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Perspective on what is important

            There is much being said today about the need to change our behavior in order to prevent the deterioration of our environment. We are being told that certain actions being taken businesses or governments are unethical. These ethical standards relate to the potential for causing the extinction of species through the harvesting of lumber in certain areas. It also relates to the theory that the use of fossil fuels may be causing changes to our climate, "global warming." If we are to accept the idea that there is such a thing as "right" and "wrong", ethical and unethical behavior, then it is the time to consider what environmental ethics should be based on. What is the environment that we are trying to protect and what is our responsibility to it?

            Even among those acting responsibly, there are many conflicting perspectives concerning what our relationship is with nature and what we should be doing to sustain its health. Should our focus be on protecting the people that are potentially being exposed to hazardous chemicals or should the health of the whole planet be our primary concern? How much can incremental changes in environmental regulations impact our short-term economic stability before the social displacement causes an even greater environmental degradation? Some will focus on the necessity to preserve a diverse ecology to pass down to the next generation, while others point to the need to maintain property rights, or the need for economic growth.

Changeable laws

            Can we say there are right and wrong choices in our stewardship of the environment? Certainly, we can all think of examples of things that we know are wrong. We all understand that there is more to morality than just whether we are breaking the law. The focus of our environmental laws changes according to the perspective of each new administration. Legislators proposing, debating and passing laws are not creating ethical principles or scientific laws, they are merely struggling to apply them.           

            Legislated laws are fickle and changeable. We are forbidden from doing something only until someone changes the law and makes it legal. Until that occurs, we measure the consequences and benefits as we decide whether to ignore or obey a law. We question the authority of others to impose regulations such as permits for minor home improvements, the speed limit and reporting requirements for minuscule amounts of supplemental income.

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are right and wrong just relative ... ?

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            In contrast, ethics are not just a choice made using our own ability to reason. It is a standard that our actions and decisions will be compared to. There is a basic sense of right and wrong that we all recognize exists, even if we cannot all agree on exactly where to draw the line between right and wrong. The difference between environmental law and environmental ethics is determining the difference between what is legal and what is ethical.

Choosing what we would want to be true

            We all understand that nature is not a democracy. You would think it absurd to believe that a flock of penguins could be living in the rangelands of Texas or that a wild deer could freely roam the paved neighborhoods of New York City. We understand the concept of habitats. Certain creatures need certain conditions to live in. No change in public opinion will make the penguin or deer thrive where it physically cannot. If this is so, why is it so hard to believe that we cannot arbitrarily choose what is right and what is wrong? You can believe that the ice on a pond is thick enough to skate on, but if it has been a warm winter what you believe will be irrelevant once you get out on the ice.

            So then how do we discern right from wrong? Was the world designed with underlying standards, or are right and wrong just relative to each situation? How are we to deal with the idea that what is considered moral in one culture can be considered immoral in another? If it is wrong to beat your wife in America, does it become less wrong if you do it when you move to a country that does not respect the rights of women? In the same way, neither does a person's opinion of whether something is right make it right.

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how are we to know

what these ethical rules are ... ?

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            If nature is not a democracy, why should ethics be any different? Otherwise, who are we to tell someone else what is right and what is wrong. We would have to be satisfied with the relative value judgments of each individual concerning what is acceptable. To one person a whale is like a brother, to another it is livestock to be harvested. To some people the cost of changing over to double-hulled super tankers is worthwhile to protect the oceans, to others the low probability of a spill is not enough to merit the expense. If we are to consider any of these perspectives as wrong, then we are saying there is a right and a wrong.

Ethical laws are outside the realm of science

            There are rules we recognize. If you walk across a highway, you may get run over. If you smoke, you might get cancer. These are the consequences we must face for ignoring the physical laws of the universe. It is simply the law of cause and effect at work. Even with the somewhat arbitrary way we make and then change our civil laws, we can still depend on the fact that those who break them must face certain consequences. Similarly, when we ignore the foundational principles designed into the universe, (call them ethical laws), sooner or later we can expect to deal with the consequences.

            So how are we to determine what the rules of right and wrong are for this world? Ethics are outside the realm of science. We can't send it to the lab to be tested, then look up the results on a chart to see if the behavior is outside of acceptable standards. We are operating under more than merely the laws of physics. That concept makes scientists uncomfortable, because it suggests that there are parts of reality that they cannot measure. But just because it cannot be measured does not negate that aspect of the creation.

Accountability

            What we need for environmental ethics is accountability for our actions. Essentially, that requires having a set of standards, which apply to and are respected by all. But if they are outside the realm of science, how are we to know what these ethical rules are that have been designed into the creation? Ultimately, ethical standards are inseparable from religion. Historically in our culture, these ethical laws have been taught as God's commandments, for which there can be environmental impacts of biblical proportions as a consequence of them being ignored.

III. Right and Wrong.

§12.

The ideas of right and wrong conduct are, as we have seen, those with which ethics is generally supposed to be most concerned. This view, which is unduly narrow, is fostered by the use of the one word good, both for the sort of conduct which is right, and for the sort of things which ought to exist on account of their intrinsic value. This double use of the word good is very confusing, and tends greatly to obscure the distinction of ends and means. I shall therefore speak of right actions, not of good actions, confining the word good to the sense explained in Section II.

The word right is very ambiguous, and it is by no means easy to distinguish the various meanings which it has in common parlance. Owing to the variety of these meanings, adherence to any one necessarily involves us in apparent paradoxes when we use it in a context which suggests one of the other meanings. This is the usual result of precision of language; but so long as the paradoxes are merely verbal, they do not give rise to more than verbal objections.

In judging of conduct we find at the outset two widely divergent methods, of which one is advocated by some moralists, the other by others, while both are practised by those who have no ethical theory. One of these methods, which is that advocated by the utilitarians, judges the rightness of an act by relation to the goodness or badness of its consequences. The other method, advocated by intuitionists, judges by the approval or disapproval of the moral sense or conscience. I believe that it is necessary to combine both theories in order to get a complete account of right and wrong. There is, I think, one sense in which a man does right when he does what will probably have the best consequences, and another in which he does right when he follows the dictates of his conscience, whatever the probable consequences may be. (There are many other senses which we may give to the word right, but these two seem to be the most important.) Let us begin by considering the second of these senses.

§13.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: What do we mean by the dictates of the moral sense? If these are to afford a definition of right conduct, we cannot say that they consist in judging that such andsuch acts are right, for that would make our definition circular. We shall have to say that the moral sense consists in a certain specific emotion of approval towards an act, and that an act is to be called right when the agent, at the moment of action, feels this emotion of approval towards the action which he decides to perform. There is certainly a sense in which a man ought to perform any act which he approves, and to abstain from any act which he disapproves; and it seems also undeniable that there are emotions which may be called approval and disapproval. Thus this theory, whether adequate or not, must be allowed to contain a part of the truth.

It is, however, fairly evident that there are other meanings of right conduct, and that, though there is an emotion of approval, there is also a judgment of approval, which may or may not be true. For we certainly hold that a man who has done an action which his conscience approved may have been mistaken, and that in some sense his conscience ought not to have approved his action. But this would be impossible if nothing were involved except an emotion. To be mistaken implies a judgment; and thus we must admit that there is such a thing as a judgment of approval. If this were not the case we could not reason with a man as to what is right; what he approves would be necessarily right for him to do, and there could be no argument against his approval. We do in fact hold that when one man approves of a certain act, while another disapproves, one of them is mistaken, which would not be the case with a mere emotion. If one man likes oysters and another dislikes them, we do not say that either of them is mistaken.

Thus there is a judgment of approval, and this must consist of a judgment that an act is, in a new sense, right. The judgment of approval is not merely the judgment that we feel the emotion of approval, for then another who disapproved would not necessarily hold our judgment of approval to be mistaken. Thus in order to give a meaning to the judgment of approval, it is necessary to admit a sense of right other than approved. In this sense, when we approve an act we judge that it is right, and we may be mistaken in so judging. This new sense is objective, in the sense that it does not depend upon the opinions and feelings of the agent. Thus a man who obeys the dictates of his conscience is not always acting rightly in the objective sense. When a man does what his conscience approves, he does what he believes to be objectively right, but not necessarily what is objectively right. We need, therefore, some other criterion than the moral sense for judging what is objectively right.

§13, n. 1: The judgment of approval does not always coincide with the emotion of approval. For example, when a man has been led by his reason to reject a moral code which he formerly held, it will commonly happen, at least for a time, that his emotion of approval follows the old code, though his judgment has abandoned it. Thus he may have been brought up, like Mohammed’s first disciples, to believe it is a duty to avenge the murder of relations by murdering the murderer or his relations; and he may continue to feel approval of such vengeance after he has ceased to judge it approvingly. The emotion of approval will not be again in question in what follows.

§14.

It is in defining objective rightness that the consequences of an action become relevant. Some moralists, it is true, deny the dependence upon consequences; but that is to be attributed, I think, to confusion with the subjective sense. When people argue as to whether such and such an action is right, they always adduce the consequences which it has or may be expected to have. A statesman who has to decide what is the right policy, or a teacher who has to decide what is the right education, will be expected to consider what policy or what education is likely to have the best results. Whenever a question is at all complicated, and cannot be settled by following some simple rule, such as thou shalt not steal, or thou shalt not bear false witness, it is at once evident that the decision cannot be made except by consideration of consequences.

