Ethics isn’t merely about the reality of the world, but how the world ought to be. Some argue that since the world isn’t fair, everyone needs to get used to it. In defense of ethics, rather than resigning one’s life to the harsh conditions of hatred, corruption, and violence, one should rather ask why the world needs to be unfair. If life can potentially be better, then what can be done to make it better?
Shouldn’t people do something to improve the lives of others, or at the very least, mitigate their pain and suffering? Should endangered species be shot and collected as trophies to be placed on walls or should animals be protected? Should governments, grassroots movements and corporations, among other groups, promote the most effective policies to decrease the disastrous effects of climate change? Can the ongoing nuclear threat be eliminated?
Ethics concerns itself with ought and should, not necessarily with what is or isn’t. Additionally, ethics isn’t the same thing as the law. While speeding is illegal, for instance, speeding in the case of a dire emergency may be considered ethical. While the law may inspire some ethical actions, law in itself doesn’t equate to what is ethical. A law may even be unethical, such as laws that are racist, sexist, exploitative, and so on, in the past or continuing in the present. There must be ethical standards to judge whether laws are justified or not. If laws truly equate to ethics, then law X (kill your first born, racially segregate, take advantage of a tax bill to give money to the rich.) would be considered right because it is the law. These categories, while overlapping sometimes, are distinct from each other.
Furthermore, when discussing ethics, it is important to be precise. Using three classes (required, permitted, forbidden) when describing moral issues may be more nuanced than simply saying something is right, wrong, good, and bad.
Some people may ask, “What’s the point of being ethical at all?” On a practical basis, it may be in one’s basic self-interest. To follow certain guidelines such as not murdering, stealing, harming, and lying, in a civilization, provides people with a greater chance of group harmony, happiness, and the reduction of suffering.
In forming ethical standards, one should be mindful of one’s thoughts and feelings and how they relate to the rest of the world. Learning about personal beliefs, values, intuitions, thinking about difficult moral problems, remaining curious, open-minded, asking questions, evolving based on better information, can help a person develop a solid ethical framework. Integrity forms from knowledge, intention, and actions, based on consistent principles that one develops throughout one’s life.
In subjectivism, ethical statements are personal opinions. If that’s the case, then statements aimed at achieving moral truth are nonsensical or contradictive. Some subjectivists state that even though there is no objective fact regarding whether something is good or bad, there are a diverse range of tastes or preferences.
In other words, something may be right for me but wrong for you, right for you but wrong for another person. This philosophy is a form of relativism because right/wrong is relative to a certain person. To expand on this point, when someone says that something is wrong, they are really talking about their own personal opinions regarding an issue rather than the issue itself.
To respond to subjectivism, one should judge ethics based on the truth. Does believing in X, especially when many people disagree about X, make it valid? Does it correspond with what’s factual or logical? Subjectivists consider all ethical views to be opinions, what’s right for one person or people. If one is saying, however, that they are right and another person is wrong, then that goes beyond the ethical claim that all of ethics are merely opinions, preferences, personal views. Additionally, if everyone had personal views that are right for them, then would every view be considered correct and infallible? Doesn’t this mean that every ethical belief about sexism and racism is right? For the subjectivist, if everyone is right (for each person), then everything would then be permissible (for them), like theft, murder, slavery, and so on. While subjectivism may seem flawed, it does point to certain valuable features about ethics: just because someone believes something different than you doesn’t mean they’re wrong, don’t be too quick to judge, and some people do have ethical views that are correct.
Related to subjectivism is cultural relativism. In this theory, right/wrong are related to one’s culture. While in cultural relativism, there is no objective truth about how one should live, there are ethical standards that transcend the individual view. A person can do something wrong if they violate the norms of their culture. On the other hand, a person from one culture can’t judge people in other cultures.
