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Philosophy of Action

The Role of Action in the
Development of Ethical Certainties

Joaquin Jareno Alarcon

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ABSTRACT:I reflect on the incidence and character of the certainties that comprise the basis of our ethical behavior. We do not speak of the propositions due to evidence or to the result of conclusions to which our reasoning leads us. Rather, we treat that which is taken for granted when we justify any behavior. These certainties are not the consequence of theoretical teaching but of action itself, defined here as coinciding action between individuals. While coincidence gives ethical certainties meaning, the training we receive from childhood with respect to these certainties cannot be overestimated. However, ethical teaching as we commonly know it can be articulated in relation with these certainties. Finally, I reflect on the difficulties and problems posed by the different certainties in the background of the behavior of distinct groups and individuals. In my opinion, this does not lead to ethical relativism because some way of continuity must be given in terms of the common human condition. Persuasion can drive individuals sharing a common ethical image of the world to participate in another because some of the certainties are surely shared.

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In any conscient human action it is always given a motive which leads us to act with one orientation instead of another. This is what, in a certain sense, allows us to say that we choose what we want or what fulfils our expectations in terms of the limits of the given circumstances. There is always the search for a benefit related to what we consider preferable, and this is so called delimited by what it signifies for us. In the end, it has an origin that supports our elections, and give the basis to have reasons for justifying these elections. This line of reflection has to be of use not only to understand the meaning of our actions in order to satisfy our current necessities, but it can also help to clarify the scope and content of the ethical discourse. That is, we orient our behavior on the basis of certain convictions we take for granted, which, in principle, we cannot ignore if maybe we want to make decisions showing our ethical preferences.

An exhaustive analysis of our behavior will have as a result a final point beyond which we cannot go. In a certain sense, we can give reasons for any of our acts, that is, we can justify why we act that way instead of another; we can explain the motives which, from the ethical point of view, lead us to orient our decisions in one sense or another. Nevertheless, if the analysis is rigorous enough, we will reach some propositions the justification of which will not be possible; rather, they are the foundations for any justification. To justify a decision means that one has reasons to specify why he/she did so. Why he/she preferred doing this instead of any other possibility.

The end we reach in the analysis of our behavior is a sort of rocky floor beyond which it is senseless going on. This rocky floor is the basic certainties on which our conduct is structured and grounded. Then, we could ask ourselves about why we call them certainties. It is obvious that to act we need to assume — or take for granted — something to depart from. Their central character resides precisely in that we cannot negate such certainties we assume, given the peculiar relation of them with the rest of our behavior. We say they become the axis around which the rest of the propositions giving shape to our conduct settle. It would be useful to ask if in talking about such certainties we can do it in terms of degrees between them, so showing the difference of those which have a more basic character from the ones which have not. When we speak of basic certainties we are speaking of the statements we cannot give reasons about, from the ethical point of view of our conduct. Besides, precisely because of the special value of these statements we can give justifications of the ones which depend on them, and which have a secondary importance, though this could also be central. Thus, the motive by which we cannot give reasons of these ultimate statements is, so to say, because the only reason to justify them is: we act so. They are present in our decisions, because they are the last instance which gives effect to what must be done. Argumentation and justification always come after them, so that we can call these certainties unquestionable or unshakeable. To discuss them would mean, either they are not so central or we have disassembled completely our behavior, negating its own substance.

A question that could be done in this sense would be how these certainties are settled in our conduct. Their main characteristic is that they are action, they are not due to theoretical learning we could develop at school, at home, in the church, etc.. An ethical lesson can be added to the group of our patterns of action through a convincing reasoned exposition. But in order for that to be so, we need the existence of those certainties previously, the acquisition of which is not the result of reflection or reasonable agreement. They are statements the force of which we do not call into question; they go unnoticed because discussing them is senseless. Not questioning certain things is something that belongs to the logic of our decisions and, in general terms, to our ethical behavior; our behavior concerning Good and Evil.

It is very difficult to explain how we acquire this kind of certainties, but the most coherent response is to say that we do it through training. For training we understand not a ruled sequence of previously fixed patterns, but the learning depending on the influence of, and confidence in, those surrounding us. Confidence is of extreme importance for this issue. We cannot make use of language, develop any behavior without confidence. In primary terms, we find the reference of any possibility for communication in the action of those who surround us closely. To doubt from the beginning is senseless. A radical doubt, a doubt from the roots, is an absurdity, because if something of this sort happened, any possibility to develop and express our conduct would be annulled. To doubt we must begin by accepting something. Doubt comes always after certainty. And this certainty has its origins in the coincidence in action. Such coincidence is not casual but its justification comes, in the first place, from training, for which confidence is an unavoidable element. Where does that confidence come from? Trying to give an answer to this question is like trying to explain why we are human beings and not something else. The very necessity to articulate the behavior leads us to attend irrationally others' actions. We do not ask why, but we trust. We could presumably say that it is the adaptative answer to the emptiness of the helplessness we bear when we are born.

