What is this thing called Ethics?
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What is this thing called Ethics?

Christopher Bennett

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eBook - ePub

What is this thing called Ethics?

Christopher Bennett

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What is morality? How do we define what is right and wrong? How does moral theory help us deal with ethical issues in the world around us?

This second edition provides an engaging and stimulating introduction to philosophical thinking about morality. Christopher Bennett provides the reader with accessible examples of contemporary and relevant ethical problems, before looking at the main theoretical approaches and key philosophers associated with them. Topics covered include:

  • life and death issues such as abortion and global poverty;
  • the meaning of life; whether life is sacred and which lives matter;
  • major moral theories such as utilitarianism, Kantian ethics and virtue ethics;
  • critiques of morality from Marx and Nietzsche.

What is this Thing Called Ethics? has been thoroughly revised and updated throughout, with a new final chapter on meta-ethics.

With boxed case studies, discussion questions and further reading included within each chapter this textbook is the ideal introduction to ethics for philosophy students coming to the subject for the first time.

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Part I
life and death

‱ death and the meaning of life

Why does a person threatened with death cling so tenaciously to life? Why do some people sacrifice themselves so that others can stay alive? Why do we keep on having children, generation after generation? Why is suicide such a rare and tragic occurrence? One answer to these questions calls it mere instinct. We have no reason to cling to life, or to keep on reproducing life: it is simply instinct that takes over. But that answer is unsatisfactory. It makes it sound as though those who fight for life or who have children are succumbing to a temporary bout of madness. They are behaving irrationally. And it doesn’t look that way, at least not always. There are of course cases where the brute instinct to cling to life takes over, but often it looks as though people are behaving quite thoughtfully and sensibly when they take action to protect their own lives and give life to others. So we should expect to find at least some reasons for the value they apparently give to life. Of course, it may turn out on reflection that these are not good reasons. Perhaps we are mistaken in thinking of life as a good thing. But that is something we will have to assess. So in this chapter we will explore another way of explaining our tenacious grip on life. This is the view that life is in some way a gift, a benefit, that life is, at least potentially, a source of something of the greatest importance for the person whose life it is. After all, it might be said, life is in the end the source of all we have.

‱ Is Death Bad for the Person Who Dies?

