Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 3 Ethics

Ethical Theory

f Normative Ethical Relativism is flawed and cannot provide for a basis for moral society for humans on planet earth, then what is to provide that basis?

What would provide a basis for universal moral codes?

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On Morality by  Lowell Kleiman 

            If by "morality" we mean a code of conduct that is universally valid,  then the basic issue in the study of ethics is, is there a universally valid code of conduct?  Are there rules of behavior that prescribe how a person should conduct him or herself in all places and all times?   For example, when anybody adds 2 + 2  the result should be 4.  If any other answer is obtained, the person made a mistake.  2 + 2 does not equal 5, or 3 or anything other than 4.  To say otherwise reveals an ignorance of addition, not an alternative but equally valid code of mathematics. 

            The rules of mathematics are universally valid.  The same rule, for example, 12 + 19 = 31, tells us how to add, whether we are living on Long Island or Timbuktoo, in the late 20th century or the 4th century B. C.   An Izbekustany peasant who counts 12 goats on this side of the pasture and 19 goats on that side of the pasture, concluding that there are 32 goats in the pasture, makes the same mathematical error as an instructor at Suffolk Community College who counts 12 students on this side of the room, 19 students on that side of the room, concluding that there are 32 students in the room.  That the peasant and instructor live several thousand miles apart, are brought up in different cultures, are of different ethnic backgrounds, subscribe to different religious and political traditions, is irrelevant in determining the rights and wrongs of their behavior.  The only relevant considerations are whether they are using the correct rule and whether they are applying that rule in the correct way.  For example, if either instructor or peasant thinks that 12 + 19 = 32, then one of them does not know arithmetic, and the other does not know how to count.  

            The same is true of morality.  Just as any proposed rule of addition that is not universally valid cannot be a rule of mathematics, so any proposed rule of conduct that is not universally valid cannot be a rule of morality. For example, cultures that have practiced incest, ritual human sacrifice, matricide, patricide, slavery or female sexual mutilation are immoral since their creeds are not universally valid.  Clearly, mutilation, slavery or any of these other modes of conduct are not valid here, certainly not at Suffolk Community College, certainly not on Long Island, New York State, California, the mid-west, Canada, Mexico, or any part of any country or state that comprises the civilized world.  Just as 2 + 2 does not  = 5, so sexual mutilation does not = morality. 

            It may be objected that the argument above makes us, students and teachers of Suffolk Community College, residents of Long Island, citizens of New York State, of the United States, followers and proponents of Western Civilization, arbiters of right and wrong.  We are imposing our values on the rest of the world, or at least on those few countries, such as Libya and the Sudan where slavery and mutilation are practiced.  We are judging people by standards that are not their own; we are committing the "ethnocentric fallacy." 

            Perhaps we are.  Perhaps we have no right to condemn killing, maiming, brutalizing and destroying when other people do these things.   Perhaps our beliefs about right and wrong are limited, provincial, naive, uninformed.  Maybe slavery for others is not so bad after all; perhaps child abuse for other people's children should be encouraged;  murder in other societies condoned, rape in foreign countries commended.  Perhaps we must rethink our beliefs about right and wrong.  Maybe we don't know the difference. 

            But if we don't know what we think we know, how can we be certain, how can anyone be sure, that aside from mathematics, there is no universally valid code of conduct?  If we don't know that incest was wrong among the ancients, then we don't know that it is wrong today.  Aside from the fact that the Egyptians who practiced incest lived many years ago, the act itself has not changed since then.  Nor has rape, enslavement, mutilation or murder.  If we cannot condemn the acts of others, then neither can we condemn the same acts when performed by those among us.  And if we cannot condemn our own rapists and murderers, then rape and murder, and all the rest, are not just to be condoned for others, but condoned for everyone.  So there is a universally valid code of conduct, although it seems very different from what we naively take it to be.  The question is, which code is correct, the one that condemns ritual mutilation, or the one that condones it?  To answer that question we must turn away from the theory of normative ethical relativism. 

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If the theory of Normative Ethical Relativism is flawed then what is the alternative.  Can there be an ethics?  Can there be a basis for moral rule making?  Since Socrates Philosophers have sought that basis in REASON.  All humans have reason and if through the use of reason certain principles of ethics, the principle of the GOOD, can be discerned or discovered, then all humans would have contact with the basis for the moral life that all cultures and societies need.  Plato believed he had found those principles.  After him several others in the West have reached similar conclusions concerning the existence of principles that might have universal application.  Unfortunately, they have not all agreed as to what those principles are.

There are some fundamental distinctions to be made in the approaches taken to thinking about the GOOD.  What makes something, an action, GOOD?  Is it something in the act or in the intention behind the act?  Is it the result of the act or what is in the act itself?

GLOSSARY of Terms associated with Ethics and Ethical Theories

Consider: 

There is a terrorist with a gun pointed at a group of innocent hostages being held by the terrorists.  There is the declaration that he will kill them.  Someone nearby has a gun and points it at the terrorist and shots.  The would-be hero misses the target and kills one of the innocent hostages.  No is the act of the would-be hero good or bad.  Is it the intention behind the act or the result of the act that makes it good or bad?

If something is good is it good because of what it is or because of what it results in?

Intrinsic vs. instrumental value

Something is said to have intrinsic value if it is good ``in and of itself,'' i.e., not merely as a means for acquiring something else.

Something is said to have instrumental value if it is good because it provides the means for acquiring something else of value.

Consequentialist vs. non-consequentialist theories of ethics

There are two broad categories of ethical theories concerning the source of value: consquentialist and non-consequentialist.

A consequentialist theory of value judges the rightness or wrongness of an action based on the consequences that action has. The most familiar example would be utilitarianism--``that action is best that produces the greatest good for the greatest number'' (Jeremy Bentham).

A non-consequentialist theory of value judges the rightness or wrongness of an action based on properties intrinsic to the action, not on its consequences.

Libertarianism--People should be free to do as they like as long as they respect the freedom of others to do the same.

Contractarianism--No policy that causes uncompensated harm on anyone is permitted (Pareto safety). 

Consider these Definitions:

Teleological Theories :Consequentialist Approach

READ:

http://www.mc.maricopa.edu/~bfvaughan/text/lex/defs/consequentialism.html

READ:

Deontological Theories: Non-Consequentialist Approach

http://www.mc.maricopa.edu/~bfvaughan/text/lex/defs/deontological.html

 

Philosophical Theories Based Upon

 Principles and Utilizing Reason

Teleological Theories

Deontological Theories

Consequential

Non-Consequential

 

 

Egoism

Kantian- Categorical Imperative

Act Utilitarianism

Rawl's Theory of Justice

Rule Utilitarianism

Divine Command Theory

Situation Ethics

Natural Law Theory

A    theistic

B.   non- theistic

 

Post Modernism-Relativism

Existentialism

Pragmatism

Feminism

   In the next few sections we shall cover these theories and their advantages and disadvantages or their weaknesses and problems.

BRITISH SOCIETY FOR ETHICAL THEORY   http://www.bset.org.uk/

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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution. ppecorino@qcc.cuny.edu                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents