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Author: Spiros Kakos

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1. Introduction – Scope

Ethics is one of the most controversial subjects of philosophy, mainly because of its relation to our everyday lives. You can hardly find a person who has not postulated on what is “good” or “bad”, on what is “right” or “wrong”. My intention is not to present a full analysis of moral theory or to give anyadvice. The purpose of this article is to present the basic principles of ethics philosophy, so as to show the reader what are the main explanations of us wanting to do good (or bad)…Or in other words: the “source of ethics”. At the end, the conclusions are more than astounding…

2. Definitions of Ethics

(Gr. ta ethika, <= ethos) Ethics (also referred to as moral philosophy) is that study or discipline which concerns itself with judgments of approval and disapproval, judgments as to the rightness or wrongness, goodness or badness, virtue or vice, desirability or wisdom of actions, dispositions, ends, objects, or states of affairs. There are two main directions which this study may take. It may concern itself with a psychological or sociological analysis and explanation of our ethical judgments, showing what our approvals and disapprovals consist in and why we approve or disapprove what we do. Or it may concern itself with establishing or recommending certain courses of action, ends, or ways of life as to be taken or pursued, either as right or as good or as virtuous or as wise, as over against others which are wrong, bad, vicious, or foolish. Here the interest is more in action than in approval, and more in the guidance of action than in its explanation, the purpose being to find or set up some ideal or standard of conduct or character, some good or end or summum bonum, some ethical criterion or first principle. In many philosophers these two approaches are combined. The first is dominant or nearly so in the ethics of Hume, Schopenhauer, the evolutionists, Westermarck, and of M. Schlick and other recent positivists, while the latter is dominant in the ethics of most other moralists. [1]

3. The source of Ethics

Many philosopherstried to explain what “ethics” is and what is its source. However, as it is often the case with philosophers, agreement was not reached.The notion of “good” seems to elude most thinking people of our day, even though it is such a “common” term. It seems that the most basic concepts – like the one of “morality” which is the foundation of all human civilizations – are the hardest to define. And maybe that is why they are so much important… The main theories are discussed below in summary, so as to give the reader the basis for his/her own philosophical inquiries.

3.1 Ethicsas human nature

Some 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 our other beliefs are.

One of the greatest philosophers, Socrates,posited that people will naturally do what is good, if they know what is right. Evil or bad actions, are the result of ignorance. If a criminal were truly aware of the mental and spiritual consequences of his actions, he would neither commit nor even consider committing them. Any person who knows what is truly right will automatically do it, according to Socrates. While he correlated knowledge with virtue, he similarly equated virtue with happiness. The truly wise man will know what is right, do what is good and therefore be happy. [2]The tool towards that “good” was self-knowledge. Socrates insisted that every person must reach into himself and learn himself (the infamous “Know thyself” <= Greek”Γνώθι σ’ εαυτόν”). We must all turn our attention from the outside world to our inner “world” because this is the only way to know what is really “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, emotional and social skills. But he rejects Plato’s idea that a training in the sciences and metaphysics is a necessary prerequisite for a full understanding of our good. What we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole. In order to apply that general understanding to particular cases, we must acquire, through proper upbringing and habits, the ability to see, on each occasion, which course of action is best supported by reasons. Therefore practical wisdom, as he conceives it, cannot be acquired solely by learning general rules. We also must also acquire, through practice, those deliberative, 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 is best 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 beings is not simply because we want to have knowledge, but because we will be better able to achieve our good if we develop a fuller understanding of what it is to flourish. In raising this question—what is the good?—Aristotle is not looking for a list of items that are good. He assumes that such a list can be compiled rather easily; most would agree, for example, that it is good to have friends, to experience pleasure, to be healthy, to be honored, and to have such virtues as courage at least to some degree. The difficult and controversial question arises when we ask whether certain of these goods are more desirable than other

The “highest good”

It is not difficult to find things that are “good”-to-have. For example having friends, having health or having courage are things that most people would agree that are “good”. However who cannot agree that 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 that the highest good, whatever it turns out to be, has three main characteristics: it is desirable for itself, it is not desirable for the sake of some other good, and all other goods are desirable for its sake.

The goal is Eudaimonia

Aristotle 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 composed of two parts: “eu” means “well” and “daimon” means “divinity” or “spirit.” To beeudaimonis therefore to be living in a way that is well-favored by a god. But Aristotle never calls attention to this etymology, and it seems to have little influence on his thinking. He regards “eudaimon” as a mere substitute foreu zên(“living well”). These terms play an evaluative role, and are not simply descriptions 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 they promote well-being, not because they are what well-being consists in. But unless we can determine which 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 only lower capacities but a rational soul as well. The good of a human being must have something to do with being human; and what sets humanity off from other species, giving us the potential to live a better life, is our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason. If we use reason well, we live well as human beings; or, to be more precise, using reason well over the course of a full life is what happiness consists in. Doing anything well requires virtue or excellence, and therefore living well consists 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 writer or 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 Wilde

3.3 Ethics as an “a priori” truth

Some philosophers view ethics as an “a priori” truth, i.e. like something that we have embedded in us as “knowledge” prior to any physical or social experience (see Religional Science for more on “a priori” and “a posteriori” notions). That knowledge is what drives us into behaving good or bad during our lifes. Philosopher Kant played a major role in that part. In this case the inherent validity ofa invinsible but imperativemoral law is what drives us into being good (or have guilts for being bad).

The “duty” of Kant

The 18 th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant is a case in point. Although emotional factors often 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.

