Sources of ethics


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Sources of ethics

  1. 1. 3. The source of EthicsMany philosopherstried to explain what ―ethics‖ is and what is its source. However, as it is often thecase with philosophers, agreement was not reached.The notion of ―good‖ seems to elude mostthinking people of our day, even though it is such a ―common‖ term. It seems that the most basicconcepts – like the one of ―morality‖ which is the foundation of all human civilizations – are thehardest to define. And maybe that is why they are so much important… The main theories arediscussed below in summary, so as to give the reader the basis for his/her own philosophicalinquiries.3.1 Ethicsas human natureSome philosophers thought of ―goodness‖ as something ‗natural‘ to humans. From their perspective,doing good is what we naturally do if we are brought up properly by our parents. Of course―properly‖ has many interpretations – however it is true that most of us agree to some ―universal‖and ―basic‖ concepts of morality, like the ―do not kill other people‖ principle – no matter what ourother beliefs are.One of the greatest philosophers, Socrates,posited that people will naturally do what is good, if theyknow what is right. Evil or bad actions, are the result of ignorance. If a criminal were truly aware ofthe mental and spiritual consequences of his actions, he would neither commit nor even considercommitting them. Any person who knows what is truly right will automatically do it, according toSocrates. While he correlated knowledge with virtue, he similarly equated virtue with happiness. Thetruly wise man will know what is right, do what is good and therefore be happy. [2]The tool towardsthat ―good‖ was self-knowledge. Socrates insisted that every person must reach into himself andlearn himself (the infamous ―Know thyself‖ <= Greek‖Γνώθι ζ‘ εαυηόν‖). We must all turn ourattention from the outside world to our inner ―world‖ because this is the only way to know what isreally ―good‖ for us.3.2 Ethics as “living good”Aristotle follows Socrates and Plato in taking the virtues to be central to a well-lived life. Like Plato,he regards the ethical virtues (justice, courage, temperance and so on) as complex rational, emotionaland social skills. But he rejects Plato‘s idea that a training in the sciences and metaphysics is anecessary prerequisite for a full understanding of our good. What we need, in order to live well, is aproper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth
  2. 2. fit together as a whole. In order to apply that general understanding to particular cases, we mustacquire, through proper upbringing and habits, the ability to see, on each occasion, which course ofaction is best supported by reasons. Therefore practical wisdom, as he conceives it, cannot beacquired solely by learning general rules. We also must also acquire, through practice, thosedeliberative, emotional, and social skills that enable us to put our general understanding of well-being into practice in ways that are suitable to each occasion. [3]The principal idea with which Aristotle begins is that there are differences of opinion about what isbest for human beings, and that to profit from ethical inquiry we must resolve this disagreement.He insists that ethics is not a theoretical discipline: we are asking what the good for human beingsis not simply because we want to have knowledge, but because we will be better able to achieve ourgood if we develop a fuller understanding of what it is to flourish. In raising this question—what isthe good?—Aristotle is not looking for a list of items that are good. He assumes that such a list canbe compiled rather easily; most would agree, for example, that it is good to have friends, toexperience pleasure, to be healthy, to be honored, and to have such virtues as courage at least to somedegree. The difficult and controversial question arises when we ask whether certain of these goodsare more desirable than otherThe “highest good”It is not difficult to find things that are ―good‖-to-have. For example having friends, having health orhaving courage are things that most people would agree that are ―good‖. However who cannot agreethat being sick is also as good as being healthy sometimes? (see Harmonia Philosophica – English ).Aristotle‘s search for the good is a search for the highest good. The great philosopher assumes thatthe highest good, whatever it turns out to be, has three main characteristics: it is desirable for itself, itis not desirable for the sake of some other good, and all other goods are desirable for its sake.The goal is EudaimoniaAristotle thinks everyone will agree that the terms ―eudaimonia‖ [Gr.ευδαιμονία](―happiness‖) and―eu zên‖ [Gr. ευ ζην](―living well‖) designate such an end. The Greek term ―eudaimon‖ is composedof two parts: ―eu‖ means ―well‖ and ―daimon‖ means ―divinity‖ or ―spirit.‖ To beeudaimonistherefore to be living in a way that is well-favored by a god. But Aristotle never calls attention to thisetymology, and it seems to have little influence on his thinking. He regards ―eudaimon‖ as a mere
