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July 26, 2021 / Congau

The Agony of Ethics

Ethics is the science of asking that exceedingly difficult question: What am I to do?

It’s a desperate question, isn’t it? When confronted with the endless possibilities of human life and the seemingly limitless freedom of the will, a little man may be forgiven for sitting down in despair and covering his eyes so as to not see the infinity of the starry heavens. Better to live in a bubble where the range is narrow and the alternatives are few and manageable. 

But even in the minimal scope of our daily world there is no escape. Problems appear; dilemmas constantly pop up and ruin our peaceful indifference. What is the right thing to do in this situation? My options may not be many, perhaps as few as two, but the agony of the choice may still be overwhelming.

The science of ethics is there to help… and to make everything many times more difficult. Maybe you didn’t even know you had a problem until you made the mistake of exposing yourself to the precepts of an ethical theory. Your quiet world may have been shattered forever the moment you realized that the answer was not a self-evident given and that another course of action might always be considered. 

However, chances are you were already a reflective sort of fellow and knew the twitch of conscience that occurs when one doubts one’s own action. In that case you were familiar with the essence of ethics even if you had never been bothered by any of those distressing theories. You may have been considering such notions as good and bad, right and wrong, and racked your brain about what was the appropriate thing to do at a certain moment, but you may not have had the method for sorting it out. That’s when systematic ethics can actually come in as a relief.

You hear the voice of the esteemed scholar Immanuel Kant instructing you to act as if the maxim of your action were to become a universal law, and you would immediately grasp the necessity of your next move. Or you could lend your ear to the venerable jurist Jeremy Bentham who would tell you to choose the action that would result in the greatest amount of happiness, and a few simple calculations would suffice to settle the issue. Being a devout deontologist (like Kant) or a utilitarian (like Bentham) does make life easier in certain respects. 

But as already suggested there is more to ethics than the resolution of definite dilemmas where a limited number of possible acts are to be scrutinized. If you are careful enough, maybe by taking shelter on a deserted island and living there far from the risk of causing injury to anyone, you may not do much morally wrong but you wouldn’t do much right either. On the other hand, by positioning yourself in the midst of a busy society, not only do you risk wrongdoing, but the possibility for doing right may just be too overwhelming for a frail soul. How do I know where to begin, and where to stop? How do I know what to do? Please give me a theory!

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