In an effort to make the subject matter of ethics more understandable and to allow the theory presented in this book to be understood in relation to other theories, a comparison of it with some of the major ethical theories in the history of philosophy is given below.
The theory of ethics contained in this book coincides with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in several important ways and diverges in several other important ways. The main points of agreement are given as follows.
A good life is seen as a life that is good from the viewpoint of the person living it and from the viewpoints of others able to appraise it. It is a life of good citizenship and of acting justly and prudently. It is a life that makes full and appropriate use of one’s intellectual faculties and of any special talents that one may have. It is a life concerned with the acquisition of virtue, sound practical judgment, and useful skills. It is a life guided by both ethical rules and moral judgment, which need to be developed together as one learns to appreciate ethical subtleties.
The function of government is seen as doing all that it effectively can to enable and encourage its citizens to live this type of good life. It needs to uphold and exemplify virtue. It needs to ensure that appropriate kinds of training and education are available to all.
Learning to be a judge of excellence in any area where there are established standards of excellence is seen as a matter of learning from those who know. Generally this means learning to do something excellently and concurrently learning to distinguish between excellent work and poorer quality work of that type. It is to be expected that in a well-ordered society new and improved standards of excellence will continually emerge.
Virtues are seen as real and as basic standards of ethical behavior. The cultivation of virtues and of the practical judgment that produces virtues is seen as a central concern of ethics. Furthermore, virtue is seen as contributing to a good life and a life of happiness and satisfaction.
The above are the points where this book’s theory agrees with Aristotelian ethics. The claims made here that stand in opposition to Aristotelian ethics are set forth below.
For individuals and for groups, the appropriate end of action is a progressively realized and continually readjusted vision of the best and most that can be achieved. Intelligent, right-minded behavior consists of pursuing this progressively defined end, which is part of the intended meaning of the phrase, “doing the most good”.
Doing the most good is a process of formation and development. It is a process of jointly and cooperatively devising, modifying and carrying out plans for acquiring and utilizing abilities. As they mature, these plans come to involve milestones, assignments of responsibilities, and procedures for review and evaluation.
The phrases, “doing the most good” and “achieving the best and most that can be achieved”, both mean making the greatest possible contribution to the sustenance, resources, training and help needed by others, both individuals and groups, to enable them to do the most good, in turn.
What constitutes a good life or the best life attainable may be far different for one person or group than for another. The best life that one can live is a life of persisting in efforts to do the most good. This is also a life of learning how to do various things, learning how the things that one can do can contribute to the living of a good life by others, and learning to want to do the most good. What path is followed in doing this and how others contribute positively or negatively will be different for different persons or groups. Living a good life, a life of doing the most good, is a cooperative enterprize and an enterprize that needs to have a life of its own.
People will differ in their success in living a good life, but these differences are not discoverably due to inherent differences in moral quality. The notion of inherent moral qualities is a misconception. Certainly there are genetic differences between people. These genetic differences produce not only differences in people’s appearances but also account for differences in degrees of intelligence of various kinds, and influence personality differences in various ways. However, these factors alone are not responsible for good or bad behavior. Behavior is produced day by day and moment by moment. What a person does, what the person hears from others, or what happens to the person on one occasion may affect his of her behavior on subsequent occasions. The quality of a person’s behavior is shaped by the quality of the nurturing the person has received in the development of abilities and judgment and shaped also by luck in some of the choices made.
Neither individuals nor groups intrinsically merit anything, for the reason just stated. Accordingly also, persons and groups cannot rightly be said to inwardly have moral worth, positively or negatively.
It is both possible and appropriate to respect and even to love persons and groups but to do so in a way that does not involve any judgment of their being in themselves morally good or bad.
Neither rewards nor punishments can ever rightly be seen as being “deserved.” Practices as to which reward or punishment, if any, is to be used in a particular type of case should normally be designed to aid the development of the person or group that is being rewarded or punished. Seriously harmful crimes may legitimately be deterred by harsh punishment and repetitions may legitimately be prevented by long-term removal from society where no milder treatment can be expected to be adequately effective. Yet any criminality and any slovenliness or habituality of misdeeds need to be regarded as having been produced, at least in part, by badly or inattentively conducted child care and early training or uncaring treatment in later life. All these need to be looked upon as potentially correctable ills.
A good life for every person, for every group, and for every living thing is a proper and appropriate end in itself. Realizing this end as nearly as possible means that choices must be made. As nearly as possible they need to be made in accordance with rules acceptable to all. But there needs to be recognition that death is the natural end of life, and that dying sooner rather than later does not necessarily make a life less good. Each creature is asked to do the most good and dying at one time rather than another may be implied in this request. Principles as how to most nearly enable all to lead a good life and when to ask sacrifices of some for the benefit of others are not wholly unknown, but they need to be given considered judgment again and again.