What is right and wrong? What is the good? Are certain actions wrong always? How can we determine how humans are supposed to behave? Is there a guiding principle or is it all individual? These are the questions of ethics, also called moral philosophy. In this section we will look at some various theories on the origin of ethics, what its foundations are, and how we can determine if certain acts are good or not. There are many different theories and we will only cover a few, as well as looking at the foundations of the moral value, or “the good”.
1. Sources of ethics.
So what is the source of ethics? Why do we think ethically?
-- Some claim ethics has its base in religion, that ideas of good and evil come from scriptures or rest on the authority of the command of God. This may be right and true, but in philosophy we look to discover if possible the origins of the good only by use of reason, so religious teaching does not enter into it. If there is no ethics without the authority of a divinity, then ethics is not a branch of philosophy.
-- Some claim ethical ideas come from the laws of the state where we are raised, that we think certain things are good or are a moral value because they happened to be legal where we were raised. But laws are not a source of ethics, they must be drawn from and be based upon a prior source or theory of ethics. Laws come from political decisions, and are based on the ethical theories of those making the laws. Laws can be unethical, just because something is legal does not make it a good. One must also turn to some ethical theory to even show that it is good to obey laws.
-- Some claim ethics is all based on one's culture, and the traditions of the society one is raised in. Various cultural traditions have different view points on many things, thus some claim ethics is born from the culture and is not universal. But upon deeper observation the basic principles of ethics are quite similar in all societies. Even those that differ in the interpretation of principles and application of them to life, the underlying basis is very similar. Some cultures make women or other races to be property and slaves, other do not, but underlying both is an idea of justice and property, they differ on who it applies to. There are still cultures that allow others own slaves, do not allow freedom of religion and self determination to all, etc. All cultures cannot be equally right, that would be a contradiction. Cultures can be and are judged the same as systems of law. There is something more basic by which a cultural practice is judged. To say one culture or way of acting is the same as another means you cannot criticize a culture that performs horrible unethical acts.
-- The same arguments apply to the individual emotions as the source of ethics. Some sincerely believe the acts they do are right, although others would call them unethical. They say each person can decide for themselves, that one must not judge another's choices. But like cultures, this would mean accepting contradictions as both true. The generals of Hitler thought they were doing the right thing to eliminate Jews. The KKK also thinks they are right. If all ethics is individually relative then one cannot criticize the KKK members, or Stalin, or even someone that robs your dorm room. Someone with this opinion needs to honestly say, "I think it was wrong that someone stole my computer with all my papers on it making me fail the semester, but if you say it was ok for them to steal my computer in order to turn in my papers and pass even though I fail, I think you are entirely correct." This is nonsense and illogical thought. The choices of individuals tell us little of what is the good, what is a moral value.
So what is the source? Religion? Law? Culture? Individuals? In the following sections we will look at the general human reason as a possible source.
2. The Good, the Moral Value.
So let's look at what is the good, what is moral value? Is there such a thing? First we will look at how we act and think and talk about the idea of moral value in general and analyze it to see what if any foundation there is to it. Then we will look at theories of the objective moral order, how do we know which actions are good and which are not. Ethics looks at these two areas – 1. the foundation of the moral value, and 2. human acts and which are ethical or not. So a definition of ethics could be: A normative science of human acts considered as good or bad by the light of reason. The object of study of this field is the human act. (Refer to the paragraphs on freedom in the section on Human Nature for details on human acts.)
First, what does a moral value appear to be? (Moral value and “the good” are used mostly interchangeably). Based on human observation, our initial definition is: A moral value is a type of quality of something that makes it attractive to us, worthy to be willed and chosen. Aristotle says the good is that toward which things act. Think of it like this: What are things you want from your life? What are the things someone 5,000 years ago in Persia wanted from their life? What about a Greek like Plato in 300 BC, or a peasant in medieval Europe in the dark ages? What about the punks on Hollywood boulevard and the farm boys in Kansas? Everybody has something that is a good for them, that they are seeking out of life. (Some things we seek only in order to get a partial good on the way to a greater one, for example learning horseshoeing is partial to the overall goal of being a cowboy.) Is there anything that all these have in common? Is there a "good" underlying all these different goods in life?