We will start out by looking at whether it is a bad thing to die – and if so, why. The reason for starting out on this gloomy topic is that thinking about why dying might be a bad thing to happen to us – and about why we fear death – might shed some light on what gives life value to us. For this reason we will be concentrating on the question of whether death is bad for the person who dies. When they lose life, has something bad happened to them? Of course, when a person dies it can have a huge effect on those left behind, who now have to cope with the absence of a loved one. So one way in which death is bad is its effect on others: we can see why we should feel sorry for them. But should we feel sorry for the person who dies? It will also give us a chance to consider the peculiar view (though intended to be comforting) that death is no evil for the person who dies. This view starts off with the admittedly plausible thought that, once death has occurred, there is no longer anyone to feel sorry for – that pity for the dead always comes too late.
The fear of death is, of course, an age-old preoccupation for human beings. Consider a stanza from William Dunbar’s great poem of 1504, “Lament for the Makaris”:
I that in heill was and gladness,
Am troublit now with great seikness
And feeblit with infirmity:
Timor mortis conturbat me.1
In this poem Dunbar is lamenting the other poets whom he knew and loved. One by one they die – and he anticipates the certainty of his own death with foreboding. In this stanza the poet is saying that, where once he was healthy and happy, he is now sick and infirm, and the fear of death is undoing or confounding him. This experience will be familiar to anyone who is growing older. But the fear of death is something that can affect anyone once they have become aware of their own mortality. It is a striking thought that, once alive, the only way out for us is death.
Of course, one way in which people have sought to overcome this natural fear of death is by speculating about life after death. If life continues indefinitely then, although there may be uncertainty about what will happen after death, it is not as though we are looking at the prospect of utter annihilation. However, in this chapter we will not be discussing the possibility of life after death. In talking about death we will be assuming, just for the sake of the argument, that “death” means utter and irrevocable annihilation. This is not because I am assuming that there is no life after death. Whether there is or not is not really our concern here. Our interest is really in what makes life valuable. And we can concentrate our minds on this question by considering what would be bad about death if it were the complete and irrevocable end of our existence.
In this context we can consider the claims made by two philosophers of the ancient world, Epicurus and Lucretius, that death should be no concern to us. They were concerned to argue that, once we understand the human situation correctly, we will see that there is no need for disruptive emotions such as fear and anger. They sought a life of quiet contemplation. A key part of this was overcoming our fear of death. Here are some of the passages in which the arguments arise. First of all, from Epicurus:
Accustom thyself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of all sentience
Death, therefore, the most awful of all evils, is nothing to us seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.2
And from Lucretius:
If the future holds travail and anguish in store, the self must be in existence, when that time comes, in order to experience it. But from this fate we are redeemed by death, which denies existence to the self that might have suffered these tribulations. Rest assured, therefore, that we have nothing to fear in death. One who no longer is can no longer suffer, or differ in any way from one who has never been born, when once this mortal life has been usurped by death the immortal.
Look back at the eternity that passed before we were born, and mark how utterly it counts to us as nothing. This is a mirror that Nature holds up to us, in which we may see the time that shall be after we are dead. Is there anything terrifying in that sight – anything depressing – anything that is not more restful than the soundest sleep?3
There are two main arguments here. The first one, put forward by both Epicurus and Lucretius, points out that death can bring no suffering, since in order to suffer one would need to be alive. “From this fate we are redeemed by death.” The second one, which comes up in the second paragraph from Lucretius, points out the symmetry between non-existence before birth and non-existence after death. We don’t worry about not having existed before we were born, so why should we worry about nonexistence after death? After all, the two states are going to be exactly similar, one would have thought: non-existence is just non-existence.
Should we be convinced by these arguments? Do they really show that death is not a bad thing? Both arguments have hidden assumptions, and once these are made explicit, we might find the arguments themselves questionable. The first argument correctly shows that death is no cause of suffering. To suffer you have to be conscious, and alive. Death removes that possibility. But the argument then assumes that only things that cause you to suffer can be bad for you – and hence that if death cannot cause you suffering, it cannot be bad for you. And we might doubt that that is true. The assumption is a version of the sayings, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you” and “Ignorance is bliss.” These sayings are surely at best only half right. Imagine a person whose friends bitch about her behind her back. None of them really like her, although they are scrupulous in keeping up the appearance of good friendship. Shouldn’t we feel sorry for her because her friends are false, even though she does not suffer through it? Or consider another example: a man who, as the result of a motorcycle accident, suffers brain damage that reduces him to the mental level of an infant. This man does not suffer from his condition: he is happy as long as he is well fed and comfortable. But again it looks as though we should feel sorry for him, because of the way he has ended up. If this is true then we should doubt that only what causes you suffering can be bad for you. And in that case, although Lucretius and Epicurus may be right that death will not cause us suffering, this does not by itself show that death is not a bad thing for the person who dies.
The other argument from Lucretius shows that we have nothing to fear from the state of non-existence. But does this show that death is not bad? Our response to this argument is similar to the last one: that he is partly right. We ought to agree that there is nothing bad about the state of non-existence, for the reasons he gives: non-existence prior to birth was nothing to worry about. However, the question is: is the only reason death can be bad the fact that the state of non-existence is bad? This is the hidden assumption in this argument, and again its truth seems questionable. When I worry about death I am not really worrying about being dead. Being dead will be pretty nondescript. What I am worried about is never being able to see my friends again, never being able to eat great food again, never being able to think or feel or make plans or run, etc. That is what is distressing about death. It is the fact that I who am at the moment able to do all sorts of things that I value will lose that ability for ever.
The problem with the arguments from Lucretius and Epicurus is that they don’t address the real source of our concern about death. When we die we will lose everything we have. It is our loss of something of the greatest value that makes death a bad thing. It may be true that we won’t suffer; and it may be true that once dead, the state we are in will not be bad. But this doesn’t succeed in explaining why it is not a bad thing to lose life. The brain-damaged motorcyclist hasn’t suffered through his loss; neither is his present state a particularly unpleasant one. The reason his case is a tragically pitiable one, though, is simply that his present state represents a terrible loss compared with what he might have been had the accident not happened. And the same can be said about death. When looking at whether death is a bad thing for the person who dies we need to look at what might have been had the death not occurred. If the person could have continued to enjoy the benefits of life, benefits now denied them, then losing these benefits is what is bad about death.
Nevertheless there have been some philosophers who have puzzled over the question of who death is a bad thing for. Can we identify anyone who suffers the evil of death, if it is an evil? The time when a person exists and can be identified is before they have died. Once they have died, it looks as though they are not there to be the subject of any goods and evils. To solve this puzzle, it has been suggested that we should distinguish between intrinsic and relational goods and evils. Intrinsic goods are those things good for a person in a way that can be understood without referring to their relations to any other things. To explain why relational goods are good, by contrast, we do have to appeal to how the person stands in relation to other people, things, circumstances and so on. An example will make this idea clearer. Being top of the class is a good thing. However, it is a good that involves doing better than others. Therefore we cannot understand whether someone has this good just by looking at them alone. We have to look at their context. However, suppose that a sensation of pleasure is a good thing. We would be able to see that this is good just by looking at the way it makes a person feel. We would not have to look at any wider context or circumstances.
The relevance of this point for the discussion about death is as follows. If we think of death as an intrinsic evil then it will seem that it can be no evil at all. Death is not something that we can see as bad for a person just by looking at how they are in themselves, in isolation from all context. However, if we think of death as potentially a relational evil, we can ask whether death is bad in relation to the other things that might otherwise have happened to him (what philosophers, today, sometimes call “counterfactual possibilities” – possibilities different to what actually happened). For instance, one obvious case is the possibility that he might still be alive. In which case, death will be bad for this person even though it is not an intrinsic evil: it will be bad if it is not as good as other reasonably realistic scenarios that might have come about otherwise.
Lucretius and Epicurus attempt an ambitious argument to show that death cannot be bad for you. The response to this that we have been looking at involves saying that death is bad if it involves the loss of something valuable. Even if you accept that the Epicurean strategy fails, though, showing that death is a bad thing still requires us to look at whether life is a valuable thing to lose. This raises the question of what the benefits of life are. If we have succeeded in locating the source of our concern about dying, it shows our attachment to the gift of life. But why do we value being alive? What benefits does it bring to us? Are some lives better than others? Is it possible to waste one’s life? Is it acceptable to judge some lives as being better or more worthwhile than others? Are some lives more meaningful than others? We will look at these questions in the rest of the chapter.