While there are similarities between cultures (e.g. generally not allowing the murder of infants), there are differences in views on how to raise a child, homosexuality, women’s rights, blasphemy, and so on. Some cultural relativists believe that people should follow the ethical standards of their given culture. People, especially in modern times, often try to show sensitivity to different cultures to avoid being ethnocentric. Ethnocentrism has led to the suffering of different cultures who are judged as primitive, who are forced to give up their beliefs, values, religions, languages, lands, communities, families, and even lives.
For all the benefits of cultural relativism, it does have issues as well. Firstly, there is not always a clear boundary between different cultures. Many cultures, for instance, exist in a place like America. They’ll cross-pollinate each other, changing overtime. Secondly, many individuals belong to more than one culture or subculture. These cultures don’t always give the same advice about ethical issues either. Some will overlap in values, beliefs, and practices. Others will differ greatly. While cultures coexist relative to each other, some will be intolerant, hostile, and violent. Some cultures intermingle, but alternatively, there are other cultures that are not tolerant.
Just because a person belongs to one culture, whether it’s from their age, religion, gender, home, work, hobbies, music, race, ethnicity, and so on, doesn’t mean they have to remain in that culture indefinitely (in some cases). Furthermore, people who are born in one culture may consider that culture’s practices to be unethical (like the Nazi party) and they’ve got the right to criticize it. They don’t have to tolerate that culture unconditionally, simply because of where they were born. They can, however, choose to tolerate a culture that is internally/externally tolerant toward others.
Additionally, if cultural relativism is absolutely true in claiming that there isn’t a universal ethics that transcends every culture, then wouldn’t that be an absolute statement too? While there still may be some bugs in cultural relativism, it’s important to avoid judgements about dissimilar cultures and to question one’s own cultural beliefs. Likewise, in designing an ethical system, it’s important to have tolerance for other people as well.
In emotivism, ethical statements such as “thou shall not kill” are not necessarily facts. While cultural relativists avoid judging other cultures and subjectivists don’t like to judge another person as morally right and wrong, emotivism deals with what ethical words mean.
Statements about how the universe works, such as whether the earth is spherical, can be scientifically tested. Statements on ethics, however, say more about the motivation of the person than the statement itself. Ethical claims are emotional expressions. Ethics essentially is a sophisticated way of saying “Yay!” or “Boo!” toward something. In other words, to command others to not steal, to say that shoplifting is wrong, is to simply say that it disappoints, aggravates, and bothers the person saying that it is wrong.
Emotions and motivations are important in making decisions. To disregard rational argument for a system of booing and cheering, however, would eventually make ethical positions seem confusing, nonsensical, and illogical. People, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily motivated to act based on scientific facts alone. They have to be emotionally invested and influenced to do the right thing.
Before a person is motivated to act ethically, can they truly do so? If a human is free to choose the right action, as opposed to another action that is physically and mentally impossible (levitating, telekinesis), should they act in such a way? Different ethical theories argue about how a person ought to be, what they should do, based on the autonomy they have or don’t have.
This ties in with human nature. People may be disposed to lovingkindness, compassion, and caring. They may be selfish, greedy, and cruel. They may also be neutral or a mix of all these traits. These traits may be cultivated or atrophied over time, depending on one’s intentions and actions. Some philosophers argue that people need to constrain what is destructive inside them and strengthen what is creative inside them. Following an ethical path may then be a reflection of human nature or a distortion of nature.
What a person chooses, based on their relative freedom, could still be determined from genetics, desires, God/Gods, scientific laws, and so on. Freewill may be conditional or part of a greater plan, contingent on the unfolding of the universe or built upon previous choices. Humans may have the illusion of freewill while they’re really influenced from their narrow biology in a changing universe. They’re acting from what they believe is freedom, but where are their choices coming from, their thoughts? Do they choose each word or movement, every heartbeat or breath from their lungs?
Compatibilists agree that people are defined from a past, genetics, and limitations under physical laws, while still determining their lives. They can act to control the outcomes of what’s fixed, to consciously make decisions. Reason and instinct may be ultimately determined, but in the possibilities of ethical action, there is still a choice on how to act.