We can say that from the conjunction of these certainties our ethical image of the world arises. As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote (1), a whole mythology comes when we learn the language; that is, a way of articulating our knowledge of the world that makes us look at it in one way rather than in another. Though, strictly speaking, training need not to be guided, some patterns of behavior and comprehension which we make ours — because of the confidence we show in those who train us — come with language. It is the coincidence in action, and nothing else, which makes those certainties to have the role they have and become meaningful. The functionality of language and behavior rests on this kind of "consensus". The consensus of action is not something intentional. It is our way of relating to each other. If it was not for that "consensus", meaning would be impossible and, together with it, the certainties we are talking about would not be valid. Language as linguistic behavior, and any other manifestation we could call conductual, are the riverbed through which the relations between individuals develop, and thus we get to the settlement of the foundations for ethical action, since our behavior comes from within the cultural background that language shows.

It is our coincidence in the meaning of ethical propositions which allows us to see that other people have the same conception of good; but it is also true that we have the same conception of good because of our coincidence in the meaning of ethical propositions. Furthermore, the future of our later coincidences in the so-called very statements of ethics is decided in the coincidence on that which we do not discuss. So, we say that our behavior is "good or bad". It is shown as such, by the way it is settled in what we assume, the value of which is the center of the image of the world we belong to. That we understand each other within this image means that we meet in what we assume, that is , that we meet in the axis of our action. We could ask if, in any sense, these axes are unremovable and unquestionable. We said that in so far as the certainties mentioned before are at the basis of our behavior they cannot be called into question. Doubt comes after them, and they help us to avoid any bit of ethical scepticism. Does it hinder their transformation as time goes by, or their substitution? It is a historical fact that views on what is good or bad suffer from changes through the whole existence of the human being. Does it mean that we could not judge the behavior of other times if we accept that their ethical image of the world was different from ours, rooted in different assumptions? At first glance this could seem to be the result suggested by the previous assertions. In our opinion, it is obvious that this is not so. It is our human condition which is shown in what makes us recognize one another. If we do not find the resemblances characteristic of our interests, activities, and general conducts, we could not say that we face the analysis of other human beings' behavior. We could not recognize ourselves in them. Since we do, we can say that there exists a sort of riverbed through which we can coherently examine their behavior. It is true that we feel we are far from their image, far from their general view of good and bad. But that distance cannot be an absolute one, given that we could not recognize it as such if there were no points in common. So, there must be some elements in which we coincide; certainties that, in a sense, remain in any situation. In our opinion, this could sound paradoxical, given that the certainties which have the value of axes, take this value thanks to the particular relation they establish with the rest of the propositions. That is, their particular character depends on the use we make of the rest of the statements with ethical value. History shows that this interrelation can change in time and with the alteration of human interests and the view we have of ourselves. If facts change, concepts can change and, together with them, our ethical perception. That is, the very action will show the new coincidences to us, so designing the meaningful content of ethical propositions: precisely because we so act, we so are.

In our opinion, in spite of the modifications we can notice, some a propositions remain immutable. They are at the root of our behavior, notwithstanding the possibility of historical and cultural changes. It is true that with these alterations certain statements that previously had a peripherical value can acquire a central one in action, something that the very action conditions. They would become the ones we assume, which are at the basis of our conduct supporting the global vision settled on it. But an ethical relativism does not arise from that. We have stressed that these basic ethical statements are not proposed as the teaching of something theoretical. The ethical training is not the result of any argumentative reflection. It is pure action. In noticing others' behavior, having confidence in them, this coincidence is shaping and, therefore, creating the meaning of what we say and assume. Doubt comes only from it. We cannot call into question that which we are trained on, given that it is the foundations to discuss any other question. Nevertheless, we can speak of what can be called "ethical teaching". It is those acquisitions settled in what we assume from training. It is here where a discussion can be developped. And to do that we need to take for granted common points. The difficulty arises when what is assumed is different, that is, when different individuals depart from different axes in their view on what is good or bad. Ethical views of the world compete, and what it is good in one place is perverse in another. Could we ask if agreement is possible? Is ethical relativism strong enough to make absolute the gap between different ways of behavior? Perhaps our discussion can clearly show the disagreement, in so far as those involved in the discussion called each other heretical. But heresy is also the enlightening of what is known, but from another perspective, from which the deviation departs. It is true that convincing another individual is to make him/her to go into another world image. But the fact of the existence of several images does not carry on the impossibility of mutual understanding. Taken as such the disagreement is guaranteed. But if we know we are different we have to deduce that, in a certain sense, there is an identification. There must be ways to go from one image into another if someone wants to. And if there are ways to go in or to go out, those images cannot be absolutely different. The abyss is not such an abyss. Some kind of specially basic certainty must be common. In our opinion, one of them could be to value life. To negate it or to go against it we need to have valued it previously. And, in a certain sense, this valuation continues, though it could be in an egotistic-egocentric perspective.

As a conclusion, we could ask a question that would give rise to later discussions and reflections, but we think it is central at the moment: it is because they are different, argumentation seems to be limited in the disputes of the different ethical images of the world. How is it possible to modify the point of view of one individual who departs from different assumptions to ours? The answer is action. But a very peculiar kind of action: persuasion. When reasonings cannot be enough to convince, persuasion takes their place. Though to develop it we need great amounts of good will and patience, the results of which can be satisfactory.

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(1) See Observaciones a La Rama Dorada de Frazer, Tecnos, Madrid 1992, p.69. See, also, On Certainty, **94-95.

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