importance and challenges of ethics

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importance and challenges of ethics

Contents

  • Objectives
  • Introduction
  • The Challenge of Situation Ethics
  • Cultural and Ethical Subjectivism
  • Morris Ginsberg’s “On the Diversity of Morals”
  • Let Us Sum Up
  • Key Words
  • Further Readings and References

 

OBJECTIVES

While spelling out the importance of ethics in so far as it affects human conduct and behaviour in the society, this unit seeks to respond to the some of the important challenges to ethics as a philosophical discipline particularly from certain approaches to make ethics itself relative. Thus we attempt to look at some of the figures in the tradition of Western Philosophy like Fletcher and Ginsberg, figures representing these challenging currents of thought and we offer an in-depth evaluation of their positions.

 

INTRODUCTION

Ethics is the philosophical treatise which studies human behaviour and tries to determine what is right or wrong behaviour. It is also called moral philosophy. (from the Greek ‘ethos’ and the Latin ‘mores’ which mean ‘custom’, ‘ways of behaviour’, ‘human character’).That there is in man a spontaneous awareness of a distinction between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ behaviour is an indubitable fact. But philosophy, here like elsewhere, cannot content itself with simply registering facts, it tries to reflect on the ‘meaningfulness’ of such facts, establish them (or reject them) on a rational basis, understand their implications, draw their practical consequences and above all intuit their ultimate cause (if any). Our study of ethics is also conditioned by some philosophical assumptions, which we take to be philosophically established in other treatises. Perhaps the three principal ones are: the possibility of meta-empirical knowledge, the ontological structure of reality and man as a rational and free being (philosophically established in critical, ontology and psychology respectively). For us, therefore, ethics is an attempt not only to ‘understand’ what is and what is not right human behaviour, the empirical and meta-empirical ‘ground’, if any, of the distinction between right and wrong behaviour, but also to see whether the conclusions thus drawn can serve as objective norms for practical conduct. The importance of ethics is obvious. From as far back in history as we can tell, man has always sought to know how to lead a ‘good’ life and to draw up rules of conduct. Thinkers of all cultures tried to explain in what this ‘good’ life consisted and, especially, why precisely it was ‘good’. It is not so much that traditional moral values are questioned (e.g. the ‘just’ war, inviolability of life in cases of the hopelessly suffering and of unwanted pregnancies, sexual intercourse only between the legally married, indissolubility of marriage, etc.), but, more radically still, that the very ‘meaningfulness’ of an unchanging and universally valid morality is brought into question. The causes of this modern questioning are hard to pin down. Certainly the spread of education, advances in science and technology, problems arising from modern way of living like the ever-increasing urbanization, easier communication media, faster means of travel whereby people of one culture come in closer contact with people of another culture, etc are some of the causes. But if, as we have already implied, moral thinking is intimately linked with philosophical thinking in general, it might very well be that these causes, whatever they might be, are to be sought for on a deeper human level. Human person, perhaps, is not so much asking about the morality of this or that human act, but, more deeply still, about himself: the meaning of his life, the direction of human history, the significance of the human world he lives in, the ambit of his knowledge and the possibility of his ever getting an answer to the questions he asks. Ethics, of course, cannot dream of suggesting answers to such radical questions. But it might well prove to be a ‘way of approach’ to questions which lie beyond its own field of enquiry.

 

