Ethics: Knowledge of moral principles and its fundamentals

Ethics is the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles. Ethics studies moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity. Ethics concerns itself with moral principles, values, standards of behavior, virtues, dictates of conscience,rights and wrongs etc. Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. The term ethics derives from Ancient Greek “ethikos”, from “ethos”, meaning ‘habit, custom’. Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime. As a field of intellectual enquiry, moral philosophy also is related to the fields of moral psychology, descriptive ethics, and value theory.

Three major areas of study within ethics recognized today are:

  1. Meta-ethics, concerning the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions, and how their truth values (if any) can be determined. Meta-ethics asks how we understand, know about, and what we mean when we talk about what is right and what is wrong. A meta-ethical question is abstract and relates to a wide range of more specific practical questions. For example, “Is it ever possible to have secure knowledge of what is right and wrong?” According to Aristotle, ethical knowledge depends on habit and acculturation in a way that makes it distinctive from other kinds of knowledge. Studies of how we know in ethics divide into cognitivism and non-cognitivism. Cognitivism can may be seen as the claim that when we talk about right and wrong, we are talking about matters of fact. Non-cognitivism is the claim that when we judge something as right or wrong, this is neither true nor false. We may, for example, be only expressing our emotional feelings about these things.
  2. Normative ethics: It is ethics concerning the practical means of determining a moral course of action. Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking. Normative ethics is distinct from meta-ethicsbecause it examines standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions, while meta-ethics studies the meaning of moral language and the metaphysics of moral facts.
  •  Virtue ethics: One of the important strands of normative ethics is virtue ethics. Virtue ethics describes the character of a moral agent as a driving force for ethical behavior, and is used to describe the ethics of Socrates, Aristotle, and other early Greek philosophers.  According to Socrates, knowledge bearing on human life was placed highest, while all other knowledge was secondary. Self-knowledge was considered necessary for success and inherently an essential good. A self-aware person will act completely within his capabilities to his pinnacle, while an ignorant person will flounder and encounter difficulty. To Socrates, a person must become aware of every fact (and its context) relevant to his existence, if he wishes to attain self-knowledge. He posited that people will naturally do what is good, if they know what is right. Evil or bad actions are the results of ignorance. In Aristotle’s view, when a person acts in accordance with his nature and realizes his full potential, he will do good and be content. At birth, a baby is not a person, but a potential person. To become a “real” person, the child’s inherent potential must be realized. Unhappiness and frustration are caused by the unrealized potential of a person, leading to failed goals and a poor life.
  • Stoicism: Another Strand is stoicism. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus posited that the greatest good was contentment and serenity. Peace of mind, or Apatheia, was of the highest value; self-mastery over one’s desires and emotions leads to spiritual peace. The “unconquerable will” is central to this philosophy. The individual’s will should be independent and inviolate. Allowing a person to disturb the mental equilibrium is, in essence, offering yourself in slavery. If a person is free to anger you at will, you have no control over your internal world, and therefore no freedom. Freedom from material attachments is also necessary. If a thing breaks, the person should not be upset, but realize it was a thing that could break. Similarly, if someone should die, those close to them should hold to their serenity because the loved one was made of flesh and blood destined to death. Stoic philosophy says to accept things that cannot be changed, resigning oneself to existence and enduring in a rational fashion.
  • Consequentialism: Consequentialism is yet another example of virtue ethics. Consequentialism refers to moral theories that hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action (or create a structure for judgment, see rule consequentialism). Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence. This view is often expressed as the aphorism “The ends justify the means”. According to utilitarianism, a good action is one that results in an increase in a positive effect, and the best action is one that results in that effect for the greatest number. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that argues the proper course of action is one that maximizes a positive effect, such as “happiness”, “welfare”, or the ability to live according to personal preferences.
  • Deontology: Deontology is a contrasting ethical principle to consequentialism. Deontological ethics or deontology is an approach to ethics that determines goodness or rightness from examining acts, or the rules and duties that the person doing the act strove to fulfill. This is in contrast to consequentialism, in which rightness is based on the consequences of an act, and not the act by itself. Immanuel Kant’s theory of ethics is considered deontological for several different reasons. First, Kant argues that to act in the morally right way, people must act from duty (deon). Second, Kant argued that it was not the consequences of actions that make them right or wrong but the motives (maxime) of the person who carries out the action. Kant’s argument that to act in the morally right way, one must act from duty, begins with an argument that the highest good must be both good in itself, and good without qualification.