  3. 3. substitute foreu zên(―living well‖). These terms play an evaluative role, and are not simplydescriptions of someone‘s state of mind.No one tries to live well for the sake of some further goal; rather, being eudaimonis the highest end ,and all subordinate goals—health, wealth, and other such resources—are sought because theypromote well-being, not because they are what well-being consists in. But unless we can determinewhich good or goods happiness consists in, it is of little use to acknowledge that it is the highest end.The biological fact Aristotle makes use of is that human beings are the only species that has not onlylower capacities but a rational soul as well. The good of a human being must have something to dowith being human; and what sets humanity off from other species, giving us the potential to live abetter life, is our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason. If we use reason well, we live well ashuman beings; or, to be more precise, using reason well over the course of a full life is whathappiness consists in. Doing anything well requires virtue or excellence, and therefore living wellconsists in activities caused by the rational soul in accordance with virtue or excellence.Aristotle‘s conclusion about the nature of happiness is in a sense uniquely his own. No other writeror thinker had said precisely what he says about what it is to live well.But at the same time his view is not too distant from a common idea…[3] Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace. Oscar Wilde3.3 Ethics as an “a priori” truthSome philosophers view ethics as an ―a priori‖ truth, i.e. like something that we have embedded in usas ―knowledge‖ prior to any physical or social experience (see Religional Science for more on ―apriori‖ and ―a posteriori‖ notions). That knowledge is what drives us into behaving good or badduring our lifes. Philosopher Kant played a major role in that part. In this case the inherent validityofa invinsible but imperativemoral law is what drives us into being good (or have guilts for beingbad).The “duty” of KantThe 18 th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant is a case in point. Although emotional factorsoften do influence our conduct, he argued, we should nevertheless resist that kind of sway. Instead,true moral action is motivated only by reason when it is free from emotions and desires.
  4. 4. In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant‘s method involves trying to convert oureveryday, obvious, rational knowledge of morality into philosophical knowledge. His methodsinclude the use of‖practical reason‖, which is based only upon things about which reason can tell us,without deriving any principles from experience, to reach conclusions which are able to be applied tothe world of experience. Kant argued that there is a more foundational principle of duty thatencompasses our particular duties. Kant is known for his theory that there is a single, self-evidentprinciple of reason that he calls the ―Categorical Imperative‖. [4]Categorical imperatives areprinciples that are intrinsically valid; they are good in and of themselves; they must be obeyed in allsituations and circumstances if our behavior is to observe the moral law. It is from the CategoricalImperative that all other moral obligations are generated, and by which all moral obligations can betested.He believed that the moral law is a principle of reason itself, and is not based on contingentfacts about the world, such as what would make us happy, but to act upon the moral law which hasno other motive than ―worthiness of being happy‖. Accordingly, he believed that moral obligationapplies to all and only rational agents. [5]A categorical imperative, he argued, is fundamentally different from hypothetical imperatives thathinge on some personal desire that we have, for example, ―If you want to get a good job, then youought to go to college.‖ By contrast, a categorical imperative simply mandates an action, irrespectiveof one‘s personal desires, such as ―You ought to do X‖ (for example: ―you should always tellthetruth‖).Kant gives at least four versions of the categorical imperative, but one of themis especiallydirect:Treat people as an end, and never as a means to an end. [4]The Moral Law of GodTheistic philosophers have for a long time postulated the view that morality and ethics are intrinsicqualities of being human and that the very existence of such a ―moral law‖ denotes the existence of a―law-maker‖. Although I will not analyze the argument for the existence of a God (this is out ofscope for this article,refer toother philosophyKnols I have written for an analysis of these ideas andarguments), I will make a summary analysis of the ―inherent ethics‖ theologists claim.In particular, many claim that there is a massive unanimity of the ethics practical reason in manandthat this indicates the inherent (a priori) nature of ethics in us. From the Babylonian Hymn to Samos,
  5. 5. the laws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the Analects, the Stoics, the Platonists, from Australianaborigines to Redskins, one sees the same monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder,treachery and falsehood; the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young and the weak. Insome unusual cultures the law takes on surprising trapping (e.g. witch burning) – yet when surveyedclosely these apparent aberrations can be seen to arise from strongly held but misguided conclusionsabout who is good or evil. [6][7]The critique of such a ―theistic‖ approach is intense. Are we to do good simply because we are afraidof our ―punishment‖ by a higher ―judge‖? However the critique on that critique also exists. If such an―a priori‖ knowledge of good exists, then which/what has set it to existence?Moral Laws as absolute truthThe abovementioned theisticideas of the ―eternal‖ nature of the true moral laws are based on thesame notion of ―objects‖ Plato proposed. For example Plato explained the eternal character ofmathematics by stating that they are abstract entitiesthat exist in a spirit-like realm. He notedthatmoral values also are absolute truthsand thus are also abstract, spirit-like entities. In this sense,for Plato, moral values are spiritualobjects. Medieval philosophers commonly grouped all moralprinciples together under the heading of ―eternal law‖ which were also frequently seen as spirit-likeobjects. [4]3.4 Ethics as selfish desiresOne important area of moral psychology concerns the inherent selfishness of humans. 