A few introductory remarks concerning the field of
H. Shafer, Ph.D.
firstname.lastname@example.org & email@example.com
Adult members of virtually all human communities from the dawn of prehistory
to the present, from household to nation, are expected to observe
certain definite standards of conduct, such as obligations shared by members
of given social groups (men, women, nobility, commoners, priests, merchants,
and so forth) and laws prohibiting acts that are considered antisocial,
such as acts of irreverence to divinity, unwarranted violence, dishonesty,
theft, and sexual license. The very fact that among the countless
things humans do in their daily lives only some classes of behavior are
subject to scrutiny and control, demonstrates that there is certain conduct
that is deemed either essential for or antithetical to the very maintenance
of a given community. Conduct that falls into neither the constructive
nor the destructive category does not even become an issue for ethical
or moral deliberation and is hence generally not subject to regulation.
Traditionally, the main purpose of educating the young has been to teach
them the moral standards of their community in order to shape them into
adults who will help maintain that community.
This brings up the terms "ethic/ethics/ethical"
and "moral/morality." They are synonyms of Greek
and Latin linguistic origin and can be used to define one another.
In this essay, I will use the terms interchangeably but with a slight tendency
to refer to theoretical deliberations as "ethics" and practical applications
There is great variance from civilization to civilization concerning
the kinds of behavior subject to moral control. Let me try to explain
via analogy. Imagine each human group as inhabiting a unique home
(sometimes within a larger house) that is constructed of the behavior of
the members of the group in basic communal institutions, such as religion,
commerce, relation of men and women, rearing the young, the arts, and so
forth. Buildings have foundations, supporting walls and beams, and
non-supporting walls and beams. If the foundation crumbles or a supporting
wall or beam is removed, the building may be seriously damaged or
even collapse. Some human groups (such as orthodox Jews, the Calvinists
of Geneva, or hard-line Marxists) consider almost all aspects of their
members' behavior (including their thoughts) essential for the structural
soundness of their "building." Other human groups, such as followers of
Lao-Tze or the Libertarian Party in the U.S., see almost no reason for
control in any area of the lives of their members, beyond obvious rules
against violating the rights of others to pursue life, liberty, property,
and happiness. Over time, sub-groups may build small homes within
the large mansions or move their homes out beyond the parent compound,
and new groups may erect their houses in the neighborhood.. Walls, fences,
motes, gates, bridges, halls, stairways, and roads will be built
to separate or connect those homes in changing configurations, and as the
area becomes congested, buildings may be razed and others connected
with one another. As these changes occur some members of the affected
groups will feel threatened and try to keep their homes from collapsing
by shoring up the traditional foundations and walls and even erecting new
bulwarks without realizing that those structures are no longer needed for
the new configurations which are in the process of engendering new
sets of standards of conduct as their essential structural elements to
facilitate the new layout.
In the present age, these homes of the human imagination, houses of
worship and commerce and family and law and education, these structures
for communal living, built according to the varied thought patterns of
different traditions, are increasingly connected with each other. Visitors
can pass through, enjoy hospitality, and return to their own "homes" with
new ideas, having brought some of their understandings as gifts for their
hosts. Fortunately, as shared basis of discourse, most human communities
come already equipped with their own version of the "Golden Rule,"
an obligation to treat others the way one would wish to be treated by them.
Traditionally, standards of community conduct have been sanctioned by
religious authority and enforced by both religious and temporal powers.
Practical and theoretical issues concerning standards of conduct are discussed
in the branch of philosophy called ethics.
Ethics (a) examines human conduct (which may include thought), (b)
analyzes the theoretical foundations of such conduct, (c) assesses such
conduct in terms of certain rules or standards of behavior, and (d) may
go further to recommend certain behavior as appropriate and condemn other
behavior as inappropriate. Hence, the field of ethics can further be divided
into two major branches, (a) normative ethics and (b) metaethics. Normative
ethics seeks to establish norms by encouraging "correct" conduct and discouraging
"incorrect" conduct. Metaethics studies and explicates the meaning of the
evaluatory terms and judgments used in normative ethics. Normative ethics
is in turn subdivided into theory of obligation ("What action is right
or wrong?") and theory of value ("What goal is good or bad?").
If a theory of obligation assesses an action in terms of its potential
consequences it is called teleological. Extreme adherents to a teleological
theory of obligation argue that motivation is irrelevant and that an act
is rendered right or wrong solely by its consequences. Whether a specific
act is considered right or wrong depends on the theorist's position. The
egoist will say that only consequences affecting the individual
making the moral decision should be considered. The utilitarian
will insist that only actions leading to the greatest good for the greatest
number are morally acceptable decisions. Ancient representatives of the
teleological approach are the Sophists of Greece and the followers
of the Carvaka school in the Hindu tradition. Among the Sophists,
Protagoras taught that "Man is the measure of all things" and Callicles
insisted that "might makes right." Socrates and Plato developed their theory
against the background provided by the Sophists.
If a theory of obligation assesses an action in terms of intentions,
motivation, degree of conformity to permanent standards, and so forth,
it is called deontological, and an ethicist who holds a deontological
theory is called a formalist. Again, it is important to keep in
mind that there is a major difference in all except their theoretical framework
between formalists, who, for example, insist that an action cannot be ethically
right unless it is grounded in adherence to the Bible and those who insist
that it cannot be ethically right unless it is motivated by a sense of
duty. Like the egoist and utilitarian among the ethical teleologists, in
practice, different formalists will approve of different courses of action.
Extreme formalists insist that consequences are irrelevant to the process
of assessing the moral standing of an action. Nothing except the agent's
motivation or degree of loyalty to an absolute rule -- such as the prohibition
against telling lies -- should be taken into account.
The first major formalist in the Western tradition is Plato who,
through the lips of Socrates, posits a separate, eternal, and absolutely
absolute realm of unchanging ideas or forms -- to be called universals
in the Middle Ages -- to which general terms such as "truth," "justice,"
and "beauty" refer. The physical world is analogous to the shadows cast
by the those forms in light of the highest and noblest of the Forms, the
Form of the Good, the ultimate source of all being and knowledge. In Plato's
system, the Form of the Good can be apprehended by the intellect, and consequently,
can be taught, at least up to a point, by appealing to students' recollection
of their souls' pre-natal journey through that transcendent realm of forms.
Clearly, neither the teleological nor the deontological approach to ethics
is especially helpful without further definitions of terms and some clearly
enunciated theory of values. This is where metaethics tends to contribute
both illumination and, alas, further confusion. Metaethics asks questions,
such as these: To what degree is the system under investigation teleological
or deontological? Can we equate the terms "good" or "bad" used in a moral
context with those same terms used in a general context as synonymous with
"desired" or "unpleasant"? Does "good" or "right" mean the same thing as
"according to the Word of God" or "according to Chairman Mao" or "according
to nature" or "according to my conscience"? Should the definition of "good"
or "right" be based on the findings of the natural and social sciences?
Is there an innate "moral sense" which intuitively informs us of the "goodness"
or "rightness" of an action? Is morality a matter of genetic predisposition?
Are ethical judgments simply emotional utterances and commands devoid of
any cognitive status, that is, incapable of being verified or falsified?
Is it possible for competing and even incompatible ethical judgments to
be equally valid ? Is ethical conflict an illusion? Once again, the answers
depend on the one who does the responding. However, at least being aware
of these questions gives us an opportunity to be consistent in our approach
to various ethical systems by applying the same standards to all of them
and avoid comparing the proverbial apples and oranges.