August 17, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
Ethics Begins at Home
I’m not a moral philosopher (and sometimes joke that I’m an immoral one). But certainly morality is an area of the arts that concerns every single person. We all have ethical deliberations to face on a regular basis. Some have a strict and explicit code according to which they live while others get by on instinct. There is simply no escape from moral questions, however. They confront us constantly and as free agents we have to choose appropriate courses of action, where even refusal to act is itself a moral choice.
Although philosophers and sometimes religious experts are thought of as the authorities on all theoretical matters relating to ethics, I find myself often let down by the behaviour of theoreticians. There are always exceptions, of course, but I’ve found that knowing moral philosophy doesn’t always make someone a better person. It seems that one can know the theory without having the good wisdom to implement it. Worst of all, some philosophers even hide behind their argumentative prowess to justify acts clearly recognizable as bad.
How can we get over this problem, that theory can become so detached form the practicalities of action? There are two ways of looking at ethics. There is a Kantian tradition (Immanuel Kant pictured) in which to be ethical is to act in accordance with general rules, rationally justified. But I’ve been more attracted by a very different approach known as particularism (a view developed by Jonathan Dancy). The particularist thinks that each particular situation will have a unique set of moral features that have to be evaluated as a whole, in isolation from any absolute rules. Telling the truth may tend to produce the right result but not always. There are some contexts in which it will have the opposite effect. As much as anything, the right moral decision to make will be highly context sensitive. The difficulty of morality is being perceptive and skilled enough to judge on the relevant contextual factors.
But there is another aspect of particularism that I like. General theories could be separated from reality but one can instead look at morality as something consisting in particular concrete decisions and actions. Good and bad are not merely abstract concepts but exist in particular good and bad acts. And this gives the agent the possibility of a direct acquaintance with the good, when they encounter it. I recently had an ethical encounter of my own, which I related on Twitter. It felt satisfying to experience the good at first-hand.