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.
A comparison between the three main theories of ethics and happiness
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. Fragmentary ethics
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.
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
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.
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.
If your only ethical
principle is to help other people, how do you determine which
individuals you should assist with priority? If person A is expected to
help person B, is person B required to help person A? What happens if B
has a different opinion? Who will settle disagreements on the meaning
and scope of the word "help"?
Partial ethics are unsatisfactory
because they do not work in all circumstances. Principles such as those
mentioned above are correct if applied in a certain context, but cannot
be stretched to a full-blown system of morality. Life is too complex to
navigate if you know only one thing. Man requires a thinking
methodology, not just a list of unconnected precepts.
2. Logical ethics
systems of ethics represent a major step forward in human thought.
Their purpose is to create a morality that answers all questions, a
method that can be applied to all events without incurring
contradictions. In History, partial ethics often evolve to logical moral
systems after it becomes obvious that man cannot make rational
decisions on the basis of isolated precepts.
In contrast to
partial ethics, logical moral systems are consistent. Their principles
and guidelines are linked to each other. Their conclusions aim at
universality in space and permanence in time. A well-rounded moral
system should be able to guide individuals in any situation that they
may encounter in their private or professional lives.
"categorical imperative" originated by the German philosopher Immanuel
Kant (1724-1804) is the best known system of logical ethics. According
to Kant, true principles of morality must be universal,
non-contradictory, and recognizable by reason. Decisions and actions are
considered virtuous if they can be elevated to universal rules for all
"Do not steal" and "do not murder" are just two specific
applications of the categorical imperative. Kantian ethics do not
address simply a few situations, but all alternatives of human action.
Logical ethical systems do not just provide recommendations for isolated
cases, but a complete thinking methodology.
morality systems suffer from an inherent weakness. They are superior to
partial ethics because they are non-contradictory, but internal
consistency does not guarantee usefulness. Kantian morality is an
intellectual clockwork foreign to the richness of human experience; it
is a cold machinery that functions without feeling, ambition, passion,
Categorical imperatives forbid man to attack his
neighbour but they won't tell him what he needs to do to be happy.
Logical systems of ethics deal with the psychological aspects of human
action only to a minor extent. Kantian morality won't provide you
guidelines on how to define personal goals, allocate resources, and deal
effectively with adversity.
3. Teleological ethics
Teleological systems of ethics
are the best that philosophy has produced. On the one hand, they go
beyond the isolated commandments of partial morality; on the other hand,
they aim at providing a comprehensive and consistent methodology, just
like logical ethics. In addition, teleological systems render morality
alive by linking it to an overriding goal, namely, happiness.
word "teleological" comes from the Greek term "telos" which means
purpose or goal. Advanced systems of ethics go far beyond "do not steal"
and "do not murder." They view the human condition as a complex
combination of factors that need to be judged according to general
values and prioritized according to individual objectives.
teleological morality based on reason provides a frame of thought that
encompasses all of man's decisions and actions. This system of ethics
aims not only at keeping you out of trouble, but also at helping you
make the best of your life. The list of teleological virtues includes
not only honesty and justice, but also independence, ambition, and
Which one is best?
If you want to make optimal choices, you should
adopt a teleological system of ethics based on reason. Other approaches
to morality are workable in certain conditions, but fail to pass the
tests of universality, permanence, consistency, and comprehensiveness.
For more information about rational living and personal development, I
refer you to my book The
10 Principles of Rational
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