What Does Ethics Concern?
According to many Western and non-Western perspectives, ethics generally is understood to address the question: How ought we to lead our lives? Ethics, as a branch of philosophy, raises a number of questions that can be addressed conceptually or theoretically, namely:
- Is ethical knowledge possible?
- What are the sources of such knowledge?
- What are the theoretical strategies for resolving conflicts among these sources?
- Which are the most important values, and how are they related to each other?
Applied ethics pursues these various conceptual or theoretical questions within the framework of particular contemporary issues.
In Western thought, it is common to distinguish between two large subgroups of questions in ethics. Personal ethics deals with the questions:
- What determines the rightness or wrongness of particular actions?
- What determines how social responsibility will divide into the individual shares of responsibility for the members of a community?
Then there are large-scale, collective issues in ethics, which we will call social ethics, such as:
- What determines the rightness or wrongness of various social policies?
- What are communities collectively responsible for?
There is a longstanding controversy in Western thought about the relationship between personal and social ethics. Some thinkers have believed that ethics mainly concerns what one’s individual conscience tells one to do and that one should not be concerned about what the society at large could do. Others, such as the utilitarians, have thought that ethics primarily concerns deciding what is best for the society at large, with each person’s own happiness counting for no more than any other person’s happiness. Some non-Western approaches deny that there is a significant difference between these two approaches.
Neither of these approaches, personal or social, excludes the other. Indeed, environmental ethics is a clear case of a blend between the two: it involves a set of issues that ultimately require collective action, yet it also
involves issues that individuals in North America, for instance, face every day in the way they decide about such personal matters as whether to use a recycling bin. All issues in ethics have a personal dimension in that they have an effect on individual lives and call for some kind of judgment on the individual’s part. In addition, most ethical issues have a social dimension in that, for their resolution, they require some sort of group action by the community at large. In this text, we will stress social ethics first, in order to push ourselves to think about the effects of our actions on distant parts of the world, thereby extending the horizon of our ethical gaze.
Where Do We Begin?
In any study of ethics, the first and most difficult question we face concerns the subject matter itself: What do we study in an ethics course? What data, if any, are we concerned with? There are three types of “data” most commonly mentioned in ethics:
- Rules and codes
- Social roles
Some philosophers would also include reason as a major source of ethical knowledge. But it seems to us that reason alone cannot tell us very much in ethics, unless it has something to operate on. Although rationality is terribly important in ethics, since it sets the ground rules for discussion and deliberation, an appeal to reason alone is unlikely to lead very far in ethics.
The most commonly cited “data,” especially in Western approaches to ethics, are people’s intuitions. Intuitions concern what people actually think, especially after they have engaged in reflection about what is right and wrong. Most discussions of ethics begin with what people think is wrong about such issues as starvation or murder. Of course, there is significant disagreement about such things, and so an appeal to intuitions alone will not resolve many ethical questions. What one can hope for, indeed what our book aims at, is an increasingly reflective approach toward one’s intuitions, informed by an understanding of the intuitions and reasoning of a wide spectrum of the population. As we will see, there is an emerging consensus concerning issues raised in certain ethical questions. On some other issues, we are far away from anything remotely resembling a consensus.
Rules and codes are another important starting point in ethics. Most communities have explicit or implicit sets of moral rules and taboos, and many societies have codes of conduct that are enforced against their members in much the same way that civil laws are enforced. These rules and codes often reflect the considered judgments of many people over many generations. In this sense, rules and codes often represent an intergenerational consensus about what is right or wrong. But rules and codes can conflict with an individual person’s intuitions when applied to a particular case. In such cases of conflict it is not clear that the rules or codes should be given priority over one’s intuitions. One such example is Huck Finn’s dilemma: He was drawn toward his friend Jim and was inclined not to turn him in as a runaway slave; but Huck was also strongly motivated by the rules of his society, which dictated that slaves were property and that when they escaped they were in effect stealing from their masters. It is extremely important that we not treat any code or set of rules (or intuition) as unchallengeable, for like the slavery rules, even the consensus of a community may be ethically flawed.
are another interesting starting point for ethics discussions. Taking on, or having been thrust into, a particular role, such as “father” or “mother,” “teacher” or “friend,” “employer” or “employee,” is often thought to involve a change in one’s moral status. Social roles create obligations or expand our responsibilities. Understanding what the status of these roles is may be an important first step toward understanding what is right or wrong to do in a given situation. But like rules and codes, social roles may
conflict with intuitions, and worse yet, the different roles each person assumes may offer conflicting guidance about what is right or wrong in particular cases. So again, we should not, indeed we cannot, regard social roles as unimpeachable sources of ethics. Rather, we need to consider intuitions, rules, codes, and social roles as each providing input into a process of ethical deliberation. What is crucial in such a process is the ability to resolve conflicts that exist among these sources of ethical knowledge.