The good is called such since it either perfects us in some way, or is perfect in itself. We desire it because it perfects us, or we desire it because it is desirable in itself. Human reason has the natural tendency to see things as values or as bad. The common experience of people shows this existence of the good. All our ideas of justice, being owed something, fairness, and the repugnance we feel at the suffering of innocent loved ones, all show some type of moral value present in the human outlook. We also judge other's behavior, and we know in ourselves we are either to blame for our own acts sometimes, or deserving of praise. We value many things in life, but what do we value, or see as a good, in the moral life? What is this quality that draws our will?
3. First Principle and Obligation.
The moral value appears to stick out among other goods as the highest value of the human reason, higher than other values, and in any conflict of values the moral value wins out, in judgment if not always in practice. If we want a material good like a car, but the moral good of justice says not to take another's belongings, then according to reason, the moral value wins, but although reason would place the moral value above the material value, many still choose the material value, and then may experience guilt.
From this sense of a good, we see that we experience an internal obligation, a force of reason that indicates that the highest good should be chosen. It is more than instinct or unconscious fear, it is a reasoned reflection, often referred to as the first principle of ethics – that one must choose good and avoid evil. The moral value has a demand on our reason that it be recognized and chosen. It forces itself into the mix. So what is the foundation of this obligation?
-- Some say one cannot have any real obligation unless one recognizes God as the ultimate Good, and the authority behind it all as the one obliging. How can we speak of laws and obligation without someone or something making the law and obliging us?
-- Others such as Kant say it is built into the structure of the reason, we do not know the thing in itself but our reason “sees” a certain way, and this “certain way” includes the idea of obligation.
-- Others place the source of the moral value in things but discoverable by right reason, but not in each individual reason, but in the ideal of a right reason. It is not mine and your individual minds which determine good, but we bring our reason in line with the idea of an ideal right reason. If something is in conformity with the ideal of right reason, then it is a value, and our individual reason should recognize it as such, as something we need and desire and will make us happy.
-- Many skip this step and simply try to figure out what standards of behavior should be. They take for given that there is a preferable behavior standard and ethics seeks it out. They do not concern themselves with why one should follow a standard even if it is shown to be beneficial. This is the textbook's approach. It is fine to try to figure out with methods which acts are good etc, but without first figuring out the foundation as we have briefly looked at above, then there is little reason to accept such findings even if one agrees they are right.
4. Happiness and Types of theories.
So once now that we have seen a little clearer about the moral value itself, how do we then figure out the moral order and what acts are right or wrong? This is the second of the two stages (1. what is the moral value, and an obligation to choose it and avoid evil, and 2. which concrete acts are either evil, or good, that is in conformity with the good?) There are many theories and the textbook covers two general types,
1. the goal oriented ethics, and
2. act oriented or deontological ethics,
to which we will add a bit about classical theories of
3. natural law, an some about
4. virtue ethics.
Most ethical theories are based on the fact that humans act for or toward their conception of good. Our happiness is seen as the good for us and we act toward it. We want to achieve happiness and we do not choose acts that we feel will make us unhappy. So ethics seeks to find out what is the true happiness for a human life? Now “happiness” must be understood as well-being, satisfaction in life, contentment, not as passing joys or happy moments, and is understood as happiness for others as well, since I judge them to be rational beings as well and deserving of the same as I. Happiness is a rough translation of Aristotle's word Eudaimonia, meaning full possession of a satisfied life. Acts that lead to happiness are morally good, those that do not are evil. An ethical life should lead to satisfaction and happiness. This happiness comes from having our needs fulfilled, not just bodily needs such as food and warmth, but needs for justice, respect, freedom and other “ways of being treated.”
Someone doing an evil act is doing so because they think it will make them happy. All acts seek happiness. So to reach true happiness we must determine what is true happiness, then do the acts that will bring it. If we misunderstand what true happiness is, we will do acts that will bring a false or passing happiness. Happiness is the goal of the action but not the foundation of the moral value. It is the weight of the moral value that explains why it is good to seek happiness in the first place, or evil to act against it. True happiness must be understood as acting in conformity with the moral value, living a “good” life. Those that seek happiness in unethical acts will always be frustrated. So how do we know which act are unethical?
The first theory the book examines is the results or goal oriented ethics, also called teleological, and it uses the example of Utilitarianism, which has been a very popular theory for years. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are the chief proponents of Utilitarianism to determine whether an action of right or not. They use the principle of the greatest amount of pleasure as a standard - The Greatest Pleasure Principle. They rejected ideas of obligatory moral value and built a system of calculations to determine the amount of pleasure that would come from an act, and the amount of displeasure it may cause, then determine in a quasi-mathematical way whether the act is good or not for one to do. It is called a hedonistic calculus, from the Greek word for pleasure. There are seven aspects of pleasure identified that need to be considered: Intensity, Duration, Certainty, Remoteness, Fecundity, Purity, and Extent. The book gives a good example of how it works in practice for a specific act. (See page 130.)
