HIGHLIGHTS OF ETHICS (MORAL PHILOSOPHY)
Compiled by Alan Anderson, March 1999, largely based on, and often quoting, Robert L. Holmes, Basic Moral Philosophy; Milton D. Hunnex, Philosophies and Philosophers Rev. Ed.; Peter A. Angeles, Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed.; "Ethics" in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; and William L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, 2nd ed., and material put onto the Web by Robert Cavalier of Carnegie Mellon University
Most simply put, traditional ethics attempts to say what we should value and how we should act.
The following two paragraphs are the "Introduction" from the IEP article referred to above:
The field of ethics, also called moral philosophy, involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. Philosophers today usually divide ethical theories into three general subject areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Metaethics investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they involve more than expressions of our individual emotions? Metaethical answers to these questions focus on the issues of universal truths, the will of God, the role of reason in ethical judgments, and the meaning of ethical terms themselves. Normative ethics involves a more practical task, which is to arrive at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. Should I borrow my roommate's car without first asking him? Should I steal food to support my starving family? Ideally, these moral questions could be immediately answered by consulting the moral guidelines provided by normative theories. Finally, applied ethics involves examining specific controversial issues, such as abortion, infanticide, animal rights, environmental concerns, homosexuality, capital punishment, or nuclear war. By using the conceptual tools of metaethics and normative ethics, discussions in applied ethics try to resolve these controversial issues.
The lines of distinction between metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics are often blurry. For example, the issue of abortion is an applied ethical topic since it involves a specific type of controversial behavior. But it also depends on more general normative principles, such as the right of self-rule and the right to life, which are litmus tests for determining the morality of that procedure. The issue also rests on metaethical issues such as, "where do rights come from?" and "what kind of beings have rights?"
ETHICS and MORALITY come from the Greek, ethikos and the Latin equivalent moralis, referring to custom, but morality sometimes is used to refer to what one does (or standards held as a result of custom), whereas ethics often is restricted to the philosophical study of morality.
METAETHICS (literally, "after or beyond ethics"): inquiry into the status of ethical inquiry, including methods, logical structure, reasoning, and especially language used in ethics. Metaethics (sometimes including descriptive ethics) can be divided into metaphysical, psychological, and linguistic areas.
ROADBLOCKS TO USUAL NORMATIVE (STANDARD-PROVIDING, NOT MERELY DESCRIPTIVE) ETHICS:
Metaphysical issues in metaethics, concerned with (1) whether people are free to make decisions and (2) whether moral standards exist apart from human preferences, human customs.
DETERMINISM: Holds that we are not free to choose. One form of it is (DESCRIPTIVE) PSYCHOLOGICAL HEDONISM: holds that we cannot avoid seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. (PRESCRIPTIVE) ETHICAL HEDONISM: holds that we should seek pleasure and avoid pain, but could do otherwise. Similarly with PSYCHOLOGICAL and ETHICAL EGOISM, putting oneself first. In opposition to psychological egoism, psychological altruism (other-ism) maintains, as Butler pointed out, that although one may derive satisfaction from an action, it is nonetheless possible to be motivated by a desire to benefit another or others. Determinism is based on belief in the impossibility of excepting human beings from universal applicability of a mechanical cause and effect relationship, but process philosophy maintains that there is some degree of freedom of choice throughout nature, not only in people.
MORAL SKEPTICISM denies any objective status to moral values. It is closely related to moral relativism. See below.
CULTURAL RELATIVISM: The view that standards accepted by people differ basically from time to time and place to place.
ETHICAL RELATIVISM: The view that there are no universally-applicable standards, but there are right and wrong for the societies accepting them. It is opposed by the argument that it makes the idea of ethical progress and comparisons impossible. Extreme or individual relativism is ETHICAL NIHILISM: There are no binding ethical principles (also called individual or extreme relativism).
IN CONTRAST TO
ETHICAL UNIVERSALISM: There are ethical standards applicable to all people, based on common human nature.
ETHICAL ABSOLUTISM agrees on the universal applicability of ethical standards, but goes farther, saying that they are permanently established on the basis of something transcending the world, such as God or Plato's forms.
These are forms of
MORAL REALISM holds that moral principles have an objective foundation (are "spirit-like objects"), so are not based simply on subjective human preferences.
Two possible sources of objective values:
1. Plato(428-348)'s belief in nonphysical, spiritual, timeless forms or objective ideas (archetypes, patterns), similar to mathematical principles such as 1+1=2. Plato considered the highest to be the form of the Good, in relation to which any value could be measured.
Medieval philosophers lumped moral principles together as eternal law.
