What is Moral Philosophy?

Woo! Alright! Who is ready to talk ethics??

 

To get us started, let’s address the elephant in the room. Q: “Why should I even care about this?”

A: Ethics describes how to live and what to aim for. Every time you make a decision about your life, you are subscribing to a certain ethical theory. If you want to know what you are subscribing to, then read on! Who knows.. it could lead to more clear and effective decision making for you in the future.

For me, the process of learning about moral philosophy has delivered the support of a psychologist, business coach, 12-step meeting, life coach, anti-depressant, spiritual guide and personal fitness trainer all rolled into one. It has been a game changer.

Let’s get into it!

 

I wanted to include this The Office clip (Season 5, Episode 3) because Oscar says something shortly after this high energy meeting intro that highlights a common confusion about what ethics is.

He says, “Ethics is a real discussion of competing conceptions of The Good. This [referring to the meeting] is just the corporate anti-shoplifting rules.”

And he is correct!

There is a difference between ethics and codes of conduct.

When someone says, “that isn’t ‘ethical,’ the follow up question would be, “that isn’t ethical according to which theory of ethics?”

Enter: Moral Philosophy

 

For clarity going forwards, if you haven’t already noticed, I use the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ interchangeably. Another term that is interchangeable with these is ‘dharma’ from the South Asian tradition.

So whenever you see any of these three words, you can understand that they are referring to the concept of The Right (choice, reason, procedure) Or The Good (choice, character, outcome).

 

If you want to brush up on what philosophy is as a discipline prior to engaging in this content, you can check out the following blog post!

As a quick refresh: the discipline of philosophy is the process of understanding an argument by way of reason. It is an approach to research where a practitioner renders explicit someone’s reasons for their conclusions.

Their premises + their conclusions = their argument and contribution to wider disagreement.

It is often necessary to understand more than one argument about an Idea/Object/Topic in order to understand the Idea/Object/Topic that it is referring to fully.

For example, a conch is a perfectly asymmetrical object; to only view it from one perspective would not allow for a full understanding of it. The graphic below illustrates this: each perspective could generate an argument that would contribute to an overall understanding of what a conch is, but each argument by itself would not contain that full understanding within it.

"Philosophy preserves multiple perspectives." A conch with 12 humans around it, pointing at it from a different perspective.
Image Description: A graphic of a conch encircled by 12 humans. From each human there is an arrow pointing towards the conch along their angle of perspective. Along the top it reads, "Philosophy preserves multiple perspectives." All graphics and text are white on a dark brown background. Extending in from the bottom left and top right corners are scalene triangles creating a frame.

Over time, as the discipline of philosophy was applied to every type of argument one could imagine, this practice started to render clear broader Topics that were being disagreed about. And so the arguments about similar Topics were grouped together into categories so that people could study the various contributions pertaining to one particular Topic of disagreement.

You might know these groupings of arguments as ‘branches of philosophy,’ which include Topics such as Epistemology, Logic, Metaphysics, Aesthetics, Political Philosophy,

and, Ethics!

 

The Topic of Ethics/Morality/Dharma is like the conch above. And the multiple theories that have been contributed globally to this Topic over time are represented by the people and their perspectives.

No one argument/perspective/contribution is ‘right.’ Rather, there are many different arguments regarding this Topic that (ideally) have been rendered explicit through the discipline of philosophy.

[This gets messy when people in positions of authority masquerade as researchers, interpreting arguments from their personal perspectives rather than preserving and presenting the original argument as it was offered. But more on this when we talk about philosophical appropriation and western imperialism. For now, we will proceed under the assumption that philosophical best practices are in place.]

So, what is Moral Philosophy? It is a group of disagreements about the Topic of The Right Or The Good. In other words, it is a group of disagreements about how to live (The Right) and what to aim for (The Good).

 

Based on moral philosophical research, there are four kinds of theories under which all contributing arguments fall.

[While I say this, please keep in mind that philosophies will borrow ideas from each other across lines of difference. However, these four kinds of theories serve to illuminate core premises that arguments have in common, which is helpful.]

