So, a while back I started a series introducing general ethics and why they matter for writing. I’m notorious for not finishing the series I start (as those who have been long-time readers can tell you), but amazingly I actually want to finish this series. I think it’s important. As anyone who’s been reading for a while knows, I argue that philosophy is very important in writing. It shapes who we are, what we choose to write, and the way we write it. Our beliefs come through in our writing (whether we want them to or not), and its generally better if we try to be intentional in presenting them rather than incidental. This doesn’t mean that we beat people over the head with our dogma and doctrine (trust me, I get into plenty of that and it never works out well), but that we intentionally write from the world-view of our beliefs. I am a Christian, thus I am not likely to come up with a fantasy world the bleeds materialism (i.e. the belief that nothing exists beyond the physical world).
So, in my last post I discussed Naturalistic (or Materialistic) ethics. In this post I want to give a brief overview of Ideological Ethics. As you know, I’m going to be discussing each broad category along six different lines: metaphysic, epistemology, philosophical anthropology, teleology, exemplar, and method.
Ideological ethical theories share different versions of the same general metaphysic: something non-material exists that most (or all) people don’t have access to. This non-material world could be embodied in Plato’s world of the forms (i.e. a non-material world of perfect ideas that give shape to physical realities such as ‘the form of love’ or ‘the form of bed’ or ‘the form of man’), Aquinas’ divine mind (i.e. divine knowledge forms the building blocks of all that exists), or Immanuel Kant’s noumenal realm (i.e. a non-material world of perfect reality that is completely inaccessible to man). While the theories vary in some way, they all agree that some non-material reality exists that gives shape to the material world.
However, ideological theories disagree about epistemology. For instance, Kant argued that the phenomenal (i.e. material) world that men inhabited could never contact or ‘know’ the noumenal world that gives it shape, and thus men are left with hopeful belief that could never progress farther than that. Alternatively, Plato argued that some men could, through rigorous education and inward thought, access the world of the forms and know it. Thus, some men could know true reality and thus pass it on to others. Aquinas argued that man could know those parts of the Divine mind that God chooses to reveal through scripture, contemplation, prayer, and meditation. So, some ideological theories argue that we can know true reality, and others argue that we can’t.
Again, ideological theories tend to disagree over whether man is good or evil. Plato assumes that man is generally decent while Aristotle assumes that man is a blank slate, and Augustine assumes that man is generally wicked. Most ideological theories, however, believe that there is some way for man to become good, even if they don’t start out that way. These ways fit into the methods of ideological ethics.
Ideological theories tend to fit into one of two categories: primarily teleological (i.e. goal-oriented) or primarily deontological (i.e. rule-oriented). Kant, for example, argues that we have duties that must be fulfilled and that discovering those duties is the goal of ethics. Plato and Aristotle, on the other hand, argue that man has a natural end that should be achieved and thus the goal of ethics is finding a way for man to achieve that end. There are also some scholars who attempt to combine deontological and teleological thought into a unified whole, and others who argue that it can’t be done. One key point here is that, while naturalistic ethics tend to be consequentialist (i.e. good and evil are determined by what actually comes out of an action, and so no action can be determined to be good or evil before its consequences are known), Ideological ethics are much more focused on motive, goal, and action.
Ideological Ethics tend to have exemplars of some sort. Aquinas points to Christ, Aristotle to the ‘Great-Souled Man’, Plato to the ‘Philosopher-King’, Confucius to the ‘Sages’, etc. As far as I know Kant didn’t present any particular exemplar, but it could just be that I haven’t read enough of him.
Methods tend to differ between teleological and deontological ideologies. Deontological ethical theories tend to focus on establishing clear systems of rules. Following the rules and doing one’s duty is the way to be moral. On the other hand, teleological theories tend to focus on character. The way to be moral is to establish moral habits that build a moral character and make you a moral kind of person rather than following strict rules that attempt to cover every possible situation.
So, how is this useful? Consider that there aren’t many religions that preach materialism. In general, if you have a religion, it’s going to have some kind of ideological ethical thought: something exists out there that makes reality what it is and that thing is what determines how we can be moral (i.e. what is good and what is evil). Similarly, even people who reject knowledge of that thing (like Kant) can accept that they should be doing their best to figure out how to live like it, and thus how to be moral. There’s also a distinct difference between hard deontologists (i.e. the Pharisees) and hard teologists who seek to establish a ‘whole and good man’ who instinctively does what is right in every situation. This could be fodder for some interesting character conflicts in your writing. So, that’s enough for now. Enjoy!