2. Moral values as divine commands (voluntarism, emphasizing God's will).
Psychological issues in metaethics, concerned with the psychological motivation of moral actions.
1. Aristotle(384-322 BCE)'s theory that our sense of right and wrong is a product of a rational ability called practical reason.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) similarly held that we have a faculty called synderesis, giving us an intuition of our moral obligation.
2. Psychological egoism, maintaining the inherent selfishness of people. If it admits no exceptions, it is a form of determinism. Psychological hedonism is one type, claiming that we have to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) upheld psychological egoism. Joseph Butler (1692-1752) opposed it with psychological altruism, claiming that people have an inherent ability to show benevolence to others.
3. The role of reason in motivating moral choice was denied by David Hume (1711-1776), who held that only emotions motivate moral actions. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) held that only non-emotional rational choices can be moral.
4. Study of stages of development of moral thinking during childhood and early adulthood, explored by Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), and others.
Linguistic issues in metaethics, concerned with the meaning of terms and statements used in ethics.
20th Century philosophers have divided language in ethics into knowledge-giving (cognitive) statements and action-oriented (performative) utterances.
If ethical language is NONCOGNITIVE (interpreting ethical language not in terms of anything going beyond one's own beliefs, in terms of one's emotional attitudes, approval, prescribing or commending, or belief that one has good reasons) there is no point to pursuing ethics in search of universal guidance applicable to everyone.
NORMATIVE ETHICS prescribes, rather than merely describes, as in descriptive ethics. Much of normative ethics is MORAL LEGALISM, based on commandments, rules, or principles, MONISTIC if recognizing only one principle--such as ethical egoism, divine command, Kantianism, utilitarianism, justice, love, nonviolence; PLURALISTIC if recognizing more than one principle as equally basic; distinguished from MORAL PARTICULARISM, based solely on the act or situation in which done.
Both the good and the right can be viewed as either objective, standing for a real factor in things, or subjective, simply standing for a human proposal: thus, Ethical Objectivism or Ethical Subjectivism. Objective theories can be (epistemologically--how known) (1) known naturally (so empirically verifiable), Ethical Naturalism; or (2) known only by a special intuition, Ethical Intuitionism, holding (G. E. Moore) that the good is a simple property, not definable in non-ethical terms (Prichard related ethical intuition to the idea of duty; Ewing holds ought to be the primary unanalyzable term). Conscience: arguably consciousness of right and wrong as known inwardly, now essentially included within intuitionistic or deontic ethical theories.
TYPES OF THEORIES IN NORMATIVE ETHICS
Three types or approaches of normative ethical theories: (1) teleological (consequentialist); (2) deontological (duty-oriented); (3) virtue-oriented.
TELEOLOGICAL, CONSEQUENTIAL, END-ORIENTED, AXIOLOGICAL, VALUE-CENTERED
When the good is taken to be the key to ethical behavior, the ethical theory resulting is characterized by value fulfillment, and the right becomes one aspect of that fulfillment, namely the set of obligations to others that must be respected in reaching the good. Such theories are termed Axiological (stressing their value aspect) or Teleological (stressing their orientation to final goals, ends [in Greek telos). Utilitarianism is the basic form taken by teleological approaches
1. Moral judgments depend on value judgments.
2. Seeks the good. The good is the moral.
TWO TYPES OF VALUES: Intrinsic (inherent), valued for themselves, as ends; Instrumental (instruments, tools), extrinsic, valued as means to something else (such as money for what it can buy). Value can be interpreted as either objective (in the inherently valuable object) or subjective (dependent on the preferences of the subject, the knower, you), or relational (neither a quality in the object nor an event in the subject, but a relationship in a social or environmental situation).
Intrinsic values are prized as ends, for their own sake; instrumental (extrinsic) values are prized as instruments, tools, means used to help to attain more remote intrinsic values. Values are not necessarily of a moral nature. Peter Bertocci's
PATTERN OF VALUE EXPERIENCES in Peter A. Bertocci and Richard M. Millard, Personality and the Good (1963):
i. Existence Values: To be conscious, aware of oneself and of the world, even the value of simply living.
ii. Health Values: To be well, especially with a sense of vitality and physical fitness.
iii. Character Values: Disciplining oneself in accordance with ideals.
iv. Economic Values: Comparative value in exchange.
v. Vocational Values: Satisfaction from one's work.
vi. Recreational Values: Enjoyment of leisure, play.
vii. Affiliative Values: Companionship, friendship, love.
viii. Sexual Values: Enjoyment of sex.
ix. Aesthetic Values: Experience of awe, sublimity, grace, zest, etc.; the intrinsic significance of one's environment; the creation and enjoyment of art.
x. Intellectual, Cognitive, Truth Values: The satisfaction of knowing, of searching for truth, of thinking for its own sake.
xi. Religious Values: Experience of whatever one finds as the ultimate depth of significance, the source of belief, attitude and action in relation to whatever one considers most important.
