totalizing: treating disparate parts as having one character, principle, or application. (Oxford Languages / Google Dictionary) “Totalizing ethics” might be a better way to say what I’m against here.
Philosophical ethics is often divided into three leading approaches: virtue ethics, consequentialism, and deontology. This division leaves options out, especially if you take each of these three approaches to be totalizing: to claim, as they often do, that all of ethics can be founded on the roots identified by that approach.
For virtue ethics, the roots of ethics lie in certain characteristics of the ethical agent. These include virtues, “practical wisdom”, which roughly amounts to knowing how to apply and balance virtues, and in most theories “flourishing”. Flourishing – and this quickly gets murky and controversial – is about how well an agent’s life goes. Here, “how well it goes” is already an ethically laden concept, not defined entirely by some simple metric such as how the agent rates it or how pleasant the agent’s life is.
For consequentialists, the roots of ethics lie in good consequences. Actions are right if they lead to good consequences and avoid bad ones, and likewise virtues are worth cultivating if they lead to good consequences and not bad. Consequentialisms differ over what counts as good consequences – happiness? Preference satisfaction? But set those differences aside for now. The most important point is that all other moral verdicts are to be derived from an overall score of good achieved and bad results avoided.
Deontological ethics is focused on duty. It attempts to divide actions into categories of morally prohibited, required, or permitted. Within the permitted actions, some are usually regarded as “supererogatory”, meaning morally good but not required; above and beyond the call of duty. The good results that consequentialists are concerned with usually find their main home here in deontological theories. And of course, character development can be considered a duty by the deontologist.
If this seems like a false trilemma to you, I say: exactly. When we are reasoning together about how to live with each other, there is no need to choose between virtues, good consequences, and rules of behavior. We need all three. Nor is it possible to pick any one of these foundations and adequately explain the other two in a purely derivative way. I won’t even try to survey a good sample of major attempts here – that would take a series of books. I’ll just say that I find them unconvincing. You can, for example, cook up a list of deontological duties that pays sufficient attention to good consequences and virtue development, but then it just looks like an attempt to sneak consequences and virtues in by the back door. Or you can try to derive everything from the Categorical Imperative, which would give ethics a crystalline unity, except for one minor detail: it doesn’t work. You can’t get here (ethics as we know and love it) from there. And equally importantly, why should you try?
Maybe this is a reason people try: if we don’t derive ethics from a single underlying principle, how are we supposed to resolve uncertainties and disagreements? I have a two part answer, the first of which is: sometimes you don’t. Ethics doesn’t have infinite precision, and sometimes there isn’t a uniquely right answer to an ethical question (and it’s not that there is one but we don’t know what it is, although that too can happen).
The other part I already gave: When we are reasoning together about how to live with each other, we are doing ethics. We propose virtues, goals/consequences, and rules, among other things, and listen carefully to objections and counter-proposals, looking for mutually acceptable resolutions. Mutually acceptable meaning acceptable to those who are interested in dialogue and getting along – not necessarily acceptable to psychopaths. We try to watch out for con artists who propose items that advantage themselves with no actual regard for anyone else. We rinse and repeat, ad nauseam and ad infinitum.
The dialogue is never done, both because agreement is incomplete and because of the possibility of error. We might fail to reason correctly, missing opportunities to make everyone in our society better off. We might unjustly impose a biased structure that benefits our own sub-group, telling ourselves that we heard the other sub-groups but their objections were incoherent.
Ethics does depend on the members of society who will be bound by it, but only after such errors are corrected. Ethics is complex because people are. This implies something that might be called a kind of “moral relativism” – insofar as different groups of people generally have differences that make different ways of relating reasonable for them – but not the idea that usually goes by that term. The latter being the idea that whatever a given society says, is automatically moral, for them. No; ethics is a social construct, but it can be well or poorly constructed. Usually, it still needs some work.