Ethics and Philosophy in Human Rights, Research Paper Example
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Ethics as Determined by Plato, Aristotle, and Kant
It is certainly reasonable to turn to Plato, Aristotle, and Immanuel Kant in a pursuit for a true definition of ethics. Kant remains a foremost presence of the post-Enlightenment era, and his philosophical theories of centuries past are as vigorously debated today as they were in his time. Then, even Kant essentially stood on the shoulders of the great classicists Plato and Aristotle, who in turn synthesized and expanded the thinking of their own legendary antecedent, Socrates. What precisely ethics are must lie at the heart of any remotely functional philosophy; consequently, the acknowledged greatest minds must provide this foundation.
Regrettably, or inevitably, they do not. That is to say, Kant is no more precise in defining the substance of ethics than is either Plato or Aristotle. What each man does, rather, is rely upon a universally accepted canon of truths, and then further delineate ethics by means of a focus on the parameters of action, motive, and result. It is not that the minds in question are lacking in either determination or brilliance; rather, they are compelled to confront the inescapable fact that ethics must in some fashion be synonymous with “goodness”, or “rightness”, and that these moral entities may not be further defined. The definitions of them are ultimately visceral, and not academic, as the meaning and import of them felt uniformly by humanity serves to confirm both their ephemeral natures and invaluable presences. Plato essentially draws on a basic premise: “A philosophic ethics must systematically relate its definitions and prescriptions to some consistent conception of final ends and good” (Irwin, 1995, p. 16). Aristotle does not part company with this convenient and necessary platform, and nor does Kant, for all three philosophers reflect that ethics only exists as an entity of a kind when all the human circumstances occurring within, around, and because of it are brought into play.
This in place, it is then possible to examine how each man assesses ethics by the value each places on its central role in the human equation. For example, Plato most definitely ascribes to ethics a quality of a supreme excellence. For him, ethics is, or translates to, a state of utter happiness which cannot exist without a steadfast observance of the rightness ethics itself demands. He is as one with Aristotle, and even Kant, in attributing to ethics a moral beauty; he elevates an ethical state of being to that of attaining perfection in the soul, or a harmony between soul and living so complete as to be indistinguishable. This perception, however, is what removes him from the company of the other philosophers, at least to a degree. For Plato, the pursuit of ethics seems to bear an oddly Christian aspect, in that the happiness of a purely ethical existence is so transcendent as to be beyond the abilities of mortals (Frede, 2009). This renders Platonic ethics, or ethical happiness, as something of a divine entity, or heavenly reward.
Not unexpectedly, Plato expresses a kind of philosophical pessimism in regard to ethics, for he is perpetually concerned with mankind’s limitations and flawed ambitions to cater to the body and selfish interests. Knowledge, moral virtue, and piety are prized by him, as they were by his mentor, Socrates. These are the keystones of ethics and are of inestimable value as, with Socrates, he asserts this conviction as a universally upheld truth. It is the attainment of them, however, that he doubts. It is tempting to argue that the circumstances of Plato’s life, as with Socrates, fueled his doubts as to any, ultimate worthiness, or consistent application of ethics, to be expected of mankind. Even the greatest philosopher is human, and inherently subject to the restrictions and mores of his time. Nonetheless, Plato’s reasoning, while it altered as he aged, remains too unvarying for its innate suspicions to be dismissed as the effects of circumstantial influences. In a final analysis, Plato almost desperately holds to an exalted view of ethics as a manifestation of a goodness not likely to be often encountered in so weak a species as mankind.
