Ethics: I. Task of Ethics

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Ethics as a philosophical or theoretical discipline is concerned with tasks that concern ordinary, reflective individuals. Since its origins in classical and preclassical times, it has sought to understand how human beings should act and what kind of life is best for people. When Socrates and Plato dealt with such questions, they presupposed or at the very least hoped that they could be answered in "timeless" fashion, that is, with answers that were not dependent on the culture and circumstances of the answerer, but represented universally valid, rational conclusions.

In fact, however, the history of philosophical or theoretical ethics is intimately related to the ethical views and practices prevalent in various societies over the millennia. Although philosophers have usually sought to answer ethical questions without regard to (and sometimes in defiance of) some of the standards and traditions prevalent around them, the history of ethics as a philosophical discipline bears interesting connections to what has happened in given philosophers' societies and the world at large. Perhaps the clearest example of this lies in the influence of Christianity on the history of theoretical ethics.

Philosophical/theoretical ethics, of course, has had its own influence on Christianity, for example, Aristotle's influence on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and on the views and practices of the church. Nonetheless, to compare the character of the pre-Christian ethics of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and other schools of ancient ethical thought with the kinds of ethics that have flourished in the academy since Christianity became a dominant social force is to recognize that larger social and historical currents play significant roles in the sphere of philosophical ethics.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, for example, do not discuss kindness or compassion, moral guilt, or the virtue of self-denial, or selflessness. Christianity helped to bring these notions to the attention of philosophy and to make philosophers think that issues framed in terms of them were central to their task. By the same token, a late-twentieth-century revival of interest in ancient approaches to ethics may reflect the diminishing force and domination of Christian thinking in the contemporary world.

But if the concepts that ethics focuses on can change so profoundly, one may well wonder whether a single discipline of ethics can be said to persist across the ages, or even whether such a thing as "the task" of philosophical ethics can be said to endure. Socrates, and later Plato, were perhaps the first philosophers to make a self-conscious attempt to answer general ethical questions on the basis of reason and argument rather than convention and tradition. But was the task they accepted really the same as that of contemporary ethics? This issue needs to be addressed before the task of ethics can be described.

Despite the fact that the concepts and problems of physics have varied over the last few centuries, it is still possible to speak of the history of a single discipline called physics. Moreover, we might say that the task of physics has been and remains that of developing physical concepts for the explanation and description of physical phenomena. Something similar can be said about theoretical ethics. Over the millennia, thoughtful people and philosophers have asked what kind of life is best for the individual and how one ought to behave in regard to other individuals and society as a whole. Although different concepts have been proposed to assist in the task of answering these questions, the questions themselves have retained an identity substantial enough to allow one to speak of the task of philosophical ethics without doing an injustice to the history of ethics.

The History of Ethical Theories

There has been a good deal less variation in philosophical concepts between those Plato employed and those we employ than there has been in regard to physical concepts within the field of physics. Concepts in philosophical ethics are the instruments with which philosophers address perennial ethical questions, and the distinctive contribution of any given theoretical approach to ethics resides in how (and how well) it integrates such concepts into an overall ethical view.

The concepts of ethics fall into two main categories. The first category comprises notions having to do with morality, virtue, rationality, and other ideals or standards of conduct and motivation; the second, notions pertaining to human good or well-being and the "good life" generally. Notice that morality is only one part, albeit a major one, of the first category. Claims and ideals concerning how it is rational for us to behave are not necessarily "moral" within our rather narrow modern understanding of that notion. Prudence and far-sightedness, for example, are rational, but their absence is not usually regarded as any kind of moral fault; and since these traits are also usually regarded as virtues, it seems we have room for virtues that are not specifically moral virtues. In addition, questions about human well-being and about what kind of life is best to have are less clearly questions of morality, narrowly conceived, than of ethics regarded as an encompassing philosophical discipline. The two categories mentioned above basically divide the concepts of ethics understood in this broad sense, and all major, substantive ethical theories attempt to say something about how these two classes of concepts relate to one another. Since modern views employ concepts and ask specific questions that are more familiar to contemporary readers, these views will be discussed first.

