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The Language of Ethics

Ethics has its own specialised language and concepts. It is more useful to obtain at least a basic understanding of ethical language before addressing Christian ethics in particular.

In Chapter I you were introduced to ethical language through the metaphor of the journey as portrayed in a Star Trek: Voyager episode. In this chapter, I hope you will become somewhat more acquainted with the language of ethics through the reading of more detailed definitions. A chapter of definitions does not offer the most exciting reading! However, while most books on ethics define ethical terms, these definitions are usually buried within the text, making them difficult to access. To avoid frustration, therefore, this chapter is in outline form for easy reference. Use the chapter as a source, returning to it as you read on in the book.

What follows will serve you well for the reading of this book. However, for those of you who would like to study ethical concepts in greater depth, there are numerous books you can turn to. A basic and long standing text is Ethics by William F. Frankena. Peter Vardy's and Paul Grosch's The Puzzle of Ethics, David Cook's The Moral Maze, Karen Lebacqz's Professional Ethics: Power and Paradox are popular, good, and perhaps more readable books than the Frankena. I have referred to each of these books for the defining of ethical terms below. Further resources can be found in the Bibliography.

The Language of Ethics

Morality: Put simply, morality is the quality of being moral. Being moral is being a good person and doing what is right. Thus, a good person would be, for example, a person who can be trusted and acts in trustworthy ways. We would expect such a person to tell the truth and avoid lying, or to act in ways that would benefit and not harm others. As we shall see, being a moral person and acting morally depends on an awareness and understanding of particular rules, duties, virtues, situations, and social structures.

Ethics: The study of moral value: what virtues (traits of character) are good and why certain actions are right. Ethics asks why virtues and rule/duties are in principle good at all. Thus, while the moral position is that telling the truth is right, the ethical question asks why truthtelling good. Or, while it is agreed that the act of killing is immoral, ethics explores the inherent moral value of the rule that we should not kill. 

Metaethics: The study of abstract philosophical and/or theological issues about the very nature of ethics. While normative ethics (see below) speaks to concrete situations hoping to articulate acceptable standards of morality, metaethics attempts to express theories of meaning and justification for the judgments of moral obligations and values (Frankena 1973:11). Thus, in metaethical studies questions of ultimate ethical authority are addressed. For example, methaethics asks: is ethics grounded in, or founded by, divine revelation or human rationality?

Normative Ethics: Asks what is right to do in concrete situations. Normative ethics addresses practical questions with the ultimate aim of discovering or constructing acceptable judgments regarding moral obligations and values.

Situation Ethics: Aims to ascertain, not simply what is good and right, but what is fitting (Fletcher 1974:28). In situation ethics, no rule or law is absolute and all must be applied in a concrete situation. While all ethical norms of a community are respected, the situation ethicist is prepared to compromise them, or actually set them aside, in any particular situation (Fletcher 1974:26). There is only one ethical rule that is absolute: the maximizing of good consequences. Situation ethics also maintains that nothing is good in and of itself, except for love (agape). Thus, any rule can be compromised if the demands of love will be better served. If, for example, the rule of love is upheld by lying in a particular situation, then breaking the rule of truthtelling is acceptable, if not obligatory. Situation ethics stresses the importance of reason in moral judgment and revelation as the source of the ultimate moral norm, namely love (Cook 1983:69).

Hedonism: Asserts that morality is the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. In general, a hedonist holds that the good is pleasure, or that pleasure is the good. While such a statement seems simple and straightforward enough, the matter is a bit more complicated. The word "pleasure" is ambiguous, and a hedonist speaking of the good may not necessarily define what the good is. Also, while a hedonist may assert that moral judgment is the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, and that all people should embrace hedonism as their ultimate goal, a hedonist of the good may not be a hedonist about the right. An hedonist suggesting that the right action promotes the greater balance of pleasure over pain would hold a teleological (see below) position. Or an hedonist about the good can be deontological (see below) about the right (Frankena 1973:83).

Utilitarianism: Morality is realized in the greatest pleasure (or happiness) for the greatest number, or the greatest possible balance of good and evil. The Greatest Happiness Principle implies that what is good and bad can be measured and that moral judgment is a matter of calculating the one against the other. The utility calculus attempts to measure the amount of pleasure and pain in light of seven criteria: intensity (how intense is the pleasure); duration (how long will the pleasure last); certainty (how sure can we be that the pleasure will be realized); propinquity (how near is the pleasure); fecundity (how much will it lead to more pleasure); purity (how free from pain is the pleasure); and extent (how widely does the pleasure cover) (Cook 1994:32). Moral judgments are may by calculating the pleasure or pain, the good or bad consequences, that would result from the subsequent action.