Aristotle seems to take Plato’s ideologies and viewpoints into a more mainstream venue. He does not, again, dispute ethics as necessarily good; there is no disagreement regarding the worth of virtue between the philosophers. However, if it could be said that Plato laments what to him is an improbable aspiration, that of humanity evincing high moral conduct for its own sake, Aristotle would rather go to work, as it were, and bring the ideas directly into the living marketplace. Plato approaches ethics as a single, vast whole; Aristotle chooses to examine it from a distinctly pragmatic point of view, which typically translates in his work to “political”. Ultimately, while as one with Plato as to the intrinsic worth of ethics, Aristotle feels that it is nonetheless a subject best treated by a distinct and practical methodology, and one actually removed from loftier, philosophical concerns (Kraut, 2006, p. 2). For Aristotle, the ethical result is extremely desirable, but it is the mechanics of the process he elects to emphasize. In a sense, as in his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is asserting that, given a uniform acceptance of the inherent worth of virtue to all, there is little need to attempt a further definition of it. What matters, then, is how humanity may best find a means of making ethics a reality.
This intensely practical approach renders the thinking of Immanuel Kant all the more compelling. So many centuries later, Kant appears to stress the more rarefied assessment of ethics of Plato. He gives his own “definition”, however, a modern interpretation. That is to say, Kant actually incorporates both Plato’s somewhat evangelical views and Aristotle’s pragmatism into an altogether unique model of ethics. Regarding the former, he completely ascribes to a universal good or ethical correctness, as he reflects the latter in an insistence on mankind’s obligation to act in such a manner as to promote the attainment of this. What sets him apart is the distinctly different view that ethics, or morality, exists as independent from whatever humanity chooses to do in pursuit, or denial, of it. To Kant, ethics is real and lofty, but is not by any means necessarily tied to human destiny. In fact, he adamantly holds that, since true happiness may not be guaranteed by following a virtuous path, this ethical entity is further separated from the human course, and fate may be as influential in achieving it as effort: “Ethics…cannot start from the ends man may propose to himself, and hence give directions to the maxims he should adopt” (Kant, 2008, p. 19). In a simplistic sense, in Kant, virtue is not merely its own reward; it may be the only reward. Nonetheless, so confirmed is he in the conviction of an unassailable quality in high ethics, he asserts that it is the absolute responsibility of each person to do their utmost to pursue this end, no matter that its attainment is not guaranteed.
It is reassuring, certainly, that such great minds, and ones spanning millennia, should all adhere to a single truth. Plato, Aristotle, and Kant are united in a belief of an innate and unquestionable superiority of ethics as virtue. Ethics is, they concur, an absolute manifestation of goodness, and none disputes the ultimate worth of this as surpassing any other ambition. Their definitions, then, are alike. It is in approach that these philosophers part company, and in highly individual ways. Plato, analytical bent notwithstanding, seems somewhat over-awed by the ethics he confronts, for he cannot easily translate its presence to the affairs of an inherently flawed humanity. He sees too clearly human fallibility, and consequently struggle more to unite ethics with the reality of the marketplace. Aristotle has less patience with removed, grandiose perceptions of this nature; he acknowledges the object, but he is determined to devise a means for politically-minded human beings to observe ethics in actual living. Beyond both philosophies is the Kantian perspective of ethics as a real and immeasurably valuable force or entity, but one not to be counted upon as consequential, or even influential, in human affairs. For Kant, and most pragmatically of all three thinkers, the concern is for human beings to look to ethics as the guide for how they are obligated to conduct themselves, with an ethical state of happiness as only a possible result.
The Bystander as Valid Status
An essential dilemma is in place whenever the role of the individual within a society is examined in terms of that individual’s societal obligations. Certain factors of this are generally accepted: men and women are expected to comply with the laws of the culture, as they typically do so willingly. Then, there is the usual observance of the many facets of obligation present whenever people live in clusters. Personal freedoms of others are respected, as they are enjoyed by each citizen, within reasonable parameters. A successful society is a framework built of an incalculable number of tacit assumptions and responsibilities, all going to as harmonious a situation as can be had. This occurs, again, largely because it is in the interests of each member of that society to preserve the arrangement.
