We live in a shrinking world. The computer, allied with the Internet, is smashing boundaries that have for years separated one people from another. With computers, Americans talk to Chinese, Austrians chat with Israelis, and Chileans speak to Britons. At the same time that it becomes less difficult to communicate between societies it becomes easier to observe societal differences. As the world shrinks around us, we notice that the ethics of one society are not the ethics of another. James Rachels, contemporary philosopher, lists behaviors that are ethical to one culture and unethical to others. He writes, "Eskimos allow first-born daughters to die of exposure; Moslems practice polygamy; Jains will not eat meat". With contradictory claims of what is and what is not ethical, finding something that is ultimately moral feels like searching for a star while the sun is up.
The following essay is aimed at ethical theory, and it is divided into two sections. "On Ethics" makes the definitional claim that there is a convention for the division of ethical acts, and "On the Highest Good" explains how each society shapes its own highest good.
The whole of ethical action is not uniform; that is to say, some acts are more ethical than others. The divisibility in ethics is observed when one says, for example, "To give is better than to receive." Such statements imply that ethical discourse accommodates the assignment of different values to different acts. I believe that ethical acts can be separated into three levels on the basis of the mental processes by which one arrives at an ethical act. The three levels I propose are the learned, the cogent, and the supreme. Learned ethical acts are those in which the actor behaves without examining the right and wrong of conduct, while cogent ethical acts are those in which the actor deliberates. Supreme ethical acts are those in which the actor not only examines, but toils over the ethics of the act.
My three level division of ethical acts can be conceptualized by visualizing a triangle divided into three composite parts being layered from top to bottom. The apex represents that which is the most ethical and the base represents that which is the least ethical; so, if one were to compare an act in the top layer to an act in the bottom layer there would be obviously greater ethical value to the act in the top layer. Further, the area taken up by a layer indicates the frequency with which such acts are performed. At the top of the triangle and occupying the least space are supreme ethical acts; these are the least often performed because they require more than most people are able to perform. In the middle of the triangle are cogent ethical acts. Larger than the section of supreme ethics, it is still smaller than the bottom-most level, learned ethics. The fact that learned ethics is the largest of the three sections illustrates that the majority of ethical action is done on this level; most ethical action is taught behavior.
What are the specific mental processes that separate one type of ethical act from another? Given an ethical act, how may one determine into which level the act should be placed? To begin, learned ethical acts are done without contemplation of what is right and wrong. For example, a person who swerves his car to avoid running over a child playing in the street does so immediately and without consideration of ethical reasons. When questioned about his action, the driver may respond, "I swerved away from the child because I did not want to kill her." The driver does not mention a formulated ethical stance as his reason, but rather a socially taught rule. The driver swerved because that is what drivers are supposed to do when children get in front of moving vehicles. The act was ethical but the reason for its performance was conditioned rather than theoretical. Even though the driver uses ethical language as reason for avoiding the crash—not to kill the child—it indicates only what is expected rather than what is understood. In other words, at the learned level it is not necessary for the person who is acting ethically to know why his act is ethical. As when the driver swerved, a learned ethical act resembles instinctual behavior. Though the driver behaved ethically, he did so by accident, not by choice. The lack of deliberation on the driver’s part restricts his act to the level of learned ethics.
On the other hand, cogent ethics require an active position of intellectual inquiry about whether or not to behave in an ethical manner. At this level, the actor examines what is right and what is wrong in the situation by use of a reasoned argument. Consider the following example: Bob observes Margaret accidentally drop twenty dollars. Bob is aware that the money has not been purposefully left behind, which puts him in a difficult position. Bob can keep the money with impunity—Margaret will not know he took it—or he can return the money. As Bob investigates whether or not to return the money, he fulfills the requirement for an act to be at the cogent level. The difference in this example and the example of the driver and child is that Bob consciously considers whether it is right or wrong to keep the money. Bob considers the possible outcomes and, on the basis of his consideration, decides which act will result in the most good. There is no accident in Bob’s action—deliberation is the key to Bob’s cogent ethics.
Finally, the character of supreme ethical acts needs to be investigated. An example best illustrates the category. In 1996, David Kaczynski skewered the notion of familial loyalty when he informed the Federal Bureau of Investigation that his brother, Ted, might be killing people with mail bombs. Upon reading the Unabomber’s Manifesto in the Washington Post, David had become suspicious that Ted and the Unabomber were the same person. The decision to inform the FBI did not come easy. The idea that he could be the sole cause of his brother’s imprisonment, and possibly death, was a difficult one for David to face. Michael Isikoff reported, "David Kaczynski was tormented by the excruciating decision to turn his brother in". What is more, David spent months weighing the ethics of the situation. His love for Ted, his sense of brotherly duty, and his knowledge of the harm confinement would do Ted tore David apart, but he acted in order to stop the massacre of innocent strangers. In his motive, David Kaczynski was never out for personal gain; in fact he spent the one million dollar reward money on providing legal aid for his brother and assisting victims of the Unabomber. David’s act of turning in his brother was an act of humility.
