The statue depicted above shows us Aristotle, one of the great founders of ethics. Aristotle was one of those who gave us ethical theory. But in doing this he was putting into theoretica form the moral sense that humans have always had, even if they had not the theoretical, philosophical basis in which to express it. There are different ethical theories, which I wil outline. I outline the basic theories here, but there are theories within theories, which would take too long to explain.
The basis of ethics
Ethics deals not with what is, but with what ought to be. Humans have a basic moral sense, a sense that is expressed in the worlds "should" or "ought." This is very different from the world "is." What is, might not be what ought to be. Injustice is a fact, but it ought not happen.
Divine command ethics:
This is one of the oldest ethical theories. It is the one that is at the basis of the Ten Commandments. The basic theory is that God knows what is best for you and society, and he is in authority, so you ought to do as he says. Emmanuel Kant criticised this theory of ethics, claiming that it is not as rational as other ethical theories, such as his own [more later.] Kant believed that simply obeying God was no better than obeying a ruler, and simple obedience does not guarantee that you are obeying the right rules. Objectors might argue that as God is supremely good and wise, and that he wills the best for humans, so obeying God's teaching is the right way to be. This position rests upon religious faith, and it does raise the issue of whether you are obeying the right book of rules, e.g the Bible, the Koran, etc.
Natural Law Ethics
This is a more sophisticated version of religious ethics very strongly held in Catholicism. It arose from the mediaeval synthesis of Catholic thought with Aristotelian philosophy developed by Aquinas and other Scholastic philosophers. For the scholastics every being has a nature that to some degree reflects a fragment of the glory of the creator, and it has a purpose that derives from this nature , which is to move towards God in a specific way. Every action should fulfil the purpose of your nature. The moral law is said to derive from this human nature that we possess. However, it is difficult to derive a comprehensive set of laws from human nature without religious revelation, but Natural law theorists are
happy to accept that this gives an important role to religion.
This derives from Emmanuel Kant in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries. Kant believed that is we say you ought to be good to get a reward, you are not being truly ethical. This goes as far as applying to those who say that you ought to be good to go to heaven. He thought this a childish mode of ethical thinking. It is what he called a hypothetical imperative, "be good if...." He thought that what was truly ethical was a categorical imperative, a simple duty to be good whatever happens. For Kant the good rests on the good will. If you do right for the wrong reason you are not being ethical. He believed that there were certain basic duties that you had to perform whatever the circumstances. These include: respecting persons [the basis of ethics] not telling lies, not breaking promises, not committing murder, not stealing. So strict was he in these duties that when asked what he would do if he were sheltering his friend from murderers, who come to the house asking if the friend is there, you must not lie. Critics see this as counter-productive.
This is an English theory developed originally by Bentham in the nineteenth century. Bentham believed that we should assess the moraility of every act by its consequences. so there are no absolute rules and there are no rights, which were nonsense on stilts. You should consider every being involved in the consequences of an act, even animals. Bentham's version is known as Act Utilitarianism. The trouble is that the consequences of an act go on for ever, so in theory we can never fully assess its consequences. A more workable version came from John Stuart Mill, who produced Rule Utilitarianism. His picture is below. This is the idea that there are a number of rules that tend to produce good results, so we should follow those. Though he was an atheist, Mill respected the Ten Commandments, which the ever tolerant and open-minded Mill thought were a very effective set of rules. For Mill one key rule was the principle of liberty, that every perosn is entitlted to the maximum freedom compatible with equivalent freedom for others. If this rule were widely followed we would have a better world, but there have been criticisms of the workability of his theory at a political level. These criticisms mainly arise from left wing sources, for whom liberty is not highly prized.
in recent years there has been a resurgence of virtie ethics, with Anscombe and Foot at the forefront. This theory rests on the view that ethics is about making good persons, and it was originally expounded by Aristotle, who believed that if persons were educated to be virtuous they would act well of their own choice. This is completely in keeping with the religious ethics of the Sermon on the mount in Matthew chapter 5, where the Beatitudes describe the true Christian character, though not all virtue ethics are Christian. The limitation of virtue ethics is that it provides no method for solving ethical dilemmas.
Situation ethics has been an important issue in Christian thought in recent years, though there are modes of situation ethics that are not tied to Christianity. Popularised by Joseph Fletcher, it believes that love is the main principle and that only love is absolute, so you can break any rules if love demands that you do so, situation ethics provides some flexibility against the inflexibility of deontological ethics and natural law ethics, byt there are questions about how far love on its own is a rudderless principle that provides no real guidance about how to deal with dificulties and confllicts of values.
Does any ethical theory give all the answers? Perhaps we should draw on a range of etical theories and synthsise them to work out the best possible way of resolving our problems of how to act.
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