An examination of ethical issues pertaining to
philosophy of ethics
I do not believe in the immorality of the individual, and
I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern without any
superhuman authority behind it.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Before examining ethical behaviour and the topical issues pertaining
to the subject, it is probably best at this juncture to briefly
explain what exactly we mean by ‘ethics’. The very nature
of moral philosophy or ‘ethics’ is such that its very
definition gives rise to much heated dialectical debate. That said
however, it is important to attempt to define this field within
the context of this paper, but bear in mind that no definition will
find universal approval.
Fieser and Dowden, (2004)
in their Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, offer the following
definition: they assert that ‘The field of ethics, also called
moral philosophy, involves systematizing, defending, and recommending
concepts of right and wrong behaviour’.
Marshall (1998), in
his Dictionary of Sociology, attempts the following definition:
‘Ethics is often defined as the concern with what ought to
be, whereas science (including social science) is concerned with
describing reality as it actually exists’. He goes on to state
that social science should be ‘value free’ or ‘value
neutral’. He acknowledges however, that the practice of social
science investigation (both the means and goals) is ‘intrinsically
bound up with ethical considerations’.
As pointed out by Raphael (1980:
1) in the introduction of his book Moral Philosophy, ‘the
main purpose of philosophy, as practised in the Western tradition,
is the critical evaluation of assumptions and arguments’.
He goes on to point out that all societies and cultural groups tend
to simply accept ‘without question’, beliefs and conventions
inherent within those societies. Raphael
(1980) uses the example of the beliefs held by primitive tribes
or societies believing in witchcraft to highlight the point that
some societies believe in things far removed from the mainstream
current Western belief system. The point is well made and accentuates
one of the fundamental purposes of philosophy, which is to examine
all of our underlying assumptions and inherited beliefs, and to
consider whether we have good reason to follow them. It may well
be that we have: but at least we will have used reason and self-reflection
to give personal meaning to what we believe in. If however, we find
that we cannot support the underlying assumptions, then we must
either suspend judgement or else find a new framework of belief.
Questioning traditional assumptions that underlie our culture,
and the ability to reach new ones is part of the evolution of humankind.
It is the ability to do this that has enabled humankind to progress
to the level that we have, and is one of the key characteristics
that differentiates us from all other animals. Philosophy has greatly
assisted this process.
Philosophical analysis today tends to refer to a loose family of
practices, or styles that maintain a dedication to consistency,
clarity, rigour, some degree of scepticism and a careful examination
of language to assist us in being more adept in understanding important
aspects of our lives and the nature of humankind as a social animal.
Each and every one of us that is capable of rational thought, to
some degree has engaged, whether consciously or unconsciously in
philosophical thoughts. It should be remembered that the term ‘philosophy’
is made up of two Greek words, namely, philo- meaning love of and
sophos- meaning wise. This point is mentioned to help us understand
the nature of philosophy and what it ultimately stands for.
Although the terms ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’
tend to be used interchangeably as synonyms, it is important to
point out that there is a technical difference within the field
of philosophy. Namely, ‘moral’ or ‘morality’
is a broad descriptive term. In the philosophical literature, the
most general term for the consideration of what we ought to do,
think, feel or be is ‘ethics’. The term ‘morality’
in philosophical literature refers to a subset of ethics that notably
came to prominence in Europe, and which focuses on our obligations
and what is right. That being said however, no such distinction
will be made in this paper, and both terms will be used interchangeably
to include the broad and narrow sense outlined.
Philosophy, in all matters attempts to be rational and in this
regard it shares a common objective with science. Raphael makes
an interesting point in describing how philosophy differs from science
when he notes:
the practitioner of a particular science is not so likely to
see, or to be able to cope with, apparent inconsistencies between
two general fields of science ... or between his field of science
and some other well-established body of thought.
(Raphael 1980: 6)
The philosopher by his or her nature must adopt an overall view
on a topic of analysis relative to all of the components of reality.
This is sometimes referred to as a ‘helicopter view’
in that the philosopher must rise above any given situation and
view the full picture in a holistic, thorough and concise manner.
Questions must be answered, but answers must be questioned. The
philosopher will question matters both epistemologically (how we
know what we know) and ontologically (the way we understand the
world). This distinction is important and is a key determining differentiation
between the scientist and the philosopher.