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Learning About Contemporary Thought in Ethics

  1. Jul 11, 2003 #1

    Another God

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    Hi everyone. Some of you may know (although most wouldn't) that I have some of my own quite strongly held beliefs about ethics, how they actually work, what they actually are, and how people continue deluding themselves into some sort of cosmic significance of the 'sanctity of life' and 'rights' etc..

    Anyway, I am potentially thinking about putting some serious thoughts into my beliefs, and maybe writting something solid on them...like an essay, or serious of essays..or something. So anyway, I realised there is a very important first step I need to take before I start writing anything... I need to learn what is already out there.

    So, can anyone here recomend and good contemporary ethical philosophers? POint me towards some good online essays available from well known philosophers of ethics perhaps...perhaps simply explain some principles of ethics???

    (Don't worry, I know the basics....Utilitarianism, Do unto Others...etc..)

  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 11, 2003 #2
    Is Ayn Rand considered contemporary?
  4. Jul 11, 2003 #3
    This is a good topic and a very telling question. I've had quite a time finding what i consider good contemporary philosophy. I'm a generation x-er and i have not found anything substantial from my generation. Heck, there aren't even many good contemporary fiction writers. I don't think Ayn Rand can properly be called a contemporary... of mine anyway.

    When in doubt i always have plenty of classics close at hand.
    If i come across anything i'll let you know because i do understand and relate to this sentiment.
  5. Jul 12, 2003 #4

    Another God

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    Well, don't get too caught up in the term contemporary...I'm more importantly just looking for any works which are still influential today..anything which sorta sums up what is beleived.

    So far, my only real contact with contemporary thought is Sociobiology. And otherwise, Utilitarianism, although it has much criticism against it, seems to pretty much be the basis for our societies... And well, my own theories do actually incorporate both these theories.. I just want to make sure 1. I don't misrepresent either of these schools of thought, and 2. Don't miss any other relevent schools of ethical thought.

    (PS: I actually started reading Atlas Shrugged the other week...)
  6. Jul 12, 2003 #5
    I've heard that it's more efficient to read her shorter, nonfiction works, than the long-ass atlas shrugged.
  7. Jul 12, 2003 #6
    I'd do the google thing if I were you and then check amazon for what is popular. Might also look into contextualism, situational ethics, and pantheism.
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2003
  8. Jul 12, 2003 #7


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    maybe look up Rawls, and "Veil of ignorance". That should get you started on one thread of contemporary ethics.
  9. Jul 13, 2003 #8
    Maybe do a web search on Peter Singer...

    Or... here's an interesting link.http://www.literatus.net/essay/BioEthics.html [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  10. Jul 13, 2003 #9

    Les Sleeth

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    You said in your original post, " . . . perhaps simply explain some principles of ethics?" I don't know if you were asking for opinions from people here or not, but if you were I'll venture an opinion.

    I believe ethics, or if one prefers the word morality, arise because we must share planet Earth with other human beings, and so can be boiled down to a single, simple idea: the effects our behavior has on others. I am excluding the effects one's behavior has on oneself. I am also excluding the effects one's behavior has on other life forms (with a caveat – discussed below).

    A behavior is ethical if it at least does no harm. A person is “highly ethical” if in all his dealings with others he strives to do no harm in his interactions. The reason that is significant is because to survive we must also act in our own self interest, and as everyone knows, pursuing self interest can be at the expense of others. If several people want the same thing, such as a contract from the city to do all its landscaping, only one winner gets the contract. Some might see that as harming (the non-winners), but competition is actually just how reality works sometimes. What would be unethical is rather than compete fairly, someone wins by cheating and so harms the fair process of bidding that competitor’s rely upon.

    War and police interventions is another tricky one. The damage done in war or police work can be ethical if it is to prevent even more harm by those the soldiers or police oppose. Disciplining children is similar in that one causes pain (I don’t mean hitting) in order to help the child overall. Although I suggested harming other life is excluded (mostly for the sake of the meat eaters out there), harming the environment all humans are dependent on is harming others.

