Ethics and Values

Ethics and Values: Western Debates (We will discuss this aspect in detail in the section of Western Moral thinkers)

Ethics deals with questions concerning the nature of value in matters of human conduct. There have been several philosophical perspectives on ethics and values which explain the nature of such judgments, provide criteria for determining what is ethically right or wrong and analyse the grounds or reasons for holding them to be correct. Some of them are as follows;

  • Socrates – He asserted that people will naturally do what is good provided they know what is right and that bad actions are purely the result of ignorance. “There is only one good – knowledge and one evil – ignorance”. He equated knowledge and wisdom with self-awareness, virtue and happiness. He considered self-knowledge and self-awareness to be the essential good because the truly wise person will know what is right, do what is good and therefore be happy. He thought that virtue is something that can be known and that the virtuous person (one who knows what virtue is) will necessarily act virtuously.
  • Plato – He maintained that true knowledge consists not in knowing particular things but in knowing something general that is common to all the particular casese. one does not know what goodness is unless one can give such a general account. But what is it that one knows when one knows this general idea of goodness? Plato’s answer is that one knows the Form of the Good, a perfect, eternal, and changeless entity existing outside space and time, in which particular good things share or participate, insofar as they are good.

According to Plato, justice exists in the individual when the three elements of the soulintellect, emotion and desireact in harmony with each other. The unjust person lives in an unsatisfactory state of internal discord, trying always to overcome the discomfort of unsatisfied desire but never achieving anything better than the mere absence of want. The soul of the just person, on the other hand, is harmoniously ordered under the governance of reason and the just person derives truly satisfying enjoyment from the pursuit of knowledge.

  • Aristotle – He holds that the life of virtue is rewarding for the virtuous as well as beneficial for the community. For him, the highest and most satisfying form of human existence involves the exercise of one’s rational faculties to the fullest extent. The concept of ethics and ethical behaviour is very much influenced by Aristotle´s distinction between virtues and vices. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defined a virtue as a balance point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait.

According to Aristotle, “Nature does nothing in vain”. It is only when a person acts in accordance with his nature then only he realizes his full potential. He held that self-realization, the awareness of one’s nature and the development of one’s talents, is the surest path to happiness, which is the ultimate goal, all other things (such as civic life or wealth) being merely means to an end.

He encouraged moderation in all things, the extremes being degraded and immoral, (e.g. courage is the moderate virtue between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness), and held that Man should not simply live, but live well with conduct governed by moderate virtue. Virtue, according to him, denotes doing the right thing to the right person at the right time to the proper extent in the correct fashion and for the right reason.

  • Jeremy Bentham – He held that nature has placed human beings under two masters – pleasure and pain. Anything that seems good must be either directly pleasurable or thought to be a means to pleasure or to the avoidance of pain. Conversely, anything that seems bad must be either directly painful or thought to be a means to pain or to the deprivation of pleasure. From this Bentham argued that the words right and wrong can be meaningful only if they are used in accordance with the utilitarian principlee. whatever increases the net surplus of pleasure over pain is right and whatever decreases it is wrong.
  • John Stuart Mill – In his essay “Utilitarianism”, he introduced several modifications to Bentham views on pleasure and pain. Although his position was based on the maximization of happiness but he distinguished between pleasures that are higher and those that are lower in quality. Mill sought to show that utilitarianism is compatible with moral rules and principles relating to justice, honesty, and truthfulness.
  • Rousseau – He was the proponent of rule by the “general will.” For Rousseau, the general will is not the sum of all the individual wills in the community but the true common will of all the citizens. Even if a person dislikes and opposes decision carried by the majority that decision represents the general will or the common will.
  • Immanuel Kant – He doubted whether simple distinctions between good virtues and bad vices make sense. For him, most virtues and vices are highly ambivalent and should always be judged in a specific context and whether (or not) they would serve a moral principle. Kant insisted that actions resulting from desires cannot be free which is found only in rational action. Rational action cannot be based on an individual’s personal desires but must be in accordance with a universal law. Kant’s most distinctive contribution to ethics was his insistence that one’s actions possess moral worth only when one does his duty for its own sake.