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An Overview of Ethical Theory, Essay Example

Pages: 11

Words: 2982

Essay

Abstract

This paper will consider Social Contract ethical theory, virtue ethics, feminist ethics, care ethics, and respond to the prompts listed below.

  1. Explain the central principles of Social Contract Theory. Describe the main arguments both for and against it. What do you see as its strengths and weaknesses?
  2. Explain the feminist critique of traditional ethical theories.
  3. Describe the main principles of the Ethics of Care.
  4. Discuss the arguments for and against the Ethics of Care. What do you see as its strengths and weaknesses? Give an example to highlight your points.
  5. Identify the Virtues as proposed by Aristotle. Describe how virtues are obtained
  6. Explain the main principles of Virtue of Ethics
  7. Discuss the main arguments both for and against Virtue Ethics. In your opinion, what are its strengths and weaknesses? Give an example to highlight your point.
  8. Choose a major ethical topic unique to the 21st century how would at least two of the major ethical theories (ethical egoism, Natural law, utilitarianism, Kantian ethics) each address the problem? Which ethical principle you see as the best suited to resolve the problem.

An Overview of Ethical Theory

Traditional social contract theory dates to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau and relied on consent. Locke claimed free men could consent which implies a power to bind oneself to make contracts. Consent was central to any social contract with the resultant supposition that men had power over themselves and could make decisions and thus had the power to enter into the social contract between the people and its sovereign. If men exercised this power then the social contract became anobligation. Hobbes said that covenants were like artificial chainsthat bound the parties to a contractual obligation. Social contract theorists today ask, what generates political obligation from the social institutions that are constant.John Rawls held that to abide by social rules is a matter of individual duty and morality while the justification of social institutions is a matter of public or social morality. Thus, recent contract theory focuses political philosophy on public or social morality rather than individual obligation. (Rawls, 1979)

Contemporary social contract theory turns on endorsement,and social contract theorists generally see the agreement as representativeof our reasons. Agreement is empirical, and collective agreement is the reasons we have for social and political relations (the will of the people). In this sense the agreement is not binding. Rather it is in the performance of the agreement definingobligation.(Rawls, 1979 p. 56)

The social contract in contemporary moral and political theory is an attempt to solve a problem with justification by making it deliberative but central is justification. That citizens have reasons to favor an arrangement is a given and would be futile unless the reasons of citizens differed. If everyone had the same reasonit would be pointless showing that they agree. Unanimous collective agreementoperates when citizen’s reasons differ. Reasoning of one member of the public is not a substitute for everyone else’s reasoning. Everyone has their reason to endorse a social arrangement but the agreement is not implied simply because of one member reasons. (Rawls, 1979)

Feminist Critique of Traditional Ethics

Feminist critique of traditional ethics claims traditional ethics lets women down in five specific ways: it has less concern for women’s issues in favour of male interests; it trivializes moral issues in private; it infers that womenare not as morally mature as men; it overrates the culture of masculinity while underrating cultural female traits; and, it favours male moral reasoning. (Jaeger, 1991)

The Main Principles of Ethics of Care

Care-focused and status-focused feminist approaches to ethics offer ways to understand how gender, race, class, and so forth affect moral decisions. Feminist approaches are gender sensitive, provokingnon-feminist critics to complainthey are female-biased. They say ethics will be staticfrom the single standpoint of women (or men). Indeed, traditional ethics has proceeded on the assumption that its values and rules apply to all rational persons equally but traditional ethical theories seem to be based on the moral experience of powerful menas opposed to women. (Card, 1991 p. 66)

Feminist ethicists argue they do what traditional ethicists should have done initially, namely paying attention to women’s moral experience. Traditional ethicists have focused on men’s moral interests, issues, and values while neglectingwomen’s. Therefore, when a proponent of feminist ethics highlights women’s morality, she is doing remedial work to a male-biased ethical tradition. (Koorsgard, 1985)

Feminist ethicists articulate moral critiques of practices that perpetuate women’s subordination (to men); offer paths of resistanceto these practices and imagine moral alternatives all the whiletaking moral experiences of women seriously, though not uncritically.

