Ethics as the Search for Meaning and Value in Our Own Lives
Aims at discerning what is good
Emphasizes personal responsibility for one’s own life
What to Expect from a Moral Theory
Description – Descriptive ethics does not take a stand
Prescription – new possibilities and wonder – normative ethics gives direction
Ethics is more like engineering than physics. Physics has clear-cut, definitive answers, where engineering offers several possible ways of doing things, including many ways that are wrong.
Ethics is like nutrition: One studies bodily health the other moral health.
There is significant disagreement in both fields but also common ground.
Absolutism,_and_Pluralism__Quote_from_Rudy_Giuliani_after_9/11'>Chapt. 2: Relativism, Absolutism, and Pluralism
Quote from Rudy Giuliani after 9/11
“The era of moral relativism between those who practice or condone terrorism, and those nations who stand up against it, must end.” P . 24 5th ed.
Three responses to moral conflicts: relativism, absolutism and pluralism.
Live and let live – acknowledge differences without judgment. Criticize practices outside our culture and speak out against them or intervene using force?
Examine both concrete conflicts and conflicts of ethical theory.
1. Clitoridectomy. Painful, traumatizing mutilation of young girls that leaves them permanently disfigured and deprived of sexual enjoyment. Unsanitary conditions without anaesthesia. Sometimes against the will of the girls themselves. Middle East and Africa.
2. In American Midwest, two Iraqi men celebrate a wedding to two sisters, aged 13 and 14. Not doing anything wrong. Statutory rape?
3. The Taliban destruction of the giant statues of the Buddha that had watched over the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan for over 15 centuries claiming that the images were offensive to Islam.
Follow God’s will – or religious teachings: polygamy
Ethical egoism: pursue self-interest. Produce greatest overall amount of happiness or pleasure. Kant: respect for autonomy of ourselves and others. Use girls as means not ends. Rights: moral minimum with which all must comply – children are vulnerable and have rights – using peyote in Native ceremony!
Some women ask for asylum in this country for themselves or their daughters.
Ethical relativism: Moral values are relative to a culture and cannot be judged by an outsider. Another version says that peripheral values differ from culture to culture.
Ethical relativists see each culture as an island unto itself, right in its own world, and they deny that there is any overarching standard in terms of which conflicting cultures can be judged.
Absolutism: There is a single moral standard of right. Usually derived from religion. Values are absolute and universal.
Pluralism: There are many ways to judge value. Cultures can legitimately pass judgments on one another . We are encouraged to listen to what other cultures say about us as well as what we say about them. Encourages tolerance recognizing that cultures may differ. In some situations we must stand up to evil and oppose it.. Wisdom consists in knowing where to draw the line between the tolerable and intolerable.
Cultural practices that raise ethical questions:
Destruction of Buddhist statues by the Taliban in Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan, or images in the Kabul Museum. 1 `4WWII after Pearl Harbor.
Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans by the Serbian forces to eliminate Muslims from their territory – US intervened Taliban
A good theory provides:
1. description and explanation
3. critique -- see moral blind spots
4. new possibilities
It does not merely tell us what’s right or wrong, but how to determine what’s right or wrong.
Attractions of relativism:
1. need for tolerance and understanding
2. the fact of moral diversity – recognizes this fact
3. lack of plausible alternative
4. relativity of all understanding
5. defense - don’t cast the first stone
Problems with relativism:
1. Easily collapses into subjectivism: moral values are relative to each unique individual. It’s right because I think it’s right.
2. Makes critique difficult -- and standing up against evil.
In action: it gives no advice when cultures overlap, or tell why we act, gives no leverage to provoke change -- no room for revolution. Majority is de facto “right.”
3. In understanding: it claims one needs to be a native to understand sufficiently
4. Need to be a native to judge: only Romans can judge Romans.
5. Relativism supposes determinism -- values determined by culture.
Strengths and values of Pluralism.
Types and Definitions of Relativism:
Descriptive and Normative Ethical Relativism
Descriptive Ethical Relativism: Various societies in the past have engaged in various practices: cannibalism, sacrificing humans to the gods – viewed as morally acceptable and commendable. Stating differences is descriptive ethical relativism. Does not claim correctness or belief about right or wrong. Descriptive Ethical Relativism is largely a scientific, descriptive activity that does not claim to judge the morality of cultural practice
Normative ethical relativism is more controversial. Validity is claimed for whatever the culture holds. Means we can’t make any claims like intentionally killing innocent human beings is always wrong.
Relative to what? Isolated tribe or culture? Isolation hard to come by in today’s world. Internal diversity as well as exchange and overlap. Hopis in American southwest, businessmen with branches in different parts of the world.