DEONTOLOGY. Modern deontology treats moral obligations as requirements that bind us to act, in large measure, independent of the effects our actions may have on our own good or well-being, and to a substantial extent, even independent of the effects of our actions on the well-being of others. The categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), in one of its main formulations, tells us that we may not use or mistreat other people as a means either to our own happiness or to that of other people, and various forms of moral intuitionism make similar claims (1964). Intuitionists typically differ from Kant in holding that there are several independent, fundamental moral requirements (e.g., to keep promises, not to harm others, to tell the truth). But they agree with Kant that moral obligation is not just a matter of good consequences for an individual agent or for sentient beings generally. Thus even though deontologists such as Kant and, in the twentieth century, W. D. Ross, have definite views about human well-being, they do not think of moral goodness and moral obligation as rooted in facts about human well-being (or the well-being of sentient beings generally); and here a comparison with Judeo-Christian religious thought seems not inappropriate.

The Ten Commandments are not a product of rational philosophy; they have their source in religious tradition and/or divine command. They do, however, represent a kind of answer to the question about how one should behave toward others; that is, they ask the question that philosophical ethics attempts to answer. Moreover, the way the Ten Commandments answer this question is somewhat analogous to the way moral principles are conceived by deontologists such as Kant and the intuitionists.

In religious thinking, the Ten Commandments are not morally binding through some connection to the well-being or happiness of individuals or even the larger community; they are binding because God has commanded them, and deontology seeks to substitute for the idea of a deity, the idea of requirements given by reason itself or of binding obligations perceivable by moral insight. The deontologist typically holds that one's own well-being and that of others are taken into account and given some weight by the set of binding moral requirements, but that these are not the only considerations that affect what we ought to do generally or on particular occasions. For deontologists, the end does not always justify the means, and certain kinds of actions— torture, betrayal, injustice—are wrong for reasons having little to do with good or desirable consequences.

CONSEQUENTIALISM. The contrast here is with so-called consequentialists, for whom all moral obligation and virtue are to be understood in terms of good or desirable consequences. Typically, this has meant framing some conception of human or sentient good or well-being and claiming that all morality is derivative from or understandable in terms such as "good" or "well-being." Thus Jeremy Bentham, Henry Sidgwick (1981), and other utilitarian consequentialists regard pleasure or the satisfaction of desire as the sole, intrinsic human good, and pain or dissatisfaction as the sole, intrinsic evil or ill, and they conceive our moral obligations as grounded entirely in considerations of pleasure and pain. The idea that one should always act to secure the greatest good of the greatest number is simply a way of saying that whether an act is right or wrong depends solely on whether its overall and long-term consequences for human (or sentient) well-being are at least as good as those of any alternative act available to a given agent. And since classical utilitarianism conceives human good or well-being in terms of pleasure or satisfaction, it holds that the rightness of an action always depends on whether it produces, overall and in the long run, as great a net balance of pleasure over pain as could have been produced by performing any of its alternatives.

This utilitarian moral standard is rather demanding, because it says that anything less than the maximization of overall human good or pleasure is wrong, and that means that if I fail to sacrifice my own comfort or career when doing so would allow me to do more overall good for humanity, then I act wrongly. But apart from the fact of how much it demands—there is nothing, after all, in the Ten Commandments or in the obligations defended by deontologists that requires such extreme sacrifice—what is most distinctive about utilitarianism is its claim that moral right and wrong (and moral good and evil) are totally, not merely partially, concerned with producing desirable results. The end, indeed, does justify the means, according to utilitarianism, and thus one might even be justified in killing, say, one innocent person in order to preserve the lives of two others.

