Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.
Henry David Thoreau
In this chapter I’d like to discuss how intent and perception plays a role in how we judge the actions of others. Are we less likely to condemn someone for their actions if we perceive them as an “ethical person”. Would the actions be secondary to the “virtue” of the person committing them? If someone’s actions brings about a positive outcome, does that influence our overall judgment of them? Or are there certain moral standards or laws that define every action we take? These questions are covered in the three major branches of normative ethics. The modern philosophical moral theory regarding how one must act to be moral.
We will begin with virtue ethics. This is a school of thought which focuses on character. The makeup of the individual. When judging whether an act is right or wrong, the act is almost meaningless to the virtue ethicist. All that matters is the “moral character” of the person committing the act. Whether the act brought negative or positive consequences is not considered. What matters is how the moral situation was approached. Was the person’s intent a positive one?
Dentological ethics is a school of thought which believes morality is based on one’s adherence to preset rules or duties, and that these rules should guide all our behavior. It differs a bit from moral absolutism in that they can leave room for some actions to be considered positive if they led to a positive outcome. There are dentologists who follow moral absolutism and feel some acts that were not carried out “morally” cannot be considered positive regardless of the results. Mankind must basically have a moral code and that this code will define the morality of their actions. And you cannot stray far from it and be considered moral, no matter the outcome.
Consequentialism is the view that the outcome of one’s actions should be the true measure of one’s morality. “The ends justify the means”. It differs from virtue ethics in that no thought is given to the approach of the individual, and from dentology in that almost all weight is given to the action and not the “moral code” of the individual or culture. “Vigilante morals” as I like to call them. A great modern example of this, is Batman. His goals are altruistic and he doesn’t kill, but he clearly operates outside of standard law and morals.
Many of the principles and beliefs that define each of these schools of thought find their origins in ancient Greek philosophy. Most notably, virtue ethics, which traces it’s origins as far back as Plato’s book, Republic. In it, he discusses the Four Cardinal Virtues: wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance. If a man carried himself by these virtues, then that would define the morality of his actions. Not the means or the ends. It was an idea carried through history by the likes of Cicero in Ancient Rome, early Christian philosophers St. Ambrose and St. Aquinas, and David Hume. Confucianism also shares some parallels with classic virtue theory.
Dentology is a more modern ethical philosophy though it did pluck some ideas from ancient Greek thought. The first relevant use of the term “dentological” was in 1930 by English philosopher, C.D. Broad. Dentology gained much of it’s influence from religious structure, beginning with the Divine Command Theory. A group of theories that suggest an action is right if GOD deemed it to be so. The teachings of GOD from the Bible ruled most thought on moral action but some discrepancy is made. If you do not work on the Sabbath because you were being lazy(whatever that means) you will be looked bad upon even though scripture says do no work on the Sabbath.
Consequentialism was also crystallized in modern times by British philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe. Who, by the way, is credited with driving C.S. Lewis out of ethics and into children’s books after she destroyed him in a debate on ethics. It has since divided into several different different subgroups all focused on a particular variation of “the ends justify the means”. Noted historical figures who could be considered “founding fathers” of consequentialism include; Niccolò Machiavelli , Friedrich Nietzsche , and Jean – Paul Sartre.
In the 20th century, ethics scholars became increasingly interested in our reasons for what we do as much as what we actually do. A turning point credited to W. D. Ross and his book The Right and The Good. The theories that make up normative ethics were discussed and fleshed out at great length for many decades until a brief hiatus with the research of “meta ethics”. A topic we will discuss in a later chapter.
Speaking of which, this brings us to the end of this chapter. Again, I hope you enjoyed it. Please do join me for the next chapter when we will be discussing personal ethics, moral codes, and the “stages of moral development” as defined by Lawrence Kohlberg. Home players should have 12 air quotes.