Our time on earth has an exceptional value. It is valuable because with the death of one human being a whole world dies. In other words, the unique perspective of a person disappears with his or her death. This is one of the reasons why murder is considered such a horrible crime: It destroys “a whole world.” An important task of every ethics consists in establishing a framework preventing us from killing or harming each other.
The term ethics was first coined by the philosopher and physician Aristotle (384-322 BCE) in his book Ethika Nikomacheia (a book on ethics for his son Nikomachos). Ethics has its roots in the noun ethos, which means “custom.” Aristotle understood it as the rational study of customs, which as a practical science does not have the methodological exactness of, for example, mathematical science, but is nevertheless guided by principles. Today the term ethics is used in a manifold way. In everyday language, it is often used synonymously with moral behavior; that is, people are called ethical if they behave morally. In philosophy, ethics is synonymous with moral philosophy and deals with questions regarding how we can justify norms, distinguish good and evil, or develop consistent ethical theories. For some philosophers of the analytic tradition, ethics can only be metaethics, meaning that it is able to analyze ethical terms and principles but is unable to provide universally valid ethical norms. Others reduce ethics to a hermeneutic description of ethical attitudes, using it to interpret how it influences the world in which we live. For theologians of the Christian tradition, ethics is synonymous with moral theology, thereby reflecting the moral precepts of the Bible and Christian communities.
This entry begins with the fundamental question of whether or not there is free will and, subsequently, if moral obligation is possible. Next it explores why the concepts of time and space have a significant role in ethical theories by giving a short historical overview of ethical positions, which at the end focuses on the question that pits ethical relativism against ethical universalism.
The Question of Free Will
Neurobiological discoveries, in combination with modern genetics, have led some to the opinion that human beings are biological machines determined by their biological hardware. This is especially the case with human brains and genes, though outside influences play a role as well. In this case, there is no room for free will; the web of motivations that moves us to act is fixed. We simply do what we are predetermined to do. If ethics is supposed to develop moral norms that dictate what we ought to do, it now seems to be in contradiction with the assumption that we are determined. In other words, we need the ability to act in accordance or discordance with the “ought to” and, moreover, because we have free will and are not already determined. If there is no free will, the concept “ought to” becomes meaningless.
There are various solutions to this problem. Philosophers often suggest a version of free will in terms of modular brain functions that is compatible with determinism. Human beings are perceived as a complex, determined, neurophysiological system. Data are taken in, and alternatives are generated and ranked. Eventually an output initiates action, and this action is considered free, notes Simon Blackburn, if the following is valid: “The subject acted freely if she could have done otherwise in the right sense. This means that she would have done otherwise if she had chosen differently and, under the impact of other true and available thoughts or considerations, she would have chosen differently. True and available thoughts and considerations are those that represent her situation accurately, and are ones that she could reasonably be expected to have taken into account.” Theologians tend to offer an incompatibilist version; that is, free will is not compatible with determinism. For strict Calvinists, for example, there is no free will. God predetermines what we do. The Roman Catholic Church explains freedom of the will by insisting that the human person can be reduced to a physiological, and therefore entirely material, reality. The moral self has a transcendent element, generally associated with the soul, and moral decisions reflect the complexity of that body-soul reality; that is, it cannot be a simply material determination. The question of how moral thoughts are evaluated, such that humans may or may not choose the “good” action, is answered by introducing the concepts of grace and sin and the mystery of evil.
A Short Overview of Ethics and the Importance of Time
Ethics can be either religious or philosophical. Some religious ethics require a belief that God reveals himself (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), while others are more similar to secular ethics, for example, Buddhist ethics or Confucianism. Jewish and Christian ethics are based on the Ten Commandments: The first three commandments relate to the worship of God, that is, no graven images of him should be made and a day of worship should be set aside, whereas the other seven deal with relationships between human beings dictating that we should honor our parents (4) and refrain from killing other human beings (5), from breaking the vows of marriage (6), from stealing (7), from false testimony (8), from desiring the wife or husband of another (9), and from desiring the belongings of another (10). We follow these commandments when we love God, as well as when we love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The Five Pillars of Islam are (1) the declaration of faith, (2) praying five times a day, (3) almsgiving, (4) fasting during the month of Ramadan, and (5) making the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime. All three monotheistic religions stress the importance of our time on earth and its relation to eternity. Whoever does not follow the commandments puts his or her eternal life and reward at risk and is faced with the threat of eternity in hell. For this reason, our time on earth is extraordinarily important.