Most deontologists would regard this as the most implausible, vulnerable feature of utilitarian and other consequentialist moral conceptions. But the utilitarian can point out that if you do not make human or sentient happiness the touchstone of all morality, but rely instead on certain "given" intuitions about what morally must or must not be done, you have given yourself a formula for preserving all the moral prejudices that have come down to us from the past. We require, Bentham argued, some external standard by which not only the state of individuals and society, but also all our inherited moral beliefs and intuitions can be properly evaluated. Bentham claimed that judging everything in terms of pleasure and pain can enable us to accomplish this goal. Historically, utilitarianism was conceived and used as a reformist moral and political doctrine, and that is one of its main strengths. If overall human happiness is the measure of moral requirement and moral goodness, then aristocratic privilege and the political disenfranchisement of all but the landed and wealthy are clearly open to attack, and Bentham and his "radical" allied did, in fact, make use of utilitarian ideas as a basis for making reforms in the British political and legal system.

But not all the reformist notions and energies lie on the side of consequentialism. The version of Kant's categorical imperative that speaks of never treating people merely as means, but always (also) as ends in themselves, was based on the idea of the fundamental dignity and worth of all human beings. Such a notion is clearly capable of being used—and, in fact, has been used—in reformist fashion to defend political and civil rights.

The debate between deontology and consequentialism has remained fundamentally important in philosophical ethics. Although there are other forms of consequentialism besides utilitarianism and other forms of deontology besides Kantian ethics, the main issue and choice has been widely regarded as lying between utilitarianism and Kant. This may be partly explained by the interest contemporary ethics has shown in understanding ethical and political issues as fundamentally interrelated; for both utilitarianism and Kantianism can claim to be "on the side of the angels" in regard to the large questions of social-political choice and reform that have exercised us in the modern period and may well continue to do so.

In the ancient world, the philosophical interest in ethics was also connected to larger political and social issues; both Plato (ca. 430–347 b.c.e.) and Aristotle sought to embed their ideas about personal morality within a larger picture of how society or the state should operate. Moreover, Plato was a radical and a reformer, though the Republic takes a direction precisely opposite to that of both utilitarianism and Kantianism. Plato was deeply distrustful of democratic politics and of the moral and political capacities of most human beings. His Republic (1974) advocates the rule of philosophers who have been specially trained to understand the nature of "the Good" over all those who have not attained such mystic/intellectual insight. Nor does Aristotle defend democracy. In somewhat milder form, he prefers the rule of virtuous individuals over those who lack—and lack the basic capacity for—virtue. If the ancient world contains any roots of democratic thinking, they lie in Stoicism, which emphasized the brotherhood of man (which seems to leave women out of account), but also spoke of the divine spark in every individual (including women). (Kant took the idea that all human beings have dignity, rather than mere price, from the Stoic Seneca [4 b.c.e.–c.e. 65].)

VIRTUE ETHICS. All schools of ancient ethics defended one or another form of "virtue ethics." That is, they typically conceived what was admirable about individuals in terms of traits of character, rather than in terms of individual obedience to some set of moral or ethical rules or requirements. Ancient ethics was also predominantly eudaimonistic.

Eudaimonia is the ancient Greek word for being fortunate or doing well in life, and eudaimonism is the view that our first concern in ethics is with the nature and conditions of human happiness/well-being and in particular our own happiness/well-being. This does not mean that all ancient ethics was egoistic, if by that term one refers to views according to which the moral or rational agent should always aim at his or her own (greatest) good or well-being. Aristotle is a clear example of an ethical thinker whose fundamental orientation is eudaimonistic, but who is far from advocating that people should always aim at their own self-interest.

For Aristotle, the question to begin with in ethics is the question of what is good for human beings. But Aristotle argues that human good or happiness largely consists in being actively virtuous, thus tying what is desirable in life to what is admirable in life in a rather distinctive way. For Aristotle, the virtuous individual will often aim at the good of others and/or at certain noble ideals, rather than seek to advance his or her own well-being, so egoism is no part of Aristotelianism.