Libertarians, however, believe that people’s behavior cannot be completely predicted. They may still be defined by a past, genetics, and the physical laws in the universe, but they possess non-material minds. While a clear division between non-material and material needs sufficient evidence, human brains are incredibly complicated organs. They may not necessarily work in a predictable, deterministic manner. Even if they do, they’re so complex that they seem free, even if they’re running from the laws of the universe.
Despite whether freewill exists or not, are humans predisposed to do good or evil? Philosophers like Mencius (BCE 372-289) claimed that humans are naturally good. When a child is endangered, one is sympathetic. If a tragedy befalls a friend or a family member, one feels compassion for them. While caring may come naturally to a person, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will help or do an ethical action. Mencius believed that people should tend to their gardens, cultivating actions of caring, love, generosity, and so on. Taoists consider humans to be good too. One with nature, spontaneous, free. Rather than cultivating virtue, people should remove their attachments to what the world is and how everything should be. One should let go rather than hold on. For someone like Rousseau (1712-1778), artificial rules imposed on individuals shackle their goodness. Society leads to power, desire, conflict, preventing one’s freedom.
Then there are philosophers who view human nature as innately bad. Xunzi thought that people are naturally self-interested, competitive, greedy, and insensitive toward others. They have to consciously devote themselves to virtue in order to overcome their tendencies. While humans may not desire suffering for others, they are still selfish. Hobbes was pessimistic about people too. He thought of humans as having short-term and long-term self-interest. Acting on selfish whims may satisfy an immediate craving but it will be disastrous in the long-term (pain, jail, violence, death). Long-term selfishness is more practically advantageous for developing trust, respect, success, and so on. To habitually change and be ethical, one should internalize the rules of wise people, practice virtue, educating themselves daily (Xunzi). Another way would be to enforce rules that punish immoral behavior while appealing to rational self-interest (Hobbes).
Other philosophers don’t see human nature as inherently good or bad. People are inclined to be good and bad. They can be tempted to act in both ways or neither. Human nature may even be completely empty, full of potential for meaning and value. For existentialists such as Sartre, human nature doesn’t have an essence, but is still a condition of existence. Humans will age and die. Between birth and death, they can make choices based on their values. They can make their lives full of meaning in an indifferent universe. For Dong Zhongshu, education, culture and strong rulers, among other influences, help one to check one’s worst impulses. Righteous laws restrain the masses from subjecting each other to suffering.
Many religions, however, claim that true virtue is connected with the divine. Religions have different ethical codes that people should follow. Some of these religions disagree on which codes to follow, contradicting each other’s rules about how one should think, feel, believe, and act. Even within the same religion, there are different sects and interpretations of the same laws. In some religions, a prophet dictates a rule because of their God or gods. In other religions, there aren’t gods or God. Additionally, the existence or non-existence of a God may be irrelevant to one’s ethical behavior.
In divine command theory, all ethical actions depend on God, even if someone has freewill. Some religious people believe that God is the utmost authority on good and evil because God understands everything that ever was, is, or will be. Secondly, God will punish anyone who disobeys a divine command. If someone, on the other hand, only acted in an ethical way because of their fear of a punishment, would they truly be ethical? Another issue with divine command theory is that if a command from God is the be-all-end-all of ethics, and God wants people to be happy and avoid suffering, then that doesn’t necessarily make people ethical either. It makes happiness the goal. Furthermore, there may be a conflict between God’s commands (internal contradiction), conflict between interpretations of God’s commands, and commands that are incomplete. If God, for an example, commanded someone not to steal or kill, but that person stole to avoid murder, then in absolute terms, that person would violate a divine command. At the same time, holy books cannot cover situations that happen in every facet of life. People have to interpret the divine commands in changing, new contexts.
