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CRITICAL APPRECIATION OF VARIOUS ETHICAL SYSTEMS: ARGUING

FOR THE RELEVANCE OF THE NATURAL LAW THEORY

There is a good value in learning various ethical systems. The process allows
us to become acquainted with varied points of view, and hence broaden our
horizon and understanding about these things. So far, our exchanges in the
class have brought us into the philosophies of relativism, hedonism, stoicism,
pragmatism, and even the situational and power ethics theories. There are
times that these systems clashed. One system may hold a tenet that is
contrary, and even contradictory, to the tenets of another. Often, the natural
law theory is criticized on the ground that such theory fails to update with the
recent developments in the human civilizations. With all these differences, we
may start asking: can there be a possibility to come up with a norm that can
be applicable to all? If Habermas’ discourse ethics makes us hope for reason’s
capacity to name an agreement or understanding among discoursing parties,
can we then hope for the possibility that our discourse in class can allow us to
approximate a norm, a particular way of doing things, which may be
acceptable, or at least bearable, for all?

At one time, I began to wonder, how should we really understand “ethics” as a


particular or specialized discipline? With the varied and at times conflicting
ethical standards, how are we to know the most appropriate ethical
perspective that could guide us to act morally on a particular situation? Will it
be alright to say that I am a utilitarian at times but I can also be a power
ethicist when the situation warrants it? Is it justifiable to transfer allegiances
from one ethical system to another depending on which system sounds
reasonable at a particular situation? Or, shall we fight for our loyalty to only
one system which we believe to be the best, and defend the system from all
forms of critique and even corruption?

ISSUES WITH “POWER ETHICS”

As the discussion progressed, one thing that I truly appreciated is the closer
examination that we do on the systems. It allows us to see more closely the
strength and weaknesses of each, and personally, it allows me to compare or
to dialogue a particular system with my own natural law tradition, of which I
am raised because of my faith, exposure and training. Our discussions allow
me to see views that are very different from what I traditionally hold. In
several instances did I encounter the dilemma of asking myself about “how far
can my commitment to natural law system allow me to converse with a new
one?” One concrete instance of this dilemma was the discussion of the power
ethics theory.

Of the many ethical systems that we have discussed, the one system that has
disturbed me most is the power ethics theory. In a sense, I am more or less
familiar with the other systems previously discussed. I have already
encountered relativism in the past. I got acquainted also with Stoicism,
hedonism and pragmatism. Situational ethics is also among the most known
rivals of natural law theory, and so more or less, I also got acquainted with it.

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But the power ethics theory was given stronger intellectual backing when the
philosophy of Nietzsche was introduced. As presented in the report, the power
ethics theory of Nietzsche was a reaction to the power and influence that the
Christian natural law morality had in the past. In fact, the report seems to
suggest that the Nietzschean philosophy is a criticism against the theory that
primarily holds the existence of the Divine being. There is no other system that
is more attuned to a consciousness about God than that of the Christian,
natural law, morality.1

My first question then was: how reproachable natural law morality really is that
the power ethics theory seems convinced that the former is a total
abomination in ethical discourse and should be overcome if man wishes to
mature. It seems that for the power ethicist, adopting the views of Christian
morality is a form of weakness that should not be accommodated in any sense.

Power ethics rests on the importance and value of human freedom. It believes
in the great potential of the human person, and it recognizes the fact that if
the human persons can maximize their freedom, then they can reach to the
highest peak of their human existence. This is why Nietzsche blames religion
because he believes that religion suppresses rather than encourages the
expression of human freedom.

This is where Nietzsche, as a power ethicist, conflicts with Christianity. The


latter was an oppressor of human freedom according to the former. In fact,
Nietzsche argues that Christianity has trivialized the concept of virtues. When
virtues are supposed to be a rarity, Christianity has made it appear as if all
persons are capable of becoming virtuous. Nietzsche himself claims, “they
take from virtue the charm of rareness, inimitableness, exceptionalness, and
unaverageness – its aristocratic magic.” (WP, 175). Furthermore, Nietzsche
also claims that the notion of who is virtuous was also distorted by the
Christian tradition. Christianity believes in the virtue character of meekness
and humility, of forgiveness, of sharing and sacrifice. For Nietzsche, along with
many other critics against the Christian religion, this reversal of the character
of virtues is a product of manipulation. This was accommodated by the
entrance of the slaves in the Christian community, and the slaves’ way of
overcoming their masters is in promoting the ideals that give more praise for
the weak rather than the strong. Hence, the critics would say, Christian values
are not really pure and pristine. They are political in character and are
products of deceit. These are results of the dirty tactics employed by the weak
in order to fight back against the strong. Nietzsche himself argues that the
Christian moral values come into power through “slandering, inculpation,
undermining of virtues that oppose them and are already in power by
rebaptizing them.” (WP, 171). Power ethicists would claim that the strong has
become an object of contempt and the weak of sympathy because the
appreciation of which is virtuous and which are not have also already been
changed.

