Comparison with Other Theories of Ethics

  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.

Aristotelian Ethics

  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.




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