Ethics and Ethical theory…

First of all, y’all should note that this post is more intended for my Intro to Philosophy students.  They have a unit on Ethics –which is just a preview of some of the material covered in my Ethics class… if you like it, take some ethics too 🙂 — but, watch out, you may catch the philosophy major sickness :).

First of all, there are two basic divisions within Ethics — applied ethics and ethical theory.  Applied ethics is a discussion of ethical challenges faced by individuals and society.  Things like abortion, the death penalty, whether or not it’s ok to pollute to support a population and the like.  These areas apply ethical theory to challenges and end up making recommendations about action.

Ethical theory is another kind of animal all together 🙂 — the basic idea behind ethical theory is that, as human beings we have the ability to reason and therefore to decide what we SHOULD do — i.e. what ought we do? or, how should we behave if we want to be good persons.  Ethical theory attempts to get to the root of how that reasoning happens.  To that end, there are a variety of ethical theories — most of which fall into a few general categories:

  • Consequentialism:  If the theory looks at the results of the action, then it’s looking at the consequences — hence, the name… the most common one is utilitarianism — which argues that increasing happiness (utility) is the most ethically valuable thing.  So, every action is seen in terms of how it impacts happiness.  It’s more complicated than that (see posts on Utilitarianism here and elsewhere) — but, that’s the gist..
  • Deontology: — in general, that asks what your duty is — and, more specifically looks at your motivations for action to determine the ethical value of the action.  IF you have good motives for your action, then your action cannot be wrong…. no matter what the consequences.
  • Contractarian ethics:  This is, generally, the idea that as human beings we make a contract or agreement as to what IS or IS NOT moral — social contract ethics, virtue ethics, feminist ethics and all of their variations generally fall into this category.  The idea is that groups of human beings can and should determine morality.  Of course there are problems — but the general idea here is that we can and should do this — and we should act along the lines of what we’ve agreed is the good way to be.
    • Virtue ethics:  looks at what virtuous people do as a guide — and, beyond that, what the mean between extremes would be… Aristotle was a big one here..
    • Social contract ethics:  the general idea is that, within a society we can determine what is or isn’t wrong — and nothing IS right or wrong outside of a society.
    • feminist ethics — the general idea here is that other, supposedly “objective” ethical theories aren’t objective at all — because we are all persons with backgrounds, contexts, etc — that influence what we think is right and wrong… as a result of centuries of ignoring the reasoning process of women — their view of what is or isn’t right has been ignored…
    • Care ethics is a major version of feminist ethics — and the idea is that a person should make ethical choices based on what is best for those they care about — and, that the same decision may or may not be right depending on how it helps or hurts those involved… it’s kinda strange in some ways — but, it’s more or less the reasoning mothers use when raising their kids and building strong families — IF you look at the other ethical theories and tried to apply them uniformly as a mom, you’d see it’s pretty much impossible to do — thus, care ethics.

Now–  just a word about applying these theories — in many ways feminism is right –these really aren’t objective kinds of theories, because individual persons apply them in uneven ways — even when they think they’re being objective…. they aren’t.

So — perhaps the better way to think of these theories is as ways of organizing and placing more or less weight on aspects of a problem.  Then, when you apply the theory you will see that — depending on what you think is more or less important — you could get conflicting answers from the same theory.

yea — a big, confusing mess — but an interesting one.. take Ethics if you want more :).


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