Virtue Ethics

What is virtue ethics is the subject of this blog entry.

Aristotle has influenced people down to our very day. He lived about 2500 years ago in Greece. His works on ethics have been used to challenge people over the centuries to discover the virtuous life. His approach is called the ethics of virtue.  In virtue ethics the goal is not so much to follow one’s duties as given by God – the deontological ethic.  Nor to examine the teleological effects or the outcomes of various actions as the basis for deciding the best course of action today – the teleological ethic. Virtue ethics are something different.

So we take a look today at the concept of virtue based ethics. The ancient

Greek philosopher Aristotle was a proponent of a life of virtue. He taught that a virtuous person was the one who could best live a life of happiness. The excellent person was the person of virtue. Aristotle wanted his students to come to the understanding that the man of virtue was a person who did the right thing, at the right time, and in the right way.

I’m sure that many of you have heard, or possibly used, the phrase, “You have to do the right thing.” Brainyquote.com has this quote from an American politician, “We need to have a purpose in this life. I’m pleading with you, I’m begging with you to do the right thing. And do it not for the sake of how it will impact your own lives, but only for the sake of doing the right thing.”  James McGreevey

Virtue Ethics — Do the Right Thing

Do you notice this person is pleading with us to do the right thing? He gives us the reason for doing the right thing.  It is to do the right thing.  The

Image result for do the right thing ethics

biggest ethical problem that people face in our world today, I think, is knowing what might possibly constitute the right thing.  How can I know if I am doing the right thing? Will the right thing change from day to day? If my conclusion as to what the right thing is conflicts with yours, how do we decide what is the right thing? Is there such a concept as a virtuous action that is right for me, but wrong for you? Here is a quote from a person writing about corporate ethics, “Indeed, much of what is considered moral through the lens of duty ethics looks decidedly immoral through the lens of virtue ethics.”Peter Tunjic

As you can tell, this can go around and around.  But it need not be so. The aim of ethical decision-making is to become a person who lives with excellence. Aristotle teaches excellence as a concept that means I will control my bodily appetites so that I live in moderation. I will work hard at physical toil. AND I will also take time for my mind and my intellect to flourish. It seems to me that Aristotle would look at our Western culture today and remind us that doing the right thing is not all there is. I think he would mourn the empty souls inside of so many of us.

For further study

We need to look at this more.  Because the lives we live before the face of God are lives that (hopefully) model virtue. And our lives will model a soul satisfying dedication to God. We will discover that to live out the words of Jesus just might be a virtuous way of life. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Therefore, both the vertical and the horizontal are needed to get life right and to do the right thing. Check in again for more later. Better yet, write up a response and join in our dialogue!

decision circle

Public Ethics

Public ethics in court
I swear to tell the truth…

Public Ethics in Question

One of the deepest issues of our culture today is determining which ethical principles apply to our lives and our conduct with one another.  We call these public ethics. This is especially true when we attempt to find an ethical pathway in a landscape which seems to be filled with hidden pitfalls and changing rules.  For example, Nancy Gibbs writing in a recent Time magazine article states,

 We all learned back on the playground that whoever makes the rules of the game stands a better chance of winning it. It’s an uncomfortable lesson, one that requires us to accept that norms are fluid, that expectations shift, that people’s actions are not only judged as right or wrong, but are also measured against the depravity or valor of their peers.

The Fluidity of the Rules

Notice that she does not say that the rules are a given. No, these days the rules are “fluid.”  People’s actions are not only judged or evaluated to determine if those actions are right or wrong. We judge a person’s actions by the depravity or valor of peers. Unfortunately, she gives no definition of either term. An online dictionary gives us a succinct definition of depravity. Depravity goes beyond mere bad behavior — it is a total lack of morals, values, and even regard for other living things.” The same dictionary defines valor as “honor plus dignity. It is gallant bravery and strength. Especially on the battlefield or in the face of danger.”    Just to round out this group of definitions we should note that the word “norms” is given a singular form when defined. “A statistical average is called the norm.”