To show what is required of a supreme ethical act, a juxtaposition need be made of the Kaczynski case and the case involving Euthyphro and his father. Plato tells the story of Euthyphro in his Socratic dialogue, Euthyphro. In the dialogue, Euthyphro accuses his father of the following murder: A man employed by Euthyphro’s father kills another man. Euthyphro’s father binds the murderer, tosses him into a ditch, and sends a runner to seek advice from the authorities. While the runner is gone, the murderer dies of exposure. As justification for bringing his father to the Assembly, Euthyphro states that it is his duty to the gods to see his father punished for this crime. The duty that Euthyphro claims is, in the ancient Greek, known as osiotes (osioths) and it translates to modern English as holiness or piety.
There is no question in Euthyphro’s mind that he is performing an ethical act when he delivers his father to the authorities; he wants people to revere his osiotes and he sees the prosecution of his father as the perfect venue where he can show it. To show that someone as arrogant as Euthyphro is incapable of knowing what is pious, Socrates leads him through a circular argument and denies Euthyphro’s every assertion about piety. In doing so, Socrates demonstrates that one must act without self-interest to know what is pious. If a person of Euthyphro’s arrogance cannot access piety because of arrogance, then Plato, through the character of Socrates, is telling us that one of similar action as Euthyphro can access piety so long as he leaves hubris out of his motivation.
Euthyphro and David Kaczynski both bring loved ones to the authorities. The major difference between the men is that Euthyphro brought his father to trial without a moment of thought about whether he was right or wrong, while Kaczynski spent months in agony about how proper was his action. Kaczynski did something so honorable that the New York Bar association was willing to award him. Euthyphro did something so brash that Socrates was willing to make him look like a fool. Kaczynski behaved with humility and quite dignity, while Euthyphro behaved with arrogance and flamboyance. There is an attitude required of supremely ethical acts, as shown in the attitude of Kaczynski; someone behaving like Euthyphro is not behaving supremely ethical because that someone is acting out of arrogance and self-interest. In order to serve the highest good, one must strip from one’s ends the desire for self gain.
Supreme ethical acts are concerned with the highest good and they have an attitude of humility. I call actions of supreme ethics acts of piety. In doing an act of piety, one must be serving that which is pious. Acts of piety are done with concern for the highest good; therefore, what is pious must be the highest good that is acted for in supremely ethical acts. The task that now presents itself is an identification of that which is pious—an investigation of the nature of the highest good.
On the Highest Good
To examine the origin of good and bad, William James told the story of a universe devoid of sentient life. The only things that existed in his universe were the physical and the chemical facts that defined its construct. In James’ universe of fact, there were no notions of good and of bad, because a world of facts can have no inherent attributes of good. "Goodness, badness, and obligation must be realized somewhere in order really to exist," says James. At the time one sentient being is mixed into the universe the values of good and bad are assigned to facts. As James says, "Moral relations now have their status in that beings consciousness. So far as anything he feels to be good, he makes good." From James’ statement it follows that when we make good what we feel to be good, we are capable of identifying the good without knowing it.
Feeling what is good is separate from knowing what is good. To know something as good requires that the knower accept some set of rules for determining good. For example, if X claims to know that it is good to practice polygamy, then X is applying societal rules to the particular of marriage. Defenses of morality and ethics are done on the basis that one knows what is good; therefore, the defenses are the application of social rules. Before we can ever know that something is good, we must feel that it is good. The feeling of goodness can be explained as follows: X knows that killing is wrong (the application of a social rule) but feels, before making any attempt at a philosophical defense, that killing to protect one’s life is right. In other words, it is bad to kill, but it is good to kill in self-defense. The difference in feeling and knowing is that knowing involves the prejudice of society and feeling excludes prejudice. Good by feeling is an abstraction, whereas good by knowing is a particular. The good by abstraction is good of the highest sort; to behave without prejudicing the mind and without applying the sense of good is to behave with concern for the highest good.
Where Euthyphro took the good as a defense and applied it to his reasons for prosecution, Kaczynski did what was good because he felt that his action was right. The problem now arises that anyone behaving in a manner that they feel is good can behave with concern for the highest good; obviously this is not the case. Just because a person feels that it is right to murder his sister does not make the action one concerned with the highest good. The absence of good from the act of murder excludes it from the possible realm of the good. How, though, can an act of murder be observed to lack goodness unless the act is looked at through the form of some social rule? The act cannot escape the goggles of social rule; in order to peer at something, we must gaze through the fog of social instruction.
For this reason, acts of the highest good are only observed ex post facto and are dependant upon the society where they occur. A person acting cannot act with the highest good intentionally, because to act with the highest good as a reason requires the one acting to apply knowledge and it has been shown that applying knowledge reduces good to particulars. The reason we are so quick to revel at the wonder of an act involving the highest good is because it was an action done on faith and, that time, the faith upheld the goodness. The reason we choose to make ieros out of those who perform acts of supreme ethics is because, in ethically challenging situations, we often feel what is good, but do what we know to be good. The majority of us would rather not risk our faith; we would rather act in a way that we know society will accept.
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