Ethics is like a painting

Imagine if you will a painting hanging in a large and popular art gallery. Before considering the painting as an artwork, think of its underlying structure as a physical object. The type of basic physical object we start with determines the type of artwork that this will be. It could be a lump of clay for some pottery, or a slab of granite for a colossal statue. But this is going to be a painting. Start with a wooden box frame and a canvas stretched tightly over it and tacked in place. Now we have a base from which to begin. Without this, we could not proceed. In fact, instead of making this frame (or anything else), not proceeding at all is one of our options here too. Remember that saying you might have heard in maths at primary school (elementary school if you’re in the USA), “the empty set is a subset of every set”. In the set of our options here is the null option, the choice to  do absolutely nothing, to not make a work of art in the first place. But we did, so let’s move on.

Next, we obviously need a picture. This one is an oil painting. The painter with his paints, brushes and other tools decides what the picture will look like.

Then we have the critics – the visitors to the gallery who stand around and look at the paintings. This one is a very large painting, almost from floor to ceiling and five feet wide, so the visitors stand around the painting in a group, squinting at the many details, analysing it and commenting on its colour and depth, disagreeing about what they can see in the scene before them. Is that a llama or a chicken in the distance?

This is my analogy for the shades of different disciplines within that branch of philosophy called ethics. There are different “levels” on which we can think about ethics.

If we step right back and talk about the very building blocks of morality, we’re doing what’s called meta-ethics. This is like the frame and canvas. Meta ethics address questions like “what do moral terms like ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ even mean?” “What function to moral assertions serve?” “Are there any moral facts?” The very nature of ethics is decided at this level. Perhaps ethics is one sort of thing or another. Maybe it’s about getting to the facts about the universe that constitute moral facts, maybe it’s about expressing our will, or maybe it’s just an illusion and really ethics is just a string of false claims, none of which we have any reason to affirm? This is like deciding what type of work of art we’re dealing with – or if we’re going to bother making anything at all.

Once the basic nature of ethics is decided on, the details need to be fleshed out. OK, so ethics is about searching out the moral facts in the world that answer to the description “moral” (this is, of course, only one of the options that meta-ethics considers). And which facts would they be? We need a theory of how to classify them. So we descend one level down, closer to the ground where ethical decisions are made. Here, we are dealing with ethical theory. We paint (no apology for the metaphor!) a picture of what, in principle, it is to live the ethical life. Perhaps it involves satisfying the preferences of the greatest possible number of people. Maybe it involves doing the will of God, or living according to our nature as created beings. Maybe it involves doing the thing that a sufficiently well informed virtuous person would do. This is the level called “ethical theory.”

Lastly we come to what most normal people think of when they hear the words “ethics” or “ethical.” The critics and commentators standing around the painting are the ethicists. They’re staring into the painting to see what they can see in it. Once you’ve got a meta-ethical framework, and you’ve got a theory of morality, you end up with outcomes, things that can be called “atomic ethical judgements.” This means not grand, sweeping meta-ethical statements about right and wrong, but specific judgements about human actions. “Torturing people is wrong.” “You have a duty to protect human life.” “Genetic engineering is morally questionable,” and so on. When someone says that an action “isn’t very ethical,” they mean to make a statement at this level. What ethicists at this level do is stare into the results of an ethical theory and try to figure out what outcomes they can see. What picture of right human action comes out this end of the theory?

Now, this is no regular audience of art critics. They have come armed with brush and paint, because they don’t always agree with the artist. “No, no,” they might say, “that object doesn’t belong in this picture,” and they will paint the offending object out and replace it with another. This is because people might share an ethical theory, yet disagree about what that theory might say about specific actions. Two utilitarians might disagree about what they theory says about the death penalty, for example.

Or maybe, after gazing long and hard, the critic decides that there are just too many things wrong with the picture for her liking. She can’t bear to look into it any longer. She can see that the objects in the painting really do belong there. They fit right in, but they make up a picture that she wants nothing to to with, so she moves on to the next painting in the gallery. This is what happens when we reject the ethical theory. Utilitarianism, let’s say, just yields consequences about right and wrong that seem enormously counter-intuitive to you, so you scrap the theory and choose another.

But maybe this isn’t enough. After viewing several different oil paintings you decide that painting paintings just isn’t the way you want to approach art at all, so you move on to the sculpture section of the gallery, taking with you a hammer and chisel in case any of the works there need slight adjustments. This is what happens when we decide that we disagree fundamentally with the enterprise of ethics being presented to us. Maybe you’ve spend the semester reading R. M. Hare and you’ve decided that he was on the wrong track completely when it came to ethics. He didn’t even think that ethical propositions refer to facts about morality at all but it seems to you like they most certainly do, so you set his books aside and move on to John Rist instead. Now there’s a meta-ethical outlook that makes sense to you.

So there we have it. Plato has his cave analogy to illustrate his idea of the forms, I have my painting analogy to illustrate the levels of ethics. If you teach ethics, feel free to borrow the analogy, giving credit where it is due. 🙂

Glenn Peoples

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