The Role of the Subjunctive in Ethics

The short answer is, “It’s all of it.” Yes, literally, just as it reads: Every instance of ethics and morality is built wholly of the subjunctive, and nothing else.

What does this mean? Why is it true? That’s a slightly longer answer. First, one must understand what the subjunctive is. Here’s the definition, the only primary definition, from G & C Merriam’s Third New International Dictionary:

of, relating to, or constituting a verb form or set of verb forms that represents an attitude toward or concern with a denoted act or state not as fact, but as something entertained in thought as contingent or possible or viewed emotionally (as with doubt, desire, will)

Every instance of morality is built of a choice. Engaging a choice, or choosing, consists of judging one alternative as better or worse than another. This essay doesn’t concern itself with what IS better or worse, since that’s the purpose of this website generally. It deals rather with the nature of being better or worse in the first place.

The critical point is that this is an epistemological state. That is, it concerns existents of an abstract nature, that are found only in an abstracting consciousness. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist in reality. It means that they exist in the part of reality (the context) of a conceptualizing mind. Conceptualizing minds are real. You know this because you have one. As the experts would say, it’s self-evident.

What is an alternative? An alternative, and there have to be at least two present in order to be an alternative, is likewise a creation only of an abstracting mind. Without an abstracting mind, one can’t have any sort of mental integration of “that which isn’t,” except by outright dysfunction. Maybe we can fool a deer into thinking there’s a pasture where there isn’t one, but a deer is not capable of mentally capturing, through its senses, a smell that doesn’t exist. This is true of all non-abstracting organisms—a plant can’t turn “wrongly” away from a source of light; an eagle can’t see an object that isn’t there. The object may not be what its instincts tell it that it is, but the sensory input itself cannot be “wrong” or “false.” Falsity is something available only to a conceptualizing organism.

Ethics is the study of how humans choose and what they ought to choose. Choosing presupposes alternatives, and alternatives presuppose the subjunctive. For without the subjunctive, there cannot be two integrations from which to choose—one of them must be false-to-fact. If not, then there wouldn’t be two! This is because for any particular instance, whatever the nature of the instance, there is only one factual state of it. Hence in order to have a choice, in order to conceptualize an alternative, we must conceptualize something that’s false-to-fact.

Being creatures of will, with the ability to subjunctively imagine the future, we decide which instance from among a set of alternatives will instantiate, or become fact. This is the nature of the will, and as we’re dealing with at least one counterfactual–whichever alternative(s) we don’t choose–this is the reason that only humans have what is called “free will.” There may be other animals that have an elementary ability to engage this action, but that’s just a claim that other animals may or may not have the ability to conceptualize counterfactuals. If they don’t, then they can’t genuinely choose, no matter how much it looks to us as if they are.

These are the facts that are relevant on the topic of ethics, at least on the sub-topic of what ethics and morality are. I offer no conclusions here because in ethics, the conclusions themselves are the things being judged. I do not offer any of this as a matter of judgment; I offer it only as a matter of fact, which it is. We identify first, and then we judge. Once we understand the nature of that judging, and how we ought to proceed to choose from among those judgments, then and only then will we be able to actually judge and choose consistently with the facts of reality. Thus does our condition improve, because improvement requires that we be consistent with the state of reality.

On the topic of ethics, one should start simple—that which is true is the good; that which is false is the bad. Ethics is available to a creature of free will–a creature that has the innate ability to imagine counterfactuals–in order that he may guide himself to choosing future actions that will be built of correspondent facts and not imaginary, unachievable wishes.

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