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Ethics: A Historical Perspective

Looking at the study of ethics through the lens of history

Stanley Goh

on 4 July 2013

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Transcript of Ethics: A Historical Perspective

Ethics: A Historical Perspective
Pre-history to 500AD
500AD to 1500AD
Classical Antiquity (Ancient)
Period before 500AD
Flourishing civilisations in the Mediterranean
Greek, Roman and Fertile Crescent
Reached zenith between 300BC to 200AD
'Ended' with sack of Rome and fall of the empire
Ethics a result of reflection on how to live well
Ethics: Plato and Aristotle
Enlightenment/Early Modern
Sparked by the Renaissance in 16th Century Europe.
Focus on liberty, emancipation of man, search for autonomy.
Philosophy of mind, epistemology, metaphysics drove ethical theory.
Ethics: Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Mill
Medieval Period
From Dark Ages to Early Medieval to the High Medieval period around 1100 - 1400.
Knowledge preserved by religious traditions (Islam and Christianity)
Ethics driven by religion and spiritual reflection.
Scholars were clerics or connected to religion.
Ethics: St Thomas Aquinas, Peter Abelard
Move into our current age
Marked by great dissonances (modernity, technology, great violence and disaster)
Postmodern turn: rejection of grand narratives and hegemonic influences
Counter: return to classics and tradition
Ethics: Moore, Ross, Foot, Rawls,
1500AD to 1900AD
1900AD to present
"Moral concepts change as social life changes." (MacIntyre)
Moral concepts are embedded in social life - we can know more about moral concepts if we understand why and how social life changes and has changed.
Moral concepts are closely linked to philosophical inquiry which is in turn closely linked to the concerns of the times.
We look at history through a lens but this at least gives us a clue about where we've been and where we may be headed.
Normative Ethical Theories: Historically
Ethical judgements and decisions need some backing, grounding in something substantive.
Normative ethics give a basis for talking about the judgements - a common ground of sorts.
Places and contextualises - not just in time but in space as well.
School of Athens, Raphael
Ancient Greece
Search for value, meaning
Reflection about justice, right
How to live well in society
Role of the individual in society
Virtue Ethics
Focus on aspects of character not conduct or actions
No obligations but suggestions on how to live well
Towards the excellence of an individual; towards happiness
Non-moral in that content is determined by the actions of the individual
Early Modern/Enlightenment
Renaissance: rebirth, independence, freedom
Enlightenment: challenge faith; scientific method
Turn towards knowledge and how it's gained
Rationalist and empiricist debate in philosophy
Growing recognition of the need for liberty
Ethics grows out of these concerns
All agents are rational and seeks what is good based on that
As self interest comes in the way, the only way to protect the interests of everyone is to come to a collective agreement
Right and wrong are determined based on a social contract that is agreed upon by those in community
Right and wrong are not due to consequences
Moral principles are on the side of the agent
Be it duty, rules or obligations, acts are judged based on their adherence to the duties or obligations
Various formulae like 'Do unto others as you would others do unto you' count as deontological
Begins with sense of value - what has value drives the moral action and vice versa
Moral rightness and wrongness have to do with the consequences
Could be dependent on acts or on following rules
If one values pleasure, then one may be a hedonistic-consequentialist; if one values benefits for the greatest number, one may be utilitarian.
John Stuart Mill
Immanuel Kant
Jean-Jacques Rouseau
Marked by dissonances: progress/conflict, wealth/inequality, discoveries/violence
Dissonances and unparalleled grown made the sense of reality less so
Search for both meaning and constancy amidst the changes
The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali
Two movements:
Radical de-centering or a Return to tradition
End of all morality that continues to shackle humans
Nietzche: Need to end the 'slave morality' that consciously creates suffering
Instead, we should be free from any sense of morality as it's not good for us
Postmodern theories (and ethics) are inherently self-defeating, anti-humanistic
There is a need to return to classical traditions that have given meaning in the past (MacIntyre, again!)
Or there is a need to enhance our current ways of knowing and doing
The Wanderer above a sea of fog - Caspar David Friedrich
Beholding the Epochs
Any human activity or society is and should be defined by its history (Hegel)
Understanding normative ethical theories and using them well would presuppose some understanding of where they came from
Beholding one epoch enables one to behold the vistas of even more
Looking back can be as important as looking forward (sometimes!)
Plate from Original cover of Hobbe's book, Leviathan
The Philosopher - Edourd Manet
Where and how does philosophy fit into the study and practice of ethics?

How about the role of history?
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