On Philosophy

December 28, 2006

An Ethical Spectrum

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 3:48 am

I know, the title on this image is redundant, but in my defense I may want to use it again.

In the above diagram I have graphically represented one way of looking at ethical theories, based on where in the causal chain of events they base their judgments. On one end we have the “core personality”, a persons most fundamental, and formative, attitudes and motivations. Ultimately these can be said to be the cause of everything a person does voluntarily (or at least one of the causes). On the other side we have the long-term results, and the middle we have the moment of choice. The choice is an interesting point, because it divides the internal from the external. Leading up to the choice we have mental events, and after the choice we have external events. If I had to say which one the choice itself is I would say internal, but the division between what is external and internal is a slippery subject. The choice itself is the commitment to action (which includes the sending of impulses to initiate motion), not merely the mental decision to do something (which would fall under immediate intentions on the spectrum), just to be clear.

As you can see I have attempted to show which general areas correspond to what kinds of ethical theories. Since what exactly ethical judgments depend on varies from theory to theory, even when theories belong to the same class I have picked out a range instead of a single point. The area of the chart I have unhelpfully labeled as “Other” has no “big name” ethical viewpoint associated with it (or at least none springs to mind), but I think the common sense ethics that many people subscribe to often falls in this area. Such ethical systems judge people by what they meant to do, and tend to be forgiving of those who mean to do the right thing, but are unable to make good choices (say because of drug problems, ect). Another possibly confusing part of this diagram is the distinction between early and late consequentialism, terms that are my own invention, and designed to point out a key difference between two varieties of consequentialism. Late consequentialism is what consequentialism is usually though of, as judging people based on the actual results of their actions. In contrast early consequentialism makes its judgments based on what normally would be the results of the person’s choices.

I admit that the ethical theory I like best is a kind of early consequentialism, so in some ways this diagram may be designed to be a subtle argument for it. Specifically such theories make their judgments based on a unique point in our spectrum, the one that separates the internal from the external, and so, unlike other ethical theories, early consequentialism coincides with an area on this chart that is already distinguished, and thus, in my opinion, seems more elegant. Of course this isn’t a serious argument for early consequentialism, just because the theory is elegant in some ways doesn’t mean that the world must work that way. However such elegance may be persuasive enough to convince some to give early consequentialist theories a closer look.


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