William J. Bennett's 10 virtues featured in his The Book of Virtues: Self-Discipline, Compassion, Responsibility, Friendship, Work, Courage, Perseverance, Honesty, Loyalty, Faith.
SOME COMPETING CANDIDATES FOR THE SUMMUM BONUM (HIGHEST, GREATEST GOOD)
1. Pleasure (according to hedonism, which can be egoistic [individualistic] or universalistic, as in original Utilitarianism, which advocates the greatest happiness [utility] for the greatest number.) 2. Happiness. 3. Self-Development. 4. Self-mastery. 5. Contemplation. 6. A good will. 7. Evolution. 8. Knowledge. 9. Power.
Teleological emphasis (first became popular in 18th century):
Judge worth on the basis of outcome. Weigh the positive against the negative consequences to determine the ethical action. Three different outlooks consider three different recipients of the consequences:
1. Ethical egoism (including social contract theory of Hobbes): only the agent, the doer of the act (oneself).
2. Ethical altruism: everyone except the agent.
3. Utilitarianism: everyone involved.
TYPES OF UTILITARIANISM:
Utility in the sense used in utilitarianism refers to pleasure or happiness, rather than general usefulness. The principle of utility is sometimes called the pleasure principle, and utilitarianism the greatest happiness theory.
1. Act Utilitarianism: started by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), although preceded in some respects by
Richard Cumberland (1631-1718), Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), John Gay (1699-1745), and David Hume. Since Bentham considered only pleasure and pain to be relevant to making ethical choices, his view also can be called hedonistic utilitarianism.
What is morally valuable is that which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, happiness being determined by reference to the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. Thus, Bentham writes, "By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to
promote or to oppose that happiness." Bentham emphasises that this applies to "every action whatsoever."
2. Rule Utilitarianism: Whereas act-utilitarianism judges on the basis of particular acts, rule-utilitarianism judges on the basis of the likely consequences for the greatest number of following rules in question. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) accepted the greatest happiness for the greatest number, but substituted for Bentham's purely quantitative standard a qualitative standard distinguishing between lower and higher pleasures; Mill observed, "It is better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied." So one should seek the greater sum of higher pleasures for the greatest number. Mill generally is considered to be rule-oriented.
3. Theological Utilitarianism: William Paley (1743-1805) emphasized the general happiness, maintained that prudence and virtue, or egoism and altruism, eventually would coincide.
4. Intuitive or Theoretical Utilitarianism: Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) sought to reconcile Intuitionism, Utilitarianism, and Egoism.
5. Evolutionary Utilitarianism: Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) held that values productive of the general good have ben evolving since the beginning of societies, and that all ethical concepts are explicable in terms of long-term benefit or pleasure
6. Ideal Utilitarianism: Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924) went beyond judging consequences exclusively in terms of pleasure or pain to any quality (such as fostering character or friendship or loyalty) that we intuitively recognize as good or bad. G(eorge). E(dward). Moore somewhat similarly maintained that good is indefinable, that it is "a unique simple object of thought." Good is a non-natural property; to reduce the good to anything else is to commit the "naturalistic fallacy," of which he considered the Utilitarians guilty. Yet Moore was a Utilitarian in emphasizing the outcome, although of the ideal rather than the pleasurable.
7. Ideal Rule Utilitarianism: Richard B. Brandt (b. 1910) advocates maximizing utility in terms of an ideal moral code relativized to a given society.
BRIEF SUMMARY OF TELEOLOGICAL POSITIONS
1. Naturalistic: Ethical judgments are reducible to nonethical or descriptive terms, empirical facts, this-worldly ends, e.g. pleasure.
a. Hedonistic (from Greek hedon, pleasure)
Cyrenaic: Seeking the most intense pleasures of the moment.
Epicurean: Seeking of refined pleasure (ataraxia, serenity), largely avoidance of pain.
(Traditional) Utilitarian: seeking the greatest happiness for the greatest number (Bentham, J. S. Mill).
Act utilitarian: judging on the basis of the results of a specific act in specific situation.
Rule utilitarian: judging on the basis of everyone's following of a rule in question.
Virtue, allocation of pleasure to the virtuous, knowledge, self-realization (usually identified with rational activity), power, evolution. Note that Stoicism can be considered teleological, also, in its pursuing virtue through apatheia (imperturbability).