Leads to subjectivism: moral values are unique to each individual. People are islands to themselves. Causes for moral beliefs – not the same as understganding and judging -- justifying moral values. How much morality is relative?
Behavior: belch with approval after dinner, spit at another’s feet to express respect – good to express appreciation of a meal, but the way differs from culture to culture
Peripheral values: individual privacy: freedom to smoke, value of private property, polygamy – value family but different ideas of family and childrearing.
Fundamental Values: torturing and killing innocent children
What kind of doctrine is Ethical Relativism:When in Rome, do as the Romans do. See Graphp. 45
Provide leverage to convince the majority to change
Understand background meanings in a culture
Claims cultural context can be understood only by participants, outsiders can’t get it.
Weak version: outsiders can understand and dialog is possible
Judge only by standards of the society in question. Strong versions allows only Romans to judge Romans, weak version allows anyone to judge if they use Roman standards
Moral values are caused or determined by cultural forces. If you were born in Rome you would have the Roman values- “when in Rome…”. – not freely chosen.
Only from within culture. Accept the views of a culture from perspective of the culture. Nazi anti-Semitism could not be questioned.
Facts of Moral Diversity – do not justify ethical relativism -- establishes descriptive ethical relativism but does not commit us to normative ethical relativism. There may be many scientific views in the world today but that doesn’t make them all right. Also are we referring to low level values or fundamental values. May have seemed right to Nazis to exterminate Jews, homosexuals and gypsies – but wasn’t right.
The refutation of relativism through the defense of one’s own absolutist position – debatable – and the subject matter of the course – everyone would have to accept this absolute position for it to function as needed here
Claim that relativism is self-defeating – what if the Romans are absolutist and ethnocentric, or if they are intolerant (where relativism is presented as promoting toleration)? Furthermore should tolerance be our highest value? Racism, Genocide – tolerance is important but not highest value.
Concern that ethical relativism is a form of moral isolationism or indifference that ignores the fact that moral judgments are unavoidable – if it’s all relative then we can’t criticize it. No basis for criticism., also care-less and isolating. No way to resolve moral disagreements between cultures, ignores shrinking world needing intercultural moral judgments, that are part of everyday life, cultures intersect.
Unable to provide an adequate basis for moral change – no basis for change – prophets who oppose the system don’t make sense. We mean something by progress – freedom, respect for more people, etc.
Pluralism: like deciding who’s the best baseball player: many ways to decide.
1. Satisfies need to understand differences in cultures
2. Satisfies need for tolerance
3. Recognizes limits to tolerance in the face of evil
4. Acknowledges “we” could be wrong, fallibility
Who’s the best….baseball player, singer, etc.?
Plurality of moral values: actions, consequences, agents, intentions, character. Not a single factor. Several standards See p. 56 graph
Standards may not be consistent but will be compatible – checks and balances.
Fallibility: moral humility – we might be mistaken (circumcision)
Understanding: understand the meaning of practices of other cultures.
Tolerance: many ways to achieve moral excellence. Leave different cultures room
Standing Up Against Evil: can’t lead to moral laissez faire policy. Can’t say anything goes. Most outrageous wrongdoing is often directed against the powerless: children, women, minorities.
Fallibility: two way conversation recognizing our own possible shortcomings.
Ch. 3 – The Ethics of Divine Commands: Religious Moralities Religious moralities are based on the conviction that religion tells us how to act and that religion overrides society’s morality.
Diversity of Traditions:
The Christian Worldview
Contrast with atheistic: the Euthyphro then relationship between religion and ethics
God’s Relationship to the World
God creates the world and is in constant interaction with the world, sustains it in its existence Revelation Human History through Revelation Incarnation Final Cause – God gives the world a final purpose or telos toward which it strives
Universe comes from God and thus if fundamentally good
The natural order because it is created by God is fundamentally good
Ways God is in touch with the world
As a result of these interactions the world has Unity – a single world with structure; Purpose: beings on earth have a goal or purpose ordained by God; Value: the world is good because it comes from God who is all good; it is aiming toward God who can only establish good purposes.
For atheist Bertrand Russell existence has no unity, value and purpose in the Christian sense
“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving;
“That his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms;
“That no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave,
“That all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are all destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system,
“And that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins
“--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.
“Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
No place for preordained purposes in Russell’s view
No goodness inherent in the world for him
No privileged place for humanity within his view
The implications of these differences for ethics are profound
No ultimate purpose for humanity
No ultimate reward or punishment
Nietzsche's question: if God is dead, is everything permitted?
No guarantee that nature is good or bad
“Unnatural” becomes a purely descriptive term
Now let’s expand the discussion beyond Christianity.
Navajo tradition emphasizes harmony and balance in relationship between human beings and the natural world. Natural and supernatural permeate one another.
