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Ethical Theories

Page history last edited by Camille Ann Domingo 12 years, 1 month ago

Contemporary Moral Problems

Chapter 1 - Ethical Theories

I - Egoism and Moral Scepticism

By James Rachels


Review Questions:

  1. 1.       Explain the legend of Gyges. What questions about morality are raised by the story?


The legend of Gyges is pointing out that the man’s true nature is corrupt. Since the shepherd is already invisible, he is already freed from the fear of reprisal thus he can do whatever he pleases. He took the king’s crown, seduced the queen, and abused power. If a virtuous man took the ring on the other hand, Glaucon believes that the virtuous man will do the same thing as the shepherd. . It is simply saying that man is obeying rules and regulations because he does not want to be given sanctions for not doing so. Once he is not anymore bounded with those obligations he will show his true nature which is to only look after himself and no one else. If given absolute freedom, will a person be moral? That, I believe, is the question raised in the story.


  1. 2.       Distinguish between psychological and ethical egoism.


Psychological Egoism is saying that all men are selfish. Men is helping strangers because he know that he would benefit from it thus only acting on self-interest. The view on Ethical Egoism is than men do not care about others as long he behaves on a way that he pleases no matter the effect on others.


  1. 3.       Rachels discusses two arguments for psychological egoism. What are these arguments, and how does he reply to them?


Rachels illustrated an example: given that Smith gives up a trip to the country which he enjoys very much for a friend in need. The illustration given is an act of unselfishness. The first argument is saying that Smith could not be acting unselfishly. Even if he would enjoy the vacation he gave up, staying behind for a friend is merely doing what he wants to do. He should not be praised for his unselfishness because it only goes to show that he just wanted to do it but not acting unselfishly. According to Rachels, this is false. A person could do a certain action not because he wants to do it but he is obliged to do so and sometimes we feel guilt or sense of conflict when we do not do what we are obliged to do. With this, Smith might stay behind for the reason that he is obliged to help his friend and would want to make his friend happy. That feeling of obligation does not exist when you do not care for that person. This very action is what makes him unselfish.


The second argument is this: “Unselfish actions” as what psychological egoism suggested, always gives a sense of satisfaction and peace of mind to the person. Smith could be staying behind because he feels much better helping his friend than going to the country which totally makes him selfish. However, as what Rachels would say the argument is completely silly. If Smith is truly selfish, why would it bother his conscience going to a trip and not helping his friend? It is simply because he cares for his friend and wants him to be happy. If Smith does not care for his friend he would not be happy staying behind. Moreover, no person would crave for “peace of mind” before the achievement of a goal. We have to reach a certain goal first before getting any sense of satisfaction. And just like Smith that we want to desire the welfare of others before our own, this makes us truly unselfish.


  1. 4.       What three commonplace confusions does Rachels detect in the thesis of psychological egoism?


In the theory of psychological egoism, first is the confusion of selfishness with self-interest. Selfishness ignores the interests of others in times when it should not be ignored. An example is hoarding food while others are starving. Self-interest on the other hand, is acting on your own interest but not necessarily selfish. Working hard and obeying the law are all in my self-interest but are all unselfish actions. Second confusion is assuming that all action is done either from self-interest or from motives. There is true selflessness in this world. The third confusion is assuming that a concern for one’s own welfare is unsuited with any true concern for the welfare of others. There is no inconsistency if we want to have a good life for ourselves and for others.


  1. 5.       State the argument for saying that ethical egoism is inconsistent. Why doesn’t Rachels accept this argument?


Ethical egoism is inconsistent for a fact that it cannot be universalized. Ethical egoists would not want to promote their way of life to others since it would be to their disadvantage. He would want to live on a world where he can maximise his self-interest and others will be philanthropist. If ever everyone follows the theory of ethical egoism, we would only fall into inconsistency. An example would be cheating on others and be angry at them if they cheat on you.


  1. 6.       According to Rachels, why shouldn’t we hurt others, and why should we help others? How can the egoist reply?


