The problems of ethics: an example
Ethics, like other branches of philosophy, springs from seemingly simple questions. What makes honest actions right and dishonest ones wrong? Why is death a bad thing for the person who dies? Is there anything more to happiness than pleasure and freedom from pain? These are questions that naturally occur in the course of our lives, just as they naturally occurred in the lives of people who lived before us and in societies with different cultures and technologies from ours. They seem simple, yet they are ultimately perplexing. Every sensible answer one tries proves unsatisfactory upon reflection. This reflection is the beginning of philosophy. It turns seemingly simple questions into philosophical problems. And with further reflection we plumb the depths of these problems.
Of course, not every question that naturally occurs in human life and proves hard to answer is a source of philosophical perplexity. Some questions prove hard to answer just because it is hard to get all the facts. Whether there is life on Mars, for instance, and whether the planet has ever supported life are questions people have asked for centuries and will continue to ask until we have enough facts about the Martian environment to reach definite answers. These are questions for the natural sciences, whose business it is to gather such facts and whose problems typically arise from difficulties in finding them and sometimes even in knowing which ones to look for.
The wise pursuit of happiness
The question that leads us into the study of different ethical theories concerns the reasons we have to be honest and just in circumstances that invite dishonesty or injustice without risk of disrupting social peace, tarnishing one's reputation, or losing the goodwill of others. One thought a person who was faced with such circumstances might have is that his happiness is best served in the long run by adhering to the standards of honesty and justice. “The cash is very tempting,” he might say to himself as he looked at the wad of bills in the purse he had just found, “but it would be stupid to take it. The costs and risks involved make it likely to be more trouble than it's worth.” The ideal that a person who thought along these lines would affirm is that of wisdom in the pursuit of happiness. In ethics, the theory that affirms this ideal is egoism. The popularity of this theory among people unfamiliar with moral philosophy suggests that no other theory has more immediate intuitive appeal. The theory, in addition, has a secure and important place in the history of ethics. Arguably, it is the theory Plato worked out in the Republic to answer Thrasymachus' challenge to the value of justice. In any case, it certainly had other champions in the ancient world. The most noteworthy of these is the great Hellenistic philosopher Epicurus (341–271 BC).
Kant's step into metaphysics
What interest could rational agents have in acting lawfully if not the order, stability, and other collective goods that law brings to society? Why should it otherwise matter to them that their actions are lawful? It would matter to them, of course, if acting unlawfully made them liable to punishment. But in that case their interest in acting lawfully would not come from seeing it as a good thing. It would come, rather, from seeing it as the surest way to avoid a bad thing, something they have an interest in escaping. Yet the challenge to an ethics like Kant's that represents lawfulness as the essence of moral action is to explain what could interest rational agents in acting lawfully regardless of how the law is enforced, regardless, that is, of whether it is enforced by threats of punishment or incentives to obey. The question then that confronts a defender of Kant's ethics is why a rational agent should regard an action's being lawful as a condition of its being reasonable to do. If he cannot give an answer to this question, the charge of excessive formalism will stick.
Kant himself was fully aware of the importance of this question. He understood that a person must realize some value through acting lawfully, else making lawfulness a condition of the reasonability of an action would be pointless. It would have no rational basis.
Both egoism and eudaimonism share an outlook of self-concern. They both identify the perspective from which a person judges what ought to be done as that of someone concerned with how best to promote his own good. On either theory, then, the highest good for a person is that person's own good, whether this be his own happiness or his own well-being. Hence, on either theory, ethical considerations are understood to have the backing of reason insofar as they help to advance this good.
The self-concerned outlook prevailed in ancient ethics, for eudaimonism was its dominant theory. Modern ethics, by contrast, has been marked by a shift away from this outlook. Eudaimonism no longer dominates the field, and while egoism has continued to have supporters throughout the modern period, theories that presuppose a different outlook from that of self-concern have eclipsed it. These later theories do not identify the perspective from which a person judges what ought to be done as that of someone concerned with how best to advance his own good. Nor do they explain reason's backing of ethical considerations by showing how those considerations help to advance that good. To explain this backing modern moral philosophers have supposed, instead, that ethical considerations speak to some other element in human personality than concern about one's own good. Some philosophers have placed this element within the powers of reason themselves and supposed that we have a special rational capacity for knowing our duty.
