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All of us sometimes think about what we should do. Should we try to make more money, to get in better shape, to develop better friendships, to "look out for number one," to be more charitable, or to promote justice? Parents, friends, religious leaders, and public figures may tell us very different things. One friend may tell us that it is most important to get ahead at any cost, while another may tell us that it is our moral obligation to promote the welfare of all people. How do we figure out what we should do? Ethics and moral philosophy are the branches of philosophy that rationally investigate questions about the best way to live.
Ethics and moral philosophy are about the best way to live. They are concerned with the sort of goals a person should have and with how we should treat other people. Every society has its customs and normal ways of life. The society teaches its children to act according to its customs, and people in the society expect and require that other people behave according to these customs and standards. These customs can be considered to be the unreflective ethics of the society at large. The customs tell people how to live, what to do, what sort of person to be, and how to evaluate other people. Acting and living in these ways is considered within the society to be the best way of life.
If a person learns how to live and what to do from her society, why do ethical and moral issues ever arise? Why does anyone ever think about questions of ethics? There are many factors that lead people to think about the best way tolive.
Individual ResistanceFor many different reasons individuals may not want to adopt some of the customs of their society. As an example, children may not want to eat only what they are supposed to eat, or teenagers may want to engage in sexual activities that are not allowed, or adults may not want to obey the authorities in the society. Customs and morals always place restrictions on satisfying desires. Hence, it is inevitable that people ask why they should follow the societal customs and standards rather than do something else.
Conflicts and BalancingPeople have many different social roles in any society. The requirements of one social role may conflict with those of another. What a woman should do as a mother of her children may conflict with what she should do as a member of a state or as a partner in a business. For example, in ancient Greek theater, Antigone experiences the conflict between her family obligation to bury her dead brother and the king's command that her brother not be buried. Even when a direct conflict has not already occurred, people have to think about how to balance their roles. A person has to determine which goals and requirements should take precedence over other goals and requirements, and in which circumstances. She has to combine and balance all the customs that apply to her. For example, a person will have to decide how much time and energy to devote to her career, and how much time and energy to devote to personal relationships. To combine and balance customs and to resolve conflicts, people have to think about which combinations and alternatives would be best.
Choice Among Societal Ways of LifeIn many traditional societies, a person has no choice about his occupation or way of life. Authorities or his circumstances decide these issues for him. However, in our society people can and usually must choose the occupation and way of life that they will pursue. It is part of our cultural way of life that people have to decide whether to join the military, become a salesperson, pursue a medical or business career, and so on. People also must decide whether to get married, be involved in a religious group, and perform community service. To make these decisions, people have to think about the best way of life.
Social ChangeThe customs and values of any society may change over time. In our society there have been major changes in the last thirty years concerning acceptable sexual behavior and woman's work outside the home. Many factors contribute to societal change, but ultimately people in the society must accept and live by the new standards if any change is to occur. To decide whether to continue the traditional ways of life or to adopt changes, people have to think about the best way to live.
Societal PluralismOur current society does not have one uniform set of customs and values. There are many different standards, and some of these standards contradict others. For example, some people emphasize individual success even if it requires abandoning one's background to move ahead. Others insist on the importance of family or group identity and on conserving a traditional culture. Individuals have to think about ethical issues in deciding which customs and standards to follow and how to evaluate people who follow other standards.
Being Responsible for StandardsSome people want to be responsible for themselves. They think that they ought to decide actively on their own standards and ways of life. Just to absorb standards and ways of life passively from one's society is not enough. They feel that the customs and values that an individual receives from society are not really their own until they have explicitly chosen them. To make standards their own in the fullest sense requires that they think about them and have reasons for living by one set of standards rather than another. This is what the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (470-399 B.C.) meant when he taught that "the unexamined life is not worth living."
Having True StandardsMost people think that there is an objective good. They think that some goals and some ways of treating other people are objectively good and others are objectively bad. Morality is not a matter of personal opinion or societal tradition. Personal and societal views can be true or false. If one believes in objective goodness, she has reason to want to be sure that the standards by which she lives are the true ones. She should be ready to revise her standards and moral positions to make them agree with what is objectively good, if that is necessary. In order to determine that their standards are true, people have to think about ethical questions.
Any question about what to do is an ethical question in the most general sense. However, many everyday decisions are not very important, and many decisions depend upon very specific circumstances and on facts about individual people. Studies in ethics cannot consider everything that we do and all of the specific facts and circumstances that affect our everyday actions. Studies in ethics focus on major issues about what goals to pursue and how to treat other people. Studies in ethics focus on general standards that apply to many people and to large parts of their lives. Differences between types of people, such as between men and women and between more capable and less capable people, are included in some theories about the good life and the right way to treat people, but many ethical positions say little about differences between individual people. They do not deny that there are many individual differences, but they think that differences do not affect general ethical claims. Differences make a difference only in the application of more general ethical positions to individual cases.
Ethics tries to figure out both how an individual can live a good life and how people should treat one another in a good society. Most ethical thinkers consider these issues to be interconnected, but some focus on one or the other of them. There are disagreements about whether what makes an individual's life go well would also agree with the rules for treating other people well. Different conceptions of the good life for an individual give different priorities to individual self-interest and treating people morally. Moral philosophers consider treating everyone morally to be what is most important, so that the good life for an individual includes always treating other people morally. Other conceptions of the good life for an individual, such as egoistic hedonism or selfish self-development (see chapter 2), are basically immoral. According to such nonmoral conceptions of the good life, an individual person will be better off by sometimes violating the rules for treating other people well.
Moral PhilosophyThe terms "ethics" and "moral philosophy" are frequently used interchangeably. Many people consider them to mean basically the same thing. Particularly those who consider being moral to be the best way of life for an individual are likely to equate the two. However, there is also a narrower conception of moral philosophy. Moral philosophy in the narrower sense is an investigation of the basic principles and underlying ideas of Western morality. In this narrower sense moral philosophy would never advise someone to do something that is immoral, whereas some conceptions of the good life do advise people sometimes to act immorally. Most studies in "applied ethics," such as medical ethics or business ethics, assume this narrower conception. Most studies in applied ethics focus on the moral dimensions of specific issues such as abortion or affirmative action. This book considers both questions about the good life and questions about the right way to treat people.