The Arguments For and Against the Ethics of Care, Strengths and Weaknesses

A number of criticisms have been leveled against care ethics, including:

Critics question the empirical accuracy and validity of studies made by feminists such as Carol Gilligan who fault her and other feminists for basing conclusions on narrow sampling.

Critics object to care ethics as not a real moral theory;but that it incorporates liberal concepts such as autonomy, equality, and justice. Some argue that the ethics of care is simply virtue ethics.

Critics claim thatcare ethics encouragescare-givers to ignore the differencesand causes in living standards.

Care ethics is not concerned with how women differ from each another.

Care ethics is vague and does not provide guidance for ethical action.

The Virtues as Proposed by Aristotle and How Virtues Are Obtained. (Jagger, 1991 p.66)

The usual translation of Nichomachean Ethicsplaces the emphasis on habit in conduct. It is thought that virtues, for Aristotle, are habits and that the good life is a life of mindless routine. But virtue establishes itself in action. Action is virtuous when one holds oneself in balance of the soul to choose an action for its own sake and is what constitutes character.

Aristotle’s concept of the mean is often misunderstood and he repeatedly states that virtue is a mean.

For Aristotle, what the person of good character loves and thinks of as an end with right reason, must first be perceived as beautiful. Hence, the virtuous person sees truly and judges rightly, since beautiful things appear as they truly are only to a person of good character. It is only in the middle ground (the mean) between habits of acting and principles of action that the soul can allow right desire and right reason to make their appearance, as a direct response of a free human being to the sight of the beautiful.

The Main Principles of Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics is a broad term that emphasize the role of character and virtue rather than doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences. Most virtue ethics theories are inspired by Aristotle’sclaim that a virtuous person has ideal character traits derived from natural internal tendencies; once nurtured, they become established and stable. Virtue ethics does not aim for universal principles to apply in moral situations. Virtue ethics theories deal with wider questions on attaining the good life and the proper social values.

Virtue ethics has three main directions: Eudaimonism, or flourishing, is equated with performing one’s distinctive function well; agent-based theories emphasize that virtues are determined by common-sense that observers judge to be good traits in people.

The Main Arguments For and Against Virtue Ethics, Strengths and Weaknesses

Self-Centeredness

Virtue ethics is self-centered because it isabout the agent’s character and concerned with the agent in contrast to moral theory which demands that we contemplate others for their own sake without benefit to ourselves.

For the virtuous person the agent’s good and the good of others result from the exercise of virtue. Rather than being too self-centered, virtue ethics brings together what is required by morality and self-interest. (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Action-Guiding

Virtue ethics fails as a moral theory because it does not show how we should act.

We need to view the agent as a role model and standard of virtue excellence with a moral character that is fully developed, is possessed of the virtues and acts in accordance with them. He knows what to do by example. Knowing the right way to act is not a matter of memorizing theories and principles but is more accurately a life-long pursuit whose answer comes at the end of a long life or a person reaches moral maturity. Even so, there is an element of action-guidance if our actions are guided by the appreciation we place in our role model when we see that he or she has the virtues we wish to emulate and recognize them as right actions and virtuous. (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Moral Luck

Many times we lose control on the road to virtue. Training, excellent influences, good habits promote the virtues but so too do the opposites promote vice. This is where luck comes into play and not all of us are lucky. Those who are not fortunate in their choice of influences might not achieve moral maturity while others who are morally fortunate will. Having said that, is it fair to blame the person who is morally unlucky for his misfortune while at the same time heaping praise on those who are morally more fortunate? (Williams, 1985 p.94)

Thomas Nagel defines moral luck saying “Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck” (Nagel 1979; Williams, 1985)