The problems with the greatest pleasure principle of Utilitarianism is that it does not offer any foundation or reason why pleasure or happiness is to be called a moral value, why it should be sought above other things, why it is the goal, and as a theory it requires an effort to guess the future. It is limited to the sensible life pretty much, and ignores the common experience that those who avoid demands and hard choices of life actually provoke contempt, not admiration. We admire those with courage to choose, and face difficulty, not pleasure seekers. It also allows the same act to be both good and evil at different times depending on how the hedonistic calculus works out.
6. Kantian Ethics.
The other theory explained in the book is Deontological (deontos = duty) or act oriented ethics. Instead of looking at the result or pleasurable consequences of an act, it looks at the act itself. The nature or type of the act should tell us if it is good or not, regardless of the circumstances. Act oriented ethics looks at the intrinsic aspects of the act, not the extrinsic aspects. This way of looking at acts means that one would choose acts that are right no matter the outcome - which sometimes may seem to work against our happiness. For example if you are far away on a trip you could cheat on your spouse with a stranger and no one would ever know, you will not hurt your spouse since they will be unaware. But you would be breaking a promise, your integrity would be broken, so you choose no. We may feel we have a duty to do or avoid certain acts, whatever the outcome. Immanuel Kant is the chief source of this theory.
In Kant's ethics every action must be determined to be good in itself, we have a duty to do things just because they are good and no other reason. How do we know what acts we have a duty to avoid or do? He says we should do the acts that correspond to our dignity as free creatures. Things are divided into those with a price and those with dignity. People have no price and need to be treated as such. (read example on pg 147). This is determined by judging all acts according to a principle he calls the categorical imperative. This is expressed in two ways: 1) Act in such a way that you always treat humans, whether yourself or others, as an end and never as a means. The human has dignity due to reason, and thus is not to be used as a means to anything else. The other categorical imperative of Kant is 2) Act as though the maxim of your choosing were to become, by your will, a universal law of nature. So if you want to cheat, imagine that your choice would become a universal law for all people – anyone could cheat in your manner and it would be universally accepted by everyone as good. If you do not think this would be a good universal law, then you should not choose the act.
7. Problems with Kant.
Kant's ethics has less problems than Utilitarianism, since it provides a fixed standard that does not change and is based in reason. But it too has weaknesses, not only because one must accept Kant's idea of the human reason imposing it own categories on reality and not knowing things in themselves, but also because it is overly rigid. It does not allow for any circumstances to modify the principle. Life presents some complicated situations and an action may be good to do here and now even though one would not wish it to be a universal law. The categorical imperative would indicate one should not steal, but what if your child is hungry and you see an apple tree on someone else's land, and you take an apple. Other ethical systems would see this as ok due to circumstances, but Kantian ethics would not. Also, he does not provide a foundation for his idea of obligation, it is sort of an empty concept of our reason, and this does not match up to our common experience of the force the moral value exerts on us. Lastly Kantian ethics has no room for love of the good, or love of value, in fact if one acts out of love, it is unethical, one should only act out of duty to uphold the law of reason.
8. Natural Law Theory.
Thirdly we will look at the natural law theory. Many classical ethics are based on the existence of a natural law, including Aristotle in some degree, John Locke, Aquinas, The Stoics, and the writers of the US Declaration of Independence. Natural law theory has an objective moral order and an subjective moral order. The objective moral order is the idea that humans have the same essence or nature everywhere, and due to the universal nature, the same natural laws for action apply to all. The goodness of acts is in a sense built into acts, based on whether they are good for our nature or not. Just as gasoline, oil etc are needed for the good of a car, or minerals, sun, and water are needed for a plant, so certain acts are good for the happiness of a free and rational nature, some are not. The objective moral order is those things that are always good or wrong for us. The subjective moral order is those circumstances that may change the application of the natural moral law.
