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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Ethics

The branch of philosophy that studies the nature of right and wrong and of moral judgments.

In Western philosophical tradition, the study of ethics is generally divided into three areas: Metaethics, Normative Ethics, and Applied Ethics.

Metaethics (“beyond ethics”) is a higher order inquiry into the origin or nature of the concept of right and wrong. Plato (428-348 BCE), for example, taught that moral values are eternal principles independent of the will of any God or human mind. On the other hand, there are the relativists who deem that what is good is relative to the individual or the culture. Then there are those who, like William of Ockham (1285-1347/9), believe that God willed moral values into existence. Existentialists, on the other hand, like Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), do not subscribe to any objective moral standards. What is important to him is that we act “authentically.”

Normative Ethics is the inquiry into how we arrive at moral standards that will serve as the bases for right conduct. Through the centuries, three main approaches stand out.

The first is called deontological ethics, or moral standards based on perceived natural duties. The term comes from the Greek deon which means “duty.” An example of this is the view of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) that one should “act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” He called this the categorical imperative. A later version of the duty-based standard is enunciated by W. D. Ross (1877-1971), who stated that there are many self-evident or prima-facie duties, such as keeping promises, compensating for the harm that one has done, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement, and not injuring others.

The second major approach is teleological ethics or the consequentialist approach, that is, judging the rightness or wrongness of an action on the basis of the consequences of that action. An example of this view is Utilitarianism which regards that the greater good is that which produces more happiness or pleasure. In this view, for example, it is better not to keep one’s promise if breaking it will result in greater net happiness.

The third approach is virtue ethics, which considers character and virtues as the basis of moral philosophy. Whereas the previous two consider what are right actions, virtue ethics focuses on the good life. While it gained popularity in the middle of the 20th century, it is actually rooted in Aristotle’s view of the good life, or eudaimonia.

Applied Ethics as a formal branch of the philosophy of ethics is a relatively recent development arising out of the need to arrive at moral judgments on certain urgent issues that have serious social and legislative implications, such as on euthanasia, abortion, cloning, human equality, human rights, etc.

Ethics and religion. Ethics is a basic bedrock of every religion. The various faiths, however, do not agree on what constitutes valid norms that will guide human beings arrive at right moral judgments (such as what constitutes a sin).

Ethics in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is primarily based on authority, specifically, scriptural laws (Torah, the New Testament, and Qur’an) as handed down by prophets.

Scripture-based ethics inevitably produce moral conflicts or quandaries in practice because of several reasons:

a. Scriptures can contain internal moral contradictions. For example, in the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments decreed “Thou shalt not kill” (Deut 20:12), yet at the same time, the Lord commanded his prophets such as Joshua and Saul to kill indiscriminately (men, women, children and animals, e.g., 1Sam 15:3).

b. Scriptures may contain moral edicts that go contrary to an intuitive or commonsensical view of what is right or wrong, such as death penalty for someone who works during Sabbath day (Ex 31:14; Num 15:35).

c. Scriptures can reflect the moral values acceptable to the society at the time it was written but which may no longer be acceptable later. Examples are biblical injunctions on divorce (Matt 19:6), Sabbath (Num 15:35) or corporal punishment of children (Prov 13:24), which are ignored by many Christian societies today.

But there is a second reason why an ethics based on authority — whether scriptures or Divine revelations – is problematic: Is something good because God decreed it to be good, or did God decree it because it is good? The former implies that the nature of goodness is a matter of authority hence arbitrary, while the latter implies that moral principle is beyond God’s will — that in fact God has no option except to accept good as good.

In eastern philosophy and religions, what is right or wrong action depends upon whether it helps in arriving at ultimate liberation from bondage or sorrow. Authority, in an important sense, assumes a secondary role in that they mainly serve to confirm pathways to such a goal. Actions that are based on desire for example are disapproved of because they bring about attachment and perpetuate the cycle of birth and rebirth. In the same way, not only are evil acts to be abhorred but good actions are also to be transcended since both types of action result in karma that binds one to human existence. The ideal action then is motiveless action or impersonal action. It is the essence of karma yoga in Hinduism and wei wu wei (action that is non-action) in TAOISM.

Many writers and scholars agree that there are a few ethical principles that the great religious traditions seem to share, although these principles may not necessarily be considered as the core norms in each religion. One of them is the Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you would want others do unto you.” Others are unselfishness, love and compassion.

For a discussion on the views of theosophy on ethics, see ETHICS AND THEOSOPHY; GOOD AND EVIL; EVIL.

V.H.C.

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