But certainly most interpreters have regarded the Epicureans as having a basically egoistic doctrine. Epicureanism resembled utilitarianism in treating pleasure and the absence of pain as the sole conditions of human well-being. Rather than urge us to seek the greatest good of the greatest number, however, the Epicureans argued that virtue consisted in seeking one's own greatest pleasure/absence of pain. (Given certain pessimistic assumptions, the Epicureans thought this was best accomplished by minimizing one's desires and simplifying one's life.)

Although there are some notable modern egoists (e.g., Hobbes, Spinoza, and Nietzsche), most recent moral philosophers have assumed that there are fundamental, rational reasons for being concerned with something other than one's own well-being. Moreover, the eudaimonistic assumption that questions about individual happiness or well-being are the first concern of ethics has, in modern times, given way to a more basic emphasis on questions like, "How ought I to act?" and "What obligations have I?" The Jewish and Christian religious traditions seem to have made some difference here. In both traditions, God's commandments are supposed to have force for one independent of any question of one's own well-being (assuming that one is to obey because God has commanded, and not just because one fears divine punishment). For most Christians, moreover, Jesus sacrificing himself for our redemption places a totally non-egoistic motive at the pinnacle of the Christian vision of morality. So the notions that one should always be concerned with one's own well-being, and that ethics is chiefly about how one is to conceive and attain a good life, are both profoundly challenged by any moral philosophy that takes Judaism or Christianity, understood in the above fashion, seriously.

Recent Developments

Twentieth-century philosophical ethics bears the imprint of much of the history of the discipline, and many of the more current, prominent approaches to the subject represent developments of historically important views. But earlier in the twentieth century, ethics, at least in Britain and in the United States, veered away from its past in the direction of what has come to be called metaethics. The move toward metaethics and away from traditional ethical theory resulted, in part, from the influence of a school of philosophy called logical positivism. The positivists held up experimentally verifiable science as the paradigm of cognitively meaningful discourse and claimed that any statement that was not empirically confirmable or mathematically demonstrable lacked real content. Since it is difficult to see how moral principles can be experimentally verified or mathematically proved, many positivist ethicists began to think of ethical claims as cognitively meaningless and refused to advance substantive moral views, turning instead to the analysis of ethical terms and ethical claims. Issues about the meaning of moral terms have a long history in philosophical ethics, but the idea that these metaethical tasks were the main task of philosophical ethics gained a prevalence in the early years of the twentieth century that it had never previously had.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, substantive or normative ethics (that is, ethics making real value judgments rather than simply analyzing such judgments) once again came to the fore and tended to displace metaethics as the center of interest in ethics. In particular, there was a resurgence of interest in Kantian ethics and utilitarianism, followed by a renewal of interest in the kind of virtue ethics that dominated the philosophical landscape of ancient philosophy.

The revival and further development of Kantian ethics received its principal impetus from John Rawls and younger philosophers influenced by him. Rawls's principal work, A Theory of Justice (1971) represents a sustained attack on utilitarianism and seeks to base its own positive conception of morality and social justice on an understanding of Kant's ethics that bypasses the controversial metaphysical assumptions Kant was thought to have made about absolute human freedom and rationality. Other Kantian ethicists (Christine Korsgaard, Onora O'Neill, and Barbara Herman), however, have sought to be somewhat truer to the historical Kant while developing Kant's doctrines in directions fruitful for contemporary ethical theorizing.

Meanwhile, the utilitarians responded to Rawls's critique with reinvigorated forms of their doctrine, and, in particular, Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons (1984) seeks to advance the utilitarian tradition of ethical theory within a philosophical perspective that fully takes into account the insights of the Rawlsian approach.