In a similar sense, Buddhist ethics emphasizes the importance of our life on earth. Whoever does not follow the Eightfold Path, which can be considered a kind of virtue ethics, does not reach Nirvana. The elements of the Eightfold Path are the (1) right view, (2) right resolve, (3) right speech, (4) right action, (5) right livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right meditation. But instead of going to a hell, those who do not follow the Eightfold Path will be reincarnated into a life form that corresponds with the deeds in their former life. However, here we have to ask: When are the view, the resolve, and so forth, right? The answer is rightness exists when one follows the five principles: refraining from harming living creatures, from taking what has not been given, from sexual immorality, from speaking falsely, and from taking intoxicants. Confucianism also provides a number of practical principles for life here on earth instead of a focus on a future eternal life.
In Western philosophy, written ethical reflection in the philosophical sense begins with Plato (c. 428/427-348/347 BCE). Plato, Aristotle (384-322 BCE), and the Christian philosopher and theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) believed that an objective, transcendent reality guarantees the good and the rightness of principles, norms, and corresponding actions. For Plato this is the idea of the Good; for Aristotle it is the unmoved mover, which is the first cause; and for Aquinas it is God as love, who reveals himself in history. Human beings touched by this reality will do good and avoid evil. Furthermore, this represents the fulfillment of human nature. Therefore, these ethical approaches are often called doctrines of natural law, even though they sometimes significantly differ in the concrete norms they establish. For example, Aristotle allows abortion, whereas Aquinas forbids abortion. The common bond, however, is the focus on virtues as good habits that foster a good life. Consequently, these ethical theories are sometimes called virtue theories. For Platonists, though especially for Neoplatonists and Aquinas, the good life does not end here on earth, but reaches fulfillment only in the presence of God.
A completely different class of ethical approaches is the class of contractarian theories. Religious wars destroyed people’s trust that religion could bring peace and prosperity because all sides defended their actions by claiming to act in accordance with God’s will. Hobbes (1588-1679), therefore, did not use a transcendent reality as the foundation for ethics. Instead, he developed a contract theory according to which the lives of all humans are guaranteed when they relinquish their freedom to an all-powerful sovereign. The sovereigns implement the contract, and they have all freedoms except one: They has to protect the lives and well-being of their subjects. Thereby, a contract, not the idea of “good” or a god, secures our lives and well-being. However, even today it remains unanswered how such a contract can be realized and implemented. A similar approach that focuses on a moral ideal rather than on securing life and well-being is called contractualism. John Rawls (1921-2002), the most famous contractual- ist, bases the contract on the moral ideal of justice as fairness. His main idea is as follows: On the basis of their common interests, people would rationally choose a democratic society based on the principles of freedom and justice as fairness (the option for the “least advantaged”) if they did not know what their later position in society was to be. Contractarians and contractualists agree on the relevance of the life of every human being. Our lives are so important because death terminates every possibility of action here on earth for the respective person.
In contrast to Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, who focus on an objective good, and to contracta- rians and contractualists, Immanuel Kant (17241804) emphasizes the role of goodwill. The goodwill is realized by action guided by a fundamental commandment called the “categorical imperative,” a principle of action that is a universal moral law. All rational beings endowed with freedom, regardless of their particular interests and social backgrounds, have to adopt this principle: “Act only according to that maxim [the determining motive of the will] whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” By using the term universal law Kant means that this principle does not allow for any exceptions like laws of nature do. Kant’s ethics is called deontological (from the Greek to deon, meaning that which you have to do) because you have to follow this imperative for the sake of duty and not for any other reasons. The categorical imperative is not commanded from someone other than the agent—that is, it is not heteronomous (heteros, “the other”; nomos, “the law”)—but rather it is a law that the practical reason of agents gives to them. Consequently, it is autonomous (autos, “self”). Thus, a fulfilled life is a life lived for the sake of duty. To a certain extent and in the tradition of Kant, the contemporary philosopher Jürgen Habermas has developed a discourse theory according to which norms are established by means of an ideal discourse situation. This is a situation free from the threat of violence, where every participant has an equal say in the process of establishing the necessary norms. As a result, all participants accept the norms they have agreed upon together. Like Kantian ethics, Habermas’s discourse theory has no real relation to time and space. It is a universalist ethics beyond time and space.
