Some questions to get you thinking:
1. What does it mean to say, "A" is right and "B" is wrong? How does this relate to our use of such words as 'good' and 'bad'?
2. How do you go about figuring out whether something is right and wrong, whether in everyday life or in your daily work? Ordinarily? In case of difficult, confusing and ambiguous situations?
3. Is sentiment or feeling or emotion important in morals, or is it something to be avoided and to steer clear of?
This part of philosophizing is often called 'philosophical ethics', as distinct, for example, from 'Christian ethics' or 'Moral Theology'. We might also call it, 'Moral Philosophy', except that this expression tends to have a much wider application. In the history of philosophy, the term 'Moral Philosophy', as distinct from 'Natural Philosophy' and 'Natural Theology', refers to the philosophical study of human beings, as distinct from the philosophical study of Nature or of God. This includes philosophical ethics but is obviously not restricted to it. So let us just call it, 'philosophical ethics' and be done with it.
However, we even have to make a few distinctions within 'philosophical ethics', and so our first heading will be on the nature of philosophical ethics.
The nature of philosophical ethics: ‘meta-ethics’ versus ‘practical ethics’
Adapting terminology from the philosopher David Hume, Ethics or philosophical ethics is in the way of a methodizing and in some cases attempted correcting of a practice in which we frequently engage in everyday life. We are striving, in a philosophical fashion, to work out the right thing to do in sometimes difficult circumstances, trying to work out the good in respect of who we are and how we act, so that, whether as individuals or as communities, we can pursue the good and avoid what appears to us to be bad.
We need, however, to distinguish two parts to Philosophical Ethics:
1) Discussion, for example, of what ‘right’ means and what ‘the good’ means and whether or not there are objective, and how we do, and in some cases how we should, go about working out the right thing to do, go about working out how to do the good and avoid the bad in daily life and in philosophy also. This part of philosophical ethics is sometimes called meta-ethics - about ethics, about our human practice, trying to understand it and perhaps make it better; and
2) 'practical ethics', sometimes ‘applied ethics’, which is a disciplined, allegedly more sophisticated version of our ordinary everyday practice, affected in its style by the meta-ethics.
This latter, practical ethics in its philosophical form, is important in public life in so far as it gives a kind of common space or forum or intellectual market place in which people from varied traditions religious and otherwise can come together in order to dialogue in the hope of promoting an intelligent ethical consensus on matters of serious common concern. Not that philosophical ethics doesn't have traditions of its own. All enquiry is tradition bound, there are always some substantive assumptions which are not questioned in the course of a particular discussion in a particular society, even when the society is a university setting. It is just that, even when arguing for positions inspired by our varied traditions religious and otherwise, we do try, in our effort to work together, to rely on assumptions and experiences which other people might also share.
Some practitioners of practical ethics try to do it in isolation. There is a serious question, however, as to whether practical ethics can really be done without a meta-ethical and even metaphysical base. More precisely, if meta-ethical questions are avoided, some meta-ethics is almost certainly being presumed and taken over in an unreflective manner, or possibly even being surreptitiously imposed.
Both of the questions we will tackle in this module belong in the realm of meta-ethics, rather than practical ethics.
[This distinction is something made differently, with ‘meta-ethics’ called philosophical ethics, versus ‘practical ethics’ or ‘applied ethics’ or just ‘ethics’. This is confusing, in so far as both would seem to be philosophical.]
First Issue: How we know right from wrong: in the sense of, how we should go about actually determining it in particular cases, what we need to take account of, what procedures we need to engage it.
Freakley, Mark and Gilbert Burgh. Engaging with Ethics: Ethical Inquiry for Teachers. The Social Science Press, Katoomba, 2000. Chapter 4.
Gaita, Raymond. A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and
Truth and Justice. Text Publishing,
Finnis, John. Fundamentals of Ethics.
Finnis, John. Natural Law and Natural Rights.
Martha. Women and Human Development:
A Capabilities Approach.
Bernadette Tobin, "Ethics and Health Care: A Case for the Virtues", Bioethics Outlook, Vol. 3, No. 2, June 1992, pp. 6-8.
