I am continually mystified by the purpose of this course. In a post-Christian yet pre-Aristotelian society (i.e. we're post Christianity but can't reach the height of the pagans before Christ) we feel the need to do something about ethics, but can't articulate anything with certainty. Some verbatim quotes from the course director exemplify this:
"[Ethics is] the study of the principles of human behavior with respect to moral actions."Each of these statements has philosophical (and even logical) problems.
"[Beneficence is to] do what is good; help others further their own legitimate interests."
"[Justice is] the duty or obligation to allocate social burdens and benefits."
"I have no answers."
"[Ethics is] the study of the principles of human behavior with respect to moral actions."This is not a lousy definition: it gives a genus ("study"), an intermediate species ("of human behavior") and a species-making difference ("with respect to moral actions"). I am happy he included the word "principles." I would prefer the term "science" to "study," since the former denotes a defined, intelligible object. "Moral" has etymological roots implying character or habit, but increasingly just means "good according to some standard." I don't care for "behavior" either.1
This choice of words has profound consequences. Sciences are divided according to the things they comprehend.2 For example, geometry is the study of magnitude, and arithmetic is a separate science because it has a separate object (multitude). So, if ethics is a science, its definition needs to mention what it comprehends: the habits, created by human action, which attain the human good. The diction of my professor's definition excludes a specific difference between man and irrational animals, denies a definite object (a single goal or final cause), and precludes the notion of habit (virtue and vice).
"[Beneficence is to] do what is good; help others further their own legitimate interests."The first part of this statement is a restatement of the word; the second part, a definition of "good." The professor continues to exclude virtue ethics from the horizon of study: what is "good" in Aristotle's mind is not what helps others, but what perfects the soul of the actor (similarly, what is "good" for a Catholic is what makes the soul conform to God). Undeniably, a good action helps others, but this is secondary.
"Legitimate interests" makes me cringe. I know "legitimate" has roots in legis, or "law," which is one of the things Aristotle calls "just," full of rectitude, "right," virtuous.... On top of this, something of "interest" from interesse is pivotal or of great concern. Could my professor mean to help someone become more virtuous in matters of pivotal importance? No; instead, he means something grayish. "Legitimate interests" means "whatever seems best to them," whether it be food, Prozac, or emergency contraception. (Parenthetically: isn't it fascinating how a statement can be so classical and philosophically sound etymologically, but so flat and relativistic in intention?)
"[Justice is] the duty or obligation to allocate social burdens and benefits."These quotes get worse and worse. It isn't bad to call justice a "duty or obligation," but it is not consistent. Nowhere else does the professor express that virtue is a "duty." (In fact, his previous statements do not even demonstrate that he encourages virtue at all.) I expect that justice gets the "duty" label for the same reason toddlers understand "unfair" before "unkind": justice is one of the cardinal (pagan) virtues, while other "principles" we covered in class (e.g. beneficence, above) are Christian. The cardinal virtues are prior in understanding and last to leave when a culture (like ours) is declining.
I also notice a big omission in this statement. Justice pertains to allocation, but it is a good or fitting allocation! This key species-making difference is absent.3
"I have no answers."This is unspeakably bad. Although this individual may be so ignorant as to have no answers, he unquestionably implies "there are no answers" in class (many of my classmates illustrate this to me by griping that they're "sick of 'there are no answers'"). Moreover, even if you understand him charitably, he gives scandal by professing that he is Catholic (which he has done in front of the class) and claiming to be ignorant of an objective morality.
Earlier this week I took the final exam in this class (different from the post-test). It had questions about disparities, respecting other cultures, working between disciplines, confidentiality, and genetics. There were several silly questions (and several misspellings, of which I am tired), but I cannot remember any now.
I'm glad this course is ending. However, I'm a glutton for punishment: I'm hoping to take the gender and sexuality elective next year, along with the healthcare law elective. Perhaps these will be in small-group settings with people who are more logical. Dum spiro, spero....
1"Behavior is more of a psychological word and is applied even to animals, whereas conduct has a strictly ethical maening and is exclusively human." Fagothey, Austin. Right and Reason; Ethics in Theory and Practice. Rockford, IL: Tan and, 2000. Print. 88-89.
2 Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. Trans. R. W. Browne. Covent Garden: George Bell and Sons, 1889. Print. 5, 11.
3As an aside, here is a crash course in Aristotle on justice: Aristotle teaches that justice is a virtue (a mean between extremes). There are several types of justice, divided by the various situations in which a mean is created. Distributive justice is a proportional doling-out of goods; rectificatory justice is equal restitution for lost property or exchanged goods; legal justice is fitting obedience to civil laws, both conventional and moral.