Is it ever acceptable to lie in order to protect someone from harm? Is selfless generosity really possible, or are we humans always in one way or another motivated by selfish concerns? Should loyalty to family, friends and one’s immediate community take precedence over one’s duty to obey the law? Such questions, which belong to the rich and complex domain of moral reflection, are no doubt familiar sorts of questions, even if there may seem to be no clear way of answering them with more than a shrug of the shoulders and the assertion that “it all depends….”
Moral philosophy or ethics (I am here using these terms as broadly synonymous in spite of distinctions between these terms that are sometimes made) is that branch of philosophy which is concerned with the critical examination of these kinds of questions, along with the implicit assumptions and theoretical commitments that lie behind them. Ethics is a branch of philosophical value theory devoted to exploration of the broad rules which define, regulate and constrain our social lives, as well as with the more abstract consideration of moral evaluation itself. Thus it also considers such questions as whether there are general or even universal principles to which we may appeal in our attempt to negotiate particular ethical dilemmas we may face. What might such principles look like and why should we in fact follow them when they require us to set aside our impulses or interests? Are universal principles even desirable as a goal in ethical deliberation and human development?
Clearly moral reflection and deliberation lie at the core of what it means to be human, members of a species dependent upon each other and yet often unreliable and opportunistic at the same time. Nevertheless moral thinking presents us with a deep puzzle. We are all intimately familiar with moral thinking, while at the same time it may seem completely unclear how to approach it in anything but a piecemeal fashion, reliant upon received ideas, customary approaches, and gut feelings. And this is certainly not for a lack of attempts to get things right about the nature, origin, and basis of judgments about right and wrong. These go back to at least the beginning of recorded history as is evident in some of the earliest extant written artifacts, such as the stele of Hammurabi from ancient Mesopotamia and the Buddhist King Ashoka’s inscriptions on pillars and boulders from the Gangetic plain in ancient India. The following chapters take up this puzzle as their authors explore some of the major theoretical approaches to moral philosophy under the conviction that we both can and should subject moral reflection to critical analysis in search of the truth (or maybe the truths) about ethics.
As a way of setting the stage for the detailed accounts of various philosophical approaches to morality and moral thinking in the following chapters, it may be helpful at the outset to distinguish between three different ways in which we might approach moral thinking. We might first of all take an approach similar to that of scientists interested in understanding and explaining some given set of phenomena. We can call such an approach “descriptive ethics” since it is concerned with describing and explaining the workings of moral deliberation as it actually takes place in the minds of real people. Although this approach serves as the starting point for some contemporary approaches to ethics (especially evolutionary and feminist approaches as discussed in the last two chapters), by and large philosophers are less interested in describing and explaining moral thinking than they are in the second of the two approaches, which more directly engages the evaluative side of the questions with which we started. That is, philosophers, unlike scientists, are interested not only in clarifying and explaining the workings of ethical thinking but also in examining the cases that can be made for particular moral principles and approaches. This “normative” or “prescriptive” side of philosophical ethics will be central to many of the chapters of this text, since they examine various philosophical arguments as to why some particular approach to ethics should in fact be the one we accept as opposed to its theoretical rivals. We may wonder, however, about the justification for this kind of partisan approach to ethics in the first place. This brings us to the third way we might approach ethics, by taking a step back from particular approaches to look at ethical thinking as such, as it relates to other aspects of our intellectual and emotional lives. That is, we might ask more abstract theoretical questions about the warrant for both rational ethical deliberation and prescriptive approaches to ethics. This “meta-ethical” approach is important not only since it addresses the place of ethics in our larger mental lives, but also as a way of addressing concerns that seem to get in the way of the normative approaches we will be exploring.
The first chapter explores the metaethical claim that, in fact, there can be no real rational deliberation about ethics, since ethical thinking is always bound by norms embedded within distinct human cultures. Here Paul Rezkalla examines the case for and against different variations on the claim that ethics is bound by norms of culture and place. In general relativism is found wanting in its strongest version as a meta-ethical theory about the limits of rational approaches to ethics, although it continues to be appealing in weaker versions for its defense of tolerance and cultural sensitivity as fundamental ethical principles.
Next, Jeffrey Morgan considers the historical and currently popular claim that ethics is rooted in religion. He does this by examining two particular approaches, that of Divine Command Theory, which insists that without the authority of a purported divine author of moral commands, such commands fail to bind human actors, and that of Natural Law Theory, which argues that a divinely created natural order of things lies at the basis of all truths concerning right and wrong human actions and decisions. Both of these approaches are found wanting, even if morality and religion remain closely allied in their concern for human and social well-being.
The third chapter, written by Douglas Giles, directly considers the question of human well-being as articulated by a family of approaches known as Virtue Ethics, as they have been developed in both Western and non-Western philosophical contexts. Unlike other approaches which focus on the rules and principles underlying ethical decision making, Virtue Ethics focuses on the actor him- or herself and the question of what it is that makes a person’s character good or bad in the conviction that ethical action is always rooted in the particularities of an individual’s life and community.
In the fourth chapter, Sherry Ya-Yun Kao addresses a concern of secular rationalistic ethics, namely that of understanding the relation between the self-interest of rational individuals out for their own good and the basic rules of the social game proposed by ethics. First she considers the claims of Egoism, in its two variants of Psychological Egoism, which denies the very possibility of any action that is not selfish, and hence that ethics is impossible, and Ethical Egoism, which claims that ethical restrictions on self-interest are counterproductive since the social good is in fact best achieved by the private pursuit of personal gain. Having shown the weaknesses of these two approaches she moves on to consider the advantages and disadvantages of Social Contract approaches to ethics, which attempt to show that ethical rules and the interests of individuals bound by them can and must be in concord.
The fifth chapter, written by Frank Aragbonfoh Abumere explores the appeal of and drawbacks with an approach closely allied to Social Contract Theory, which is known as Utilitarianism and which remains one of the most influential approaches among contemporary philosophers. Utilitarianism is an attempt to articulate and defend a genuinely universal ethics which is focused on the outcomes of our actions and decisions as a measure of their moral worth.
Utilitarianism in turn is often contrasted with another attempt at a universal rationalistic ethics, developed by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, as here described and critically analyzed by Joseph Kranak in the sixth chapter. Kant’s ethics of duty, or deontological ethics, is based on the claim that the moral worth of an act or principle is intrinsic to that act or principle itself and has little to do with their consequences. This leads to a universalistic ethics based on an unconditional respect for autonomous agents that has been enormously influential in the development of notions of human rights, even though it remains controversial in moral philosophical and political contexts.
In the seventh chapter, Kathryn MacKay examines the influence of feminism on thinking about ethics as she explores work at the intersection of developmental psychology, feminist social and political theory, and philosophical accounts of moral thinking and deliberation. She explores the ongoing debate about the nature and influence of sex and gender on both historical ethical theories and contemporary attempts to address inequality and power in society at large.
Finally, this book ends with Michael Klenk’s account of the contributions of the science of biology, especially evolutionary biology, to the development of a naturalistic ethics. Here he examines a variety of claims concerning the possibility of understanding ethical norms as rooted in our nature as animals always engaged in finding a balance between our competitive and cooperative tendencies. The debate in this chapter, as in the last, is an ongoing interdisciplinary debate, although in this case it is among contemporary philosophers, social theorists, and evolutionary biologists.