ETHICS AS A STUDY
THE GOOD LIFE
The good life and how to live it must always have been the subject of human speculation. From the wooden plow to the tractor, from the rude hut to the skyscraper, from the bow and arrow to the latest form of nuclear weapon, man has been devising tools for the accomplishment of purposes, means for the attainment of ends. He knows what these things are for, because he has made them with a definite end in view. No great intellectual leap is required for man to turn his question from his products to himself and ask: What am I for, what goal am I destined to achieve, what is the purpose of human life?
It is not enough to have tools, but they must be used in the right way. There is a right way of hunting and fishing, of farming and building, of fighting and governing, and there is also a wrong way. The right way leads to satisfaction and success, the wrong way to defeat and frustration. If this is true of single acts and particular pursuits, must it not be true of the sum total of one's acts, of life itself? There must be a right way and a wrong way of living, just as there is of hunting, fishing, and the rest; and the right way of living is the good life.
We have no record of any such primitive speculations, but in the dawn of history we find that man had already asked these questions and given some sort of answer to them. In fact, we find rather complex codes of conduct already existing and embedded in the customs of the tribe. This was prescientific knowledge, subject to all the errors and whimsies of nonscientific thinking, but out of material suggested by these primitive codes of
conduct an awakened intelligence could fashion a science of the good life.
ORIGIN OF ETHICS
The transition from nonscientific to scientific knowledge began, in our Western culture, with the Greeks. By the sixth century before Christ they had reduced primitive speculations to some sort of order or system, and integrated them into the general body of wisdom called philosophy. After a brilliant period of speculation on the structure of the universe, they began in the days of the Sophists and of Socrates to turn their insatiable curiosity on themselves, on human life and society. Nothing was too sacred for their penetrating scrutiny. As seafarers and colonizers they had come into close contact with various surrounding peoples and were struck by the variety of customs, laws, and institutions that prevailed. They began to ask themselves whether their own were really so superior, and, since no Greek would admit the contrary, why. In time their study led to an examination of all human conduct, and this part of phiolosphy they called ethics.
Ethics comes from
, the lengthened form of
. Both words mean custom
denotes a more fixed type of custom and is often used to mean a man's character. The Latin word for custom is mos;
its plural, mores
, is the equivalent of the Greek
. From mores
we derive the words moral
. Ethics is also called moral philosophy.
By derivation of the word, then, ethics is the study of human customs. Some are mere conventions, such as table manners, modes of dress, forms of speech and etiquette. These are fads and fashions, varying in different parts of the world and at different times, and we feel that we can change them as we please. They are manners, not morals. But there are other customs which seem more fundamental, seem to rest on something inherent in human nature, such as telling the truth, paying our debts, honoring our parents, respecting the lives and property of others. We judge that such conduct is not only customary but right, that to deviate from it would be wrong, that it results not from arbitrary whim but from some fixed principle in human nature. These are morals, and it is with these alone that ethics deals. Hence ethics is the study of right and wrong in human conduct.
WHAT ETHICS STUDIES
We are partly on our way toward framing a definition of ethics. Ethics has for its purpose to interpret this fact of human life: the acknowledgment of right and wrong in human conduct. We find in the human race taken generally a tendency to judge that there are three kinds of acts:
Those that a man ought to do (1)
Those that he ought not to do (2)
Those that he may either do or not do (3)
At this point in our study we do not yet determine whether this judgment is correct or mistaken; we simply note that it is a fact of experience that men do judge in this way. So important are these judgments considered that men will regulate their whole lives in accordance with them and will even sacrifice life itself rather than diverge from them. We apply these judgments not only to our own conduct but to the conduct of others; we punish people and even put them to death for doing what we think they ought not to do, or for not doing what we think they ought to do. The man who does whatever he wants, with no regard for what he ought, is outlawed from society and hunted down like a wild beast.
Philosophy, as an interpretation of human life, cannot afford to overlook a fact of such significance, but must investigate it and determine all that it entails. If men are correct in distinguishing right from wrong, we need to know why and on what grounds this judgment is justified. If men are mistaken in distinguishing right from wrong, we also want to know why, and how such wholesale error can be accounted for. Without prejudging the case in either way, ethics is a necessary study with a large and legitimate field of inquiry.
Every distinct branch of learning must have a subject matter (material object)
which it studies from a certain definite aspect or point of view (formal object)
. The subject matter of ethics is human conduct, those actions which a man performs consciously and willfully, and for which he is held accountable. The aspect or point of view from which ethics studies human conduct is that of its rightness or wrongness, its oughtness
, if we may manufacture a noun corresponding to the ethical verb ought
, which is the real
verb in every ethical judgment. Ethics is not interested in what a man does
, except to compare it with what he ought
to do. We call those actions right which a man ought to do, and those actions wrong which a man ought not to do. The investigation of the ought
is the distinctive feature of ethics and separates it from every other study.
