Bioethics Discussion Blog: Is Ethics Immutable or Can Ethics Change?

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Is Ethics Immutable or Can Ethics Change?

I would like to expand the ethical issue discussed in the comments about the
last post. to a discussion about an aspect of the discipline of ethics itself which I never previously written. In the Comment section of the last post, I wrote:

Getting a bit more academic about ethics: Is ethics as a discipline really immutable? Isn't ethics fundamentally a consensus of society's "outlooks" as to what is right and not simply and totally based on the "straight timber" rigid teachings of specific people over the centuries? Isn't there something as democratic ethics? If not, then why not? I realize that what I am writing may sound to an ethicist as intellectually immature, but I never have held myself out as an ethicist and for the education of myself and my blog visitors, it might be valuable to discuss this point. ..Maurice.


Ethicist Bob Koepp, then responded as follows:

Maurice -
You're asking a very difficult question about the objecivity of ethics. There are many very thoughtful people who would disagree, but I happen to think that ethics concerns objective truths about this world. I don't think we can turn to any authorities to tell us what is ethically right or wrong. And I don't think that consensus, even democratically reached consensus, is what determines the answer. All we can do is think, as clearly and critically and honestly and we are able, about how we should live. And then we should have the humility to admit that, in all probability, our best thoughts on the subject are not the last word.


My response to Bob: If objective truths can only be established by subjective means, then why can't we all vote on the issue of what is ethically right or wrong.
Anyone else have a view? ..Maurice.

9 Comments:

At Thursday, June 08, 2006 5:44:00 PM, Anonymous Bob Koepp said...

Maurice -
I don't think that objective ethical truths _can_ be established by subjective means. If they can be established at all, even provisionally, it must be on the basis of reasons. And reasons are not subjective. They can be presented in broad view of the public.

There's nothing preventing us from taking a vote on what's right or wrong. But there's no intrinsic connection between truth, including truth about moral matters, and what a majority believes.

 
At Friday, June 09, 2006 11:13:00 AM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Bob, I hope I am not making this discussion one of semantics but I really don't understand what you mean by "objective ethical truths". I don't see how ethical truths can ever be considered as "objective" if one considers the following Dictionary definitions of the word "objective".

# Composed of or relating to things that occupy space and can be perceived by the senses
# Having verifiable existence
# Free from bias in judgment
# Having or indicating an awareness of things as they really are

Aren't all such "truths" not something which can never be independent of subjective interpretation? ..Maurice.

 
At Saturday, June 10, 2006 5:40:00 AM, Anonymous Bob Koepp said...

Maurice -
I think you might be confusing the idea that all judgments involve subjective interpretations with the idea that what determines whether or not the judgments are true or valid is subjective.

As to the elements of the dictionary definitions, the first two would eliminate most of the subject matter of theoretical science from what is objective. The third concerns itself with judgments, or more accurately, with the conditions under which judgments are more likely to reflect "things as they really are;" and that phrase, from the fourth element, gestures roughly in the direction of what I mean when I say that ethics concerns objective truths. In other words, I think think some things "really are" good or bad, even if we can't strictly prove this (just like lots of the claims of theoretical science).

 
At Sunday, June 11, 2006 7:53:00 AM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Since I am not a philosopher, by study, I went to the Philosophy Department of the Montclair (N.J.) State University website to read the following excepts which are from "Aristotle, Philosophy of Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics: Part 1", Monarch Notes, 1 Jan 1963.( Simon & Schuster)

Plato's Approach To Ethics:

Plato was highly conscious of the moral aspect of human nature. In his
more intuitive perception of the fundamental unity of human existence, he made
no hard and fast distinction between the morally good and the scientifically
true. He considered the world of action and the world of knowledge
interdependent. A man could only become good by knowing the truth, and he
could not know the truth without being good. Plato believed that to know what
something really is, is to understand its significance; it is to realize what
its intrinsic value is in relation to us. Consequently, he identified perfect
truth with perfect value in his concept of the Ideal Good, as the light which
makes the world intelligible. Since the Ideal Good was a form which existed
separately from matter, absolute value was an objective and unchanging
standard. It was not a product of man's reasoning, nor dependent upon man's
knowledge for its existence. Plato taught that the discovery of the real
meaning of things was not a simple intellectual exercise. Knowledge could only
be acquired by experience, by leading a life whose actions were in harmony
with the Ideal Good. Something of Plato's idea of what "meaning" really means
is found in our expression "true to life." When we say a picture is true to
life, we are not merely making a factual observation. We are saying that
somehow the painting has caught what is significant in life, in the sense of
what we think has value for us in understanding what life is all about.
Plato believed that knowing was the experience of the meaningful in terms of
its value.