    Finally, beyond not harming one might say doing good is an ethic. Personally I think it’s a value rather than an ethic, but it would be a great way to ensure not harming and therefore serve one’s ethical commitment.


    I was thinking about it and it seems there are ethical issues involved in behavior that might cause harm, like when mates cheat. If they get away with it, and no one gets hurt (and say the marriage continues unaffected), then have they been unethical because someone
    could have been harmed?
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2003
  11. Jul 14, 2003 #10

    Another God

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    Sleeth, thanks for your thoughts.

    My take on Ethics though, is basically the dead opposite to what you think. Firstly, the ethics which I think of...are more of a descriptive ethics. ie: This is how I think people actually work... And from there, I also believe that how it works, is good enough. Or perhaps its better to say, 'how it works, is how it works, and so we have to accept this and work with it, rather than trying to brainwash everyone into a new ethical system which will never work because people simply don't work that way'.

    Now whats so different about my thoughts from yours? Well, firstly, I think Right and Wrong (Good and Bad) is determined soley by the end desire. Whatever course of action works towards x goal, that is the 'right' thing, and whatever hinders the achievement of that goal is the 'wrong' or 'bad' thing. With this concept setting out right and wrong, the desirer is an individual or a community.

    Anyway, I didn't plan on trying to get right into all of it right now, if people are interested, then I will post more on this, but how my ethics are so different to yours, is simply that with the stuff said above in mind, I believe that 'doing least harm' is the last thing on someones mind when they attempt to determine what they should do. What they do do, is try to figure out "What do 'I' want out of this situation?" And from that, the 'right' thing to do (the ethical thing) would be whatever is required to achieve that ends.

    And yes, I believe this is how every individual works at a fundamental level, and yes, I believe this is how our "ethical, Moral" world comes to exist...through entirely selfish actions. (Of course, it is a lot more complicated than this...but I can't explain all of that in a small posting.)
  12. Jul 15, 2003 #11
    Why do some people believe that real life is like that game Survivor where the most manipulative and ruthless win, while others see life through rose tinted glasses and believe generally that bad never happens to good people? I don't understand this one.
    I disagree that you need to learn all about what the authorities think about ethics up to this point, some of it maybe, but most of the information of ethics is right outside our door- people are ethics in action. In other words, the outcome of having some new or different knowledge to impart isn't as important as the immediate outcome of satisfying one's own curiosity by observation and figuring it out for ourselves, I can't imagine Darwin cared much about what everyone was going to think about evolution theory while he was working on it for 20 years.
  13. Jul 15, 2003 #12

    Another God

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    Sure, my thoughts on it are largely constructed from this 'ethics in action' as you call it...but I am considering the prospects of writting something semi-official on it...and as such, its best if I look like I know what I am talking about. You know, references and all that. Plus its handy to refer to known terms by their actual names, rather than actively describing each phenomenon in each scenario, which can become tedious.

    ie: Call it utilitarianism rather than saying "its good if we can make as many people happy as possible"
  14. Jul 15, 2003 #13

    Les Sleeth

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    You're welcome.

    What people? People work in lots of different ways.

    That doesn't sound like ethics to me, it seems merely a principle of management. Those are exactly the sorts of ideas used in planning, management by objectives, etc.

    Again, what people? Some people care only about themselves, others have matured and find great rewards in doing good. Whether or not the human race as a whole has evolved to the point of recognizing the real dangers of selfish behavior doesn't have much to do with if ethics have value.

    If I hadn't already experienced you as a thoughtful person :smile: I would be appalled at your take on ethics. To me, you've defined exactly what it is that leads to a person becoming unethical.