THE CHALLENGE OF SITUATION ETHICS

Situation ethics is the kind of approach to morality we might expect from an existentialist, who tends to reject the very idea of human nature – or any nature or “essence”, for that matter. Joseph Fletcher, the former dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Cincinnati and professor of Social Ethics, Episcopal Theology School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, published his classical Situation Ethics in 1961. At the onset, he presents his view as the golden mean between the two reprehensible extremes of legalism and antinomianism. Unlike the latter, he assures us, “The situationist enters into every decision-making situation armed with the ethical maxims of his community and its heritage.” There is no question of throwing out all laws, rules and commandments. However, he “treats them with respect as illuminators of his problems” but is prepared to “compromise them or set them aside in the situation if love seems better served by doing so”. Now that last phrase serves to characterize what makes Fletcher describe as “Christian” his whole approach to morality. Fletcher even takes a swipe at “Kant’s legalism,” which produced universal laws like “a lie is always wrong’. He asks, “But what if you have to tell a lie to keep a promised secret?” and answers, “May be you lie and, if so, good for you if you follow love’s lead.” When we adopt a critical approach, we cannot but record our dissatisfaction as regards the carelessness with which Fletcher defines his position. If Aristotle and anyone who hold some sort of “natural law” morality are to be counted among the situationists, that grouping has been emptied of almost all precise meaning. The only ones excluded from that nomenclature would be the extreme legalist and antinomians, and would they be so numerous and so influential to warrant the setting up of whole “new morality”? Just about any system of deontological ethics that is open to prudence and casuistry is already sufficient to respond to the difficulty. And when Fletcher pens something to the effect that, “Situation ethics goes part of the way with natural law, accepting reason as the instrument of judgment, while rejecting the notion that the good is ‘given in the nature of things, objectively,” one cannot help wondering whether he had really understood natural law and objective morality properly, at all. Fletcher has, to say the least, a rather legalistic definition of love. So long as an act is done “selflessly” without the agent seeking any clearly manifest material gain, it is a moral act. Even the sickest of mentally deranged acts could also be roped in as ethically laudable if they were done without any demonstrably material profit being sought in the process. But if love is selflessness, before we can assess its rightness or wrongness, shouldn’t we first enquire into the nature of the self? Besides, as one might well ask, why should love be the norm of morality and not hate? Ultimately one can only answer that question by saying that love enhances one’s personhood, one’s “human nature adequately considered.” It makes one more fully human, more fully alive. And hate does not do that. This obliges us to recognize a more basic and deeper norm ‘love in itself.’ To give Fletcher his due, one has to admit that he does give the impression that he has done some critical reflection on love and its authentic meaning, even if it wouldn’t stand up to anything like a deeper metaphysical query. He trots out some fancy terminology from Tillich to this end: Using terms made popular by Tillich and others, we may say that situationalism is a method that proceeds, so to speak, from (1) its one and only law, agape (love), to (2) the sophia (wisdom), containing many “general rules” of more or less reliability, to (3) the kairos (moment of decision, the fullness of time) in which the responsible self in the situation decides whether the sophia can serve there or not. Whence he goes on to make a highly simplistic summary of how the rival ethicists proceed: “Legalists make an idol of sophia, antinomians repudiate it, and situationists use it.” Finally, Fletcher, taking his cue from Socrates to the effect that the unexamined life is not worth living, suggests that “unexamined ethical maxims are not worth living by.” and then he unleashes a salvo on the maxim that “The end does not justify the means.” On the contrary, he asks, “If the end does not justify the means, what does?” And he answers, “Obviously, ‘Nothing.’” Whence his another proposition of situation ethics, “Only the end justifies the means; nothing else.” In the light of the preceding, this boils down to say that anything done out of love (the means) is thereby justified or made morally good. He is careful to quickly add, “Not any old end will justify any old means” only love would do the job. And then he tops it off with another chilling remark, “Being pragmatic, the situationist always asks the price and supposes that in theory and practice everything has its price. Everything, please note. Even for a ‘pearl of great price’ whatever it is – might be sold for love’s sake if the situation calls for it.” This kind of remark is chilling because it can be used to justify the suicide bomber who blows himself up with a host of innocent civilians – and, as we have seen, Fletcher actually does that. Even if we don’t fully endorse Fletcher and his brand of situation ethics, is there something we can learn from what he has tried to tell us? He is reminding us of a timeless and oft-forgotten maxim: unless an action, however good in itself, is done with the motive of sincere love, it has no real ethical value, whatsoever.