But even when the decision can be made by a simple precept, such as not to lie or not to steal, the justification of the precept is found only by consideration of consequences. A code such as the Decalogue, it must be admitted, can hardly be true without exception if the goodness or badness of consequences is what determines the rightness or wrongness of actions; for in so complex a world it is unlikely that obedience to the Decalogue will always produce better consequences than disobedience. Yet it is a suspicious circumstance that breaches of those of the Ten Commandments which people still hold it a duty to obey do, as a matter of fact, have bad consequences in the vast majority of instances, and would not be considered wrong in a case in which it was fairly certain that their consequences would be good. This latter fact is concealed by a question-begging addition of moral overtones to words. Thus, e.g., thou shalt do no murder would be an important precept if it were interpreted, as Tolstoy interprets it, to mean thou shalt not take human life. But it is not so interpreted; on the contrary, some taking of human life is called justifiable homicide. Thus murder comes to mean unjustifiable homicide; and it is a mere tautology to say Thou shalt do no unjustifiable homicide. That this should be announed from Sinai would be as fruitless as Hamlet’s report of the ghost’s message: There’s ne’er a villain, dwelling in all Denmark, but he’s an arrant knave.[Hamlet, I.v. Speech 37] As a matter of fact, people do make a certain classifiation of homicides, and decide that certain kinds are justifiable and certain others unjustifiable. But there are many doubtful cases: tyrannicide, capital punishment, killing in war, killing in self-defence, killing in defence of others, are some of these. And if a decision is sought, it is sought usually by considering whether the consequences of actions belonging to these classes are on the whole good or bad. Thus the importane of precepts such as the Ten Commandments lies in the fact that they give simple rules, obedience to which will in almost all cases have better consequences than disobedience; and the justification of the rules is not wholly independent of consequences.

§15.

In common language the received code of moral rules is usually presupposed, and an action is only called immoral when it infringes one of these rules. Whatever does not infringe them is regarded as permissible, so that on most of the occasions of life no one course of action is marked out as alone right. If a man adopts a course of action which, though not contrary to the received code, will probably have bad consequences, he is called unwise rather than immoral. Now, according to the distinction we have made between objective and subjective right..., a man may well act in a way which is objectively wrong without doing what is subjectively wrong, i.e. what his conscience disapproves. An act (roughly speaking, I shall return to this point presently) is immoral when a man’s conscience disapproves it, but is judged only unwise or injudicious when his conscience disapproves it, but is judged only unwise or injudicious when his conscience approves it, although we judge that it will probably have bad consequences. Now the usual moral code is supposed, in common language, to be admitted by every man’s conscience, so that when he infringes it, his action is not merely injudicious, but immoral; on the other hand, where the code is silent, we regard an unfortunate action as objectively but not subjectively wrong, i.e. as injudicious, but not immoral. The acceptance of a moral code has the great advantage that, in so far as its rules are objetively right, it tends to harmonize objective and subjective rightness. Thus it tends to cover all frequent cases, leaving only the rarer ones to the individual judgment of the agent. Hence when new sorts of cases become common, the moral code soon comes to deal with them; thus each profession has its own code concerning cases common in the profession, though not outside it. But the moral code is never itself ultimate; it is based upon an estimate of probable consequences, and is essentially a method of leading men’s judgment to approve what is objectively right and disapprove what is objectively wrong. And when once a fairly correct code is accepted, the exceptions to it become very much fewer than they would otherwise be, because one of the consequences of admitting exceptions is to weaken the code, and this consequence is usually bad enough to outweigh the good resulting from admitting such and such an exception. This argument, however, works in the opposite direction with a grossly incorrect code; and it is to be observed that most conventional codes embody some degree of unwarrantable selfishness, individual, professional, or national, and are thus in certain respects worthy of detestation.

§16.

What is objectively right, then, is in some way dependent on consequences. The most natural supposition to start from would be that the objectively right act, under any circumstances, is the one which will have the best consequences. We will define this as the most fortunate act. The most fortunate act, then, is the one which will produce the greatest excess of good over evil, or the least excess of evil over good (for there may be situations in which every possible act will have consequences that are on the whole bad). But we cannot maintain that the most fortunate act is always the one which is objectively right, in the sense that it is what a wise man will hold that he ought to do. For it may happen that the act which will in fact prove the most fortunate is likely, according to all the evidence at our disposal, to be less fortunate than some other. In such a case, it will be, at least in one sense, objectively wrong to go against the evidence, in spite of the actual good result of our doing so. There have certainly been some men who have done so much harm that it would have been fortunate for the world if their nurses had killed them in infancy. But if their nurses had done so their action would not have been objectively right, beause the probability was that it would not have the best effects. Hene it would seem we must take account of probability in judging of objective rightness; let us then consider whether we can say that the objectively right act is the one which will probably be most fortunate. I shall define this as the wisest act.