One big challenge to divine command theory is the Euthyphro problem (devised by Plato). Could God or gods command anything to be ethical (since they’re all-powerful, all-knowing) or are they not in charge of what’s ethical? If a God or gods accept something as ethical because of its ethical nature, then ethics is beyond them. They’re not truly in charge of what’s ethical. They didn’t create what’s good and evil. If ethical actions are commanded from God/gods, and these deities can make anything become ethical, then child murder, rape, theft, massacres, and so on, can be divinely judged as ethical. If gods/God can instantly change what’s ethical at any time, then ethics becomes arbitrary. Moreover, accepting rape as good because of a divine command seems to be an absurd rule to follow. From accepting either of the positions in the Euthyphro dilemma, divine command theory soon appears to be false and irrational.
Some people are guided to act in an ethical manner because of religious codes. Other people are not religious. They don’t necessarily believe that the divine exists, guides their lives in a meaningful way, offers any value in an increasingly modern age, and so on. Some people who believe in God (deists) believe that God created the universe but is indifferent toward what’s created. Others argue that it always will be impossible to know God’s mind due to humanity’s limited nature. God is beyond the understanding of all. Then there are people who believe in a God or gods, but consider the divine irrelevant to living a good life.
In this advanced age, science has helped people’s lives tremendously. Science draws conclusions based on sufficient evidence. That evidence correlates with the material world. Some of the claims of religion, like the existence of a God or angels, may be immaterial. Because science relies on repeated and tested observations in the material world, it doesn’t make any claims about the immaterial world. It avoids any judgement that is not based on thorough evidence. Kant argued that people should concern themselves with what’s reasonable—not necessarily with what’s spiritual or immaterial. Reason guides humanity to act in an ethical way. Other philosophers such as John Stuart Mill viewed happiness as both the path and goal. Rather than depending on spiritual insight for answers, going after pleasure and avoiding suffering for oneself and others, is its own reward. Another compatible ethics with science, seen in Aristotle and Confucius, states that individuals should cultivate virtue, reduce vice, and form good relationships with people.
Some religious followers believe that hell/heaven is incentive enough to do good and not do evil. While there is no scientific evidence for the existence of heaven and hell, people will be less inclined to do an evil deed if there are negative consequences. People, however, don’t have to wait until they die to be punished. A person who lies regularly, for instance, is trusted less. Someone who steals may be jailed, killed, or suffer from their remorse. Furthermore, even the most devout religious people, who believe heaven and hell exist, do not always do the right thing. Those who are both religious and not religious do good and bad things. Being religious isn’t the same thing as being ethical.
There are arguments that a scientific worldview can lead to unethical behavior. For example, people have misused the phrase “survival of the fittest” to justify their own selfish behavior. There are other scientific ideas, such as the selfish gene, which may seem to support unethical behavior. Firstly, the saying “survival of the fittest” doesn’t truly mean that the strongest, toughest, or most ruthless of competitors will reign supreme in the gene pool. Even if the best of the best lives, they might not reproduce. Survival of the fittest means the best adapted to a given environment at a given time probably will survive and reproduce. As for the selfish gene hypothesis, selfish genes are merely advantageous genes selected over generations with a tendency to replicate themselves. Having multitudes of genes that want to replicate doesn’t preclude a person from being ethical. People, moreover, aren’t merely ethical. They want to survive and mate and flourish, which means they probably value social relations. Murdering, cheating, and lying, among other actions that cause suffering, tend to make for poorer social relations. It’s in a person’s best interest to be ethical.
There are, however, challenges about why people are truly ethical. Some critics argue that some ethical systems are inherently biased. Traditional ethics may reflect the beliefs of one race/class/gender to the exclusion of others. For example, why is it that only certain philosophers are taught in academia and not others? Why do the rich—with the privilege to ponder philosophy in comfort—represent the interests of the entire world? How many women throughout history were given the chance to contemplate ethics as opposed to men?
Then there is the argument that ethics is relativistic to an individual or given culture. Just because an ethical system applies to one person/group doesn’t mean that it has any authority to dictate to other people. Furthermore, to follow a strict moral code that applies to everyone, without challenging that code if it conflicts with one’s beliefs, is to violate one’s integrity.
