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Everyone is interested in ethics. We all have our own ideas about what is right and what is wrong and how we can tell the difference. Philosophers and bishops discuss moral "mazes" on the radio. People no longer behave as they should.
THE COUNTRY IS IN
A STATE OF MORAL
DECLINE AND THERE
IS NO RESPECT FOR
AUTHORITY ANY MORE!
WE MUST GET
"BACK TO BASICS!"
WE NEED "MORAL
HAS LED US INTO A
So we're told. But there have always been "moral panics". Plato thought 4th century B.C. Athens was doomed because of the wicked ethical scepticism of the Sophist philosophers and the credulity of his fellow citizens.
We are all products of particular societies. We do not "make ourselves". We owe much of what we consider to be our "identity" and "personal opinions" to the community in which we live. This made perfect sense to Aristotle. For Aristotle, the primary function of the state was to enable collectivist human beings to have philosophical discussions and eventually agree on a shared code of ethics.
MAN IS BY NATURE
A POLITICAL ANIMAL.
IT IS IN HIS NATURE
TO LIVE IN A STATE.
But as soon as we are formed, most of us start to question the society that has made us, and doso in a way that seems unique to us. Socrates stressed that it was in fact our duty.
AND NEVER STOP
The State may decide what is legally right and wrong, but the law and morality are not the same thing.
Communitarians or Individualists?
Ethics is complicated because our morality is an odd mixture of received tradition and personal opinion.
SOME PHILOSOPHERS HAVE
STRESSED THE IMPORTANCE
OF THE COMMUNITY AND
SEE INDIVIDUAL ETHICS AS
OTHERS WILL STRESS THE
IMPORTANCE OF THE AUTONOMOUS
INDIVIDUAL AND CLAIM THAT
SOCIETY IS MERELY A CONVENIENT
ARRANGEMENT WHICH MUST BE
SUBSERVIENT TO THE GOALS AND
AMBITIONS OF INDIVIDUALS.
Both individualist and communitarian philosophers are reluctant to explain away ethics as no more than "club rules" agreed upon and formalized by members. Both want to legitimize either communal ethics or the need for an individual morality by appealing to some kind of "neutral" set of ideals. Much of this book is about these different attempts to provide a foundation for ethics.
Setting the Stage
Ten Central Questions
Let's begin, as philosophers do, by asking some odd and awkward questions. These questions are important, even if clear and positive answers to them are few. Are there any differences between moral laws and society's laws? If there are, why is this?
What are human beings really like: selfish and greedy or generous and kind?
Are some people "better" at morality than others, or is everyone equally capable of being good?
Are there good ways of teaching children to behave morally?
Does anyone have the right to tell anyone else what goodness and wickedness are?
Are there certain kinds of acts (like torturing children) that are always wrong? If so, what are they?
What do you think is the best answer to the question,
"Why should I be a good person?"
Is ethics a special kind of knowledge? If so, what sort of knowledge is it and how do we get hold of it?
Is morality about obeying a set of rules or is it about thinking carefully about consequences?
When people say "I know murder is wrong", do they know it is wrong or just believe it very strongly?
The Social Origins of Belief Systems
It seems very unlikely that any society has ever existed in which individual members have thought the murder of others to be acceptable. Although the odd serial killer does occasionally surface in any society, most of us think of one as an exceptional aberration, or even as "non-human".
There have always been rules about when men may kill other men usually outsiders as opposed to insiders.
SO KILLING MISSIONARIES
MAY BE PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE....
... BUT NOT FATHERS-IN-LAW FROM
Such moral understandings are often codified and regulated by religious and legal taboos of various kinds. Human beings seem reluctant to accept that morality is something invented by themselves and so tend to legitimize moral rules by mythologizing their origins: "The Great White Parrot says stealing is wrong". The story of ethics is to some extent a description of attempts like these to legitimize morality.
Morality and Religion
Most people living in Western Christian societies would say that they base their ethical beliefs and behaviour on the ten negative commandments, rather inconveniently carved on stone tablets handed to Moses by God. (Of the ten, only about six are actually ethical, rather than concerned with religious observance and ritual.)
MOST PEOPLE THINK OF
ETHICS IN THIS WAY ...
... AS A SERIES OF
RULES THAT YOU TRY
TO KEEP TO MOST OF
IF YOU CAN'T REMEMBER
ALL TEN RULES, IT'S POSSIBLE
TO LIVE THE MORAL LIFE BY
STICKING TO ONE GOLDEN
ALWAYS TREAT OTHERS
AS YOU WOULD LIKE THEM
TO TREAT YOU.
This "reciprocity rule" has a long track record and is found in many different religions worldwide. It is a bit like prudent insurance a sensible way of getting along in the world, even if it's not quite what Jesus Christ says. (His moral code is much more radical and not at all "reciprocal". You have to do good deeds to those who have done you no good at all. This is why real Christianity is a hard act to follow.)
Is religion where morality comes from? Is being moral simply a matter of obeying divine commands? Independently-minded individuals, like Socrates (in Plato's Euthyphro), said that there is more to morality than religious obedience. One reason for this is that religious commands vary from one religion to another.
"YOU CAN HAVE FOUR WIVES
IF YOU FOLLOW THIS RELIGION,
AND ONLY ONE IF YOU
FOLLOW THAT ONE ...
THE MORAL COMMANDS OF
SEEM CONTRADICTORY ...
... THE GOD OF THE OLD
AND HARDLY PLURALIST ..."
"TOO RIGHT PAL! THOU
SHALT HAVE NO OTHER
GODS BEFORE ME....
... FOR I THE LORD THY
GOD AM A JEALOUS
Atheists and agnostics would refuse to obey any order from God they believed to be wrong. Religion on its own doesn't seem to be a complete and satisfactory foundation for human ethical beliefs. What many philosophers search for is a way of justifying moral values which are independent of religious belief.
Morality and Human Nature
One alternative answer is to say that morality comes not from external supernatural sources but from ourselves. This is one of the big questions of all time.
ARE HUMAN BEINGS
WHAT IS HUMAN
IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE FOR US
TO DEFINE IT OR GENERALIZE
ABOUT A SPECIES WHICH INCLUDES
LONDON BUS INSPECTORS, KALAHARI
BUSHMEN, ITALIAN TENORS, MAHATMA
GANDHI AND ADOLF HITLER?
Thinking on ethics often begins with assumptions about human nature, either negative or positive. For instance, the Christian notion of "original sin" takes the view that our nature is "fallen" and essentially bad. If this is the case, then it is our social environment and its legal sanctions that force us all to be moral. But most of us don't torture small children just because we fear a visit from the police.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The title could of been bette. I say that because this is a really good book and sometimes the title is what attracts people but in this case the title might draw people away. but its one of thee best books ive ever read espically b/c iam a deep thinker