 

 

Check Your Progress II

Note: Use the space provided for your answer

 

  • Define Ethics and its importance.

 

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  • Illustrate Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics.

 

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CULTURAL AND ETHICAL SUBJECTIVISM

There is a quite understandable objection that any kind of ethical system based on human nature (however adequately considered.) has to face and that stems from the undeniable fact of cultural relativism. In one culture polygamy is viewed as right and moral; in another it is roundly condemned; not too long ago certain tribes in the South Sea Islands considered the painless killing off of ones parents a filial duty, most of us would be horrified at the very idea. Sometimes within the same country or culture, there are splits: Some Indians disapprove of the remarriage of widows, others have no problem with it; People across the globe are radically divided on the morality of birth control and divorce. Now, if there were some kind of common human nature upon which all moral laws are based, how do we explain these wide divergences – even contradictions? Furthermore, studies in anthropology and sociology have led us to accept cultural relativism: there is no one culture which can be seen as superior to others, we are told. Each culture makes sense, is sufficient unto it-self within its own religious and philosophical presuppositions. It would be grossly unfair for one culture to arrogate to it-self the right to stand on judgment on another one. And even if one were to claim that he/she is not critiquing an alien culture from his/her cultural standpoint, but from the fancied “neutral ground” of “common human nature”, isn’t that, to say the least, rather naive? For he/she would be, in effect, advocating an understanding of human nature mediated by the “pre-understanding of his/ her own culture, however subjectively convinced he/she may be that strict detachment is being observed. And, in any case, in the practical order of things, it would end up by the economically and politically dominant culture foisting itself upon all weaker ones, obliterating all “native” or “local “ cultures and “little traditions” in one vast process of cultural domination? In fact, isn’t this what “globalization” amounts to and haven’t we all been most vocal in finding fault with it? Let us begin our response to these very pertinent questions with one important introductory remark. Many of the people who are up in arms at any mention of a common natural law confuse it with the rigid formalism of the Kantian “categorical imperative.” Nothing could be more wrong. The categorical imperative of Kantian morality could not but enjoin strict and absolute submission, without any possibility of the least exception. To make matters worse, they had to be motivated by a purely internal drive – not out of love for anyone or anything external to the agent, not even love of one’s country, God, family or friends: it had to be nothing but “duty for duty’s sake”. All this is enough to make any self-respecting antinomian see red, to say the least. Kant was determined that his system of ethics have an autonomous source. Basing mortal conduct on external grounds – the will, of God (Occam) or of positive law (Durkheim) would be to ask for trouble. An atheist would be deprived of any moral foundation and positive law would scarcely help matters: it is susceptible to so many variants, often on the basis of vested interests and corruption, that it would afford, at best, a very shaky moral set-up. On the other hand, Kant’s agnostic epistemology, influenced by Hume, rendered it quite impossible to take the “natural law,” based on human nature, as the norm of morality. As the first Critique had argued, we cannot know the ‘thing-in-itself’ (the noumenon) and human nature is one of those things, precisely. The only solution was for him to ground it among those a prior practical principle built into our very mental makeup, parallel to those speculative principles that The Critique of pure Reason has uncovered. These a priori synthetic judgments were endowed with the qualities of strict universality and absolute necessity. One could as much expect exceptions to moral laws as one could require, say, the Principle of Identity or Contradiction to allow for contravention on the basis of special circumstances. But, if one were not to go along with Hume and Kant and accept that not only is there a common human nature in which we all participate, but can discern what basically constitutes it, the problem is dispersed at once. In the first place, this doesn’t open the door to all manner of cultural exploitation and foisting questionable pre-understandings and perceptions onto recalcitrant people and their cultures. The basic make-up of all humans or “common human nature” would comprise the following data: we are embodied beings with a capacity to transcend space and time, are social by nature, rooted in a world and have some sort of relatedness to the ultimate: only that and nothing more. No host of uncritical “commonness” are being smuggled in as a kind of packaged deal, forcing people to accept certain attitudes to people, places, things and even God as constituting our “common human nature”. Furthermore, sense perception is a necessary constituent of human nature and this, in itself, opens the door to certain relativism – perceptual relativism. Now this opens the door to a whole range of divergences within and between cultures. For if all people are seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting the same objects, they are not necessarily apprehending them in the same way. There is the possibility of “acquitted tastes” and some people acquire them, while others don’t. Accepting a common human nature does not oblige us to subscribe to a single, common view of things, as rigid and unchanging as the Kantian categorical imperatives. Inasmuch as much of culture is built on sense perception there is plenty of scope for a certain cultural relativism. However, not all cultural differences can be reduced to the mere relativeness of our perception of things. Sometimes it stems from a broader and wider interpretation of whole complexes of interrelated experiences. A particular local, regional or even national customs or rite may imply a judgment that people of a particular gender, ethnic or religious background are either non-persons or rather inferior version of the species. As a result, they are disqualified from enjoying certain privileges and rights that another dominant group claims exclusively for it. In cases, such as these, where a clear ethical bias is manifest, one has every right to challenge and critique the culture concerned. Cultural divergences, based on a questionable hermeneutics and implying arrant discrimination against certain people cannot justify itself on the grounds of cultural difference.