2. Nonnaturalistic: Ethical judgments are not reducible to nonethical terms.
a. Theological utilitarian: Good as that which agrees with God's will.
b. Ideal utilitarian: G. E. Moore's good as "a simple, indefinable, unanalyzable object of thought."
CONTRACTARIAN THEORIES deserve to be included among teleological approaches. Although inspired by social contract theories of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, they are universalistic, not egoistic (as noted above in connection with Hobbes). John Rawls (born 1921) in A Theory of Justice (1971) imagined a hypothetical original position in which people through a veil of ignorance, have no knowledge of themselves or their place in a potential society. However, they do have a wide knowledge of the general facts of psychology, economics, politics, and sociology. Rawls supposed that in this position, these "contractors," as rationally self-interested, would adopt a maximum strategy by which they would opt for the less risky egalitarian, deontological principles of justice and moral fairness.
DEONTOLOGICAL, DUTY-ORIENTED, NONCONSEQUENTIALIST
When the right is taken to be the key to ethical behavior then ethics becomes oriented to ideas of obligation and duty, centering around the statement of principles of behavior, rather than the tracing of consequences. Such theories are termed Deontological (stressing obligation), or Formalistic (stressing principle). DUTY (from the Latin debere, to owe). OBLIGATION (from the Latin obligare, to bind).
1. Morality of an act is independent of its outcome.
2. Seeks the right, which is identified with moral obligation, which relates to duty, the ought, rightness, or fittingness. The right is the moral.
STRONG form: goodness is irrelevant. WEAK form: goodness is relevant but not decisive.
Monistic deontology: Kant's Categorical (as distinguished from hypothetical, if-then) Imperative ("Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law") provides the source of right action. Its first formulation states "Act as if the maxim of your action were to secure through your will a universal law of nature;" its second formulation states "Always act so as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, as an end in itself, never as a means only." Actions that conform to these imperatives (i.e., right actions) and are, furthermore, done from a sense of duty, are the epitome of morally praiseworthy actions. Critics of Kant's approach claim that his Categorical Imperative does not contain within it a way to resolve conflicts of duties. "Lying is wrong" can be interpreted as "Never lie" and thus Universal Principles can "harden" into Absolute Principles.
Pluralistic deontology. For W. D. Ross (see below), there are various duties that reflection reveals, and these form a group of prima facie (at first view) obligations.
SOME EXAMPLES OF DEONTOLOGICAL ETHICAL THEORY
1. Stoicism: Right is resignation to duty and indifference to consequences.
2. Traditional Christian ethics: Right is obedience to God's will.
3. Act agapism: let love (the only absolute), not rules, determine your obligation. Rule agapism: follow the rules that are most love-producing or love-embodying. Augustine: Love God and do as you please.
4. Duty theory of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694), classifying duties as those to God, , to oneself, and to others (family, helping others, and political duties).
5. Rights theory of John Locke (1632-1704) of natural rights given by God, adopted by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826).
6. Formalism (emphasizing form over content) of Immanuel Kant: Right is the rational willing of one's duty for duty's sake. Categorical imperative.
7. Idealism of Josiah Royce (1855-1916): Right is loyalty to loyalty for its own sake.
8. Prima Facie duties (which in case of competing duties may not turn out to be one's actual duties) theory of W. D. Ross (1877-1971), maintaining that our duties are "part of the fundamental nature of the universe," with specific duties of fidelity to keeping promises, reparation to those whom we harm, gratitude to those who help us, justice recognizing merit, beneficence to improve the conditions of others, self-improvement in virtue and intelligence, and nonmaleficence not to injure others. Ross held that the right pertains to acts, the good to motives.
Ethical intuitionism holds (much as Socrates did in identifying ethical knowledge and virtue and Paul did not ["The good that I would I do not, but the evil I would not I do. (Romans 7:19)"] that concluding that an action is right is to have reason, justification, for following the course in question. To acknowledge an obligation is also to acknowledge a reason for fulfilling it. However, if one seeks other reasons "for being moral," they include:
1. It pays for the individual.
2. It furthers the common interest.
3. It is in accordance with God's will, which should be obeyed because:
(a) It is in one's interest to avoid punishment, etc. (egoism) and/or
(b) One loves God and seeks to implement God's perfect love. (agapism) and/or
(c) God is sovereign authority and therefore entitled to obedience. (authoritarianism)
Deontological (from Greek deon, duty; not to be confused with ontology, from Greek on, being, + logos, word, theory, the theory of being, metaphysics).
Emphasizes right, duty, moral law, not consequences.
