Main Ethics 101: From Altruism and Utilitarianism to Bioethics and Political Ethics, an Exploration of...
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Chapter 2 THE DIVERGENT GREEK SCHOOLS With their writings and schools, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle established the Greek academic and philosophical tradition. They brought up so many new ideas and so many new possibilities that it led to an explosion in philosophical exploration. Many new schools, branches, and cults of personality sprung up after the Golden Age, especially as Greek culture and ideas went out into the world and came back to Greece. Somewhat like the circular logic of Aristotle’s practical ethics, Greek philosophy influenced the world, and the world in turn influenced Greek philosophy. Five major philosophical and ethical schools sprung up in the Western world after the Golden Age of Athens. Instead of focusing on statecraft and governance, as the philosophical pillars of the Golden Age had done, adherents of these new branches focused instead on the life of the individual and personal ethical obligations and approaches. These five groups were: • The Cynics believed that the one true purpose in life was to seek out and experience happiness. • The Skeptics thought there were no moral certainties, and with it, an imperative to doubt everything. • The Epicureans believed pleasure to be life’s highest pursuit. But even as the sect advocated pleasure seeking, it warned against pursuing pleasures that could also cause harm to the self and others. • The Stoics believed that nature was innately rational and that humans were unable to change that powerful force. Morally, they believed that happiness could come by accepting this as truth, and so they endeavored to change their own behaviors so as to fall more in line with this idea. • The Neoplatonists were in the group that was an expansion of and application of Platonic ideals but with more religious-based theological teachers and Eastern mysticism. [image: images] Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Buddha, is the primary figure of Buddhism. Siddhartha sat under a Bodhi tree and vowed not to arise until he had found the truth. After for; ty-nine days he is said to have attained enlightenment. The teachings of this enlightened Buddha include the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, and they form the basis of Buddhist ethics. Photo Credit: © Getty Images/Bootzilla [image: images] Confucius, an influential Chinese philosopher, sought to reinforce the values of compassion and tradition based on the principle of jen, or loving others. Photo Credit: © Getty Images/georgeclerk [image: images] The term ethics comes from the Greek word ethos, meaning habit or custom. In fact, ancient Greece, and the city of Athens in particular, is thought to be the birthplace of Western philosophical ethics. Photo Credit: © 123RF/sborisov [image: images] Protagoras, depicted in this painting by Salvator Rosa, was one of the first Sophists (an ancient Greek teacher who used the tools of philosophy and rhetoric to teach). Protagoras is known for causing great controversy in ancient times through his statement “Man is the measure of all things.” This phrase is often interpreted as meaning there is no absolute truth except what each individual person believes to be the truth. Photo Credit: © Salvator Rosa [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons [image: images] The taijitu, or yin/yang symbol, represents how the universe works. The universe is composed of a series of opposites, yins and yangs. These opposing forces are always in motion, swirling and moving into each other in this fluid and interconnected way. One opposite cannot exist without the other, nor is either one superior to the other. There is good and there is evil, there is pleasure and there is pain, and these things can only exist in relation to each other. Photo Credit: © Getty Images/Nataiki [image: images] Thomas Aquinas is credited with trying to marry the ethical philosophies of the ancients, particularly Aristotle, with the teachings of the Catholic Church. As a result, he is credited with creating a moral philosophy for Christianity while contributing to the development of Western philosophy in general. Photo Credit: © Getty Images/Photos.com [image: images] The book Leviathan is regarded as one of the earliest and most influential examples of social contract theory (the ethical and philosophical questioning of the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual). Written by English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in 1651, this work marks for many the beginning of modern political philosophy. Photo Credit: © Engraving by Abraham Bosse [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons [image: images] Voltaire was a French poet, novelist, and playwright who used his works to praise civil liberties and the separation of church and state. He supported civil liberties, most prominently freedom of religion and social reform. Voltaire leaned toward libertinism and hedonism—the philosophy that pleasure and the pursuit of pleasure is the point of life. Photo Credit: © Nicolas de Largillière [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons [image: images] David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, and essayist who believed that moral decisions are based on moral sentiment. In other words, feelings govern ethical actions, not reason. Photo Credit: © Getty Images/denisk0 [image: images] Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher and a central figure in modern Western philosophy. Kant believed human understanding is the source of the general laws of nature that structure the human experience. Human reason therefore gives itself moral law, which is the basis of our belief in God, freedom, and immortality. Therefore science, morality, and religion are all mutually consistent because they all rest on the same foundation. Photo Credit: © Becker (Scan) [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons [image: images] Immanuel Kant was the first philosopher of note to teach at a university for the majority of his career. Kant taught at the University of Königsberg for over fifteen years. Though bigger universities tried to woo him away, he stayed at Königsberg, preferring to teach in his native land. The university was left in ruins after World War II and was rebuilt. Today it is known as Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University. Photo Credit: © Dennis Myts (Own Work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)] via Wikimedia Commons [image: images] Jean-Paul Sartre and his partner Simone de Beauvoir challenged the cultural and ethical assumptions of the post–World War II world. Sartre’s primary idea was that people were “condemned to be free” and were “things in themselves,” meaning that people receive no interference from a higher power, and that they are responsible for all of their actions, good or evil, without excuse. Photo Credit: © Liu Dong’ao (Xinhua News Agency) [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons [image: images] Sartre believed in socialist ideals and the labor party. He supported a number of leftist movements, one of which, in a move to protest the price hike at the Paris metro that directly impacted French workers, stole metro tickets and gave them away to workers. In memory of that act, visitors often leave their metro tickets on Sartre’s grave in Paris out of reverence to his fight for the common man. Photo Credit: © Liu Dong’ao (Xinhua News Agency) [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons LORD SHAFTESBURY AND MORAL SENSE THEORY The Aesthetics of Ethics Lord Shaftesbury (1671–1713) was an aristocrat whose real name was Anthony Ashley-Cooper. Shaftesbury made many contributions to Western letters in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. He was a prominent art theorist and philosopher, trying to define beauty and its powers in both disciplines. But as far as ethics is concerned, his major development is as the father of modern-day moral sense theory. The first stab at moral sense theory long predates Lord Shaftesbury. The ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius (ca. 372–290 B.C.) was technically the first philosopher to theorize that all human beings are born with a moral sense of right and wrong—a conscious—that becomes more sophisticated over time. Moral sense is also a prominent tenet of most sects of Confucianism, as it is a propelling force in ethical choices. But it was Shaftesbury who really explored the interplay between morality, beauty, and innate understanding. He didn’t think he was doing anything particularly new. Working from a neoclassicist point of view, he took two old ideas and fused them: ethics and aesthetics, or the study of the beautiful and artful. In works such as An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit (published without the author’s permission in 1699), Shaftesbury equated the way emotions can sniff out the morality of a situation the same way the five physical senses collect information about the world. In other words, Shaftesbury argues that morality can be read with emotional facilities (or moral sense) the same way that an object can be explored through sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. He also asserts that this moral sense is not something we really learn over time, but rather it is an innate ability by which we learn to use over time, interpreting feelings and experiences through life, forming a sophisticated sense of what is right and wrong. BEAUTY AND MORALITY The connection between the physical and moral realms, to Shaftesbury, is the notion of beauty. While beauty is certainly a subjective notion, humans have the ability to recognize, feel, and understand what they individually perceive to be beauty in certain faces, in art, in the natural world, in music, and in food. Our senses may take in all of the physical characteristics, and thus indicators, of beauty, but those senses aren’t interpreters of value. Our senses are merely observers of the state of things. To make an evaluation, we need a “sixth sense” to indicate beauty to us so that we can make the leap from information gathering to interpretation. This is an aesthetic sense. It is something that must be developed—and according to Shaftesbury, not everyone has this ability innately, even if they have all of the other five senses intact. (He implies the old phrase “there’s no accounting for taste.”) It’s this aesthetic sense that is the gateway to understanding what is good or bad, or morally right or wrong. The aesthetic sense tells us what we perceive or know to be beautiful—which is an innate goodness or specialness. So, too, can that sense be used to determine what is moral simply by paying attention to how it makes a person feel. In this regard, moral sense theory is something of a consequentialist theory, because the result of an action, and not the intent or theory behind the action, is what can ultimately be used to label an action “moral” or “immoral.” Quotable Voices According to Lord Shaftesbury, good morals, or rather moral beauty, is “beauty of the sentiments, the grace of actions, the turn of characters, and the proportions of a human mind.” In other words, beauty and ethical goodness are actually the same thing. This process of observation-feeling-reaction can be used to determine a series of conditions that can be applied to any act to determine if it is moral or not. This means there are, under this theory, universal moral “goods” and “bads” simply because of the reactions they inspire. This determination starts by using the five senses. If you were to see someone being beaten up on the street, for example, you would at least see and hear the attack with your sensory perception abilities. If you had a cultivated aesthetic sense, you would then quickly feel and understand that the attack is quite the opposite of beautiful—that in fact it’s quite ugly and repulsive. Your cultivated moral sense would then tell you, completing the equation, that because of all the negative feelings it imparts on you, what you are witnessing in a physical sense is an act of immorality. The best ethical decisions, Shaftesbury reasoned, were the ones full of the most beauty and taste; and positive moral decisions are little works of living art. CRITICISMS OF MORAL SENSE THEORY The philosophical school known as ethical intuitionism has some problems with moral sense theory. Proponents of ethical intuitionism argue that there’s something of an intellectual gap and a leap from what are objective observations