It is my understanding that there are three main branches of philosophy. These three branches include Metaphysics, Ethics and Epistemology. Metaphysics finds its focus through questions on reality. These questions include: What is real? What is mind and what is matter? What kind of reality do we have? Epistemology deals with truth versus opinion. Questions include what is truth, and what is its source? Is truth absolute or relative? Lastly, Ethics deals with right and wrong. It also deals with the interactions between people and their society.
Students of Ethics might ask What are our obligations to ourselves and society? and Why should one be moral? I will attempt to answer this question. I think it is important to define morality and ethics, as I understand them. Morals are a set of rules passed to us though our family, social, and religious experiences that serve to govern our independent actions. Our moral beliefs rest only on our sense of right and wrong. It is important to note that morals only apply to individual action and consequence. Ethics, however, apply to the actions of two or more people.
Ethics are meaningless unless applied in a social context. Ethics serve to define the acceptable actions of the individual within the social structure. Ethics are established through the consensus of many people and with the guidance of human experience. With morality, ones behavior is held to an ideal code of conduct. Ethics, however, deals with an imperfect, but attainable set of practices. It is left to the individual to take a decision that is moral, regardless of its ethical standing. Each of the Philosophers we have read about has held some view concerning morals and ethics.
Socrates held that To know the good is to do the good. By this, he meant that no man knowingly acts against his own interest. Socrates believed that no man could knowingly do wrong if that person truly knew the right course of action. Socrates defines moral as being the logical result of rational thought. Through reason, one will know morality. Plato, a student of Socrates, held a similar view. Plato taught that moral values are absolute truths and thus are abstract perfect entities. He called this the Idea of the Good. The Idea of the Good is the supreme source of all values.
Plato felt that this was the fulfillment of truth and reality. He also defines this good as unachievable. This good is something to be sought after, but never achieved. Aristotle held that there were two kinds of virtue: moral and intellectual. He felt that morals are the tempering of mans natural desires and appetites. Intellect, he says, is the development of acceptable habits through repetition. He believed that We become just by doing just acts. Aristotle argues that most virtues fall at a mean between more extreme character traits.
According to Aristotle, it is not an easy task to find the perfect mean between extreme character traits. In fact, we need assistance from our reason to do this. Additionally, Aristotle disassociated morality from God. He taught that God is too pure to bother with such trifles. He states that God is Thought thinking thought. Descartes felt it necessary to prove the existence of God. He attempts rational deduction based upon unproven axioms of supposed self-evident truths. Descartes claims that there are innate ideas. He feels that all men are born with these ideas and that they are self-evident and are born of nature (God).
After satisfying himself of the existence of God, he abandons God as the cause of our actions. He feels that we are nothing more than thought, and that our substance is as a result of thought. This bizarre thought process left him in a moral vacuum that allowed him to torment and mutilate animals. He was a sick man. David Hume seemed to delight in breaking down the argument concerning divine origins of morality. Although Hume dismisses the possibility of a God, he has many things to say concerning God. Hume states that our notions of do not entitle us to ascribe to God our own moral code.
He taught that our moral thinking is due to our biological nature and our desire to survive. He further attacks the rational Plato and Socrates. Hume states that reason has no causality to the effect of morals. Reason will not motivate him to be moral. Furthermore, the only true motivator comes in the form of desires, sentiments, and the possibility of joy or pain. This brings us to Hegel and the belief in the State as a source of moral authority. In Hegels belief, there is no moral authority above the state. He felt that we owe everything to the society in which we live.
He states that all ethics find their base in society. There can be no elevation of religion, laws or morals above the good of the state. In addition, the moral authority of one state need not be the same as that of another. Each society forms its own set of ethics to which all members must subscribe. Of course, this leaves little room for civil disobedience. Through my discussions with several other people, I have come to the conclusion that morality and ethics are closely interrelated. I propose the idea that a person can be moral and ethical.
I further believe that a person can be moral and unethical. I think, however, that a person can not be immoral and ethical. I believe that ethical behavior is a direct result of morality. I will restate my definition of morals and ethics: morals are perfect and unachievable, and ethics are imperfect and achievable. It may seem odd that a person must first be perfect (moral), before he can be imperfect (ethical). I posed several questions to my friends and family. They included the question Can a lecherous president who performs all his political duties be considered moral and/or ethical?