This is a very important question in 'meta-ethics'. Meta-ethical considerations do have an effect on how we operate in philosophical practical ethics, which is one reason why we need to be engaged in it.
At present there are at least four major families of theories about how we go about or should go about working out what is the right way forward in particular cases. Each theory picks up one feature of our practice and strives to generalize it:
(a) Consequentialism, of which the most prominent classic form is Utilitarianism. This is the idea that ethical discussion is or should be weighing up consequences for all the parties concerned or affected by a proposed or already existent process or action or technology or law or whatever; that having done this we should then do whatever action or promote whatever rule will tend to maximize the good consequences and minimize the bad consequences for all the different parties involved. Or in the formula of classic utilitarianism, the goal of morality is the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
This has been fairly popular, particularly in English speaking circles, since Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the first half of the 19th Century. It still has quite a solid following, among philosophers and sometimes in political circles.
There are a number of ambiguities to be worked out with theories like this, however:
· Are we interested in what a person or the majority of people think promotes the greatest happiness, or in what really does? If the former, well, even the majority of people could be wrong. If the latter, then we are going to be accused of elitism.
What is ‘happiness’, anyway, and can it really be
measured? Is it just pleasure and
pain? Or does where we get our pleasure
and pain also matter? Or is it human
flourishing at its best (J.S. Mill, Of
· Are maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain really on the same level? Or should we do the second and then worry about the first?
· Where are we to put the emphasis, on ‘greatest happiness’ or ‘greatest number’? Would the great happiness of a large minority balance a moderate happiness of the majority, for example? Could we sacrifice a particular minority group, e.g. blacks, women, Jews, Moslems, if it happened to be for the greater happiness of the majority? If not, why not, if only the greatest happiness of the greatest number counts? Or do percentages matter: 5%, 2% it’s OK, 10%, 15% it’s no good?? Why draw a line at a particular percentage?
· Do relationships and loyalties matter at all in this scheme? How to fit them in, if we are going to bother?
More generally, any form of Consequentialism eventually has to face the question, what makes consequences good or bad, anyway? Every conceivable answer seems to lead to serious problems:
· Further consequences: this leads to an infinite regress, once we ask the question what makes these consequences good or bad;
· Likes/dislikes: but this is not ethics, what a person likes or dislikes may well be wrong;
· Some other moral source apart from consequences? But then we are no longer into Consequentialism.
Finally, there is a distinction to be made between Rule Utilitarianism and Act Utilitarianism. This is provoked, classically, by problems associated with the making of judgments in the heat of the moment. In the heat of the moment we are often biased and prejudiced, indeed liable to be corrupted in our judgments by all sorts of partial feelings, mainly towards our own benefit at the expense of others. Better to act on general rules, worked out in advance on consequentialist grounds, what contributes in the long run and overall to the greatest good of the greatest number, even if we can’t always be sure in the particular case. The difficulty comes when our ‘moral intuitions’ tell us to make an exception in this particular case. If we do, how do we know we are not being biased, here also? If we don’t, how do we know we are not going badly wrong?
It seems to a lot of people then, that, while taking account of the consequences of our actions and policies is certainly part of ethics, Consequentialism by itself can’t be the full answer.
(b) Deontology, from 'deon', Greek for duty: that often you have to just do your duty, whatever the consequences. This position is commonly associated with Kant (1724 - 1804 A.D.), though the emphasis on duty no matter what is probably more Stoic than Kantian. It is easily combinable with what is sometimes called 'Divine Command Ethics' - where the principles which determine our duty are given by God rather than by reason. For the rest, however, we will consider deontology in its reason-based form, self-imposed, imposed on us by ourselves as reasonable beings, ‘autonomous’ rather than ‘heteronomous’. (autos = self, heteros = other, nomos = law or rule)
The main idea here is that some things are good and some things are bad, independently of consequences: for example, torture or genocide of minority populations are never to be condoned, even if there are a lot of people they happen to be convenient for. So also cheating, lying, breaking promises, interfering with people's right to self-determination, corruption of one form or another, discrimination on the basis of race or colour or sex. Of course, there can be debate as to how far the list extends.