Act-Utilitarianism: Determines, where practicable, what specific actions in a particular situation will result in the greatest pleasure or good or happiness for the greatest number of people, and then deduces general moral rules from those actions. If actions are seen as producing the greatest happiness, then a general rule can be  articulated that justifies those actions (Frankena 1973:35). So, if the act of telling the truth leads to the greatest pleasure, or good, for the greatest number of people, then the general rule that truthtelling is right and good can be deduced. However, the rule cannot force us to tell the truth if, in a particular situation, the act goes against the greatest good. If telling the truth in a particular situation causes greater pain than pleasure, then we cannot tell the truth. Act-utilitarianism moves from specific situations and actions to general principles (Vardy & Grosh 1994:81), but it is important to remember that a rule is more a useful guide, then a binding principle.

Rule-Utilitarianism: Determines general rules, or principles, that promote the greatest general good and derives specific actions in particular situations based on these rules. Here, the rule is central and so we ask, not what action will result in the greatest good, but what rule will promote the greatest good. While act-utilitarianism states that telling the truth generally leads to the greatest good, rule-utilitarianism insists that always telling the truth results in the greatest good; or put another way, for the greatest good we must always tell the truth (Frankena 1973:39). Rule-utilitarianism moves from general principles to specific actions in specific cases, and the rule is absolute (Vardy & Grosch 1994:81).

Moral Issues: Include Rules and Situations, Consequences and Duties, Prima Facie Duties, the Character and Virtue of the person making the decision, the Social Situation, and the use of Power.

Situations and Rules: Rules guide us or tell us what to do, but all rules exist in, or must be applied to, a particular situation (Lebacqz 1985:23). Actions previously prohibited by rules (lying, adultery, etc.) might be acceptable depending on the situation; which is to say, an action might be acceptable given the consequences of that action. For example, if lying does more good then harm, then it is acceptable; or if telling the truth does more harm than good, than it is unacceptable.

In any given situation no rule and subsequent action are intrinsically right or wrong. On the other hand, no rule or action is completely value-free. All rules apply to a particular situation and a situation cannot be understood without reference to a particular moral notion. As Lebacqz points out, the rule prohibiting adultery is only meaningful in a situation where fidelity is a moral value. And the situation describing an act of unfaithfulness can only be understood in light of the moral notion of adultery (1985:24).

All this is to say, it is not merely a question of whether rules are more important than situations, or vice versa, but how rules and situations are related. Both situations and rules are involved in every ethical decision. All rules are written for situations and all rules are only meaningful in particular situations. Thus, it is important to consider:

  • What is the situation;
  • How is the situation defined;
  • What rules (norms, duties) are appropriately understood to apply in the situation.      

Consequences and Duty: If the value of all rules is determined or overridden by the consequences of actions, then situation ethics threatens all rules. However, most people are uncomfortable determining moral behaviour by simply calculating consequences. People also have a sense of what is good and have a loyalty to certain authorities. The very nature of being human in community demands that certain behaviours are necessary to keep us human. Morality is, in part, weighing consequences in a particular situation, but is also adhering to particular duties. Thus, promise keeping is both a duty and a calculated risk of balancing good and bad consequences (Lebacqz 1985:21-22).

It is natural that we should ask how we weigh the consequences of our actions against recognized duties and what prima facie duties (see below) are relevant to our situation. Teleology and deontology are two main approaches to addressing these questions.

  • Teleology:The basis of the ethical process is the end (telos) sought or outcome hoped for. Thus, our actions are based on either the consequence sought or hoped for, or the rule we wish to uphold.
  • Deontology: The basis of the ethical process is compliance with or obedience to an external authority. Ethics is a matter of what we ought to do rather than what we hope to accomplish. Thus, decisions are based on compliance with or obedience to an authoritative rule or action.

Prima Facie Duties: Those acts and/or norms that tend to be right given the nature of the acts themselves. Different ethicists identify different prima facie duties, but in general they include:

  • Promise Keeping;
  • Making reparations for wrongs done;
  • Duties of gratitude;
  • Beneficence - doing good;
  • Non-maleficence - avoiding doing harm;
  • Justice - the equitable distribution of goods and evils;
  • Duty of Self-Improvement in virtue and intelligence;
  • Respect for the liberty and self-determination of others - sometimes called the Duty of Autonomy or the Principle of Respect of Persons; and
  • Truth Telling (Lebacqz 1985:25).

Character and Action: Faced with an ethical dilemma we all seek the appropriate action, but also want to be, and to be seen to be, a good person. Ethics helps us to understand what it is to be a virtuous person and to clarify how to choose the right action.

Character: Ethics not only helps us to decide what to do, but also affects who we will be. For example, we are not only expected to tell the truth, but to be truthful people. Thus, it is important to explore what it means to be a good person, what it means to maintain integrity, to have vision, and to possess virtue (fidelity, trustworthiness, etc.). When considering issues of character, we ask in what ways our actions reflect who we think we are and who we will become. Likewise, we ask how character and virtue affect our actions, what virtues are relevant for any particular situation, and whether or not our actions "fit" our "life stories."

