By Julianna Lopatin
Ethics describes the system of moral principles that govern our internal thoughts and external actions. Sometimes the term “ethics” is used interchangeably with the terms “moral principles” or “moral philosophy.” A few questions I have held within myself since I first began to consider this subject are What ethics means to me and why does it matter? Which is of greater worth: knowledge or happiness? If knowledge, what kind of knowledge? How is it attained? And if happiness, would that be of my own? My family’s? Or the happiness of all? Below I will consider several ethical issues in the hope that engaging with them will gradually shed light on possible answers to these questions that I have posed.
In my reflections on the subject of ethics, I was immediately drawn to the parallel between patterns of human behavior and patterns of behavior in non-human animals. Ethics describes the principles that inform human behavior; what principles inform the behavior of other creatures? Do animals have ethics? I know that biologists teach that animals are mostly guided by instincts that have been sculpted over millions of years of Darwinian evolution through natural selection. But biologists they say the same thing about humans and it is clear that this explanation is not sufficient to account for our own moral decisions. This leads me to wonder whether it is sufficient to explain those of animals. When I look at other animal species—whether on land or in the water—I discover that many animals show signs of ethics amongst themselves. One such example is elephants coming to rescue another elephant in need from miles away based on hearing distress amongst its kind. Is this really simply accounted for by the principle of “the survival of the fittest” and other precepts of Darwinian evolution? It just seems like a stretch. Another example of apparently ethical behavior is when a lion brings back its prey and presents it as an offering to the other members the pack, especially the mama lion. What guides these animals in the wild? What is their experience of this guidance? Is it most akin to an animalistic deontology, virtue, or utilitarian ethics?
The famous Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill states, “though the consequences in the particular case might be beneficial—it would be unworthy of an intelligent agent not to be consciously aware that the action is of a class which, if practiced generally, would be generally injurious, and that this is the ground of the obligation to abstain from it.” I think he is enjoining us to consider not only the immediate consequences of our actions, but their wider ramifications. Sometimes what seems like a good thing is not a good thing if it is considered in a wider context. Take the issue of stealing for example: in many instances, stealing would promise an immediate benefit. At the same time, people with moral intelligence know that it is wrong. What makes it wrong? One answer could be that it is “generally injurious” and things that cause general injury are bad. This would be J. S. Mill’s view of the matter. And yet, while remaining within the perspective of Utilitarianism, one might argue that stealing to feed your starving kids outweighs the greater good for a greater number. Inconveniencing the store or shop owner who loses the food is less “injurious” than allowing one’s family to starve. In any case, it is not so much the action of “stealing” but the consequence of it that is explored within this framework.
A proscription against stealing also appears in the Hebrew Bible as one of the Ten Commandments: “thou shalt not steal.” This is not suggesting that stealing is bad because of the consequences, but that it is bad in itself and God says so. Is it bad to steal and therefore God says “thou shalt not steal,” or is it bad to steal because God says this? Put another way, does stealing being bad cause God to forbid it, or does God forbidding it make stealing bad? This question partly parallels “the Euthyphro dilemma” as Plato outlined it and I’m not sure that it has an answer in the terms in which it is presented. Returning to the question of stealing, the Old Testament identifies it as a sin. But the New Testament it says that all sins will be forgiven if we confess them (1 John 1:9). Stealing being a sin, if all sins will be forgiven, stealing will be forgiven also.
Immanuel Kant is of the idea that it is our “duty” to do the moral or right action when given a choice between the two. In Deontology, the motives of actions are more important than their consequence and the morality must be rational. In some ways, this is the opposite of Mill’s view, which disregards motive in favor of consequence and which privileges pleasure above rationality. In the deontological framework, consequences are unpredictable therefore the motive of the action itself is more important. As Kant sees it, one could steal and get caught, or could steal and get away with it; it hardly makes a difference. In both outcomes, the action is the wrong moral thing to do. What makes it wrong is that it is irrational. By stealing, I am undermining the very rights of possession that I depend upon for the action. If people could not possess things, then I would have no one to steal from and I would also have no right to maintain what I had stolen. This is not what I wish for. Instead, I wish for the rules to apply to every other human being but I do not wish to abide by them myself. This is irrational since I am also a human. In this way, by stealing, I am endorsing a sort of “double-standard” or moral hypocrisy. One thing I found interesting that Kant states is that once you act on emotion you are no longer acting rationally because you have let emotion take over. A rational person would not steal under normal circumstances. If they are acting on emotion out of fear for their family starving, then it is understandable that rationality would cease in that scenario. Plato gives the metaphor of a charioteer that guides two horses as a way to understand the proper relation of reason to the passions and I think Kant is making a similar point. Sometimes the emotions guide us towards good things and sometimes they do not, but the point is that only reason can discern which of these descriptions holds in any concrete scenario and that’s why reason must be the charioteer.
Utilitarianism and Deontology approach ethics by attempting to provide an answer to the question of “what should I do?” or “what actions must I take?” I thought it would be important to mention another approach to ethics exemplified by Aristotle. Aristotle’s fundamental question is not “what should I do?” but “what kind of person should I be?” Utilitarianism and Deontology try to define a human by his or her actions whereas Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics framework defines actions as good if they are done by good people. It is very fascinating comparing the differences and similarities between the three theoretical frameworks and I look forward to expanding my knowledge on the foundation I have laid this semester. I have not succeeded in providing satisfactory answers to the questions I posed at the outset of this essay but perhaps that is not the most important thing. Maybe the questions themselves are worth more than any answers to them. After all, I said I look forward to expanding my knowledge I cannot learn what I already think I know.