9. Objective moral order.
The most basic principles of the natural law are universal and unchangeable and are known to all, such as “do good and avoid evil”, and ideas of justice, fairness, respect, ideas that even children have. Other less general principles of natural law are determined by applying the universal principles to circumstances. So that one should not cheat, is based on the principle of honesty, which is based on the need of the human intellect for truth to function properly. The demands of natural law apply to our whole nature, as regards our being as 1) a “thing” or substance, 2) as animal, and 3) as intellectual. It also applies to others since they are recognized as same nature as I and thus under the same demands.
These demands of the natural law are discoverable by reflection and can sometimes vary in their application due to circumstances, but do not vary in their general formulation, and even in circumstances they retain their universal character, since anyone in the same set of circumstances should do the same. The laws are hard to formulate perfectly since more than laws they are demands of reason, and a universal formulation would have to contain all circumstances when stated.
We mentioned that the natural law is known by all in its general principles. But knowledge of less general applications can be defective or distorted. Our passions and emotions can blind us, habits of ignoring the natural law can make its recognition weaker, and ones psychological problems, from trauma, or childhood experiences can deform it, or cultural forms can distort it. But each person does not discover it on their own anew. It is a learned law as well, each generation taking from the past and building on it to always be refining the natural law's applications. In this sense it is similar to mathematical laws, they can be discovered by oneself, but it is difficult. When we are taught them, we then see them present in nature without having discovered them ourself. Being taught the natural law does not contradict its source as being in nature.
10. Subjective Moral Order.
As we mentioned there is a subjective moral order as well in natural law theory. We have seen that although ethics does not come from the individual, the individual is where it plays out, and each individual lives in a specific set of circumstances. So subjectively there are circumstantial factors to consider along with the objective side of each act. To determine if an act is good to do one would consider four aspects: 1) the act itself, which if it involves the use of reason it is a moral act, 2) the circumstances surrounding the act, 3) the motive for the act, why one is doing it, 4) the means to carry out the act. To be a good act, all four factors must be morally good. If only one of the four is bad, the whole act is bad and should be discarded. A good motive does not make a bad act to be good, or a good act does not allow the choice of evil means.
The way the principles of the natural law must be applied to concrete circumstances is called the conscience. The internal conscience is a function of the intellect to judge an act to be in conformity with the demands of the natural law and the good. Our conscience is the way we apply the law to each particular act. It must be developed by reflection and learning, it is not an inborn knowledge, and thus it can be wrong, we can have a poorly formed conscience which does not allow us to apply principles correctly. A wrong conscience can can lessen the gravity of a unethical or immoral act, but it frustrates the pursuit a truly happy life.
11. Virtue Ethics.
We have seen these various ethical theories or ways people seek to explain what is good and evil. But having a theory is not enough. To live according to ethical principles, and truly guide ones life to actual happiness and satisfaction according to our rational nature requires the formation of habits. By forming habits of good, doing the good becomes easier, making life progressively happier. A habit of performing good, (e.g. such as routinely not cheating or lying when one wants,) is called a virtue, (e.g. the virtue of honesty). A habit of choosing the bad is called a vice. Chapter six of the text book is a good explanation of virtue and vice and how the virtuous life is the fulfillment of ethical principles and leads to true happiness.
Virtue ethics concerns itself less with looking at each act and more with what kind of overall life should one live and build, what is the grand overall scheme of human good that one wants or needs to develop. These habits, or virtues (from the Latin Virtus), are character traits one develops that allow us to achieve the internal goods to our actions. For example: If your goal is to play chess, you can cheat and win and then you have the external good of having won, but if you want to get anything out of the game for life, you must apply your self, learn the game, follow the rules and win that way, then you get the internal good from it. Virtue is that interior habit of good that allows you to get the internal goods form actions, and overall to get the internal goods from life.
There are many virtues listed by authors, such as honesty, purity, kindness, etc, but there are four main "hinge" virtues pointed out by Aristotle and other traditional authors that guide the life of all the other virtues. These four are Courage, Self-Control, Justice, and Wisdom (also called Prudence). They say that without these four to guide your life of virtue, all the other virtues will be lacking. Aristotle points to the golden mean, which is the spot at which a virtue is proper. For example: Generosity is the middle between being a miser and giving away too much. In each virtue one needs to find the golden mean, and the four hinge virtues help us do that.
In conclusion, philosophy can help in ethics to clarify and propose standards, but there is a lack of ability to lay out an ethical system that meets someone at the particular situation of life they are at and guides in a totally clear manner. That is why may people rely on religion to uphold and provide the firm base for ethics. Philosophy can only get us part way there.