Islamic teaching emphasizes unification of religion and law and an ethic of law based on the Qur’an and other sacred texts. Obedience to the will of Allah is the highest good. Ethics is clearly dependent on religion. The good is ultimately what Allah wills it to be.
Buddhist ethics emphasizes compassion. Alleviation of suffering and purification of the soul are key. Path to nirvana blurs Western distinctions between faith and reason. Enlightenment beyond rationality.
The Navajo: The Navajo Holy Wind
Tradition and Society
Oriented toward how Navajo treat one another
Practical, not theoretical
Dualisms and Antagonisms
No Western mind-body split
Don’t choose one side of the dualism
Attitude toward evil: it’s a necessary presence. Avoid it but don’t try to create a world free from evil.
mind/body split (Descartes)
heal the body
Stamp out disease
Mind and body together
Heal the whole person
Hozho or harmony, beauty, peace of mind, goodness, health, well being – is the Navajo main goal.
Morality guides individuals toward achieving balance and harmony.
The holy messenger wind is like the Christian conscience, a source of moral guidance. It swirls around an individual through a hidden point in the ear; it warns individuals of impending disruptions of hozho, it does not punish. It is both physical (we feel it on our faces) and ephemeral (we cannot see it), it can shift in direction and intensity. It is one but also many as it comes from four directions or mountains. It is local. Person who heeds the winds is “one who lacks faults.” He thinks and talks and acts in a good way.
Basic premise: life is very very dangerous
Be wary of non-relatives.
When you are in a new situation, do nothing.
Maintain orderliness (harmony) in those sectors of life which are little subject to human control.
Role of Ritual – reestablish harmony and insure hozho.
The Blessingway is one of the ceremonies performed to reestablish harmony when there has been a disruption.
Balance and harmony are the chief ethical goals. Peacemaker Court provides structure for community to reestablish harmony disturbed by either criminal or civil offense.
The Islamic Shari’ah
Rejects traditional Western distinctions between church and state, religion and ethics.
Three canonical elements in Islam:
Belief or faith (imam)
Practice or action (islam)
To be good is to surrender to the will of the One God, Allah. An action is good simply because God wills it. The will of Allah is embodied in shari’ah, the religious and civil law that governs Muslim life.
Also a mystical tradition in Islam: Sufism.
Rational tradition known as Mutazila emphasized importance of rational reflection on belief. God is able to act only in ways that are good.
Shari’ah is the Islamic Law. Covers virtually all areas of human behavior and tells in great detail
what behavior is required (fard- obligatory – daily prayers, fasting, articles of faith, obligatory charity, the hajj)
recommended – (mushtahab – proper behavior in matters such as marriage, funeral rites and family life. Same as areas of civil law in the West.)
permitted – (mubah – eating apples or oranges)
discouraged – makruh – may be subject to penalties – using great amounts of water for ablutions, eating shrimp.)
Laws address behavior toward God and the ways human beings treat one another.
The Five Pillars govern how believers should act toward God:
Shahadah: the profession of faith that “there is no god but God (Allah) and Muhammad is the messenger of God.
Salah: ritual prayer and ablutions undertaken five times a day while facing Mecca.
Zakah: obligatory giving of alms to the poor to alleviate suffering and promote spread of Islam
Saum: ritual fasting and abstinence from sexual intercourse and smoking during the month of Ramadan to commemorate the first revelations to Muhammad
Hajj: ritual pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken at least once in a lifetime.
Family is central to Islamic society. Status of women higher than in tribal cultures of the Middle East. Limited number of wives to four, gave inheritance right to women, forbade infanticide of female infants.
Virtue or ihsan: worshipping God and excellence in pursuit of some goal. “Allah has prescribed ihsan for everything; hence if you kill, do it well, and if you slaughter, do it well; and let each one of you sharpen his knife and let his victim die at once.”
The role of the Ulama :
The Ulama, or clergy, give the definitive interpretation of Allah’s will
No separation between church and state
The Ulama also have an executive role in implementing Allah’s will
Literally means “striving”
Focus on resisting, overcoming evil
focus on internal striving
focus on external striving
Moderate and Fundamentalist Factors
Islam, like many religions, has various factions.
Fundamentalist factions see little room for compromise with other religions
Leads to attacks against others, including attacks against the United States and against Hindus
Moderate factions see Islam as coexisting with other major religions.
An Ethic of Compassion for all
An Ethic of renunciation for monks
An Ethic of reincarnation for lay persons
The Four Noble Truths deal with
1. The inevitability of suffering
2. The sources of suffering
3. The elimination of suffering.
4. The paths to the elimination of suffering
Two Ways of Reducing Suffering
Suffering arises from a discrepancy between desire and actuality