The wisest act, then, is that one which, when account is taken of all available data, gives us the greatest expectation of good on the balance, or the least expectation of evil on the balance. There is, of course, a difficulty as to what are to be considered available data; but broadly we can distinguish, in any given state of knowledge, things capable of being forseen from things which are unpredictable. I suppose account to be taken of the general body of current knowledge, in fact the sort of consideration which people expect when they ask for legal or medical advice. There is no doubt this brings us nearer to what is objectively right than we were when we were considering the actually most fortunate act. For one thing, it justifies the unavoidable limitation to not very distant consequences, which is almost always necessary if a practical decision is to be reached. For the likelihood of error in calculating distant consequences is so great that their contribution to the probable good or evil is very small, though their contribution to the actual good or evil is likely to be much greater than that of the nearer consequences. And it seems evident that what it is quite impossible to know cannot be relevant in judging as to what conduct is right. If, as is possible, a cataclysm is going to destroy life on this planet this day week, many acts otherwise useful will prove to have been wasted labour, for example, the preparation of next year's Nautical Almanac; but since we have no reason to expect such a cataclysm, the rightness or wrongness of acts is plainly to be estimated without regard to it.

§17.

One apparent objection at once suggests itself to the definition. Very few acts are of sufficient importance to justify such elaborate and careful consideration as is required for forming an opinion as to whether they are the wisest. Indeed, the least important decisions are often those which it would be hardest to make on purely reasonable grounds. A man who debates on each day which of two ways of taking exercise is likely to prove most beneficial is considered absurd; the question is at once difficult and unimportant, and is therefore not worth spending time over. But although it is true that unimportant decisions ought not to be made with excessive care, there is danger of confusion if this is regarded as an objection to our definition of objective rightness. For the act which, in the case supposed, is objectively wrong is the act of deliberation. And the deliberation is condemned by our definition, for it is very unlikely that there is no more beneficial way of spending time than in debating trivial points of conduct. Thus, although the wisest act is the one which, after complete investigation, appears likely to give the most fortunate results, yet the complete investigation required to show that it is the wisest act is only itself wise in the case of very important decisions. This is only an elaborate way of saying that a wise man will not waste time on unimportant details. Hence this apparent objection can be answered.

§18.

One further addition is required for the definition of the objectively right act, namely, that it must be possible. Among the acts whose consequences are to be considered we must not include such as are either physically impossible to perform or impossible for the agent to think of. This last condition introduces difficulties connected with determinism, which are discussed in Section IV. Ignoring these difficulties, we may say that the objectively right act is that one which, of all that are possible, will probably have the best consequences.

§19.

We must now return to the consideration of subjective rightness, with a view to distinguishing conduct which is merely mistaken from conduct which is immoral or blameworthy. We here require a new sense of ought, which it is by no means easy to define. In the objective sense, a man ought to do what is objectively right. But in the subjective sense, which we have now to examine, he sometimes ought to do what is objectively wrong. For example, we saw that it is often objectively right to give less consideration to an unimportant question of conduct than would be required for forming a trustworthy judgment as to what is objectively right. Now it seems plain that if we have given to such a question the amount and kind of consideration which is objectively right, and we then do what appears to us objectively right, our action is, in some sense, subjectively right, although it may be objectively wrong. Our action could certainly not be called a sin, and might even be highly virtuous, in spite of its objective wrongness. It is these notions of what is sinful and what is virtuous that we have now to consider.

§20.

The first suggestion that naturally occurs is that an act is subjectively right when it is judged by the agent to be objectively right, and subjectively wrong when it is judged to be objectively wrong. I do not mean that it is subjectively right when the agent judges that it is the act which, of all that are possible, will probably have the best results; for the agent may not accept our above account of objective rightness. I mean merely that it is the one towards which he has the judgment of approval. A man may judge an act to be right without judging that its consequences will be probably the best possible; I only contend that, when he truly judges it to be right, then its consequences will probably be the best possible. But his judgment as to what is objectively right may err, not only by a wrong estimate of probable consequences, or by failing to think of an act which he might have thought of, but also by a wrong theory as to what constitutes objective rightness. In other words, the definition I gave of objective rightness is not meant as an analysis of the meaning of the word, but as a mark which in fact attaches to all objectively right actions and to no others.

We are to consider then the suggestion that an act is moral when the agent approves it and immoral when he disapproves it; using moral to mean subjectively right and immoral to mean subjectively wrong. This suggestion, it is plain, will not stand without much modification. In the first place, we often hold it immoral to approve some things and disapprove others, unless there are special circumstances to excuse such approval or disapproval. In the second place, unreflecting acts, in which there is no judgment either of approval or disapproval, are often moral or immoral. For both these reasons the suggested definition must be regarded as inadequate.

§21.

The doctrine that an act is never immoral when the agent thinks it right has the drawback (or the advantage) that it excuses almost all the acts which would be commonly condemned. Very few people deliberately do what, at the moment, they believe to be wrong; usually they first argue themselves into a belief that what they wish to do is right. They decide that it is their duty to teach so-and-so a lesson, that their rights have been grossly infringed that if they take no revenge there will be an encouragement to injustice, that without a moderate indulgence in pleasure a character cannot develop in the best way, and so on and so on. Yet we do not cease to blame them on that account. Of course it may be said that a belief produced by a course of self-deception is not a genuine belief, and that the people who invent such excuses for themselves know all the while that the truth is the other way. Up to a point this is no doubt true, though I doubt if it is always true. There are, however, other cases of mistaken judgment as to what is right, where the judgment is certainly genuine, and yet we blame the agent. These are cases of thoughtlessness, where a man remembers consequences to himself, but forgets consequences to others. In such a case he may judge correctly and honestly on all the data that he remembers, yet if he were a better man he would remember more data. Most of the actions commonly condemned as selfish probably come under this head. Hence we must admit that an act may be immoral, even if the agent quite genuinely judges that it is right.

