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Nourishing Ideas > Philia in the Community > Ethics

 "Ethics." It's a word we use all the time, but what does it really mean? How do we know what's ethical and what's not? Philosophers have been arguing over the concept for centuries, and "what's ethical" is still a hot topic for debate. Witness the passionate arguments for and against things like abortion, crime and punishment - or the treatment of people with disabilities.  Each side is certain that their position is the right one - the ethical one. But who decides?

To help us unravel this difficult concept, we turned to one of Canada's pre-eminent philosophers, Mark Kingwell.  In addition to his many other distinctions, Mark has been engaged with Philia for several years and was a keynote speaker at several Philia dialogues, including The World We Want and the Who Cares series. Mark shared his thoughts about ethics with us in the following interview.

Philia:  How would you define 'ethics' in one sentence?

Mark Kingwell:  Well, I wouldn't. One sentence definitions tend to do more harm than good. In fact, maybe that's the one-sentence definition of one-sentence definitions!

But, most simply, the word 'ethics' comes from the Greek root for accepted cultural behaviour and belief: ethos. In that sense it can be a purely descriptive word: there is an ethos in chess, and presumably one in burglary - though I don't practice that one myself. One is being ethical if one lives up to, maybe promotes, that ethos.

The specifically virtuous sense of ethics - ethos as really ethical, you might say - comes from Aristotle. He starts his account of human society descriptively, but then defends a certain form of life as the best, the most desirable and worthy, because it promotes human flourishing. Ethics are now understood as the ways to think and behave so that we achieve excellence as human beings.

You can see why this is unstable, though. One person's excellence is another person's oppression, and there may be more than one way to flourish. The ancient Greeks were happy elitists, impatient with imperfection. In our own time, this has changed; but we can retain the idea of ethics as virtue, as long as we modify what 'flourishing' is going to mean for us. There is no single answer anymore, though I would argue that the diversity is not always as great as people seem to think.

Philia:  Are ethics universal or are they dependent on context, such as time, place/likely outcome, etc.?

MK:  Philosophers distinguish between ethics, which are usually considered context-bound, and morality, which is supposed - on the Kantian model anyway - to be universal because it's based on rationality alone. The disadvantage of morality in this sense is that such universality is hard to come by, and usually manages to exclude more than anything else.

While ethics are, by contrast, context-specific, they need not be relativistic as a result. That is, we can organize our debates about action and responsibility around certain baseline features of human life that do not vary with context. I mean such things as human vulnerability, which we all face sooner or later, and the desire for connection, which we all have.

The world has many hard edges, and within it each one of us is looking for love and respect. Those things don't change, no matter what other facts (diversity, technology, political systems) keep changing.

Philia:  In different situations, people seem to be able to make equally compelling ethical arguments for completely opposite actions, e.g. why abortion or euthanasia is ethically right or why it's ethically wrong. How does one decide?

MK:  Ethical choices in context are subject to manifold motivations, not all of them ethical. And even if all the considerations were ethical, one thing we know from experience is that there is no simple answer to hard cases in human life. Sometimes principle is modified by benefit-analysis, for example, or a personal conviction trumps considerations of harm. Hence the apparently endless nature of ethical debate, and its diametric oppositions.

Unfortunately, there is no algorithm for ethical decision. We have to keep muddling through with our conflicts, trying to find common ground, even if only temporarily, and securing certain things in law or principle so that we can argue about other things. If we keep in mind shared facts of life, some of these debates can get easier. We can also avoid other, intractable debates by drawing certain boundaries. Thus liberalism updates virtue ethics by declaring that some aspects of life are nobody' business but your own.

But there is no alternative to ongoing ethical argument. It is the price of human existence. It was Kant himself who said "rom the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made." Isaiah Berlin, the great liberal thinker, took up the phrase 'crooked timber': there are plural values in any society, indeed any life, and we must first acknowledge that. Houses still need to be built, however, no matter how crooked the timber.

Philia:  Whose good do we take into account when an action will not benefit two people (or sets of people) equally, or when the good of the individual conflicts with the good of the community?

MK:  Since there is no algorithm that will answer this, short of a brutal utilitarian calculus that disregards individual cases and desires, I argue that decisions about conflicting outcomes should be decided on the basis of who is least advantaged. In other words, ethics must combine with justice. The least well off person or class should always benefit more from an action, other things being equal.

This allows for some necessary consequentialist analysis, but keeps baseline commitments in view. It's a way of acknowledging the wisdom that any society is, and should be, judged on how it treats its least fortunate members.

Philia:  Obviously the point of thinking about ethics is to enable us to live an ethical life. What kinds of things should we take into consideration when trying to make ethical decisions or to behave in an ethical manner? Are there some bedrock principles we should refer to? A process of evaluation we should go through?

MK:  First things first: as in the Hippocratic Oath, first do no harm. Then ask, what can be better? Some misfortunes are not injustices; they just are, and no amount of effort will alter them. So concentrate effort where it will do good. Benefits are important, but never at the expense of baseline principles. And one thing that is often forgotten: those alive here and now and nearby seem to command our attention, but never forget distant suffering and future suffering. We have duties of care to those far away and to those not yet born.

Philia:  What are our ethical responsibilities as citizens and as members of a community?

MK:  I have argued in some of my work that public political commitments, like private ethical ones, are subject to the same virtue thinking as Aristotle commended centuries ago. That is, there are political virtues - civility, respect, suspicion of authority - that complement whatever good character and action we manage to cultivate in the rest of life.

One significant consequence of this argument is that, despite what I said above about boundaries, the old-fashioned liberal idea that there is a bright line between public and private realms of life is no longer tenable. Whatever our personal projects and desires, we all live our lives in community. One way of making this difficult point clear is to say that any line drawn between public and private is temporary, contingent, and - most important - always itself public. The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation - unless they become a site of abuse.

Ours is a diverse and divided community, to be sure, and one we sometimes wish were more (or maybe less!) settled. None of that changes the fact that, as I said in my book The World We Want, we are not citizens only, but we are citizens always.

Philia:  At Philia we talk a lot about "The good life," as have philosophers throughout the ages. How would you define the good life? We realize you’ve written whole books in answer to that question - but if you can give a 'nutshell' response, what would be the core principles of such a life?

MK:  Well, you know what they say: the only thing that fits inside a nutshell is a nut! But I’ll try.

One philosopher has defined the good life as "the life spent seeking the good life." That might seem to privilege philosophers over others, but in fact it's as good a definition as you are likely to get, short of a whole book. The only way to work towards flourishing is to keep thinking about what it means, arguing with others with whom you share life, and striving to be more and more excellent.

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