Finally, virtue ethics has been undergoing a considerable revival. In a 1958 article, Elizabeth Anscombe argued that notions like moral obligation are bankrupt without the assumption of God (or someone else) as a lawgiver, whereas concepts of character excellence or virtue and of human flourishing can arise, without such assumptions, from within a properly conceived moral psychology. This challenge was taken up by philosophers interested in exploring the possibility that the notions of good character and motivation and of living well may be primary in ethics, with notions like right, wrong, and obligation taking a secondary or derivative place or perhaps even dropping out altogether. Such virtue ethics does not, however, abandon ethics' traditional task of telling us how to live, since, in fact, ideals of good character and motivation can naturally lead to views about how it is best to treat others and to promote our own character and happiness. Rather, the newer virtue ethics sought to learn from the virtue ethics of the ancient world, especially of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, while making those lessons relevant to a climate of ethical theory that incorporates what has been learned in the long interval since ancient times.

More recently, however, a radical kind of virtue ethics without precedent in the ancient world has developed out of feminist thought and in the wake of Carol Gilligan's groundbreaking In a Different Voice (1982). Gilligan argued that men tend to conceive of morality in terms of rights, justice, and autonomy, whereas women more frequently think of morality in terms of caring, responsibility, and interrelation with others. And at about the same time as Gilligan wrote, Nel Noddings in Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (1984) articulated and defended the idea of a feminine morality centered on caring.

The ideal of caring Noddings has in mind is particularistic: It is not the universally directed benevolence of the sort utilitarianism sometimes appeals to, but rather caring for certain particular people (e.g., one's friends and family) that she treats as the morally highest and best motivation. Actions then count as good or bad, better or worse, to the extent that they exhibit this kind of caring. Clearly, Nodding's view offers a potential answer to the traditional question of how one should live, but since the answer seems to be based on fundamental assumptions about what sorts of inner motivation are morally good or bad, it is a form of virtue ethics. Of course, her view can be stated in terms of the principle "Be caring and act caringly." But if we focus on conforming to the principle instead of on the needs of the individuals we care about, we risk falling short of what the principle itself recommends. It is the state or process of sensitive caring, rather than attention to principle, that generates what Noddings would take to be satisfying answers to moral questions and appropriate responses to particular situations.

Enriched by such feminine/feminist possibilities, ethical theory has been actively and fertilely involved with the perennial task (s) of ethics. But because few of the traditional questions have been answered to the satisfaction of all philosophers, one may well wonder whether philosophy will ever be able fully to answer those questions or even whether philosophers have, over the centuries, made real or sufficient progress in dealing with them. But it is also possible to attack the tradition (s) of philosophical ethics in a more radical fashion.

Modern Challenges to Philosophical Ethics

Some modern intellectual and social traditions have questioned the notion that ethics can validly function as a distinct sphere of rational inquiry. One example of such questioning was the widespread view, earlier in the twentieth century, that ethics should confine itself to the metaethical analysis of concepts and epistemological issues (and possibly to the sociological description of the differing ethical mores of different times and places) rather than continue in its traditional role of advocating substantive ethical views. (Metaethics has undergone something of a revival, but largely in a form regarded as compatible with substantive ethical theorizing.)

Historically, various forms of religion and religious philosophy have also posed a challenge to the autonomy and validity of traditional ethics. The claims of faith and religious authority can readily be seen as overriding the kind of rational understanding that typifies traditional philosophical inquiry. Thus, Thomas Aquinas believed strongly in the importance of the ethical issues raised by Aristotle and in Aristotle's rational techniques of argument and analysis; but he also permitted his Christian faith to shape his response to Aristotle and did not fundamentally question the superiority of faith to reason. He believed, however, that reason and philosophy could accommodate and be accommodated to faith and religious authority.

EXISTENTIALISM. But more radical religionists have questioned the importance of reason and have even prided themselves in flying in the face of reason. Religious views that stress our dependent, finite, sinful creatureliness can lead one to view philosophical ethics as a rather limited and even perverse way to understand the problems of the human condition. In modern times this religion-inspired critique of ethics and the philosophical received a distinctive existentialist expression in the writings of Blaise Pascal (1966) and Søren Kierkegaard (1960, 1983).