Unreflecting acts, again, in which there is no judgment as to right or wrong, are often praised or blamed. Acts of generosity, for example, are more admired when they are impulsive than when they result from reflection. I cannot think of any act which is more blamed when it is impulsive than when it is deliberate; but certainly many impulsive acts are blamed—for example, such as spring from an impulse of malice or cruelty

§22.

In all these cases where reflection is absent, and also in the case of inadequate reflection, it may be said that blame does not belong properly to the act, but rather to the character revealed by the act, or, if to some acts, then to those previous deliberate acts by which the character has been produced which has resulted in the present act. The cases of self-deception would then be dismissed on the ground that the self-deceiver never really believes what he wishes to believe. We could then retain our original definition, that a moral act is one which the agent judges to be right, while an immoral one is one which he judges to be wrong. But I do not think this would accord with what most people really mean. I rather think that a moral act should be defined as one which the agent would have judged to be right if he had considered the question candidly and with due care; if, that is to say, he had examined the data before him with a view to discovering what was right, and not with a view to proving such and such a course to be right. If an act is unimportant, and at the same time not obviously less right than some obvious alternative, we shall consider it neither moral nor immoral; for in such a case the act does not deserve careful consideration. The amount of care which a decision deserves depends upon its importance and difficulty; in the case of a statesman advocating a new policy, for example, years of deliberation may sometimes be necessary to excuse him from the charge of levity. But with less important acts, it is usually right to decide even when further reflection might show the present decision to be erroneous. Thus there is a certain amount of reflection appropriate to various acts, while some right acts are best when they spring from impulse (though these are such as reflection would approve). We may therefore say that an act is moral when it is one which the agent would judge to be right after an appropriate amount of candid thought, or, in the case of acts which are best when they are unreflecting, after the amount and kind of thought requisite to form a first opinion. An act is immoral when the agent would judge it to be wrong after an appropriate amount of reflection. It is neither moral nor immoral when it is unimportant and a small amount of reflection would not suffice to show whether it was right or wrong.

§23.

We may now sum up or discussion of right and wrong. When a man asks himself: What ought I to do? he is asking what conduct is right in an objective sense. He cannot mean: What ought a person to do who holds my views as to what a person ought to do? for his views as to what a person ought to do are what will constitute his answer to the question What ought I to do? But the onlooker, who thinks that the man has answered this question wrongly, may nevertheless hold that, in acting upon his answer, the manwas acting rightly in a second, subjective, sense. This second sort of right action we call moral action. We held that an action is moral when the agent would judge it to be right after an appropriate amount of candid thought, or after a small amount in the case of acts which are best when they are unreflecting; the appropriate amount of thought being dependent upon the difficulty and importance of the decision. And we held that an action is right when, of all that are possible, it is the one which will probably have the best results. There are many other meanings of right; but these seem to be the meanings required for answering the questions: What ought I to do? and What acts are immoral?

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Comment by ___ ¤°»ÏrRê§ìstìߣe«°¤ on December 8, 2011 at 10:05pm

Oh God!! One really needs a good energy drink to boost energy, before, during and at the end while reading these contents. It’s obvious that the whole book is wrapped up in this article. I have almost consumed 100 K of energy on scrolling the cursor down and up...:-p  

Comment by Sana Sunny ツ on December 7, 2011 at 10:58pm

koi daikhay na daikhay shabeer to daikhay ga....

thanks.

Comment by Shabbir Ali Jafferi on December 7, 2011 at 10:34pm

tooo long but really very good

Comment by Sana Sunny ツ on December 7, 2011 at 8:33pm

Determinism and Morals.

§24.

The importance to ethics of the free-will question is a subject upon which there has existed almost as much diversity of opinion as on the free-will question itself. It has been urged by advocates of free-will that its denial involves the denial of merit and demerit, and that, with the denial of these, ethics collapses. It has been urged on the other side that, unless we can forsee, at least partially, the consequences of our actions, it is impossible to know what course we ought to take under any given circumstances; and that if other people's actions cannot be in any degree predicted, the foresight required for rational action becomes impossible. I do not propose, in the following discussion, to go into the free-will controversy itself. The grounds in favour of determinism appear to me overwhelming, and I shall content myself with a brief indication of these grounds. The question I am concerned with is not the freewill question itself, but the question how, if at all, morals are affected by assuming determinism.

