Task Of Ethics

Ethics as a philosophical or theoretical discipline is concerned with tasks that concern ordinary, reflective individuals. Since its origins in classical and preclassical times, it has sought to understand how human beings should act and what kind of life is best for people. When Socrates and Plato dealt with such questions, they presupposed or at the very least hoped that they could be answered in "timeless" fashion, that is, with answers that were not dependent on the culture and circumstances of the answerer, but represented universally valid, rational conclusions.

In fact, however, the history of philosophical or theoretical ethics is intimately related to the ethical views and practices prevalent in various societies over the millennia. Although philosophers have usually sought to answer ethical questions without regard to (and sometimes in defiance of) some of the standards and traditions prevalent around them, the history of ethics as a philosophical discipline bears interesting connections to what has happened in given philosophers' societies and the world at large. Perhaps the clearest example of this lies in the influence of Christianity on the history of theoretical ethics.

Philosophical/theoretical ethics, of course, has had its own influence on Christianity, for example, Aristotle's influence on the philosophy ofThomas Aquinas and on the views and practices of the church. Nonetheless, to compare the character of the pre-Christian ethics of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and other schools of ancient ethical thought with the kinds of ethics that have flourished in the academy since Christianity became a dominant social force is to recognize that larger social and historical currents play significant roles in the sphere of philosophical ethics.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, for example, do not discuss kindness or compassion, moral guilt, or the virtue of self-denial, or selflessness. Christianity helped to bring these notions to the attention of philosophy and to make philosophers think that issues framed in terms of them were central to their task. By the same token, a late-twentieth-century revival of interest in ancient approaches to ethics may reflect the diminishing force and domination of Christian thinking in the contemporary world.

But if the concepts that ethics focuses on can change so profoundly, one may well wonder whether a single discipline of ethics can be said to persist across the ages, or even whether such a thing as "the task" of philosophical ethics can be said to endure. Socrates, and later Plato, were perhaps the first philosophers to make a self-conscious attempt to answer general ethical questions on the basis of reason and argument rather than convention and tradition. But was the task they accepted really the same as that of contemporary ethics? This issue needs to be addressed before the task of ethics can be described.

Despite the fact that the concepts and problems of physics have varied over the last few centuries, it is still possible to speak of the history of a single discipline called physics. Moreover, we might say that the task of physics has been and remains that of developing physical concepts for the explanation and description of physical phenomena. Something similar can be said about theoretical ethics. Over the millennia, thoughtful people and philosophers have asked what kind of life is best for the individual and how one ought to behave in regard to other individuals and society as a whole. Although different concepts have been proposed to assist in the task of answering these questions, the questions themselves have retained an identity substantial enough to allow one to speak of the task of philosophical ethics without doing an injustice to the history of ethics.

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