Not all principles or general rules will be ethical (e.g. always cause people the most possible pain). So we need a rule to distinguish the good rules from the bad rules, if possible a rule given to us by our reason. Commonly at this point we invoke the Principle of Universalizability: what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, our rules need to be both subjectively and objectively universalizable. Would we still think this way if we were a stranger or an outsider to the situation? Thus, ‘subjectively’ universalizable. And would we still think this way if the people involved or affected, the ‘objects’ of our judgment, were strangers or even our enemies (in the case of judgments about what is really good), or stranger or even friends (if we are judging concerning the bad). What’s good for the Americans is good for the Russians, what’s bad for the Nazis or the Iraqis is bad for the Australians also, if we are reasonable we have to be prepared to generalize, otherwise we are not being reasonable.
One of the most interesting rules for deciding on membership of the list of such non-consequential principles of ethics, which is the way what we should do is usually expressed, is that enunciated by Immanuel Kant in the third statement of his Categorical Imperative, that we should be guided by maxims according to which we are treating all people involved never just as means but also as well as ends in themselves. More colloquially, we should always treat people as people, never just as objects, to be lost in the basket of cost-benefit analyses. Love your neighbour as yourself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you – presuming, that is, that we always treat ourselves as ends, not just as means to other people’s ends, which can’t always be presumed I suppose.
This theory about ethics is also open to serious problems, mainly having to do with difficult cases, where principles seem to be in conflict or our moral intuitions seem to require us to make exceptions to these principles. It is quite easy for consequentialist and other critics of the position to lean on such difficult problems as frequently occur in every day life. A classic deontologist has no where to turn, he or she is or seems to be into ‘all or nothing’, seemingly committed to ethical absolutes that don’t seem to work in everyday life. But surely they have part of the story: not everything can just be put into the basket of cost-benefit analyses, there are some non-negotiables, at least relatively speaking. Exceptional circumstances make bad laws – and also bad ethics.
These are the two major theories which have dominated discussion in academic circles in modern times until recently.
In some more recent writing, a third, rather more ancient, approach has been making a solid come-back.
(c) This third approach, sometimes called 'Virtues Theory' or virtues-based theory, is actually very old, going back to the Greeks and carried through in medieval moral theology into modern times (up to and including Hume), alongside and indeed often as part of ‘Natural Law Ethics’ (but we leave Hume before this). It has been re-habilitated in modern times especially by Alistair MacIntyre, also Stanley Hauerwas. The basic idea is that we should always strive to act in a way in accordance with virtue and wisdom. Some modern versions of it specifically try to incorporate the strong features of the other theories - recognizing the importance of considering the likely and realistically possible consequences of our actions, and paying due regard to realizing certain non-consequential principles of conduct - but also adding a few things of its own.
According to this idea, Ethics is not only about actions; it is also, and even more importantly about the kind of people we are or want to be and the kind of communities we want to have. We want to be people of virtue, people endowed with esteemed qualities of character such as courage and compassion, benevolence and justice, wisdom and good sense. We want our communities also to be characterized by such qualities. Besides, it is one thing to talk about weighting up consequences, quite another thing to do that wisely with sensitivity and due regard for everyone. Sometimes we don't have well-established principles to act by. Even when we do have such principles we still have to know how to apply them with wisdom and sensitivity. And sometimes principles conflict. To work it out takes intelligence and experience and perhaps even moral and spiritual maturity. The ultimate criterion in ethics, if there is one, is not consequences or non-consequential principles but the judgment of women and men of virtue and practical wisdom, which latter is usually acquired only with lots of experience of life by an intelligent and insightful person already endowed with virtues such as fairness and compassion and sensitivity and courage. Real life is that complicated, after all. (Cf. Esp. Aristotle, the person of ‘phronesis’ or practical wisdom.)
