Themes of Ethics

It's time to move on to the third major branch of philosophy. The field of morality, or ethics. Again, it's useful to get a big picture view of ethics, and describe some of the themes that run through the body of knowledge.

The first question of ethics, which is the starting point of it all, is why do we need ethics in the first place? Can we live without it? The answer Objectivism gives is that we need a code of values in order to make our decisions. Since we're beings of volitional consciousness, we don't have an automatic means of knowledge. We don't have an automatic way of deciding what to do. We have to figure out a way of making choices. And that's the role ethics fills.

We saw in the discussion of standards of evaluation that if you want to compare different things, you have to find a single standard by which to contrast them. The same is true in ethics. You have an almost unlimited amount of choices you can make, and the fundamental question is how do you compare them and select one. We'll find that every ethical system has a Standard of Value, which is the measurement used to compare and contrast the ideas. The process of evaluation is one major theme of ethics.

We also learned in the epistemology section that our mind needs to be able to use abstract information in order to function efficiency. In ethics, we deal in ethical principles, which are wide-reaching abstractions that give us information on how to act. Included in this area is the concept of "virtues". This theme can be identified as providing an efficient method of acting in accordance with an ethical theory.

Another theme that comes up is the concept of context in ethics. Often ethical views are formed in contexts that are not particularly relevant to human life. Some of these, called "lifeboat scenarios" after a scenario where you're stuck in a lifeboat and you have to kill/eat your fellow passengers in order to survive, have almost no practical value. And the principles formed under these contexts are not the slightest bit valid in a different context (where eating your neighbors is not a good thing). We'll also see how actions are evaluated in a specific context.

Since life is the standard of value under the Objectivist ethics, we'll have to contrast different views of what life. We'll also find, as we go, that we need to be able to have a more integrated view of what life is. If you really want to compare and contrast all of your different choices, you need to make sure your standard of comparison is very clear in your mind. We'll see as another theme that there's more to it than meets the eye.

Finally, we'll find that putting an ethical theory into practice isn't easy or automatic. We'll have to examine the process of shifting one's moral premises and values so that they align with your rational judgment of what they should be. This theme will include how we go about automating certain behavior, and what a transition to a different ethics must involve.

previousLectures Home next