1
“Our greatest reproach against existence was the existence of God…”(WP, 377) as quoted by Bryan
Bustamante’s report, p. 4 of 8.

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Furthermore, Nietzsche has reflected about the realities of the human
condition and argues that ethics is basically about desire (the will) for power.
In this ethics of desire, the reality of dissatisfaction plays a very important role.
Human persons don’t get complacent with what they have. It is part of their
human condition that they long for more. This longing, desire, for something
more should not be treated as an abnormality. Dissatisfaction opens up a
person for what is beyond him/her. Dissatisfaction opens up the possibility for
more perfection and therefore, it is something admirable in itself. Nietzsche
even believes that the more violent the desire is, the better would it be
because it drives more powerfully the person involved. He even says that “the
greatest ideas are those that have been created by the most violent and
protracted desires. The more our desire for a thing grows, the more value we
ascribe to that thing.” (WP, 184). For Nietszche, there is nothing wrong with
desire, even if it is the desire for power, because it actually empowers the
person more to seek for the fulfillment or achievement of the thing desired.

Given this Nietzsche argues that the good is that which actually propels human
persons to the realization of their being. It is not the good that seeks fidelity to
an already established norm. Good is not found in conformity but rather in
difference and uniqueness. Anything that drives the person to be
himself/herself is good. Anything that engenders the realization of the powers
of the person is good. Anything less and anything that hinders that constitutes
evil.

This is then a good contribution in the discussion of ethics. Ethics is ultimately,


for power ethicists, the realization of the person. Ethics is not about norms, but
it is about sincere reflection of the realization of one’s being. An ethicist could
never become complacent, but he/she is rather involved in the greater work of
discerning the proper things to be done in all situations. Furthermore, power
ethics led us to a better appreciation of our being human. It corrects the many
forms of suppression that is present in many ethical systems. It questions the
suppression of the body and emotions among the stoics, and to a certain
degree, of Christian morality. But at the same time, it does not also permit the
extravagance of some ethical theories like hedonism. Power ethics does not
permit an action for the sole purpose of satisfying the self. The goal of power
ethics is never pleasure but self-perfection. Hence, it would not also tolerate
the permissiveness of hedonism, and even of anarchism. It simply wants warns
the people not to rest content with too little and too much restrictions, but it
does not also proscribe to have too much. It rests on the quite noble end of
human perfection.

However, despite all these praises available for power ethics theory, there are
also things that may serve as our points of caution in our appreciation of
power ethics theories. These are the areas which I believe, based on my
appreciation of the other systems, to be the limitations of power ethics
theories.

One notable limitation of the theory is its self-directed character. It appears


that the theory has ignored one basic aspect of human existence, and that is,
interrelationship. The human person does not exist in isolation, and this

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thought has become increasingly more acceptable in the circle of thinkers. The
human person creates his identity as he mirrors himself in front of another
person. Hence, the reality of the person’s intersubjectivity is an undeniable
reality in the life of the human person and I believe it to be equally important
with that of the person’s pursuance of his perfection.

The problem I see with the power ethics theory is the fact that it places too
much emphasis on personal empowerment, the personal project for power, but
it is willing to sacrifice one person’s relationship with other human beings. Its
neglect to some moral values like patience, meekness, forgiveness and others
suggests that he does not value human relationship inasmuch as he does the
personal quest for power.

THE CONTRADICTIONS OF SITUATIONAL ETHICS

Another striking theory that may merit another discussion is the system of
situational ethics. The basic controversy in situational ethics is its inversion of
the traditional formula of “the end does not justify the means” into “only the
end justifies the means, nothing else.”2 This core principle warrants the “ethics
of situations” because every situation is unique because every instance varies
in accordance to a perceived end. Concretely, we say that the same act of
killing may be taken as totally different human actions, morally speaking,
because of the variety of their end. Say for example, one person kills because
has planning to do it for a long time due to an unpleasant relationship with the
victim. This act of killing is an instance of murder. But the act of killing
becomes different when it is done mainly because of one person’s
uncontrollable passion. When anger forces the person to kill, even if without
the anger the person finds killing abhorrent, then the act is no longer murder
but homicide. Lastly, the act of killing may be done because that was the only
viable means left to save a person’s life, say for example in therapeutic
abortion where the fetus has to be aborted in order to save the life of the
mother. Situational ethics may even be invoked to justify the moral quality of
the third act.

In other words, situational ethics rejects the view that some actions are
inherently bad in themselves. They do not accept the fact that there are
actions whose moral quality is already pre-determined, like killing or lying. For
situational ethics, the morality of these acts may vary according to a given
context and situation. Should these things serve “agapeic love” then they may
be justified.