What counts as a virtue, and the importance given to particular virtues seems to vary a fair bit, unfortunately, dependent on historical, geographical and cultural context and even on the particular practice or profession we happen to be into. This looks to be a bit of a problem. We can distinguish if we like between virtues requisite within a particular practice or profession, being a good nurse or a good teacher, and the virtues specific to the practice of being a human amongst other humans as such so to speak, in which we all share, which could be given a kind of precedence in case of conflict. But even this latter practice would seem to be culturally and historically determined in its detail.
What kind of problem is this? According to MacIntyre, who after all has done a lot of work on the history of ethics being one of the key workers in the field, all enquiry is tradition constituted, including especially ethical enquiry. It’s all a question of getting into the good tradition – it is not as if we could have no tradition at all. Choice of the good tradition is a complicated matter. But it may not be all that different in the sciences – see later, next segment of the unit. At least contemporary Virtue or Virtues Theory admits this up front.
(d) An Ethic of Care, contrasted by its advocates to an Ethic of Justice, like Virtue Ethics, emerges on the contemporary scene by way of a reaction to the overly individualistic and overly rationalistic nature of ethics since Kant, through Mill to Rawls, A Theory of Justice, but a reaction from a feminist rather than a traditionalist perspective. In contemporary debate, this goes back to the work of the Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan, esp. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), immediately a critique of the work of her colleague Lawrence Kohlberg on moral development. Kohlberg gets to have a lot more males than females in the top of his moral development column only because he construes ethics in a very male, individualistic overly rationalistic fashion. She did a survey and found while practically all the males she interviewed used something like a principle of justice to resolve moral dilemmas, at least half the females operated in a different way, which focused on care and concern for all the people involved, thus an ethics of care rather than an ethics of justice. Having been put into place by Gilligan, a number of other feminist writers have taken it over and indeed it’s moved beyond the boundaries becoming part of the story of contemporary ethical theory.
Following Gilligan, one can distinguish three or four differences between an Ethic of Care and an Ethic of Justice:
1) An ethic of justice works by applying abstract principles to particular cases, e.g. greatest good of the greatest number, e.g. subjectively and objectively universalizable maxims. The general rule is usually regarded as a rule that reason would prescribe.
An ethic of care, on the other hand, concentrates on the concrete situation and the particularities of the people involved. Also, feelings and emotions are considered to be as morally significant as reason: a felt concern for the particular persons involved in a situation (including oneself, and including for their feelings and emotions) is what eventually counts.
2) An ethics of justice thinks of persons as separate and distinct individuals who are independent from each other with strong concentration on individual ethical autonomy. Moral problems arise essentially from conflicts between such theoretically independent individuals.
An ethic of care on the other hand sees persons as essentially connected to each other, imbedded in a web of relationships which are essential to their identity as persons. Moral problems arise more likely from the exigencies of our ongoing relationships, and we try to work towards inclusive solutions in which the needs of everyone and of all our relationships are catered for, wherever possible.
3) An ethic of justice tends to concentrate on the rights of individuals, and on specifically moral duties and obligations owed to people as such.
An ethic of care works preferentially with the notion of responsibility, my responsibility for others for whom I stand in certain relationships calling for response to their needs whatever they might be, whether or not this can be construed as ethically obligated in a narrow sense.
More recent thinking by advocates of ethic of care (including by Gilligan) would acknowledge that these characteristics are not exclusively gender specific, with the bias determined by differential psycho-social developmental factors, typical gender-differentiated problems in growing up, rather than e.g. biology. Whatever the causes, there can well be men who are strongly into ethics of care, and women who are strongly into ethics of justice.
Also, it is often a matter of bias: people basically
into ethics of care will not entirely ignore factors which make for an ethics
of justice, and vice versa. As Noel
Preston has it about his own position, “We will maintain that care and justice
are two sides of the same coin. Indeed,
the practical quest for justice must be tempered by the relational and
interpersonal concerns of care and compassion.
Otherwise the quest may degenerate tyrannically into the mere imposition
of social order and control.” (
this goes back a long way to the early Greeks, Socrates, the Stoics, Roman Law,
through the medievals to 18th Century deistic proponents of natural
rights, faded away in the 19th and early 20th century
outside theological contexts, but has undergone something of a revival in the
aftermath of the horrors of Nazi Germany and the 2nd World War. The most prominent representative is probably
John Finnis, Professor of Jurisprudence at the
The main idea is that there is something like a law written into the nature of things by reference to which human positive laws might sometimes be critiqued, such that human positive law is not right just because it’s law, thus something like a ‘natural’ law.
