is still a way to improve the survivability of nephew and cousin genes, and in the last analysis, the survival of one's species.

These observations recruit the full force of Darwinian selection as a justification for every constructive activity possible and for every ethical act! Here is an authority base for an ethics that is independent of culture and race, and in conflict with only a small number of religions. It is an authority base that is even more fundamental than anthropology. An appeal to better survival for you, your children, and your species is at least as basic as an appeal to God or to science.

It might be difficult to write a sociobiological ethical framework. At the very least, it would be a work exposed to a great deal of contention in the argumentative world of academic Darwinians.

However, the requirement of survival can be applied as a retroactive test to other frameworks. We can require that an ethical framework must call for behavior that leads to enhanced survival of the individual, or the individual's children, or the individual's kin or community. Certainly any rule that decreases survival at any of these levels is swimming against a very powerful current and is likely to be ignored.

Two notes on Jeff Jacoby's citations:
Re Prager: Few people would call Dennis Prager an "ethicist." He's a pop philosopher and talk-radio guru with a couple of popular titles full of shallow feel-goodery and cliches.

Re Dostoevsky: Lots of people quote Dostoesvky to this effect. Jacoby has a few words wrong; it's usually "If God does not exist, everything is lawful" and said to be in The Brothers Karamazov. The citation usually stands alone, leaving the strong impression that Dostoevsky used the line to disapprove of atheism. In fact, none of these things is true: see my discussion of how Dostoevsky Didn't Say It.

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