Posts in the Moral Theory series
Well, now that the Music and Ethics course has been approved here at APU, I have to get serious about actually teaching it. That means brushing up on some of that good old philosophicating. Good practice for me, fun for you, and safe for the whole family. Unless Uncle Jimmy is a nihilist, in which case, probably not safe for him.
I’m going to write a series of posts, each trying to answer the question “What makes an action right?” Each post will look at how different schools of thought, different moral theories, answer this question. My goal is to discuss these theories with a minimum of technical philosophical language, in a way that invites everybody to be part of the conversation. I can’t promise that it won’t involve some heavy lifting, but I will try to make sure that the ideas are presented clearly.
the property of ought
This question, “What makes an action right,” the starting place for thinking about ethics, requires a little bit of explanation before we can understand what it’s really asking. There are a few assumptions buried in the question that we need to tease out before we can really ask it.
The most basic assumption of the question is that actions can have properties, features about them that can be talked about in the abstract. If I’m holding a red apple, it has the property of “redness”, and I can talk about the redness in the abstract, without having to talk about the apple itself.
What does it mean to say that actions have properties? Well, think about someone who steals candy from a child. In addition to talking about the facts of the event (at a certain time and place, this person caused this series of events that affected this person, blah blah blah), we can also say, “That act was selfish.” It identifies something about that act, some quality or group of qualities that can be identified, and discussed in the abstract. “Selfish acts cause one to become embittered” is a statement about abstract properties, not about any one act.
So, the first assumption in the question “What makes an action right” is that an act has properties (not all philosophical systems will agree with this point – more later!).
The second assumption is that some property, or set of properties, about an act can together cause that act to be ethical, or unethical. In other words, we can evaluate an action for abstract qualities, and those qualities will determine if we have an obligation to perform that act, or to not perform it.
Let’s assume we determine that selfishness = unethical. We can then look at an act, and ask whether or not it contains the property of selfishness. If it does, then it’s unethical. We establish a standard for measuring actions that is separate from any one action, which all actions can be evaluated against.
If this works, we can then say that the act has an additional property: call it the property of ought. Action that have it, we are obligated to do. Actions that contain it in the negative (ought not), we are prohibited from doing.
So, the conversation in ethics centers around this question:
What property of an action determines that we ought to do it?
In the series of posts to follow, I’ll try to show how that question is answered by Divine Command Theory, Natural Law Theory, Utilitarianism, Kant (how awesome do you have to be to get on this list with just your last name? Pretty awesome), Moral Relativism, Moral Pluralism, and (my favorite, which is why I put it last) Virtue Ethics.
Hang on to your protractors – it’s about to get nerdy up ins!
Next in series: Moral Theory: Divine Command Ethics