Public ethics decision circle
Decision Circle

So, we discover that it is the statistical average that dictates the norms for behavior. In a culture of habitual liars, a person who tells the truth is outside the norm. But does that make the truth teller  a morally suspect person?  If the norms are fluid and are determined by someone else’s depravity and still another’s valor, then there is very little that can be called good.

Public Ethics is Fraught With Pitfalls

I define our topic as follows. “Ethics is the motivation to do what is good.” I read a story today of another newsworthy example of this ethical quandary. Google recently set up a public ethics  advisory board of people from outside their company. This board’s task was to give advice on ethics in Artificial Intelligence. Google ran into a stunning event. Thousands of their employees (actually about 2-3 %) decried the membership on the board of a person known to be a “conservative.” The woman engaged in “hate” speech toward some members of society (allegedly). See the article at the link https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/4/4/18295933/google-cancels-ai-ethics-board  So Google hastily disbanded the ethics advisory board. Google hopes that this puts the mistake behind.

Public ethics questions

 This blog entry demonstrates how important the subject of ethics, justice, mercy and moral reasoning has become.  We, as a culture, are unable to even agree on the rules that we attempt to live by.  And as Nancy Gibbs says, the rules are changing and those who make the rules often do well because they made the rules. (Emphasis added) How shall we as a culture interact with each other? Which statistician will come up with the averages accepted as the norm? Whose rules will we agree to live by? More discussion will come!

Ethical Thinking

Three Types of Ethical Thinking

When one is faced with the task of making decisions, it is important to have some grasp of the basis for making that decision. In the tradition of ethical thinking, there are several main approaches to this question.  The three most prominent have been deontological theories of ethics, teleological theories of ethics, and virtue based theories of ethics.

My ethical checklist

  Deontological Ethics

Deontological theories begin with the idea that there is a law-giver to whose will we as individuals must conform if we are to live justly. “When God speaks, people are to listen” is one way we could over-simplify this position. Therefore, the basis for living the life that is ethically good is the laws and duties which are laid out in God’s revealed will. There follows from this that justice is when we live according to the mandates of God in our relationships with other people and the world which God created. In this model, I teach and train a youth to discern God’s will and to follow that in making decisions.

Teleological Ethics

What will my decision result in?

Teleological theories ask us to look at the consequences of an action we are about to undertake.  If I am to live justly, I need to be aware of the effects of my decision making on the future.  A common form of this appears in any story which features time-travel. If I were to go back in time, I should not interfere in what is going to happen in the future.  It follows that I could mess up the trajectory of history by doing the wrong thing when visiting the past. 

The Back to the Future movie is a good example of how delicate is the trajectory of history and how my decisions always affect what is going to happen in the future. Teleological theories of ethics require that I think of the ultimate trajectory of history that will result from my actions today. In this model, youths are trained to think of what is going to happen if you do this or that. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime!”

Virtue Ethics

A mishmash of virtues which form the basis for ethical decisions

Virtue ethics are based on the idea of a person pursuing  what is virtuous in one’s decision-making. For example, the decision maker is to pursue being kind and compassionate and consciously avoid being mean and greedy. Therefore, my ethical choices focus on being a good and virtuous person. It is up to the community in which we find ourselves to educate and train a youth in the pursuit of virtue, which includes, of course, deciding what is virtuous for this society.

My Starting Point

As we continue to ponder these types of ethical thinking, I will be focusing on the deontological type.  I believe that God has spoken.  Therefore, I am to carefully consider  my decisions based on his will. 

I will conclude with this excerpt from a website that is based at Brown University. It is from the school of science and technology. Take a look:

The Divine Command Approach
As its name suggests, this approach sees what is right as the same as what God commands, and ethical standards are the creation of God’s will. Following God’s will is seen as the very definition what is ethical. Because God is seen as omnipotent and possessed of free will, God could change what is now considered ethical, and God is not bound by any standard of right or wrong short of logical contradiction. The Medieval Christian philosopher William of Ockham (1285-1349) was one of the most influential thinkers in this tradition, and his writings served as a guide for Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Jean Calvin (1509-1564). The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), in praising the biblical Patriarch Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac at God’s command, claimed that truly right action must ultimately go beyond everyday morality to what he called the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” ……

Hmm. The teleological suspension of the ethical. We will need to be thinking further on this.

