Determinants of ethics
These are the factors in human behaviour that determine whether it is good or bad. There are three such determinants of ethics, namely the object, the end, and the circumstances. Object means what the free will chooses to do in thought, word, or deed or chooses not to do. By end is meant the purpose for which the act is willed, which may be the act itself (as one of loving God) or some other purpose for which a person acts (as reading to learn). In either case, the end is the motive or the reason why an action is performed. By circumstances are meant all the elements that surround a human action and affect its morality without belonging to its essence. Some circumstances so affect the morals of an action as to change its species. Other circumstances change the extent of kindness or badness of an act. In bad acts they are called aggravating circumstances. To be ethically good, a human act must agree with the norm of morality on all three counts; in its nature, its motive, and its circumstances. Departure from any of these makes the action morally wrong.
Object of a Human Action
The object of an action is the first part of any action in a morality assessment. The object of any action is its essence. It is that which makes an action be what it is and not something else. Every action has an object. The object distinguishes the act from every other act. That object can be something good, bad or indifferent—that is, neither good nor bad. Lying and telling the truth are examples of two actions that are distinguished from each other according to moral criteria. The following principles apply to the object of every action.
- An action whose object is bad by its very nature will remain bad and nothing can improve it—neither circumstances, nor purpose, nor intention. A lie, defined as speaking contrary to what is in the speakers mind, remains a lie despite the purpose or circumstance involved. Purpose and circumstance do not make it anything (another object) except a lie.
- An action that is good may become bad because of circumstances or purpose. For example, telling the truth is a good act. By telling the truth, when silence would suffice, to destroy another person’s good name or character makes the good act of telling the truth a morally bad act because of the speaker’s purpose or intention.
- An action that is indifferent (neither good nor bad) may become good or bad because of circumstances or purpose. Walking may be an indifferent act. But walking into a store to steal becomes a morally evil action because of the purpose.
Circumstances of a Human Action
Circumstances are those qualities that make an abstract act concrete and individual. Circumstances include such things as the act being done at a particular time, in a particular place, by a particular agent, in a particular manner. Moral circumstances, not physical, are the criteria for assessing the goodness or badness of a human action.9 Moral circumstances may increase the goodness or badness of a human action. To strike another person in self-defense is one thing; to strike another without any provocation or justification is another matter.
Some moral circumstances are aggravating when they increase the goodness or badness of an action. Thus, stealing from a homeless person is an aggravating circumstance that increases the badness of an already bad act. Circumstances are extenuating when they decrease the amount of badness of an action. For example, to steal 10 rs. from the Chase Manhattan Bank is not as bad as stealing 10 rs. from a homeless person, but it is still an evil act. Moral circumstances are specifying when they make an indifferent act become good or bad, or when they give a new kind of goodness or badness to an action. For example, taking money from a till is an indifferent act. If the money belongs to the taker, the act is all right. But if the money belongs to another person, it is an evil, immoral act.
Some philosophers maintain that circumstances are the sole criterion for judging the morality of a human action. Joseph Fletcher, in particular, reflected this position.10 To a certain extent, subscribers to the teleological theory (interpretivists) may appear to focus more closely on the circumstances of an action, to the extent that they strive to understand or give meaning to a human action. However, interpretivists need not limit their consideration of morality to mere circumstances; they also can, as stated above, consider the nature of the action and its purpose.
The most difficult problem in situation ethics is that it often makes morality subjective and relative. There is nothing to prevent two persons in same circumstances from giving two diametrically opposite meanings to the same action. This implies that an action that is morally good for one person is morally evil for another. Although interpretivists do subscribe to human reason as an interpreter of human actions, the person who focuses on the situation alone cannot be sure of the moralitiy of at least some actions.
The Purpose of a Human Action
The end of a human action is the purpose the person had in mind while doing the act. It is the intention. People can have only one purpose or have a variety of purposes in doing a particular act.11 We can deduce certain principles based on the purpose in mind when performing the act.
- An action that is indifferent because of its object may become good or bad because of the purpose. For example, jogging in itself is an indifferent act. When done to maintain good health, it becomes a good act. When done to arrive at a place where the person commits theft or murder, it becomes an immoral action.
- An action that is good because of its object may become more good or less good or even bad because of the purpose. For example, to give a donation to a homeless person is a good action. If you give the donation just to get rid of the person, it is still a good action, but not as good as in the first case. If you give the donation to lure the homeless person into doing something evil or immoral for you, the donation becomes an immoral act.
- An action that is evil by its object may become more wrong or perhaps less wrong, but never good by its purpose. For instance, telling a lie is morally wrong. But telling a lie to defame another person is more wrong. Telling a lie “to get out of trouble” or to protect the interests of another person is still lying and still wrong, but less wrong because of the purpose. A good end does not justify a bad means.