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Is Ethical Theory Applicable To Practice Essay, Research Paper


Is ethical theory useful in day to day life? Do I use ethical theory to make a choice? I will use three philosophers, Alasdair MacIntyre, Jonathan Bennett, and Mary Midgley to assist me in answering these questions.

In her work “Trying Out One’s New Sword” Midgley argues against moral isolationism. The notion that one can only fully understand our culture and that we should not attempt to judge other cultures because we simply don’t understand them. She uses the example of a Japanese samurai trying out his new sword on someone of a lower caste than him to make sure that the sword will work in battle. In order to bring honor to his ancestors, emperor, and himself his sword has to bisect a person from the shoulder to the flank in one blow. The “guinea pig” used in this experiment has to suffer from one or more undoubtedly painful blows. According to Midgley, us Westerners should not be horrified by this custom, if we were to follow the moral isolationism perspective. To do something for the sheer sake of honor is so foreign to us that we can not judge this action by the ancient Japanese.

Midgley quickly rejects the notion of moral isolationism on several grounds. First, if we are unable to judge other cultures then we are incapable of either praising them or criticizing them. Second, if we can not judge other cultures then they should not be able to criticize our culture. Third, and most importantly, if we can not judge other cultures then we can not judge our own culture either. This is because we learn from other cultures, they give us a range of different actions that can be taken. Also our own “American” culture has so much variation that it can not be considered one single entity. Midgley writes:

“In short, moral isolationism would lay down a ban on moral reasoning…The power of moral judgment is, in fact, not a luxury, not a perverse indulgence of the self-righteous. It is a necessity…Without opinions of this sort [judgments], we would have no framework of comparison for our own policy, no chance of profiting by other people’s insights or mistakes” (Arthur, Pg.86-87)

What Midgley is saying is that moral reasoning is not something that we can do without. Whether we think it is useful or not, we still use it in order to know what to avoid and what to go for. Our ability to judge other cultures has helped ours evolve and it is what will keep us evolving. Moral reasoning is what keeps our criminal justice system going, without it we would then live in a state of anarchy and disorder.

Alasdair MacIntyre, wrote in his lecture “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” about where does our morality come from. He argues that morality comes from the community we live in. Without our sense of morality we would be unable to live within a community. It is our morality that keeps the community together, if we were to have conflicting views in the most basic levels then our community would fall apart. He writes “I need those around me to reinforce my moral strengths and assist me in remedying my moral weaknesses” (Arthur Pg.56). This quote ties in very well with Midgley ‘s argument that without morality there would be chaos because if morality comes from our community, and if it is our common morality that holds a community together, then without morality our inability to judge what is good or evil will also keep us from forming groups. What both Midgley and MacIntyre did not argue about was the possibility that their own morality might be bad. I will refer the term bad morality to any set of morals that would restrict a person’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Jonathan Bennett considers bad morality when he explains the conscience of Huckleberry Finn. When Huck Finn runs away from home he befriends an escaped slave called Jim, and then against his own morality Huck helps Jim escape towards freedom. For us it would not only be our morality but also our sympathy that would lead us to help Jim escape his owners, for Huck though, his sympathy towards his friend goes straight against his morality. In rural Missouri slaves were once considered property, Huck thought of Jim as Miss Watson’s property and felt bad for stealing Jim. This feeling worsens when Jim says that he will try to buy back his family from Miss Watson and if that doesn’t work then he will try to steal them back.

At one point Huck’s conscience got the best of him and he was ready to turn Jim in, but when the moment of truth came he didn’t turn Jim in. He wasn’t overjoyed of this fact. He felt worse about himself than he had before. As Bennett wrote “Huck doesn’t weigh the pros and cons: he simply fails to do what he believes is right.” (Arthur Pg.72). After Jim is free Huck returns to the raft he used to help Jim and makes a decision: He will give up morality and principle altogether and just go be what feels good at the moment because no matter what he does he would still feel bad about it afterwards. While we would praise Huck for this decision because his sympathies are good and his morality evil we would not do the same if someone rejected our own morality. Huck never questions the morality of owning another human being because it is the morality that he grew up with; it has been ingrained into his very bones so that after he helped Jim out he felt like a villain.

Reading the philosophers makes me wonder what they would say at my predicament, but I realize that what they say would not matter. I do not regret a single decision I have made, but no matter if they said that I was a bad person or good would I change my answers.

Ethical theory is almost like singing. Everybody does it to a certain extent but only a few are good at it or do it as a job. We all break down certain concepts as time arrives for us to break them down, but we are clouded by our own views. Ask any American why they are patriotic and a good chunk of the answers will be “Because we are the leaders of freedom”, much to MacInytre’s dismay, but that is the way we are. We love our country, why question it. We are offended when a samurai bisects a person, we even have a special term for it “human rights violation”. When we think that we do not want gays to have rights we aren’t thinking in terms of what is right or wrong, we are thinking that the morality that our community instilled in us says that gays should not have rights. Try to convince us otherwise, see how far that will get you.

When I read a philosopher’s work I read something that is beyond me. I see a view that I never thought about or questioned broken down to minute detail and then a conclusion that I never thought about appears. I see something that is the foundation for our legal system, something that will help it make it better, but I don’t see myself, or anyone I know. I see a Pavarotti, a Jean-Pierre Rampal, and a Michael Jordan doing what they do best.

While we all struggle between what is right and what is wrong we each go about it a different way. That struggle is the foundation to our decisions, morality is merely a guideline for our decisions. Ethical theory is used, everyday by everyone, but it is merely an out-of-tune hum compared to a virtuoso like Bennett, MacIntyre, and Midgley.


Morality and Moral controversies fifth edition

by John Arthur 1999

Prentice Hall

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