The dilemma arises when calamities of man-made origin take place, for such circumstances stretch the boundaries of the societal assumptions to an excessive degree. If, for instance, a despot is responsible for completely reorganizing the society in such a way that many within it are harmed, as in the case of Nazi Germany, an inherent conflict must erupt within the individual. They are expected to conform to the state, for the state allows for the society in which they are protected. However, their lives are indisputably contributing factors to the society’s standing. These lives are not random constructs, but composed of belief systems and ethical values, usually reflected by the society. Consequently, when an enormously impactful situation occurs wherein these values are defied by the society, the individual must be torn. To adhere to personal beliefs, even those most devoutly held, must create a schism between the individual and the society so long accepted as an extension of themselves. Thus it may be seen that, while hindsight renders German citizenry participation in, or lack of resistance to, the rise of Naziism an unconscionable thing, the reality is somewhat more unsettling. Simply, in those times when outrageous crimes against humanity are enacted, a host of elements makes an ethical choice less than clear.
This can be better explained by viewing how English philosopher Thomas Hobbes defined a “social contract”. As it stands, the phrase is suggestive of a kind of mutual responsibility between all the members of a civilized society, and this was to some extent its thrust. Hobbes, however, took it to a fiercely royalist terrain. In his thinking, mankind is bound to establish social contracts with a government it is resolutely obedient to because the alternative is the primitive and savage “state of nature”, in which no reciprocity or justice may exist (McClelland, 1996, p. 185). That Hobbes was, again, something of a proponent of monarchy rule is actually beside the point, for his view of the social contract underscores the dilemma mentioned above. That is to say, the contractual component with the “social contract” is its most crucial feature, for it implies that citizens – or subjects – are bound to comply with the edicts of their society’s rule. To fail to do so would be to invite a situation perhaps more disastrous than any crime against humanity, for the Hobbesian perception of life prior to civilization is unthinkably brutal. For Thomas Hobbes, the battle lines are drawn from the start, and the individual who, as bystander, takes it upon himself to defy the state/society is engaging in an action not moral, but foolish.
Conversely, St. Thomas Aquinas reveals in his thinking, ages before the adamantly pragmatic Hobbes, a conviction regarding the issue more in keeping with wider philosophical concerns. More exactly, in assessing man’s responsibility to his fellow man, Aquinas rests upon the foundations of virtue and goodness as exemplified by both Christian principles and the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. This factor clearly determines the position of Aquinas in regard to human responsibility. He by no means dismissed the importance of acknowledging material concerns in daily existence, but he resolutely holds that, as man’s ultimate fate lies beyond the temporal world, only those values expressive of absolute virtue must be in place (Germino, 1992, p. 128). Most particularly, in his recognition of four laws governing existence, Aquinas rather tellingly identifies two as “eternal” and “divine”. In asserting the vast import of an ethical greatness as man’s ultimate determinate, Aquinas powerfully presents the argument that no man may stand back while a crime against humanity is perpetrated, for the highest authority and standard must always be principally observed.
On a more earthbound level, and nicely balancing the evangelical passion of Aquinas with the harsh practicality of Hobbes, John Locke presents an evolved philosophy which, in a fashion, echoes Aristotelian approaches to ethics. Simply, it is difficult to conceive of Locke endorsing a “bystander” stance when a great injustice is being done. He somewhat shares “social contract” ground with Hobbes, but Locke drastically parts company with Hobbes’ liking for regal authority. While he fully supports a well-maintained society as demanding duty as it promotes opportunities for happiness, Locke also insists that a society is not merely within its right to revolt against an unjust regime, but ethically obligated to do so. In Locke, there is a sense that civilizations are organic, evolving things, and require the attention of their peoples. For him, the society and the individuals are mutually inclusive properties. In such a view, standing by while atrocities occur is virtually as criminal as the actions themselves.