How Are Moral Judgments Made?
In Western thought there are three standard ways of making moral judgments, especially in cases in which there are conflicts among our sources of ethical knowledge:
- Consequentialism—of which utilitarianism is the most prominent variation.
- Deontological theory—of which Kantianism and rights theory are the most prominent variations.
- Virtue theory—of which Aristotelianism and Thomistic theory are the most prominent variations.
Each of these theoretical perspectives has achieved prominence, and for each perspective there are significant groups of defenders among contemporary moral philosophers.
Consequentialism is the view that judgments about whether an action is morally right should be made based on an assessment of the probable effects, or consequences, of alternative acts that are open to the person in question. Consequentialists contend that an act is morally right insofar as it maximizes the best results for everyone. But there is considerable disagreement about how to assess what the best consequence is. Is pleasure or happiness the main basis for deciding what is best? Or is there some other criterion, such as goodness, that should be the basis for deciding what is best for everyone? Another question that arises is this: Should greater emphasis be placed on short-term or long-term effects? And should we take account of the effects the application of a particular rule would have on the society at large?
Some consequentialists, such as classical utilitarians, believe that a person can measure the quantity of happiness likely to be produced by an act and the quantity of happiness likely to be produced by all alternative acts and then, by comparing these quantities, decide which act is morally best. Duties and rights are reconceived as mere rules of thumb for guiding us toward what is best for everyone. The excerpt in this Part from John Stuart Mill’s book Utilitarianism ends by arguing that rights are merely highly likely to advance the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Rights, in this view, have no intrinsic value.
Other consequentialists, such as rule utilitarians, take a more subtle view of moral duties and rights. Rather than weighing the likely consequences of alternative acts, these consequentialists weigh the likely consequences of alternative rules. If a rule, such as “honesty is the best policy,” has been proven to be productive of very good consequences, and no other more useful rule is applicable, then the right thing to do is to conform to the rule of honesty. Both duties and rights are understood as forms of rule. On this view it would be right to act according to a weighty rule, such as the honesty rule, even though it appears that better consequences could be had in this one case by acting dishonestly. Duties and rights have weight here, but the weight is still a function of their ability to produce the best consequences in the society as a whole.
Deontological theory is the view that we should perform those acts that conform to duties and rights, quite independently of the consequences. In general, deontological views characterize morally right acts as those that display the most intrinsic value. The value of an act is determined by examining the act in light of moral principles. Here are two common deontological principles:
- Always treat a person as an end, never as a means only.
- Treat people the way you would want to be treated.
Deontological theorists are generally concerned about what a person intends to do, rather than about the actual results of what that person does. Some deontological theorists believe that the principles used to assess acts must be universal in scope, and others believe that it is sufficient that the principles reflect a consensus in a particular society.
Ronald Dworkin, one of the best-known contemporary defenders of a deontological approach to rights, argues that rights should be treated as trump cards. Whenever they are applicable, they should not be overridden by considerations of social well-being. If a government is willing to disregard a person’s fundamental rights for some useful social purpose, that government fails to respect the dignity of the person and thereby undermines the idea of equality and justice within its domain. For example, when a government denies fundamental rights of free speech to one of its citizens, Dworkin argues, that government insults the citizen, and the government thereby undermines respect for law. Deontological theory is attractive because of its firm stand against the denial of rights to any citizen. Many of the essays in our book embrace such a perspective, especially the United Nations Declaration and the essay by Onora O’Neill.
Virtue theory is the view that judgments about what is morally right should be made in terms of promoting good character or other natural ends. The key to making good judgments is to have developed good habits to which one can refer in the case that one is uncertain about what to do. Morality is very much a matter of context as well as habit; the virtuous person is supposed to have developed a fine sense of appropriateness that is sensitive to differences in context. In this respect, virtue theory shares much in common with various non-Western perspectives, such as Buddhism. Unlike consequentialism and deontological theory, virtue theory focuses on the person’s character rather than the person’s behavior.