 

The four kinds of theories are:

  1. Virtue Ethics: good character causes right choice
  2. Consequentialism: good outcome justifies right choice
  3. Deontology: right reason justifies good choice
  4. Yoga/Bhakti: right procedure causes good outcome

 

If you want to take a ~10 minute dive into each of these categories, I suggest the following video series by Dr. Shyam Ranganathan.

To illuminate an example, let’s consider the situation where someone is deciding whether to buy a house.

 

Virtue Ethics: good character causes right choice

To a Virtue Ethicist, the decision to buy a house would be based on what they have been told/taught to do by an entity that they deem virtuous. The virtuous entity could be the government to some, a caregiver to others, an influencer, a God, a teacher, a leader, etc. Regardless of who one deems virtuous, the right thing to do is what the virtuous tell you/teach you to do.

 

Consequentialism: good outcome justifies right choice

To a Consequentialist, the decision to buy a house would be justified if it is predicted to achieve Good outcomes. Good outcomes could include meeting one’s needs for predictability, safety, shelter, comfort, flexibility, spontaneity, discovery, etc.

 

Deontology: right reason justifies good choice

To a Deontologist, the decision to buy a house would be justified for particular reasons, determined by a set of rules / code of conduct / principle that one is subscribed to. For example, if you live in a family unit where the rules are that once you are married, you buy a house as a way of taking care of your family, then the choice to buy a house is justified if (a) you subscribe to that family unit’s code of conduct, and (b) you are married.

 

Yoga/Bhakti (right procedure causes good outcome)

To a Yogi, the decision to buy a house would be based on whether that action is part of a right procedure. For example, if someone is learning how to renovate homes, then buying a house could be part of that practice.

(Now, the reason why someone might want to learn how to renovate houses might not be Yogic. It might be Consequentialist: for example, “if I learn how to renovate houses, I can flip them and make money.” But as a general statement, the procedure of learning something is in itself is quite Yogic: as one practices learning something (Right procedure) it causes improvement at that thing (Good outcome).)

 

What this illustrates is that the same decision to buy a house can be made for a wide range of reasons, and no one from the outside would necessarily know what the reasons are just by looking at the decision itself. The Researcher would need to use the discipline of philosophy to tease out why the person made the decision, thus illuminating their subscription to a particular moral philosophy.

 

The blog post below includes another example illuminating the differences between these categories in action.

The following are some theories of moral philosophy that you might be familiar with, sorted within the four kinds of contributions and by tradition of thought.

 

Virtue Ethics: good character causes right choice

  • Indian Tradition: Jainism, Vaiśeṣika
  • Chinese Tradition: Taoism, Confucius, Lao Tzu
  • European Tradition: Plato/Aristotle
  • Theism

 

Consequentialism: good outcome justifies right choice

  • Indian Tradition: the Buddha, Nyāya
  • Chinese Tradition: Mo Tzu
  • European Tradition: some aspects of Aristotle, Bentham, Mill

 

Deontology: right reason justifies good choice

  • Indian Tradition: Karma Yoga (Bhagavad Gītā), Pūrva Mīmāṃsā
  • Chinese Tradition: Legalism
  • European Tradition: Kant

 

Yoga/Bhakti: right procedure causes good outcome

  • Indian Tradition: Upaniṣads, Bhakti Yoga (Bhagavad Gītā), Patañjali (Yoga Sūtra), Rāmānuja
  • Chinese Tradition: 
  • European Tradition:

 

Each of these theories are offering you an option of how to live and what to aim for.

And this sums up an introduction to moral philosophy!

 

Based on this, do you have an idea of what theory / theories you are currently subscribed to?

If you are subscribed to multiple theories, do you see how decision making might be complex for you?

Would you like to keep choosing in the way that you are?

Do you want to explore different kinds of approaches to living and aiming?

Please feel free to share in the comments!

 

And if you have found this post interesting, please consider sharing it with your network by clicking one of the icons below.

 

Happy World Philosophy Day tomorrow!

In practice,

Tara

 

The post is inspired by the work of Dr. Shyam Ranganathan

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What is Moral Philosophy? – From The Hearth