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Does Morality Still Matter?


What are the big ethical questions facing us today, and what makes those questions matter? Can those problems be separated from political questions, and if not does that mean that politics has usurped ethics? Has accusation become the principal activity of contemporary morality – and if so, has ethics been reduced to mere finger pointing? When was the last time you pondered a moral problem relating to your own life and behaviour?

Thoughts welcome.


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I think I'm with Aristotle on this one. Ethics proceeds politics.

There is a distinction you make, or suggest, that a really engaging moral question of our time is really a political question. I agree with this to some extent, in the sense that there are legislative and governmental issues inextricably linked to them.

I think something like the ethics of social media; journalism in the internet age; anonymity or the ethics of military drones are moral issues, they also relate to law government and are therefore political issues.

There are aspects to these issues that have content that are not political but ethical for example: the moral significance between a distinction of a controlled remote or AI driven drone.

I also think there is a difference between character-driven ethics and right/wrong driven systems, this is distinct but not necessarily separate from the political/ethical division. So long as we hold this as a meaningful distinction, ethics still has a kind of value to people's lives and ethical deliberation is important.

For me personally, I've been thinking less about the political/normative kinds of ethical questions, partly due to a sense of desperate hopelessness with news stories and the way the economy is going. However, I've been thinking about a different kind of ethical frame of questions: namely, how I personally can exercise good character.

In recent months I've taken up Badminton, I'm really bad at it, but I try my hardest. There comes a point where I'm using so much of my physical resources that I endure a great amount of pain, even though my friends are better than me they do respect that I'm working harder than them, and they can also tell when I'm not putting in my best when playing. This kind of sportsmanship I consider to be an aspect of character, that I'm trying to cultivate.

I've also been thinking about trying to motivate myself, and trying to exemplify the values that I hold. It's one thing to believe or respect a moral trait (like determinedness, being friendly, being brave), but its very much a different thing to exhibit it. This kinds of focus is always going on in my mind during my everyday life. One particular thing I want to prove to myself is that I can get out of my comfort zone, whether that means going to a new place, or try something new and unfamiliar. I find as I get older more of my friends are set in their ways, which often means basically dismissing things unfamiliar to them. My attempt to go to new places and jump into the unfamiliar is my way of trying to shake myself out of being set in a mindset.


Michael: thanks for sharing your perspective on this issue! While I agree that things such as media ethics and the morality of drones straddle politics and ethics, my concern about the relationship between ethics and politics is that in politics we seem to believe what's entailed is forcing our values into the legislature, irrespective of other beliefs or claims. This is something that I see, ironically, as essentially immoral. Hence my concern that politics has usurped ethics, and that both have become compromised.

Regarding drones, the important boundary for me is not whether the drone is remotely piloted by a human or automated, since in both cases neither honour nor justice is entailed. Only on a consequentialist approach could this be justified - and I increasingly suspect that whatever can only be expressed in the outcome aspect of the ethical sentence has a weak claim to our respect.

The difference you highlight between personal ethics and systems of right and wrong is essentially the distinction between virtue ethics and its systematic alternatives. Again, I suspect that what has the strongest claim to our respect is whatever can make claims on every part of the ethical sentence ('an agent takes actions resulting in outcomes'). One of the strengths of Kantian ethics is that it does hit all three bases, although I do not mean by this that Kant's approach is the only viable one.

I am increasingly swayed by Kant's contention that the proper subject of ethics is the virtue ethical perspective - Kant's distinction between 'right' and 'ethics' in "The Metaphysics of Morals", although that doesn't mean we can simply ignore 'right' when considering ethics. (And in this regard, Kant's objections to Aristotle are not entirely convincing since they rest on his use of maxims, which is perhaps the least convincing aspect of the Kantian approach to contemporary thinkers).

I congratulate you on being willing to push yourself to develop your 'good character' - this for me is central to morality, and the conflict between politics and ethics is most striking for the way that supposedly fixed political values apparently remove any perceived need to exercise good character.

As for getting set in one's ways, this is a natural part of getting older, I'm afraid, although one can push against it to some extent. For me, having a child has taken me completely out of my comfort zone and is forcing me to develop my virtuous character in ways previously never considered.

I am swayed by MacIntyre's argument that virtue is best founded in community - although not his contention that this makes virtue ethics the only kind of ethics. Compared to Allen Wood's injunction to cultivate the good wherever it has taken root, MacIntyre's suggestion to retreat into virtuous communities and wait out the modern age strikes me as utterly self-defeating.

Best of luck with both the Badminton and the 'character building'!


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