But situational ethicists claim that their theory is not altogether relative. To
safeguard themselves from relativism, situation ethicists claim that their
theory revolves around one basic principle, and that is, love. Hence, nothing
outside love is justifiable, but everything else can be justified also within the
context of love. This is the reason why situation ethicist argues that “the ends
justify the means” as long as such end is love. This goes to say that anything
that is for love can be justified.

2
Mark Usal’s report. This statement is given as the fifth essential proposition of situation ethics.

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This precisely illustrates the contradiction of the system. When we justify the
means because of the end, this suggests that any act, used as means, can be
justified as long as it serves a good end. A good end is hereby defined also as
“love.” But when we say that a thing is done for love, or as a “means” for the
pursuance of love, can it really be something that is evil in itself. Can lying be
really a means for love? Can killing be a means for love?

The problem with situational ethics is the fact that it allows the doer “to
intend” an evil act as means, because the “intended end” is good. The area
of intending an evil means shows the contradiction of the theory. When we
intend an evil act, can it really serve the end which is love?

Situation ethics gains the merit when it takes into account the need to study
and to consider particular contexts in the performance of the act. It gains its
merit in reminding us that ethics is not about legalities but about the
pursuance of love. But it has gone to the extreme of tolerating everything for
love, when in fact not really everything can be means for love.

When situation ethics say that justice is but love distributed, it concretely
points out the striking relationship of justice and love. This reinforces the
thought that there is no true love that violates justice. Justice, in other words,
is a fundamental requirement for love. This then means that love cannot be
love if it violates justice. So, the means of certain ends can only be justified if
they themselves are just. Ultimately, we could not really escape the moral
demand of objective morality. There is nothing justifiable that offends justice
because there is nothing unjust that could fully serve the interest of love.

Situation ethics is right that ethics is not just about laws. More than the issues
of laws are the requirements of love. In fact, we also say that laws are
meaningful only when they serve love. Norms of Ethics should not be taken as
legal requirements. But it does not also mean that the objective requirements
of morality may be loosened. It is true that ethical norms should be traced to
the wellspring of love, but “love” cannot really be used as alibi for intending
unjust things because, as repeatedly said, there can be no injustice that can
truthfully serve the demands of love.

THE RIGIDITY OF STOICISM

Among the Stoic thinkers, there is a reigning thought that there is the human
person has to exercise a sense of control in order to become moral. In other
words, for the Stoics, morality rests in the capacity to say “no” to the possible
excesses that may arise because of the demands of the body.

I could surmise that Stoicism gains its philosophical backing from the idealism
of Plato who places greater emphasis on the value of the mind over the value
of the body. In the Platonic tradition, the mind (or the soul) is the nobler part of
the human person, while the body was perceived simply as the prison.
Following such tradition, some people began to think that the body brings
harm rather than good to a person. The bodily demands of the person are
stronger and are more difficult to resist, that is why, the human person ought

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to be careful about them. The best way to resist the domination of the body is
in taming the body whenever possible.

Hence, the ethical system of Stoicism has emerged. It is born out of the
thinking that the greatest treasure a person can get is peace of mind. The
person has to work more on the disciplining the body in order to free the mind.
This goes to say that the mind gets disturb when the body holds its sway. In a
sense this is true. A person who gives in totally to the demands of the body
gets disturb because of the many material attachments that he/she takes. Like
for example, when a human person is attached to money, he/she is prone to
have more worries in his/her life. A materialistic person, as they say, is filled
with worries. The life of simplicity is a bliss precisely because simplicity frees
one from a lot of worries.

With the ideal of a “tranquil mind” which is attained by voluntary detachment


from material possessions, the recommended discipline is in resignation and
endurance. It is a stoic ideal not to complain over things that have happened.
The best approach to reality is to accept it, whatever it may be. If there are
failures in life, a stoic welcomes them as part of life. It is part of Stoic
philosophy to simply let things come and go, and accept them wholeheartedly,
because resistance against them creates worries which does more harm rather
than good to an individual.

This ideal however has tendencies to make human life more rigid than free.
Despite the goal of mental detachment, a Stoic may become so occupied with
his/her desire to control emotions and bodily desires that he/she appears to be
to rigid in his/her actual life. The Stoic fails to appreciate that some simply
things are not necessarily non-bodily. In other words, the simple pleasures of
the body can also provide bliss. Like for example, the time to relax and to take
a walk in the park is a pleasure of the body. These particular pleasures do not
necessarily bind the person into addiction or vice and so they do not
necessarily enslave the person.

The rigidity of the life of the Stoics may deprive an individual of the many good
things to enjoy in this world. We need not forget that we are all bodily beings,
and so we may also find meaning even in the simply expression of our bodily
needs.