In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant’s method involves trying to convert our everyday, obvious, rational knowledge of morality into philosophical knowledge. His methods include 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 to the world of experience. Kant argued that there is a more foundational principle of duty that encompasses our particular duties. Kant is known for his theory that there is a single, self-evident principle of reason that he calls the “Categorical Imperative”. [4]Categorical imperatives are principles that are intrinsically valid; they are good in and of themselves; they must be obeyed in all situations and circumstances if our behavior is to observe the moral law. It is from the Categorical Imperative that all other moral obligations are generated, and by which all moral obligations can be tested.He believed that the moral law is a principle of reason itself, and is not based on contingent facts about the world, such as what would make us happy, but to act upon the moral law which has no other motive than “worthiness of being happy”. Accordingly, he believed that moral obligation applies to all and only rational agents. [5]

A categorical imperative, he argued, is fundamentally different from hypothetical imperatives that hinge on some personal desire that we have, for example, “If you want to get a good job, then you ought to go to college.” By contrast, a categorical imperative simply mandates an action, irrespective of one’s personal desires, such as “You ought to do X” (for example: “you should always tellthe truth”).Kant gives at least four versions of the categorical imperative, but one of themis especially direct:

Treat people as an end, and never as a means to an end. [4]

The Moral Law of God

Theistic philosophers have for a long time postulated the view that morality and ethics are intrinsic qualities 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 of scope for this article,refer toother philosophyKnols I have written for an analysis of these ideas and arguments), 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 manand that this indicates the inherent (a priori) nature of ethics in us. From the Babylonian Hymn to Samos, the laws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the Analects, the Stoics, the Platonists, from Australian aborigines 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. In some unusual cultures the law takes on surprising trapping (e.g. witch burning) – yet when surveyed closely these apparent aberrations can be seen to arise from strongly held but misguided conclusions about 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 afraid of 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 truth

The abovementioned theisticideas of the “eternal” nature of the true moral laws are based on the same notion of “objects” Plato proposed. For example Plato explained the eternal character of mathematics by stating that they are abstract entitiesthat exist in a spirit-like realm. He noted thatmoral 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 moral principles together under the heading of “eternal law” which were also frequently seen as spirit-like objects. [4]

3.4 Ethics as selfish desires

One important area of moral psychology concerns the inherent selfishness of humans. 17 thcentury British philosopher Thomas Hobbes held that many, if not all, of our actions are prompted by selfish desires. Even if an action seems selfless, such as donating to charity, there are still selfish causes for this, such as experiencing power over other people.

This view is called psychological egoism” and maintains that self-oriented interests ultimately motivate all human actions. Closely related to psychological egoism is a view calledpsychological hedonismwhich is the view thatpleasureis the specific driving force behind all of our actions. 18thcentury British philosopher Joseph Butler agreed that instinctive selfishness and pleasure prompt much of our conduct. However, Butler argued that we also have an inherent psychological capacity to show benevolence to others. This view is calledpsychological altruismand maintains that at least some of our actions are motivated by instinctive benevolence. [4]

3.5 Ethics as a creation of society

Normative ethics involves arriving at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. In a sense, it is a search for an ideal litmus test of proper behavior. The Golden Rule is a classic example of a normative principle: We should do to others what we would want others to do to us. Since I do not want my neighbor to steal my car, then it is wrong for me to steal her car. [4] Many people claim that 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 to be “proper”… [8]

Models & Rulesfor deciding ethically

There are many “Ethical Decision-Making Models” which are based on the instructions of society for what is good and what is bad. These models help you decide the ethical thing to do when you are in the tight spot.

For example such a model could ask the following questions to help you decide the “ethical” decision:

Are you treating others as you would want to be treated? Would you be comfortable if your reasoning and decision were to be publicized? Would you be comfortable if your children were observing you? [9]

Others have postulated “rules” that could be applied in order to reach an ethical decision. One of these rules is the utility principle (also known as the “greatest happiness principle”) which favours actions 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 what society “wants” (as a unified set) above what a person might view as “ethical” or “good”. Another very 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 simple model cannot tell you how to behave correctly in all situations. Human judgement and self-awareness is required. The more you attempt to analyze something the more you lose its meaning and significance as a whole. No matter how much you analyze hydrogen and oxygen, you will never understand the wetness of water…

3.6 Ethics without ethical code

The post-modern philosophersargue that there is no absolutes rights or wrongs and that all ethical decisions are relative. However if this is the truth and no ultimate truth exists, if there is no absolute right or wrong,then should we be discussing about ethics at all? According to Bauman, the essence of the postmodern approach to ethics lies not in the abandoning of characteristically modern moral concerns, 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 the philosophical 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 world that we must live. Knowing that to be the truth is to be postmodern. Postmodernity, one may say, is modernity without illusions (the obverse of which is that modernity is postmodernity refusing to accept its own truth). The illusions in question boil down to the belief that the “messiness” of the human world is but a temporary and repairable state, sooner or later to be replaced by the orderly and systematic rule of reason. The truth in question is that the “messiness” will stay whatever we do or know, that the little orders and “systems” we carve out in the world are as arbitrary and in the end contingent as their alternatives. [11] Post-modernism surely gives a new perspective in ethics…

4. Conclusion

The conclusion is that unfortunately…there is no conclusion! Philosophers have not agreed on the source of ethics and neither have people. Even though the notions of good and bad are so close to us, they are still the hardest to define… And that is why perhaps the extensive analysis of the matter draws us more and more away from the source of ethics. There are many reasons for a person to do good to his fellow humans. Only one thing is certain: self-knowledge is a good starting point to begin with. And if someone wants to start dealing with philosophy, ethics is the best place to initialize his inquiry, since ethics was and still is the most important subject for our everyday lives. The great metaphysical questions of humankind can wait..

Interesting Internet Resources

1. Practical and Applied Ethics

2. Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs

3. Harvard University Center for Ethics

4. UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies

 
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