RS Theme 1 Ethics A,B,C


Normative Ethics

The study of moral rules (or ‘norms’) of right and wrong that underline specific ethical theories

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Meta Ethics

Looks ‘beyond’ specific ethical theories to larger questions about the origin, meaning and language of morality and moral discourse

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Divine Command Theory

  • Is a normative theory which raises a meta-ethical question:’is ethical behaviour dependent on a divine being?’

  • It is absolutist

  • Objective theory 

  • Deontological

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promoting a standard of right and wrong that is binding an all humans 

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Relativist Theory

the view that there is no absolute right and wrong 

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Objective Theory

morality is independent of one's feelings and views

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Subjective Theory

a theory is dependent on a personal view 

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Believing that they have a duty to act on God's laws regardless of consequences 

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One type of teleological approach 

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from Greek word 'telos' meaning 'end' or 'purpose' 

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Morality from a Divine Source

  • Approach of many monotheistic religions 

  • Principles of the Sermon on the Mount are examples of ‘Divine Command’

  • Right or wrong as objective truths based on God’s will/command 

  • An omnipotent and omniscient God is capable of revealing the way humans ought to act

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A 'Strong form' of Divine Command Theory

God has commanded specific ethical actions; the minutest detail must be obeyed 

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A 'Weak form' of Divine Command Theory

God does not care about minutiae but gives commands that determine the boundaries and content of one's decision making 

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Euthyphro Dilemma

Does God command something becuase it is morally right, or is it morally right beacuse it is commanded?

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God commands something because it is morally right

If this is true, then morality is above God- God is not omnipotent, morality is. Morality is something God neither created nor controls

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Something is morally right because it is commanded

If this is true, God could command anything, even genocide, and it would be morally right. THis is known as the aerbitrariness problem 

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Robert Adams

  • Refined Divine Command theory to meet the Euthyphro challenge 

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Omnipotence of God

  • He argues that the omnipotence of God is preserved by seeing that morality comes from God

  • However, god is not arbitrary because God’s character is omnibenevolent

  • the Euthyphro dilemma left out a critical dimenssion of judeo-christian belief: the loving character of God 
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Adams: Divine Command is practical, intelligible..

  • Practical: we aren't demoralised by relativism 

  • Intelligible: it is easy to grasp 

  • Objective: it does not depend on one's feelings

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Adams' approach can be questioned

is God's nature good because it is God's or because it is good? - an Omnibenevolence dilemma  

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Interpretations of morality

The fact that there are many interpretations of morality within a religion could be a weakness of Divine Command theory

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There are a variety of different interpretations

There are different views on:

  • Shari’a in Islam

  • Diversity in Buddhist understandings of the Buddha 

  • Christian disagreement over the relationship between faith and works

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Conflict between the harsh comments of the Bible on homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13) and the tolerance, love and forgiveness of Jesus. This suggests that commands in sactred texts could be relative to history and social context

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Moral approaches between religions

Differences of moral approaches between religions weaken the idea of one Divine Command theory for the human race

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Elevation of an external authority

A further challenge is that Divine Command theory, based on the elevation of an external authority, threatens scientific progress and individual rights- both themes of the European Enlightenment

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A 'Virtue'

A quality of mind or a disposition that helps us achieve excellence in our actions

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Virtuous habits

Virtue theory does not consider ethics to be centred so much on rules of behaviour but on the development of virtuous habits

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Contrast to the 'God-centred' approach

In contrast to the ‘God-centred’ approach of Divine command theory, virtue theory ia agent-centred

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  • Set out his ethical views in the Nicomachean Ethics 

  • His approach is teleological

  • The highest human good is eudaimonia meaning human flourishing

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Faculty of Reason

Humans need to use the faculty of reason to reflect upon habits in order to discover eudaimonia

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Virtue Theory

  • The result of reasoned reflection on habits and human action is virtue 

  • A virtue is a disposition or inclination of character achieved by practice

  • There are 2 types of virtue: intellectual and moral  

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Intellectual and moral virtue

  • Intellectual virtue: found through education; it creates knowledge 

  • Moral virtue: built by contemplating failures and successes. It is learned through practical reason

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Balanced morality

  • The moral virtues are cultivated by finding the mean between two extremes 

  • One extreme is excess: too much of the qualities associated with a virtue 

  • One extreme is deficiency: having too few of the qualities associated with a virtue 

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Aristotle spoke often of four virtues

  • Courage: bravery at the right time and with the right motivation 

  • Temperance: the restraint of desires or passions 

  • Wisdom: discovers and manages all virtues 

  • Justice: giving to others what they are due; this is the outcome of living virtuously 

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Jesus: a virtue ethicist?