 

MORRIS GINSBERG’S “ON THE DIVERSITY OF MORALS”

Professor of Sociology at the University of London from 1929-1954, just one year before his retirement, Ginsberg delivered the Huxley Memorial lecture on the phenomenon of apparent ethical relativism that anthropologists and sociologists were unearthing in cross cultural studies. It would be pertinent to quote in anticipation, the conclusion he arrives at, after a long and patient scrutiny of the facts. Amidst variations moral codes everywhere exhibit striking similarities in essentials. There are no societies without rules of conduct, backed by the general approval of the members. There are none which do not regard that which contributes to the needs and survival of the group as good, none which do not condemn conduct interfering with the satisfaction of common needs and threatening the stability of social relations. As Ginsberg sums it up insightfully, “It might be argued that the diversity of moral judgments affords no more proof of their subjectivity than the diversity of judgments regarding matters of fact throws any doubt on the possibility of valid scientific judgments about them” He then goes on to detail six different contexts wherein a certain variation in moral practices may be noted between and within certain nations and cultures. In sum, they are as follows: (1) Variations in the view as to whom moral rules were held to be applicable. (2) Variations arising due to differences of opinion as to the non-moral qualities of certain acts and their consequences. (3) Variations arising from the fact that the same act appears to be seen differently in different situations and contexts. (4) Variations arising due to a difference of emphasis on different elements comprising moral life. (5) Variations arising from the possibility of alternative ways of satisfying primary needs. (6) Variations due to differences of moral insight and general level of development, ethical as well as intellectual. The range of persons to whom moral rules are held to be applicable: Anthropologists like Taylor recognize a certain “natural solidarity,” comprising a measure of mutual forbearance, helpfulness and trust as constitutive of all societies. Everyone felt somehow bound to his or her neighbour by certain societal bonds of shared care and responsibility. However, there was a divergence of view as to who really were ones neighbours. Initially, and quite understandably, “neighbour” was rather narrowly understood to be only those of one’s own family, tribe or clan and very often it was only the males who, in the full sense, were considered moral persons to whom societal norms in all fullness had to be applied. However, what constitutes one’s “neighbourness” is not a particular set of racial features or one’s sex but “human nature adequately considered” and so moral laws have to be applied to all persons, irrespective of their age, sex, social status or nationality. No law was understood as discriminating against ones neighbour: there was only a mistaken perception as to what the term meant. It could well be that vested interest’s made use of this confusion to justify their breaking of promises and agreements to colonised natives. After all, if the natives had no souls, then they were mere sub-humans and the ethical prescriptions didn’t apply in their case. Differences arising from the growth of knowledge concerning certain acts: This is perhaps best exemplified with the medical discovery, in fairly recent times, of the role played by microbes in generating disease. This has given us new responsibilities as regards cleanliness and hygiene: hospital staff may be guilty of criminal neglect if they are careless in these areas nowadays something totally unheard of in ancient period. Again, it was only in the eighteenth century that people desisted from torturing and burning to death alleged “witches.” At that time, such people were seen as being guilty of heinous crimes and, due to their pernicious influence or occult powers could cause serious bodily harm to peoples, bring about natural disasters and jeopardize not only their own salvation, but of others as well. As Lecky, remarks “granted these propositions, there was no moral difficulty in drawing the conclusion that… [They]…should be put to death.” Happily, we live in more enlightened times and developments in psychology and sociology have helped us recognize the folly and error underlying such views. The same act is seen differently in different contexts/cultures: Divergences, here, are very often the result of ethical laws and principles being couched in a very brief formula. As a result, the passage of time or a wholly new set of circumstances in a different climate or culture yield examples of “differences” in ethical behavior as regards the “same” act when, on closer study, we realize that these are totally different ones altogether. What constitutes “usury” in one place may not be so in another, depending on the standard of living. A simplistic condemnation of “aggression” may only apparently be broken in the case of a pre-emptive strike where one nation attacks another because it has reasonable grounds to believe that the other is planning a full scale invasion. In a society where there is no established system of properly conducted law courts, self-redress may be a legitimate option, whereas it would