We should not do actions that would hurt others is solely because other people would be hurt. We should do actions that would help others is solely because other people would be benefitted. The egoist will never accept this reason but he will not argue since there are limits to what the argument can achieve given the situation that the egoist truly does not care about others.


II - Religion and Morality

By John Arthur


Review Questions:

  1. 1.       According to Arthur, how are morality and religion different?


Morality, according to Arthur, is to evaluate the behaviour of others and to feel guilt over the actions that we do. It involves man’s attitude towards different kinds of actions such as cheating or stealing. On the other hand, religion is the belief in supernatural powers and the recognition of its existence and presence. It involves prayer, devotion, dogmas about the supernatural, institutional forms, and authoritative texts.


  1. 2.       Why isn’t religion necessary for a moral motivation?


Religion is not necessary for moral motivation simply because             people can be moral and does not believe on religion at the same time. A person’s basis on making a moral decision is not related to religion. A person might not steal because of his fear of getting caught or the feeling of regret afterwards not because of his religion.


  1. 3.       Why isn’t religion necessary as a source of moral knowledge?


Religion is not necessary as a source of moral knowledge because we need to consider on how much we know about religion in order to give a person moral guidance. Moreover, a person must think about which of the many religions are true given that numerous religions currently exist today. Arthur said that it is easier to weigh the pros and cons of the situation that going to religion which is more complex to understand.


  1. 4.       What is the divine command theory? Why does Arthur reject this theory?


Divine command theory is God’s commandments given to man. God is the foundation on which morality is built. Without God, there could be no right or wrong. A thing is right simply because God commands it. Arthur rejects this theory because what if one day God decides that everything ill would be good and vice versa. He compared this to parents who want their children to do the right thing by commanding it to them. Yet, it does not mean parents can make a thing right by simply commanding it. Another example is of that of the Greek gods and goddesses. Holiness is just whatever all the gods love and what they do not love is not holy. This meant that the gods have no basis for their actions.


  1. 5.       According to Arthur, how are morality and religion connected?


Religion over the years influenced morality and morality also influenced religion. With the understanding of revelation texts in religion is shaped by morality as people seek the best interpretation on how to read it. Also, for many religious people the understanding of moral obligations goes into a personal level – their constant search of self-worth and to be the person they want to be religion-wise and morally-wise. 


  1. 6.       Dewey says that morality is social. What does this mean, according to Arthur?


Morality is social in a sense that other’s opinions matter to us. Sometimes our decisions are based upon whether should we be praised on it or blamed. However, it does not mean than we need to always please the society and measure up to their expectations. It means that our conscience would want to examine our thoughts first before acting upon them. The power of conscience enables us to think about the welfare of others. What if we put ourselves into another people’s place? How do we feel? Is it fair? Understanding how others might feel about our actions and reflecting on our own actions is the very essence that morality is social.


III - Natural Law

By Saint Thomas Aquinas

Review Questions:

  1. 1.       Distinguish between the eternal law and the natural law. How are they related?


God is the foundation of eternal law since God made everything according to a divine plan. God is the ruler of the eternal law and with the divine plan he created, everything has a purpose. Humans are created in the image and likeness of God. God also gave humans free will and the light of natural reason that enables humans to recognize the eternal law. The natural law is a part of the eternal law wherein humans can identify between right and wrong. It is our capability because of our natural light of reason thus we are able to act morally.


  1. 2.       What are the precepts of the natural law? Specifically what should we do, and what we avoid?


The precept of natural law is the self-evident truth that what is good must be done and what is evil must be avoided. According to Aquinas, what is naturally good to humans are right and what is unnatural is wrong. Therefore natural inclinations such as preservation of life, sexual intercourse, and avoiding offense to others are good. Doing acts that are against our natural inclinations such as abortion, euthanasia, and war are what we to be avoided.


IV - Morality is based on Sentiment

By David Hume


Review Questions:

  1. 1.       According to Hume, how do morals have an influence on action?


Morals have an influence on action since morals stimulate desires, and produce actions or prevent them. These desires, feelings and affections that are greatly affected by morals are not derived from reason. Therefore, morality must not be a product of our reasons since actions and affections are not resulting from reason.


  1. 2.       Explain Hume’s argument about incest.