    I admit I answered you informally . . . I've waded thru too many burdensome treatises by philosophers who couldn't seem to relate their own experiences of living to realistic interpretation. Personally I don't believe ethics is all that difficult, it's simple. It doesn't require a list of religious principles or deep philosophical analysis to know the issue of ethics arises precisely because selfishness controls the small-minded, self-centered, egocentric, unevolved human.

    But for the sake of having a philosophical discussion, I will debate this with you if you are interested. If we proceed, my argument against what I see as essentially a social Darwinist view is that causing no harm, and even acting to the benefit of others, actually makes one richer, happier, be less stressed, and have fewer enemies than coldly pursuing selfish interests. Since all of that makes it more likely one will survive, my view isn't some goody-goody thing, it's practical.

    To be totally accurate, at this point in my life feeling good is a top priority, and I've found service to humanity to be a lot more enjoyable than those days when the only thing I ever thought about was my selfish desires. Isn't that pursuing self interest too? Yep, but when it is done that way it's called "enlightened self-interest," and in my humble opinion it produces the highest sort of ethics.
  15. Jul 15, 2003 #14

    Another God

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    I guess you could say that I am talking about enlightened self interest then, because the first thing you should realise, is that the only way to take proper care of yourself, is to make good friends. You need good friends, and people around you who care about you, so that they can help you, take care of you, and do you favours when you need them the most. These people are the people who make life possible, without them, life sucks.

    How do you get these people around you? You take care of them. You love them, you help them, you do them favours when they need it.

    Simply: In taking care of yourself as best as you can, you will necessarily need other people around you taking care of you. To get these people, you must take care of them in return... You must do things which are traditionally seen as ethical.

    My point is simply that these actions still come from a selfish cause. Selfishness is not an evil.

    The second major implication of all that I am talking about, is that there is nothing which is inherently wrong or evil. So there is nothing wrong with murder, or with rape, or with stealing etc... There is nothing 'wrong' oither than doing that which goes against your desires. It just so happens that when you consider what your desires actually are, they will pretty much always point you down a path where rape, murder and stealing is wrong because they will not help you be happy. (and will lead you to being very unhappy)

    I still believe that it is essential to take an ethical standpoint from a selfish point of view, because we only know our own minds, and this is the only point of reference we have. If we aren't here to please ourselves, who are we here to please? How to know what it is that pleases these other people?

    It isn't until you have yourself sorted out, that you are able to do things which help other people.

    The most giving people I know, are all depressed. I think its because they haven't learnt yet, that without taking care of themselves, they have nothing inside left to give...
  16. Jul 15, 2003 #15
    Your best bet is to get an anthology used in an intoro ethics course. Your local Uni should have something on the shelves.

    At a minimum you should become familiar with Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Mill on the historical end of things. More recently you should have a look at Sayre-Mccord and Baier. There are of course more, but that should give you a start. In the 20th century things get pretty thick and detailed. If you don't have a historical background it can often be hard to figure out what the discussion is about. Once I get my boxes unpacked I can put up some more references.

    Read Ayn Rand if you want, but most philosophers shudder when her name is mentioned in a philosophical context. Whether you agree or disagree with her position, her work has little or no philosophical meat to it. No more than most good novels.
  17. Jul 15, 2003 #16
    Hmm this sounds familiar. I think it's called Hedonism. I've heard this view alot in philosophical ethics courses. I don't think it's anything new. I won't even attempt to argue against it philosophically because I know it can't be done. Kinda like proving the material world exists outside our minds.
  18. Jul 15, 2003 #17
    Desire must be defined, natural desire or "want" desire? If it is a natural desire it can only be good (right). If it is a wanting desire that isn't needed or natural then that is where right and wrong come into play. And in that case all desires are right/good unless (a) it gets in the way of natural desires or (b) you, at a later time, determine it was wrong, notice only YOU can say a desire was wrong. If you chose to do one thing from as a wanting desire and I thought it was wrong, that doesn't make it wrong, the only thing that can make it wrong is your final desition.