One way of understanding the virtuous life is in terms of conforming to what is “natural.” In deciding what to do, one should pursue the path that is most in keeping with what is most natural in a given context. In this sense, virtue theory and natural law theory share much in common. Natural law theory is the view that morality is grounded in something larger than our human circumstances, namely in a natural (in many cases God-given) order. Natural law theory is most prominently espoused by Catholic theorists and by other theorists who support a strong connection between religion and ethics. Natural law has been understood, at least since Thomas Aquinas, as God’s eternal law applied to natural entities, most especially to humans. In its more recent manifestations, there has been much controversy in natural law theory as to what precisely is the relationship between God’s law and human laws.
Each of these theories may give a different answer to the question of how to resolve a particular conflict between sources of ethical knowledge. There is no consensus about which of these theories is best. Our view is that each of these theories contains a grain of truth and that some combination of these theoretical perspectives may turn out to be the best overall theory. Until such a combination is devised, it is worthwhile to consider each perspective seriously whenever one is faced with a conflict of sources of ethical knowledge. This may seem unsatisfactory to those who were hoping that ethics would always provide a single solution to any ethical question. In our view, ethics is not a science that provides such solutions; rather, the study of ethics enriches one’s deliberations but leaves the conclusion of those deliberations often unresolved.
What Are Some of the Chief Values?
In most Western discussions of ethics, from a philosophical perspective, various values are subjected to the most intense conceptual scrutiny. Each of these values can be understood from the standpoint of personal or social ethics. Among the chief values are:
Autonomy is often thought to be a paradigmatic value in personal ethics. Being autonomous means being true to our own principles and acting in a way that we have chosen or that we endorse. Autonomy is closely connected to self-respect, for the person who is true to his or her own principles generally esteems himself or herself. Autonomy also has a social ethics dimension. For autonomy to be maintained and maximized in a population, it is crucial that social institutions be designed to minimize interference with the life choices of individuals. Highly intrusive institutions will make it much more difficult for individuals to attain autonomy. In the field of medicine, the more fully patients are informed about treatment options, the more likely they are to make autonomous decisions.
Justice is also sometimes characterized as a value of personal ethics. In this view, justice is best understood as giving to each person his or her due, based on what that individual has a legitimate right to. When rights are understood as a contract between two equal parties, they undergird a personal ethics conception of justice. But justice is also concerned with the fair distribution of goods and services within a society. The fairness of distributions is not solely determined by contractual rights. This is especially true, as we will see in several of our essays, when we approach distributive justice from a global perspective. It may be true that no one is owed our help to be saved from starvation, but it seems to many philosophers that it would be unjust to spend one’s resources on luxuries while others die highly painful deaths from starvation because they have no resources with which to purchase food.
Responsibility, like justice, has a personal and social orientation. Responsibility can be understood as accountability for the consequences that one has explicitly and directly caused. According to this understanding, one can limit one’s responsibility simply by not doing very much that has effects in the world. But if we think of the consequences of what people have failed to do, as well as what they have explicitly done, then responsibility can be seen as a social category that is related to our membership in various communities. This latter sense of responsibility implies that in order to avoid acting irresponsibly, people will have to worry about their contribution, or lack of contribution, to group action as well as about their own individual personal actions. For example, racist violence on one’s campus may not seem to be a particular student’s responsibility if that student did not engage in the violence. But if the student could have helped in preventing the violence, but chose not to, there is a sense in which the student may share responsibility for that violence.
Care has recently been discussed as a decidedly different value from justice. Justice, even in its social, distributive form, calls for us to be impartial in assigning to people what is considered their due. But care calls for partiality, especially toward those who cannot protect themselves and to those with whom we are in special relationships. Our own children may not be owed any more than children in distant parts of the world; indeed our own children are probably owed less, given their already privileged position. But there is a value in preferring one’s own child and striving to aid him or her. In our section on gender roles, we will encounter a recent dispute on whether and to what extent justice and care are different.
This concludes a brief overview of some of the main currents in contemporary Western philosophical approaches to ethics. In the next section, we will explain how an emphasis on multiculturalism will further enrich our deliberations about both personal a...