1. Ethics is an important branch of philosophy. Ethics is part and parcel to Moral Philosophy. This type of philosophy is concerned with questions such as following:
What should we do? How should we organize society? What is right? How should we understand the idea of justice? On what basis can we choose between different course of action?
2. The notion of justice occupies a large space in any discourse on ethics. We can go back to Plato and his preoccupation with “justice.” Plato’s masterpiece Republic is not based on the question “what is society? But “What is justice?”, and it is through that question that many other issues about society and how it should be ruled are explored.
3. Given the fact that in ethics reason, logic, and intellectualism figure large, we necessarily have to consider Aristotle’s work—he was after all the inventor of “logic.” Aristotle asked about the “good” which was the aim of every action, and about what could constitute a “final good”—something that was to be sought for its own sake, rather than for the sake of something higher. He came to the view that the highest good for man was “eudaimonia,” which literally means “having a good spirit,” but perhaps can be translated as “happiness.” Much of the Western world has embraced Aristotle’s notion of goodness.
4. Aristotle linked his ethics with his whole understanding of human life. It is important to note that he refused to accept any simple rule which could cover all situations, and he also considered human beings in relationship to the society within which they lived, recognizing the influence this has on human behavior.
5. If we follow Aristotle’s reasoning, we will clearly see that ethics becomes the study of rational choice in action, and that it should have a social as well as an individual aspect. It suffices to say that the PERSONAL and the SOCIAL cannot be separated in ethics.
6. In ethical dialogues we often discuss—sometimes with much fervor—what something IS and what it OUGHT to be. In short, we are discussing facts, values, and synthesis of our reflections along with others’. Facts say what “is.” Values say what “ought” to be. This begs the question, can we ever derive an OUGHT from an IS? If the answer to this question is NO, then how are we to decide issues of morality?
7. If no facts can be used to establish morality, can there be absolute moral rules (see Kantian ethics), or are all moral decisions relative (see Utilitarian ethics)—dependent upon particular circumstances, feelings or desires?
8. It is important to note that we cannot tell people what they ought to do, unless it is possible for them to do it.
9. Utilitarianism has to a great extent influenced modern ethics. While there are many competing utilitarian theories of ethics, there is a common basis to them, and that is as follows:
10. The right thing to do is that which will maximize happiness. It is therefore a paradigm based on the expected results of an action, rather than any inherent sense of right or wrong. In short, utilitarianism seeks the maximum happiness for the maximum number of people. My favorite utilitarian ethicist is the Princeton professor of ethics Peter Singer! I have a link to his works on my website. You can also google him. He is a philosopher who writes with clarity and in easily-grasped conceptualization.
WHAT ABOUT KANT?
Some folks in the class have found themselves in a foggy space with Kant and Kantian ethics! Let us see if we can remove the fog a bit.
11. To begin with, it is helpful, I think, to put the historical lens on Kant’s ideas and note that his ethical conclusions were essentially conservative in nature. His theory rationalized all the virtues which his Lutheran upbringing had extolled. Nevertheless, it is striking that Kant derived his principles from “reason” and not from divine commandment. He is, in my view, more of an enlightenment figure than a Lutheran.
12. In formulating his famous “Categorical Imperative,” Kant argued that in order to act morally, a person would actually have three presuppositions:
God, freedom and immortality!
13. For Kant, a person is noumenally free (i.e., free in himself or herself) but phenomenally conditioned (i.e., from the standpoint of an observer, all actions would have causes).
14. He argued that God was also necessary, for otherwise there would be no guarantee that doing what was right would lead ultimately to the highest good (this being guaranteed by God of course!)
15. Kant also thought that even if doing the right thing were to lead to the highest good, this might not be possible within the span of a single human life. For example, if someone gives his or her life to save another, we must assume some form of immortality.
16. The sense of moral obligation is termed the categorical imperative, since “categorical” (i.e., absolute, rather than based on particular circumstances or expected results). Whereas a utilitarian basis for action depends on predicting results of particular actions (consequential ethics), the categorical imperative is general—applying to all situations.
17. Kant expressed the categorical imperative in various ways, but it amounts to this:
Act only on that maxim (or principle) which you can—at the same time—will that it should become a universal law.
And to this he added a second principle:
Act in such a way as to treat people as ends and never as means.
In his own words, “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only.”
By saying we should treat people as ends, and not merely as means, Kant was of course admonishing us against USING other people as means to our own ends—much like what corporations do to their employees. He thought that morality entailed the recognition of the DIGNITY of each person as a person.
18. In the final analysis, general moral principles have to be balanced against the uniqueness of particular situations. That is why applied ethics is so difficult. We are also considering our own value systems, when looking at ethical situations. The actions of individuals need to be examined in terms of the general attitudes and values of the society within which they live, I think!