It is very difficult to give a completely adequate characterization of existentialism as a philosophical movement or tendency of thought. It cuts across the distinction between theism and atheism, and some of the most prominent existentialists have, in fact, been atheists. But the earlier theistic existentialism that one finds in Pascal and, more fully developed, in Kierkegaard is principally concerned with attacking rationalistic Western philosophy and defending a more emotional and individualistic approach to life and thought. Plato and Aristotle, for example, sought rationally to circumscribe the human condition by treating "man" as by his very essence a "rational animal" and prescribing a way of life for human beings that acknowledged and totally incorporated the ideal of being rational. But for Pascal, the heart has reasons that reason cannot know, and Kierkegaard regarded certain kinds of rationally absurd religious faith and love as higher and more important than anything that could be circumscribed and understood in rational, ethical, or philosophical terms.

The atheistic Nietzsche (1844–1900) also attacked philosophical ethics and rational philosophy generally by attempting to deflate their pretensions to being rational. Nietzsche saw human life as characterized by a "will to power," that is, a desire for power over other individuals and for individual achievement, and in The Genealogy of Morals (1956) he argued that Judeo–Christian ethics, as well as philosophical views that reflect the influence of such ethics, are based in debilitating and poisonous emotions rather than having their source in rational thought or enlightened desire. What comes naturally to man is, he thought, an aristocratic morality that is comfortable with power and harsh in regard to failure, and the idea that the meek and self-sacrificing represents the highest form of human being he took to be the frustrated and angry response of those who have failed to attain power, but are unwilling to admit even to themselves how they really feel.

Nietzsche clearly expressed an antipathy to the whole tradition of philosophical ethics, and even if he did defend an iconoclastic ethics "of the superman," his writings point the way to an attitude like that of the more recent existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980). In his Being and Nothingness (1956), Sartre argued that all ethics is based in error and illusion, and he attempted instead to describe the human condition in nonjudgmental, nonmoral terms. Sartre argued that human beings are radically free in their choice of actions and values, and he claimed that all value judgments, because they purport to tell us what we really have to do, involve a misunderstanding, which he called "bad faith," of just how free we actually are. At the end of his book, Sartre proposed to write a future book on ethics, but also set out, in compelling fashion, the reasons for thinking that any future ethics is likely to fall into error and illusion about the character of human freedom. Here, as in Being and Time of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) which had a decisive influence on Sartre's existentialism, the existentialist philosopher is essentially critical of the role ethical thinking plays in philosophy and in life generally and says, in effect, that if we face the truth about our own radical freedom, we must stop doing ethics. Ethics may think of itself as a rational enterprise, but for Sartre, it was mainly a form of self-deception.

MARXISM. Existentialism has had a great influence on Western culture, but Marxism has probably had a much greater influence, and Karl Marx's writings (Capital and the German Ideology), like those of some of the existentialists, attempt to accustom us to the idea of taking ethics less seriously than practitioners of philosophical ethics have tended to do. According to Marx (1818–1883) (and Friedrich Engels), philosophical ethics and philosophy generally are best understood as expressions of certain class interests, as ideological tools of class warfare, rather than as independently and timelessly valid methods of inquiry into questions that can be settled objectively and rationally.

For example, intellectual, philosophical defenses of property rights can be seen as expressing and asserting bourgeois class interests against a resentful and increasingly powerful proletariat. All philosophy, according to such a view, is merely the expression of underlying economic forces and struggles. A truly liberated view of human history requires us to stop moralizing and start understanding and harnessing the processes of history, using the tools of Marx's own "scientific socialism." While Marx believed that a "really human morality" might emerge under communism, philosophical ethics is seen more as a hindrance than as a means to enlightened understanding of human society.