be condemnable wherever there is a working network of judiciary procedures. Variations due to differences of emphases in moral responsibility: Even if there is a universal agreement that we should do what is right and spurn all that is evil, there may be differences of view as to what is the ultimate reason we should do so: it may mean, as Ginsberg summarizes it, “Because it is the will of God and that will may be considered inscrutable; or it may mean because of the love of God, or because of the love of men, not so much because they are worthy of it, but because they are the objects of divine love and enabled by the Incarnation; or again for prudential reasons because it would lead to beatitude in this or another world.” Sometimes, a particular stress may lead to a certain imbalance if there is no critical reflection accompanying the trend. Irrational feelings of love and devotion may land one in the extremes of fanaticism. An over-stress on faith may lead to a neglect of justice. Self-discipline may wind up in repulsive forms of masochism. It is not so much ethical relativism that is to be blamed for all these oddities, but a lack of the cultivation of a spirit of self-criticism and recta ratio. Variations due to different ways of fulfilling basic needs: This arises when people, though they may be in agreement as to what constitutes the most basic needs of humans (“first order values”), different societies and cultures seek to fulfill them by alternative ways (“second order values”). For instance, most communities favour the monogamous marriage and the sex-rules associated with it: the association of sex with enduring companionship, the fusing of sex with tenderness, the enhancement of the parental relationship through shared interest in the upbringing and love of children, providing security to children by the experience of parent’s love for them and for each other and so on. These are all “first order values” and all cultures recognize these. However, they may seek different ways to realize these ways other than monogamous marriage and its customary practices. Thus, in Bantu society (in Africa), physical attraction, affection and companionship usually follow quite different channels. Instead of seeking these within the context of monogamy, “quite different channels” are followed for each of the above-mentioned “second order values”, “a man desiring his wife, loving his sister and seeking companionship among his male relatives and friends.” This is where there is ample scope for dialogue and exchange, where people of different cultures can challenge each others’ presuppositions and customs, seeking how to more fully and deeply realize the basic goals (“first order values”) that they all respect. In our more enlightened times of freedom of enquiry and dialogue, when we have come to realize that no culture is perfect and infallible and that we have a lot to learn even from those we don’t quite agree with, such exchanges can prove beneficial to all the parties concerned and no one will come away from serious and sincere sharing with quite the same convictions and presuppositions with which he or she entered into it. Divergences due to the particular level of mental development: The development of mental, and therefore, moral acumen may be gauged, Ginsberg says, from five perspectives: (a) The degree of universalism that a moral system envisages: this is a matter of assessing whether the moral code stops with the confines of the family, tribe or clan or whether it goes on to include rules governing how one should deal with the larger family, embracing people of all nations, ethnic groups, cultures and religions and making no discrimination according to sex, age or religion; (b) The range or comprehensiveness of experience embodied in the particular moral code: obviously the moral code of a small group that takes out a kind of nomadic existence by hunting and gathering will be very sensitive to issues linked with rather limited way of life, but it will be lacking as to guidelines for business, economic and inter religious relationships; (c) The extent to which the underlying moral codes and principles that are the basis of any moral system are brought to light and scrutinized as to how justified they are and whether they have been made to fit together coherently and harmoniously; (d) The extent to which there is a separation of moral codes from law and from religion: this is important because if no clear demarcation is made, the principles of the dominant religion will be taken as the basis of law and morality and this will imply scant respect, if any, for people who don’t subscribe to the doctrines of the dominant religion: obviously, there should be left scope for individual decision in certain matters and the law should not employ its machinery to oblige everyone to act as if he or she was not in full accord with the teachings of a given religion; (e) The extent to which moral systems permit, even encourage, self-criticism and self-direction: a system which assumes that even adults are too immature to make their own religious and moral decisions and refuse to tolerate even the mildest form of dissent, even when presented non-violently is certainly inferior to one that assures for a public debate on complex issues and in the light of contemporary development in the social sciences.

