Empowerment Ethics: “Who Is Anyone To Tell Others What To Do?”

The post below originally appeared onSecularite.

My inaugural “Empowerment Ethics” post was greeted with the following hostile response on a friend’s Facebook timeline:

Why do I have a problem with this? Could it be that I have an expectation that anyone suggesting a moral path for others start by cleaning his/her own glass house? Mr. Fricke appears to have some work to do.

It dawned on me that this is an excellent first issue to address. I had already intended to begin this blog spending some time over the winter and spring answering concerns people have that make them reluctant (or outright disposed against) believing in the possibility of ethical truths.

Then this curiously contemptuous and accusatory reply to my fairly innocuous introductory post came along and was a healthy reminder about where a lot of people start with ethics. Many start not just as abstract skeptics about ethical truth but with a more immediately relevant concern–suspicious of claims to moral authority. It makes sense, world history is riddled with people with pretensions to moral authority who have proved rotten.“Who are you to tell me what to do?”, she asks and then she goes on to give me a method for establishing my credibility, which is to morally perfect myself first if I am to ask anyone to follow in my example.

Her challenge and the gauntlet she proposes raise two crucial questions: Who in general has the authority to determine what morality is and what kind of character does the proposer of an ethical system have to personally embody in order to have either credibility or authority?

The truth is, as far as I can tell, I don’t matter. I have no pretensions that I make anything good or bad or morally binding simply through a declaration by fiat. I have arguments that I think will show we can discover what is good and bad for different kinds of beings, including humans generally, and particular individuals specifically. But I am not a lawgiver or the maker of what goodness is. I do not legislate morality into existence. I observe the formal patterns that make things good or bad and try to formulate them coherently and in objective terms. I am making truth claims, not dictates about behavior. I will just give you many reasons to take into account when you make decisions.

“Subjectivists” are those who think that moral authority comes from the subjective acts of will by agents. I disagree with them. Our subjective wills are important to ethics in a variety of ways. But I think I can show their authority is relative to rationally objective standards that in some ways vouch for them and in some ways limit them. Insofar as I think I or you do have moral rights to demand acquiescence to our wills, I think those rights have to be grounded by reference to the best and most rational possible ethical theory, applied in the fairest and most rational way.

The only authority here is Reason. My authority only goes so far as the rational demonstrability of my claims. I am not a prophet. I am not a guru. And, at the risk of being cliché, I am not a role model. Or at least I need not be one. I don’t expect anyone to agree or disagree with me because I have proven in my life that my personal way of life is the best. In fact, I don’t even think proper ethical understanding leads us to think of any one way as the only way to live, with respect to hundreds of particulars. I think there are different ways in which different people will flourish. Far be it from me to say that all must do as I do out of some pretension (that I don’t have) such that I am the one whose way of life is better than all others’. I think there is a standard all our myriad paths can be judged by–a destination that proves they were really paths and not dead ends. But that’s not the same thing as thinking there’s only one path.

Perssonally, I am a very imperfect person. I have no desire to make you into a copy of myself who lives as I do nor to make you someone who substitutes my judgment for your own. I am not asking you to abdicate the responsibility to think for yourself. Only if your reason persuades you I’m right should you adopt any position I hold. And how you apply things I convince you of in practical terms in your own thinking and choosing in life will depend on the highly specific matrix of circumstances you find yourself in, with innumerable factors to weigh. You must be conscientiously honest and situationally sensitive in order to make the best decisions. I will model my own manner of thinking about a number of issues, but I claim no special authority even in those things I discuss beyond what reason can validate.

This is a matter of both form and substance for me. Formally, truth is best discovered by free reasoning, scrupulously carried out, usually in community with others.

But also substantively, the content of my ethical ideal that I will argue for is that the best thing humans can strive for is our individual powers and the best way for us to maximally thrive in our individual powers is to be power generators who create and amplify powers in others, that our own power may multiply and go on beyond the meager confines of own individual brains and bodies.

The point of the blog is to develop what was a hard won philosophical discovery for me after years toiling away teaching, studying, and writing: that our individual highest good and the collective highest good is that we maximally empower others.

So, the kind of ethical conclusions I come up with are not going to ever be consistent with you fundamentally disempowering yourself out of slavish obedience to some precept I recommend. Anything I recommend you do should either be empowering to you or you should exercise your own judgment and ignore me on that point. We may get into vigorous debates where we think each other objectively wrong about what is your maximally empowering option if you decide to talk to me personally for advice or if I start applying empowerment ethics principles to thorny contemporary ethical controversies. I am going to advocate that you listen to my reasons and have solid counter-reasons before rejecting any proposition or proposal I put forward. But at the end of the day you’re free to ignore me where I am wrong or even where you simply think I am wrong.

So, I hope this puts to rest worries. I know we’re all very used to dealing with religious and other charismatic leaders who attempt to themselves vouchsafe a moral code they impose on others dogmatically. But that’s not going to be the style here. This is philosophy. This is a philosophical approach to deriving an ethics. It’s not religion or self-help.

Your Thoughts?

Not satisfied with some aspect of my moral philosophy yet? Click the question or challenge that is closest to yours:

What is Empowerment Ethics?
Who Is Anyone To Tell Others What To Do?
How Can We Find External Criteria To Assess Morality’s Truth and Authority?
Is Empowerment Ethics Atheistic?
Can Morality Mean Something Other Than Absolutist Morality?
Is Morality Just Subjective?
Are Individuals’ Moralities Merely Personal?
Is Morality Relative?
Does Everyone Mean Something Different By The Word ‘Good’?
Are Moral Issues Too Subjective To Argue Over?
Can Atheists Condemn Rape Without Theistic Moral Absolutism?
Is Morality Just Culturally Relative?

Empowerment Ethics Permanent Page, Regularly Updated With Answers To More Challenges and Questions

I am a philosopher who specializes in ethics. For years, starting in my doctoral dissertation and then continuing right here on Camels With Hammers, I have been drafting, defending, and developing my own spin on the perfectionist and humanist ethical traditions that I call “Empowerment Ethics”. I write about everything from the most abstract foundational issues related to the nature of value and morality themselves (what philosophers call “metaethics”), to the most pressing moral controversies of our time, to how to live a good life in practical terms. The post above was an entry in this larger series. For a regularly updated full list of posts in this series and a very brief, 5 paragraph long, primer on what “Empowerment Ethics” is about as a moral philosophy see and bookmark this permanent page. A more thorough overview of the views can be found in my post My Systematic, Naturalistic Empowerment Ethics, With Applications To Tyrants, the Differently Abled, and LGBT People.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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