about natural facts and any interpretive evaluations based on that information. They believe that while a person with a well-cultivated moral sense can observe innate natural properties and use them to make a moral judgment, the morality is neither self-evident nor logically “true” outside of an individual’s judgment of it as such. They say that morality isn’t self-evident, but that morality isn’t as observable as physical properties, particularly to someone with no moral sense. The way those kinds of people can discover the morality of an action is via other ethical inquiries, or if somebody with a better moral sense guides them. In this regard, only those people with that moral sense—which again, isn’t everybody—can determine what is or is not moral. BUSINESS AND PROFESSIONAL ETHICS Morals on the Job Business ethics are moral values that a company employs in shaping its strategies and practices, and/or in creating a standard to which it holds its employees. Like an individual, ethics must address big-picture concerns (how it does business) and individual ones (how employees are treated). Determining what actions are or are not moral is tricky for a business—a business is not an individual, but neither is a business a single entity with the power of reason (rather it is at the mercy of the opinions and interests of many), nor is a business a governing body with a moral obligation to its people. Is there even a place for ethics in the world of business? It depends on what you consider to be the imperative of a business. One could argue that businesses don’t need to worry about ethics, because they are not rational beings that must adhere to a moral code—that they exist solely to make money for its owners or shareholders. (Which, in a way, is not unlike the ultimate human goal of “happiness.”) From a Machiavellian perspective, businesses should be allowed to do whatever it takes to make money, and as much money, however they can. But they’d have to do that while still operating within the confines of the law. From an ethical perspective, it would be against the self-interest of a business to break the law—or antagonize its employees, or engage in price-gouging, or sell a faulty product—because that would harm the public image of the business. Decreased public trust, not to mention charges of doing harm, leads to decreased revenues, thus hurting its imperative to make money. A company that operates in an entirely legal way might not do so in ways that are just or even palatable. For example, a business that fires a large number of employees and then reroutes that money to executives isn’t behaving illegally, but this action would have an incredibly negative impact on a lot of people and cast the company’s decision-makers in a negative light. Even if such practices were perfectly legal, most ethical schools would probably find them to be morally suspect. The Origin of Business Ethics The modern business ethics conversation began in the late 1960s as an outgrowth of the social and political activism movements. Issues such as social quality and government accountability came to the forefront of public interest, and more and more people started examining the authority, practices, and motivations of large corporations. But businesses are a part of society, and an influential one—they’re publicly present, and they have a huge impact on the economy by way of selling goods or services, paying employees, paying taxes, and so forth. For these reasons, businesses are not immune to the moral standards that guide individuals or governments. Ultimately, it’s in a company’s best interest to maintain good relations with the public (and its shareholders, and its customers) by operating from a morally good standpoint. LABOR ETHICS Relativism comes into play in a big way with business ethics. For example, it’s considered unethical—and illegal, actually—to pay workers in the United States anything less than the minimum wage. (Some would argue for a higher standard, such as a “fair” or “livable” wage, but those standards are harder to define.) Though the minimum wage varies from state to state, it is set at a federal level and no one can be paid less than that minimum on an hourly basis. For this reason, labor costs for manufacturing in the United States are quite high. This is the main reason why many American companies have moved operations overseas. A shoe manufacturer, for example, may choose to operate a factory in the developing world and pay workers pennies to assemble a pair of shoes, whereas that same operation in the US could cost a hundred times that in labor. (There is also far less regulation of factories and working conditions in other nations, both of which cost money and slow down production.) Also potentially problematic is the issue of child labor. In the United States, labor laws prevent children from working in factories, and certainly not for eighteen hours a day, in part because such practices are considered immoral in our culture. Other countries have different standards in regard to child labor. At the end of the day, businesses operate overseas to maximize profits. But such businesses are actually skirting moral-based US laws. A business engages in exploitation when it pays workers overseas as little as possible simply because it can get away with it. This is all due to moral relativism. One might try to explain away these practices using the tenets of moral relativism. But such arguments fall apart because the relative comparison itself is false: Two different cultures and two different moral blueprints are being compared on a relative basis. That shoe company is exploiting cultural differences in an overseas location to drive down costs and drive up profits—it is not providing low-wage jobs out of respect for the moral standards of another culture. ADVERTISING ETHICS There’s more moral shaky ground in the areas of advertising and marketing. Advertising “works” on everyone, even the most sophisticated consumer, because messages about products find a way to embed themselves in our brains over time. (If advertising didn’t work, it wouldn’t be used.) However, ethical concerns accompany that power to manipulate. For example, most reasonably savvy adults understand that advertising claims are exaggerations. Such claims are either stated directly (e.g., “It’s the dog food your dog will love best!”) or dramatized or suggested (e.g., a dog happily eating the food and then dancing on its hind legs, thanks to the magic of visual special effects). In other words, advertisements lie. Is it ethical to proclaim falsehoods, even if people know the claims are false and know to take them with a grain of salt? Perhaps not, because some viewers are highly impressionable, children in particular. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the federal government cracked down on advertising to children because many thought their trust and innocence were being exploited. The main purveyors of ads to children at the time were makers of sugar cereals and fast food, products that could be tied to a growing childhood obesity epidemic. Businesses have a responsibility not to harm their clients in the pursuit of making money, and advertising practices can easily cause a company to step over this boundary. CONFUCIANISM AND ETHICS The Interplay of Jen and Li Kong Qiu, known in the West under the Latinized form of his name Confucius, was a philosopher born in China in 551 B.C. Confucius wrote aphorisms and ethical models for everything from family life to public life to educational systems. One of most broad and all-encompassing philosophical and ethical frameworks bears his name: Confucianism. WHAT IS JEN? Two of the basic concepts of Confucianism are called jen and li. Jen is the idea that humans are made distinctively human by an innate, natural goodness. Confucius himself said that jen was the main human virtue or “the virtue of virtues,” and that any and all other virtues are an outgrowth of this one. It’s telling though, and in line with other difficult to quantify and difficult to universalize concepts of ethics across the board, that Confucius never gave a specific definition of jen, merely characterizing and describing it in practice. To Confucius, jen, and all its attendant qualities, is more important than life itself. In other words, it is more important for us to maintain the ethical, natural standard of humans, that innate goodness, than it is to pursue one’s own personal fulfillment. In this regard, jen is quite similar to the Western philosophical concept of “the greater good.” Jen gives dignity to human life, and this plays out in two ways. The first is that jen drives humans to be kind to other humans—thus it’s a natural imperative to be kind. The other is also just as natural: jen provides self-esteem for the individual, which in turns leads that person to commit moral acts. Confucianism also teaches that there isn’t a set amount of jen in any one person, nor is it the same in everyone. Indeed, everyone has some natural human goodness in them, but some have more than others. However, it is possible to obtain more jen, as Confucius also taught of our ability to obtain perfection (or at least something close to that). How does one get more jen, and thus become more perfect? To find jen, and peace, and goodness, it is more ethical to reject the notion of satisfying one’s needs and desires and work instead at bringing kindness and goodness to others. Therefore, the predominant motivator of human action, or the first principle of Confucianism, is to act according to jen, and to seek to extend jen to others. This increases the jen of others and also one’s own jen. Confucius realized that a well-ordered culture or society was necessary in order for jen to be expressed or shared. WHAT IS LI? This is where the other major aspect of Confucianism, li, comes in. Li is the guide of human action that leads to gains, benefits, and a stable, pleasant order of things. Li is the system or moral framework by which one can share and spread jen. Confucius broke down the system of li into several “senses,” the first being the First Sense, or a guide to human relationships, or how humans ought to interact with one another in the most moral way possible. (In other words, “propriety.”) Propriety is all about people being open and kind to one another; it is about focusing on positive words and actions rather than negative ones—which is to say choosing good concrete moral acts instead of actively choosing bad ones. And what is, exactly, a good way to act, so as to be the most kind and pass on the most jen in a gentle way? Confucius called that the Law of the Mean, or “the middle.” For Confucius, the most moral choice often meant that one should aim to shoot right down the middle so as to maximize happiness for all. THE FIVE RELATIONSHIPS Another element of the First Sense of li is “The Five Relationships.” Again, this is the way that Confucius argues things ought to be done, in accordance with maximizing jen. In this regard, the Five Relationships show us how to take the best moral actions in social interactions with friends and family. But these are specific actions, rather than universal actions, as Confucius has broken down all human engagements into one of five categories. They are: • Father and son. The father should be loving to his boy, the boy ought to be reverential to his father. • Elder brother and younger brother. The elder brother should be gentle to his young brother, while the younger brother needs to be respectful to his older sibling. • Husband and wife. A husband is to be “good” to his wife. A wife should “listen” to her husband. • Older friend and younger friend. The older should be considerate of the younger, and the younger should be deferential to the older. • Ruler and subject. Rulers ought to be kind and just. Subjects in turn should and must be loyal. The idea of age factors into almost all five relationships. This is a concept called “respect for the age,” as Confucius wrote that age—and by extension, life experience—gives value and wisdom to lives, institutions, and even objects. THE CONCEPT OF YI Confucius gave a name to the natural sense of humans to go and be good: yi. It is necessary to have yi to have jen. Yi is a natural sense that humans get, because they are humans and can think and reason, and more important, feel, the moral sense when something is right or when something is wrong. Yi also includes our natural ability to know the right thing to do in most any circumstance. This isn’t a moral wisdom (or chih), which can be both learned and natural, but intuition—it’s just there. You’re going to have some sense of right or wrong. How you act is a different matter entirely. Quotable Voices “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” —Confucius Confucianism is, then, a form of deontology, not consequentialism. The acts themselves are good, regardless of intention or consequence. Acting from a sense of yi is very close to the ideal of practicing jen. The reason is, if an action is done for the sake of yi—an innate moral ability to do good—it’s the right thing to do. But if an action is done out of a sense of jen, that respect for others and a desire to spread goodness, then the act adds good and moral intention to the already moral act. Chapter 3 CONSEQUENTIALIST ETHICS Consequentialism is one of the main ethical theories of the past few hundred years. Very generally put, it stresses that the focus of an ethical matter and its ethical weight resides on the person, or agent, by way of that person’s actions or consequences. In other words, this focus and weight lead to quantifiably useful or generally positive ends, such as the well-being of humans and animals. There are a few different kinds of consequentialism. One of them is found in the broad school of thought called utilitarianism. Very generally put, utilitarianism states that morality is about maximizing the most pleasure and minimizing the most pain as much as possible. A utilitarian is someone who believes that it’s important to act in an ethical fashion to spread happiness, relieve suffering, create freedom, or help humanity thrive and survive, or any one of these notions. Further, that person feels a moral obligation to do so, and that the outcome is always more important than the intent. Another type of consequentialist moral philosophy is rule consequentialism, also called rule utilitarianism. Rule consequentialism follows all the same ideas of consequentialism, but with a backbone or framework of a legal system or ethical code. For example, the right action among several choices has been laid out within the ethical system already, and therefore has been accepted as a moral truth by the community, because it provides the best possible outcome. This is seen a lot in lawmaking and law enforcement. For example, a community may think it is moral to make bank robbers perform community service work because it helps the community—that is, this service work provides a societal benefit beyond just a jail sentence. In opposition to rule utilitarianism is the bit more theoretical, less practical, and more pensive style of consequentialist moral philosophy called act utilitarianism. In this school, an agent’s moral action is right if, and only if, it produces at least as much happiness as another choice that the agent could have chosen. This one is a bit more subjective, because how does one weigh out the happiness of theoretical actions? There’s also the matter of ethical altruism. Like other kinds of utilitarianism, ethical altruism is consequence-minded and -oriented. This philosophy judges that the best moral acts are the ones that lead to the most happiness for others—but only others. Happiness comes at the detriment of the agent, and this is the most moral act possible. It’s all about the happiness of others at the complete and total sacrifice of one’s own happiness. Of course, each of these aspects of consequentialism have pros and cons, so let’s discuss them further in the coming pages. THE SPIDER IN THE URINAL An Ethical Quandary As part of his 1986 essay “Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life,” New York University professor and philosopher Thomas Nagel presented a true-story-meets-ethical-dilemma that came to be nicknamed “The Spider in the Urinal.” The fable-like, troubling story brings up many ethical issues, such as the morality of interference and if it is in fact ethical to interject one’s own actions into another’s life in the name of the pursuit of happiness . . . especially if the agent is not able to tell or know if his or her action will lead to increased happiness on the part of the recipient. Nagel used the same restroom every day while teaching at Princeton, and every day he encountered the same spider, living out his days in a urinal. He “didn’t seem to like it,” Nagel wrote of the spider. Neither did Nagel, and so he set out to act on behalf of the spider. His intentions and motivations were noble—he recognized what appeared, from his point of view, the spider was suffering from. But his intentions and motivations came from a place of his own mind-set, based on his experiences and virtues. He acted from a place of moral goodness, with the intent to help another living being and increase happiness and lessen suffering. And yet, Nagel didn’t consider the consequences, or at least he presumed that the consequence would be all positive, and that the spider would be better off because of his actions. (This exposes a flaw in consequentialism.) “[I]t might be his natural habitat, but because he was trapped by the smooth porcelain overhang, there was no way for him to get out even if he wanted to, and no way to tell whether he wanted to.…So, one day toward the end of the term I took a paper towel from the wall dispenser and extended it to him. His legs grasped the end of the towel and I lifted him out and deposited him on the tile floor.” The next day Nagel returned and found the spider dead on the floor, where it remained for a week until the cleaning crew came through, and it was swept up. CREATURE DISCOMFORTS Was Nagel’s unsolicited offer of help morally acceptable? Or was it immoral of Nagel to interfere with the life and happiness pursuit of another being, simply because he judged the spider’s life to be inadequate? Oddly enough, it’s only after the fact that an analysis of the spider’s quality of life can even be possible. In retrospect, and after “good-natured” interference by another came into play, it was clear that the spider was having a fine time hanging out in a urinal of a men’s restroom all day. This was what the spider wanted to do, and one could argue that it was morally wrong for Nagel to interfere. On the other hand the spider is a nonrational being. It is not capable of advanced reasoning or logic, which is to say it cannot make decisions about its own happiness. (The fact that a spider may not even have a concept of happiness, due to its lack of ability to reason, is another ethical quandary unto itself.) Is it immoral to interfere in the life of a nonrational being, such as a spider? One could argue that Nagel’s action was immoral, because Nagel had no right to change the trajectory of another living being’s life. One could also argue that Nagel’s action was moral, because he acted from the virtue of wanting to help improve the spider’s life by removing it from the trap of a urinal. Nagel could even be said to have had an obligation to help that spider, because he saw an injustice and it is his moral duty, as a human being with advanced rationality and inner virtues, to help. Nagel and Animal Ethics Nagel had often written about the nature—and possible fallacies—of consciousness. One of his most famous works is a 1974 essay called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” In it he argued that all organisms, including animals, have some sort of specific awareness. As the title suggests, Nagel set forth the notion that bats, for example, have an innate understanding of what it feels like to be a bat. His intention played a part in his action, as did the underlying virtue that caused him to act. But the act itself led to bad consequences. So, depending on your ethical point of view, or if you think actions or intent is where the heart of morality lies, the argument could go either way. At any rate, this was not a moral act under the heading of consequentialism, because the ends did not justify the means. But a virtue ethicist or deontologist would say that Nagel is in the clear, and he should be proud of his actions, because his act was born out of a desire to help and moral fortitude. VIRTUE ETHICS It’s Good to Be Good So far we’ve covered two of the three primary approaches to moral philosophy, or ethics. More specifically, we’ve discussed mainstream or normative ethics. We have also examined deontological ethics and utilitarian ethics. This leaves us, finally, with virtue ethics, which is also called virtue theory. Let us return for a moment to a few of the ethics theories we’ve discussed. Recall that deontology seeks to find the secrets of ethics with rules and duties, and consequentialism and utilitarianism are about the potential ramifications (good or bad) of human actions. A utilitarian would point to a person needing help and find that the consequences of helping maximizes well-being, suggesting a positive moral act. A deontologist will help a person if doing so follows the moral rule that it is good and right to help. Deontology provides a subtle but important difference from virtue ethics. A virtue ethicist acts because helping another is charitable, benevolent, or just the “right” thing to do. It’s a virtue-based, not rule-based ethic. The ideas or principles behind the rules that a deontologist sets are what a virtue ethicist follows, and similarly, such rules are what must be followed. Or perhaps it’s the other way around? That is: the deontologists make and follow their rules based on the virtues that the virtue ethicists established. All three approaches to ethics make room for virtues, especially deontology, because virtues inform those rules that must be adhered to. (Any good normative ethical theory will have something to say about all three concepts.) What makes virtue ethics different, and its own discipline, is the centrality of virtue in the theory itself. The others use virtues as a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. THE NEED FOR VIRTUES Virtue ethics were the dominant school in moral philosophy until the Enlightenment of Europe in the eighteenth century, and, after falling out favor somewhat, they returned to become the dominant school in the twenty-first century. Perhaps this is because the moral philosophy of virtue ethics is the only major school that takes into consideration the interplays between virtues and vices, motives and morality, moral education, wisdom and discernment, relationships, a concept of happiness, and what sorts of persons we ought to be. Defined simply, a virtue is a highly regarded personality trait or aspect of character. While many so-called virtues are almost universal, they are broadly defined as a deeply held value by a person that intrinsically leads him or her to behave in a certain way. Virtues affect how we absorb the world around us and act in the world. Virtues influence actions, feelings, desires, choices, and reactions—all of which are predictable in a person, if that value is deeply held. And while these values may lead a person to act out instinctively, they are learned behaviors that are well thought out and deeply felt on the level of a religious belief. The most precious virtues seem like they are intrinsic to a person’s nature, so affirmed they can be. These virtues are authentic and adhere to rules that are nice for the way people live and function together in a society. These virtues also take feelings into consideration, as well as personal well-being and the well-being of others. (Contrast this approach to deontology with its assertion that “the rule says it’s right.”) Virtuous people are not perfect, but this does not affect the purity or inspirational component of the virtue itself. In its application, human frailty, weaknesses, and contradictions come into play. This is due to the very human lack of practical wisdom or moral wisdom. Such knowledge could also be called applied wisdom, as these actions demonstrate virtues. Virtuous actions make a person good, and it is those actions that make a person good, not just good intentions, as other ethical schools may argue. The Ten Essential Virtues The ancient Greeks named ten virtues to be the most essential. They are: wisdom, justice, fortitude, self-control, love, positivity, hard work, integrity, gratitude, and humility. There are a few different approaches to virtue ethics, although each shares the same core argument in putting virtues first and foremost. The three approaches that concern us here are eudaimonism, ethics of care, and agent-based theories. EUDAIMONISM In ancient Greece, and up through the medieval era, the type of virtue ethics now called eudaimonism was synonymous with virtue ethics. This approach holds that the ideal goal of human existence is individual eudaimonia, which translates variously (but similarly) to “happiness” or “well-being” or “the good life.” This