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Are ethical differences a state of mind or a state of evidence?

December 15, 2014

Ethical imperatives can, I suggest, be usefully classified into fundamental (or axiomatic) ethical imperatives and ethical imperatives based on reason and evidence. While reason-based and evidence-based ethical imperatives can, of course, be influenced by evidence and reason, fundamental ethical imperatives cannot.

Fundamental ethical imperatives are duty-based. To the extent that their justification depends on evaluating their particular consequences, they are not fundamental ethical imperatives in this sense.

When acting in accordance with an ethical imperative, I suggest that that a Law of Justification holds, i.e. nobody has a duty to undertake any particular action in response to another person unless that person has a reasonable duty-based right to demand that action. In other words, there is no duty to respond to any request which is posed without reasonable appeal to duty. This is, I suggest, a universal principle.

In the context of evaluating a reason-based or evidence-based ethical imperative, I propose that greater weight should be attached (other things equal) to the evidence or opinion of a person whose personal incentive (including self-interest or self-regard) to offer that evidence or opinion is less. Particular weight should be attached, other things equal, to evidence offered by a person offering that evidence or opinion who has a personal disincentive (including harm to self-interest or self-regard) to do so.

In evaluating subjective perception of evidence, weight should be given to a consideration of any implicit incentives, self-interest or self-regard which might affect that perception.

In assessing the value of a reason or evidence-based ethical imperative, all evidence and reason relevant to that imperative should reflect an objective evaluation of how consistent that evidence is with the imperative relative to its consistency with an alternative and competing ethical imperative, mediated by the degree of prior belief in these alternative personal ethical frameworks.

Simply put then, I advocate making a clear distinction between fundamental (or axiomatic) ethics and reason-based or evidence-based ethics. Appeal to reason and evidence cannot influence the first, but both can influence the latter. So if a position is taken that some action is absolutely wrong, which no amount of reason or evidence could contradict, I term this a fundamental ethical judgement. If it is possible to change one’s mind based on the production of some reasoning or evidence, then that is a reason-based or evidence-based ethical judgement.

It is very important to distinguish these in order to help resolve or arbitrate ethical differences or to decide whether they are likely to be resolvable.

The next step is to identify actual examples of these ethical imperatives, and to probe how we might best resolve them.

If it is determined that the ethical positions under consideration contain no ethical imperatives but are instead consequence-based judgements, matters move on in a different direction, but can again be categorised into evidence-based and reason-based consequentialist ethics, and then considered from that perspective.

Truth and sound justice depend on sound ethics, among other things.

The task now is to try and establish which ethical frameworks are sound and which are not. Where relevant, by the application of reason and (perhaps) evidence.

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