Of course, no philosopher can develop a theory based upon, or foreseeing, a crime of the proportions of the Holocaust. Philosophers can, however, provide essential guideposts, and other elements of a non-philosophical nature also assist in generating a specific ideology in this regard. As it must be acknowledged that a human being is frequently subject to weakness and lapses from ethical conduct, it must follow that the same is true of a society, inherently composed of such creatures. To exist within the society, then, translates to an acceptance of the same potentials for good or ill, and each person is consequently obligated to address these larger failings, as they would within their own persons or their own households. Morality, simply, can never be confined to one arena.
To some extent, of course, this is widely understood and accepted within most societies. It is when boundaries are crossed, and in distinctly expansive and unethical ways, that the real test comes, for then the individual must be prepared to sacrifice any number of comforts, and even liberties, in opposing a government’s unconscionable actions. It means, essentially, defying one’s own society to the extent of removing one’s self from it, and this clearly requires a courage beyond moral conviction. Historically speaking, it has never been easy, or without actual danger. Untold numbers of Germans fled their native country because they could not abide the Nazi policies, and consequently suffered both hardships and the trauma of separation from a beloved nation. In the United States, citizens faced extreme deprivation, as well as physical harm, when they vocally opposed the war camps established in the country for citizens who happened to be of German and Japanese extraction. These instances reveal a truth, in that standing by while injustice or cruelty occurs is never an acceptable stance, simply because such people did not stand by. The great philosophers tend to unite on a basic tenet, that each man and woman must answer to themselves, no matter the enormity of the culture in which they live, and this ethical safeguard of sorts then becomes the actual foundation of the culture. The person who then will not respond properly to a criminal action within his society is, essentially, undermining that very society, as he also chooses to eviscerate his own standing as a human being. To stand by as crimes against humanity are committed is to negate, not only the value of the society, but the essential worth of one’s self.
The Study of Human Rights
It is difficult to conceive of a subject more infused with controversy, and more likely to generate perpetual debate, than that of human rights. On one level, it is not one subject, but many; the varying definitions of “human”, in terms of how each culture values an individual, must then go to identifying them in unique ways. Then, the nature of humanity as it has thus far played out indicates extraordinary changes in just how the word “right” is viewed, and in every corner of the world. The evolution continues, as well, and all of these factors render the topic endlessly volatile. In a very real sense, studying human rights is not unlike studying the composition of a train speeding by, for every era brings forth a different landscape and perspective to it.
Never content to leave a difficult issue merely problematic, mankind has steadily added further complications to the study. Distinctions between legal and moral rights, as well as between claim and liberty rights, confuse and obfuscate any real attempt to isolate a true definition of them, even as their purpose is to clarify. For example, that claim rights are included in the canon of human rights is an extraneous, if necessary, complication. It exacerbates efforts to truly define the former. It erects a stratification, as it were, within the subject, for this extension of it applies to a specific form of human interaction. That interaction may take many forms, as in the claim rights of a parent over a child, or an employer over a worker, but this additional breakdown of parameters only serves to illustrate the intrinsic difficulties in defining human rights within any form of human interaction. So, too, are liberty rights inevitably contingent upon how and where the rights are being exercised. While, again, there is some necessity for assessing the imports and values of these rights, the ironic reality is that both move the examination further away from the core issue through the inherent factor of individual circumstances.
The distinctions of moral and legal rights come nearer, at least, to a better understanding of basic human rights, for it acknowledges the chief obstacle within the subject, which is that human rights are inherently defined by human interaction. As is evident, there would likely be no subject or study to discuss, were humans allowed to somehow enjoy individual and complete autonomy. It is only when, as in any societal structure, they are compelled to live and function together that such rights come into question at all. In fact, it could be argued that all human rights study is necessarily done by abnegation; only the borders, potential or real, placed around rights gives them substance. In a society or culture, then, these borders are established as legal parameters, presumably based on a consensus of feeling regarding appropriateness. Within this classification are liberty and claim rights, standing in a sense as subheadings under the ‘legal”. Such breakdowns tend to promote a sense of assurance, that humanity is nearer to a more full comprehension of human rights. If, it is perceived, we take so much trouble in specifying what they are, it is implied that we honor the core elements of them.
