Meta:Historical/Simple View of Ethics and Morals

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Simple View of Ethics and Morals
This was an essay mostly written by ("24").

Ethics is the science of morality. It's very important because it can answer the big question, "How should we live?" It presupposes we can define 'how' (method), 'should' (ambition), 'we' (a group seeking consensus), 'live' (beings with bodies). Without this context, ethics is generally just talk implying moral judgement.

Practical ethics is often thought of as a process of de-escalating moral conflicts to the point of non-violent resolution, reducing harm, and educating as required so that each participant in a conflict can effectively see the other's point of view. The simplest way to understand this is that ethics balances right versus right, but some instinctive moral core of the individual must recognize right and wrong, else we do not have two individuals asserting "right" requiring ethical help: if either believes themselves "wrong" then they are engaging in tactics to reduce the chance of getting caught or alerting others to it, neither of which is studied by ethics. Ethics can thus be viewed as a lever but one that rests on a moral fulcrum of pre-existing assumptions, like the bodies of the beings in conflict.

This simple view completely reverses the traditional Greek view that ethos, or "character" was internal, and nomoi (in Latin mores), or "custom", came from the society. But then, the ancient Greeks viewed religion and the responsibilties of a tutor (which included sex) in a somewhat opposite way from moderns as well.

Despite wide differences in methods, ambitions, consensus, and ecologies in which humans live, there are a few widely-accepted moral principles that seem to cross all major cultural boundaries and can be elaborated, if only in the abstract. One is some form of the golden rule: "Act towards other people only in ways that you would want people to act towards you." Another is that a person can only be blamed or praised if they could choose to act or refuse to act. Another is that there seems to be something good about helping living things in general, or compassion or empathy. These principles seem to be based firmly in living beings' makeup - e.g. a mammal would hardly argue against 'motherhood'. But the same things can lead us to difficult moral choices - while a sexually reproducing animal would not argue against 'beauty', it could recognize the unallayed pursuit of it as an excess likely to do great harm (say to mothers).

It is useful to distinguish "good from bad" socially just as we might distinguish "good from evil" morally. It's also useful to recognize that we use the word "right" to assert what we are due and to judge what is correct. Ethics begins when we try to use "right", "wrong", "good", "bad" and "evil" as labels in a sharable, predictable, way. Else it is just a moral judgement and not a basis for cooperation with other people in any due process or law.

Most surviving societies recognize certain acts that are usually bad for the society, such as lying, stealing, murder of people, adultery, and impiety (to God or Nature which in early societies was often the same). Mature societies recognize ecological and personal obligations that may contradict the social:

Therefore, etiquette (or "diplomacy" or "de-escalation") often requires that a painful truth be avoided, or even that a disruptive presence be silenced... many otherwise "civilized" societies jail, exile, or even execute individuals.

This highlights the differences between individual and social responsibility - very often people rely on society or labor specialization to do things (like kill chickens or "terrorists") that they simply would not do for themselves.

More complex ethical theories can be easily doubted, and are usually wrong. Very often, they are an excuse for continuing behavior felt to be immoral - whether behavior can ever be "known" to be immoral is another basic question.

Even the above version of the golden rule can be doubted, i.e. what if the "person" is not human, or has deliberately killed a human? Is it right to treat such a person like a human if they would be harmed by reciprocal treatment? What makes us decide that a person is worthy of respect in the first place? A body? Ape-like gestures? A corporate charter? Free beer?

Philosophers have been criticizing ethical theories for thousands of years, and many of their criticisms are complex, subtle and technical. Discussing such criticisms is beyond the scope of this article. Usually, ethics does not stand alone but requires epistemology (knowing the self) and metaphysics (knowing the way one validates truth against the environment) to constitute "a philosophy". Theologians often phrase the questions somewhat differently, in terms of cosmology (God), ontology (what exists), and morals. As morals are difficult or impossible to transfer out of context, the theologian generally studies ethics case by case - or "fable by fable".