PSYCHOANALYSIS. In addition, psychoanalysis, as a movement and style of thought, has often been taken to argue against traditional ethics as an objective discipline with a valid intellectual task of its own. The psychoanalytic account of moral conscience threatens to undercut traditional ethical views and traditional views of ethics by making our own ethical intuitions and feelings seem illusory. In a manner partly anticipated by Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud's original formulation of psychoanalytic theory (e.g. in The Interpretation of Dreams and Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis) treat conscience and guilt as forms of aggression directed by the individual against himself (Freud). (Freud [1856–1939] tended to focus on the development of conscience in males.) Rather than attack parental figures he feared, the individual psychologically incorporates the morality of these seemingly threatening figures. If conscience is a function of hatred against one or more parental figures, then its true nature is often obscured to those who have conscience. According to classic psychoanalysis, the very factors that make us redirect aggression in such a fashion also make it difficult consciously to acknowledge that conscience has such a source.

If moral thought has this dynamic, then much of moral life and moral philosophy is self-deluded. However, for some more recent psychoanalysts, not all forms of ethical thinking are illusory. Followers of the British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (1975) have said that various ethical ideals can and do appeal to us and guide our behavior, once "persecutory guilt" of the kind based in aggression redirected against the self is dissolved through normal maturation or through psychotherapy. Moreover, the analyst Erik Erikson (1964) gave a developmental account of basic human virtues that has clear, ethical significance.

In the end, perhaps it should not be surprising that many attempts to undermine ethics eventually reintroduce something like familiar ethical notions and problems. We have to live with one another, and the problems of making life together possible and, if possible, beneficial are problems that will not and cannot go away. Even if a given society and generation has settled on a particular solution to the problems of living together, new historical developments can make these solutions come unstuck, or at least force people to reconsider their appropriateness. And even if different societies and cultures have different moral standards, it is possible to overestimate the differences. For example, however much aggression societies may allow toward outsiders and enemies, no society has a moral code that permits people, at will, to kill members of that society. Moreover, the very fact of moral differences among different societies indicates a need for cooperative and practical ethical thinking that will enable people either to resolve or live with the differences.

APPLIED ETHICS. This is a point where the need for applied ethics most clearly comes into view. Whether it is in medicine, science, biotechnology, business, or the law, people have to come together to solve problems, and ethics or ethical thinking can play a role in generating cooperative solutions. If existentialism, religion, Marxism, and psychoanalysis all in varying degrees question the need for philosophical ethics, the practical problems of contemporary life seem to indicate some new ways and to highlight some old ways in which philosophical ethics has validity and value.

The explosive development of new knowledge and techniques in medicine and biology has made bioethics one of the central areas of practical, moral concern. And those seeking to solve moral problems in this area naturally appeal to philosophical ethics. To take just one controversial area, the question of euthanasia engages the ideas and energies of different ethical theories in different ways and often with differing results. Thus, the Kantian may focus on issues concerning the autonomy of the dying patient and the right to life, whereas utilitarians will stress issues about the quality of life and the effects of certain decisions on families and society as a whole, and defenders of an ethics of caring will perhaps see less significance in larger social consequences and focus on how a medical decision will affect those most intimately and immediately affected by it.

Applied ethics in our contemporary sense is not new: Socrates' discussion of the duty of obedience to unjust laws in the Crito and Henry David Thoreau's of civil disobedience are only two of countless historical instances of what we would call applied ethics. Today, we think, civilization is more complicated and our problems are more complex. Still, in facing those problems, bioethicists, business ethicists, and other applied ethicists typically look to philosophical ethics, to substantive theories like utilitarianism and virtue ethics and Kantianism, and to the criticisms each makes of the others, for some enlightenment on practical issues.

michael a. slote (1995)

SEE ALSO: Autonomy; Cancer, Ethical Issues Related to Diagnosis and Treatment; Care; Coercion; Communitarianism and Bioethics; Dementia; Emotions; Feminism; Justice; Life; Principalism;Virtue and Character; and other Ethics subentries


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Ethics: I. Task of Ethics

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