Nietzsche thought that one should passionately live in one’s own way, not compromising one’s inner strength. Rather than finding a personal path in self-creativity, traditional ethics imposes codes and principles upon people. It forces masses to conform. People should instead be aware of their own motivations, understanding their cowardice and bravery, strengths and weaknesses, when forming themselves. They should seek challenges and engage with life fully. Most people, however, lean on religions, traditional ethics, and gods. They use those ideas as crutches. As these myths fall apart, degrading overtime, people will finally be free. They will be able to choose their own lives. Once existence becomes comfortable for a person, he or she has given up personal responsibility. To relinquish one’s individuality is to become a faceless member of a group. Nietzsche didn’t want mediocrity to take away a person’s possibilities. He saw an individual as an artist, creating their principles continually. Rather than painting a portrait with a full palette, most, however, use an assortment of grays.
Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard believed that one should live a life of integrity. He thought that people are born in despair—not taking full control of their lives, not taking risks, succumbing to what’s easy—but they can take responsibility for themselves. They often fall into traps of stagnation, believing that they cannot change their condition. Furthermore, they renounce the divine and forget to fully engage with meaningful pursuits.
From a Taoist perspective, one exists in harmony with nature (the Tao). There is no true separation of one from nature. It is the mind that creates the dualities of good/evil, black/white, chaos/order. Like Yin/Yang, there is movement of one in the other. Life is not only Yin, not only Yang. One cannot be without the other. People often try to impose their ways on what is, resisting reality, and then suffer. Taoists don’t attach themselves to virtue/vice. They are open without judgement, flowing with all phenomena. Like a mirror that reflects the rippling waves. Without preference, expectations, one spontaneously acts without acting. Effortless in the moment, unconstrained by artificial rules and principles, trusting in what is.
While Taoists move beyond mental categories, virtue ethicists focus on having a good character. People are defined through their virtues and vices. What one does with their character traits, such as honesty, humility, generosity, and so on, matters in each moment. Being virtuous isn’t something chosen when it’s convenient. One should always develop their good intentions and actions until those actions form into habits. Those habits will give direction to life, pulling one away from vice. One should be aligned with virtuous thinking, feeling, action, and seeing. They don’t ignore someone else’s plight, desire to steal, avoid meaningful work, or think selfishly. A virtuous person doesn’t rely on rigid rules to solve moral issues. One uses practical wisdom to asses each situation, knowing what needs to be done.
Aristotle argued that virtuosity is an end in itself. While some people use money to buy a house to live in a harmonious community, being an excellent person is its own reward. Secondly, to be virtuous is to live up to one’s fullest capabilities, to be complete. To develop maturity in kindness, trustworthiness, loyalty, lovingness, and so on, is to reduce suffering, build happiness, and have better relationships with people.
Some philosophers, such as the stoics, believe that virtue is sufficient enough to bring forth happiness. It doesn’t matter what circumstances one is in (poor, rich, sick, healthy). One can be as happy sweeping streets as they can be as the king of a land. Other philosophers, such as Aristotle, thought that people cannot be happy without being virtuous first, but other external conditions are needed as well (e.g., wealth, food, shelter). He believed that humans are unique in their ability to use intellectual virtues (reason, wisdom) to reflect about themselves, existence, and the universe, while at the same time, dealing with the minutia of life. For Confucius, cultivating the proper virtues for each role (husband, wife, student, child, worker, subject) is essential for the good life. People should move beyond their petty egoic needs to engage in harmonious social relationships.
Between the two extremes of behavior, such as rashness and cowardice, lies virtue. Finding the right balance in life, using good judgement, is the mark of a virtuous person. Being committed to the path—starting from the foundation of the self and family until extending into community, society, and all of humanity—is essential for growth.
As one makes a commitment to practice, one looks up to mentors. From being fired up about virtue, virtuous people are an inspiration on how to live. Taking the example of the Buddha, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Black Elk, and so on, guides people toward their own progress. Even a garbageman, custodian, teacher, or anyone, can be an exemplary character. They don’t necessarily need to be famous. From looking up to special guides at various stages in one’s life, and practicing, one will transform into a better human being.
