Basic Problems of Philosophy: Selected Readings

Basic Problems of Philosophy: Selected Readings

Basic Problems of Philosophy: Selected Readings

Basic Problems of Philosophy: Selected Readings

Excerpt

The various professions of law, medicine, teaching, and so on have certain "codes of ethics." A lawyer should not accept bribes to conceal or distort evidence; a physician should treat his patients with equal care regardless of their economic status; a teacher should not simply impose his personal opinions on his students; a minister should practice what he preaches. Every religion has ethical commandments: "Thou shalt not kill"; "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Ethical notions are implicit even in everyday phrases: "The end justifies the means," "Might makes right," "Every man for himself," "My country, right or wrong," "Good neighbor policy," "Fair play," and so on.

Consider an ethical problem that has affected the lives of many thinking persons who regard themselves as pacifists on religious or other grounds. They were, during wartime, faced with the choice of declaring themselves conscientious objectors or participating in a "justifiable" war. There are different kinds of pacifists, and some governments permit religious pacifists exemption from military conscription. But for all people, the fundamental question is the justification for war. In thinking through such a momentous question, we make certain assumptons about what is "justifiable" in general; for example, we may believe that taking arms against an aggressor is always the "right" course of action. But consider an extreme pacifist who clings to the principle of passive resistance on the ground that it is always wrong to kill a human being, even in self-defense. Such an extreme attitude, if consistently maintained, would make it wrong for anybody to kill a ruthless murderer, for the state to inflict capital punishment, for a physician to put to death mercifully an incurable patient suffering great pain, or for a person facing excruciating torture to commit suicide.

In any case, the general principles which are assumed in coming to a decision as to what choice among alternative courses of conduct one ought to take are the subject matter of ethics or moral philosophy. This branch of philosophy is concerned with the understanding of . . .

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