Though right education, habits, and influences might promote virtuousdevelopment, so too dobad influences promote vice. Some people will be lucky and get help and encouragement needed to attain moral maturity while others will be less fortunate. If the development of virtue (and vice) is subject to luck, is it fair to praise the virtuous agent while blaming the vicious for actions or inactions that stand outside their control? Some say that virtue is dependent on the availability of external goods. Friendship with other virtuous agents is central to Aristotle’s virtue that a life devoid of virtuous friendship will be lacking in eudemonia yet we have little control over the availability of right friends. How can we then praise the virtuous and blame the vicious if their virtues and vicesare not under their control? (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Foot, 1978)

Virtue ethics embraces moral luck while not making morality invulnerable tomatters outside of our control. It recognizes the good life’s fragilityas a feature of morality. If the good life is vulnerable and fragile, then it must also be precious. The path to virtue is fraught with hazards and obstructions and many thing can go wrong and possibly lose virtue but this vulnerability is an essential feature of the human condition, and makes the attainment of the good life all the more valuable. (Williams, 1985)
Unique Ethical Topic, Two Theories Address the Problem, Best Possible Resolution

The topic of this paper is murder and how two ethical theories might address murder and if possible, resolve the problem. Resolving a problem such as murder seems unlikely since one cannot,for example, restore the victim to his or her original position (Rawls, 2001). Still, ethical theory can look at issues such as murder and come to a conclusion that explains the hoped for resolution if that were possible.

The two ethical theories utilized for the purpose of this investigation are Mill’s Utilitarianism and Kant’sdeontological ethics. The type of murder is public execution of prisoners ofwarin the name ofastate. This section will look atstate sanctioned murder under these special circumstancesand the response from two ethical theories.

In general, murder is socially unacceptable and most cultures have a prohibition and punishment formulafor citizens whose aim is to violate this long-held collective social convention. Yet in otherplaces, this behavior is coin of the realm.

Essentially men are paraded before a crowd of local inhabitants, head bowed, and pleading for mercy. Behind themstands a man who explains why the person he is about to liquidate ought to die and whose crimes he is expiating. In the next instant the prisoner is burnt to a crisp or beheaded. Thus the question: is it acceptable to execute prisonersin this manner in the name of the state?A variation of that question was posed at the Nurnberg trials and overwhelmingly the judges on the bench voted ‘No!’ Still, we can ask, where would our two ethical theories, namely, utilitarianism and deontology, stand on this issue?

Rule utilitariansmight support a moral code such ‘do x except when not doing x maximizes utilityor ‘do not do x except when doing x maximizes utility.’ This makes sense but it also makes nonsense as wellthis formulation of rule utilitarianism is the same as act utilitarianism and the moral requirement and the moral prohibition expressed collapses into act utilitarianism, namely ‘do x only when not doing x maximizes utility’ or ‘do not do x except when doing x maximizes utility.’ These rules say exactly the same thing as the open-ended act utilitarian rule ‘Do whatever action maximizes utility.’Utilitarianism self-destructs under these circumstances. (Mill, 1990)

Looking at the case of punishing innocent people such as in our example, the best that rule utilitarianism can do is say that a rule that permits this would lead to worse results overall than a rule that prevented it. This prediction may be true but it may also be false, and if it is false, utilitarianism must acknowledge that intentionally punishing an innocent person, in this case a prisoner, could sometimes be morally justified, a result that would be morally objectionable.

In the opening lines of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Kant says thatlawgiving must represent an objectively necessary actionor make action a duty; and,it provideincentive for subjectively determining choice with the representation of the law. If it is objectively necessary then it ought to be done and if subjectively connected to choice, then we have the incentive to act. The law tells us what to do and provides the motive for doing it, either as objectively necessary or as a duty. (Kant, 1964)

In this case,the state, through its combatants, makes it clear that the action is an objectively necessary duty through the issuance of orders and various statutory declarations etc., and provides the incentive for determining the choice for its agents by removing the prohibitionfor doing the action. Thus thelaw that it stands by is a valid representation of the law even though the action of the state’s agents seem morally repugnant.

