7 Reflections on the Ethical Lenses

We have surveyed four distinct approaches to ethics that focus on different things: consequences; actions (and duties); character (and virtues); and relations. Within each of these approaches, there are various lines of thought. Consequentialist approaches might value different ends and have different views about who counts and how to count them. Deontological approaches may ground duties on social roles, past actions, or reason alone. Virtue ethics approaches have disparate ideals of the good life or living well. Relational approaches attend to different types of relationships and how they inform what we should do.

Although the specific theories and concepts we have canvassed are well-known in philosophical ethics, the descriptions given here are simply the bare bones and significantly incomplete. In some cases, particularly the Bhagavad Gita (section 4.1 duties based on social role) and Confucianism (section 6.1 focus on personal relations), we have simply taken an idea that exemplifies the type of approach of interest to us while ignoring important doctrines and theories associated with these texts. The Asian traditions, in particular, are vast and have sufficiently many distinct schools within them that authoritative categorization under these lenses is impossible. Nonetheless, in their application to moral life, these differences between schools often boil down to focusing (more or less) on consequences, actions, character (and virtues), or relations.

You may also have noticed that many of these philosophical schools are continuous with religious traditions, each with their own account of the origin of the universe, the character of the beings in the universe, and their moral status. This is obvious in, say, Indigenous and Buddhist philosophy, but is no less true of the Christian basis of Kant’s ethics or the Greek pagan foundations of Aristotelianism. Twentieth century philosophers in the European tradition have tended to downplay the religious aspects of various ethical theories and foregrounded those features that can be understood and justified from a secular perspective. It is an open question how successful these efforts have been. However, for applied ethics in free societies, this kind of approach is essential. After all, as explained the discussion of public reason (section 2.4), it’s unreasonable to expect others to conform to our religious beliefs, so we had better have non-sectarian justifications for our judgments if we are to make ethical decisions that affect more than just ourselves.

Not unrelatedly, many of the theories we have discussed are in some ways ethically fraught and have proponents that are, to say the least, morally imperfect. Kant and early proponents of Kantianism clearly supported Eurocentrism, scientific racism, and had a part in the white washing of philosophy in the European tradition.[1] Aristotle famously defended slavery and the inherent inferiority of women.[2] Similarly, traditional Confucians clearly placed women in a subordinate relation to men.[3] The idea of duties based on social roles, discussed in the Bhagavad Gita, is sometimes associated with religiously informed social stratification in India[4] and although the Mohists advocated for and supported small Chinese states in their defence against aggressors,[5] we may well wonder if their principles are consistent with individual freedom. And so on.

The lesson here is not to give up on ethics. As should by now be clear, that’s not really possible anyway. Rather, the lesson is to treat each theory, text, and theorist with critical respect rather that unreflective deference. Recognizing the ethical failings of some of our greatest moral leaders and theorists should help us find the courage to honestly assess our own moral failings and help us develop critical tools for figuring out how to do better.

Although we have only offered a flavor of what is out there, we hope it is clear that ethics is, and always has been, a truly global pursuit and, moreover, that there are both remarkable commonalities across many cultural traditions along with striking differences. In a multicultural, global society that is struggling to move beyond its colonial past, it is important not to overlook voices that have valuable ethical insights and can add to our ethical discourse. Moreover, given the extraordinary ethical challenges that face the human species, we not only need every possible theoretical tool at our disposal, but we need every person to feel they have a place in the conversation and a stake in the outcome.

At the same time, we now have some practical tools for thinking about ethical questions. As we noted at the beginning of this primer, ethics starts with the question, “What should I do?” Now, when considering your various options, you can apply each lens to see how it directs your attention to the consequences, the nature of the action and your motivations, your own character and who you want to be, and your various relationships and how they constrain and inform your options.

  1. Peter K. J. Park, Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780–1830 (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2013).
  2. María Luisa Femenías, “Women and the Natural Hierarchy in Aristotle,” Hypatia 9, no. 1 (1994): 164-72.
  3. Xinyan Jiang, “Confucianism, Women, and Social Contexts,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 36, no. 2: 228-42.
  4. Richard H. Davis, “Gandhi, Krishna and Caste, Inequality More or Less,” in Equality More or Less, ed. Robert E. Tully and Bruce Chiltern, pp. 221-43 (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2020).
  5. Li Bin, “Insights into the Mozi and their Implications for the Study of Contemporary International Relations,” Chinese Journal of International Politics 2, no. 3 (2009): 421–54.


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Applied Ethics Primer Copyright © 2021 by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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