According to Hume, why is incest immoral to men when animals that are very much similar to human species can do so without being thought of as wicked or immoral? To animals this could be an innocent act since they lack the natural light of reason that humans have. Hume argues that before reasons can say that an action is immoral the immorality of the action must already exist and with this case the argument would go into a never-ending circular reasoning. Incest becomes immoral or wicked to man because of our feelings of displeasure and sentiments of disapproval. Our feelings influence our morals and not reasons.


  1. 3.       What is Hume’s point about “is” and “ought”?


“Is” and “ought” are not the same and thus should not be equated. Using “ought” would subject to relation of ideas which requires one to observe, reason out, and justify. Moreover, the difference between vice and virtue cannot be defined upon reason alone.


  1. 4.       How does Hume explain ingratitude?


Ingratitude could not be explained by either matter of fact or of relations. This crime is upon the passion or ill-will or absolute indifference of the person who is ungrateful. In conclusion, not everything can be explained by reason like morality which he claimed to be completely sentimental.


V - Ethical Relativism

By William Shaw


Review Questions:

  1. 1.       Explain Shaw’s distinction between the two types of ethical relativism.


The two types of ethical relativism are cultural ethical relativism and individual ethical relativism. Cultural ethical relativism is the theory that what is right to a culture is right. What is right in one culture can be wrong in another culture. It depends on the moral system of the society where an act occurs. On the other hand, individual ethical relativism is not relative to culture but to the individual wherein what an individual thinks is right is right.


  1. 2.       Why does he reject the second type, the theory that makes morality relative to the individual?


This is not plausible for the reason that it fails to distinguish an act that is actually right if you only think that is right. A person might also believe that his actions are right but actually are wrong. Also, you might think that you have done the right thing but later changed your mind. This type of theory is confusing and there is no exact basis of morality.


  1. 3.       Shaw thinks the theory that morality is relative to society is more plausible. Why?


Cultural ethical relativism is more plausible since there is a moral code that a specific culture or society follows. Moral obligations may vary from one culture to another. Right and wrong depends on what the society or culture dictates and it has already worked to different types of our current society today.


  1. 4.       According to Shaw, what are the problems facing cultural ethical relativism? Why does he think it is false?


Cultural ethical relativism is completely false. Given on a certain society, people believe that abortion is legal because the majority says so. However, when some people realizes its nature and would want to reform the law and stop abortion. They would have to get majority of the votes to ban abortion. If the reform is successful, then abortion would be banned. However, it could change again next year if someone else would want to reform the law about abortion. Moreover, cultural ethical relativism does not allow valid moral criticism. We cannot honestly say that cannibalism in tribes of Papua New Guinea is morally right. A society can still make moral mistakes like this which why it is not completely reliable.


VI - Utilitarianism

By John Stuart Mill


Review Questions:

  1. 1.       State and explain the Principle of Utility. Show how it could be used to justify actions that are conventionally viewed as wrong, such as lying and stealing.


Principle of Utility is also called as the Greatest Happiness Principle wherein it is right to do things that will make you happy and it is wrong to do the things that will make you unhappy. Lying and stealing are viewed as wrong since it promotes pain and suffering.


  1. 2.       How does Mill reply to the objection that epicureanism is a doctrine worthy only of swine?


It is degrading to compare the human’s pleasure to that of animals because it would only mean that the happiness of the animals is completely the same to humans. It is simply impossible to say so since men have higher thinking capacity than swine and therefore would have a different meaning of happiness – a greater sense of pleasure.


  1. 3.       How does Mill distinguish between higher and lower pleasures?


It depends on the preference and the priority of the agent where he might feel more pleasure or less pleasure.


  1. 4.       According to Mill, whose happiness must be considered?


Happiness of the greater good must be considered aside from your own happiness since you cannot be truly happy when others are suffering. We are all connected to one another and is indirectly affected to the actions of others.


  1. 5.       Carefully reconstruct Mill’s proof of the Principle of Utility.


Principle of Utility is to achieve the ultimate happiness. Objects of desire like money and jewellery are only the means to attain happiness.


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