An Ethics of Contact; Ethics for Limited Beings

The human being is not a coherent decision-maker. Nor is it fully coherent in any way. It is a being of constant growth, and decay, of spreading out its influence, and losing its connections. A mess entangled in a great, alien, and remote world.

How is ethics to be conducted, in such a reality? That is the question motivating this dive into human being, and the fundamental issues facing creatures of ethics.

Human agency is not restricted to the body, nor to its immediate physical environment. Digital society has more than proven that human agency goes beyond the body. Offshots of our individual influences persist online even as we cut ourselves off from the keyboard. Like unconscious digital twins, to which we can attach, detach, and reattach, to sync intent with behaviour.

Before the internet and the machine, remote agency usually required the physical relocation of a body, such as ourself, our trustworthy friends, obedient pets, or diligent servants, who may go and act in our stead, for then to return, and go yet again. Now today, the abstract machine of software is instead the one who finds us, through the cloud and its many access points.

Human agency as such has a domain of possibility that is far and wide. But, restricted to the access point, or, to the routes via which the patterns of our will may flow without the decay of intent. This last bit is one of the most crucial points of this text: that intent decays. More than the mess of a human being; of our moral subjectivity internally divided and shifting in composition, there is the fact that with every decision made and acted upon; every act of an agency manifesting itself, there is the decay of intent, trailing the path of our will unfolding.

Can ethical integrity survive a reality of decay?

Not only does agency decay, but so too does our connection with the world overall. And along this decay of reality, there is the epistemic decay in sourcing data, information, knowledge, truth, and as a consequence of it all, the moral decay of living in a world without pure truth, nor actions purely in their intended form.

Consequentialism surely cannot survive such a world, can it? The moral distance – the fading of our access point into reality for truth and for agency – this appears to make something like utilitarianism at least, fundamentally impossible. If we understand utilitarianism as a philosophy concerned with global or regional optimums, and as an ethics reliant on generalization, statistics, instruments, and to some extent machines, with which to take its objective outside perspective and judge the quantified good from the quantified bad. At least under such an understanding of utilitarianism, this Problem of Moral Distance, or the Problem of Fading Access to Reality, seems insurmountable on a level more metaphysical than merely practical.

I will refer again, like I did in my text on “An Epistemology of Vulnerability”, to Ontological Finitudes here, to preemptively counter any understanding of reality as something which can be mastered totally. For one way to defend against any pointing to decay in reality, is by saying that it is merely a practical problem, which could be overcome with, for instance, better technology. But this presupposes that reality is some kind of finite game, where we merely have to discover the winning strategy for totalizing control of it. However, having any such control is itself an epistemic problem. The perception of embodying power can lead to ontological delusions, which is the kind of problem that the lens of Ontological Finitude describes. An Ontological Finitude, in short, is when the number of “things” that constitute reality is limited, for instance by our own power, negligence, or bad luck, to be such that we could not even discover errors in our own understanding of reality, because the “things” which would’ve been errors do not exist for us. It is treating a possibly infinite reality as inherently finite, and making oneself only able to perceive it thusly. But for such an assumption of a finite world to work out, one would already have to know that reality was finite, even before one started making strategies about how to achieve totalizing control of it, because any strategy could lead us straight into an Ontological Finitude. Thereby, a utilitarianist system can never get going, because its first act is to discredit its whole project.

With this in mind, it seems that utilitarianism is truly a fundamentally impossible philosophical position for a rational consequentialist to hold.

When it comes to the ethics of duty, the problems can be similar to the fundamental problems of utilitarianism, insofar as the duty in question overlaps with consequentalism in its concerns about truth and agency. Otherwise, a duty which is mainly or fully inconsiderate of consequences, would not be much affected, but neither would it find much intuitive appeal as we largely find truth and agency to be core ethical concerns. Consider for instance, how a duty to help or aid someone, or prevent something, cannot function without a proper grasp of truth (i.e. you are totally sensory disabled and therefore cannot locate a rolling boulder), and may be altered into irrelevance if there is no effective agency (i.e. you have no working body parts with which to help). The fading of access to reality is thus less of a hard counter to the ethics of duty in general, but is still a fundamental issue to most ethics of duty, and certainly to the one’s we generally consider worthy of our belief.

As for the ethics of virtue, one may ask just how virtuous it is possible to be, without access to reality over the dimensions of truth and agency. Here, the problem of moral distance appears less of a fundamental concern for all virtues, as much as it is a concern about the quality of virtue achievable. Is bravery as valuable when it is coupled with truth and agency, as when it is decoupled from them? Are people who are brave but ignorant, just as brave as those who are brave but knowing? I think yes, they are, but not if they know that they don’t know. Someone who is uncertain, has at the same time the luxury of hope in the moments that would define their bravery, and the curse of despair in the moments that would otherwise be made irrelevant by their harmlessness. As such, the defining moments lose their definitional power due to hope, while life in general suddenly becomes a kind of continuous testing ground for bravery, such that merely staying alive can be a mark of bravery. Therefore, we may say that the character of bravery, as our chosen example for virtue, is thinned out under general uncertainty, such that there is nothing defining bravery, yet bravery is everywhere present and is the most basic level of virtuous existence, achieved without any special trial. Strangely, then, it seems that accidental ignorance become a prerequisite for attaining bravery.