17 thcenturyBritish philosopher Thomas Hobbes held that many, if not all, of our actions are prompted by selfishdesires. Even if an action seems selfless, such as donating to charity, there are still selfish causes forthis, such as experiencing power over other people.This view is called “ psychological egoism” and maintains that self-oriented interests ultimatelymotivate all human actions. Closely related to psychological egoism is a view calledpsychologicalhedonismwhich is the view thatpleasureis the specific driving force behind all of our actions.18thcentury British philosopher Joseph Butler agreed that instinctive selfishness and pleasure promptmuch of our conduct. However, Butler argued that we also have an inherent psychological capacityto show benevolence to others. This view is calledpsychological altruismand maintains that at leastsome of our actions are motivated by instinctive benevolence. [4]
  6. 6. Could ethics be the creation of society?3.5 Ethics as a creation of societyNormative ethics involves arriving at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. In asense, it is a search for an ideal litmus test of proper behavior. The Golden Rule is a classic exampleof a normative principle: We should do to others what we would want others to do to us. Since I donot want my neighbor to steal my car, then it is wrong for me to steal her car. [4] Many people claimthat being good is just a result of society calling you to behave in a certain way. No ―a priori‖ truths,no ―final causes‖ (eudaimonia), no inner human nature (see Socrates), just plain society pressure tobe ―proper‖… [8]Models & Rulesfor deciding ethicallyThere are many ―Ethical Decision-Making Models‖ which are based on the instructions of society forwhat is good and what is bad. These models help you decide the ethical thing to do when you are inthe tight spot.For example such a model could ask the following questions to help you decide the ―ethical‖decision:
  7. 7. Are you treating others as you would want to be treated? Would you be comfortable if yourreasoning and decision were to be publicized? Would you be comfortable if your children wereobserving you? [9]Others have postulated ―rules‖ that could be applied in order to reach an ethical decision. One ofthese rules is the utility principle (also known as the ―greatest happiness principle‖) which favoursactions that produce ―the greatest good for the greatest number of people‖. Ethical reasoning,consequently, consists of attempting to quantify happiness, and choosing actions that maximise it.[10]This rule is a result of social impulses that have been crystallized into a phrase that puts whatsociety ―wants‖ (as a unified set) above what a person might view as ―ethical‖ or ―good‖. Anothervery well known society-based rule is the ―do not do to others what you don‘t want others do to you‖rule.Some of these models and rules are indeed useful guides. But one should remember that a simplemodel cannot tell you how to behave correctly in all situations. Human judgement and self-awarenessis required. The more you attempt to analyze something the more you lose its meaning andsignificance as a whole. No matter how much you analyze hydrogen and oxygen, you will neverunderstand the wetness of water…3.6 Ethics without ethical codeThe post-modern philosophersargue that there is no absolutes rights or wrongs and that all ethicaldecisions are relative. However if this is the truth and no ultimate truth exists, if there is no absoluteright or wrong,then should we be discussing about ethics at all? According to Bauman, the essence ofthe postmodern approach to ethics lies not in the abandoning of characteristically modern moralconcerns, but in the rejection of the typically modern ways of going about its moral problems (that is,responding to moral challenges with coercive normative regulation in political practice, and thephilosophical search for absolutes, universals and foundations in theory). Postmodern ethics is thus,to use Bauman‘s phrase, ‗morality without ethical code‘. Human reality is messy and ambiguous –and so moral decisions, unlike abstract ethical principles, are ambivalent. It is in this sort of worldthat we must live. Knowing that to be the truth is to be postmodern. Postmodernity, one may say, ismodernity without illusions (the obverse of which is that modernity is postmodernity refusing toaccept its own truth). The illusions in question boil down to the belief that the ―messiness‖ of thehuman world is but a temporary and repairable state, sooner or later to be replaced by the orderly and
  8. 8. systematic rule of reason. The truth in question is that the ―messiness‖ will stay whatever we do orknow, that the little orders and ―systems‖ we carve out in the world are as arbitrary and in the endcontingent as their alternatives. [11] Post-modernism surely gives a new perspective in ethics…