‱ Could Life be Meaningless?

In this section we will start to look at what might be so valuable about life. Why is life a benefit to those who have it? Is it a benefit that we have strong reason to hang on to? Do we have reason to share this benefit with future generations (that is, by producing those future generations)? Let us look at one reason that has been put forward for denying that life really is a benefit. It is a reason simply stated. It concerns the apparent meaningless of human existence. This thought is crystallised in the image of Sisyphus, deployed by Albert Camus to sum up the absurdity and pointlessness of human life.4 Sisyphus, a figure from classical Greek mythology, was condemned by the Gods to roll a rock to the top of a mountain. Once at the top of the mountain, of course, the rock would roll down the hill again; so Sisyphus would have to tramp back down, get the rock again and push it to the top of the mountain; whereupon it would roll back down to the bottom – and so it goes on, over and over, the same pointless repetition of meaningless activity.
The figure of Sisyphus is a terrifying one. His life is filled with essentially mindless, pointless labour until he dies. Why think that human life is like this? Perhaps we can approach this question first of all by looking at the lives of animals. What is animal life for? That seems an odd question, of course. But what I mean is that, thought of in a certain way, the huge complex system of nature can look very much like the activity of Sisyphus. Nature, red in tooth and claw, comprises animals and plants struggling for existence, fighting to get themselves to the point where they can reproduce and thus carry on their species. Once they have reproduced their function has been served: the members of many species die at the point at which they have laid the foundations for the next generation. So another generation grows up, struggles to reproduce, and dies. And then another generation – and another – for what? Where is it all going? What point does it have? What value is there in this pattern of life extending indefinitely into the future? When we step back from the struggle it might look as though there is something desperately monotonous about the endless repetition of generations in nature, to no apparent end.
Now from a certain (modern scientific) point of view, human beings are themselves simply parts of nature. We evolved from animals, and for all the clever things that we have learned to do, our bodies and behaviour have more than a little in common with animals. If this is true, and human beings are essentially material, natural beings, then, some have said, the image of Sisyphus applies to us all too well. This is a point of view sometimes put forward by those who are impressed by the idea of life without God. These thinkers may be believers in God trying to warn us against the consequences of unbelief, or they may be radically atheistic. However, they both think that, if God does not exist, then human life would be as essentially pointless and repetitive as animal life. Birth, copulation, death. Over and over. The figure of Sisyphus is not just the individual human life, it is rather the whole system of nature, working its way from birth through reproduction to death, again and again indefinitely. With no God presiding over, or watching it all unfold with quiet satisfaction, whose act of creation and ultimate purpose would give it all meaning? There is simply this odd scrimmage of generation on a shard of rock in a little corner of a vast blank universe.

‱ Hedonism: The Pleasure Principle

Some have embraced with enthusiasm the idea that human life is built out of the same basic materials as other animal life. And this is one reason that the theory of hedonism, which we will look at now, has proved so popular. “Hedonism” refers to pleasure, and as a philosophical theory, hedonism comes in a number of different forms. Psychological hedonism is the view that what motivates human beings ultimately is the desire for pleasure and the fear of pain. This is an empirical thesis about human motivation – what causes us to act. And this view might draw its inspiration from studies of other animal behaviour, and the assumption that what goes for those other animals must also go for human beings. Another type of hedonism would be ethical hedonism. This is not an empirical hypothesis but rather a normative theory; it claims, not that we do pursue our own pleasure and seek to avoid pain but that we ought to. Ethical hedonists claim that all we really have reason to do is to maximise our pleasure and minimise our own pain. (Ethical hedonists are therefore not very enthusiastic about the idea that we have moral duties to others that can conflict with the demands of our own pleasure-seeking.) Yet a further version of hedonism that might draw inspiration from studies of other animal behaviour is ...