In considering this question, as in most of the other problems of ethics, the moralist who has not had a philosophical training appears to me to go astray, and become involved in needless complications, through supposing that right and wrong in conduct are the ultimate conceptions of ethics, rather than good and bad, in the effects of conduct and in other things. The words good and bad are used both for the sort of conduct which is right or wrong, and for the sort of effects to be expected from right and wrong conduct, respectively. We speak of a good picture, a good dinner, and so on, as well as of a good action. But there is a great difference between these two meanings of good. Roughly speaking, a good action is one of which the probable effects are good in the other sense. It is confusing to have two meanings for one word, and we therefore agreed in the previous section to speak of a right action rather than a good action. In order to decide whether an action is right, it is necessary, as we have seen, to consider its probable effects. If the probable effects are, on the whole, better than those of any other action which is possible under the circumstances, then the action is right. The things that are good are things which, on their own account, and apart from any consideration of their effects, we ought to wish to see in existence: they are such things as, we may suppose, might make the world appear to the Creator worth creating. I do not wish to deny that right conduct is among the things that are good on their own account; but if it is so, it depends for its intrinsic goodness upon the goodness of those other things which it aims at producing, such as love or happiness. Thus the rightness of conduct is not the fundamental conception upon which ethics is built up. This fundamental conception is intrinsic goodness or badness.

As the outcome of our discussions in the previous section, I shall assume the following definitions. The objectively right action, in any circumstances, is that action which, of all that are possible, gives us, when account is taken of all available data, the greatest expectation of probable good effects, or the least expectation of probable bad effects. The subjectively right or moral ac

Comment by Sana Sunny ツ on December 7, 2011 at 8:22pm

Determinism and Morals.

§24.

The importance to ethics of the free-will question is a subject upon which there has existed almost as much diversity of opinion as on the free-will question itself. It has been urged by advocates of free-will that its denial involves the denial of merit and demerit, and that, with the denial of these, ethics collapses. It has been urged on the other side that, unless we can forsee, at least partially, the consequences of our actions, it is impossible to know what course we ought to take under any given circumstances; and that if other people's actions cannot be in any degree predicted, the foresight required for rational action becomes impossible. I do not propose, in the following discussion, to go into the free-will controversy itself. The grounds in favour of determinism appear to me overwhelming, and I shall content myself with a brief indication of these grounds. The question I am concerned with is not the freewill question itself, but the question how, if at all, morals are affected by assuming determinism.

In considering this question, as in most of the other problems of ethics, the moralist who has not had a philosophical training appears to me to go astray, and become involved in needless complications, through supposing that right and wrong in conduct are the ultimate conceptions of ethics, rather than good and bad, in the effects of conduct and in other things. The words good and bad are used both for the sort of conduct which is right or wrong, and for the sort of effects to be expected from right and wrong conduct, respectively. We speak of a good picture, a good dinner, and so on, as well as of a good action. But there is a great difference between these two meanings of good. Roughly speaking, a good action is one of which the probable effects are good in the other sense. It is confusing to have two meanings for one word, and we therefore agreed in the previous section to speak of a right action rather than a good action. In order to decide whether an action is right, it is necessary, as we have seen, to consider its probable effects. If the probable effects are, on the whole, better than those of any other action which is possible under the circumstances, then the action is right. The things that are good are things which, on their own account, and apart from any consideration of their effects, we ought to wish to see in existence: they are such things as, we may suppose, might make the world appear to the Creator worth creating. I do not wish to deny that right conduct is among the things that are good on their own account; but if it is so, it depends for its intrinsic goodness upon the goodness of those other things which it aims at producing, such as love or happiness. Thus the rightness of conduct is not the fundamental conception upon which ethics is built up. This fundamental conception is intrinsic goodness or badness.

As the outcome of our discussions in the previous section, I shall assume the following definitions. The objectively right action, in any circumstances, is that action which, of all that are possible, gives us, when account is taken of all available data, the greatest expectation of probable good effects, or the least expectation of probable bad effects. The subjectively right or moral ac

Comment by Sana Sunny ツ on December 7, 2011 at 8:21pm

Right and Wrong.

§12.

The ideas of right and wrong conduct are, as we have seen, those with which ethics is generally supposed to be most concerned. This view, which is unduly narrow, is fostered by the use of the one word good, both for the sort of conduct which is right, and for the sort of things which ought to exist on account of their intrinsic value. This double use of the word good is very confusing, and tends greatly to obscure the distinction of ends and means. I shall therefore speak of right actions, not of good actions, confining the word good to the sense explained in Section II.

The word right is very ambiguous, and it is by no means easy to distinguish the various meanings which it has in common parlance. Owing to the variety of these meanings, adherence to any one necessarily involves us in apparent paradoxes when we use it in a context which suggests one of the other meanings. This is the usual result of precision of language; but so long as the paradoxes are merely verbal, they do not give rise to more than verbal objections.