  • Hedonism– Hedonism posits that the principal ethic is maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. There are several schools of Hedonist thought ranging from those advocating the indulgence of even momentary desires to those teaching a pursuit of spiritual bliss. In their consideration of consequences, they range from those advocating self-gratification regardless of the pain and expense to others, to those stating that the most ethical pursuit maximizes pleasure and happiness for the most people. Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.
  • Pragmatic Ethics: Another strand of virtue ethics is pragmatic ethics. Associated with the pragmatists, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and especially John Dewey, pragmatic ethics holds that moral correctness evolves similarly to scientific knowledge: socially over the course of many lifetimes. Thus, we should prioritize social reform over attempts to account for consequences, individual virtue or duty (although these may be worthwhile attempts, if social reform is provided for).
  • Post Structuralist or postmodernist ethics: Post-structuralism and postmodernism argue that ethics must study the complex and relational conditions of actions. A simple alignment of ideas of right and particular acts is not possible. There will always be an ethical remainder that cannot be taken into account or often even recognized. Such theorists find narrative (or, following Nietzsche and Foucault, genealogy) to be a helpful tool for understanding ethics because narrative is always about particular lived experiences in all their complexity rather than the assignment of an idea or norm to separate and individual actions. These schools are complex in their construction, yet they offer a highly critical understanding of right or wrong. Jacques Derrida says, “there is nothing outside of the text.” Derrida suggests that no text is an island in which the author’s original intention can be counted on as an absolute basis for understanding meaning.  He later clarified the meaning of a text must be situated within a context that includes competence in the language of the text including its grammar and vocabulary as used in the epoch in which it was written, rhetorical uses of the language, the history of the language itself, and knowledge of the history of the society in which the language is/was used.  In addition, the interpreter should also have familiarity with the corpus of the author. He added, “ “A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible.” And  “What is called “objectivity,” scientific for instance (in which I firmly believe, in a given situation) imposes itself only within a context which is extremely vast, old, firmly established, or rooted in a network of conventions … and yet which still remains a context.” Derrida adds, “We are all mediators, translators.” Michel Foucault extends the post modernist quest by saying thus “We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social-worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements.” Antihumanists such as Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault and structuralists such as Roland Barthes challenged the possibilities of individual agency and the coherence of the notion of the ‘individual’ itself. This was  on the basis that personal identity was, at least in part, a social construction. As critical theory developed in the later 20th century, post-structuralism sought to problematize human relationships to knowledge and ‘objective’ reality. Jacques Derrida argued that access to meaning and the ‘real’ was always deferred, and sought to demonstrate via recourse to the linguistic realm that “there is no outside-text/non-text”; at the same time, Jean Baudrillard theorised that signs and symbols or simulacra mask reality (and eventually the absence of reality itself), particularly in the consumer world.
  1. Applied ethics, concerning what a person is obligated (or permitted) to do in a specific situation or a particular domain of action. Applied ethics is a discipline of philosophy that attempts to apply ethical theory to real-life situations. Applied ethics is used in some aspects of determining public policy, as well as by individuals facing difficult decisions. The sort of questions addressed by applied ethics include: “Is getting an abortion immoral?” “Is euthanasia immoral?” “Is affirmative action right or wrong?” “What are human rights, and how do we determine them?” “Do animals have rights as well?” and “Do individuals have the right of self-determination?”[ The discipline has many specialized fields, such as engineering ethics, bioethics, geoethics, public service ethics and business ethics.

Fundamental Ethical Principles

An ethical theory is a theory about what makes an action or set of actions morally right or wrong.

Four fundamental ethical principles

  1. The Principle of Respect for autonomy—- Autonomy is Latin for “self-rule” We have an obligation to respect the autonomy of other persons, which is to respect the decisions made by other people concerning their own lives. This is also called the principle of human dignity. It gives us a negative duty not to interfere with the decisions of competent adults, and a positive duty to empower others for whom we’re responsible.

