How to choose the right axioms for the foundations of ethics?

As promised in the previous post, here is the review of the final lecture given by Dagfinn Føllesdal on the 7th of December 2012 in the course of the Carl Friedrich von Weizsaecker-Vorlesungen at the University of Hamburg.

In the previous talk, Føllesdal emphasised that ethics are not only based on axioms which cannot be justified further. Instead, these axioms should be regarded as hypotheses.

Hence, how to choose good hypotheses? Føllesdal’s point is (the quotations in this post are rephrased):

One should look at what is called axioms as hypotheses that have to be revised in view of data, in the case of ethics the emotions that arise in us through empathy.

Føllesdal recalls Hume:

We learn to compensate for physical quantities (e.g. size of an object and it’s distance from the observer). However, we do not learn to compensate for ethical quantities such as empathy and feelings in relation with emotional closeness.

So, how can we proceed in this desperate situation?

Føllesdal suggest (according to Husserl) that we actively go out and search material (extra observation) in order to get an intersubjective point of view. Of course, we start with our subjective point of view, than we arrive at intersubjectivity and thus approach objectivity.

And the key for this is, guess what? —> “Bildung“!

Wow! Føllesdal closes his loop:

  • In his first talk in the course of the Carl Friedrich von Weizsaecker-Vorlesungen at the University of Hamburg, Føllesdal started with the importance of Bildung for the formation of empathy and personal bullshit-metres!
  • In a follow-up talk, he illustrated the fundamental similarity of any type of science:  hypotheses are built and supported by argumentation.
  • Føllesdal showed in the next talk the challenge for ethical theories: how to choose hypotheses on which an argumentation for ethical theories can be based upon?
  • Finally, Føllesdal closed the loop by concluding that intersubjectivity and hence empathy and Bildung are the key.

From my perspective, not only his consistent line of thinking and structure of the whole lecture series was very enjoyable and esthetic.
On top, I passionately think that his message is simply beautiful:

“Bildung” is the key for empathy and bullshit-detection
– which are our basis for ethics!

What is the consequence for my personal life?

Actively go out and search extra observations!

In summary, from my part, I want to thank Dagfinn Føllesdal for opening my eyes on several issues. His visit to Hamburg was very inspiring for me, concerning the content (the academic as well as the pragmatic) as well as the format (take time to make your line of argumentation 100% clear) and the conclusions for my life.

Thank you!

All of those who will soon have the chance to hear a talk by Føllesdal: Enjoy it!

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