Declaration of Independence: Justice

Introduction

Roy Clouser is my friend and partner (I’m the junior partner, just to be clear) in this effort to create a blog that addresses the issues facing philosophy. In the past couple of posts, I have began thinking on the subject of justice. Recently, I found a transcript of Roy’s lecture at Harvard Law School in October of 2007. He presents many insights into what our western culture considers to be justice and how to address this culture philosophically. A very short excerpt follows in which he speaks of the Declaration of Independence. Also, just to be clear, I believe it is rare for someone to be invited to give a lecture on justice at Harvard Law School!

I must hasten to say that this excerpt begins right after the introduction in which Dr. Clouser lays out his format for the content of the lecture.

A THIRD VIEW OF RIGHTS AND LAW: A critique of assumptions behind the Declaration and the Constitution The 13th Annual Kuyper Lecture for 2007, Harvard Law School 18th October 2007

natural law theory illustrated
This illustration does not necessarily reflect Dr Clouser’s description of natural law theory, but it does show something of how it is developed.

The Declaration’s Source for Rights

Let’s start with the Declaration’s version of natural law theory. The truth behind the words of that document may, I think, be summarized as follows. The truth is that all humans have a sense of justice. Every people, tribe, tongue, civilization, and culture that has ever existed recognized that it is a norm for life that people should “give to all their due” and be treated likewise by others. So I think it’s correct. Humans are “endowed by their Creator” with an awareness of this norm. And neither their awareness of it nor the norm itself are human inventions or anything they can make go away. Both seem instead to be “natural” and to generate obligations on people’s thoughts and actions whether they wish it or not. That is the element of truth I think the Declaration came close to getting right.

Is There A Universal Ought the Declaration Recognizes?

      But the Declaration doesn’t quite put the point the way I just did. It doesn’t say there is a norm for justice built into created reality, which all people have the ability to recognize. Nor does it identify that norm as the source of the obligation they feel to obey the statutes government enacts. The Declaration does not appeal to a universal norm that obliges all humans simply because they’re human. Rather, it skips the norm for justice and speaks only of rights.

This is a serious omission because such rights as it envisions could only result from the norm of justice. So as I see it, the Declaration gets things backwards. It assumes that people have rights and that those rights are the basis for justice. In fact unless people first recognized the norm of justice the whole notion of rights would make no sense. For a right can be nothing other than: a benefit or immunity that cannot be denied someone without injustice.

  Do Women and African Americans Have Rights?

   By getting the relation between the norm and rights backwards, the Declaration bases the authority for human law-codes on the subjective condition of individuals rather than on a universal norm. It was this significant distortion that led to arguments over exactly who is and isn’t born with rights. For example, in early US history political leaders actually debated whether women or African-Americans had rights. But such a debate would make no sense if rights were the result of a universal norm; in that case all people would have rights because the norm of justice holds for all people. But the Declaration reversed this and tried to make the rights of individuals the basis for knowing what is just. Then – sadly enough – it did make sense to argue over who was and was not born with those rights.

Does the Declaration Think Social Organizations Have Duties?

     The individualism of the Declaration is also deficient in yet another way. By making rights the possessions only of individuals, it fails to see that social organizations have rights (and obligations) as well. It is not only individuals who have rights and obligations vis a vis government. But so do marriages, families, churches, schools, businesses, and so on. For are not they, too, recipients of free speech and press? Are they not also to enjoy freedom from search and seizure? Should not each be guaranteed the freedom to conduct its own internal affairs rather than be dictated to by government? And do they not also have an obligation to obey the laws government enacts?

