Moral Philosophy

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Philosophical ethics are an attempt to define moral action. Theories try to answer questions such as ‘what is a moral action?’ and ‘how should men act?’ In the case of classical theories the main question is ‘What is the good life? We all grow up learning our ethics, or morals, from our parents and society. As we grow we are told things; do not cross the road alone, clean your room. But there are a set of instructions that we are told, and we grow to learn that they have quite a different motive behind them; do not to lie, play nice with the other children, do not take other peoples belongings. We do not know it at the time but these are ethics being instilled in us. We learn that our actions affect other people and so we must take their feelings into consideration. Ethics are almost inextricably linked with other people and society, ‘they demand that we pay attention to the interest of others’ (Beauchamp, 1982, p. 7). John Hartland-Swann advocated that ‘the concept of morality refers to the keeping or violating of customs considered to be socially important’ (Beauchamp, 1982, p. 7). Yet philosophers, being philosophers, of course want to delve into the very depths of the concept and ask ‘Why are such actions, motives, or judgements categorized as moral at all?’ (Beauchamp, 1982, p. 6). What defines an action as moral? Many philosophers give their own accounts of how they conceive morals should be judged, sometimes completely separate from society. In this essay we are going to concentrate on some of the most influential minds to tackle the subject from ancient Greece up to the nineteenth century; Plato, Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant. The first two theories covered are classical. ‘Education ends with a moral illumination’ (Groarke, 2011, p. 125). Plato (429-347BC), born in Athens, was one of the great Greek philosophers and one of the most influential of all time. Plato’s standing on ethics is conveyed in his most famous work The Republic and in inextricably linked with his view, laid out in this dialogue, of the ‘ideal society’. It is also inseparably linked to his idea of ‘forms’ (Groarke, 2011). As with much of Plato’s work, it is hard to distinguish his ideas from Socrates’, his mentor and friend. Plato’s idea of ethics was that in order to live a ‘good’ life, you must acquire a profound understanding of what good is. This was achieved through learning and gaining knowledge. ‘In Plato’s mind education and morality go hand in hand’ (Groarke, 2011, p. 130). He saw this understanding of good to be a high level of intelligence which could only be reached after an understanding of difficult mathematics and philosophical theory. His theory is based on the belief that if someone truly knows this idea of ‘good’, then they will not act immorally, ‘Evil is due to a lack of knowledge’ (Popkin & Stroll, 1992, p. 3). Plato’s view on morals is one of absolutism. That is, he believed ‘good’ exists outside of human inclinations, desires, wishes or opinions, in a realm of perfect forms. This realm is not tangible and contains the perfect form of many things. This absolutism view means that ‘there is fundamentally one and only one good life for all to lead’ (Popkin & Stroll, 1992, p. 4). This means that Plato viewed morality as objective; there is a right action in each situation and knowledge is the way to find out what this action is. Plato did not believe that everyone had the capacity to truly understand what ‘good’ is, as to him discovering this was an intellectual task. The journey was one from ignorance and knowledge only of the physical realm to a higher intelligence including awareness of this intangible realm (Groarke, 2011). This is where the idea of the ‘ideal society’ comes in. In this society everyone would be schooled in virtuous habits of behaviour but only a few gifted people would be schooled in advanced mental power. The people who could not reach the knowledge would follow...
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