We will look at this separately, in a short segment of its own: see Natural Law Ethics.
Natural Law Ethics is to be carefully distinguished from Divine Command Ethics: natural law as law written into the nature of things is by that very fact accessible in principle to ordinary natural human reason apart from revelation, to unbelievers as well as to believers – that’s part of the point. For believers God as Creator of All, of course, is author of nature as of human reason, such that, for believers, the law written into the nature of things accessible to human reason may be read, additionally in the light of faith, as an expression of the divine will for us and for the creation, and this gives a further grounding and an additional, theological motivational factor that non-believers may not have: it now becomes part of our personal relationship with God, as well as being ethics, doing the right thing as such. But this doesn’t affect what the natural law is nor does it make it in any way arbitrary or limit its in principle accessibility to human reason. What the natural law is, is determined by the objective nature of things out there, and it is alleged that this is in large part accessible to ordinary natural human reason. Nor is its being part of a personal relationship with the Divine Mystery essential to its integrity as such.
(f) Even Divine Command Ethics is not without its defenders. It has a certain simplicity and objectivity to it: we know what’s right and what’s wrong because God has told us so – directly in the Bible (the Ten Commandments, for example) or the Koran, and via Conscience interpreted as the voice of God in us, a law written in our hearts so to speak. This latter gives even unbelievers a way of getting in contact with God’s will, albeit rather more chancy and uncertain. Whatever, right and wrong is such as is determined by the will of God.
This runs up against what has been called the Euthyphro Dilemma, in so far as it is a dilemma first posed by Socrates/Plato in Plato’s dialogue of the same name: does God will the good because it is good, or is it good because God wills it? If the latter, what if God were to command you to kill your neighbour next door, perfectly innocent though s/he be, or your own beloved baby son or daughter? Would this make it right?
One way out of this is to say that the situation cannot arise in so far as God is intrinsically good, good in God’s essence, essentially so: and whatever God wills will be an expression of that basic, inner goodness, and so reliably good. But, unless we are willing to argue in a circle, to know that we would need to have some insight into intrinsic goodness and an insight which was independent of our knowledge of God’s will. Or would we?
The other problems have to do with the proper interpretation of religious texts and religious traditions, and also the fact that there seem to be more than one lot of such texts and traditions, how are we to know which is the good one – a problem for our final topic.
The relationship between God and ethics has been much controverted since the time of Socrates. On the one hand, all the above theories except Divine Command Ethics can well have both theistic and non-theistic defenders, all recognizing ethics with an integrity of its own, the theists contextualizing it with a cosmically deep relationship. Indeed, there is what looks to be a version of Divine Command Ethics which does not necessarily presume the actual existence of God: the objective, absolute good, or the objectively right, is what God or something like a God would will, were there a God. This fits in with theories which try to define truth in terms of knowledge, rather than the other way around. It does not presume that either truth or goodness is something arbitrary, just that all other perception of truth or goodness is somewhat situated and this way of defining things gets away from that. This is in contrast with some versions of Divine Command Ethics which do seem to make good and evil something arbitrary (e.g. the position attributed to late medieval nominalists).
On the other hand there are versions of atheistic existentialism e.g. Sartre and proto-existentialism e.g. Nietzsche, which start off with the presumption of the non-existence of God. Because God is dead, because there is no God, whether we like it or not we are left by ourselves to put together our own way of being ethical, whatever that might be. But what if it’s the ethics of the Superman, what’s to stop that possibility? And isn’t it the very Lure in our lives to Goodness, Truth and Beauty which sets us free, from the past, from the crowd, from our narrow ways and our narrow systems of ethics towards the final reign of God beyond boundaries beyond distinctions in which everyone is genuinely included?
Best, then, to think of Ethics having an integrity of its own, but then slotted into a broader, cosmically deep Personal Relationship?