In judging of conduct we find at the outset two widely divergent methods, of which one is advocated by some moralists, the other by others, while both are practised by those who have no ethical theory. One of these methods, which is that advocated by the utilitarians, judges the rightness of an act by relation to the goodness or badness of its consequences. The other method, advocated by intuitionists, judges by the approval or disapproval of the moral sense or conscience. I believe that it is necessary to combine both theories in order to get a complete account of right and wrong. There is, I think, one sense in which a man does right when he does what will probably have the best consequences, and another in which he does right when he follows the dictates of his conscience, whatever the probable consequences may be. (There are many other senses which we may give to the word right, but these two seem to be the most important.) Let us begin by considering the second of these senses.

§13.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: What do we mean by the dictates of the moral sense? If these are to afford a definition of right conduct, we cannot say that they consist in judging that such andsuch acts are right, for that would make our definition circular. We shall have to say that the moral sense consists in a certain specific emotion of approval towards an act, and that an act is to be called right when the agent, at the moment of action, feels this emotion of approval towards the action which he decides to perform. There is certainly a sense in which a man ought to perform any act which he approves, and to abstain from any act which he disapproves; and it seems also undeniable that there are emotions which may be called approval and disapproval. Thus this theory, whether adequate or not, must be allowed to contain a part of the truth.

It is, however, fairly evident that there are other meanings of right conduct, and that, though there is an emotion of approval, there is also a judgment of approval, which may or may not be true. For we certainly hold that a man who has done an action which his conscience approved may have been mistaken, and that in some sense his conscience ought not to have approved his action. But this would be impossible if nothing were involved except an emotion. To

Comment by Sana Sunny ツ on December 7, 2011 at 8:20pm

The Meaning of Good and Bad.

§4.

Good and Bad, in the sense in which the words are here intended (which is, I believe, their usual sense), are ideas which everybody, or almost everybody, possesses. These ideas are apparently among those which form the simplest concstituents of our more complex ideas, and are therefore incapable of being analysed or built up out of other simpler ideas. When people ask What do you mean by good? the answer must consist, not in a verbal definition such as could be given if one were asked What do you mean by pentagon? but in such a characterization as shall call up the appropriate idea to the mind of the questioner. This characterization may, and probably will, itself contain the idea of good, which would be a fault in a definition, but is harmless when our purpose is merely to stimulate the imagination to the production of the idea which is intended. It is in this way that children are taught the names of colours; they are shown (say) a red book, and told that that is red; and for fear they should think red means book, they are shown also a red flower, a red ball, and so on, and told that these are all red. Thus the idea of redness is conveyed to their minds, although it is quite impossible to analyse redness or to find constituents which compose it.

In the case of good, the process is more difficult, both because goodness is not perceived by the senses, like redness, and because there is less agreement as to the things that are good than as to the things that are red. This is perhaps one reason that has led people to think that the notion of good could be analysed into some other notion, such as pleasure or object of desire. A second reason, probably more potent, is the common confusion that makes people think they cannot understand an idea unless they can define it—forgetting that ideas are defined by other ideas, which must be already understood if the definition is to convey any meaning. When people begin to philosophize, they seem to make a point of forgetting everything familiar and ordinary; otherwise their acquaintance with redness or any other colour might show them how an idea can be intelligible where definition, in the sense of analysis, is impossible.

§5.

To explain what we mean by Good and Bad, we may say that a thing is good when on its own account it ought to exist, and bad when on its own account it ought not to exist. If it seems to be in our power to cause a thing to exist or not to exist, we ought to try to make it exist if it is good, and not exist if it is bad. When a thing is good, it is fitting that we should feel pleasure in its existence; when it is bad, it is fitting that we should feel pain in its existence. But all such characterizations really presuppose the notions of good and bad, and are therefore useful only as a means of calling up the right ideas, not as logical definitions.

It might be thought that good could be defined as the quality of whatever we ought to try to produce. This would merely put ought in place of good as our ultimate undefined notion; but as a matter of fact the good is much wider that what we ought to try to produce. There is no reason to doubt that some of the lost tragedies of Aeschylus were good, but we ought not to try to re-write them, because we should certainly fail. What we ought to do, in fact, is limited by our powers and opportunities, whereas the good is subject to no such limitation. And our knowledge of goods is confined to the things we have experienced or can imagine; but presumably there are ma

Comment by Sana Sunny ツ on December 7, 2011 at 8:18pm

The Subject-Matter of Ethics.

The study of Ethics is perhaps most commonly conceived as being concerned with the questions What sort of actions ought men to perform? and What sort of actions ought men to avoid? It is conceived, that is to say, as dealing with human conduct, and as deciding what is virtuous and what is vicious among the kinds of conduct between which, in practice, people are called upon to choose. Owing to this view of the province of ethics, it is sometimes regarded as the practical study, to which all others may be opposed as theoretical; the good and the true are sometimes spoken of as independent kingdoms, the former belonging to ethics, while the latter belongs to the sciences.