    There are innocuous and noxious actions, it is innocuous if no harm or regret at a later time follows and if it does not interfere with natural desires (such as eating, drinking, etc). Noxious actions would be the type that does hinder the achievement of natural desires or you believe are wrong after you achieve the ends.

    This is interesting to note: it requires a conscious and thoughtful decision to fulfil natural desires, you would think it would be the other way around, but humans are plauged by wanting desires.

    Would you also agree that 'the ends justify the means'?

    Your style of ethics is very similar to Aristotle, I think you would at least enjoy reading some of his works, if you have not already. Perhaps contemporary ethics holds no more truths than foregoing ethics.

    Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
  19. Jul 16, 2003 #18

    Another God

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    Thanks for all the feedback and thoughts. I'll have a bit more of a read and a bit more of a think about it.

    Kyle: I would not only say that the ends justifies the means, but the ends determines the means.
  20. Jul 16, 2003 #19

    Les Sleeth

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    I see what you are saying but I believe you are misapplying the word "selfish." Self intererest would be a better term because selfish has already been assigned a meaning, which is to pursue one's own desires without regard for the consequences to others. Often it stems from narcissistic views or emotional insecurities.

    If we use the term self interest, then I think you have made some good points here. There are people who want to please others because they seek approval, and so they are constantly on an emotional roller coaster where the ride depends on if they get approval or not.

    And when people are content inside, then they usually start behaving in a more caring way towards everything, from brushing one's teeth to interacting with others.

    I can't quite agree with all that. I think I understand what you mean, which is that what is truly best for you is what makes you happy and healthy, and that is a practical issue and not really a matter of ethics. I have the same view toward my own behaviors. I resist saying "right " or 'wrong" in the sense of morality because I think in the past a lot guilt trips have been laid on people about how they are "supposed" to be. Human nature seems equipped to teach us what is best for us, so we don't need all that morality.

    However, not everyone is in touch with their nature. In fact, outside of chidren (who seem most in touch with it) I think most people have strayed, and some quite a lot. I have seen people make deals that rip off others, or the environment, and who then go off and gleefully spend all the money they made. There are people who I have read about who actually have enjoyed killing and torture.

    The thing is, do people have any natural rights? Does being alive entitle us to live? To our possessions? To freedom? If we have any natural rights at all, then it is "wrong" for others to take them from us. That's why I limit the meaning of ethics/morality to issues of harm to others.

    I wonder if you really mean that. Say there are so many people living on an island it's stressing out the sewer system, food supply, living space, etc. It would be better for the residents if there were fewer people, so they hire Saddam Hussein to come over an kill a few thousand people . . . problem solved!! The island's support systems all return to normal and life is better for all the remaining residents.

    Did the positive end justify the means used to achieve it?

    See, all means are really little "ends" in themselves, and each must be evaluated on its own merits, not just in light of the overall end they are contributing to.

    As far as the end determining the means, that's true . . . but that is just a sound principle of planning, and really rather neutral to ethics. But the idea of the end justifying the means, that's a different concept altogether. Plenty of people have brought tremendous misery on others applying that exact principle.
    Last edited: Jul 16, 2003
  21. Jul 16, 2003 #20
    I can't remember if it was Bertran Russell or Bernard Shaw who said; "There is no such thing as a purely altruistic action.
    Could have been either really. Being idealistic at the time I was shocked and dismayed but soon realized that it's probably true. Now I'm sure it is even if all we get out of it is a warm fuzzy feeling inside.
    I don't think that the end ever justifies the means ethically speaking. To me if the means need to be justified then they are probably wrong and we need to look for other means; but I am a bit idealistic still. I think that there are intrinsic right and wrong motives and actions beyond self interest.
    In a society of scarce resourses fufilling ones own self interest even if it is a matter of survival will always be at the expense of another. How do we decide who is to have those scarce resources and/ or who is to live? That to me is ethics and the debate can go on forever. However, in such a society, while we were debating ethics someone else came along and took the very resources we were debating over. That to me is reality.
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