Also to think of God as an Ideal Perceiver, beyond our situatedness and compassionate without boundaries and distinctions?
This can be worked into disciplines in spirituality whereby we strive to get ourselves into a similar space? While there might also be some ‘naturals’ who seem to slot themselves into something like this space anyway?
Indeed, certain traditions of Christian (Jewish, Islamic) and also Buddhist spirituality would seem to fit into something like this very pattern.
What then should we do?
· to look at everyone and everything affected as widely as possible.
· to try to isolate what appear to be the most important issues at stake and especially what appear to be the non-negotiables, the non-consequential principles or values or aspects that people feel we need to protect, if there are any, the things we feel or most of us feel we can't just throw into the pool of consequences to be balanced out with everything else.
· Beyond that, to endeavour to come up with a guiding principle or principles which take account of all the consequences for all parties involved, while protecting the non-negotiables as best we can.
· At the end, then to sit back and ask, does that really feel right, is that really something that a sensitive, fair-minded, courageous, also empathetic, caring and compassionate and perhaps even deeply spiritual person of practical wisdom would be comfortable with? If not, if we don't think such a person would be comfortable with it (whether or not we are such a person), there may well be something wrong with it and we may need to do some more thinking.
This ‘Way to Go’ allows for at least two sub-possibilities:
1a) It’s over to you! Compare Fleakey and Burgh, p. 135: after explaining the range of theories available in moral theory and what difference they might make to concrete solutions to particular problems, “Considering these points the reader should expect, through revision and clarification, to develop his or her ethical point of view as well as begin to understand the importance of developing moral character.”
1b) Let someone else do most of the work! See if you can
run with a fairly inclusive type procedure already developed or put together by
someone else, e.g.
2) Another Way to Go: rather than just mix and match, try to go deeper, ask the deeper question, what our ethical practice is for, anyway, what is it for the sake of, what is it’s deep interest? Unfortunately, this seems to have at least two answers, both intuitively correct. Fortunately, the answers do not have to be read as inconsistent with each other and can well be combined.
(A) Ethics Promotes Human Flourishing: thus, ‘x’ promotes human flourishing, therefore do ‘x’; ‘y’ inhibits or detracts from human flourishing, where ‘x’ and ‘y’ are actions or omissions, or traits or qualities of character, and human flourishing is that of both others and oneself. Thus Aristotle, the medievals, Hume, J.S. Mill (“Of Liberty” especially). The requirements of human flourishing, sometimes called ‘happiness’, are often cashed in, in terms of certain ‘primary’ or ‘basic’ goods the possession of which is thought to be essential for the flourishing of human like creatures like ourselves.
(B) Ethics Protects/Respects/Responds to Human Dignity, the preciousness of each and every human being, the value of human beings as ends in themselves, not just as a species but taken one by one. Thus, ‘x’ responds to or is in line with our perception of the preciousness of each and every human being (or at least the ones hereby involved), therefore we may or should do ‘x’; ‘y’ involves an element of fundamental disrespect for the human dignity of one or more of the people involved, therefore studiously avoid doing ‘y’, where ‘x’ and ‘y’ are human actions or deliberate omissions, or the acquisition or acting out of traits or qualities of character; and human beings are each and every human being, taken one by one, without exception and not just averaged out, once again both others and ourselves. Thus the Stoics, the medievals, Kant, Rai Gaita very powerfully, John Finnis again and (other) contemporary advocates of human rights, and Christian Social Ethics at its best at least theoretically.
These two trends have been combined recently in different ways but remarkably similar in essentials by the likes of John Rawls, John Finnis and the feminist Aristotelian/Rawlsian third world development theorist Martha Nussbaum, perhaps the most interesting of them all, utilizing two key notions:
(i) the notion of a threshold: the achievement of a certain threshold of ‘basic’ goods or effective, genuinely, factually realizable in factual circumstances capabilities (Nussbaum) for human flourishing is essential for the protection of human dignity, with everyone counting as one, meaning each and every, one by one. “Poverty” can then be defined as when people drop below this threshold, which means we get to define it in a way which is not exclusively economic, while also of course including the economic.
