In the following discussion I shall argue that some traditional schools of ethics are better than others; and I shall use the meta-theory for Ethics to demonstrate my case.
We need a way of justifying the view that the value of a school has a place on a hierarchy with regard to its betterness or worseness. As you may be aware if you read any of the books by M. C. Katz, formal axiology [value logic] already has a hierarchy built into it, namely, the Logical Existential Hierarchy of Values shown concisely in the formula I > E > S.
Explaining what it means, it says: Intrinsic Value
is a more valuable value than Extrinsic Value
, which in turn is far more valuable than Systemic Value
. (I is better than E which trumps S.
Among the formula’s interpretations are: Life takes priority over materials; ; Material (and wealth) are more valuable than theories and schools of thought. It is ‘existential’’ because it affirms life – the life of individuals. That is one of the main thrusts of existential philosophy.
Soon we will show how the leading schools of ethics can be ranked, and ranked in a fitting and fair manner. The formula will aid us in this task.
The three major schools of thought in academic Ethics are Virtue Theory (VT); Consequentialism; and Deontology. The latter is concerned with promises, contracts, rights, duties, obligations and imperatives (which it claims are universal and categorical.)
Consequentialism is concerned with the impact that specific actions and policies will have on human flourishing. [The adherents of this school – or perspective -- grant that “flourishing” is a shifting and expanding concept – as more is learned about it.) Consequentialism recommends ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number”; it gives us a sense of direction, a goal to aim for. It provides guidance for sound decision-making.
Modern Virtue Theory teaches that we have a responsibility to care for our family as a first priority, and a responsibility to ourselves to strive to be of virtuous character.
It also teaches prudence: as we go through life neither over-do nor under-do. Both excess and deficit are vices (the opposite of virtue.) [More (excess) or less (deficit) are mathematical notions, so VT has a certain logic to it.]
We need all three sets of tools in our toolbox: there are some strengths in all three schools of thought. Let’s keep in mind, though – using here some concepts from Gestalt Psychology – also Visual Optics - as we emphasize one of these perspectives it becomes “figure” while the others are “ground” (background) …as we give our attention to one of these schools the others tend to recede into the background of our thinking. However it would be negligence to totally ignore any of them. They all can be helpful - as is seen in Appendix Three, pp. 86-89, in ETHICS: A College Course. Here is a link to it: http://tinyurl.com/24cs9y7
Of course disciples or exponents of a single viewpoint will claim that their specific school of thought is the best approach to account for ethics and for the moral life.
In my view, after an analysis of all three perspectives, and after giving deep consideration to the topic, while they all deal with quality-of-life issues, while they all praise responsibility, Virtue Theory seem to be the most morally-sensitive with its many subtleties, and its spelling-out with some specificity ways to be immoral, as well as how to live the good life, it looks to be most fitting as an application of In-Value (the “I” in the formula.) VT shows one how to live a principled life, a life in which high ideals are implemented.
As one lives a good (virtuous) life one does not have to measure in advance each act as to its moral rightness or wrongness; instead, by the habits one has developed, a person usually spontaneously “does the right thing.” – once a person has a good character.
He/she deliberately builds an admirable character by the techniques of habit formation …unless one is acculturated into it early in life by one’s parents, guardians, or family; or tribe, or community [“it takes a village”]. Hence Intrinsic Value, when applied, fits most closely to VT.
Extrinsic Value, applied to the three schools of ethical thought, yields Consequentialism, for they both deal with the external everyday world, the socio-economic policy matters. They are both concerned with practical decisions, with the effect of actions on human well-being and happiness. An action is right if it leads to more happiness in your life provided you take into consideration the welfare of others; and can sidestep “zero-sum games.” Game theories, with their finite rewards and penalties fit here; also determinism, behavioral conditioning; political affairs; the common good; public policies. Common goods are public health measures, emergency-management agencies like F.E.M.A., the protection of the environment (clean air and water), peace-keeping and other police work, fire-prevention, etc.
Systemic Value, applied to this topic, results in Deontology, with its rules to live by, its categories and categoricals, its declarations of human rights, and lists of obligations. Here systematically doing one’s duty is the emphasis – staying within the boundaries of proper behavior. It does, to its credit, demand that we treat others as ends, not as mere means to an end. Thus one who takes this imperative seriously eschews the manipulation of other people, one carefully avoids exploiting others.
The Consequentialist would criticize this position by insisting that we must examine the consequences of this way of living. It could be dangerous, they warn. A strict adherence to a Rule – or rules -- could blind one to the variability and variety of life-styles that produce a high quality-of-lie, could steer one into a ‘valley’ in “The Moral Landscape,” instead of to a ‘peak.’ At the peaks individuals flourish and blossom. They are most likely to be creative since they have the means and the leisure to indulge in the pursuit of a worthwhile project.
A virtue-theorist may criticize Deontology for being too rigid and barren. Without a good character (which is prerequisite) a person might not keep his promises, pay his debts, attend to his obligations, nor express responsibility. One’s vices may interfere or even prevent one’s adherence to the imperatives. So first and foremost cultivate the virtues.
Sorry that this turned out to be so long. I really would love to hear your comments, additions, and suggestions for improvement.