Egoism v. eudaimonism
Eudaimonism was the dominant theory in ancient Greek ethics. The name derives from the Greek word ‘eudaimonia,’ which is often translated ‘happiness’ but is sometimes translated ‘flourishing.’ Many scholars in fact prefer the latter translation because they believe it better captures the concern of the ancient Greeks with the idea of living well. This preference suggests that a useful way of distinguishing between eudaimonism and egoism is to observe, when formulating their fundamental principles, the distinction between well-being and happiness that we drew in the last chapter. Accordingly, the fundamental principle of eudaimonism is that the highest good for each person is his or her well-being; the fundamental principle of egoism remains, as before, that the highest good for a person is his or her happiness. Admittedly, this way of distinguishing between the two theories would be theoretically pointless if the determinants of how happy a person was were the same as the determinants of how high a level of well-being the person had achieved. Thus, in particular, when hedonism is the favored theory of well-being, this way of distinguishing between eudaimonism and egoism comes to nothing. It fails in this case to capture any real difference between them. For when hedonism is the favored theory of well-being, determinations of how happy a person is exactly match the determinations of how high a level of well-being a person has achieved.
Our study of different ethical theories began with reflection on a hypothetical question about whether you would have good reason to do the honest thing if you found a lost purse containing a huge wad of cash. The question generated an inquiry into the rational basis of the standards of honesty and justice. These standards, and standards of morality generally, appear to have an authority in our lives superior to that of the conventional standards embedded in local social practice. For one thing, they appear to have such authority because we measure our local social practices and the conventional standards embedded in them against standards of justice and morality. For another, we commonly praise and honor those who resist conforming to conventional standards when those standards create privileges for some and hardships for others that are unjustly enjoyed and borne. This is especially true where such resistance carries personal costs like ridicule, ostracism, or worse. Huck Finn's actions in helping Jim in his attempt to escape slavery are exemplary. The assumption of our inquiry, then, has been that the authority of the standards that morality comprises is founded on reason and truth and not on mere custom or prejudice. Otherwise it would be hard to explain its superiority. Accordingly, we have treated the different ethical theories we surveyed, up to existentialist ethics, as systems of thought constructed to confirm this assumption.
Two theories of moral law
Teleological conceptions of morality originated in ancient Greek philosophy. The major systems of ethics among the ancient Greeks, those of Plato and Aristotle, in particular, were teleological. So too were those of Epicurus and other thinkers who founded important schools of philosophy in the period that came after Plato and Aristotle. Deontological conceptions, by contrast, have a different origin. They derive from an ideal of universal divine law that Christianity drew from the Judaic materials from which it sprang. Christianity, to be sure, drew from the ancient Greeks as well. Its identification of universal divine laws with the laws of nature, for instance, comes from the Stoics, chiefly through Cicero (106–43 BC). But the ideas in Christianity that yielded deontological conceptions are found in its understanding of divine laws as the laws of a supreme ruler that bind his subjects to obey him in the way that a covenant with him would bind them. These juristic ideas, which originated in Mosaic law, are the original frame for deontological conceptions. The principal text that inspired them is Paul's statement in Romans: “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse and perhaps excuse them.”
Ethics is one of the main branches of philosophy. Its range, extending from fundamental questions about the nature of our humanity and freedom to very practical questions about the morality of physician-assisted suicide and experiments on animals, is vast. An introduction must, therefore, be selective in its coverage. I have chosen, as a way of covering the central questions of ethics, to concentrate on different theories of right and wrong that we find in the great works of Western philosophy and that continue to have a large presence in the field. Sustained study of these theories illuminates systematic connections among the field's central questions and the ideas the philosophers who produced the theories invented to answer them.
A good introduction to a branch of philosophy not only surveys its major ideas and theories but also exemplifies philosophical inquiry into them. I have tried to do both. In doing so, I hope to draw the reader into inquiry of the kind that philosophers undertake when they examine a philosophical question as well as to inform him or her about the major ideas and theories in which philosophers who study ethics traffic. Philosophical inquiry requires argument and criticism, and the reader needs to be aware that some of the arguments and criticism I make in the course of examining these different ethical theories represent my own reflections on them rather than settled opinion among the experts. Some of what I say, then, is bound to be controversial.
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