This view, however, is doubly defective. In the first place, it overlooks the fact that the object of ethics, by its own account, is to discover true propositions about virtuous and vicious conduct, and that these are just as much a part of truth as true propositions about oxygen or the multiplication table. The aim is, not practice, but propositions about practice; and propositions about practice are not themselves practical, any more than propositions about gases are gaseous. One might as well maintain that botany is vegetable or zoology animal. Thus the study of ethics is not something outside science and co-ordinate with it: it is merely one among sciences.

§2.

In the second place, the view in question unduly limits the province of ethics. When we are told that actions of certain kinds ought to be performed or avoided, as, for example, that we ought to speak the truth, or that we ought not to steal, we may always legitimately ask for a reason, and this reason will always be concerned, not only with the actions themselves, but also with the goodness or badness of the consequences likely to follow from such actions. We shall be told that truth-speaking generates mutual confidence, cements friendships, facilitates the dispatch of business, and hence increases the wealth of the society which practices it, and so on. If we ask why we should aim at increasing mutual confidence, or cementing friendships, we may be told that obviously these things are good, or that they lead to happiness, and happiness is good. If we still ask why, the plain man will probably feel irritation, and will reply that he does not know. His irritation is due to the conflict of two feelings—the one, that whatever is true must have a reason; the other, that the reason he has already given is so obvious that it is merely contentious to demand a reason for the reason. In the second of these feelings he may be right; in the first, he is certainly wrong. In ordinary life, people only ask why when they are unconvinced. If a reason is given which they do not doubt, they are satisfied. Hence, when they do ask why, they usually have a logical right to expect an answer, and they come to think that a belief for which no reason can be given is an unreasonable belief. But in this they are mistaken, as they would soon discover if their habit of asking why were more persistent.

It is the business of the philosopher to ask for reasons as long as reasons can legitimately be demanded, and to register the propositions which give the most ultimate reasons that are attainable. Since a proposition can only be proved by means of other propositions, it is obvious that not all propositions can be proved, for proofs can only begin by assuming something. And since the consequences have no more certainty than their premises, the things that are proved are no more certain than the things that are accepted merely because they are obvious, and are then made the basis of our proofs. Thus in the case of et

Comment by Sana Sunny ツ on December 7, 2011 at 8:16pm

Introduction to Ethics

We are all told, and we (probably) all believe, that there are some things we ought to do and others that we ought not. Ethics is an examination of these 'oughts' or norms of behaviour. What it seeks to provide are justifications for the 'oughts' that we use to guide us through life. To help you appreciate that this justification can have a range from the obvious to the very difficult, consider the following statements concerning diet:

  • You ought to eat more sensibly because otherwise you will get sick.
  • You ought to eat more chocolate because otherwise the workers who pick the beans in under-developed countries will encounter hardship.
  • You ought to eat the sheep's eye presented to you by your Arab host because otherwise he will be very offended.
  • You ought to steal food from the plate of a rich person and give it to the starving because just allowing people to starve to death is inhuman.
  • You ought to stop eating meat because it causes animal suffering.
  • You ought to stop eating pork as it is against God's will and you could go to Hell.

Some terms

Before going further, it is a good idea to try to get clear a few of the terms used in this area of philosophy, particularly morals and ethics. Broadly speaking, ethics relates to the theory of what is right and wrong, morals with the practice. (Though be warned that these are often interchanged in everyday usage and sometimes even by philosophers.) Thus, we have medical ethics (but not 'medical morals') which seeks to guide doctors and, for instance, moral medical practices (such as, perhaps, the alleviation of pain) or immoral ones (perhaps circumcision without consent) which doctors might actually carry out. From this distinction you can see why we have moral philosophy (and not 'ethical philosophy') since it is the practice of reflecting on morality. Moral acts are ones which accord with an ethical theory, immoral ones go against such theories. Amoral acts have no moral dimension. Thus, the act of a tiny baby dropping its rattle out of the pram is amoral but smacking the baby for it might be seen as moral or immoral depending on the ethical principle appealed to.

Principles for Moral Actions — Normative Ethics

Jumping in at the deep end, the first thing to consider is whether ethical principles even exist.

Of course, it seems like they exist – we all seem to behave as if there is a set of guiding principles to help us decide what is the right thing to do in a certain situation. But what are we to say to the determinist who maintains that all our reactions are out of 'our' control, that we are incapable of making real choices about how we behave? And what are we to say to the solipsist who maintains that their mind is the only real thing in the world? If there is nothing else besides this solipsist's mind, then there is nothing to judge it against. So, a solipsist would not have 'standards of behaviour' or ethical principles at all: they would not exist.

Fortunately, neither of these positions, though possible, is philosophically acceptable. Determinism because it disallows reasoning to a conclusion which, arguably, is at the heart of philosophy [see more on this in the section on egoism]; solipsism for its sheer implausibility as a theory (notwithstanding its logical impregnability).

So, having acknowledged the existence of ethical principles as an acceptable standpoint, the next big question is this: are our ethical principles universal or merely relative? In other words, is something like 'you ought not to m

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