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.
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 treat other people with respect. His ethics is associated in particular with the idea that we are all equal in the sense of being of equal worth.
Equality is based in each person having his or her our own will and reasoning capacity.
This is also one of the sources for the idea that people are individuals who have human rights.
As with 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 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 which they criticised for ignoring the emotions in providing moral understanding and knowledge.