Sunday, January 25, 2009

Am, Is, Be

Perspectivalism provides a live alternative to the three dead ends of modern ethics. John M. Frame explains how perspectivalism can operate as a "metaethics" that unites teleology, deontology, and existential ethics.

I first grasped the concept of perspectivalism as it applied to ethics, which seems to be a natural starting point for people who have struggled with the frustrating state of that discipline these days. Frame says:
Although I published my epistemology before my ethics, I developed the threefold scheme in ethics before applying it to epistemology. Ethics is its natural home, and I think the ethical applications of it are more easily understood than the applications to epistemological theory.
Here's Frame on the three schools of modern secular ethical theory:
1. Existential Ethics: Existential ethics is the view that ethics is essentially a matter of human inwardness, a matter of character and motive....

2. Teleological Ethics: ...The teleologist sets forth one relatively simple, objective goal for ethics which, he thinks, no human being can legitimately question. That goal is usually called “happiness” or “pleasure”...

3. Deontological Ethics: The third tendency is toward “deontological ethics,” or an ethic of duty.

Frame calls these different "perspectives," and labels them "self, world, and law." It seems to me that each of these perspectives has its own grammar--"I am," "it is," "you be!" To stretch the grammatical observation just a bit, one might even argue that each has its own grammatical mood: interrogative, indicative, and imperative.

It is easy to draw the analogy between the indicative mood, physical reality, and teleological ethics. Each is about "facts, "about what "is." It isn't hard to see the correlation between the imperative mood, the "logos," and deontological ethics. Each is about "values," what "ought to be."

Having got this far, symmetry begs us to explore the possible relationship between the interrogative mood, subjectivity, and existential ethics. In the interrogative mood, I ask "Am I?" instead of asserting "I am" (in the indicative) or commanding "Be!" (in the imperative).

There's something about that question--"Am I?"--that hints at depths to come.

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