Is it wrong to lie? What if it were to save your friend from certain death? What about stealing?-- Is it ever acceptable? What if it were to save a life? Questions such as these all fall under the philosophical branch of ethics. Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is the branch of philosophy that studies right and wrong behavior and conduct (Singer). And as French-Algerian, existentialist philosopher Albert Camus so poignantly asserted, “A man without ethics is a wild beast, loosed upon this world.”(Camus). In philosophy, ethics is extremely important because most philosophers, regardless of their specific field or focus have something to say regarding the topic and often times, their stance or opinion has a lot to do with what that philosopher’s core principle is all about.
However before one can address the many ideas and theories behind ethics, one must examine the concept of metaethics. Metaethics is a sub-discipline of ethics primarily involved with the nature of ethical theories, moral judgments and the very foundations of morality itself (Britannica). Metaethics poses such questions such as “What is morality?”, “Where and whence did it come from?”, “Is it a purely objective notion? Or is it perhaps a form of cultural and social protocols?”, and of course, “How can one truly know?”. Within the subdiscipline of metaethics, there are many views, and before one can assess the efficacy behind them, the core concepts need to be fully understood. Moreover, their ability to hold substantial weight when confronted with the many ethical dilemmas that arise in this world, such as lying to help a friend or stealing to assist someone in need or to ensure the survival of one’s family, also needs to be analyzed.
In this essay, the core theories behind the discipline of ethics, as well as the moral philosophers who asserted them will be discussed. The first concepts of ethical discourse arose over two thousand years ago when the ancient Grecian philosopher, Socrates and a group of teachers began questioning the concept of right and wrong (Kraut). Some philosophers believe that ethics is a kind of moral science and that it attempts to discover a set of moral truths whose existence is testable, and verifiable. However, others believe morality is as objective as whether the sky is blue or grass is green. A group of people can agree on whether something is immoral or not, but they may also oppose each other strongly about why it is so. For example, consider this moral dilemma; A man robbed a bank, but then, he did something rather uncharacteristic of bank robbers. He donated the stolen money to an orphanage that was dilapidated, poor, and lacking in proper basic needs for child care, such as food, water, and amenities.
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The stolen money would greatly enhance the situation at the orphanage and the children’s lives would improve greatly, resulting in a better overall atmosphere (List Verse). The man clearly robbed the bank with the intention of obtaining money that was not his, but his subsequent actions of donating it to the orphanage to aid the children appear to cancel out the immorality of his actions. As such would it be accurate to say that the man’s actions were good? Furthermore, does he deserve praise even if he did technically commit an unlawful and immoral act by robbing the bank? And should he still be held culpable even though his actions ended up bettering the orphan children’s lives? The way in which one answers these questions assists in determining where one’s moral sensibilities lie, and which theory is most likely valid. One of the most fascinating views under the sub-discipline of metaethics is the notion of moral realism.
Moral realism is the belief that there are moral facts and moral values, both of which are objective and wholly independent of one’s perceptions, beliefs, and feelings towards them (The Basics of Philosophy). This view proposes that a moral proposition can only be true, or false, and for many, intuition helps in determining what these factors are. For instance, many think that unwarranted violence is inherently wrong and always will be, but nurturing one’s offspring is inherently correct. However, one does not have to delve far into the concept of moral realism before noting some obvious flaws in the idea such as if the concept of moral facts is valid, then where did they originate? How can one ascertain whether or not something is a moral truth or not? Who was in fact qualified to deem them right in the first place? Further, are they capable of being tested and falsified as scientific facts? Questions such as these, generate further inquiries into the topic of ethics.
If, in fact, morality is fact-based, then why is there continual disagreement about what’s moral and what’s not, as opposed to science-related concepts where there is frequent consensus on many topics. In ethics, this questions is what philosophers consider the “grounding problem”(Bliss &Trogdan). The grounding problem searches for a basis and justification for our moral beliefs -- something substantial and concrete that would make these beliefs true in a way that is objective and stable. Alternatively, moral anti-realism, a belief presented by the British philosopher, Michael Dummett, proposes the idea that moral propositions do not refer to objective features of the world and that there are no moral facts (Dummett). Moral anti-realists assert that there is nothing about unwarranted violence that is inherently wrong, often arguing that if one were to examine other animals, the concept of nurturing one’s children is not a steadfast righteous act. Thus, demonstrating that the concept of morality varies depending on the situation and person assessing the situation as morally right or wrong or good or bad.
