The dictatorship of groundless ethics

Here is the text of the speech delivered by Stefano Fontana in Trieste on Friday, 11 November 2016, to the participants at the course organized by the Medical Association on the theme: “Ethics: evolution and repercussions on the work of physicians”



Ethics is the study of our deeds from the viewpoint of good and evil. It has to do with human action. Ethics concerns not what we do, but what we should do. It is prescriptive and normative, not descriptive. Human action falls into two categories: there is productive action, or poiesis, and there is ethical action, or praxis. The end of the former is the product, while the end of the latter is the act itself. For this reason, decisive regarding the goodness of ethical action, or praxis, may be neither the consequences (consequentialism), even though they are to be taken into consideration, nor the practical usefulness (utilitarianism), insofar as this shift of stress onto the results would transform an ethical act into a technical act. Virtue is the award unto itself; in other words, the reason for performing a good deed is to perform a good deed.

For this reason moral action has an intransitive meaning. Before having an effect on an external object, our deeds have an impact on the agent of the deed. If I plan to steal money, my first decision is not to steal money, but to be a thief. Action in man above all has to do with his being, since the person, insofar as free, may act in conformity or not with his own being. He may cause self-harm on the same level of being, and this is the ‘punishment’ always entailed in doing evil.

Action is driven by will power, but were this the case it would be blind, nothing more than a vital impulse. Man, on the other hand, is endowed with the capacity to use reason when considering his own deeds as contingent, and hence to shed light on them. Will power as such is unable to assess good and evil; it is an appetitive faculty, not a cognitive one. This assessment endeavor pertains to intelligence.

Intelligence can determine what is good for me now and in this situation. But it is not enough to serve as the grounds for ethics, which has to be universal and apply for one and all. Solely individual and empirical ethics is not ethics because it does not indicate an ought-to-be argued in the light of universal principles. Whatever does not apply for everyone does not apply for anyone, because this would mean that it has nothing to do with man as such.

Pertaining to reason, therefore, is the task to see if there are universal ethical principles. It is evident that if reason draws these same principles from itself (rationalism), they will be abstract and bereft of grounds. Conversely, if it finds them in the ‘being’ of things and man, they will be grounded in the ends expressed by the nature of things. Man is something and someone: this his being something and someone is normative in nature since it expresses a finality (and this means doing good), or man can act against his being and his finality (and this means doing evil). Without the finalism of things there is no longer any room for ethics. No moral law issues forth from the causal succession of a series of phenomena. No ought-to-be issues forth from de facto situations.

Nowadays people no longer feel reason can know the being of things, know their nature which then becomes normative insofar as finalistic. Hence, what we have today is groundless ethics.

The object of ethics is good, that is to say what is desirable. All men desire good, and if they perpetrate evil it is because they are mistaken or because their will did not heed the voice of reason. Good is being insofar as desirable. It is not possible to know good without knowing the being of things. It is not possible to love something or someone other than in the truth of its/his/her being. There is no love without truth.

Knowing good, reason learns the laws inscribed in it. There is a natural moral law that reason finds in the being of things, and which all civilizations have accepted and expressed. Moral law, however, must be applied in a specific situation, and seeing to this is moral conscience with its virtue of prudence or phronesis. Conscience is an act of intelligence which sees the general principles of action as well as the particular situation where action is to be taken, and strives to obtain the greatest possible good there from.

Conscience does not create the moral norm, as people tend to say today, but knows and applies it not in an automatic manner, exercising its full creativity in doing the utmost of good within a given situation. Conscience is neither absolute and creative, nor passive and applicative, and this by virtue of prudence which is not caution and hesitation, but courage and resoluteness. Since good may be done in many ways, conscience enjoys extensive discretionary power. It does not have discretionary power, however, in the presence of certain deeds that are always evil, no matter what may be the circumstance. The intrinsece mala are deeds that can never be carried out, such as, for example, killing an innocent person.

The general norms of morals are not known through some sort of insight or intuition as if they were a list of clear and distinct ideas. Reason knows them in the being of things. Nonetheless, the gradual unfolding of history and often specific historical situations like a dictatorship, for example, make us see the good of liberty all the better; a period of warfare makes us see the good of peace all the better. This does not mean that ethics is history bound, and hence changing according to changes in history. It means that when solicited by history our reason may deepen the content of moral norms – as well as lose sight of it, unfortunately – without this barring the existence of true and authentically universal moral laws. Male-female equality was often considered with no little toil, and is often disregarded, but this does not mean it is not a universal good. To speak about the “evolution” of ethics is fraught with risk if we fail to consider aspects such as these.

Ethics gives rise to laws since it is normative and not descriptive as we have seen. Forms and expressions of moral behavior may change, but not the moral laws founded on the nature of things and man. The word ‘law’ indicates an ordering of reason. This is what moral laws and juridical laws are. It is evident, however, that the moral law comes before juridical law. Otherwise we would have to sustain that the State, or the Lawmaker in any case, constitutes the grounds of a moral system, or else promulgates laws bereft of any justification other than the exercise of power. Only positive laws are like this (juridical positivism).

Today we are living in a time of groundless ethics. The crisis of reason produces forms of ethics: voluntaristic ethics, or ethics based on the absolute nature of conscience, and hence on feelings, or historicist ethics with conscience as the social product; ethics based on consensus which is none other than the selfsame criterion of the absolute nature of personal conscience uplifted to a collective level; ethics of self authenticity which is so fashionable today since it is deemed sufficient for someone to speak and act, “believing in what they are saying or doing”, or, as people say “taking a personal stand”, for what they say or do to be considered a good; finally, the ethics of self-determination so prevalent today especially in the field of bioethics.

It is readily understandable that all these cases have to do with groundless ethics where everything and the contrary of everything is possible. These are likewise contradictory solutions as we see with the case of self-determination. Whoever sustains the principle of self-determination enunciates a principle that cannot depend on self-determination, because in this case, on the basis of self-determination, it would be possible to deny self-determination as such. Self-determination as well needs grounds that it cannot give to itself.

Groundless ethics is basically totalitarian. Nowadays there is an increasing propensity to prohibit conscientious objection. In fact, self-determination calls for the admissibility of all expressions thereof – from the woman who aborts to the terminal patient who requests assisted suicide – except for one: the expression that denies self-determination. If absolute self-determination is an absolute right, the state must defend and promote it, barring conscientious objection, which means barring the self-determination that denies the principle of self-determination. Whoever sustains that there is something coming before conscience and limiting it is obliged to accept the principle that conscience has no limits. In this manner the state and juridical law compel conscience to accept the fact that nothing is to be imposed upon conscience. Note well what is more than an apparent oddity: imposed is the non toleration of impositions. Here we have the core of this contradiction: it is said that nothing must be imposed upon conscience, but this principle is then imposed in an absolute and dogmatic fashion. Naught but this may be the final outcome of groundless morals.