In the very act of living, in our making decisions and taking actions, we are forever creating and recreating ourselves. Telling one lie does not make us a liar, but continuing in a pattern of lying does. Also, character, or the notion of character, is a source of continuity from one action to the next. While each act is specific, the person we are as a moral agent continues through each action. If, then, character gives to us a sense of continuity and identity, it follows that our actions must ultimately "fit" the person we are and desire to become (Lebacqz 1985:81).

Virtue: Traits of character which reflect and/or influence the motivations from which we act. To act from a sense of good motives (such as helping someone) does not necessarily mean we will do the right thing, nor does doing the right thing necessarily stem from good motives. Thus, we need to explore the relationship between being a good or virtuous person and doing the right thing. We need to ask what the link is between action and virtue, which is to say we must judge good and bad by looking at action. We cannot just be, but can only be by doing. And yet, what we do does not always reflect the person we actually are or hope to be. We can legitimately ask, therefore, when does a truthful person who tells an occasional lie become a liar? Patterns of action over time form the basis for our judgments about a person's character and virtue. And the person we are, and/or hope to become, can and does influence the actions we undertake.

Ethicists define two types of virtues.

  • Actional Virtues are traits of character that respond to the concrete demands of a situation and are fitting for that situation (Lebacqz 1985:94). Such virtues are actions in accord with the objective demands of a situation. For example, rushing into the street to save a child who has stepped in front of a lorry exhibits the virtue of courage. However, you may not have acted out of any feeling particular feeling or motivation (e.g. the feeling of love or the desire to be courageous). You may not have even thought through your action, saying to yourself: "I will demonstrate the virtue of courage by saving this child." You may have simply acted virtuously because of the demands of that particular situation. The child, of course, will not care in the least whether or not your virtuous act was motivated from a desire to demonstrate love or courage.
  • Dispositional Virtues are traits of  character that reflect our tendency to see the world in a certain way (Lebacqz 1985:94). Such traits do not necessarily take the from of concrete actions. The child, saved from the on coming lorry, may feel gratitude toward you but do or say nothing. The child can feel gratitude without even thanking you.
  • Actional Virtues have to do with responding to the concrete demands of a situation, which is to say acting virtuously. Dispositional virtues reflect our perception of those demands, or having a particular disposition towards the situation.    

Roles and Morality: Particular roles are associated with certain identities and responsibilities. Being a minister is to possess and claim a certain identity and to be held accountable to particular responsibilities associated with that identity. The same is true of being a parent or friend. Any one person can have, and usually does have, numerous roles. What is important is to be aware that our roles significantly influence how we define certain situations, which rules and duties apply in that situation, who we are as people, and how we relate to others involved.

Certain roles exempt us from some duties and impose others. We must always ask what are the role expectations, both professional and personal, that we have of ourselves and others have of us.

Structure: We live our lives and practice our professions in an institutional context, comprised of laws, social norms, role expectations, codes of morality, etc. The institutional character of our existence affects our assessment of morally relevant differences, the rules we apply to our situation, and our personal character development. Especially important when considering social structure are issues of power, authority, and justice as exercised in their institutional setting.

Put quite simply, having power is having the ability or capacity to do something and to influence others. We all have power of different kinds. While acting as a minister and a parent we exhibit differing degrees and kinds of power. Authority is having legitimised power: all authority is given by other individuals and/or a community. The manner in which we use our power and authority can have a profound affect on our relationships, our personal and community integrity, and the doing of justice and the liberation or oppression of others.

The Meaning of Ethical Dilemmas

Ethical Dilemma: Human beings are moral beings. Without ever reading a book, most people have an intuitive sense of what is right and wrong. And yet when confronted with a dilemma it can be difficult to choose the right action.

Oftentimes we find ourselves in situations that are difficult and emotive, but are not in fact ethical dilemmas. In such situations we may not want to act in a particular way, or may avoid action, even when we know what should be done.

An ethical dilemma involves two or more moral issues in conflict. If there are no moral principles, rules, duties and/or actions and/or possible decisions in conflict there is no ethical dilemma. A dilemma usually involves two or more prima facie duties being in conflict. A dilemma can also include the conflict of minor duties, rules, role expectations, virtues, and institutional demands.

Morally Relevant Factors: Not all aspects of a given situation are important for resolving a dilemma. Those aspects that count because they make a difference in the resolution of an ethical dilemma, are morally relevant. For example, the fact that one person has blond hair and another black hair should make no difference in deciding what action each person should take (unless we live in a society that places moral and social value on hair colour). However, differences in age, sex, or position may indeed be relevant. Also, no two situations are the same and different situations may involve morally relevant differences (Lebacqz 1985:27).

Different morally relevant factors will justify different moral decisions. While there are no standard guidelines for determining morally relevant factors, there is a good chance that they are linked with prima facie duties. For example, it is important to consider the fact that someone told a lie in a given situation because of the prima facie duty of truthtelling. Sometimes the link between morally relevant factors and prima facie duties is quite clear and sometimes it is not. Thus, it is always important to establish the  relationship between relevant factor and duties (Lebacqz 1985:28).

Copyright © 2000 Dale Rominger

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