A Cursory Review
Ethics is one of the three main branches of philosophy – metaphysics and epistemology being the other two. Its distinctive subject matter constitutes the science of ethics. Ethics, also called moral philosophy, relates to the well-founded body of knowledge, paradigms, theories, standards, values, etc. involving the prescriptive dos and don’ts in terms of good, bad, right and wrong. To some people, ethics consists in doing what is permitted by law; some track morality back to the fountainhead of religion. Still others accept it in terms of a code of conduct, constructed, determined and followed by society. Encyclopaedia of Philosophy explains ethics as a field systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong behaviour.
The moral philosophy is a broad discipline consisting of a great number of ethical perspectives, thus reflecting millennia of attempts by philosophers to tackle the multifaceted moral problems. In this article, we shall travel through the domain of ethics to get an understanding of its major approaches.
Our daily-life discourses are generally peppered with two kinds of statements:
1) Those concerning the cognitive meaning (which convey information; for example, Karachi is the capital city of Sindh); and
2) Value judgements which present something as desirable or undesirable from the point of view of one’s own standards or priorities.
It is the latter that the ethics is concerned with.
Ethics is classified into the following categories:
1. Meta-ethhics: It examines the meanings of ethical terms; it is the study of moral language. Meta-ethhics, broadly speaking, touches the question of morality in its totality and is involved in the analysis of ethical concepts as a whole.
2. Normative Ethics: While meta-ethics asks as to what morality is, normative theory of ethics focuses on ‘what is moral’. It seeks to ascertain as to which actions are right or wrong. It can be said to be more interested in determining the content of our moral conduct than the abstract nature of ethics. Normative ethics, therefore, extends to substantive issues.
3. Descriptive Ethics: Also called ‘comparative ethics’, it is the empirical investigation of what people think about morality (beliefs), and how they think they ought to conduct themselves and how they actually conduct themselves across different places and cultures. Descriptive ethics attempts to explain people’s moral experiences by means of psychology, anthropology and sociology.
4. Applied Ethics: It is the practical application of ethical theory to real-life situations. By applied ethics, ethicists and researchers try to figure out the moral content of problems, issues, questions and dilemmas as they may arise in diverse practical and professional contexts.
We may further differentiate between first-order ethics and second-order ethics, with the former engaged in specific moral problems (for instance, if mercy killing/euthanasia is ethically permitted), and the latter governing the more general moral domain (as whether there is any absolute source to predicate our morality upon, etc.). In the like manner, a distinction is made between moral generalism and moral particularism. Moral generalists believe in the universality of the given moral principles, which, nonetheless, may be flexible enough to be adapted to specific contexts. Moral particularists, by contrast, deny the possibility of any universal morality to address definite and individual cases. As a matter of fact, our daily life is suffused with countless ethical pronouncements such as speaking truth, not stealing, being faithful, etc. However, more often than not, we are confronted with convoluted dilemmas involving moral subtleties. There are circumstances where one moral precept runs counter to another. For example, one of your trusted friends comes to you terrified and seeks hiding at your house for fear of a killer. While he is inside your house, the killer reaches you looking for your friend. What will you do, then? Speaking the truth will not only cost the precious life of your friend, but also imply an act of treachery to him. But if you choose to keep mum, you will be lying, which is again a morally reprehensible act!
Since moral thought is stuffed with diverse perspectives, the positions taken by moral realists and moral subjectivists also merit a brief mention here. The moral realists assert that ethical truth exists independent of anyone’s will or sentiment; that ethics expresses such propositions as correspond to objective reality. In other words, morality exists objectively irrespective of subjective opinions. Moral properties expressed by facts are as true as properties expressed by such facts as “I am a living being’. In opposition to it, moral subjectivism is a denial of existence of an ethical truth, making morality solely a matter of subjectivity, opinions, feelings, preferences, etc. Thus, by disclaiming responsibility for any of actions and choices, ethical subjectivism as a meta-ethical theory disapproves of the universality as well as objectivity of moral standards. We cannot prove or disprove whether honesty is the best policy in the fashion of ‘two plus two equals four’ formula.
Cognitive and perceptual knowledge aside, one of the aspects of ‘knowledge-that’ is about feelings, emotions, and perceptions. All morals sprout from knowledge-that. Many ethicists maintain that it is within the scope of human factive knowledge to know right and wrong. However, others argue against human capability to rationally draw a line between good and bad, for our morality, they say, is rooted in emotions, and not in objectively existing ethical facts. It is instead a product of the human evolution. That is particularly the position taken by moral nihilists, who altogether reject morality, moral knowledge, and hence ethics.
Among very many existential challenges to morality, the one comes from the problem of free will. To act morally or immorally logically necessitates the possession of substantial measure of free will on the part of an agent. If the given agent were incapable of acting out of possible choices, he would cease to be a free agent, and in that case, he cannot be justifiably condemned for acting wrongly or immorally, because he has simply been programmed that way, like a software to perform a specified task. A lame cannot be singled out for censure for failing to choose to walk instead of limping! It can be said that freedom to act, coupled with rationality, sits at the heart of morality.
Ethics in Ancient Greece
Socrates, to begin with, likened knowledge to virtue, by the same token, believing that the right conduct rested upon self-awareness and self-knowledge. He who knows himself knows quite well how to conduct himself rightfully. Knowledge is integral to the ethical action, whereas evil results from ignorance. Since ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, Socrates took knowledge and virtue to be so identical that those in possession of knowledge will never commit evil.
Plato subscribed to the eudaemonistic conception of ethics, that is, happiness or well-being was the basis of virtue ethics. Eudaimonia was the highest morality. How could one possibly attain that? Plato used another term, ‘arête’ (translated as excellence). Eudaimonia was attainable through the cultivation of arête, that is, excellence and balance of natural faculties. Good lay in being what we are by harmonizing our varied Instincts.
More or less like Plato, Aristotle recommends discovering and developing such virtues as would ultimately lead to a balanced and contented life. Aristotelean morality is based on practical wisdom, which points to an agent’s judgement to behave and act rightly.
Then we have ‘Moral Cynicism’, which also originated in the ancient Greece. Cynics build upon the assumption that human beings are animals, sharing an intimate connection with the nature. For this, they part ways with social values, conventionality, institutions, and the very society, mocking laws and regulations, shunning interpersonal relationships, flouting conventions and promoting a life of self-denial and asceticism. Cynicism displays demonstrative contempt for all the accepted norms and canons of morality. It negates the social nature of man. In the same way, cynics greeted the organized religions and clergy with howls of derision. Thus, moral cynicism is marked by distrust toward amiability of human nature, validity and objectivity of all forms of morality, and legitimacy of all authority and government. Often mistakenly confused with cynicism, scepticism in ethics is characterized by a doubt of the truth claims. Pyrrho believed that since reality is essentially indeterminate, nothing of good or bad can be known with certainty. Sceptics question the moral claims arguing against the deep down absoluteness of ethical truth; that is, however, not to suggest that all moral claims are false.
The writer is a researcher and author of the book “Dream To Disillusionment”.