Philosophy Word of the Day – Moral Character

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Questions about moral character have recently come to occupy a central place in philosophical discussion. Part of the explanation for this development can be traced to the publication in 1958 of G. E. M. Anscombe’s seminal article “Modern Moral Philosophy.” In that paper Anscombe argued that Kantianism and utilitarianism, the two major traditions in western moral philosophy, mistakenly placed the foundation for morality in legalistic notions such as duty and obligation. To do ethics properly, Anscombe argued, one must start with what it is for a human being to flourish or live well. That meant returning to some questions that mattered deeply to the ancient Greek moralists. These questions focused on the nature of “virtue” (or what we might think of as admirable moral character), of how one becomes virtuous (is it taught? does it arise naturally? are we responsible for its development?), and of what relationships and institutions may be necessary to make becoming virtuous possible.

Answers to these ancient questions emerge today in various areas of philosophy, including ethics (especially virtue ethics), feminist ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of education, and philosophy of literature. Interest in virtue and character was also indirectly the result of a more practical turn in political philosophy, inspired by the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971. In Part III of A Theory of Justice, Rawls provided a picture of how individuals might be brought up in a just state to develop the virtues expected of good citizens. Although his interest was not in moral education per se, his discussion of the nature and development of what he called self-respect stimulated other philosophers to explore the psychological foundations of virtue and the contributions made by friendship, family, community, and meaningful work to good moral character. (continue article)

— Marcia Homiak in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Book Giveaway – Moral Choices by Scott Rae

I used Scott Rae’s book Moral Choices in two different ethics classes in seminary and benefitted from it a great deal.  It’s now in it’s third edition, and thanks to the generous folks at Zondervan (@Zondervan on Twitter, Facebook here), I’m giving away a copy at Cloud of Witnesses.

As the subtitle says, the book is an introduction to (Christian) ethics.  In the first four chapters, Rae lays out some theoretical groundwork by pointing to various elements of a Christian approach to ethics, and then surveys various ethical systems such as utilitarianism, deontological approaches, and virtue ethics.  Chapter 4 provides a general framework for making ethical decisions.

Chapters 5 through 12 take up a variety of ethical issues and treat them from a Christian viewpoint.  These timely topics include abortion, cloning, euthanasia, sexual ethics, war, and economics.  Each chapter includes review questions, case studies for discussion, suggestions for further reading, and helpful sidebars.

If you’re looking for a concise but comprehensive survey of Christian ethics from an evangelical perspective, Moral Choices is one of the best in print in my opinion.

Giveaway Details:

To enter the giveaway, comment on this post and tell me the best book you’ve read recently.  (Please include your email address in the comment form so I can contact you if you win.)  Also, please share this post on the social media site of your choice (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).  I’ll announce the winner this weekend.

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900)

Henry Sidgwick was one of the most influential ethical philosophers of the Victorian era, and his work continues to exert a powerful influence on Anglo-American ethical and political theory. His masterpiece, The Methods of Ethics (1907), was first published in 1874 and in many ways marked the culmination of the classical utilitarian tradition—the tradition of Jeremy Bentham and James and John Stuart Mill—with its emphasis on “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” as the fundamental normative demand.

Sidgwick’s treatment of that position was more comprehensive and scholarly than any previous one, and he set the agenda for most of the twentieth-century debates between utilitarians and their critics. Utilitarians from G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell to J. J. C. Smart and R. M. Hare down to Derek Parfit and Peter Singer have acknowledged Sidgwick’s Methods as a vital source for their arguments. But in addition to authoritatively formulating utilitarianism and inspiring utilitarians, the Methods has also served as a general model for how to do ethical theory, since it provides a series of systematic, historically informed comparisons between utilitarianism and its leading alternatives.

Thus, even such influential critics of utilitarianism as William Frankena, Marcus Singer, and John Rawls have looked to Sidgwick’s work for guidance. C. D. Broad, a later successor to Sidgwick’s Cambridge chair, famously went so far as to say “Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics seems to me to be on the whole the best treatise on moral theory that has ever been written, and to be one of the English philosophical classics” (Broad, 1930: 143).

Engaging with Sidgwick’s work remains an excellent way to cultivate a serious philosophical interest in ethics, metaethics, and practical ethics, not to mention the history of these subjects. Moreover, he made important contributions to many other fields, including economics, political theory, classics, educational theory, and parapsychology. His significance as an intellectual and cultural figure has yet to be fully appreciated.

(Via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Utilitarianism

Normative theory that human conduct is right or wrong because of its tendency to produce favorable or unfavorable consequences for the people who are affected by it. The hedonistic utilitarianism of Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick maintains that all moral judgments can be derived from the greatest happiness principle. The ideal utilitarianism espoused by G. E. Moore, on the other hand, regarded aesthetic enjoyment and friendship as the highest ethical values. Contemporary utilitarians differ about whether the theory should be applied primarily to acts or rules.

(Via Philosophical Dictionary)

It strikes me that utilitarianism is only half of a moral theory.  In order to determine what counts as a favorable or unfavorable consequence, it seems to me you need another theory of what’s actually right and wrong.  Especially, in this context, a theory of what is good for a human being, what makes a human being flourish – what the proper telos is for a person (or group or society).

Without knowing that, how could you begin to decide what counts as a favorable or unfavorable consequence for an individual person?  Only if you know what’s good for a human being, can you decide what will work to that human being’s favor.  So, it seems we need some moral guidelines before we can calculate the possible consequences of actions.

Other thoughts?

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Virtue Ethics

Personification of virtue (Greek ἀρετή) in Cel...
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Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximise well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as “Do unto others as you would be done by” and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent. (Continue article)

(Via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Act / Rule Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill
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Distinction between ways of applying the greatest happiness principle for the moral evaluation of actions on utilitarian grounds. Act-utilitarianism supposes that each particular action should be evaluated solely by reference to the merit of its own consequences, while rule-utilitarianism considers the consequent value of widespread performance of similar actions.

The act-utilitarian asks, “How much pleasure or pain would result if I did this now?”

The rule-utilitarian asks, “How much pleasure or pain would result if everyone were to do this?”


Since the answers to these questions may be quite different, they may lead to distinct recommendations about moral conduct. Although
Mill noted that reliance on moral rules may be of practical use in decision-making, he argued that their influence should remain defeasible in particular circumstances.

(Via Philosophical Dictionary)

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