1. The study of morality. 

Issues within ethics have been part of on-going serious discussions about morality for thousands of years.  The history of ethics is filled with so many attempts to capture the standards of right and wrong, that mining new ideas is about as likely as mining bitcoin with a pickaxe.

Even if we did discover a moral theory that could account for the notions of right and wrong, the application of that theory would be a challenge so overwhelming that its usefulness would be negated.  Take for example a Divine Command Theory, a theory in which moral duties are commanded by a Divine being.  Of course, billions of people have subscribed to a Divine Command Theory in one way or another over the last several thousand years.  One of the more popular Divine Commandments is Don’t Kill.

Don’t Kill seems simple enough, but immediately questions arise.  What if I’m being attacked?  What if I’m in a war/battle/fight?  What if there is qualified immunity?  This doesn’t even get into commandments regarding lying or cheating.  The point being that even if there were acceptance of a moral theory, that wouldn’t get us as far as many would think.

Moral questions can arise in nearly any area or discipline including rock-climbing.  One of the more popular and noteworthy moral questions that arises within rock-climbing is whether the damage we do to natural areas is outweighed by the gains achieved by climbing a rock, cliff, or mountain.  This question clearly isn’t limited to just rock climbers.  The question could be applied to all aspects of society, from laying railroad tracks to going fishing.  But climbers traditionally have been at the cutting edge of preserving the areas that we invade.  And of course, this isn’t limited solely to the damage we do to nature.  Recently, the climbing community was impacted by someone placing bolts over ancient petroglyphs in Moab, Utah.  

To say the climbing community was ‘impacted’ is a gross understatement, there was a storm of outrage, climbers calling for the assailant to be drawn and quartered.  But was this act wrong?  If so, based on what standards?  Again, even if we had a standard, how would we apply it?  Do we draw the line at Petroglyphs?  Would it be wrong to bolt over a Bansky?  What about a declaration of allegiance to the band Poison carved into the rock circa 1988?

This bolted line in question turned out to be an extremely unfortunate error based on ignorance.  Is it morally wrong to be ignorant?  Is it morally wrong to judge the ignorant?

Thousands of years ago we seem to have gotten ahead of ourselves.  The early moral philosophers jumped right into the question of ‘What is right or wrong’.  While the more pressing question would have been ‘does morality exist in the first place’.  I happen to think the answer the more pressing question is no.  Morality does not exist.  And with that, objective standards of morality do not exist either.

This is not to say there are no social standards by which humanity could flourish.  But to ground those standards in an imagined objectivity seems irrational given the amount of time that we’ve spent attempting to capture the foundations of ethics. 

There is a history of dropping moral language in favor of calling things what they are, and I think this is advantageous.  The person who bolted the line through the petroglyphs may very well be an insensitive ignorant, but stigmatizing a person as immoral, punishing a person for being undereducated seems to put retribution above education.  Not only does that seem like the easy way out, it also seems counter to any goal of human flourishing.


13 Replies to “eth·ics”

  1. Oh wow, this brought to mind the hilarious graffiti on the inside of Maeshowe, Orkney. Made by Vikings it makes me {{{giggle}}} to read the translation: 1) Thorni f*cked Helgi. 2) Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women (carved beside a rough drawing of a slavering dog). 🐕

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is excellent. Some hard digging or rather, “climbing” here to try to, if not understand, at least turn the prism on seeing morality. I was just this am reading Heschel on morality and the unity of ethics, and I have been slogging my way through Scanlon’s What We Owe Each Other. I struggle mightily with judging people who are ignorant with a moral / ethical yardstick. Your post is a keeper for me and something I will come back to read again in my own seeking. The metaphor and real world example of the climbing community is one I personally could never use (I have rational acrophobia-LOL!) and so it was an excellent one for me to be gently and kindly shifted in my thinking. Thank you. Shalom, Jane

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting that you mention Scanlon, I thought a lot about that book as I was putting together this piece. It’s a great book and I find it to be a realistic way to move forward. Thank you for the thoughts Jane!


  3. Human progress is propelled by an endless series of blunders. The guy that did this deserves a little heat, but his mistake made the rest of us far more aware of the consequences narrow focus on our sport may incur. Ignorance is forgivable. Malice? That’s something else, but Mar a Lago is along way from Moab.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. History keeps adding new things. If we keep adding new things to protect, eventually everywhere will be protected and nothing new can be done.

    If we assert protecting history as our highest value, well, *everything* is history. It comes down to which history we want to preserve and why. Bolts are no less historical than the petroglyphs they damaged. The decision boils down to aesthetics. Most people find thousand year old graffiti more aesthetic than climbing bolts.

    It is all about what you decide to be offended by.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Complicated question. Discussions of ethics often seem to descend into false equivalencies. I disagree with Fred ^ it doesn’t “boil down to aesthetics” and what you choose to be offended by. I personally think aesthetics has a certain ethical quality.

    AS for being poorly educated being immoral? That’s a good question. I guess, for me, one of the highest “moral” qualities is curiosity; the bolt placer might have asked what the petroglyph WAS before setting the bolt, but they didn’t do that.

    Setting permanent protection on rocks and mountains is an old question. It puts human life before aesthetics and, possibly, reverence toward the rock/mountain. Reinhold Messner reduced and/or stopped setting it because it believed/s it’s unethical, impure and lacking aesthetics.

    It comes down to “do no harm” for me. My relationship to nature has evolved over the years to the point where I think (almost) everyone should stay out of it because they’re going to fuck it up. Last night I was taking houseguests for a drive in the Big Empty to see a tree of which I’d done an oil painting. We got there, and a huge great-horned owl immediately flew from one side. My friends got out of the car, slamming the car doors. The other fully grown owl left the tree, leaving two young birds behind. There was NO ONE AROUND. It was a deserted dirt road through the wild life refuge. I immediately thought, “What is your problem?” about my friends. That wasn’t purely aesthetic. they would have seen more if they’d just opened the car doors and gotten out and left the door open. Humans are so drive to SEE THIS THING NOW or CLIMB THAT ROCK NOW. My friends would have seen more — and possibly the other owl would haver returned — if they’d been quiet. As it was, three young owls were left behind in a tree while the grown owls saved their own skin to “mate another day.” Owl ethics seem pretty clear.

    I guess my point is that we human beings are thoughtless. I don’t know if that’s evil or unethical or anything but it’s definitely a big problem to us as a species.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for that example Martha…I really like your final thought here. I see it in a really similar way, concerning morality, I don’t know. Big problems are coming, big problems are here.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved the image of mining bitcoin with a pickaxe. But don’t you undercut your argument when you say that stigmatizing an ignorant person is counter to the goal of human flourishing? The concept of “flourishing” requires ethical and teleological judgments. If there is no objective morality, how can you say that anything prevents humans from flourishing?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such a good point Jacob, I couch human flourishing in terms of evolutionary continuation or at the very least biological continuity. But I agree that is just one position, which would need further support for acceptance, as well as a deeper dissection of terms especially “flourishing”. Thanks a million for the thought!


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