Corollary principles: honesty in our dealings with others & obligation to keep promises.

  1. The Principle of Beneficence—–We have an obligation to bring about good in all our actions.Corollary principle? We must take positive steps to prevent harm. However, adopting this corollary principle frequently places us in direct conflict with respecting the autonomy of other persons.
  2. The Principle of nonmaleficence—— (It is not “non-malfeasance,” which is a technical legal term, & it is not “nonmalevolence,” which means that one did not intend to harm.) . We have an obligation not to harm others: “First, do no harm.”
    (a) Corollary principle: Where harm cannot be avoided, we are obligated to minimize the harm we do.
    (b) Corollary principle: Don’t increase the risk of harm to others.
    (c) Corollary principle: It is wrong to waste resources that could be used for good
    1. (d) Combining beneficence and nonaleficence: Each action must produce more good than harm.

(4) The Principle of justice—–

    We have an obligation to provide others with whatever they are owed or deserve. In public life, we have an obligation to treat all people equally, fairly, and impartially.

(a) Corollary principle: Impose no unfair burdens.
(b) Combining beneficence and justice: We are obligated to work for the benefit of those who are unfairly treated.

Thus fundamental ethical principles that can be applied to decide good from bad are:

  • Beneficence – to do good.
  • Non-maleficence – to do no harm.
  • Respect for Autonomy.


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Outcomes of Donald Trump China Visit: Indications of rise of a post American power in Asia

Donald Trump came to China on his first visit as President of America. He was on a trip of five Asian countries which included China, America’s biggest regional rival, and often the object of the president’s non-stop tirades. China is a rising Asian power which Trump has often described as a threat to America while other countries on the tour are either treaty allies, namely Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, or a new strategic partner, namely Vietnam. Contrary to his China bashing approach, Donald Trump seemed to be unusually sober and receptive while he met Chinese counterpart. He called his relationship with Xi “excellent” and declared that he “liked him a lot”. He continued his flattery of Xi during his China visit calling him “a very special man”, a “highly respected and powerful representative of his people”, and congratulating him for consolidating his power at the recent “very successful” Communist party congress.

Notwithstanding President Donald’s posturing against China during his election campaign and afterwards, when he landed in China on November 08, he could not assert any of his ideas strongly; instead he was hugely accommodative, receptive and humbled.   The Independent news daily had compared the leaders of the two countries on the eve of Trump’s visit to China  (November 07) saying “President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful figure in a generation, is elevating his nation as a global power. Trump is unpopular and untrusted, pursued by political scandal and questions over his temperament as commander in chief of the world’s most formidable military.” The outcomes of the visit were at least partially the result of these ground realities.

The US President could not manage any big bargain with China on major disputes, but he certainly bargained some worthwhile business deals with the country. The world carefully watched whether the tough-talking American president could extract any major concession on key areas of difference with Beijing. As expected, however, China managed to mollify and tame the American president, while standing its ground on areas of disagreement.

Trade deals

To temper American concerns over its huge trade deficit with China, Beijing offered 37 major investment deals totalling more than US$250 billion to 30 CEOs from major American companies. Big names such as Boeing, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Qualcomm, Cheniere Energy, Air Products were among those who joined Trump’s visiting delegation of businessmen. The US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross praised the agreements as a crucial step in providing “a solid foundation for a stronger relationship that is more free, fair, and reciprocal between the US and China.” Under Trump, China’s trade surplus with America has actually widened to US$223 billion in the first 10 months of this year – a double-digit increase from a year earlier. But instead of backing down on areas of core interest, especially on trade and industrial policy, China deftly split the difference.

It was, however a consolation prize for the tough talking American President as he could not raise any of the issues emphatically which were loudly made during his election campaign. Adopting an often bellicose language, during his election campaign he has accused China of engaging in supposed currency manipulation, running an excessive trade surplus with America, aggressively dominating adjacent waters at the expense of regional allies such as Japan and the Philippines, and aiding pariahs like North Korea.

