From morality to ethics and beyond

From morality to ethics and beyond

17 April 2018

What justifies morality – is it reason, or something else, some kind of higher authority? The word comes from Latin, where moralis denotes ‘character’, and it can be seen to be related to vertu, or merit, and virtutem or moral strength, high character. Both terms, ‘virtue’ and ‘morality’, are used less and less nowadays, where they are increasingly replaced with ‘ethics’, which comes from the Greek ethike philosophia, moral philosophy and has a more normative nature. Are we, nowadays, more interested in principles of action, than personal development? Norms, over character? Regardless, the question remains, what justifies our morality – or our public ethics? What are the grounds for either, or both?

In a section from After Virtue, dedicated to the Enlightenment project, Alasdair MacIntyre notes that it was not until late 17th century that morality became the name for a set of rules of conduct distinct from the theological, the legal and the aesthetic; one that would become central to the European project. But it did not take long to discover that no rational justification could be provided for morality. This, MacIntyre describes as the ‘arbitrariness in our moral culture’, which Kierkegaard saw as the failure of the Enlightenment project. For him, the ethical is “that realm in which principles have authority over us independently of our attitudes, preferences and feelings” (MacIntyre, 2007, 41). And they have such authority not because of some universal reason, but due to the choices we make (insofar as these are based on some good personal reasons). For instance, we can decide to become vegetarians for reasons of health or religion; none of these is universal, but they are both good reasons nonetheless.

MacIntyre believes that the Enlightenment had to fail in its attempts to justify morality not because there were any faults in their arguments, but because of the shared worldview at the time – namely, a rejection of traditional values (mainly, Aristotelian teleology). If we no longer see the good as related to a telos, as Aristotle did, then our moral statements lose any factual value. Likewise, once we accept the secularization of morality by the Enlightenment, we cannot justify moral statements as divine imperatives either. So, in the absence of both a scientific and a religious justification, what are we left with? If something is good neither because it fulfils its purpose, nor a divine reason, how else can we justify it? Pure relativism, one could easily argue. But there is an alternative to it, which MacIntyre seems to suggest when he talks about practical rationality as a third way between moral universality and pluralism. To justify a moral choice this way would amount to verifying that it expresses the norm, which best defines the good in a certain situation, and helps us act according to it. It is a “kind of capacity for judgment which the agent possesses in knowing how to select among the relevant stack of maxims and how to apply them in particular situations” (MacIntyre, 2007, 223). Neo-pragmatism, in other words.

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What is private about our identity: against a substantialist approach

What is private about our identity: against a substantialist approach

15 March 2018

The private v. public dichotomy is taken for granted in much of contemporary philosophical inquiry in ethics, as well as in the philosophy of mind and language. Interestingly enough, however, a lot of debates end up challenging the distinction. Take, for instance, the notion of private sphere, in Wittgenstein and Rorty.

Despite their different perspectives (one epistemological, the other ethical), they raise the same issues, e.g. the role of language and that of community in building our sense of identity; they even use similar metaphors, e.g. the “ornamental knob” in Wittgenstein and Rorty’s “orchids”; and they arrive at the same conclusion, with regard to the private: namely, that it is conditioned and shaped by the public. Does this lead to a somewhat diminished private sphere? Or on the contrary, is our self-identity enriched by its social roots and purpose?

The ethics of accountability

The ethics of accountability

25 February 2018

Two years ago, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority introduced new rules for senior managers, in an attempt to strengthen accountability in the sector. These are known as the Senior Managers Regime – see a detailed account on our Corporate Responsibility Network’s website, at http://www.corporateresponsibilitynetwork.com/improve-corporate-culture-and-individual-accountability/. They were introduced in March 2016 and slowly expanded to include non-executives and other employees across the sector.

Several questions to be debated here. First, the above assumes a direct correlation between individual and collective accountability. Indeed, the very purpose of introducing the new rules is to “strengthen accountability” (in the words of the FCA) and “support a change in culture at firms” (Bank of England), one that is focused on individual accountability.

Second, what is the impact on responsibility? As we know, the relationship between accountability and responsibility is far from linear – or indeed circular. It takes more than increased scrutiny to make someone (or a collective) a responsible agent.

Third, the very notion of accountability (and its counterpart, liability) signals a legal perspective. Again, we are confronted with a tacit assumption here – that of the correlation (even juxtaposition) of law and morality. But as we know from MacIntyre and others, it has been centuries since morality became distinct from both the theological and the legal good. So why should we assume that accountability can bridge the gap between these, and ensure a better corporate culture?

What would you do if you were Brian? An ethical dilemma

What would you do if you were Brian? An ethical dilemma

15 January 2018

Brian is an expatriate manager working in Shanghai and is in the process of approving the contract for a new recruit. On reviewing the paperwork he notes that the recommended candidate is not the most qualified. He calls the local assistant manager who is a Chinese national to ask for further information. The assistant manager uncharacteristically provides vague and unsatisfying answers to Brian’s questions. Frustrated, Brian says that he is unwilling to sign the contract and asks the recommendation be changed to another candidate.

The assistant manager is clearly agitated and suggests that it is likely to have negative consequences for the company. He explains that the recommended candidate is the son of an important business partner of the company, and that by not selecting this candidate it would likely be difficult to do business, not only with the candidate’s father’s company but with a number of other companies. Brian, and therefore his company, would be seen to be disrespectful of the locals and their business culture.

What action should Brian take?

(Global Business Ethics, 2016: 120)

Utopia – a good place

Utopia – a good place

6 March 2017

Exactly a year ago – room full of academics, and it actually took a lawyer to clarify the features of a “good place”: no poverty, because wealth is despised; no (or very rare) serious punishment, because everyone aspires to virtue; no boredom, because everyone works; no ignorance, because everyone seeks wisdom; no war, because everyone behaves rationally and with tolerance.

Thank you, John.