I cannot visit every virtue there is to see how many conform to problems analogous to the one I just sketched, and I did not even touch on the problems for bravery under the decay of agency, but if we allow for this to constitute our first sample in an inductive conclusion about virtue ethics, we may say that while there could be special virtues that are immune to the problem of moral distance, there is likely a general problem here for the virtues we find most important, central, or core to the life of virtue – which is the overall objective of virtue ethics after all.

Altogether then: utilitarianism, duty, virtue, they all fall before the problem of moral distance, a.k.a. the problem of fading access to reality, a.k.a. the problem of decay in truth, agency, and morality, that comes with being limited. For utilitarianism, it seems the only way to be an ethical subject is if all moral distance was equal to 0. That is, if we were the infinite totality of everything unified into a whole. An absolute, timeless, universal agency. Or, what some religious people would call God. As such, utilitarianism is an ethics reserved for the divine perfect being, who already is all that can ever be. Something we decidely are not. For us, our messy existence of variable disconnection from the rest of reality requires another approach, and a different way of thinking.

Trying to escape this situation to achieve an ethics, the problem we are confronting is that as soon as decay and access comes on the scene, our moral judgement is gradually rendered irrelevant. The solution, therefore, should be to preempt decay and make the most of the access we do have. What I have in mind then, is for us to try and bring ethics to the very edges of human being. Meaning, to the point at which we are in direct contact with reality; to the immediacy of human surface.

I imagine something beautiful, and something beautifying. The world is the beautiful, and it has been beautified by the beautifying creature; the creature of ethics. As forces of good, we could be the beings whose mere touch with the world transforms it, painting it the color of moral beauty.

What if ethics was but this touch? An ugly immoral world coming into contact with the beautifying substance of a beautifying creature. An ugliness reacted upon, and in this reaction then willed into beauty. Instead of asking for the human being to master the world beyond themselves to work an ethic doomed for decay under moral distance, what about we ask the human being to merely will their accessing surfaces beautiful?

The proper first question here is: how would that work? And the answer lies in the dual problems of habit, and of principle.

Habit, because we are not creatures endowed with the power to take any situation and consider it fully. Rather, the situations all come one after the other, and we require a way to respond that is beautifying. A way in which our will, having detected in the world a moral ugliness, is thus aroused by this immorality, to make a prompt response; beautifying the ugly surface with capableness. It’s a matter, in other words, of wiring ourselves to produce of the world good things (when it is not already so, in which case we must know how to enjoy its moral beauty).

And then it’s a question of principle, because there has to be a way in which we are not also caught in something like an Ontological Finitude, or some critical unawareness about reality. To be precise, the danger we face with reacting to surfaces, is that our progressively beautifying presence creates something like a beautified shell around us, blocking sight of reality beyond and keeping us passive inside of it. And if we act like a mere reactive automaton, we are also in danger of going into loops and never knowing that our position in the grand scheme of things is compromised by the systemic uselessness of our individual reactive action (imagine a robot cleaning in the front, only for its behind to dirty the floor, and the robot to then go into an endless loop of cleaning the same floor over). For these reasons, we require a principle to also probe reality, to let ourselves move far and beyond into new territorities, to discover new moral ugliness, and also a principle for this probing to be subject to a creative drive, that has the possibility of expanding the reach of our beautifying presence. Lastly, we require a third principle. For we need to evolve, to let our will not be constant in its kinds, but for life to also be a journey of self-beautification as self-development, where we grow to become this ever greater, more capable, more widely affecting beautifying presence.

Ubiquotous moral beauty. That is the goal. And to achieve this goal, what I say is that we don’t need a global principle. Rather, we can accomplish beauty everywhere, merely by beautifying our surroundings, and then moving – everywhere. We could make ourselves into our own guarantee of worldly moral beautification, if we make of ourselves this substance, eroding of the morally ugly, and sprouting the morally good. If, that is, we become the sorts of good creatures, that makes good out of the world, and inspires of other creatures to do the same, even when we’re dead and gone.

Perhaps you’ll find parallells in the ethical systems I just refuted. Maybe this could be considered another version of, say, virtue ethics? However, in the end, what’s important here is how we have now solved ethics for beings who are limited. For this, The Ethic of Contact, is an ethics for you, and an ethics for me. This is the ethics of a world made morally beautiful, by us, in the here and the now of our lives.