western ethics part 1st :- nta net december 2019 philosophy
Western ethical theories
Why use ethical theory?
Every day, you probably make dozens or even hundreds of decisions about what could be considered 'ethical' issues. Should I do the washing-up (even though I am tired) so my partner doesn't have to? Should I help my colleague out with getting the report in on time, even though I'd rather leave work early and join my friend for a social meeting? We usually weigh up the rights and wrongs of these small decisions fairly quickly and easily. But it isn't always easy to know what the right or wrong action is. On closer examination, even a question as apparently simple as whether or not to give aid to alleviate poverty may be fraught with difficult issues. On what ethical basis should individuals give money to charity? Is it because we have a duty to give some of our income to help people less fortunate than ourselves? Or is it because we have a duty to uphold other peoples' fundamental human right to live healthy and secure lives? Is it simply that giving money to charity makes us a good person - and, perhaps, allows us to feel better about ourselves? Whatever the reason, is it the consequences of our actions that matter? (For example, is it important to know before we donate money what percentage of our money will go to helping the needy and how much will go to paying consultants or NGO executives?) Or is it purely the action itself (in this case, the act of giving) that is intrinsically right?
These questions are a starting point for a brief consideration of the main traditions of Western ethical thought. These types of theories, which are concerned with how we ought to act, belong to the branch of philosophical study called normative ethics. (Remember that 'normative' ethical theories are concerned with moral actions, and with how people 'ought' to live their lives.) Whilst some of the terms used here may be new to you, the ideas behind those terms will probably be more familiar. Most of these ideas form the basis of modern-day environmental and development policy, and they are very commonly used as the basis of ethical arguments, often as a result of deductive reasoning. When people use deductive reasoning, they are applying a general principle to a particular situation. For instance, a general principle such as 'all people have the right to a clean environment' may be applied more specifically: 'therefore a company should not be allowed to pollute the environment and to endanger the health of local residents'.
By becoming familiar with the main traditions of ethical thought, you will be able to identify clearly how you use these principles when you construct your own arguments. You will also be able to recognise these arguments when they are used by other people. By thinking about the problematic issues surrounding these moral traditions, you can apply these critiques both to your own thinking and the arguments of others. If you are aware of some of the theoretical conflicts between these traditions, and if you can recognise when these ethical principles are being used, this can equip you to spot inconsistencies in the arguments that you or others make.
Traer (2013) illustrates the task of understanding normative ethical traditions in terms of different paths on a mountain. For example, when people use the words 'duty' and 'rights', they are referring (consciously or otherwise) to theories that are concerned with right action. If, on the other hand, they are discussing our ethics in terms of our 'character' or 'relationships', then they are referring to theories of being good. 'Right action' and 'being good' identify different paths on the mountain. If you look at the diagram in 2.1.1, you can see that ethical theories emphasising duty or rights branch off the right action path, whereas ethical theories concerning character or relationships diverge from the being good path.
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