But one thing good about Stoicism is the fact that it allows us to realize of the
reality that bodily desires are not really the ultimate measures of a happy life.
Man can be happy even without the material benefits in life. Although, we
need to be careful to go to an extreme of neither believing nor valuing the
simply pleasures that simple material things can also provide in life. If life at all
is about simplicity, enjoying the simple material pleasures in life is not
necessarily an antonym to it.

THE LAXITY OF HEDONISM AND CULTURAL RELATIVISM

If the Stoics have become so rigid, there are also other systems that are very
lax and permissive. These are the systems which Fletcher describes as

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antinomian, that is, a system that disregards any type of norms or laws. Two
antinomian approaches that I could think of are hedonism and cultural
relativism.

Hedonism values anything that is pleasurable to an individual. Pleasurable


things are not necessarily the things that contribute to the perfection of the
person. Pleasures are produced by simple whims or caprice of individuals, and
there is no other measure that could gauge the validity of a pleasure except
for the subject who experiences the pleasure.

Hence, in hedonism, there is no other moral standard other than the pleasure
of the subject. Hedonism is among the most self-centered ethical systems. Its
ultimate measure is the self, and the pleasure that the self wants to
experience.

Hedonism is one of the most lax ethical principles. It does not ultimately raise
any standard for acting. Whatever satisfies the self is moral. There are no
objective norms that may be used to guide the actions of people. What
matters is the fact that each person gets satisfied in the particular act to be
done.

In addition to the hedonist principle, cultural relativism also displays the same
tendency of laxity. However, cultural relativism admits greater sense of control
than hedonism. When hedonism is directed solely towards the self, cultural
relativism is at least limited by the consensus of a particular context or culture.

However, despite the desire for consensus remains to be open for the whims
and caprice of people. Morality is not dictated by the sense of right or good,
but rather mainly of what is pragmatically acceptable for the majority of the
members of a particular culture or milieu.

OVERCOMING LEGALISM IN CHRISTIAN MORALITY

Lastly, we mention our critical appreciation of Christian morality. Personally,


this is the ethical system where I am raised, and this is the tradition that has
educated my conscience. Most of the ethical standards that I hold are mainly
products of my training under natural law theories or Christian morality,
especially Thomas Aquinas.

I still believe that the most viable moral theory is Christian morality. Its
objective morality lessens the tendency the tendency to be lax and self-
directed. Christian morality, despite the various criticisms of thinkers like
Nietzsche, is mindful of the fact that morality is not just about individuals but
also about one person’s relationship with other people.

Furthermore, Christian morality offers concrete measures in gauging the


morality of an act. The presence of the object, intention and circumstances as
sources of the morality of an act allows us to properly study and gauge which
actions are really good and which actions are really bad.

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However, I believe that most of the contemporary debates about Christian
morality rests on the fact that this particular system proposes the existence of
“objective moral standards.” The thought about objective moral standards
intimidates many people and this is the reason why they criticize the theory as
tyrannical and imposing. The thought of objective moral standards was taken
by many critics as a sign of the theory’s naivety over the context. The theory
seems to render the context as irrelevant, and this makes other people believe
that Christian morality is basically about blind and passive conformity on
moral propositions and foundations.

I suspect that to make Christian morality more conversant with the recent
developments in our human civilization, and to allow the theory to dialogue
with other systems, a renewed appreciation and interpretation of the absolute
(objective) moral standards have to be done. The presence of objective moral
standards allows other people to argue that Christian morality is too legalistic.
This develops the impression that Christian morality values the laws more over
relationship. In fact, situation ethics seem to ignore the fact that Christian
morality is also basically a moral system built on love.

Christian morality has to overcome the temptation to become legalistic and


rigid. Confronted with the system of situation ethics, Christian morality must
retrace its step from its original grounding on love. Christian morality must
appreciate the fluidity of the expression of love. Love is never expressed in a
pre-defined manner. Love’s expression is varied, and its variance is largely
influenced by the context.

The encounter with the various ethical systems is an event of transcendence.


The discussions in class allow me to see the bigger horizons of ethical
concerns. I remember our discussion about Confucian ethics, when a
classmate of mine, Mr. Bryan Bustamante, expressed that “the discussions in
class are oftentimes biased toward Christian morality, and we oftentimes
forget the presence of other theories like Buddhism.” I found such comment as
striking basically because I used to ignore the fact that there are other
paradigms and ways of thinking that could possibly view a reality from other
perspectives.

Ultimately, there might still be a need to pay allegiance to a particular system,


and as a Christian, my conscience still believes that by virtue of my faith, I am
bound to follow the traditions of my faith more than its rivals. However, the
experience of seeing other views could at least render me that important help
of realizing that before I argue on what I believe is right, there might be other
traditions who may believe otherwise.

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