Far from being a social constraint, or perhaps a force that elicits fear of being caught, the motives that move a person to choose what is good and avoid what is evil draw well the fine line that separates actions that may be regarded as moral, or those that are immoral. Ethics is important, if not necessary in relation to human living. At the very least, this science helps maintain the fundamental order of and within a society. This is possible because ethics is not only a theory that informs people about what is good or bad, it also asks them to adhere to the principles it teaches.
It is thus both informative and formative, or both a theory and practice, consistent with how it is commonly defined: “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad, and with moral duty and obligation” (Merriam-Webster). But what would perhaps be an equally interesting point to look at is the diverging manner by which many people believe to be the basis of moral action. Key to understanding this would be to ask: why be moral? It may help to cite three notable thinkers who have given their own take of the matter.
Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill on Ethics Aristotle’s most eloquent articulation of his ethical theories figures in his infamous work called Nicomachean Ethics. In it, his overarching concern to prove that ethics is chiefly related to the concept of “ends” (or purposes) can be learned. According to Aristotle, every human activity hopes to achieve the “end” or the “good” to which it is pursued – e. g. , “in medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house” (Nicomachean Ethics, 7).
While Aristotle further contends that there are activities which are pursued for its own sake – and not for the sake of arriving at a good apart from the activities themselves (Nicomachean Ethics, 1) – his work manifests a greater emphasis laid on the goal-orientedness of all human activities. Now, Aristotle further maintains that human life too has an inherent end that needs to be pursued. He thinks of this fundamental human good as happiness – “the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world” (Nicomachean Ethics, 8).
And he himself argues that it is an end that must be pursued not for the sake of anything else, but precisely because it is a chief good in itself (Nicomachean Ethics, 7). Ethics for Aristotle is therefore basically a virtuous accordance of all human activities relative to happiness. This is where his virtue ethics takes shape. In order for all men to attain happiness, Aristotle believes that everyone needs to develop a virtue – a habit of acting that promotes an excellence in one’s use of reason.
This is what Aristotle in essence implies when he says that “happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue” (Nicomachean Ethics, 13). Immanuel Kant’s is a philosopher who elevated ethics into the realm of metaphysics – that is, it is a science drawn from a priori principles (read: from demonstration or logic and not from a particular experiences) but are applied to definite situations in life as well (Kant, 1). This implies that ethics is something that must be applied for all men, in all places, and at all times.
Simply put, ethics for Immanuel Kant is both necessary and universal in scope. It is necessary because all men are obliged by the dictates of their reason to obey moral laws; it is universal because moral laws care for no exception. Which is why, Kant believes that moral laws are “categorical imperatives” – a law that “concerns not the matter of the action, nor its intended result, but its form and the principle of which it is itself a result”, because it is “conceived as good in itself” and that it conforms to reason (Kant, 18-19).
If only to clarify, Kant here states that a moral law must be obeyed neither on account of the benefit it brings nor the pleasure it elicits, but precisely because it is good in itself. In a way, a moral law is an empty formulation about duty; meaning, it is something that needs to be obeyed on account of nothing else but the adherence to the law itself.
Should it be asked how one can arrive at a knowledge of moral law which is both necessary and universal, Immanuel Kant suggests that one can test human actions in reference to, say, this particular formulation: “act only on a maxim that you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 23). John Stuart Mill meanwhile proposes a philosophy of ethics based on a more utilitarian perspective. In his work entitled Utilitarianism, he regards the outcome of an activity as the basis for evaluating the ethical repercussions of any action.
He articulate this idea quite clearly in saying, “…utility or Happiness (must be) considered as the directive rule of human conduct” (Mill). In other words, ethics is based on how one carefully weighs in the maximum amount of happiness that may result from choosing an action, against the background of a host of alternative options. He even calls this approach the “Greatest Happiness Principle” – the “ultimate end with reference to and for the sake of which” all human activities become “desirable” (Mill).
It works under the premise that before a person acts, he or she would have first appreciated which decision would turn in the best returns or outcomes, both in terms of quality and quality. Mill’s ethical philosophy, one may quickly notice, runs in serious contradiction with Aristotle and Kant, whose theories have taught the necessity of adhering to a virtuous life or to a moral imperative not on account of any purpose, but solely because of good inherent in the act itself.
As Mill himself notes, “according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality” (Mill). By Way of Conclusion: My Definition of Ethics Based on the above discussed ethical notions – its basis, nature and implications – I wish to conclude this paper with a proposal to define ethics as a norm that forms human freedom and, like Immanuel Kant, a law that must be universal and categorical.
Firstly, I find that the tendency to define morality in terms of obligation does not at times appreciate the full weight of human freedom. But morality is precisely a human endeavor not only because humans have reason, but more importantly because actions stem from the fundamental use freedom as well. Moral acts, one must carefully note, are arrived at only with the proper education and nurturance of human freedom.
It is in fact drawn from the basic premise that human freedom is at its best when one is able to use it to build up one’s welfare, as well as those of others. I am of the opinion that anyone who wish to expound on the ethical standards of an action must first begin with the evaluation of human freedom. In this way, ethics can shed light into the need to use the faculty of freewill for the sake of the goodness inherent in itself – as Aristotle and Kant have argued –, and directed towards the goodness of something else – as Mill has on the other hand proposed.
Second, in an ethical theory where human freedom is of critical importance, it is thus wise to adopt the logic from which Immanuel Kant derives his categorical imperative. As one would notice, Kant’s maxim “do something as though you would want that action be done for all people” touches on two fundamental areas of ethics – the decision of the person, or human freedom, and the universality of the scope of moral laws. I find Kant here to be a great source of insight.
With his theory, I believe that I can adopt the position that ethics is a science that forms human freedom because, in Kant’s maxim, the subjective capacity for self-determination is tempered by the duty to obey objective laws. Kant’s categorical imperative does little to undermine freedom, as it does try hard to protect the universal applicability of moral law. In this regard, I would therefore say that Kant’s ethical theory is the best position to take, at least from the perspective of ethical notion that I have chosen to adopt.
Aristotle. “Nicomachean Ethics”. 29 June 2008, <http://classics. mit. edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen. 1. i. html “ethic. ” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Merriam-Webster Online. 29 June 2008 <http://www. merriam-webster. com/dictionary/ethic> Kant, Immanuel. “Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals”. 29 June 2008 <http://www. scribd. com/doc/2225702/kantfundamental143> Mill, J. S. “Utilitarianism”. 29 June 2008 <http://utilitarianism. org/mill2. htm>
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