Sometimes it is hard to know what virtues are right in each situation. There is no objective standard in selecting the correct number of traits to express, how to express them, when they are most needed or not needed. While virtue ethics doesn’t dictate what to specifically do, it points in the right direction. Every situation is so specific that not all virtues will be necessary. They are guides for one’s behavior, dependent on context. One has to use one’s own creative moral judgement to solve problems. The virtue ethicist may be seen as a perfectionist, trying to be a good person only for themselves, not because they care. On the other hand, one who practices virtue works to align their thoughts and feelings, character and behavior. They don’t act for themselves alone but for everyone. They are virtuous in one situation so that they will be helpful, generous, kind, and so on, in another. While conditions external to people, such as community, health, genes, and so on, heavily influence one’s development, being aware of how these conditions impact others, acting with responsibility and freedom, helping people who are suffering and giving them opportunities, is crucial for growth.
For consequentialists, what matters are the consequences of actions. Does an ethical action promote flourishing and reduce suffering, create happiness and take away pain? While some consequentialists only believe the ends justify the means, others take into consideration the motivations and intentions involved in an action. Breaking several traffic laws to drive a pregnant woman to a hospital, stealing a basket of apples to feed a starving child, and so on, may seem like the ends (consequences) justify the means (actions). Other moral dilemmas, such as torturing a suspected terrorist or murdering someone who may harm others, are more intuitively ambiguous situations.
Consequentialists generally place more value in the outcomes of actions than with following principles or developing character. It’s important, though, when deciding on the value of good consequences and bad consequences, to evaluate them appropriately. Utilitarian philosophers want to promote happiness and reduce suffering. Jeremy Bentham wrote that happiness, well-being, and pleasure are the highest goods. He considered these goods from a calculus of intensity, duration, certainty, remoteness, chance, extent, and so on. How long will a person gain pleasure for, how will it affect others, how easy or likely will they experience happiness, will there be unintended consequences, a chance of suffering, and who will suffer more? John Stuart Mill found Bentham’s approach to be useful, but he distinguished further between higher and lower goods. Experiencing pleasure isn’t the same for all people. Deciding on the right pleasures for the right people, depending on age, experience, refinement, wisdom, and so on, is necessary for true flourishing.
Utilitarians want to maximize utility to bring forth the best results. Therefore, people are considered on an equal basis. Nobody is better than anyone else simply because they are rich, poor, white, black, male, and/or female. While this determination (everyone is equal to one in moral weight) is fair and impartial, there are radical implications, such as choosing between the life of a lover and a stranger. People may believe in this rule as an idea, but in application, it may be hard to condemn one’s child while saving an adult acquaintance. One has to make tough moral choices that can negatively affect the life of a lover, friend, and family member, to help the group.
Utilitarians desire the greatest good for the greatest number of people. One has to asses each situation to determine what the right options are and how to act upon them. How can a person with ten dollars in their pocket act to make the most people happy? Will they donate to a charity, buy a hot meal for the homeless man on the street, invest in a non-profit company? There are values that can be placed on a given set of possibilities in each moment. It is important to remember that since everyone exists with the same moral weight, one’s own interests matter as much as the person being helped. One should never neglect self-care, sacrificing themselves totally (unless by their action, they are saving a group, who potentially won’t cause harm to others).
Other utilitarians take an indirect approach to ethics. They follow principles that generally yield the best consequences. While a little lie may prevent someone from getting their feelings hurt, always lying will cause a lot of suffering. These utilitarians ask themselves how a principle impacted people in the past and what would happen if everyone followed it (e.g., no lying, no stealing). Then they ask what would happen if everyone followed the opposite of the principle. There may even be degrees, or alternatives, to a principle other than simply lying/not lying, stealing/not stealing.
