A sketch: Some metaphysics of ethics

Something with a voice

We have obligations. But why? Or in fact, how? We could imagine a world without obligations. (Or could we? What would such a world be like? Would it be chaotic? Would it be much like the world in which we actually live?) But we do have obligations—for some reason. There is something because of which we have obligations.

So there is something. Obligations are not miracles. There is something, something that exists or something that happens, something that tells us what to do and what not to do. What is it? It has to be something that can speak. It has to have a voice—metaphorically speaking, of course, but maybe the ethical is necessarily metaphorical? It has to speak to us. It is of no use if it is just rambling by itself, not really talking to anyone, or perhaps talking only to itself. It has to direct its message to us. And it has to have a reason for doing this: it does what it does because of what it is, or because what we are, or because—and most likely because—of both of these things.

If there is to be something we should do, we should not ignore it. If there are other messages, they entail other obligations. These other obligations are in competition with the original one, and they exclude it. They tell us not to do what we should do. So there can only be a single voice. However, many voices may form a synthesis, in which case they become one. If they do not do so, they remain many, which means only one of them can be valid.

Is this relevant information? I think it is. If obligation is without a voice, it remains mysterious, perhaps only emotional. We could not easily talk about it. Do we need to talk about it? If it isn't enough by itself. If we need to improve our understanding of its nature. But still, maybe not. Maybe it is without a voice, and maybe its nature is to remain mysterious. But if it is, it is not easy to see what reason we have to expect others to listen to something, or even be able to listen to it, something without a voice.

What does it sound like?

Let's assume, if only to kill time, that obligation does indeed have a voice. What does it sound like? What kind of a voice is it? What is the attitude of the voice? Does it state facts in a calm, scientific manner? Does it command us? It has to be a voice of some authority. But there are many forms of authority. Perhaps it sounds like a mother or a father, a policeman, a priest, a judge, a lecturer or a god. It seems to want to teach us something and not just punish or control, so perhaps the policeman and the judge are out of the question. It doesn't seem satisfied with just teaching either.

Is the voice loud? I do not believe so. In some situations, we do hear it clearly. But in many other situations, we are not sure if what we hear really is the voice of obligation. The analysis requires two axes: that of distance and that of volume. If the voice seems to come from afar, we need to retreat to silence in order to hear it. The voice is a quiet one, and easy to shout down. But accordingly, the stronger the presence of the voice is, the clearer we hear it.

Whatever it sounds like, it has also to be an echo of our own voice. Even if it comes in a way from outside, it has to sound like it could have been us speaking. It doesn't push us around: even when it expects us to do something we are not disposed to do, it doesn't force us. Its aim is to make us echo its voice, if not to others, at least to ourselves.

What does it say?

The voice does not just make a noise. It tries to get a message through. The message is not just a description of something. It is not a law either: it does not entail sanctions. It can only punish us by making us feel bad because of ourselves, because we have pushed it away, even though we like to hear its voice. We like to have it around.

I think it expresses wishes or hopes. It doesn't tell us what to do, but only expresses wishes, and hopes they will be fulfilled. It hopes they will be fulfilled by us, because it is concerned with us. It is no matter if someone else fulfills its wishes or they are fulfilled by accident, because ultimately it cares about us. It cares about who we are, how we use our abilities, and who we are to become.

What is it?

The philosophers have their suggestions. Their problem is often that they substitute their own voice for that of obligation. They try to understand obligation systematically by making it part of some larger philosophical system. With their systems, they shout over its voice.

Last updated: 29 December 2009.

Originally posted: 7 July 2004.