  • In the New Testament, Jesus announces eight virtues in the Sermon on the Mount; these are different from Aristotle’s list 

  • Some scholars view these virtues are echoes of Isaiah 61:1-3

  • He said that those with these virtues are ‘blessed’ because they will receive a reward

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Challenges to Virtue Theory: Vague

  • Not practical as it is vague and difficult 

  • Virtue theory may be seen as vague because it does not provide focused norms for concrete situations. For instance, it makes no comment about pacifism, euthanasia, slavery or a host of other issues for which norms and laws could provide guidence 

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Challenges to Virtue Theory: impractical

  • Aristotle says that it is very difficult to find the ‘middle’ or mean between extremes

  • Those who follow virtue theory are required to find the mean, simultaneously, for numerous character traits

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Challenges to Virtue Theory: Arbitrary

  • Another challenge to this theory is the insight that any of the virtues is arbitrary and can be viewed as culturally relative 

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Challenges to the Virtue Theory: Aristotle

  • Aristotle’s list reflects the cultural norms for wealthy men in his society; he does not challenge convention 

  • Aristotle believed that men were more virtuous than women ‘...  male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled’

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Challenges to Virtue Theory: Tool of culture

Rather than being a theory that is based on objective truth, virtue ethics may merely be a tool of culture to promote the powerful against the powerless

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Challenges to the Virtue Theory:Convenient/immoral

  • Convenient: virtue theory can be defined so as to omit traits so that one finds life convenient 

  • Immoral: one can be virtuous but commit acts which others would find immoral 

  • For example, one could exercise courage in war without questioning the bias of that war

  • Or, one could exercise self-control when what is most needed is passionate commitment to a cause

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Ethical Egoism

  • A ‘normative theory’; it prescribes the norm or rule to base one’s actions on self-interest 

  • Critical of the notion of altruism, the idea that we can act from purely selfless concern for others

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Psychological egoism

  • The insight that we are always motivated by self interest; this is a description of human moral behaviours

  • If we enjoy acting ‘selflessly’ or benefit in any way from the end goal, then we are not acting altruistically but are psychologically motivated by self-interest 

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Max Stirner

  • Author of The Ego and His Own

  • Recognised the truth of psychological egoism but noted that most self-interest is deluded because it does not recognise the nature of the true self

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  • The way that self-interest is often understood makes one a slave to something other than the self. It is, therefore, not true self-interest.

  • Any religious, philosophical or materialistic framework for moral behaviour becomes a controlling system 

  • An external ideology never leads one to true self-interest and true freedom

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Controlling System

even if we think it is in our 'self-interest' to follow that system 

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True Self

The true self is one that is not mastered by any system, is not mastered by sensuality or emotions, and knows the truth that one is unique with unique needs

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Ideals and Systems that control us

  • Sensuality 

  • God

  • Man

  • Authority

  • State

  • Church and moral systems

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Challenges of Ethical Egoism

  • Lead to the breakdown of community

  • A state’s laws protect individuals from other individuals, interest groups, and companies which care more for power and profit than for the welfare of all

  • Regulations about the sale of cigarettes have created sales restrictions and scientifically accurate warnings which benefit society more than if there were no restrictions

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Challenges to Ethical Egoism: Stirner

  • He would insist that the upholding of the law or the demands of the state has an adverse effect on one’s personal freedom 

  • He believed that the state would collapse as ethical egoism spread 

  • He appears to open the door to mayhem by his declaration, ‘should i not help myself as well as I can?’

  • He might point out that social injustices and bigotry can also result from Idealism, a liberal state, a communistic government or any other system

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Challenges to Ethical Egoism: Social Injustices

  • For the pursuit of one’s self-interest will inevitably lead to conflict with the interests of others. this , in turn, will lead to the powerful prevailing

  • For example, what if individuals in one ethnic group form a union of egoists to promote the superiority of their particular group? Would this not lead to a racist and violent society?

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