Some critics point out that utilitarianism demands too much. Someone can donate money to a charity, for instance, but should they sell all their possessions and devote their entire lives to caring for starving children? How far should one go when being ethical? Some ethicists make a distinction between doing one’s duty, such as saving a child from drowning, from going beyond what’s in one’s duty. While giving away all of one’s possessions is admirable, it may not be in one’s best interest. Using common sense to determine what is the best path to take is important. Sacrificing everything for others, at one’s ultimate expense, can lead to sickness, mental illness, poverty, and death.
Another criticism of utilitarianism is that acting for the greatest good can lead to detachment. If one doesn’t believe in position X, but follows position X to benefit the most people, then that person is acting contrary to his/her own beliefs. Utilitarian ethics can run counter to own’s own intuitions and beliefs about what’s right. If utilitarian ethics are consistent with one’s beliefs, then that person’s integrity is preserved, but if the two are at odds, then that inevitably will cause internal conflict.
Furthermore, no one is omniscient. While a person can reasonably predict some of the consequences of their actions, not all consequences can be foreseen. Some things will be uncertain or have other effects than are intended. People may punish the ethical and praise the unethical. One will never know every factor in a given situation, but with reasonable consideration, one can choose options with positive, probable results.
Following only consequences at the expense of principles, however, can be problematic. If a person does something that’s wrong, but isn’t caught for it (and there are no consequences), is that person acting in an unethical manner? In Kantian ethics, that person is unethical.
Immanuel Kant believed that people are free to choose foundational principles for themselves. These principles are personally taken on and followed, not dictated from external authorities (e.g., God, the government, parents, teachers). Kant wrote that one should use reason to develop the right principles. While people share similar drives with other animals, such as breathing and eating and shitting, people have the unique ability to reason their positions. They can reflect on themselves and what their actions are and then act with motivation.
The categorical imperative is developed from one’s reason and autonomy. A person reasons about what path to take from the options available. If he or she chooses to follow a principle, that principle should apply in general and to everyone. Only acting because of what may happen in the future doesn’t help establish the principle. It doesn’t make the motivation behind the action more ethical either. Building homes for the needy to gain validation is different from building homes out of a sense of compassion. Both lead to the same consequences but come from different sources of motivation. Consequences, which are not always predictable, are not in one’s control. Having the intention to act ethically is in one’s control.
One is ethically bound to follow their imperative. Other people may not hold the same principle to be true, however. For Kant, if one believes in an ethical principle, in order to fulfill that principle, one must consent to its demands. Those demands are universal because they apply to everyone. It is important to imagine what everyone would do if they followed the same principle. It may not be realistic to do X all the time and for all people, but if it is possible to do, then it may be something to aspire to achieve. If everyone lived with the same principles, would the world be better? Would the conditions be there, helping one to act in such a way? Kant believed that humans are special because of their rationality. They can find value in life, act after reflection, learn. People are an end in themselves, not a means.
To follow a principle unconditionally, however, would be problematic. One may aspire to never lie, cheat, steal, and so on, but there are some cases where it would be preferable to the alternative. To trick a murderer and tell him that one’s family isn’t home (after being held at gun point) may violate one’s principle (don’t lie), but it could save the family. Kant argued that lying to a murderer is another feature in his system. The murderer is still a human—albeit an irrational one at that time. He believed that to lie would be to compromise his ethical system.
Furthermore, Kant, while acknowledging emotions to be important, didn’t emphasize them in ethical decisions. He praised the human ability to reason above having an emotional sense of balance. Most humans, however, are not always rational. Even those who act ethically do so because of emotions, motivations, and intuitions, which are not the same. Kant, while prizing people as rational creatures, never focused on the environment or animals either. His system left out many crucial issues such as climate change, animal torture, respect for other species, and so on.
Some forms of ethics don’t rely on principles, consequences, and motivations alone. For the contract theorists, ethics should rely on agreements between people to behave and not behave in specific ways. Societies, for example, have social contracts. People are not allowed to steal, murder, or cheat. If their actions violate a chosen contract, then there are consequences. The government, or other institutional powers, enforces these contracts. The enforcers (e.g., judicial system, police, military) get their power as a loan in a democratic society. Many representatives work to enact these contracts rather than only one ruler.