Additionally, within the philosophical branch of ethics, these views are considered within the categories of teleological and deontological ethics. They are relevant to assessing the question of what constitutes a good or bad action. American author and professor of philosophy, Robert Almeder identifies these differences, stating “The first kind asserts that the morality, or the immorality, of an act (and hence the rightness or wrongness of an act), is a function solely of the consequences of the act and that the natural tendency of those consequences is to produce pleasure or pain, or goodness, or happiness, in some degree and in some way. Any such theory we call a consequentialist or a teleological theory. The second kind of theory asserts that the morality or the immorality of an act has basically nothing to do with the consequences of the act. This latter kind of theory we call deontological.”(Almeder).
Teleological ethics, also known as consequentialist ethics is considered the theory of morality that observes and “derives duty or moral obligation from what is good or desirable as an end to be achieved”(Encyclopædia Britannica). Teleological theories of ethics include egoism, which is the belief that moral behavior should be directed toward one's self-interest only, eudemonism, which bases moral value on the likelihood that good actions will produce happiness, and lastly, utilitarianism which recognizes that an action should be directed toward achieving the maximum amount of happiness for the greatest number of people (Encyclopedia Britannica).
Some of the oldest ethical theories were introduced by the ancient Grecian philosophers; Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus, who all proffered teleological theories. Consequentialist ethics, as the name suggests, focuses on the results or consequences of one’s actions and treats one’s intentions as irrelevant. Simply put, good consequences equate to good actions in this view. Founded in the 18th century by the British philosophers; Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the theory originally has philosophical predecessors in Ancient Greek thinkers such as Epicurus (Encyclopædia Britannica).
They all assert that actions should be measured in terms of the happiness or pleasure that they produce and ultimately, happiness is the end goal in life; it is what is prioritized over everything else. This is also known as utilitarianism and it is often regarded as a hedonistic moral theory, but it should by no means be mistaken for egoism, which is its own theory. Egoism suggests that everyone ought to be moral in the pursuit of their own good; thus, prioritizing one’s own good; whereas, utilitarianism prioritizes the pleasure and happiness of as many persons as possible, maintaining that one should pursue pleasure or happiness, not just for ourselves but for as many persons as possible. To put it formally or as Bentham noted in his book, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, this is the principle of utility, suggesting that it be “the property in any object whereby it tends to produce pleasure, good or happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.”(Bentham).
Philosophers who agree with Bentham’s idea, believe that this idea should be the driver of morality and that it should apply equally to everyone. They believed that the way to accomplish this is to ground it in a concept that is intuitive; the primal desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. In opposition to the teleological theory of ethics is the deontological view. This theory focuses on whether the action, itself is right or wrong rather than the consequences.
Therefore, a situation is deemed morally good or bad based on whether or not the action from which it arose was morally good or bad. To reiterate succinctly, what is right takes high priority over what is good. As with the situation with the bank robber who stole money to donate to the children’s orphanage, the deontological view would maintain that the man was wrong due to the fact that the way in which the money was obtained initially was immoral and therefore the entire act is immoral. This view is consistent with moral absolutism, which is the idea that an action is wrong regardless of the consequence, culture or circumstance. Moral absolutists believe that a moral fact applies as universally and as constantly as the rules of physics. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, a staunch supporter of the deontological view of ethics and moral absolutism, asserted that it is wrong to lie, even if a murderer is inquiring about the location of his friend (McCarty).
Additionally, advocates of deontology maintain that the morality of an action is fixed by an authority independent of the outcomes that the actions produce and that one is obligated to obey the actions guided by morality. Often the use of God as an official authority on where ones moral compass should lie is characteristic of deontological theories. In conclusion, ethics is a fairly broad branch of philosophy and should be regarded as a primarily subjective topic which strives to understand the concept of human morality. As seen in the various views, there often exists a vast difference between theoretical assumptions and their practicality. Like Emmanuel Kant so poignantly emphasized, “The point is not always to speculate, but also ultimately to think about applying our knowledge.”(Kant).
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