The notion of Kant’s universalizing principleprincipal from the Metaphysics of Morals could be utilized here but to what benefit? He would ask, ‘what if everybody in war did precisely the same thing?’ Clearly, if everyone at war executed their prisoners, both sides in the conflict would be subject to the same punishments and eventually there would be no prisoners or combatants left. This solution seems implausible. Furthermore, Kant is noted in the same Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals for being a staunch advocate of capital punishment for actions such as this which seems to foreclose the victim’s nation from responding accordingly.(Kant, 1972) The only logical solution seems to beautilitarian and retribution solution to deal with the situation above on the premise that murders deserve to be killed. By intentionally causing the death of an innocent person the murderer deserves the deathpenalty. (Kant, 1972)

Following Kant’s principle of equality, where he says ‘the pointer of the scale of justice is made to incline no more to the one side than the other and if a wrongful act is committed the person who has committed it has upset the balance of the scale of justice. He has inflicted suffering on another, and therefore rendered himself deserving of suffering.’ (Kant, 1972)

To‘put the scale of justice back in balance requiresimposing the same suffering on the murderer’. (Kant, 1972) Kant states in his principle of retaliation that the act that the person has performed is to be regarded as perpetrated on himself and the most obvious employment of the principle is that murderers commit murder under penalty of death. His justification of punishment derives from his principle of retaliation in the principle of equality. (Kant, 1972)

The Utilitarianhas a role to play here as well insofar as the threat of capital punishment is a deterrent for murderers not to actin this way. (Mill, 1990) For humans, if the greatest fear they have is deaththen this solution is tentatively possible. Furthermore, capital punishment is the ultimate punishment because it cannot be reversed. Once the murdereris dead, in this case the state’s agent, the odds of him killing innocent people again have been reduced to some number approaching zero.

Conclusion

This paper looked at social contact theory, feminist theory, care theory, utilitarianism, and Kantian ethics. It also considered a hypothetical example of an ethical topic that is unique to the twenty-first century and to use two of the theories to resolve it. It was found that both utilitarianism and Kantian ethics were able to provide a solution.

References

Athanassoulis, Nafsika. Virtue Ethics. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Found at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/virtue/, 22 February 2015.

Card, C. (1991). Feminist ethics. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press.

Foot, P. (1978). Virtues and Vices. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hobbes, T., Gaskin, J. C. (1998). Leviathan. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Found at: https://archive.org/details/hobbessleviathan00hobbuoft

Hursthouse, R., (1999). On Virtue Ethics Oxford: Oxford University Press,

Jaggar, A.M. (1991). Feminist ethics: Projects, problems, prospects. In C. Card (ed.), Feminist Ethics, Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Kant, I., (1785). Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, H.J. Paton, trans., New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

Kant, Immanuel. (1972). Justice and Punishment. Trans. W. Hastie. In Philosophical Perspectives on Punishment. Ed. Gertrude Ezorsky. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1972. 102-106.

Korsgaard, Christine. (1986). Aristotle on Function and Virtue. History of Philosophy Quarterly, 3 (1986), pp. 259–79.

Korsgaard, Christine.(1986).Aristotle and Kant on the Source of Value. Ethics, 96 (1986), pp. 486–505.

Locke, John. (2010).Second Treatise on Government.Found at: www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdfs/locke1689a.pdf

Mill, J. S. (1990). Utilitarianism. Raleigh, NC. Found at: https://archive.org/details/a592840000milluoft

Nagel, T., (1979). Mortal Questions, New York: Cambridge University Press;

Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Rawls, J., (2001). Justice as fairness: A restatement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Social Contract. Found at: Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/therepublicofpla00rousuoft

Williams, B., (1985). Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. London: Fontana

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