The question of ethics has been pondered throughout history. Both religious and secular leaders and cultures have attempted to define ethical behavior. But, whether through belief in God or belief in a society of another sort, man has never satisfactorily answered the question of what is ethical. We can never know if our behavior is ethical, only believe it to be so from what we have learned from society and our ancestors. Culture extends to and affects all things; as we evolve, so too does the way we relate to the world and each other.
Therefore, even the notion of ethics, an unwritten, universal code for behavior, is a product of agreements, often tacit and subconscious, between the members of a culture; culture is, in turn, a function of the changes individual humans have undergone.
As stated by Ken Wilber, testosterone give men a “skip it or kill it” impulse. Therefore, when men were less evolved, taking whatever woman you wanted was all right. Men could not control those impulses, and so the ethics in such primitive societies are things to make us blanch. In later societies, if a man attempted to steal whatever woman he wanted, he could lose his life. Then, in the “glorious” medieval period, it was a noble’s prerogative to have whatever girl he wanted from within his demesne. Now, no matter how rich or powerful you are, it is considered unethical to attempt any such thing. We have even written laws that prohibit any actions society deems unethical.
Historically, ethics has changed many times over the years, with the rise and fall of various religions and secular regimes. For the Greeks, ethics was a very low priority (at least in our eyes). The Greek gods were philanderers, thieves and miscreants of all sorts, always squabbling amongst themselves. With the rise of more secular philosophy in ancient Greece, Socrates spread his theories that man could find anything through self – and world – reflection. He was followed by Plato, who taught that there were two kinds of knowledge: empirical, that is, testable, and that of reason. Any man who could find his own truths through “reason” had the right and duty to impose high ideas on other men, because such thinkers were rare and special. Then came Aristotle, who taught that all such matters as ethics were universal truths, unchangeable by men. He taught that the best we could hope to do is discover those universal truths and practice them, thus becoming ethical people through the ethics programmed into ourselves.
In China, with Confucius, Chinese philosophy was more on the matter of social instead of individual ethics. If one found the Dao, or true path, de, or virtue, would follow as a result of finding this truth. Confucius taught that ethical codes existed from long before and were still applicable in his own time, and that the ethical codes determined an individual’s duty to his or her society.
Hindu ethics, largely expounded in the Upanishads, tended towards much more metaphysical pursuits, leaving the problems of an individual’s duty to other, and more secular texts such as Manu’s Law Books. Those codices laid down laws as to the social responsibilities of people of certain classes. Dharma, moral and social order, is a function of class. Depending on where you are in the social strata, your code of ethics was different.
Buddhism, founded by Siddharta Gautama, places great emphasis on the idea of simplicity. Buddhist ethics revolve almost completely around the motives for actions taken: if something is done for a bad reason, it is bad itself; if something is done for a good reason, it is good. However, the consequences of the actions also count. So, Buddhism espoused neither a “the ends justify the means” philosophy, nor a philosophy where only intentions count. Buddhism had only five core laws: abstain from killing and hurting living creatures; from stealing; from wrong indulgence in sensual pleasures; from lying; and from taking intoxicants.
The core belief of Jainism, another sect originating in India, is that all sentient life is sacred, and should be treated as such. Therefore, one should not harm any living thing, as all life has a purpose. Jainism also stressed truthfulness and disregard for material possessions.
Both Judaism and Christianity, while different in many fundamental ways not visible to many people, espouse a desire to be as close to God as possible. The way to achieve this, as taught by both religions, is through a strict moral code and humane treatment of all living things, especially humans. There are many other laws, but none as important as the ones detailing the interactions between individuals in a community and between people and God. There is no philosophy of simplicity, or of disregard for material possessions, or the belief that only extreme introspection can reveal the truths of the universe; at their cores, both Judaism and Christianity declare that the only way to know the truth is through the interaction of the body and spirit with God.
Islam stresses an absolute deference to the will of God, or Allah, that is subject to no interpretation by man, although there are several branches of Islam. The words of Allah, as heard and written by the prophet Muhammed, known as the Qur’an or the Koran, provide the basis for moral order in Muslim life. One of the Muslim ideals, tied into the strong sense of culture and society created by the adherence to the words of the Qur’an, stresses the redress of all social wrongs that impede devotion to Allah.
During the Renaissance a new philosophical system arose, that of Humanism. Humanism placed great emphasis on the deeds of the individual, without regard to metaphysical constructs such as God or the soul. Although the views of various humanists varied widely, from the belief that men were inherently good to the belief that men were inherently evil, they all believed that man and man alone was responsible for the good or evil in the world, whether through individual deeds or through the construction of, according to Rousseau, “inherently corrupt systems” like society.
Utilitarianism, expanded by both Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, was the philosophical system that the only way to tell if an action was ethical or not was to observe the results empirically. Bentham said that an action was ethical if it caused the least pain and the most pleasure for the most people in the society. Mill, while agreeing that something that causes the most pleasure and the least amount of pain for the most people was a good thing, that not all questions of ethics could be solved that way; instead, society should adopt and uphold a common moral law instead of always judging by the absolutes of pain and pleasure. Mill believed this way because Bentham’s method left no room for people that were very different from others in society; Mill believed that such people were important to society.
Deontology, first championed by Immanuel Kant, states that being ethical can only be achieved by adherence to a standard set of compulsory morals; he stated that to find a moral law we should imagine ourselves on the wrong end of a ruling and expand morality from there.
Marxism, as theorized by Karl Marx, did not lay down a set of ethical laws, but rather dealt with ethics as a tool of the ruling class to oppress the working class. Therefore, Marx believed that only when the working class was free of the ruler ship of the “bourgeoisie” could a real set of ethical laws be devised.
Existentialism, as laid down by Sartre, was the idea that all accepted conventions and rules, secular or religious, were false and the only person who could determine what was right was oneself. Sartre declared that all people have the freedom and responsibility to create themselves in whatever image they deem right, and whosoever does not take the freedom and responsibility was untrue to themselves. Sartre believed in no codes of ethics but those he could discern with his own intellect, and stated that the only way to find truth was to formulate and implement an idea and suffer whatever consequences may follow.
Post – Modernism deals with the idea that there are no universal truths, only human ideas that are no truer than any other human ideas, that truth is a totally relative thing. Even things like murder being wrong are subject to debate as a human truth, not a universal one, according to Post – Modernism. Even the ideas of free will and reason are not universal truths, but rather human truths because they are human constructs. Therefore, there is no wrong or right, but only what’s wrong or right for each separate person.
Social Ethics deals with the minimum requirements to balance social needs and individual needs. According to John Rawls, ethics is only a tool to achieve this balance, and should include liberty, acceptance of difference, and establishment of a basic protection against poverty. Alasdair MacIntyre, however, felt that ethics should concentrate less on individuals and their moral decisions and more on the community and its moral health and welfare. He felt we should focus more on what people should be rather than what they should do.
So, from the wide variety of opinion engendered in the many different philosophical systems regarding the idea of ethics, one can see that, though many different systems claim to have the truth about ethics and morality, not all can be. Ethics is the code detailing how an individual relates to a society, and while all of the philosophies throughout time have dealt with ethics in that wise, the explanations all differ so much that the only thing that can be told is that each culture where a specific idea about the truth of ethics originated influenced the originators.
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