Aristotle's Approach To Ethics:

Aristotle's approach to ethics is more analytic and consequently more
practical than Plato's. Aristotle is the first philosopher to make the
definitive distinction between the Science of the Good, and the Science of the
True. He breaks up Plato's unity of knowing and acting into two independent
philosophical categories: the theoretical sciences and the practical sciences.
Each of these has its own subject matter, and its own method. The theoretical
sciences study what always, or usually, is. Their first principles are thus
rooted in experience, or in reality. Consequently, the theoretical sciences
can arrive at the truth. The practical sciences, however, have human action as
their subject matter. This, we know, is unpredictable, for it concerns what
sometimes is and what sometimes is not. Thus, there is no way we can discover
sure and certain principles for these sciences; we are forced to base our
study on opinion rather than on experience. There can be no absolute moral
standard which will serve as the principle governing every action, because
every action is individual and unique. For this reason, the good of any action
is relative to the kind of action it is. It follows that the practical
sciences can never have as their goal absolute truth. Their truth can only be
relative. Because moral truth, consequently, is a lesser kind of truth than
the scientific truth. Aristotle subordinates the life of acting to the life of
knowing. With Aristotle, ethics descends from the world of eternal being to
the world of becoming.


Bob, based on these descriptions of the view of ethics by Plato and Aristotle, can one say that Plato would find ethics as immutable while Aristotle finds ethics potentially changable? ..and we can take our pick? ..Maurice.

 
At Sunday, June 11, 2006 11:02:00 AM, Anonymous Bob Koepp said...

I'm pretty sure Plato would say that there is just one immutable ethical truth lying behind the apparent diversity of particular ethical judgments. For Aristotle, to say that the truths of ethics are relative the kinds of action in question doesn't by itself imply anything about mutability or immutability. Instead, it suggests that there is no single principle that can be applied to evey practical ethical problem.

What I find most interesting in the synopsis of Aristotle's view above is the sharp separation between theoretical and practical sciences. That there is some division, based on subject matter, is widely accepted. But whether that difference is reflected in different standards of truth applied in the two areas isn't at all obvious. I think that over the past few centuries, we've diverged much more from Aristotle's view of theoretical science than from his view of ethics. In some ways, we've come to view theoretical science as a much more practical endeavor than did Aristotle.

 
At Sunday, June 11, 2006 1:06:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Thanks Bob for contributing to an interesting discussion of a topic which I hadn't thought seriously about previously. From a practical point of view, if I might summarize what you have written, is that though it might be expected that human beings can change their ethical behavior due to burdensome personal circumstances, it is their behavior (the way they don't follow the established ethical principles)which has changed but the way society looks at these principles as an integral part of life and living does not change and are independent of any circumstances. So in your case,though pain,uncertainty and unreasonable bureocratic obstacles caused a change in your response to ethical principles, the ethics themselves were unchanged despite your circumstances.

For example, the injustice that was rendered on the millions of non-combatants by the U.S. at Hiroshima and Nagasaki or carpet bombing of Europe or the continued deadly consequences of our invasion into Iraq to the citizens of Iraq by the U.S. and others cannot be rationalized away since the underlying principles of justice and non-malifesence are unchanged. Is that a correct summary or can you express it more correctly? ..Maurice.

 
At Sunday, June 11, 2006 5:29:00 PM, Anonymous Bob Koepp said...

Maurice -
Your summary captures the basic thrust of my view about the status of ethical truths/principles. My philosopher's inclincation to draw further distinctions and add further clarifications probably would be largely "semantic."

 
At Sunday, June 11, 2006 5:41:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Great!! And now on to another ethics issue. (Of course, other visitors who have different or supportive views may still comment on this posting.) ..Maurice.

 
At Sunday, June 11, 2006 9:40:00 PM, Blogger Hans G. Engel, M.D. said...

Congratulations to an excellent discussion! With my little knowledge of philosophy I acan only agree with Bob Koepp's statement:
"I don't think that objective ethical truths _can_ be established by subjective means. If they can be established at all, even provisionally, it must be on the basis of reasons. And reasons are not subjective.
In my opinion, no ethical truths can be absolute.

 

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