By speaking only of individuals and government, the Declaration has bequeathed to America a habit of thinking in a truncated way that misses an important point. That point stems from the universality of the norm of justice. That is, justice requires that there be rights and obligations not just between individuals and government but between individuals, between individuals and all types of organizations, and among the various organizations as well.

I hope this gives you some grist for your mill. We will continue this in my next post.

Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment: Pros / Cons

Capital Punishment Background

Over the course of the 20th century, almost every industrialized nation has abandoned capital punishment except the US. This arguably points to the conclusion the rest of the western world has taken the moral high road. Meanwhile, the US remains relatively barbaric. “Besides”, we are told over and over, “there is no conclusive evidence that capital punishment (also known popularly as the death penalty) deters murder.” The Christian political activist might address the issue in the following way. (For an extensive review of the current status of the death penalty in the US, click here)

Capital Punishment
Death Row Inmate

            The law of Moses provides the first Scriptural basis for the execution of the convicted person in cases of premeditated murder. The fact that the victim bore the image of God forms the bedrock of this particular law. Further, the doctrine of a human being bears the image of God continues in the New Testament. The Scriptural teaching re the image of God in humanity means all humans have equal rights (Gen. 1:27 –31, Acts 17:26, Gal 3:28). If, as we believe, the image of God in humanity is the ground for equal rights, then how can we ignore it when seeking a Biblical understanding of the issues surrounding first degree murder?

The Need for Deterrence?

I know someone will say that capital punishment deters other would be murderers. However, so long as this doctrine is the basis for capital punishment, the deterrence argument need not be raised. The image of God in humanity makes the reason for execution that this is what the murderer deserves.  The wonder of the image of God in human beings will best deter others from premeditated killing.

            How do we explain the fact that so many nations have abandoned capital punishment? In my opinion, this change demonstrates just one of many shifts among western nations away from broadly biblical assumptions for democracy to broadly humanistic ones. Where God’s Kingdom that is not the highest value, some single aspect of human nature asserts itself. Humanism urges the acceptance of the teaching regarding the greatest good. The single aspect of a human being could be such as rationality, feeling, or will. The problem arises that there is no higher value than human life and execution is itself just another crime.

Whose Life Is Worth More?

Some version of the humanist creed also seems to underlie the compromise view about capital punishment now popular in the US. The compromise urges the avoidance of a death sentence. Humanism reaches a striking conclusion. The argument revolves around who or how many
victims there are. This criterion will or will not warrant the use of the death penalty. On this view, the death penalty is deserved, say, if the Pope or the President or 25 people were murdered. One ordinary person? Then no.

The humanist creed asserts that many victims or a famous victim “contained” more of whatever human quality is being regarded as the highest value. Then the wrong involved in taking the murderer’s life is outweighed on the justice scales by the greater wrong committed by his crime. From the biblical view, however, there are no degrees of being in God’s image; each human life has equal value and should enjoy equal protection. The premeditated destruction of any person should be equally punished. That holds no matter whether it was one person or many, the President or a homeless street person. (These thoughts and more are found here.)

A Safeguard

Perhaps you agree with all I’ve said so far. But you would still object that the danger of executing the wrong person outweighs all else. This is a serious point. It focuses our thoughts on the need for new safeguards in our justice system.

            Presently a death sentence carries an automatic appeal so that a higher court can review the case to make sure there were no errors in legal procedure at the trial. That is not enough.

The first thing we need to add is a review of the facts and evidence. A review board formed in every public defenders’ office (but not limited to only cases defended by that office) will do the review. Evidence tainted by illegal means will not stand in review. I judge this evidential review is as necessary as to catch unfair trial procedures.

            Secondly, we need to impose this penalty only when the evidence is not merely “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It must be beyond all doubt. And there are such cases. The evidence is some cases is irrefutable. These are cases where a defendant is caught on sound, color, videotape, has the victim’s blood on him, and/or is caught in the act. According to this proposal, when the evidence is anything less than completely certain, the sentence may be for life, but the death penalty should not be allowed.