Compassion for Ethics and Social Ethics

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Describe the relevance of the concept of
compassion for ethics and social ethics.


Explorations of the gap individual and social ethics and attempts to bridge this gap, have resulted in either detailed philosophical abstraction (Mukerjee 1950) or proposals to measure the subjective potential between impartiality and utilitarianism (Mongin, 2001). One phenomenon that occurs in this cleft which may explain individual and social ethical thinking and decision making is that of compassion. This essay will briefly describe ethics and social ethics then explain the relevance of compassion to these concepts. In order to illuminate this description, an example of applied compassion in a social ethics context will be examined.

Ethics and Social Ethics:

Ethics can be understood as an umbrella term covering a number of ways of examining and understanding moral life. More than just a question of what is right or wrong and encompassing moral theories of duty and rights, ethics can be viewed as a branch of philosophy concerned with living a good, worthwhile, satisfying life. Beauchamp & Childress (2001) broadly divide the different approaches to ethics in to normative and nonnormative categories. Normative ethics provides a framework for answering what type of behaviour is individually and socially acceptable in any given situation and why. Whilst ethical theories are considered to inform these decisions there is often a large theory-practice gap when ethical theories are used to inform practical situations. Nonnormative ethics employs the scientific techniques of anthropology, sociology, philosophy and theology to investigate moral conduct and beliefs. It also includes metaethical analysis of the language, concepts and methods of reasoning in ethics. Prescriptive ethical frameworks outline what ought to be the case (normative) whereas the use of ethical theories to examine what is the case (conceptually or in fact) is nonnormative (Beauchamp & Childress 2001). Therefore both “the moral principles governing or influencing conduct and the branch of knowledge concerned with moral principles” (OED 2008).

Mukerjee (1950: 263) suggests that “Ethics refers to both individual and social morality, to man’s inner obligation to himself as a moral agent, and to his obligation to groups and institutions as a social person”. From a normative approach ethical theories such as utilitarianism, deontology, existentialism, natural law (rights), and virtue theory can be used to explore how man should act towards himself and to society – to establish expectations, inform decisions or critique actions. A nonnormative approach would analyse at discourse level the actual actions of man as a moral agent to himself and to society from the various ethical perspectives and moral theories. It is important to consider this distinction as this essay will attempt to argue that compassion is relevant to ethics and social ethics in both applied/normative and descriptive/nonnormative ways.

Social ethics employs moral theory to both describe and examine behaviour and decision making of individuals and societies, and the process of their interaction. It comprises more than Mukerjee’s definition in terms of man’s moral obligation to groups, institutions and as a social person, but also considers the context of the individual’s position in society, their community and the influence of society on the individual. For example – a question which considered whether a person’s behaviour was ethical or unethical in a normative sense, that also considered whether that person was socially included or excluded (by poverty, unemployment, illness for example) would include a social ethics perspective. Furthermore exploring what functions the poor, ill or unemployed have in society or how a “moral” society can tolerate or perpetuate poverty from a nonnormative perspective would also suggest a social rather than individual ethical approach. There is...
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