Each person interviewed felt that neither was possible. Cited examples were that this president could propose laws concerning equal rights for women. His actions, however, would demonstrate that he did not in fact believe in the laws he mandated. His deeds (lechery) would be immoral and would therefore invalidate his laws. It would be a demonstration of the adage Do as I say, not as I do. The next question we wrestled with concerned Dr. Death. Dr. Jack Kevorkian has assisted in the death of at least 30 people. He is a convicted felon for murder in the second degree.
He will spend the rest of his life in jail. Are his actions ethical? Are they moral? Not surprisingly, the jury of my peers is hung. Some feel he is both, while others feel he is neither. I feel he is moral and unethical. His personal morals dictate that human life is precious. I am led to understand that he holds life in such high regard that he is willing to end it with the patients consent when the quality of that life declines sufficiently. He holds that quality is more important than quantity. Ethically, however, he has strayed. He took an oath when he became a doctor.
With that oath, he swore to do no harm. Dr. Kevorkian failed to uphold his oath. He is therefore unethical in his recent medical dealings. This is not to say that I think what he did is wrong. I feel that there should be some latitude available to the individual in this matter. If I take the decision, as has his patients, to end my life, I should be able to do so. I believe that Dr. Kevorkians actions will result in changes to our legal system as it applies to this matter. I hope they are for the better. I think that his actions, while unethical, were necessary.
I hope that others follow where he has led. I also hope that our medical ethics evolve for the better around this issue. The last question we discussed concerned animals. The vegetarian in the group felt that it would be immoral to eat animal. She also felt it was unethical. Everyone else felt that it was perfectly acceptable to eat animals. That is to say, it is perfectly acceptable to eat certain animals. No one was willing to eat a cat, a rat or a bald eagle. The consensus was that a cat would be immoral, a rat would be disgusting and an eagle would be unethical.
Apparently, if an animal is cute and cuddly, it is immoral to kill it. An eagle, however, could be killed morally, but not ethically. They had no idea about the rat, and preferred not to discuss it. I feel that the vegetarian was the only one with consistent beliefs. She felt that all life is sacred, and one should cause harm. I pointed out that the toothpaste she uses contains gelatin. Gelatin is an animal product. She was aware of this, and stated that she does the best she can, and avoids as many products made from animals as humanly possible.
This demonstrates in my view that morals are to be strived for, but can not be attained. The meat eaters in our discussion felt that they were acting ethically. Interestingly, no one had ever slaughtered an animal, nor had they been to a meat packing plant. These people were bothered by the idea of what is done to animals at slaughter. Some also espoused the idea that hunting is inhumane. They were, however, willing to ignore how these animals are treated. I think that this is a demonstration of acting immorally.
If we know something is wrong, and are willing to ignore it in favor of personal gain (food) then we are acting immorally. As we have seen in each of these examples, it is quite possible for an individual’s morals to conflict with a group’s ethics. In fact, it is quite probable that at any time, an individuals moral position will be in conflict with the group ethic. It is however, necessary to have these ethics. It had been said that an ethical culture is a happy, just, and secure culture. I feel it is necessary for the individual to define moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct.
Our morals are the test to which we apply our behavior. The Golden Rule is a classic example of this. We should do unto others what we would have others do unto us. Since I do not want my neighbor to steal my belongings, then it is wrong for me to steal his belongings. Since I would want people to feed me if I was starving, then I should help feed starving people. Following this line of reasoning, it would be possible for me to determine whether any action is right or wrong. Therefore, based on the Golden Rule, it would also be wrong for me to lie to, harass, victimize or kill others.
It is from these kinds of moral judgments that society is able to define a larger set of fundamental principles; such as rights to life, liberty and happiness. This leads to the formation of a sort of democratic version of morality called ethics. A group selects certain rules of right conduct from a pool of rules of right conduct created by individuals and adopts them as the social norm. In this way, a composite ethical code evolves so that most of the people in the group are content to follow most of the rules most of the time. In this way, our society encourages people to be moral.