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Towards an Adequate Ethics Definition

Coming up with a clear ethics definition may be helpful in dispelling confusion.

The critical distinction is between being and doing.

Logically, as always, this means there are four possibilities:  ethics is about doing or it is about being or it is about both or it is about neither.

Any adequate ethics definition must specify what ethics is about.  Let’s briefly consider being and then doing.

(1)  An ethics of being is about virtue or moral character.  Since persons are what have or lack virtue or moral character, adopting an ethics of being means adopting the view that it is judgments about persons that are fundamental in ethics or morality.

The critical question here is, “What should I be?”  It is answered with a list of virtues (ethically valuable traits, character traits) such as “be honest” or “be loving.”

This means that judgments of moral value (“aretaic” judgments) are foundational in ethics.  These are judgments such as “My grandfather was a good man” or “She had an impure motive.”

How is the truth or falsity of judgments of moral value to be determined?

Although it’s natural to begin to think in terms of a morally ideal character, it’s important to recognize the phenomenon of acting out of character.  There is room for degrees of being moral.  Still, the moral ideal will be a person who has a list of virtues that characterizes a saint or sage.

Plato, Aristotle, and, perhaps, Nietzsche were philosophers in the western tradition who argued for an ethics of being.

(2)  By way of contrast, Kant and Mill were philosophers who argued for an ethics of doing.

An ethics of doing is about conduct.

The critical question here is:  “What should I do?”  It is answered with a list of rules or imperatives such as “Honor your parents” or “Don’t lie.”

This means that judgments of moral obligation (“deontic“) judgments are foundational in ethics.  They may be either particular (for example, “I ought not to escape from prison”) or general (for example, “All of us should love one another”).

How is the truth or falsity of judgments of moral obligation to be determined?

Since one either follows or breaks a rule, there is no room for degrees of being moral.  This means that there is no room in an ethics of doing for moral saints or sages.

(3)  A third possibility when it comes to an adequate ethics definition is that an ethics of being and an ethics of doing are just two ways of understanding one way of being ethical or moral.

(4)  A fourth possibility is that neither an ethics of being nor an ethics of doing is adequate.

Which of the four possibilities do you think is correct?

What reasons do you think justify your position and eliminate the other three?

If you have not seriously considered these questions, you simply lack a clear ethics definition.  This does not entail that you are not a good person or that you cannot act rightly, but do you really think that conceptual confusion is helpful?

Since these ideas are important, I encourage you to examine them.  Why not?  Except confusion, you’ve nothing important to lose!

Posted in moral well-being

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