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April 11, 2013 | Posted By Wayne Shelton, PhD

Much of the history of philosophy, including the history of philosophical ethics, can be summarized as the quest for a basis in an objective, rational truth. My sense is that many ethicists, both philosophers and non-philosophers, today have not let go of this quest entirely. The purpose of this short blog to is sketch briefly the philosophical landscape of our tradition and what I think is the proper response to it in terms of how we should view ethics.

Early Greek philosophers, such as Thales, Democritus, Parmenides and Heraclitus were seeking an understanding of the natural phenomena independent from traditional mythology. Their goal was to find an explanation that accounted for both diversity and change in nature, but also the unity and continuity. A basic question became, what is the ultimate source or the most basic element of the universe that helps us understand the universe, as well as what we know and how we should live? Plato, through his dialogues using Socrates as his mouthpiece, postulated that ultimate Truth or Good is to be found in the Forms, which were in a separate, higher realm from everyday human experience. For Plato, what we come to know in the realm of earthly experience is always an approximation of their ultimate counterparts in the Forms. Of course a special realm of truth requires a special understanding, which not surprisingly he believed was accessible only to the Philosopher King, whose understanding was oriented to such a level.

Aristotle took Plato’s framework in the direction of a more earthly perspective by claiming that the forms, the source of intelligibility and understanding, were embedded in matter or in all natural things. In others words, all individual things in nature, including human beings have a natural purpose, or what Aristotle referred to as a telos—the end toward which they naturally aim. The natural end or purpose of the lives of human beings were connected to the natural purpose or ends of all things in the universe—in short metaphysics, the ultimate nature of reality was naturally embedded in all aspects of the universe and in all living things, including human beings. This also means metaphysics was inherent in ethics and human morality; that is, the ultimate nature of things determined how we understand the good life of human flourishing, or a life of what Aristotle called virtue, which is the natural end of human life.

Although Plato shaped the nature of philosophical discourse for the past two thousand years or so, no philosopher has had a greater impact on ethics and human morality than Aristotle. For centuries following the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325, Christian theologians such as St. Thomas, subsequently articulated church doctrine and Catholic moral theology. They drew heavily from an Aristotelian perspective and assumed they have defined a normative standard for all human beings. For example, Catholic Natural Law Theory asserted that God created the universe and human life with natural ends in mind—for example, humans desired to live; therefore life was good and killing was wrong. Humans procreated; therefore, procreation was good and sexual relations without procreation were wrong, and relationships without procreation were unnatural and so on. For over 1,000 years the perspective of the Catholic moral theology was the dominant philosophical, moral perspective in the West. But when the writings of antiquity were rediscovered in the 14th and 15th centuries, such as the writing of Lucretius On the Nature of Things, there was a resurgence of interest in ancient ideas and perspectives which spurred what we commonly call the Renaissance beginning in the 14th century and the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries throughout Europe. Just as ancient philosophers had rejected their inherited mythologies as the basis for understanding the universe and determining morality for human beings, progressive thinkers, such as Descartes, Bacon and Locke, sought answers independent of Church authority. The result was a new understanding of human beings as individual thinking, moral agents with rights who live together in a civil society for the purpose of improving the welfare of everyone and for the possibility of each individual carrying out their own right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In the United States and Western Europe we are the heirs to a tradition that has resulted in a secular, democratic way of life. But what does this mean regarding the underlying basis for morality and how we are to understand right and wrong? As we learn in After Virtue, a famous scholarly work by Alasdair McIntyre first published in 1981, attempts following the Enlightenment to replace the traditional religious basis for morality with a basis in secular reason failed in terms of winning universal agreement. We are left with partial understandings and only glimpses of normative philosophical theories. No single normative moral perspective has gained universal assent in ethics. So, how do we find our bearings in today’s moral setting following such a fragmented tradition?

First, my own reaction is one of feeling as sense of liberation. We are neither bound to church authority, nor are we bound to the authority of a particular substantive, moral perspective. Normative ethical theories such Kant and J.S. Mill may helpful to our thinking, but they do not possess any particular source of universal moral authority. Our job is to examine the particular details of individual problematic moral situations and with proper respect and regard for all those involved in an effort to ameliorate practical problems and value conflicts. We have no higher no higher calling than to reduce suffering and as much as possible, to respect the rights of individual so they may act on their goals and values. This may sound mundane and compared with the quest to seek final and ultimate answers to reality, knowledge and morality, and perhaps it is. But I see it as a higher calling in terms of making the world a slightly better place at least in individual situations and within our sphere of influence.

What I have said should certainly not be taken to mean that a keen understanding of our tradition is not important; it is. But an understanding of our tradition is most useful, not as a source of ultimate truth, but as a source of practical wisdom and ways of thinking that help us function better as applied ethicists. It is more than ironic that after a long tradition of contentious intellectual and religious debates and wars, we should come to such a simple, practical conclusion. But we still live in a society and world where there is a divide between those, on the one side, who cannot let go of the ancient quest to seek a source of universal knowledge and moral authority and those of us, on the other side, who no longer seek final answers and are pleased that our only hope is to promote human cooperation and consensus. Following Richard Rorty, one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, and others with a pragmatist orientation, I have come to believe that the first option is a false hope and has been shown historically, to be a philosophical path to nowhere. My hope is that more people, including ethicists, give up quests for final philosophical answers and learn to be comfortable with the latter perspective where we see ethics, much as Aristotle did: As a practical activity that helps both ethicists and those they serve to live better lives.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

2 comments | Topics: Conceptual Research, Philosophy


Athene Aberdeen

Athene Aberdeen wrote on 04/11/13 9:45 PM

A well written article on secular ethics. I am still unsure what are the real dimensions of "practical activity" and what exactly are "better lives". Besides, what are the universal dimensions of a secular ethics? The US and Western Europe are not the entire world, a fact that is conveniently overlooked when spiels like the above are written, or when the colonizing tendencies of these powers are being realized.

Tony wrote on 05/30/13 8:51 AM

A good writing on selected topic on ethics. Today we need to understand different culture for applying ethics while different individuals have different values. If we only hold one fixed ethical value to apply different culture, it will cause lots of issues.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.