goodness is attainable by the acting out of those virtues (which the Greeks called phronesis) day in and day out in one’s thoughts and actions. The main problem is that eudaimonia, or happiness, is vaguely defined, self-defined, and quite subjective. It’s hard to have a universal approach to the ethical outlook of humanity if everyone defines the goal differently. What is objective and seemingly universal, however, is that phronesis is the tool by which happiness can be achieved. However, good intentions are not enough—one must act ethically to be ethical. ETHICS OF CARE Another form of virtue ethics is ethics of care. It’s a relatively recent addition to the world of ethics, and it was developed in the late twentieth century as an outgrowth of feminist theory, particularly the works of Annette Baier (1929–2012). The theory supposes that normative gender roles influence the way a person thinks and acts, particularly as it concerns that person’s ethical outlook. Generally speaking, men form philosophies based on linear, “masculine” ideals such as justice and personal autonomy, which are more abstract, objective, and less emotionally based or sympathetic. Women, on the other hand, may think less linearly, and consider whole beings and take empathy and care into consideration more so than masculine-based ideals. Ethics of care argues for an approach to moral philosophy from a more traditionally “female” viewpoint—and that the most important virtues are taking care of others, being patient and nurturing, and being willing to sacrifice one’s own happiness so as to bring happiness to others. Out go universal standards established over the course of thousands of years by a male-thought dominated society, and in come the virtuous ideas of community and relationship-building from a female point of view. In such a female viewpoint, the interests of those close to us take on importance with our own interests, although they are still above those of strangers (although the community can and should always be growing so as to become ever more unified). AGENT-BASED THEORIES The third type of virtue ethics fall under the umbrella of agent-based theories. A twentieth-century development, primarily by philosopher Michael Slote, these theories rely on creating virtues from commonsense notions about what virtues are. This approach uses the largest, the most normal, and the most lauded virtues across time and culture. Such general virtues, for example, include being kind and showing mercy. Agent-based theories move the burden of ethics to the inner life of the agents who perform those actions, and away from the interpreter of the moral philosophy. Virtue-based ethics exist in other, morally decent people, and so we try to be more like them, as we do our best to embody and adopt their virtues as our own. THE MORAL PHILOSOPHY OF ARISTOTLE Creating Ethics Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) was an Athenian philosopher in ancient Greece. A founding figure of Western philosophy, he enjoyed a special emphasis on ethics, although his system of wisdom involved all kinds of philosophical subsets, including metaphysics, aesthetics, political theory, and science. Along with his predecessors Socrates and Plato, his work forms the basis of all later Western philosophical thought, particularly medieval movements like Scholasticism and the rise of philosophy in the East—his writings were translated, spread, and interpreted in the Muslim world and in the Far East. His principles are part of a system that bears his name: Aristotelianism. Aristotle’s father was the personal physician to Macedonian king Amyntas, and so he grew up as an aristocrat and enjoyed the according benefits of education. Both of his parents died when he was a child, and at age eighteen he moved to Athens to attend Plato’s Academy, a place he stayed on as a teacher for twenty years. Because Aristotle developed his own branching off of Plato’s philosophies, Plato’s nephew was chosen to lead the Academy, and so Aristotle left. He eventually went on to tutor the young Alexander the Great. He then returned to Athens, and outside of the city he established his own school called the Lyceum, a direct competitor to Plato’s Academy. CULTIVATING VIRTUES The curriculum at the Lyceum was broad, but the ethical portion focused on natural philosophy. Only fragments of the works he wrote during this time survived. Among them are Organon, Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, De Anima, Rhetoric, and Poetics. And only about a fifth of his entire works have survived, totaling about twelve volumes. But due to the efforts of latter scholars, editors, and compilers, we nonetheless have a pretty good representation of his contributions to ethics. While Socrates and Plato delved into ethics, they didn’t give it a name or treat it as its own subject. Aristotle changed that, coming up with the word ethics (or rather ethos, the science of morals) and defining it as an attempt at a rational explanation to the universal and ongoing question of how humans ought to act and behave. Furthermore, Aristotle related political theory closely to ethics, calling politics the examination of how the government should behave and politicians should rule, and distinguishing ethics as how the individual should pursue good. One of his main theories was the importance of cultivating virtues: excellent character, or arete, and its end goal, excellent conduct, or energeia. For Aristotle, as he wrote about in Nicomachean Ethics, a person with excellent character just has an inclination to do the right thing; and not only does such a person do the right thing but also does it at the right time and in the right way. Among the virtues he considered among the most admirable and desirable were bravery and temperance. Mastering these virtues means controlling one’s appetites and carnal desires. More than that, Aristotle attested that acting in a good, clean, virtuous way was a method to bring absolute, undeniable pleasure. Therefore, by rejecting the pleasures of food and flesh, for example, a human would find even more happiness in temperance. This is because, for Aristotle, the highest aims are living well through virtue and the pursuit of eudaimonia, that feeling of well-being or happiness, or living one’s best life, flourishing and thriving instead of merely existing. In fact, good character was the very prescription for happiness: it is a direct line. Because Aristotle was a student of Plato, and Plato was a student of Socrates, naturally Aristotle’s work was going to build on that of those influences. However, one way Aristotle veered off was in the realm of what virtues were the most important. Plato discussed four cardinal virtues: courage, temperance, justice, and prudence. But in his writings, Aristotle focused entirely on courage and temperance as the main virtues, while also discussing many second-tier virtues. Practical wisdom, or prudence, was its own thing, and something to heartily pursue. He also attested that all the highest moral virtues require each other, and all are necessary and requiring of the intellectual, or practical, value. (He also said that because of this, the happiest life and one of most virtue is that of a . . . philosopher.) ACTING OVER THINKING Ethics were not merely theoretical as far as Aristotle was concerned. You can’t just have virtues and expect to be happy. Rather one has to work on getting those virtues, and work to attain those virtues, both by being trained in them and experiencing life in order to become good. In other words, actions are as important as intentions. A virtuous person should certainly study what those virtues are, but that person must also act on them and do good things. This is called practical ethics, and the logic is a bit circular: to be ethical one must learn what is ethical, and then do those things, which makes that person ethical. Conversely, he says that good actions are wasted if they are not done as part of a drive to a virtuous life. To summarize: to be ethical, one must have the intent to be ethical and then frame those actions within that ethical knowledge so as to obtain virtues. Then, he says, you’ll be happy. A SEPARATION OF THE SOUL Like all of his Greek counterparts, Aristotle was fascinated with breaking the soul down into parts. Aristotle separated the human soul—or human nature, as we would call it now—into two parts: the rational part and irrational part. (This is similar to the idea of nature versus nurture.) The rational part includes your skills of reasoning through practical and theoretical concerns. The irrational part decides your wants, emotions, and desires. The irrational aspect of the soul is something common to all living creatures; but the rational part is something humans alone have. It is the rational part, the call to action, that is our purpose. It is our mission to reason our way to virtues, and to use virtues to get happy. Unifying Another Discipline In addition to philosophy, Aristotle had a profound effect on theater. His book Poetics, written in 335 B.C., is the oldest surviving example of dramatic theory and literary theory. It includes Aristotle’s “Unities,” which are three suggestions for how a stage play ideally ought to be written. The Aristotelian unities are: unity of action (a play should have one central plot, and few to no subplots), unity of time (the whole thing should take place over the course of twenty-four hours or less), and unity of place (the play should occur in one setting). Playwrights used the “Unities” as the unofficial rules of their trade for centuries. Plato and Aristotle largely agreed that the aim of human life was happiness, and the way to get there was by living a life of reason, or by making ethical choices. But while Plato attested that virtues are naturally inside us, Aristotle thought that humans have the capacity to be virtuous, but that the virtues are earned and acquired through the practice of daily life. In other words, happiness comes by doing things ethically. We hope you enjoyed reading this Simon & Schuster ebook. Get a FREE ebook when you join our mailing list. Plus, get updates on new releases, deals, recommended reads, and more from Simon & Schuster. Click below to sign up and see terms and conditions. CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP Already a subscriber? Provide your email again so we can register this ebook and send you more of what you like to read. You will continue to receive exclusive offers in your inbox. THE PHILOSOPHIES OF ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER East + West = Pessimism Among the few Western philosophers to draw on the Eastern tradition, rather than just to expound on the Western philosophers who came before, was Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). Born in Poland, Schopenhauer married Buddhist principles with Western philosophical concepts, especially those of Immanuel Kant. One of his theories was the idea that no experiences are universal, because we can only experience things as they appear or seem to us; that the world is never as it actually is. He asserted that, as the Buddhists believe, the world is an unknowable illusion. Quotable Voices “The more unintelligent a man is, the less mysterious existence seems to him.” —Arthur Schopenhauer The concept of acknowledging and accepting that there is naturally going to be pain and suffering in life isn’t something Schopenhauer made up. It’s firmly rooted in two Eastern philosophical traditions: Buddhism and Taoism. Buddhism calls for an acceptance of suffering as a part of life, while Taoism describes the constant interplay of positive and negative forces, and how life is made up of the movement between the two. Another thing Schopenhauer expanded on from Buddhism is the idea that the world, or rather all that we can experience and thus know, is an illusion. We don’t really know the world; we can only know that which we can see and experience through our own perspectives, which is invariably going to be a subjective distortion of reality according to our wants and needs. MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE All that can be experienced and understood, including ethical ideals, is part of one’s representation of reality. This is the ultimate in subjectivity, in saying that the world is unknowable, only one’s idea of it, and that everything must be filtered through this concept. Also, this means that the world isn’t really the world at all, because you can’t know the world. Rather, the world is your world, and so nothing that isn’t part of your representation can enter it. Schopenhauer expands on and departs from Kant