Signs of emergence of a post-American order in Asia

Instead of blaming China for America’s trade woes, he placed the responsibility on his predecessors for failing to adopt an optimal economic relationship with the world’s biggest exporting nation. For now, it seems the Trump administration is effectively backing down from its earlier threats of imposing trade sanctions on China. Instead Trump gave “China great credit” for its capacity to “take advantage of another country [America] for the benefit of its citizens”. Thus, Beijing has managed to expose the hollowness of Trump’s aggressive posturing through carefully crafted set of mutually satisfactory trade deals. Richard Heydarian (China Morning Post, November 13) describes this as “Chinese statecraft at its finest.” He added, “The visit, which saw Trump failing to secure any major concession from China, underlined the glacial but unmistakable emergence of a truly post-American order in Asia. Far from highlighting America’s leadership in the region, the visit accentuated China’s emergence as the alternative pillar of prosperity and stability in the world’s most dynamic geopolitical theatre. Trump embarked on his Asia trip to assert American centrality in global affairs, but left Beijing as a humbled leader of a declining superpower.”

However, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised an open investment environment and that “China will not close its doors” and keep its huge domestic market “more open, more transparent and more orderly” for foreign companies, including Americans. It was a well-timed statement of reassurance amid growing concerns over rise of economic nationalism in China.

Geopolitical Tensions remained unaddressed

North Korea- In the realm of geopolitical tensions, Trump left almost empty-handed from Beijing. Speaking before the South Korean National Assembly a day earlier, the American president deployed a thinly veiled attack against China for supposedly choosing to “ignore” or “worse still, to enable” North Korea. He squarely placed the “weight of [the] crisis” on China’s “conscience”. Yet, all that tough talk quickly translated into a conciliatory gratitude to China for its efforts to rein in North Korea’s aggressive nuclear and ballistic missile programme. In Beijing, Trump simply called “on China and your great president to hopefully work on it very hard,” expressing his optimism that “If [Xi] works on it hard”, there will be a quick resolution of the crisis in the Korean Peninsula.

South China Sea– There was also no significant deal on rising Sino-American tensions in the South China Sea, with American navy challenging China’s reclamation activities via regularised “freedom of navigation operations” close to disputed land features. Describing bilateral relations as standing at a “new historic starting point”, the Chinese president reiterated his earlier point that, “The Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States”.Thus, China signaled its willingness for an emerging “grand bargain” in adjacent waters, with no palpable resistance from the Trump administration, which is desperate for Beijing’s help on the North Korea issue.

No joint Statement

Oddly, Trump’s visits produced no joint statements, which points to the difficulties in agreeing to balanced formulations on divisive issues with the White House. The release of the White House on the Trump-Xi talks is not substantial. Xi used the opportunity of the joint press conference with Trump to elaborate on China’s positions on issues on the agenda with the US. He sought practical cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative, called for respecting each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, underlined China’s role in the Asia-Pacific, claiming that “the Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States”, which is an indirect way of affirming that China will pursue its assertive policies in this region and the US should yield it the space it wants.


Trump’s humbling visit to China is likely a harbinger of a new order in Asia, where America is no longer the undisputed number one. Former Foreign Secretary of India Kanwal Sibal rightly claims that Donald Trump’s extensive East Asia visit has not produced any striking results, which is not surprising as US policy towards this region is marked by contradictions. China’s policies in the region have become increasingly disruptive, but an effective US response is absent because huge American trade and financial links to China rob Washington of the kind of tools deployed against Russia where American economic stakes are very limited. He further adds that China will not abandon North Korea so long as the US is militarily present in South Korea, and the US cannot withdraw from the Korean peninsula without unraveling its long-standing security arrangements in the region and eroding the political foundation of its presence there. Trump will not get satisfaction from China on both issues. In fact, China has neither the means nor the resolve to denuclearise North Korea, and Trump too, despite his bluster, cannot use military means to achieve that objective without exposing Seoul to horrendous consequences.

 China has played the shrewder card so far, building its economic power on the back of America and its allies and using the strength acquired (including military) to challenge American power in the region. Further he points out that Trump has created a lot of uncertainty about the thrust of US policies in East Asia. The intensely parochial “America First” philosophy sends a signal even to its allies in the region that US interests will override theirs. Such a message cannot remain limited to the economic domain as it will create doubts about US security commitments to the region if their excessive burden is seen by the US as weakening it economically.”

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