Growth in Interest
Interest in Ethics has greatly increased in recent decades, including an interest in exploring the philosophical sources for values and principles. There are a number of reasons for this.
Reasons include less acceptance of traditional sources of moral authority in society. This has come about partly as a result of the media’s exposure of wrongdoing and bad practice by some in high profile sectors of public life, such as in politics, business, law enforcement and the Church.
Interest in ethics has also come from an increased recognition that people have rights as individuals to live as they see fit. They are entitled to make up their own minds.
There is also increased recognition that we live in an interdependent society and world in which our own good is bound up with the good of others.
Recognition is also growing that the response we have to major social and political problems draws essentially from ethics, problems such as abject and consistent poverty, armed conflict, human trafficking, and the exploitation of people, including children, for their labour.
The response we have to the major problem of global warming is now seen as essentially an ethical problem. This is because our behaviour in burning fossil fuels for energy supplies will adversely affect the quality of life for others on the planet, as well as ourselves, and the lives of future generations. Predicted adverse climate conditions include drought, rising sea levels from meting ice caps, and floods and storms, together with economic and social consequences, such as food shortages and mass migration from the worst affected areas. Global warming challenges us to think and act now according to the big picture of providing for everyone well-being into the future.
The growth of interest in the importance and relevance of ethics is now also seen in books and articles and academic subjects in specific areas, such as in business ethics and environmental ethics.
Some Philosophical Sources
Virtues are one of the main sources for ethics. Aristotle was the first to give an account of virtue ethics, and his account is still highly relevant today.
A virtue is a quality a person has and tries to put into practice. There are many virtues, including honesty, consideration for others, courage and trustworthiness.
To say of someone today that they have ‘virtues’ or are that they ‘virtuous’ might suggest they lead an overly-restricted life lacking in pleasure. But for Aristotle a virtue meant a ‘power’ or ‘excellence’, which enables a person to live well by enjoying a good and pleasurable life. While the word ‘virtue’ is still much used, it can suggest a certain moral high-mindedness. In more familiar terms, virtues are also known as good qualities of character.
Duty ethics is another main source. It is associated with Kant in particular. He tried to establish that we have duties to behave in particular ways, such as to tell the truth, and to treat other people with respect. His ethics is associated in particular with the idea that we are all equal in the sense of having equal worth, especially from our possession of the capacities of will and reason.
To distinguish between an action that is right or wrong, we have to see if we can will it in the light of it applying for both ourselves and others. If we can will it and logically accept the implications it entails, the action is morally right. If we can’t, it is morally wrong.
In basing his ethics on each person having his or her our own will and reasoning capacity, Kant provided one of the main philosophical sources for the idea that people are individuals who have human rights.
As for Aristotle and character qualities, Kant did not see living according to duty as imposing restrictions on us. He understood duties as the rational way to behave through which we become freer or more autonomous than we otherwise would be if we acted only from our inclinations and desires.
Care ethics draws from the natural response of caring which people have for each other’s well-being in close relationships within families and among friends.
From this basis, care is seen as a response which should inform all our relationships in society, including work, business and professional relationships, and the relationship between government and citizens.
In its recent development (from the 1980s), care ethics arose (from mainly women philosophers) as a reaction to ethics based on rationally required duties. They criticised duty ethics for ignoring or underestimating the pivotal role our emotions have in facilitating moral intuitions and understanding .
Existentialist philosophers differ in their understanding of what ethics means. Common to them is the significance they give to being open to the world and having personal freedom to choose how to live authentically. Most do not believe that our values come from a pre-given authority, such as God, or from a system of rational argument. Instead values are something we create to give meaning to ourselves and our outlook on the world. Camus, for example, opposed moralism and compliance with strict ethical codes because they stifle freedom and present a restricted picture of the world. As he wrote:
“There can be no question of holding forth on ethics (moralism). I have seen people behave badly with great morality and I note every day that integrity has no need for rules.”
For Camus, we live in a world that has no intrinsic meaning in itself, and this makes our efforts to engage with it absurd. He described our human condition in terms of the mythological figure of Sisyphus who was condemned to a life of rolling a rock up to the top of a hill only to see it roll down to the bottom and have to resume rolling it up again. For Camus there is something heroic in facing up to the reality of our condition and trying to live as best we can. This requires continuing to try to fulfil our tasks in “a campaign” in which we are “defeated in advance”.
In doing this, ethics is not set aside. He recognised its central importance. We should be open to taking account of difficulty and complexity in our own and other people’s circumstances, at both a philosophical and practical level. In particular we should keep in mind that our choices and actions have consequences, for ourselves and for others. And for him this means “consequences must he considered calmly”, with no rush to judgement.
We should also note the promptings of our conscience and take them into consideration. As he memorably put it, conscience “moves swiftly or withdraws within itself. It has to be caught on the wing, at a barely perceptible moment when it glances fleetingly at itself”.