in using this subjective view of reality to find a place for the Will (the tool by which you shape this world) as a formative force stronger than the intellect, because it is the Will that has to drive what is now “the world.” Schopenhauer states that our influence on the world is tremendous and all-powerful, in that because you are the master of the world and because you perceive it as only you can, the world is completely what you make of it. Acknowledging this influential power affects not only your opinions and moral judgments but also time, space, your body, and your actions. It is up to you then to find your moral codes. The Will is thus central to the human experience; with the Will humans shape and form everything. Which is to say that nothing is innate, nothing is inherent, at least from person to person. One person chooses his ideas based on his Will; another person chooses her ideas based on her Will; and you choose your ideas based on your Will. There is no objective or innate morality to actions, rules, or agents, or even a situation: morality is merely what you perceive ethics to be in your worldview, which you then make happen with your Will. THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE Life being an expression of the Will makes for a goal-oriented life. Because we have the tool of the Will (a hammer) then we are always looking for something to use it on (a nail). This is true for higher-consciousness animals, such as humans. Even as we seek goals, we are not satisfied, and so unfulfilled desires move us forward. And if we don’t satisfy that desire, we remain unfulfilled. But once all goals are fulfilled, there can be no more motivation because we are satisfied. If that happens, then what’s the point of life? Schopenhauer might point out that the desire for life is motion toward some kind of goal. Without that motion, there is no life. This then is the dilemma of desire, which ties back in with Buddhism, and how suffering is life, and particularly how suffering arises from the attachment to desire. And when someone is unfulfilled and suffering, Schopenhauer suggests, on come the dangers of pessimism. THE VIRTUES OF PESSIMISM In his 1819 work The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer describes another pretty out-there idea: pessimism. More than just a negative outlook on life, Schopenhauer had a view that absolutely everything was ultimately bad. (Such is his prerogative, as that is his Will’s formation of the world as he sees it.) Pessimism means to see life in a generally negative way. He had some proof of the world being a terrible place: examples of injustice, disease, pain, suffering, and general cruelty abounded. Buddhism agrees with him, but Buddhism also accepts the positive flow of goodness. But as Sartre argued that existentialism was ultimately freeing (it’s not so bad that the world is so bad), Schopenhauer argued that if the world was any worse, it wouldn’t exist. That’s because existence is futile, as it is characterized by wants and desires that can never be attained. [image: Image] THE IMPORTANCE OF ETHICS Reasons to Be Good Ethics are obviously important constructs of civilization, born out of a primal human need to understand the world. But why, exactly, are ethics important? Because humanity needs structure to make sense out of the world. As we collect information, we order and categorize it. This helps us decode the vast and seemingly impossible-to-understand universe. Ethics is part of this ongoing crusade of decoding. If knowledge defines the “what” of the universe, then philosophy is an attempt to unlock the “why.” Ethics is then how that “why” is carried out, giving us standards, virtues, and rules by which we use to direct how we behave, both on a daily basis and in the grand scheme of things. WHY ACT ETHICALLY? Philosophers have pinpointed several different reasons why humans can and should act in a virtuous manner. Here are a few: • It’s a requirement for life. It’s our biological imperative as humans to survive and thrive, and ethics are part of the complicated structure of humanity that helps us determine the best ways to act so that each of us may live a long, productive life. Acting virtuously helps ensure that our actions are not aimless, pointless, or random. By narrowing down the vastness of the universe to a lived experience with purpose and meaning—especially if it’s one shared by a society or cultural group—goals and happiness are more within reach. • It’s a requirement for society. To be a member of society in good standing, one must follow the codes and laws that govern that culture. Everybody has a role to play, and if the social fabric breaks down, the happiness of others is threatened. Ethics builds relationships, both individually and on a grand scale. Kindness matters, and it helps forge the underlying bonds that unite a society. • For religious purposes. Some people try to act in a way they have decided is the most morally upstanding, and they get their cues from religion. This plays into a type of ethics called divine command theory. People who subscribe to this type of ethics act in accordance with the rules set forth by an organized religion, and those rules are derived from holy text or the direction of a divine entity. While some religions say it is important to act appropriately just because it is the right thing to do, they also provide the crucial incentive of consequences: be good enough, and a person will reach paradise when they die; be bad enough, and an eternity of torment awaits. In other words, we need incentives to act morally. • For self-interest. Some ethicists believe that humans ultimately act out of self-service, that they do things with their own interests in mind. This viewpoint even informs their moral behavior. As hinted at in “the Golden Rule” (do unto others as you would have done unto you) and the similar Eastern idea of karma, being good can be a self-serving pursuit. Hence, if a person behaves morally, respectfully, and kindly to others—for whatever reason, and even if those reasons are motivated by self-interest—good things will happen to that person in kind. • Because humans are good. This is a major theme of moral philosophy. The essential question is this: Are humans ethical because they have to be, or do humans pursue a moral life because certain acts are just naturally good, or naturally bad? As an action, this plays out in the idea that humans, by and large, are themselves naturally good, and they try to act accordingly. Virtues Central to the discussion of ethics is the notion of virtues. Moral philosophy is very much invested in determining not only the way humans ought to act, but also the way they act. Ethics lead to quantifiable values, and those values are the handful of qualities that direct good behavior. Most every different viewpoint on ethics is concerned with virtues, because virtues have no ties to a specific religion or ethical ideology. And many are universal. (Some aren’t, but that’s a question for ethicists to debate.) BUDDHIST ETHICS Suffering and Noble Truths In the West, ethical systems have derived from religions, such as the Greek pantheistic system, or the monotheistic worldview of Christianity and Judaism. In the East, religions such as Taoism and especially Buddhism derived from moral and ethical systems. Buddhism isn’t even a religion, it’s more of an organized system of ethics, a way of life, and a “spiritual tradition” that guides people to ultimate truths, understanding, and enlightenment, which is also called nirvana. The founder of Buddhism is a man from Nepal formerly known as Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 563–483 B.C.). Years of intense study, meditation, and reflection transformed him into the Buddha, a word in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit that means “enlightened one.” But “Buddha” or “the Buddha” almost always refers to this Buddha, such is his influence on spirituality, philosophy, and ethics. Reaching Nirvana Nirvana is often used interchangeably with “enlightenment” or “peace,” but it’s much more than that. Nirvana is a profound transformation to the next level of spiritual consciousness in which the mind discovers its true identify of being infinite and eternal, and that the material world is but a hollow illusion. Buddhism developed in South Asia and spread throughout the continent over the centuries in part because it presents such an aggressively human approach for how to live well. During the time Buddha was alive, a movement called sramana was common. This was an ascetic movement that advocated the active rejection and shunning of all earthly pleasures, if not self-punishment. In contrast to that, and in answer to an everyday life of too many earthly pleasures, the Buddha came up with the moderate, thoughtful, Middle Way, which is the spiritual path casually referred to today as Buddhism. THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS At the core of Buddhism is a proclamation and acceptance of the Four Noble Truths. All of the Buddha’s teachings can essentially be boiled down to these four profound talking points, which invite as many questions as they answer: • Life is suffering • Suffering arises from attachment to desires • Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases • Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path Adherents to the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment, or nirvana, are expected to follow these eight abstract guidelines. These guidelines describe virtues for leading an ethical life, which is then the path to the right way and a life of enlightenment. The entire basis of Buddhism isn’t just a series of edicts but a description of several specifically ethics-related principles. The Buddha, after years of study, contemplation, and meditation, created this eight-part method. This method is quite literally the Middle Way, and it sets Buddhism apart from other spiritual and ethical traditions. THE NOBLE EIGHTFOLD PATH The eight steps are grouped into themes. The first two steps on the Noble Eightfold Path lead to the cultivation of wisdom. • Right view: Take on the Buddhist viewpoint about life. This includes the concepts that actions have consequences, death is not the end of life, and that the actions in one life affect that of the other. • Right resolve: Dedicate one’s life, body, mind, and soul to the pursuit of nirvana. The next three steps on the Noble Eightfold Path involve how to live out these ethical instructions and requirements. • Right speech: Words matter, and they can harm and hurt. To practice right speech means to refrain from lying, deception, gossip, and chitchat. Buddha believed in speaking only when necessary, and with honest, carefully chosen words that promote love and growth. • Right action: More or less, this is a conscious, considerate living out of the Five Precepts of Buddhism (see the following). Right action means to behave so as not to harm, or to harm as little as possible, a sentient being in any way, be it physically, emotionally, or spiritually. (The old story about a Buddhist monk who won’t even harm an insect? That’s an example of living out this step on the Noble Eightfold Path.) • Right livelihood: One should be ethical in one’s profession, and make one’s living in a peaceful, unharmful way. Buddha specifically named four careers that ought to be avoided entirely, because they bring about nothing but added pain to the universe: dealing weapons, dealing with living things (which includes slavery, the sex trade, and animal slaughter), meat production, and being involved in the manufacture or sale of poisons or intoxicants. The final three steps on the Noble Eightfold Path lead toward greater development of the mind. • Right effort: An individual must actively try his best, and with all his energy, might, and will, to develop and cultivate a clean and clear state of consciousness and openness. • Right mindfulness: An individual has to put aside earthly and superficial desires so as to allow the mind to be aware and resolute, and to not be distracting by fleeting emotions or changing mental states. • Right concentration: Also called Samadhi, it’s a commitment to actively focusing and then maintaining one’s thoughts on achieving a place of clarity and enlightenment. THE FIVE PRECEPTS The Five Precepts handed down by the Buddha are core virtues that can direct a person onto the path of enlightenment. These virtues are expressed as mantras, or prayers. Buddhists are forever training themselves to abide by the practices described in these mantras. These practices are certainly not ones restricted just to Buddhism, although a Buddhist recites these mantras daily as a reminder of them. Adherents chant these mantras either in the original Sanskrit or in their native tongue. • Don’t kill. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, or “I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.” • Don’t steal. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, or “I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.” • Be chaste. Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, or “I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.” • Speak well and choose your words carefully. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, or “I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.” (This concept is so important to ethical development in Buddhism that it’s included in the Noble Eightfold Path as well as the Five Precepts.) • Stay away from drugs and alcohol. Sura-meraya-majja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, or “I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.” There is no overarching divine figure in Buddhism, not even the Buddha. There’s only the universe, life, you, and the goal to reach nirvana. Instead of a god, there’s just a general law of the universe that states that some behaviors lead to enlightenment and others bring about suffering. If a behavior brings you closer to enlightenment, it’s ethical. If a behavior brings suffering, then it’s not ethical. Fortunately there are the Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Paths, and Five Precepts to help make ethical decisions a lot easier. THE PHILOSOPHIES OF BARUCH SPINOZA Where Divinity and Nature Collide Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) was a Dutch-born philosopher from a prominent Jewish family from Portugal. Subscribing to rationalist theories like other major philosophers during the age of reason (a fruitful, post-Renaissance period in the seventeenth century of European philosophical inquiry), Spinoza took the concepts of reason and rationality (as well as some elements of his religious faith) and applied them to moral philosophy. His thoughts were controversial at the time, due to his early moral relativist views that countered mainstream religious thought—so much so that his master work, Ethics, was published posthumously in 1677 to little initial acclaim. Spinoza was an enlightened modernist, and with that came a type of moral relativism. To Spinoza there were no absolute moral truths (or codified belief systems, or innately ethical or unethical actions) because that’s just not how the universe was conceived nor how it operated. Relativist positions like this are to be expected from Spinoza, who had a very new idea of the nature of God: he felt that nature and God were one and the same, both constituents of the mystical, directive forces that make the universe run. When he first began to study philosophy, Spinoza took for fact dualism, a principle established by the French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650), which held that body and mind were two separate entities. But in Ethics, Spinoza wrote that body and mind were two parts of the same whole . . . a much, much bigger whole. Descartes’s notion was that the underlying force of the universe was God, which led to nature. Spinoza saw God and nature as the same essential substance that made up the reality of existence. In fact, everything spun out from that one central force, Spinoza asserted. He called all living things and objects “modes” of that pure form. His notion of God was equally controversial and not aligned with regular religious teachings of the time. Spinoza’s God was not an almighty figure dictating the lives of humans and other living things, but merely part of an intertwined system, along with nature, that rules with conscious care. God does not control nature, Spinoza attested, because God is nature. CHOOSE TO NOT CHOOSE Because of this intricate framework, Spinoza didn’t think free will or even spontaneous choice were possible. We merely have the illusion of both. All human behavior is predetermined, Spinoza said, and any notion of freedom exists only in an individual’s capacity to understand and know that his or her actions are all predetermined. But in Spinoza’s system, humans are not exactly slaves to fate. Rather, he recommended that humanity seek happiness by reaching for the “highest good,” which was knowledge and the understanding of God/nature. Truly knowing how things worked was how Spinoza thought humans could be free of fear, escape the pursuit of hollow passions, and overcome other negative concepts. Once they were free, they could have stronger and more positive emotions, and find happiness and contentment. Another controversial idea of Spinoza’s was that because things were predetermined, and because all things stemmed from that which was pure and divine, no being or their actions could be deemed morally “good” or “bad.” (The only way that would be a fair assessment is by the individual, in the course of his or her life, as an interpretation of an action, which doesn’t really matter because everything is, again, predetermined and quasi-divine.) Spinoza felt that in a world run by the order that God/nature provides, terms like “good” and “evil” were ultimately meaningless. Reality itself is perfection, and if it seems like anything less than that, it’s merely due to an individual’s inability to full grasp the nature of reality. About Spinoza Spinoza was raised in a traditional Jewish upbringing, and his studies consisted mainly of religious texts: the Torah, and works by prophets and rabbis. He was allowed to have a more formal education as a teenager, but when he was seventeen, his father died in battle, and so the younger Spinoza had to drop out of school to take over the family’s lucrative importing business. Very quickly, however, he left the business in the control of his brother so he could study philosophy full time. Which he did, in addition to working as an optical lens grinder to pay the bills. He died in 1677 at age forty-four due to a lung illness, likely related to breathing in glass dust all day. JOHN STUART MILL AND UTILITARIANISM Utility Player British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) expounded on Jeremy Bentham’s establishment of utilitarianism. While he agreed with the philosophy’s central concept that the definition of a good moral act was one that boasted the maximum utility, which is to say as much pleasure and as little pain as possible, he had a big problem with the way Bentham defined pleasure and pain. Mill stressed that “pleasure” and “pain” cannot be quantified, even with Bentham’s Hedonism Calculus, because pleasure and pain are incredibly subjective. Each person has a different idea of what pleasure and pain means to him, and how he measures them. Have you ever been asked to rate your level of pain at the hospital? That rating uses a 1 to 10 scale. But those numbers are relative to . . . what? That’s the problem with Bentham’s plan, Mill argued: it’s too subjective. Even one person’s definition of pleasure and pain may change from one day to the next, or from one specific situation to the next. RELATIVE PLEASURE It’s as simple as a matter of taste. Millions of people derive great pleasure from watching reality TV, while others may find it trashy. One person may find the height of pleasure in the enjoyment of a $200 bottle of wine, whereas a person who prefers sweet drinks might find the wine awful tasting. One isn’t better than the other—it’s just a matter of preference. And some people like both. Mill doesn’t think we should compare them. All are legitimate sources of pleasure—comparison just complicates the reasoning behind utilitarian analysis. Groomed John Stuart Mill’s father, James Mill, was also a utilitarian philosopher and a friend of Jeremy Bentham. Together they explicitly set out to mold John Stuart Mill into a defender and writer of utilitarianism. Some pleasures, as far as Mill is concerned, are actually greater than others. These higher pleasures are something like virtues. If the pleasures are associated with reason, deliberation, or other emotions that lead to social change and benefit, then they are of a higher pleasure. These are intellectual and spiritual pleasures. Failing that, the pleasure is merely in the realm of the other earthly delights—what Mill called “sensations.” This is what shields utilitarianism from the criticism that haunts hedonism. (Mill called hedonism a “doctrine only worthy of a swine.”) Mill’s utilitarianism is pleasure seeking with a purpose—pleasure seeking for the greater good—which makes life about more than just an existence of pleasure seeking. To that end, pleasure and goodness mean the greater good, and not just feeling good individually. Such pleasures are of higher moral value because they lead to the greater overall good, as well as the individual good. Some utilitarians find their support for the pursuit of happiness in God’s will, or in divine command theory. More hedonistic, pleasure/pain-regulating utilitarians like Mill argue for a happiness based on the mind and body because the physical human experience is quantifiable, provable, and immediate. THE NEED FOR PLEASURE John Stuart Mill wasn’t one to go around trying to “prove” a theory that was all about subjectivity. In his book Utilitarianism, for example, he writes about proving the principle of utility in terms of the overwhelmingly universal human need and pursuit for happiness. To him, this need is just as real as seeing an object, or hearing a sound. Because this need so obviously exists, there’s no need for him to prove that it is real. That happiness pursuit unites us, he suggests, and if we’re all pursuing happiness, then it leads to overall greater happiness for all. Quotable Voices “The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it . . . . No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness . . . . [W]e have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.” —John Stuart Mill Pleasure, to Mill, is a goal worth pursuing in and of itself. It doesn’t have to be a nice byproduct of acting morally, or the only reason to do things. Pleasure is moral, and morality is pleasure. This can be applied to religion as well, as religion and ethical study help people find pleasure and happiness and avoid emotional pain. But it’s also okay to pursue those goals independently of any other construct. In this regard, ethics is just about adding happiness to the world . . . or at the very least, minimizing pain. As far as Bentham and Mill are concerned, they are of the utilitarian mind-set that everyone’s happiness and/or pain matter. They are, of course, utilitarian, and as such they are always trying to decide what is the best, or the most useful, course of action. Taking into account how more than one party would be affected by a moral decision is a big part of what utilitarians do. It’s all about the net gain of utility. They don’t care who gains, just as long as gain is there in some way. This is called “an equal consideration of interests.” THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE CYNICS Question Everything One thing that the great philosophers of ancient Greece spent a preponderance of time on was applying the individual concepts of philosophy and ethics to political and public life. That was how important politics were to Greece—public life was all-important, and philosophy had to find a way to fit into it. Without that fitting in, philosophy would not be taken seriously, much less thrive. Philosophy was a tool that citizens and rulers alike could use to better understand themselves and other humans—and to exploit, both for personal gain or to progress society at its highest levels. In the Hellenistic era (ca. 323–30 B.C.), chief among the changes in philosophy was a shift from political and public applications toward the explicitly personal, and how man should behave in his private, nonpolitical life. Distinct ethical schools of thought emerged. These schools helped lay the groundwork for divergent ethical theories that would develop over the next several hundred years. Perhaps the least subtle and among the more radical of these viewpoints was the philosophy set forth by the Cynics. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONAL The Cynics were a philosophical movement that believed the one true purpose in life was to seek out and achieve happiness. This was to be done by looking to nature for certain virtues that would increase that likelihood, and following them as nature would dictate. The term Cynic is of course related to the word cynical, which today has come to mean “a negative, distrusting disposition.” This definition ties into the Cynics in that the Cynics were “cynical” of any sort of man-made system of ethics or morality. As a result, they preferred to go it the old way—the really old way. Cynicism was all about denying the philosophical and ethical conventions that had been established by the mainstream thinkers—because they were false—and following what came naturally. Cynics especially wanted to condemn traditional values that had falsely become virtues, such as wealth, reputation, pleasure, property, and familial obligation. They endorsed shocking speech and action as a powerful counterpoint to those values of common decency. COMFORT IN THE UNCOMFORTABLE An early leader of the Cynics was Antisthenes (445–365 B.C.), born into a wealthy family that was so prominent he was able to be a student of Socrates. While Plato carried on Socrates’s teaching and the dialectic method, Antisthenes liked how Plato taught “the art of enduring” and of being indifferent to external factors so as to create an independent way of living. Antisthenes taught that there are two kinds of “objects”: the external, such as personal property, and the internal, which comprises truth, knowledge, and the soul. He discouraged taking pleasure in any kind of external good or pleasure that wasn’t the direct result of virtue, and encouraged actively taking on discomfort, such as physical pain, to accompany and motivate the soul in its drive to become wealthy in those “inner” objects. His writings have not survived, but some of his defiant sayings have lasted through the centuries, such as “I would rather go mad than feel pleasure.” Antisthenes, and his most devoted followers, took to living a life of extreme austerity to avoid any sort of temptation by the hollow pursuits of man. They lived on the street, dressed in rags, and harassed passersby about their moral choices. Diogenes One of Antisthenes’s most important students was Diogenes (412–323 B.C.), who came to Athens from Sinope, in what is now Turkey. (He was exiled when he defaced the coinage, akin to burning the flag.) He lived out Antisthenes’s theories to the extreme—he lived as a beggar, and walked the streets in a barrel, criticizing passersby on their shallow lives and adherence to arbitrary social conventions that he believed robbed them of their freedom to live according to the principles of nature. ETHICAL ALTRUISM Be Excellent to Each Other A lot of ethical principles are, for lack of a better word, self-absorbed. Many seem to ask some variation of the questions, “How can I live a better life?” “Am I doing the right things?” “Does my ability to reason determine whether or not I make an ethical decision?” Those questions are indeed important to ask in the study and in the practice of ethics. But enough about me—what about other people? In altruism, the good of others is the rightful end of a moral action. Specifically, an action is morally right only if the result or consequences of the action are more favorable than not to anyone and everyone except the agent. The good of others is the true and rightful end, then, of any moral action. STAYING POSITIVE French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857) was the founder of positivism, a doctrine that was the opposite of egoism, or the idea to pursue one’s self interests above all others. Whereas egoism dictates that humans operate out of their own best interests, Comte believed that humans should act for the good of others. He described the ethical doctrines behind positivism with the phrase “live for others,” as well as a term he coined, altruism. In fact, altruism comes from the word alter, which in Latin means “other,” and so a good name for this philosophy could be “otherism.” Comte and other altruists believe that a moral agent (a person) has the obligation to further the pleasures and resolve the pain of others. Quotable Voices “The only real life is the collective life of the race; individual life has no existence except as an abstraction.” —Auguste Comte ALL FOR YOU Ethics are, of course, innately about how one individual treats another—and if that treatment is as absolutely and objectively morally “good” as possible. But the doctrine of ethical altruism is almost completely about the consequences of actions and the resulting happiness of somebody else—the effect on the individual doesn’t matter much at all. (Except how, by doing one’s moral due diligence in a completely selfless way, the agent benefits in the way that being a morally good person is beneficial.) Ethical altruism qualifies as a utilitarian method of ethical practice because it focuses on the outcome of actions, not the intentions behind the actions. It’s all about living to strive for the happiness of others rather than one’s own or—as some of the more extreme adherents would argue—at the expense of one’s own happiness or general well-being. Even regular ethical altruism is radical because it rejects the value of the self as a form of helping others. After all, if you’re worried about your own happiness, you can’t be truly devoted to helping others—and helping others is what makes a person morally right. In general terms, altruism means to help someone out of generosity, or because it’s a nice thing to do, and expecting nothing in return. Such actions are an “everyday” version of altruism. PROBLEMS WITH ETHICAL ALTRUISM There are some flaws to the theory. For example, critics have brought up the argument that altruism considers the happiness of others to be the ultimate end, but altruism completely dismisses the idea of individual, self-created, or self-directed happiness. Therein lies the problem: if there’s no moral imperative to create happiness for yourself, why should anyone else be inclined to promote your happiness? There’s also the happiness subjectivity problem. The moral agent is the one in charge of the happiness of another—but should he be? Does he have the right to determine and act for someone else’s happiness? Acting on behalf of someone else’s humanity and happiness is theoretically good, but in practice the idea falls apart if the agent and beneficiary don’t see eye to eye on how to help. For example, a rich man sees a poor man shivering on the street in the dead of winter. The rich man gives the poor man his coat. This is certainly an act of altruism, and a utilitarian one because it has the outcome in mind, specifically, the act of helping someone else. But maybe that coatless man didn’t need a coat. Maybe he just left his coat inside, and the building was locked, and he’s waiting to go back in. Or perhaps the coat is a leather jacket, and the shivering man objects to the killing of animals. One other major critic of altruism was Ayn Rand (1905–1982), the Russian-American novelist and originator of the objectivist school of political theory that advocated self-sufficiency. She held that altruism was responsible for more harm than good, arguing that there is no rational reason or proof for why sacrificing oneself is morally better than pursuing one’s own interest. ABOUT THE AUTHOR BRIAN BOONE is an editor and writer for the bestselling Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader line of trivia and humor books. He wrote I Love Rock ’n’ Roll (Except When I Hate It) published by Penguin/Perigee, and coauthored American Inventions: Big Ideas That Changed Modern Life (Time Life) and How to Make Paper Airplanes (Child’s World). He has contributed to HowStuffWorks, Barnes & Noble Reads, McSweeney’s, Splitsider, Someecards, The Onion, Adult Swim, and Funny or Die. He lives in Oregon with his family. [image: images] MEET THE AUTHORS, WATCH VIDEOS AND MORE AT SimonandSchuster.com authors.simonandschuster.com/Brian-Boone JEAN-PAUL SARTRE AND EXISTENTIALISM Good News, Nothing Matters Some philosophers say we should look to broad societal indications to learn what’s moral. Others say there are innate truths about what is and is not moral. Others say human nature is innately a good one, and that this determines our drives to be moral and reflects our virtues. But what if none of those is the case? What if humans, both collectively as a race and individually at birth, are a blank slate with no kind of inclination whatsoever? This is the main moral center of the radical philosophy of existentialism, as best represented by French writer Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980). EXTREME PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY Most would agree, at least on some level, with the existentialist idea that people are responsible, entirely, for not only what they already are but what they will ultimately be. Existentialism holds that this determination includes if a person is going to be moral or virtuous. The key term here is “going to be,” because nothing is predetermined. At all. Those morals and virtues are entirely up to the individual, and beyond that, however one chooses to define it. Happiness doesn’t derive from preexisting virtues, or if it does, it’s because a person chose to live a traditionally virtuous life and he does so at his pleasure. It’s entirely up to the individual. Neither other people nor the universe nor any external force can be blamed for unhappiness, because in existentialism, all ideas are decisions that come from within. Sartre says that much of what we mistake for moral behavior is just our need to get along with others so that we can keep things civil. The need to keep things civil indicates a lack of moral courage. Without it, an individual can’t be true to oneself or live an authentic life, and is instead constantly manipulated by external factors. On Existentialism Existentialism enjoys a reputation as an extraordinarily negative, pessimistic, or even sad philosophy. This could be true, as it attests that “life is meaningless.” But this is merely a response to organized religion; if Christianity gives life meaning because there’s a God at its center and heaven is a reward for good behavior, then in existentialism, yes, life is meaningless because there is no great creator, guiding deity, or promise of an afterlife paradise. However, this lack of predetermination gives humankind—and each human—absolutely limitless freedom and choice. ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE Sartre affirms that humans have no innate nature. We are thrown into the world of someone else’s making and thus have to figure out our place. He writes that “existence precedes essence.” In other words, we exist, and then we choose what we are. There is nothing innate—there is only what we ultimately choose to be. We are not held to any kind of moral standard or divine or natural law. There is none of that, and so this philosophy offers us a special kind of freedom. Indeed it is an overwhelming freedom, in that each of us must figure out how to live life completely on our own. We are, as Sartre says, “a plan aware of itself.” Through our own choices, he is saying, we determine or create the ideal moral human by figuring out what that ideal is, and then acting it out. Since you choose what sort of person you should be, it’s your responsibility to create yourself in that ideal. That’s a lot of pressure, but it means you can choose whatever you want your virtues to be. And it serves as a model for the way everyone should choose. Quotable Voices “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” —Jean-Paul Sartre Anguish results when we deny ourselves the responsibility of creating our ideal self and go along with others. Such denial is self-deception or bad faith. Being forlorn comes from abandoning the idea that we are our only source of value. There’s a certain amount of despair in being alone in the universe, in there being no reward, grand plan, or afterlife. Sartre writes that humans are, after all, condemned to be free. Sartre never published a book outlining his specific ethical views or virtues. And why would he? He had his virtues, and you have yours. In this way, he was the ultimate relativist. CRITICISMS OF CONSEQUENTIALIST ETHICS There Will Be Consequences There are so many different general theories of moral philosophy—and variations within those general theories—for a reason. Let’s be honest here: While the progenitors of each theory may disagree, none of the theories provides a 100 percent perfect way to approach the difficult decisions of life. Also, this is a subjective area: one theory may feel more right than others, or one may feel like the better approach based on the circumstance. To that end, although consequentialism provides a solid ethical framework, in that it considers the consequences and the people involved in the ethics of decision-making above all other