Once this threshold is attained, once the bases of a dignified life have been secured, as in mature ‘Western’ societies, certain ‘rights’ and ‘liberties’ come into play, and have ‘lexical priority’ in respect of the fuller achievement of human flourishing beyond the threshold. (These can be attached to either tendency, either as second level requisites for human flourishing once basic needs are met or as second level, mature requirements or constituents of human dignity.)
Provided that these rights and liberties are being catered for, another principle comes into play, namely
(ii) the Rawlsian Difference Principle: policies and actions which affect people differently, some better than others, count as just only in so far as the least advantaged also benefit, so that no one is actually being sacrificed. The best just solution for Rawls, indeed, is the solution which is for the greatest benefit of the least advantaged; but provided no one is actually being sacrificed, it counts at least as just.
The bottom line is that we get to promote human flourishing without sacrificing other human beings, human flourishing one by one, which latter is a problem with utilitarianism in its classic and most contemporary forms. We are very much into human flourishing but we are not into human sacrifice, not for money, not for nation, not for church, not ‘for the greater good’ (what isn’t?), not even for ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’: human flourishing one by one.
People who are into human sacrifice, it might be argued, can maintain their position only because they push themselves out of the action: they should ask themselves, how would you like it if someone did that to you – or to your loved ones? Thus Rawls, about the kind of society we would choose behind a ‘veil of ignorance’: we would choose a kind of society in which life for the least advantaged was at least tolerable – in case we ourselves, or our best loved ones happened to end up there…
There are situations where human sacrifice may be physically unavoidable; but it makes a lot of difference whether we are into an ethic which strives to studiously avoid human sacrifice, or one which is all too comfortable with it and may even actively promotes it:. human flourishing, one by one, at least as an ideal, and what we feel bad about when we fail to achieve, even in those sometimes inevitable times.
Second Issue: How we know right from wrong: in the sense of what human 'faculties' are involved in coming to such a decision, in particular whether it is based on reason e.g. 'practical reason' or on feeling or sentiment, or on some combination of the two.
[This is independent of our answer to the first question: how do we know that consequences to people are of moral relevance? how do we know what is non-negotiable in moral value? how do we know that such and such quality is a virtue and another quality is a vice? By reason, or by sentiment or feeling or by a combination of both?]
David Hume, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, Section 1 and Appendix 1.
Gaita, Raymond. A Common Humanity:Thinking about Love and
Truth and Justice. Text Publishing,
P. F. Strawson, Freedom and Resentment.
Neil Ormerod, "Lonergan and Finnis on the Human Good" and
This is a controversial question, by no means decided entirely in favour of reason. It seems that reasoning is often if not always involved, but is sentiment or feeling intrinsically involved helping us not only to do the right but also to tell what is right?
(I) In favour of the involvement of reason
(i) We do reason concerning questions of morality, e.g. abortion, contraception, war and peace, issues of social justice, and sometimes we even change our minds as a consequence of such reasoning. So reason would seem to have a lot to do with it, even if not everything.
See Hume, p. 171.
(ii) It is considerably easier to save the objectivity of moral judgement if moral distinctions are based on a kind of intelligence rather than some kind of feeling or sentiment. This is the big one.
Compare Hume, p. 294: "The standard of the one (i.e. reason), being founded on the nature of things, is eternal and inflexible, even by the will of the Supreme Being: the standard of the other, arising from the internal frame and constitution of animals..."
Reactions of feeling or sentiment, according to this view, are merely a function of the way we happen to be made, contingent on biology, sociology and history, incapable of founding objective moral values. If we want objective moral values, we have to involve reason. Sentiment, feeling, emotions may be useful as motivating factors, though when it comes to actually determine objective right and wrong they may just as often get in the way, ‘cloud the issue’, ‘don’t get sentimental’.