RELATION TO OTHER STUDIES
Besides its relation to the other branches of philosophy, of which it forms a part, ethics is also related to the other human and social sciences. These all have the same broad subject matter, but ethics differs from them by its distinctive point of view.
Anthropology and ethics both deal with human customs on various levels of culture and civilization. Anthropology studies the origin and development of human customs, without passing any judgment on their moral rightness or wrongness, but it is this rightness or wrongness alone that interests ethics. Anthropology testifies to the existence of moral notions, however queer, among primitive tribes; ethics borrows such data from anthropology, but goes on to criticize the moral value of these concepts and customs.
Psychology and ethics both deal with human behavior, with the abilities and acts of man. But psychology studies how man actually does behave, ethics how he ought to behave. Sanity and sanctity, a well-adjusted personality and a morally good character, despite an incidental relationship between them, are essentially different things; so too are their opposites, madness and sin, psychic eccentricity and moral depravity. What motivates a man to a deed, good or bad, is different from the goodness or badness of the deed he does. Ethics is dependent on psychology for much information on how the human mind works, but always passes on from how man does act to how he ought to act.
, and political science
study man's social life, and so also does ethics. But the same difference of viewpoint remains. These three sciences deal with man's actual social, economic, and political institutions, what they are and how they function; ethics determines what they ought to be in terms of human rights and duties. A hard and fast line between these three sciences, and between them and ethics, would render all four studies impractical. The endeavor to remedy the social, economic, and politi
cal ills of mankind involves an application of ethics to these three fields. Such a combination is sometimes called social, economic
, or political philosophy
. But ethics, precisely as ethics, always preserves its distinctive point of view, the ought
The study of law is perhaps more closely related to ethics than any other. Although both deal with law, and therefore in some way with the ought, the civil law and the moral law do not always perfectly correspond. The study of civil law deals only with external acts and positive legality, ethics with internal acts of the will and the tribunal of conscience. There is a difference between crime and sin, legal immunity and moral worth, outward respectability and true virtue of soul. A mingling of ethics and the civil law on a wider field gives us the philosophy of law, the study of how laws ought to be framed and interpreted, a study some writers call jurisprudence.
Another distinction remains, but resting on quite different grounds. Moral theology and ethics both study the rightness and wrongness of human conduct; they differ in the source from which they derive their knowledge and in the method of pursuing their conclusions, rather than in any difference of content or purpose. Moral theology proceeds from the standpoint of divine revelation and ecclesiastical law, ethics from the standpoint of natural human reason alone. As strictly a part of philosophy, ethics is not allowed to appeal to revealed sources for its facts or arguments nor should it discuss ecclesiastical legislation. Philosophy and religion are often concerned with the same problems, but their approach to them is quite different and should never be confused. Ethics is philosophy and not religion.
ETHICS AS A SCIENCE
The view has been expressed that ethics may be an interesting study but can never be a science. The scientific world is still largely under the spell of that nineteenth century mode of thinking originated by Auguste Comte and known as positivism
, which eliminates all metaphysics from philosophy and restricts scientific knowledge to facts and relations between facts. They say that the scientific method is one of exact mathematical measurement, but virtue and vice can never be measured in this way; that science proceeds by prediction based on hypothesis and followed by experimental veri
fication, but human conduct, especially if regarded as free, is too unpredictable; that science deals with facts and the laws governing them, but ethics only with opinions on what ought to be and never wholly is; that science engages in the hardheaded pursuit of wresting from nature her secrets, but ethics is lost in a nebulous quest for ever-beckoning yet ever-escaping ideals and aspirations.
The answer to such complaints is to give a definition of science. If science is so defined as to apply to the physical or experimental sciences only, then ethics will not be a science. But this is too narrow a definition. The word science in the sense of any body of systematized knowledge is still in current use, and ethics is surely this. The definition of science as the certain knowledge of things in their causes is traditional among philosophers; ethics pre-eminently fulfills this definition, for it studies the purpose or final cause of human life, the principles and laws governing the use of means to this end, and establishes its conclusions with demonstrative thoroughness. Like every other science, including the physical, ethics will have its disputed points, but these will be shown to revolve around a solid core of established truth. Nor is it right for one group of scientists to rule out of court the legitimate subject matter of another science; there is need of a science of the ought, for the ought itself is a fact demanding explanation quite as insistently as the physical universe.
THE EMOTIVE THEORY
A later variant of the positivistic approach limits philosophy almost entirely to the field of logic. This is known as logical positivism or logical empiricism. It holds that there are only two kinds of meaningful statements: those that can be verified by experience and those that are mere statements of identity. The latter are true but useless; only the former can cont...