Monday, 18 January 2010

Which ethical theory works best (Part 1 of 3)

From all branches of philosophy, ethics is the most practical. Values connect abstractions to decisions and morality provides guidelines to surmount difficult situations. Ethical systems are worthless if they are not aligned with reality and validated by facts.

History has produced hundreds of different ethical teachings that work well in specific circumstances but fail catastrophically in other contexts. Fortunately, we can see if those philosophies pass the tests of veracity and practicality without having to examine them one by one. For the purpose of analysis, ethical systems can be grouped in three main types: the partial, the logical, and the teleological.

[1] Partial ethics consist of one or several precepts that are not comprehensive enough to constitute a system of thought. The vast majority of ethical convictions held by people can be classified as partial ethics.

Let me underline that moral principles enunciated in this manner are not necessarily false. Sometimes, flawless albeit incomplete guidelines are predicated; on other occasions, utter nonsense is put forward as ethical precept.

As examples of two well-meaning commandments, take for instance “protect the planet” and “help other people.” Individuals who advocate such ethics usually possess good intentions, but their formulations are so fragmentary that cannot be implemented consistently.

If you want to protect the planet, you have first to define “planet.” Does it involve only mountains or also animals and trees? If the concept encompasses animals, should it not include human beings as well? If plants and micro-organisms are both part of the planet, should you protect them from each other? Interesting questions, for which partial ethics cannot provide unassailable answers.

To be continued in Part 2


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