 

Challenges and Importance of Ethics

  • LET US SUM UP

We have exposed the main challenges to Ethics arising from Situation Ethics, Subjectivism and the divergence of morals. In our conclusion, we would like to emphasise that we should not commit the mistake to the effect that the more technologically developed and industrially refined a culture is, the more enlightened it will be, in the sense of the five norms outlined above by Ginsberg. Nor should we assume that access to the media and information technology would necessarily create a society made of people who are more critical and less likely to be led astray by unscrupulous demagogues and cleaver dicks who’re hell bent on making a fast buck for themselves at whatever cost to other people, the environment and the future generations. Globalization, today, is proceeding along very unethical lines and has been elaborated by a culture that prides itself on being a model for all the world, one whose very pretensions to democracy and family values cloud well be questioned. It is by what Pannikar calls a “diatopical” exchange – a dialogue between cultures – that societies can learn from one another, challenge each other and grow together, without being obliged to model themselves on one allegedly “higher” level of intellectual development. Some cultures may have a lot to offer others from one angle while they need to learn from others as regards another aspect. Paolo Freire, for instance, opined that third world cultures should learn from the technological development of the west but, in their turn, have a lot to offer the latter from the way they have learnt to preserve family values and a less destructive way of relating to nature. In all this, it is human nature adequately considered that is to be repeatedly brought into the area of discussion, sharing and debate whenever we feel decisions and judgments have to be made.

 

Check Your Progress III

Note: Use the space provided for your answer

 

  • Mention the six contexts of Ginsberg’s Diversity of Morals.

 

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  • What is diatopical exchange of Pannikar?

 

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KEY WORDS :-

Situation Ethics                :   Is the kind of approach to morality we might expect from an existentialist, who tends                                                          to reject the very idea of human nature or any nature or essence.

Perceptual Relativism   :   sense perception a necessary constituent of human nature, this in itself opens the                                                                door to certain relativism.

Kairos                                    :   moment of decision, the fullness of time.

Masochism                          :   the enjoyment of something that most people would find unpleasant or painful.

 

FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES

Daniel, David Mills. Fletcher’s Situation Ethics: The New Morality. London: SCM Press Limited, 2009.

Eliott, Deni. Ethical Challenges: Building an Ethics Toolkit. Bloomington:

AuthorHouse, 2008.

Ginsberg, Morris. “Comparative Ethics,” in Philosophical Quarterly 3/12 (1953): 253-56.

Sterba, James P. Three Challenges to Ethics: Environmentalism, Feminism, and Multiculturalism. Oxford: Oxford University press, 2001.

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