Different ethical perspectives
It should be apparent by now that none of the areas of knowledge are ‘straightforward’. They all have a multitude of complexities and problems that make a simple investigation of them impossible – which, of course, is the reason why we take such trouble over pondering them.
Having said that, even when compared to the other AOKs, ethics seems fraught with difficulties. Whilst it is relatively easy to ascertain whether someone’s historical interpretation is well made, how can we assess whether a particular moral judgement is ‘good’ or ‘bad’? And whilst we can clearly see when a scientific hypothesis is accurate and backed up with evidence, how can we be sure about one ethical position over another?
The problem is that there are so many differences of opinion over what is right and wrong. Even if you agree that people will inevitably disagree you run into problems. If you are asked as a class to put your hands up if you agree with the statement ‘We are all different, so each one of us has different values’, and everyone does so, you have just arrived at a self-refuting proposition, or a proposition that contradicts itself.
So where can we begin? Is there a position like the Cartesian ‘I think, therefore I am’ in ethics? Perhaps the only thing that we can say for sure is that, given we all have an opinion on the right way to live – be it living according to the codes of an orthodox monastery or an down town gang – ethics matters. In other words, what makes ethics so complex – so many different opinions – also makes it relevant. However much we love history, or maths, or even the arts, we have to accept that not everyone feels the same. There are those who gleefully gave up having to study physics or chemistry when it was time to choose options. But the same cannot be said for ethics. We are all interested in the right way to live.
Going beyond that with any degree of consensus is difficult. Here are two often conflicting positions, and their relationship to ethics, and the ideas of one person who sought to bridge the gap, and arrive at agreement over what we should base ethics on.
Those who believe in God
At first sight, the issue over how to live life correctly seems more straightforward for those who ascribe to a belief system based on one of the major religions. They have both extensive writings on morality and trained speakers to deliver instructions to their followers. These include the Code of Hammurabi, the Confucian Analects, the Quran, and the Bible. All that remains is for the believers to act according to their particular God’s wishes. But of course it isn’t quite so simple, and in fact, religion often makes ethics far more difficult. The problem, of course, is in the interpretation of Holy Scripture, and whether or not the authorities have got it right. Most of the major religions have at some time split apart for some reason or another, with opposing sects emerging, each one claiming that they alone are qualified to tell the faithful how to live. That is why we have Sunni and Shi’a Muslims; that is why we have Catholic and Protestant Christians.
Because texts and doctrines are so strictly laid down in religion, to ignore them is often impossible, but to follow them through to their logical conclusion often means arriving at difficult conclusions. For example:
- Does loving my neighbour mean that I have to defend him by going to war against others? And should such a war be pre-emptive? In such a case, what about the rule about ‘thou shalt not kill’”
- To what extent should Sharia law be applied in Islamic states? And the Qu’ran is rather broad in its discussion of law (In contrast to modern law statutes), so who should interpret its will?
- Did Jesus intend that priests should only be male? And should they remain celibate? Or is it acceptable that women should be ordained?
In short, there is a fail-safe way of determining what God’s will actually is for practical day-to-day living, yet we seem further away from that today than ever.
Atheists – by which we mean those who actively believe that there is no god – and Agnostics – who argue that the presence of God is unproven – obviously have no holy text to draw on, and demand instead a more ‘rational’ foundation to ethics. However, although atheists are united by their belief in the non-existence of god, and, by extension, the idea that morality cannot be god-given, they have massively varying view on ethics. These range from moral universalism – which holds that all human beings should be adhere to a single ethical position, regardless of colour, sex, culture, etc., to moral relativism, holding that actions should be judged in the context of culture, time, or circumstances. There are also moral nihilists who believe that nothing is wrong or right, and all such judgements are meaningless.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1782): The Social Contract
But to start looking at ethics from an individual perspective (ie, do I think it is based on god or not) is perhaps to miss the point. Ethics is the study of how to live correctly, and to do so we must figure in the most important factor of our existence: we live with other people. Our actions are felt by others; the decisions we take affect those who live with us; the choices we make impact on those around us.
In particular, we live in a hierarchical society, one which on a national level is run by a government, and on a more immediate level is either directed by a managing director or a head of school. Within that, we expect to adhere to certain rules – in other words, we cannot expect to behave entirely as we like, so we give up some of our ‘natural rights’. But it cannot be a one-way street. We expect benefits in return, be they education and health if we’re talking about a government, or a monthly wage or education if we’re talking about a place of work or school.
The first person who put this in terms of a ‘social contract’ was the French writer Jean Jacques Rousseau, who wrote a book using the phrase as its title. Rousseau said that human beings acquire freedom only when they unite together and give up competing against one another. Submitting to an overall authority based on the will of the people guarantees that they are bound only by their own rules. This popular will can only be achieved by the introduction of democracy, which is why Rousseau was so influential at the time of the French Revolution.
The key idea here is reciprocity, which most people agree is the key to living in a community. Being communal creatures, reciprocity is therefore the fundamental basis of ethics for many thinkers.