Not everyone agrees on institutional power and its methods, however. Governments that enforce the contracts may be unjust, weak, and so on. John Rawls, in response, created the original position. He made a thought experiment where he asked what would happen if people chose a society from scratch. Will the principles be the same? Will there be more rights for women and minorities and the poor? The restructuring of society (if no one knows what role they will undertake) will be done fairly (under a veil of ignorance). To build a society with fair principles as the foundation, not knowing what social group one will belong to, will maximize people’s freedom. Rawls believed that people should do what they want, and take control over their own lives, as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others. To maximize freedom, citizens need equal rights. There needs to be policies enforced to help everyone rather than a concentration of wealth and power.
In modern society, however, people don’t usually sign explicit contracts. They often make implicit contracts—acting in a way that is consistent with the dictates of a contract—without realizing it. Secondly, there are critics that argue institutions should not be allowed to enforce contracts and distribute goods. They believe that there should be a small government or no government at all. Communitarians disagree with Rawls because they don’t value resources and goods as much as relationships. For them, it is impossible to truly think of a just society using the veil of ignorance. Hypothetically, one can step outside of their social role (male, female, black, white, poor, rich) to develop the fairest principles, but not in actuality. People are too connected to their identities to completely be objective.
While Rawls focused on contract ethics and Kant argued for the categorical imperative, there is one ethical rule that has spanned many cultures. The Golden Rule has endured for thousands of years in Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Plato’s philosophy, Judaism, Hinduism, and so on. It appeals to people despite their race, gender, and religion. It is easy to understand, motivates people to love themselves and others, and takes into consideration the interests of the group. It teaches kings the value of slaves and slaves the value of kings. To empathize with another person—seeing from their perspective—is to move beyond selfish needs.
There is a criticism, however, in how people perceive each other. If one person believes his or her own identity is superior to others, and considers others from self-interest alone, then that person may treat others not how they want to be treated, but how he or she believes the right way to be treated is. The right way to one person may be a projection on another person. Sometimes, on the opposite end, the other person may not be working for their own best-interest either. Their beliefs, values, and desires may be flawed, incomplete, and ignorant.
To revise the Golden Rule to handle these objections, there needs to be a consideration of what humans need, such as food, shelter, health, water, purpose, and so on. Then there should be an examination of the other person’s choice. Is it a choice that benefits others or leads to more suffering? Can someone’s choice to do X be applied universally without harming others? The Golden Rule is a test for a person’s consistency more than a full ethical system. It helps people to do their duties without being hypocrites.
The Golden Rule can be stated in a positive and negative manner. “Do unto others what you yourself would want them to do unto you,” suggests a commitment to be good to others or to impose what’s good unto them. Many times, the positive form of this rule is embedded in a given culture, tradition, religion. People will have different ideas of what it means to be good. The negative form, “Do not do unto others as you would not want them to do unto you,” teaches one to refrain from behaviors that cause harm. The negative Golden rule doesn’t argue about what’s good. It focuses rather on reducing suffering and minimizing one’s impact on others.
Ethics deals with how one should and should not think, feel, and act. To some philosophers, such as the consequentialists, it is about promoting the most happiness and pleasure for the most people, while reducing suffering. In Kantian ethics, one should follow principles that can be applied generally to all. Hobbes may have believed in the worst of human nature while the Taoists removed themselves from concepts altogether. Nietzsche criticized traditional ethics for its conformity and lack of authenticity, especially when one had the freedom to create their own values. Many religions obey the good from divine commandments. Others use religion as a guide for the good life, even though people are not necessarily ethical because they’re religious.
Many ethical systems are flawed and incomplete. Over time, philosophers have counterargued against the critiques upon their core ideas. Others have never truly answered the toughest existential questions, ones that could topple entire belief systems. Many systems, likewise, have differing conceptions of the good life. From family to selfish needs, from no-self to nature, from restructuring a society with equal distribution to following reason alone, ethics is a diverse guide, developing with new challenges in the modern world. More importantly, ethics is a way of life.