Kant’s and Habermas’s ethics differ very much from all forms of consequentialism (Latin: consequi, “to follow”), which assess the rightness or wrongness of an action in terms of the goodness or utility of its consequences. Insofar as most religious ethics, though also the virtue ethics, assess the rightness or wrongness of actions in terms of goodness, that is, an eternal life, they can be called consequentialist. Nevertheless, these ethics are not utilitarian. Utilitarianism is a specific form of consequentialism. Though it has a long history dating back to Plato’s time, its classical formula was coined by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832): “by utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case comes to the same thing) or . . . to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness.” The goal should be to maximize utility, which means the greatest happiness for the greatest number should result. Nowadays, there are a variety of utilitarian theories. However, most important is the difference between act utilitarians and rule utilitarians. For questions regarding applied ethics, Peter Singer’s preference utilitarianism is of great interest. In contrast to utilitarians like John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Singer emphasizes the importance of the preferences of humans as well as other animals.
Ethical Relativism Versus Ethical Universalism and the Importance of Time
Most ethical theories have to deal with an argument taken from social and cultural anthropology: Social and cultural anthropologists, up to the present day, have discovered huge differences among societies with respect to their moral evaluation of issues such as euthanasia, infanticide, sexuality, child support, the poor, the status of women, slave labor, and so on. The Greek historian Herodotus gives us one of the most famous examples. Darius, the king of Persia, once asked Greeks, who burned the bodies of their deceased relatives, how much he would have to pay them to eat the dead bodies of their family members. They refused to do it at any price. Then Darius offered a huge amount of money to some Indians, who, according to custom, ate the bodies of their parents, to burn their fathers’ bodies. The Indians refused to do such a horrid act, which would have been in violation of their beliefs. Herodotus drew the obvious moral conclusion: Each nation considers its own customs as morally right and the customs of others as morally wrong.
Two very important questions arise from this conclusion: Does cultural relativism entail ethical relativism? Is morality only a matter of what is customary; that is, is it relative to a particular society? If this is so, then words such as good and bad just mean “acceptable in a certain society” or “unacceptable in a certain society.” Even if there are common moral convictions across cultures, this does not mean that ethical relativism has been proven wrong. There was a time in which slavery was not questioned by any known society. Today we, of course, do not accept slavery as morally right. Although the nations involved in World War I were excited about going to war in 1914, we do not claim today that the war was morally “good.” From a logical point of view, ethical relativism cannot be proven wrong, but the examples of slavery and of World War I show that this ethical position is highly problematic: We do not accept slavery today because our society disapproves of slavery. We reject slavery because we are convinced that slavery was wrong and is wrong and will continue to be wrong. And we have good reasons to think so in order to defend human dignity and human rights, which through the experiences of the atrocities of the 20th century, have become the foundation of a common universal ethical bond among human beings. Alan Gewirth has developed a rational argument for an ethical universalism with respect to human dignity and human rights. His argument rationalizes the experience given in history and so given in time: I do (or intend to do) X voluntarily for a purpose that I have chosen. There are generic features of agency in a deep sense of the word agency. My having the generic features is good for my achieving the purpose I have chosen. I ought to pursue my having the generic features of agency. Other agents categorically ought not to interfere with my having the generic features against my will and ought to aid me in securing the generic features when I cannot do so through my own unaided efforts if I so wish. I have both negative and positive rights to claim that I have the generic features. If I have these rights, all agents have these generic rights, and I have to respect their rights. Whoever does not accept this reasoning contradicts him- or herself because then it is possible to interfere with his or her generic features against his or her will.
But even if this argument gives good reason for ethical universalism, it does not explain what exactly generic features are. Therefore, on the one hand, the various results of social, cultural, philosophical, and theological anthropologies do not necessarily lead to ethical relativism. On the other hand, they prevent us from quickly labeling a norm as universal, and they indirectly let us understand that we have our own lives to live, not just a kind of universal life.
Ethical universalism gives a framework for what we should do. This framework, however, cannot abolish the responsibility every human being has in living his or her true nature. Every human being as a being in time and as a being able to anticipate his or her death knows about the finitude of his or her time on earth. Ethics cannot substitute this individual responsibility of living the proper life. A human being may follow all commandments of a religious or secular ethics, but if he or she does not live his or her true nature, this life was not his or her proper life. So, it is the finitude of our time on earth that transforms every universal ethical approach into a personal way of life.
Nikolaus J. Knoepffler
See also Aquinas, Saint Thomas; Aristotle; Christianity; Herodotus; Kant, Immanuel; Morality; Plato; Values and Time
Blackburn, S. (1999). Think. A compelling introduction to philosophy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Gewirth, A. (1978). Reason and morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sterba, J. P. (Ed.). (1998). Ethics: The big questions. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.