What We Talk About When We Talk About Ethics

For several millennia, philosophers throughout the world have struggled with the question of ethics and morality in human culture. Derived from the Greek word “ethos,” which means “character,” ethics in the West has its beginnings in Ancient Greece with the prototypical systems of ethics and morality devised by early philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. The study of ethics in Western philosophy would shift and evolve over the next two thousand years, reaching its apex during the Enlightenment with the theories of Immanuel Kant, only to be deconstructed and critiqued centuries later by 20th century German theorist, Theodor Adorno, in his seminal work Minima Moralia.

Before embarking upon a comprehensive study of ethics, one should be aware that the systems of ethics discussed in this article are specific to moral theories and praxis developed in the Western world. It should be noted that great philosophers of the East, such as Confucius, did much to develop and apply complex ethical systems that would spread and be adopted by several nations within China’s sphere of influence. No study of ethics can be complete without a comparative consideration of both Eastern and Western ethics, and one should never automatically assume that one particular system begets or influences the other. Many colleges have incorporated ethics into their degree programs, such as Michigan State University’s law programs.

That said, the study of ethics is an important one, especially when the question of what is “moral” and what is not has reached something of a critical impasse. Throughout history, both spiritual and secular ethics have been devised as a necessary buffer for humanity’s many negative tendencies. Likewise, ethics have also been used by individuals and groups who wish to further their own selfish or malignant goals.

Despite the important role ethics plays in the creation of a peaceful and civil society, it is greatly important that the ethical systems we devise over time constantly evolve to reflect changes in our society’s makeup. A discussion and debate about contemporary ethics requires the critical involvement of everybody, and not just a select group of individuals who may have dubious personal ethics of their own. Therefore, having the capability to talk about ethics intelligently with others, while being open to other individuals’ ethical and moral views, is key to ensuring that the study and application of ethics in our society always remains progressive and all-inclusive.

The Question of Ethics

One of the earliest ethical systems devised by the Ancient Greeks was the concept of virtue ethics devised by Aristotle and Plato. The four main Cardinal Virtues of wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance were discussed at length by Plato in his work The Republic. These virtues were later expanded upon and advocated by Aristotle in his own moral and political theories, and even later by Christian philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas in his seminal work, Summa Theologica.

While Plato’s original theories on moral virtue were created as self-fulfillment goals for individuals and leaders to aspire to with the support of others, Aristotle hoped to develop these theories into a system of ethics that could be used to keep human relations from spiraling out of control, while also promoting friendship, happiness and fulfillment throughout all of society. For Aristotle, the end-goal of personal and societal well-being was known as Eudaimonia, or “human flourishing,” which was considered to be the optimal state of moral human relationships and self-fulfillment. Thomas Aquinas would later apply these mostly secular theories of virtue ethics devised by the Greeks to Christian theology.

At the height of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant created a system of ethics that, in many ways, drew from the virtue-based systems of Aristotle and Plato, but instead focused on morality in relation to the pre-ordained rules and obligations of the individual. This system of “deontological” ethics, or “duty-based” ethics, was instrumental in preparing European society for the advent of Enlightenment-inspired reasoning, which would go on to shape the moral and political makeup of Western civilization for the next several centuries.

The key breakthrough in Kant’s system of deontological ethics was the controversial idea that certain categorical imperatives, or unquestioned rules of life, exist that all people must abide by in order to lead a moral and virtuous life. Kant’s categorical imperative is, more or less, an expansion upon the “golden rule” and encompassed two basic rules:

  1. The individual should act in a way that he or she might wish to see become universal law.
  2. The individual should never consider other humans as means to an end, but as ends in and of themselves.

What Kant’s categorical imperative did accomplish was a consolidation of moral philosophy that had been debated for eons into a simplified system wherein individuals must accept the existence of a pre-ordained set of moral and social rules by which they must abide without question. Unfortunately, by closing off moral and ethical questioning into these very rules deemed as “good” and “self-evident” by Kant, the floodgates were opened for leaders and intellectuals to take advantage of the categorical imperative in order to bring their own narcissistic, and often dangerou, visions for the world into being.

Following the great atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler and the German National Socialist Party during their years in power, philosophers of ethics and critical theory began to seriously question Kant’s categorical imperative, and began looking for ways to shift the study of ethics away from his closed theories on morality. Theodor Adorno, who was perhaps the most vocal in his criticism of Kantian ethics, was also tremendously affected by the death and misery reached by the practices of Nazi Germany and late capitalist societies.

Between the years of 1944 and 1949, Adorno wrote and compiled a collection of short aphorisms on ethics in the modern, post-industrial age. The resulting book, which was titled Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life, is one of his most easily digestible critiques of Enlightenment ethics. Using many contemporary examples to critique the categorical imperative, such as the possibility of world leaders using their own debased reasoning to coerce the public’s acceptance of mass murder or even their own social disenfranchisement.

What Adorno calls for instead is a return to the open-ended system of virtue and ethics developed by Aristotle (whose own work, Magna Moralia, influenced the title of Adorno’s work) and a constant effort made on the part of individuals to consider the rules they follow and the actions they take with a critical lens. Despite the somewhat overwhelming pessimism that pervades Minima Moralia, as well as Adorno’s body of work as a whole, the theorist is primarily concerned with teaching his readers how to “live the good life,” very much in-line with Aristotle’s quest for Eudaimonia discussed above. As we look for better and more inclusive pathways to self-fulfillment and peace, we can think of the progression of ethics as constantly struggling to come full-circle – to even resolve; perhaps that is more telling of the human condition than any presumed conclusiveness.

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