What Are The Ethical Issues In Philosophy?

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Ethical Problems

Ethics is a branch of philosophy that deals with the systematic examination of human conduct. It deals with the systems of value and custom instantiated in the lives of particular groups of human beings. Ethics also refers to the scholarly study of right and wrong, which has been traditionally addressed by humanistic disciplines such as philosophy, religious studies, law, and the social sciences.

The study of ethics can be done in a variety of ways. It can be normative or meta-ethical. Normative ethics deals with how men ought to behave and prescribes principles of conduct. Descriptive ethics focuses on how people actually behave in different societies. It is a scientific attempt to describe, explain, and compare the patterns of morality in different societies.

Meta-ethics is concerned with the meaning and justification of ethical terms, statements, and propositions in ethics. There is also applied ethics, which seeks to address ethical dilemmas emanating from social problems such as suicide, rape, war, terrorism, prostitution, and so on.

Problems arise in ethics when certain questions are asked. These include:

  • How do we distinguish between morally right actions and those that are morally wrong?
  • What makes an issue a moral one?
  • Why should I be moral?
  • How do I justify the moral claims that I make?
  • Are the reasons provided for acting in a particular way convincing or not?
  • Are moral statements factual or value-laden?

1. How Do Moral Agents Justify Moral Claims?

When we speak of good and bad, right and wrong, the beautiful and the ugly, we are making value judgments. What is the basis and justification of our value judgments? Are the values we find in things actually in them, independent of us? Values are contributed by us, as human beings, as part of our response to what we encounter. Values do not exist independent of our attitudes, feelings, and preferences.

One can say, therefore, that our talk about the value of things gives expression to our feelings and attitudes concerning those things. This view is known as 'value subjectivism', the view that 'value is a contribution of the subject of experience and is not to be found in the object to which it is attributed-at least not as that object is in itself, independent of the subject of experience'.

Value objectivity, on the other hand, is the view that value statements describe the objects to which they refer. They describe it by making reference to its 'value properties'. A beautiful work of art, for instance, has the value property of being beautiful, just as it has the properties of shape and size.

The value property is different from these other value-neutral properties. These value properties are possessed by the object as it is in itself, independent of anyone's experience of it.

From the above analysis, one would see that the existence of a conscious being is necessary but not a sufficient condition for the existence of value. For the condition to be sufficient, this being should have feelings, concerns, desires and purposes. There must be an affective/volitional aspect to its nature.

When we have such a being, value comes into the world. Now there is good and right and bad and wrong, but it exists only in relation to this being. What is good or right furthers his or her interests, satisfies his or her desires, and fulfills his or her purposes. While what is bad or wrong does just the opposite: it is what disappoints, negates, frustrates, and prevents fulfillment. In short, the good or right is what promotes this being's enjoyment, while the bad or wrong is what leads to his or her suffering.

2. Why Should I Live a Moral Life?

  • Sociological Reason: Without morality, social life is nearly impossible. Morality regulates our actions and since we are social beings who interact with one another, our actions either positively or negatively affect others. If this is the case, it is always good to be moral so that we can positively impact people's lives.
  • Psychological Reason: Some people care about what others think of them (reputation and social censor) while others care about doing the right thing (conscience). Regardless of these two factors, it is always sensible to live morally.
  • Theological Reason: Because God has commanded that we always do good, some people care about what will happen after death to their soul or spirit. For many religions, there is an afterlife that involves a person's being rewarded or punished for what they have done. For religious reasons therefore, we should live a moral life.
  • The Law of Nemesis: Do unto others what you would want them to do unto you. We all desire happiness and love from others. In order to avoid being paid back with our own wicked coin, we should always act in ways that will bring happiness to others.

Other sociological explanations are provided below:

• Being bad is always bad. Some people derive happiness from being bad or immoral, especially when they can "get away with it." Being bad or immoral is self-disrespecting, and it is hard to imagine being happy without self-respect. One can conclude that being moral (or good) is necessary for having self-respect. Self-respect is necessary for happiness. Therefore, being good is necessary for happiness.

• Furthermore, the only way to have self-respect and command the respect of others is to live morally. We can only have self-respect if we respect who we actually are; we cannot if we live immorally and only respect some false image of ourselves. Hence, self-respect requires self-knowledge of one's moral acts since only just, fair, good, and moral people can make just and fair self-assessments.

• Again, living morally allows a moral agent to see what is truly valuable in the world. Part of what being good requires is that good people know what is good in the world and what is not. Bad people have bad values; good people have good values. Having good values means valuing what deserves to be valued and neglecting what does not deserve to be valued.

3. Making Sense Of People's Moral Actions

Central to the above is the importance of determining the rightness or wrongness of each particular act embarked upon by a moral agent. Responses vary from one ethical theory to another. Deontology is a general term for those forms of ethics that determine rightness or wrongness based on duty and obligation.

Deontological theories hold that actions are right or wrong in and of themselves, regardless of consequences. This ethical theory focuses on the nature of moral actions or what can be described as the inherent features of actions. Act and rule deontology are versions of deontological ethical theories. Rule deontology holds that particular acts are right or wrong in and of themselves not only because they are acts of a certain kind but also because they conform to moral rules.

Act deontology maintains that particular acts are right or wrong in and of themselves but not only because of the kind of acts that they are or because they conform to moral rules. Rather, it is also by intuiting the rightness or wrongness of each particular act.

Deontological ethical theories are often contrasted with consequentialist ethical theories, which hold that the rightness or wrongness of actions depends solely on their consequences. Utilitarianism, egoism, and altruism are all consequentialist ethical theories.

Utilitarianism claims that actions are good only insofar as they increase the amount of happiness and decrease the amount of suffering in the world. For utilitarians, actions ought to be performed according to the 'principle of utility', which is 'do that action that provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number'.

The simplest and earliest form of utilitarianism is act utilitarianism, a position according to which one decides what to do in any given circumstance by assessing the consequences of each course of action and doing whichever adds up to the most happiness. Rule utilitarianism on the other hand, claims that the 'principle of utility applies to rules, not individual acts. In other words, people should obey those rules that provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number'.

Egoism gives priority to individual self-interest. Ethical egoism is a normative ethical theory that states that people ought to pursue their own interests, while psychological egoism is any theory that states that people in fact always pursue their own interests. It is a descriptive theory about how people actually behave.

Other responses have evolved throughout history. Ethical relativism explains that moral principles are valid relative to a particular place and time. A version of ethical relativism is moral subjectivism, the theory that certain states of feeling or thought are the highest good, or the doctrine that the good and the right can be distinguished only by individual feeling.

Moral subjectivism is often contrasted with moral objectivism, the theory that there is only one correct moral code. Differently put, it is the theory that some moral judgments and principles are objectively true while others are objectively false. Situation ethics is another ethical theory that focuses on the circumstances surrounding a person's action in determining rightness or wrongness.

Virtue ethics focuses on the character of the actor rather than the act itself. Some of the virtues listed by Aristotle are: compassion, veracity, trustworthiness, integrity, honesty, courage, humility, justice, and so on.

Hedonism stresses that pleasure is the highest or only good thing in life and that we should aim in all our actions at producing the greatest amount of pleasure. Ethical hedonism is the claim that people ought to seek pleasure and that pleasure is the only moral good, while psychological hedonism maintains that what people seek, as a matter of fact, is pleasure.

While a psychological hedonist is making a descriptive claim about how people actually behave, an ethical hedonist is making a prescriptive or normative claim about how people should behave.


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