A Backgroun in Ethical Theory

A Backgroun in Ethical Theory

Robert A. Schultz (Woodbury University, USA)
Copyright: © 2006 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59140-779-9.ch002
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In this book, “ethics” is a general term for concerns about what people should do. The term “ethics” comes from the Greek word ethike, which means “character.” Indeed, the ancient Greeks conceived issues about what people should do in terms of impact upon character—whether people were of good or bad character (Aristotle, 350 BCE). Our concern with good reputation reveals this kind of thinking, but bad actions and bad performance can be more important than any amount of good reputation if they are bad enough. Not even the most capable network troubleshooter could survive the discovery of large amounts of downloaded kiddie porn on his workstation. William Bennett’s A Book of Virtues (Bennett, 1993) is a more recent example of a character-based ethics very similar to Greek ethics. The central term of Greek ethics, ethike arête, is usually translated as “virtue”—the literal meaning is “excellence of character.” “Good character traits” is probably the nearest translation. Bennett’s list of virtues or good character traits includes: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith. His selection of virtues overlaps with the classic Greek virtues or good character traits. Plato’s list was: courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice. (Plato, 360 BCE). Aristotle added liberality, pride, good temper, friendliness, truthfulness, and ready wit. Although all of these—Plato’s, Aristotle’s, and Bennett’s—are good character traits to have, having them doesn’t answer many important questions about what actions to do, especially when virtues conflict. Is perseverance in constructing a computer virus a good thing? Clearly the rightness or wrongness of the action in which we are persevering is very important. Or what about loyalty to an organization ripping off poor people? Here honesty (and compassion) may be more important than loyalty and responsibility. Indeed, Bennett’s list omits justice, considered the most important virtue by Plato. Since justice is primarily a virtue of institutions rather than individuals, Bennett’s list leaves out issues about how well society is arranged. We have made some progress on these issues since Greek times.1 The point is that character-based ethics is incomplete. Bennett himself, in replying to critics of his compulsive gambling behavior, seems to believe that as long as an individual has the “virtues,” that is, the good character traits, then other actions are irrelevant. Most of the rest of us in these non-classic-Greek times believe otherwise. Nowadays, “ethics” is an inclusive term for concerns also referred to as “morality,” “value,” and “justice.” Besides character, ethics in this inclusive sense is also concerned with the rightness and wrongness of actions, the value or goodness of things and situations, and with the justness of institutions. The basic terms of ethics are: right, good, and just.

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