Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Ethical Principles, Criteria, and the Meaning of Life

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Ethical Principles, Criteria, and the Meaning of Life

Article excerpt

During my many years of teaching ethics and using Paul Taylor's Problems of Moral Philosophy (Wadsworth, 1978) and Oliver Johnson's Ethics: Selections from Classical and Contemporary Writers (Harcourt Brace, 1994), I developed a matrix of possible ethical principles. Obviously, the schema generates initially from a traditional distinction between relativism and absolutism, but after that, instead of relying on the differentiation between deontological and teleological principles within the latter category, I replaced these principles with a fourfold distinction. Such distinctions distinguish between reason; human nature; fideism (which is in all three cases either immediate or relational) and existentialism.

Teaching Strategies and Goals

The chart (see Table 1) provides a convenient and practical schema of possible ethical first principles and points to the respective moral systems, which can be derived from assumptions inherent within each principle. As a teaching instrument or organon, it readily lends itself to several distinct advantages: (A) It easily allows for the various assumptions to be compared and contrasted. (B) Since the chart itself can stand independently from the ethical readings, in either an anthology or textbook chapter, it is able to provide a conceptual framework for teaching and discussions apart from any of the readings; it is "free standing." (C) And in the interests of time constraints, the instructor can Ethical Principles, Criteria, and the Meaning of Life 68 forego certain readings and yet still fill in the theoretical hiatuses quickly and smoothly by treating the chart's primitive axioms and then elaborating on their respective constellations of conceptual implications.


Over the years, I have varied the introduction of the chart into the class proceedings. Generally speaking, however, to insert it at the very beginning of the course has turned out to be rather intimidating to the students because of its initial seemingly technical terminology. At times, I have put it in play during the class review, just prior to the midterm exam, and found it helpful but too compressed; it frequently forced me to be too hurried in its presentation. Finally, I decided to usher it in after the readings of St. Augustine. That strategy seems to have worked best because by then I would have covered Relativism (the Sophists); Rationalism (Plato); Empiricism (Aristotle); and Fideism (St. Augustine). From that point on, it's usually easy and meaningful enough to fruitfully teach the readings and chart together. In any case, in my first introductory lecture to the course, I always alert the class that if they can master the chart, they will not only be able to make some sense out of two thousand and five-hundred years of difficult ethical thought in Western philosophy, but each of them will also be able to discover themselves in the chart as well.

Accordingly, in this article, I propose to offer a helpful matrix of ethical principles as they are exhibited in Western thought. And I wish to contend that each and every one of us--philosopher or common man--insofar as we are willing to be consistent (albeit probably somewhat constricted) will end up in one and only one of my schematic offerings or categories. In other words, the principles, the ultimate premises, the unargued assumptions, the starting points are logically mutually exclusive. Thus, for example, one may hold that God exists; or that God does not exist; but one cannot hold, at the same time and in the same way that God both does and does not exist; that would be a violation of the law of non-contradiction (Aristotle Metaphysics, III, 2; IV, 4, 6).

Similarly, one may wish to hold that all human behavior is determined or that there are some human actions, which are free; but one cannot maintain both propositions to be true at once, the muddle of soft determinism not withstanding. Thus, whereas hard determinists, from Democritus to Hospers, assume (1) that all human behavior is grounded in universal causality--either physical, psychological, or both (Hobbes, Spinoza, Freud); (2) that complete theoretical predictability is possible; and (3) that moral responsibility is impossible, soft determinists, by contrast, draw a distinction between causes that are external (to the agent) and "internal" causes, e. …

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