According to certain interpretations of Bernard Lonergan
(II) in favour of the necessary involvement of at least some feeling:
(i) In actual fact, Sentiment is often moved in the context of situations of moral significance, sometimes quite strongly: on the one hand sentiments of repulsion, resentment and indignation, on the other, sentiments of admiration, respect and esteem. So are some really strong emotions, such as Remorse. (Rai Gaita is really good on this, goes a long way towards establishing the crucial importance of such moral emotions.) Is it really conceivable that these are all entirely irrelevant? They seem to be at the core of our moral practice, and intrinsic to our perception of as well as our ethical response to the preciousness of other human beings. The exclusion of sentiment, feeling and emotion seems therefore to be very much counter to our actual practice.
(ii) It would appear to belong to the very nature of virtue that it be something admirable and vice something odious or ‘vicious’, at least when we are talking about what we personally regard as genuine virtue and real, true horrid to be avoided vice. This happens easier if you have moral judgment based on sentiment.
See Hume, 172.
(iii) Except in the case of psychopaths, moral judgment would appear to be connected with impulse to action by its very nature, even though other passions or inherent selfishness may win the day. This also happens easier if you have morals based on feeling or sentiment.
See Hume, 172.
(iii), (iv) and (v): from Hume, Appendix I, pp. 286-294,
Summarizing and developing an insight of Rai Gaita: it’s our experience of moral feelings, sentiments and emotions which reveal to us what moral language means. People who lack the feelings and sentiments and emotions that seem to constitute such an integral part of our moral life are like blind people with respect to colour – or even worse.
(iv) An appeal to feeling is sometimes involved at crucial steps in moral argument, along the lines of, “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” See Nagel, chapter on right and wrong.
(v) Purely rationalist ethics, whether in terms of codes of ethics or utilitarian principles, is liable to become pathological if not corrected by feelings and sentiments, running the danger of becoming methods for doing atrocious deeds with a clear conscience. This can even lead to a rejection of what is called ethics in favour of humanity – which is a shame, to say the least.
People who want to say that feeling as well as reason
are essentially involved need to give criteria for isolating which feelings,
and also need to show why this doesn't prohibit the objectivity of moral
values, if indeed they think it doesn't.
See Ormerod, and also
According to this idea, some feelings are directed to the value of the thing for us, whereas other feelings do seem to be an intentional response to the value of the thing or person or action in itself. The criteria of objective and subjective universalizability can, it seems, be applied to feelings as well as to judgments of the reason. Some feelings, namely the universalizable ones, just happen to be our way of accessing value.
Reason is still needed, for two reasons: 1) to clarify the circumstances, to get the facts right; and 2) to distinguish between feeling and feeling, to tell us when we are getting biased versus when we really are responding to the value in itself. In the case of the good, would we feel this way if we were dealing with a total stranger or even an enemy; in the case of evil, would we feel this way if we were dealing with a total stranger or even our friend, rather than an enemy? If so, then the feelings would seem to be definitely relevant and are not to be ignored.
This issue is further complicated by differing geographies of the mind (see the north American analytic philosopher Amelia Rorty for this insight). For Platonists and for the Scholastics, such as Aquinas, there is an element of affectivity associated with reason as such, a tendency towards the good as such and away from the bad, not just the good or the bad for us in the manner of the animals. Whereas Humeans and Kantians and moderns generally tend to have a rather tighter and more austere concept of reason and tend to put all sentiments and feelings into the one non-rational basket.
Animal estimative power
Tendency towards good-for-the-animal and her off-spring
Intellect: possible and active
Affective tendency toward the good-in-itself
HUME AND THE MODERNS GENERALLY:
Relations of ideas
Calm (inc. moral)
Matters of fact/
That is: for Moderns, 'rational affectivity' doesn't make sense. Whereas for the Platonists and Scholastics, at least on the level of creatures rationality as such also has an affective dimension.
Well, what do you think, then? Are people who say, we mustn't get emotional about this, maybe themselves a little bit confused??
. "So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.", Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Ethics, in translation by T.K. Abbott (Longmans, 1962), p. 56.
. Cf. Berdadette Tobin, op. cit., p. 8.
 Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, “From Passions to Emotions and Sentiments”, Philosophy, Volume 57, Number 220, April, 1982, pp. 159-172.