Metaphysics 101 Part 8

(Part 8 of Ten)

(continued from Part 7 of Ten)

In Search of Ethics and Esthetics

Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.

–Rose Sayer, The African Queen

Rose instinctively knew that Ethics and Esthetics definitively distinguish human beings from all other species. Unlike Rose, most people don’t hold ethics or esthetics high on their list of items for contemplation. Yet, the fountain of everyday philosophy never runs dry. It gushes in the daily interaction of people whether or not they are aware of having a philosophy.

When ethics is discussed in academia as a topic in itself, it is generally denigrated as a collection of “handed down” precepts designed to control human behavior. Ignored is the fact that “handed down” precepts were once the original concepts of individuals who were the first to discover that human behavior need not be exclusively instinctual as it is with all other species. Consider the following.

Sophie’s Choice

The setting is a concentration camp. A sadistic Nazi commandant punishes a woman, the mother of two children, by forcing her to choose which of her children shall die. As we watch the climax of the film, we are subjectively compelled (along with Sophie) to make an unthinkable choice when the commandant orders Sophie to choose which of her children shall die so that the other may live.

In the privacy of a darkened theater we ask ourselves, “If I were Sophie, what objective moral choice would I make?” Our minds race for an answer although we don’t have to make that choice. However, Sophie must make that choice. She makes a random choice. Somehow we know she did what we would have done. Yet, long after we have seen the film and at length dispassionately but deeply search for an alternative answer, we still believe that the only choice must be a random one. But in her celluloid reality, Sophie’s agony is just beginning and her guilt inexorably leads her to suicide. Millions upon millions of people have suffered unearned guilt because of actions they have been compelled to take against their will.

Sophie’s ‘choice’ is as arbitrary as the flipping of a coin. Whatever else the film’s creators intended to project, Sophie was confronted with what appears to be a choice. But actually, Sophie had no choice. Her Nazi captor, did have a choice. The murder of her child was his choice, not Sophie’s. The commandant is morally responsible for the murder of an innocent child, not Sophie. Only free choices are subject to moral scrutiny. I submit that the title of the film is a contradiction in terms. Forced behavior is the opposite of free will. Free will and choice are corollaries. Neither can exist without the other.

There are three Ethics riddles that are popular in academic circles. Relativist university professors take delight in citing them to young students, usually as the introduction to a course on Ethics. Designed to baffle rather than enlighten students, the riddles are models for an ‘open-ended’ discussion at the end of which there are more questions than answers.

The Train Riddle

A Towerman is on duty in a tower that is stationed alongside a railroad crossing. Casually looking out of his workplace window he sees a car racing toward the barrier in an attempt to crash through it before an oncoming train collides with his car. Tires screech as the driver changes his mind and suddenly applies his brakes. Too late. The car collides into the barrier and stalls on the railroad track.

The Towerman realizes that if the oncoming train is not sidetracked immediately, it will collide with the car and kill all six of the car’s occupants. He has access to controls that can sidetrack the train, thereby saving the lives of six people. However, there is a man working on the sidetrack that will surely be killed if the Towerman diverts the train to the sidetrack. What should he do?

The Lifeboat Riddle

In the cold wet of a violent storm, six fishermen are faced with an unforgiving situation. Their boat is sinking and there is only one lifeboat that can sustain the weight of only five of the men. They know that the frigid water makes it impossible for them to take turns in and out of the lifeboat so that it can stay afloat. They also know that one of them must die so that five others may live. What should they do?

This riddle plays just as well as it does at sea when it is set at a coalmine disaster, a mountain cliffhanger, or a military battle.

The Transplant Riddle

There are six terminally ill people, each of whom can be cured by a healthy organ provided by the same perfectly healthy donor. The Chief Surgeon has the donor’s consent and full legal license to have each of the six patients be the recipient of the organ he or she needs to go on living. Should the Chief Surgeon arrange to have specialists cut and paste the donor’s organs?

The usual reaction to this riddle is visceral (pun intended). Yet, upon reflection, the riddle is perfectly compatible with the concept of an individual’s self-sacrifice for the sake of the group. Directly or obliquely, that concept is universally regarded and practiced as the essence of high ethical standards, whether religious or secular, where the source of religious ethics is God (e.g., Catholicism), and the source of secular ethics is society, a substitute for God (Collectivism).


Religious tenets are firmly entangled with faith. One individual might willingly adhere to a religious tenet based on faith, while another may adhere to that same tenet motivated only by fear of punishment in this life or in an afterlife, or both. Similarly, an individual may have faith in collectivism while another adheres to its mandates only because of the fear of imprisonment or death.

In a totalitarian theocracy like Iran, major religious and secular directives are one and the same and are mandated by God. In a totalitarian atheist state like North Korea, religious faith is not publicly tolerated and the State is God.


A synonym for the word ‘altruism’ is ‘selflessness,’ a word that defines an act that benefits others without regard for one’s self. The opposite of selflessness is selfishness, which is as ethically unwarranted as selflessness.

However flawed by an overdose of non-provable hypotheses, the study of cosmology is in its infancy and will continue to fascinate and enlighten us with concrete fresh discoveries indefinitely. On the other hand, the arguments of Faith vs. Religion, although still emotionally heated, have played themselves out intellectually. The same is true of overall arguments pertaining to State Rights vs. individual Rights.

Given the geopolitical, technological, and environmental circumstances of our time, I sense an urgent need for a Global Code of Universal Ethics. The very survival of humankind depends on it.

(to be continued in Part 9 of Ten)

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