By: A. Melcon Carrasco
Ethics, being the guiding moral principles which govern and determine our opinions, actions and behavior, are a central part of who we are as a human race. In an ideal world, global ethical stances are homogenous, and there is little disagreement over what is right or wrong, leading to greater prosperity and belief in traditions, culture and legal systems. However, in reality, the world is far more diverse, leading to multiple unfortunate difficulties when discussing ethics and the behavior and customs which should be, or not be, morally accepted by our society.
The expression “live and let live”, as well as the general consensus that morality should be left as a private matter, as moral judgements can be oppressive, has been criticized by various philosophers over the years. Many believe this stance is used by individuals committing themselves to vague ethical positions and oppose that the demand to not be judgmental implicitly implies a preference for one type of behavior or moral outlook than another. Moreover, the assumption that morality is private has been heavily disputed as it involves how we behave and treat each other, if we stand up or ignore conflict, and how we engage in worldwide issues such as the sustainability movement- and is therefore anything but private.
Emotivism is one of the many derived approaches attempting to uncover the ‘ideal’ universal ethical position. It understands that statements which are evaluative, such as ‘Slavery is unjust’ cannot be proven or disproven, and therefore are used by people through moral and emotional language to, unconsciously, convince others of their views. Thus, it understands ethics in terms of causes, which are based on reasons, such as conditioning or education, not mere non-rational feelings. This theory has been criticized because although emotional thoughts might not be proven true, they can become true on a basis of manipulation and self-interest proclaiming ethical positions as factual evidence.
Situation ethics is another approach which instead avoids the bleakness of imposed formulas or conventional codes of behavior, instead understanding ethics as the necessity to judge each case on its merits and how moral means different things in different situations. For example, within the moral dilemma of telling someone the truth and hurting them, or not telling them the truth to protect them, situation ethics will argue that it is best to lie, even though that action, in other situations, would be seen as morally incorrect.
Ethical relativism partially relates to situation ethics in the understanding that different situations call for different moral stances. Ethical realists highlight how different cultures have different moral codes, and one culture can’t be said to be right or superior in its values, beliefs or practices compared to another, a theory also sometimes known ethical objectivism, ethical absolutism or ethical universalism. These views reject arrogant ethnocentrism, instead advocating for tolerance to diversity and cultures.
To properly understand ethical relativism, it is important to first consider the origin of distinct moral codes, as well as the difficulties of applying them universally. Humans share the earth, but to some extent inhabit different world, leading to an incredibly heterogeneous culture.
However, moral codes are not always so distinct as realists suppose, as they always share the principal human feelings. Our large range of moral codes emphasizes how few actually choose their cultural traditions objectively, and instead just adopt the values they are born into, as our values are said to be determined by the way we understand the worlds. Ethical realists reject any objectivists or absolutist concepts of moral progress, demonstrating that a universally correct moral code can never be attained.
Both emotivism and relativism are both examples of reductionism, focusing on our values and how they differ across the world. Reductionists typically define things in terms of other phenomenon’s, and thus through reducing values to certain facts occasionally the value evaporates away in the process, leading to the fact-value gap. The fact-value gap notes the problem of us sometimes deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. John Searle argued that the act of promising, in which we ought to fulfill our promise, due to the ‘brute fact’ of our words, does now always mean that we will, as the fact that we promised we would do something does not logically dictate what we will actually do. Therefore, ethical naturalism covers ethical facts and act as descriptions of moral qualities around the world. This is contested as facts never speak for themselves, as our judgments about ethics, politics, art, and religion can never be determinable.
Moral language can be categorized into descriptive or prescriptive language, as more often than not it is used as commands. Kant made a distinction between commands to separate hypothetical and categorial imperatives, then determining The Categorial Imperative.
Hypothetical imperatives are those used to tell someone what they must do in order to achieve some end, whilst categorial imperatives tell you that you have an absolute and unconditional duty to act in a certain way. Kant then came up with The Categorial Imperative which acts as a fundamental moral principle from which all more specific moral rules can be derived. This imperative expresses respect for humans as rational agents with capacity to act on principle, stating that “you should always act so that the principle behind your action could be willed as universal law”.
However, many have found problems with the Kantian approach, stating that it is so focused on rationality it may lead us to underestimate the importance of sympathy. It is a deontological approach to ethics in the way that actions form are what determine if the action is morally correct. This principle of universality is not content itself, but a framework that helps us come to decisions ourselves.
Utilitarianism is a form of ethical naturalism which holds that the moral worth of an action is determined by its consequences, thus being a consequentialist approach to ethics. Utilitarian’s emphasize that the goal of moral choices is to maximize pleasure and happiness, serving as a radical egalitarian theory in the way that everybody’s pleasure counts equally. Utilitarian can be divided into act or rule utilitarianism, where act utilitarianism judges the worth of particular actions by their consequence and rule utilitarianism says our actions should be guided by the rules that, if followed by everybody, would lead to the greatest happiness overall.
The utilitarian approach has been attractive for many as it advocates a fair and unselfish attitude and does not rest on controversial metaphysical or religious claims. However, many have criticized it due to the difficulty of quantitively measuring happiness. John Stuart Mill, a political theorist, argues that not all pleasures are quantitively equal, and higher pleasures of the mind are generally values more than the lower pleasures of the body. Even if we could quantify happiness, it is difficult to assume everybody will ever act in a fully utilitarian way, as this theory suggests that to be ethically moral, we must but strangers in front of the ones we love. Moreover, this theory is questionable in some situations, such as gang rape. If the pleasure of the rapists, when summed, was higher than the discontent of the victim, would gang rape be considered ethically moral?
Being moral is what many find to be the price we must pay for being in a society. However, all theories proposed above also include various valid objections, thus not successfully serving as sets of rules to maximize our moral behavior. Plato and Aristotle’s approach to ethics, called virtue ethics, claims our identification of certain qualities as virtues is based on a true understanding of what we are and strive to be, meaning virtues should be cultivated as they contribute to human flourishing. Although this method has too been found to make too many assumptions about human nature, many argue it is the best fundamental solution to our morality.