Ethical Systems


Ethical Systems Essay, Research Paper

Without puporting to have any panacea solutions, this paper briefly explores the intersection of two related questions that seem to appear as subtext throughout the ethics literature for our class: to what extent can individuals holding differing ethical conceptions maintain a fruitful dialogue; and under what circumstances, if any, may an individual claim that a given ethical system embraced by another person is wrong? I will first outline the proposed problems individually and then compare them to one another in order to highlight their relationship. My intention is to show that an informed understanding of both questions will help expose an unproductive line of reasoning that initially held sway over this author.

To begin with our first question, “To what extent can individuals holding differing ethical conceptions maintain a fruitful dialogue?”, let us first clearly explain what this asks. If two individuals disagree over a fundamental tenent of ethics (such as the choice between consequentialism and nonconsequentialism), whether or not this is obvious at the outset, extended discussion involving justification for their respective ideologies will eventually make this point clear. One participant will claim that an action under a specified set of circumstances has a particular moral value and the other participant will disagree; conference ensues. The discussion usually ends when one participant claims that s/he disagrees on a certain point and that nothing more can be said about the matter. Does this constitiute fruitful dialogue?

As this story has been told, no. It leaves the members of the discussion in the negative position of affirming their ethics at the cost of declaring the other member’s ethics false. This, in my opinion, promotes intolerance and contempt for others, and nurtures a sense of moral superiority which hampers interpersonal relationships with people not of identical thinking. It appears to leave the participants with the feeling that discussion is over, cooperation is impossible, and that progress is doomed since we have no ally in the ethically dissenting. To end an ethical conversation with a declaration of incontestible incompatibility fosters an “Us versus Them” mentality in which the only way to acheive any sort of goal is at the expense of those who oppose us; and we naturally oppose any actions taken by the opposite side which we consider immoral. Life becomes an ethical zero-sum game in which there can only be one winner: the ethically correct.

The second question is now visible in this dicussion: under what circumstances, if any, may an individual claim that a given ethical system embraced by another person is wrong? Does this not commit the sin of intolerance and absolutism? But then where is the line between ethical imperialism and refusing to tacitly condone a moral atrocity with silence? Clearly, the difference between consequentialism and nonconsequentialism is bound up in these questions: if the results of my actions on the world are the ultimate test of my moral rightness, it is only ethical to promote my system of belief so that others may contribute to making the world better as well. And implicit in the promotion of my ethics is the denunciation of your current belief system; one does not replace with inferior goods. But this does not wholly answer the questions posed, for disagreement and condemnation are not the same. One can recognize that another’s ethics differ from one’s own, actively advocate one’s personal ethics, and yet still respect positively individuals’ right to adopt an alternative moral code.

The problem with unilateral condemnation of an ethical system is that it invites legitimate similar criticism from others on one’s own. Moral judgments are not made in a vacuum; one must be IN a moral framework in order to judge another’s moral framework, which invalidates impartial evaluation. There cannot be criteria outside of all ethical frameworks by which to judge which framework to choose, since criteria are what constitute frameworks! Therefore any criticism of an ethical system must necessarily be phrased in one’s own, which is obviously not very compelling to anyone outside of it, to say the least. Thus, to declare a person or group morally bankrupt is generally unproductive — it accomplishes little since the reasons given are based on a justificatory principle not shared by all members of the discussion. The offending group has no motivation to alter their actions and no party is convinced who was not already. Without common public criteria for judgment, moral condemnation of another’s action seems purely self-serving. It ultimately only reminds alternative moral factions that no one is immune from scrutiny, thus igniting a series of unproductive ethical denunciations that obscure real issues and stall action.

The relationship between my two initial questions now becomes clear: when faced with individuals of an alternative moral ideology, difficulties arise in maintaining fruitful discussion without devolving into a stalemate and potentially, bilateral moral condemnation. The problem in much ethical dialogue is that at some point there no longer seems to be any common ground between participants, nothing public on which to base incompatible fine points. For many, the burden of proof in ethical matters rests on the other member: one assumes that one is right and that dissenters should attempt to convince us of their correctness, rather than that we have a responsibility to show justification for our supposed righteousness. This idea, coupled with that of common public principles of justification, leads me to suggest that we shift the focus in ethical discussion from differing motivation for action to the common desire of action. If two individuals of wildly varied ethical dispositions both desire the same outcome in a particular circumstance, that fact may be eclipsed entirely by unproductive moral bickering. Desired outcomes are simply future states of the world, free of intrinsic ethical worth. This gives them appeal as the basis for public justification. Fruitful ethical dialogue can be maintained by renewed focus on commonly desired future states of the world in many cases of dissenting motivations for wanting them.

This suggestion also applies to the question of appropriate circumstances for ethical criticism. Since ethical criticism is little more than self-righteousness without potentially altering others’ behavior, it stands in need of a public reference for justification. Desired outcomes can easily serve this role. While this may not totally resolve interpersonal ethical disagreement (many times desired outcomes differ, offering no solution), it does ground justification for ethical criticism in a framework-neutral environment: one can now criticize an ethical framework on the basis of its unproductive social implications. If one group’s ethical program entails a future world unsatisfactory to the majority of citizens, regardless of respective frameworks, then moral condemnation serves the purpose of uniting concerned parties to forge a majority solution based on ethical coextension. Simply put, declaring something wrong helps to get people to put things right.

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