Well, like Selanya, I am ridiculously busy at the moment. I still have five books to finish this month, a 5 page, 10 page, 14 page, and five 3-4 page papers to write, a presentation to give and a final exam to take all by the first week in December. This is the last stretch of my semester though, and then I can start my reading for next semester (my plan is to get five books read before the semester starts :P, maybe six (they’re all long…). So, I am admittedly busy, and I’m still trying to synthesize everything that I’ve learned this semester. So, I’m going to set out to write a series of blog posts broadly outlining the various approaches to Ethics that have been taken in the past 2500 years and discuss how a basic understanding of them can help you in your writing. So, as a primer I want to introduce a few concepts that are going to be important in this discussion and give a general outline of the topics that I’m going to discuss.
At a basic level there are six things that every ethical system must handle in some way. Some systems attempt to combine these features, others attempt to remove one or more (this generally doesn’t end well), and some simply assume answers to certain questions rather than actually asking those questions. However, every ethical system must provide a basic metaphysic, epistemology, philosophical anthropology, teleology, exemplar, and method. So, a brief overview of what I mean in using these terms:
Metaphysic: Metaphysics is the philosophy of being. This is actually an entire branch of philosophy devoted to explaining the nature of existence, being, potential being, non-being, etc. However, here I am using it in a much more basic form to refer to the basic understanding of the universe that an ethical system is built on. For instance, is existence purely material? Should we accept the immaterial as real? If so, how do we differentiate between the material and the immaterial worlds? Can the two intersect in any way? Every ethical system either presents arguments defending or simply assumes an understanding of the world in which we live, and then builds its model of ethical knowledge off of those assumptions. For instance, Plato spends a significant amount of time in his ethical thought developing his concept of the forms, which are fundamentally real immaterial entities that the material world mirrors. For instance, there is a form of beauty, truth, goodness, etc that beautiful, true, or good people/actions/etc in the material world reflect like a mirror.
Epistemology: Another entire field of philosophy, Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Plato, for instance, distinguished between true opinion and knowledge (which is related to his theory of the forms) and argued that the majority of people could only have true opinion, and only those who have sought to understand that forms could actually have knowledge of the forms. Epistemology seeks to answer questions like ‘can we know anything?’ If so, what can we know? How do we know it? What is knowledge? How do we defend knowledge that we have? Along with a metaphysic, every system of ethics either defends of assumes a particular concept of knowledge. For instance, Plato’s theory of the forms assumes that there is an immaterial world that we can have knowledge of, but that such knowledge is difficult to obtain. Kant, on the other hand, accepted the idea of an immaterial world (the noumenal), but rejected the idea that we can have any knowledge of it. Alternatively, many scientists today (Stephen Hawking if I’m not mistaken), argue that existence is entirely material and that we can only have true knowledge of reality through an arduous process of repeated experimentation and observation commonly referred to as the scientific method.
Philosophical Anthropology: This refers to the concept of man’s moral nature. While not a distinct philosophical field in and of itself it is important in ethics as this attempts to answer questions such as what does man start with? Is he born a blank slate? Born thoroughly wicked with no hope of redemption? With little hope of redemption? Born saintly and only corrupted by a wicked world? Born with a variety of good or bad genetic dispositions that must be encouraged or discouraged appropriately? Just as every ethical system assumes or defends a basic nature to the universe, every ethical system assumes or defends a basic nature of mankind. For instance, Wang Yangming, a Confucian scholar, argued that man was born with a morally perfect nature that was simply clouded with desires. If the desires are paired away, then the perfect man will emerge. However, Augustine argued that man was born thoroughly wicked and only through the active grace of God could he have any hope of becoming even remotely good.
Teleology: This refers to the end goal. While many ethical systems simply assume a metaphysic, epistemology, and anthropology, the teleology of the system is generally more intentionally presented or defended. This asks the question: what is the proper end of man? What is the point? The mark that we are aiming at? The place that the system wants it followers to end up? In my reading thus far I’ve found that there Teleology is one of the major sticking points of ethics. There are many ethical systems that claim to be non-teleological, or to have no ‘end point’ in mind. For instance, the ethics of Immanuel Kant are deontological (i.e. duty-based) rather than teleological (i.e. end-based), and many deontologists claim that the system has and needs no end goal. However, what I’ve noticed is that non-teleological systems always have a teleology… it’s just an under-developed one. For instance, the teleology of Kantian ethics is to become ‘the person who does right’. Now, this might sound fine, but it also raises a lot of questions. More on that later :).
Exemplar: This is a clear picture, conception, or ideal that the ethical system shoots for. While there are a number of ethical systems that don’t provide a clear exemplar, I am going to argue that any strong ethical system needs a clear exemplar. For instance, as I just said, in Kantian ethics, the goal is to become ‘the person who does right’. This sounds good, but it’s extremely general. What does that look like? Kantian ethics doesn’t actually provide an example of it’s teleological goal (mostly because it attempts to ignore the goal). Alternatively, Confucianism presents the Sage Kings Yao and Shun as exemplars for men to strive for. Another good example of this is Christianity which presents a clear exemplar in the person of Jesus Christ as the perfect man.
Method: This is the method of means by which an individual follows the ethical system. Kant’s categorical imperative or Jeremy Bentham’s hedonistic calculus are good examples of this. Further, in Confucianism the rites serve as a good example of method, and in Judaism (especially Hasidic Judaism) the law serves as a good example of method. The method of an ethical system seeks to answer the question: what do I do? Again, while every good ethical system has some form of method, some are stronger than others. For instance, the hedonistic calculus of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism is attractive precisely because it is a clear, simple method that can be applied to any decision. The teleology and metaphysic of Bentham’s system may be highly problematic, but his method is clear and simple. Alternatively, Plato has a fairly strong metaphysic and epistemology for his ethical theory, and a clear teleology, but his anthropology and exemplar seem to vary from book to book, and he has a fairly unclear method.
So, over the next several posts I intend to provide a broad overview of ethical categories including Naturalism, Idealism, Confucianism, Existentialism, and Christian Ethics and discuss each of them in light of these six categories and how each may be useful for your writing. However, I hope that after reading this post you’ve already got some ideas about how some of these might be useful. Metaphysic in your writing is an obvious part of world-building. What is your world like? What is real and what isn’t? Epistemology is similar. How do people in your world actually know things? Can they know anything? What does it mean for them to ‘know’? Similarly, where do the people in your world start and where are they going? What is the goal of life, or is there a goal? How do they get there? All of these are important world-building questions for any particular culture that you want to work through.