The problem with this sort of thinking is that visceral factors, essentially within human as prompting their own ideas of their own rights, do not so easily lend themselves to classification. Moral rights, for instance, is a term extraordinarily open to an oxymoron status, for morality is an intensely subjective element, even when there is general agreement about it in broad terms. It is, admittedly, pleasing to most to hold to a sense that human rights emanate from a universally maintained idea of human worth in moral terms: “There is something about human nature, often called human dignity, that confers upon human beings a very special moral status” (Wellman, 2010, p. 21). Unfortunately, the “morality” perfectly in place for one person may violate the morality of a neighbor. Gradations of meaning and import, and of a massive variety of ethical and moral views, diffuse so happy an outlook, and blatantly illustrate the regrettable need for legal rights to better protect what rights may be protected.
None of the above seems to be helpful in encouraging a study of human rights. Everything related to the issue, in fact, appears to be both cyclically and inextricably confounding. This of itself, however, most effectively validates such a study, for the intense difficulty and complexity of the subject nonetheless surrounds an issue absolutely central to humanity’s role. If human rights is a muddled affair because humans have problems in establishing on what grounds such rights are based, this inevitably means that human beings are performing what may be the most solemn and important task they can undertake: they are evaluating and questioning what gives them worth as beings. “Rights”, then, are actually nothing more than consequences of this crucial process. They exist as the results of how, as objectively as possible, the species can view its place in life and the courses it may reasonably take. There is no more fundamental study, for it encompasses simultaneously the value of man and the natural obligations man must observe in concert with his fellow beings.
Equally critical to this is, not unexpectedly, the element of communication. In basic terms, we can only know how others value their liberties, and how they perceive their rights to exercise such liberties, by the ways in which they relate their reasoning. So, too, can we only identify common grounds of morality, and subsequently rights, through mutual expression. This factor allows for enormous variations in the determining of human rights, for it is a regrettable circumstance in human affairs that, historically speaking, the most aggressive communicators tend to carry the day. When this occurs, and in a striking illustration of how human rights are interwoven into the fabric of all living, human rights themselves may be eclipsed. This foundational component of humanity is then rendered remarkably fragile, as communication, either too forceful or badly conducted, vastly diminishes it because in these instances the form is assuming the place of the subject. Communication does not merely better outline or define ideas about human rights; ultimately, it gives shape to what otherwise could not be known. This being the case, communication may pervert human rights as effectively as it may promote the same.
In the final analysis, the study of human rights, as inevitably frustrating and self-defeating as it typically is, can never be abandoned by any people with a claim to civilization. That it invariably spawns conflict, even as it evolves in meaning and direction, only underscores its importance to the true evolution of humanity. To cease investigating the nature of human rights would equate to an established idea of what man is, at his most visceral level, and that would betray an arrogance unspeakable in its implications. It would mean, literally, a cessation of learning and advancement. When human rights are studied, humans are studied, for their rights are extensions of their innermost beings. If communication creates problems in the process, the reality remains that the innate difficulty of the subject leads to incentives to improve communication. If a legal right as established by a society is seen as failing to ensure a moral right, such rights often change. The study of human rights is the perpetual discovery of the nature of man, and as such demands consistent attention.
Frede, D. (Summer, 2009). “Plato’s Ethics: An Overview.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=plato-ethics
Germino, D. L. (1982). Political Philosophy and the Open Society. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.
Irwin, T. (1995). Classical Philosophy: Plato’s Ethics. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.
Kant, I. (2008). The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics. Rockville, MD: Arc Manor, LLC.
Kraut, R. (2006). The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, Publishers.
McClelland, J. P. (1996). A History of Western Political Thought. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Wellman, C. (2010). The Moral Dimensions of Human Rights. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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