1. Rightness of an act depends on the motive underlying the act (Stoics and Kant).
2. Rightness of an act depends on the character of the act itself (St. Thomas Aquinas, W. D. Ross).
ETHICS OF VIRTUE, emphasizing the traits of excellence of character of persons (virtues)
Virtues are qualities that make for excellence. In the modern world, this approach to ethics has been emphasized only in recent years. It holds that the moral aim of life is to be a good person; right conduct is to support good character.
Kinds of virtue:
1. Natural qualities, such as strength, speed, intelligence.
2. Acquired qualities, such as expertise at playing chess or a musical instrument.
3. Qualities of temperament, such as good disposition or sense of humor.
4. Religious qualities, such as faith or piety.
5. Qualities of character, such as benevolence, kindness, perseverance, courage, wisdom.
The seven cardinal virtues (the first 4 of which are Greek, the last 3, often called "theological virtues" Christian) (1) wisdom or prudence, (2) justice, which is the subjection of the will to reason, (3) temperance, which is the subjection of the passions to reason, (4) courage, which is the strengthening of rational purpose against the weakening effect of fear and certain other passions, (5) faith, (6) hope, and (7) love (charity).
The seven deadly sins: anger, covetousness, envy, gluttony, lust, pride, and sloth
VARIOUS RECENT ETHICAL OUTLOOKS include
Peter Danielson on morality in relation to artificial intelligence
Jurgen Habermas on moral consciousness and communicative action, seeking a dialogical foundation for moral reasoning
Hilary Putnam and Stuart Hampshire on realism with a human face
Martha Nussbaum love's knowledge, providing an imaginative grasp of what is appropriate in a situation
Mark Johnson on moral imagination, implications of cognitive science for ethics
CASUISTRY, (from the Latin casus, case) a term now generally referring primarily to specious or sophistical reasoning, originally referred to the art or science of applying principles to particular conduct.
Excerpts below, mostly on recent trends in ethics, are quoted from Thomas A. Mappes and David DeGrazia (eds.), Biomedical Ethics, 4th ed., 1996. Pages are in indicated in left margin.
36 Virtue Ethics
37 Virtues (for our purposes): "character traits that are morally valued, such as truthfulness, courage, compassion, and sincerity." Agents are the focus, what kind of person one is, one's character rather than the right thing to do.
Arguments for virtue ethics:
(1) We judge people's motivations and character, as in on's giving to a charity when he is running for office.
(2) Principles, rules, and codes are of are of little use in actual decision making, since they are to abstract to provide practical guidance, and there is great dispute over which theory is correct. "A more effective approach, according to this argument, is to cultivate enduring traits (such as competence, attentiveness, honesty, compassion, and loyalty) through education, the influence of role models, and habitual exercise of those traits. Such virtues, it is claimed, are a more reliable basis, in practice, for morally correct action than is knowledge of principles, rules, or codes."
Yet ethics is most centrally concerned with what people should DO (but virtues are "generally reliable means for doing the right thing"), so "virtue partly constitutes right action."
39 The Ethics of Care and Feminist Ethics
"As originally characterized by [Carol] Gilligan and now generally understood, the ethics of care downplays rights and allegedly universal principles and rules in favor of an emphasis on caring, interpersonal relationships, and contexts.
41 Casuistry: Case-Based Reasoning in Historical Context
The "top-down" reasoning inherent in deductivism and principle-based ethics is inadequate for the resolution of concrete problems.
42 (1) "no simple, unified ethical theory can capture the great diversity of our moral ideas [which] helps to account for the fact that there is such extensive disagreement about ethical theories."
(2) "our actual moral thinking does not typically consist of straightforward deductive reasoning (deriving an ethical judgment from a supreme principle). Practical wisdom is required to determine which of various norms (principles or rules) applies in a complicated or ambiguous case."
(3) Traditional theories such as utilitarianism or Kantianism "miss the fact that moral certainty, where it exists, concerns particular cases" so cannot be so certain as judgment on what a particular person does.
"Casuists assert the priority of practice over theory. Moral norms are to be found in practice; practice is not to be justified (or condemned) by absolute moral principles, because there are none." NOTE THAT THIS IS ETHICAL RELATIVISM. Casuists have allies in such pragmatists as James and Dewey.
44 Reflective Equilibrium and Appeals to Coherence
John Rawls's model of reflective equilibrium: no level of ethical conviction deserves exclusive priority. Justification occurs at all levels of generality: (1) theories; (2) principles and rules of differing degrees of specificity, and (3) judgments about cases. Judgments made at any level can be used to revise judgments at any other level.
45 Revisions are never considered final. Even considered judgments may require later modification.
Philosophical and Other Resources
A Summary of Biomedical Ethical Theory
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