things, there are some prominent critics of the theory who have pointed out some flaws within the system. NONSENSE ON STILTS One problem with consequentialism can be predicted in the words of utilitarian pioneer Jeremy Bentham himself. He once likened the notion of social justice to “nonsense on stilts.” Indeed, one could say that personal rights and justice are not as important in consequentialism as they are in other philosophical schools. This is because consequentialism favors, well, the best consequences. Sometimes a subjective or emotional issue like justice or rights don’t factor into the simple math of a system that favors not the greater good but literally “the most good.” It assumes, for example, the two parties in a situation are equal. If party A loses money and party B gains money due to a decision, in theory that outcome is good enough for a consequentialist. But what if party A is broke and starving and has to pay an unfair tax to party B, who has plenty to go around and is furthermore exploiting an unfair tax law in the system? As long as the suffering of one is outweighed by the happiness of another—regardless of who they are—then it’s morally fine. Oddly enough, this outcome just feels wrong. This is because it plays to our sense of decency and justice, which some moral philosophers would argue is what makes us human. Ignoring these feelings for the sake of following the theory to the letter is precisely what led philosophers to spin off the direct approach into the indirect approach. We must weigh many factors when making any decision. THE PROBLEM WITH IDEALISM Another difficulty about utilitarianism is that, and this is despite the aforementioned flaw, it’s far too idealistic to use all the time. It requires adherents to exercise utility almost constantly—because it is of extreme moral importance to always make the decisions that maximize good and eliminate pain. It’s simply unrealistic to expect people to constantly and thoroughly analyze every decision they make in terms of how it affects the big picture, and who it affects. For most people, common sense and common decency are enough of a moral compass—they don’t need to and they certainly don’t want to involve a complex and often arbitrary mathematical process into the hundreds of decisions they make each day. We know that people suffer, and most of us don’t want to add to the suffering, especially when faced with it head-on. Moral philosophy and ethics are indeed about the big picture, but utilitarianism could be said to be a little too obsessed with the minutia. Quotable Voices “The majority of philosophers are totally humorless. That’s part of their trouble.” —Bernard Williams WHERE IS THE INDIVIDUAL? Utilitarianism can be so overwhelmingly specific, especially when trying to make it a system of second nature thoughts and analyses, that it can separate people from their true ethical natures. Philosopher Bernard Williams (1929–2003) argued that the consequentialist theory of utilitarianism robs people of their unique, individual moral outlooks by making them follow a finite and narrow system; and to do so is to rob people of their independence, reasoning skills, and other things that make them inherently human. If you think about it, this means utilitarianism is really a method for causing pain instead of happiness, because it robs people of their basic humanity. In other words, there’s not as much utility in utilitarianism. Williams explained his idea with an ethical conundrum. A man named George is an unemployed scientist, a situation based in part of his refusal to ever use his skills and experience to work for a company or government that makes biological weapons. One day he hears about a lucrative, interesting job working for a government laboratory making a new kind of biochemical weapon. Even though he’s unemployed, he still resists in taking the job. However, he is pursued for the job, as is another biochemist named Greg. If George refuses, Greg will take it—and will work one hundred hours a week, day and night, because he’s both a workhorse and actually has a fervent desire to make the weapons to destroy his country’s enemies, whoever they may be. That’s the ethical dilemma for George: if he did take the job, against his moral code, he could purposely work slowly, making as few weapons as possible, and maybe a lot of duds, thus minimizing the number of lives lost as compared to Greg who, if he took the job, would make a lot more working weapons. But George, remember, is against making weapons. Williams argues that utilitarianism would say that George should take the job because it leads to the best possible outcome: he gets a job, and fewer people die. But isn’t it bad that George has to betray his core beliefs and identity? Must he abandon everything for a job, and for the blind adherence to a moral theory? NOT YOUR PLACE Utilitarianism contains another interesting flaw. To suggest that people can truly have a full understanding of exactly how (and how much) their decisions will affect the happiness of others, and thus produce the most good, is an arrogant notion. No one can truly know which decision they make will ultimately produce the most good. Because utilitarianism demands the mathematical calculations to make predictions—and assumes those predicted outcomes are the exact outcomes of what would happen—the whole process is a gross exercise in egoism and wishful thinking. Chapter 5 VIRTUE ETHICS Theories that fall under the heading of virtue ethics are all an evolution and exploration of philosophical themes first outlined thousands of years ago in the writings of Aristotle. In virtue ethics, moral fortitude is based on rules, but only because the rules are applied by the agent, or person. Virtue ethics is agent based, because agents use a moral code they’ve adopted for themselves, and that moral code is made up of true, honorable, and just virtues that guide their actions. Most of these virtues are qualities (which are, by nature, positive or “quality” character traits) that the individual’s culture or society has ingrained upon him or her as being very important. These virtues are the building blocks of a truly moral individual. Understanding virtue ethics begins by recalling deontological theories. Like virtue ethics, deontological theories involve living by steadfastly held moral truths. In deontology, these virtues are examined closely so as to become second nature, and used to develop good, moral character habits. In virtue ethics, by contrast, those ethics don’t require thought or careful planning or thinking because they become second nature and affect, in theory, every thought and action an individual undertakes without the individual even realizing it. Although it’s difficult to find universal truths about most any aspect of ethics, the same cannot be said for virtues. How virtues are applied and defined may vary wildly from person to person, culture to culture, or era to era, but certain character traits nonetheless have become bona fide virtues due to their almost universal acceptance and admiration. Such character traits that are turned into virtues include things like wisdom, generosity, justice, temperance, keeping a level head, and kindness. Another virtue that’s important in applied ethics is passing on those virtues: it’s virtuous for adults to pass on virtues to their children, as it is their responsibility to do so. Some of the ethical notions that come under the “virtue ethics” umbrella that we’ll discuss in this chapter include: • Divine command theory, the idea that all good behaviors—and the virtues that guide them—are laid out explicitly by a divine figure, such as God. If God said it’s good, it’s good, and if God said it’s bad, it’s bad. • Natural law ethics, a theory developed by Thomas Aquinas that finds human nature is one and the same with the ethical goodness, and that it is human nature to adopt virtues and act virtuously. • Relativism, the notion that virtues—and thus ethical strictures—can vary from culture to culture because of the different values and needs of each culture. Relativism holds that it’s not correct to judge or make statements about absolutes. • Moral realism is an opposing viewpoint to relativism. Under this philosophy, there are some moral truths and values that are objectively good, whether or not an individual or even community chooses to accept them as such. (Moral antirealism then is the idea that there are no objectively morally right virtues.) CHALLENGES IN BIOETHICS New Frontiers in Science and Philosophy Bioethics is a combined word, joining “biology” with “ethics.” It’s a field that looks into the ethical and moral questions that have arisen, and continue to develop, in the field of biotechnology. Biotechnology is the ever-changing and ever-advancing field where cutting-edge science and/or gadgetry is applied to make the natural world function better or more efficiently. Examples of biotechnology, particularly ones that lead to bioethical analysis, include the development of genetically modified crops, how genetic information should be handled, and the rise of the idea of genetically enhanced “designer babies.” Making alterations to the natural world for a desired effect—as determined by an individual, a corporation, or a government—is naturally going to lead to some hand-wringing. Although the passage of time generally leads to greater acceptance of an idea, much in the field of biotechnology is so new that there’s a good deal of ambiguity regarding what is “moral” or not. Perhaps the loudest bioethical debate has to do with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Food scientists have been working for decades on using genetic engineering to create new varieties of tomatoes or corn, for example, that provide more flavor or that are more resistant to cold weather and insects, but only recently has the concern over genetic modifications come up. The main ethical problem is that the concept is, at its core, manipulating nature. Is it ethical to toy with the natural order of things? Regardless of whether it is or isn’t, widespread GMO use could damage the environment, or lead to negative health benefits in humans. But GMOs are so relatively new that the long-term effects on earth or man are not yet fully known. There’s also the idea of owning nature. Is it morally okay for plants and organisms—albeit technologically enhanced ones—to be owned by a corporation? Could these modifications be viewed as evidence of human ingenuity, an example of making the world better and increasing happiness by making heartier food and more of it? But such ownership could also be seen as being disrespectful to the natural world, and such genetic modifications could be viewed as an exploitation of a living thing that has no say in the matter. Views on Cloning Although the first mammal was cloned more than twenty years ago—a sheep named Dolly, by scientists in Scotland—the technology to genetically replicate living things remains in its infancy. Changing public opinions about whether or not it is moral to do so have moved almost as slowly. According to a 2016 poll of Americans by the Pew Research Center, 81 percent think it’s morally wrong to clone humans, and 60 percent said it’s unethical to clone animals. When the poll was conducted in 2001, those numbers were at 88 and 63 percent, respectively. Those in favor of GMOs cite some positives that could outweigh the potential negatives, even from an ethical standpoint. With the Earth’s population rapidly increasing (7.5 billion and counting), the need for food rises just as quickly. GMO technology could be used to grow crops with high yields, little waste, or even with extra nutrition, making for a food supply that is much more efficient, stable, and plentiful. From an ethical standpoint, however, it’s problematic and tricky to determine what’s ethically “correct.” Is it worth knowing what effect GMOs will have in the long run to our food supply and our planet, even as we allow their unfettered spread by for-profit companies so as to prevent millions from potentially starving? KANT AND THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE Being Ethical, One Step at a Time Part of the basis of Kant’s theories is that morality, or the idea of morality, is a natural outgrowth of rational thinking. In Kantian ethics, this is referred to as the Categorical Imperative. According to Kant, this sense of morality is the ultimate goal or objective by which people should live their lives. This Categorical Imperative is necessary for a rational being, and it is an unconditional “prime directive” to be followed, a thesis statement for life, and which should be