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Distinguishing the Different Schools of Ethical Thought

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Axiology or Theory of Value is the discipline that studies values, in general, what makes things desirable. I have proposed that axiology (as the study of ‘value’) be considered as the study of preferential behavior”. He called a “value situation” any situation in which preferential behavior occurs. Values are manifold.

Some, such as wealth and power, are instrumental for reaching other ones. Other values have instrumental and intrinsic senses (as means and ends), such as health and knowledge. Moral values are goals for human life, such as compassion, happiness and justice. They are concerned with good and evil, right and wrong, regulating the behaviors and relations between human beings and giving sense to their individual and collective lives. In every society, there are moral values commanding obligations and interdictions, often supported by myths. Individuals have to make moral choices and take decisions in their everyday lives.

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Moral sensitivity means, in particular, the conscience of how our actions may affect other people, and being concerned with their suffering. Morality is a universal phenomenon, but moral values are historically, culturally, socially and individually variable, and may vary radically. The world never was as Voltaire saw it when he quietly said: “There is a sole moral as there is a sole geometry”. There are obsolete, lasting and emerging values. For example, thinkers as preeminent as Plato, Aristotle and St. Augustine deemed slavery natural and necessary. Religious intolerance was a theological imperative giving rise to the establishment of the Catholic Inquisition, in the middle Ages. In nineteenth century, several Popes severely condemned the ‘evils’ of ‘modernism’, liberalism and socialism. The most famous document of the Catholic resistance to moral, intellectual and political advancements was the attached to the Encyclical of Pope, which anathematized the modern ‘errors’ in 80 statements.

Before condemned, in Encyclical, “the unbridled lust for freedom”, the “liberty of conscience”, the “immoderate freedom of opinion, license of free speech, and desire for novelty”, which were “a pestilence more deadly to the state than any other”. The “freedom to publish” was said “harmful and never sufficiently denounced”. Morals and Ethics are terms etymologically synonymous, with Latin and Greek etymologies, respectively. Both refer to ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ conduct, to custom or way of being. Ethics designated the part of Philosophy concerned with human behavior. Aristotle “may be deemed to be creator of the expression and of the concept of moral theory as a distinct discipline”. The Stoic philosophers made it the core of wisdom.

George W. F. Hegel distinguished between Ethics and Moral, applying the former to the concrete rules and behaviors, and the latter to the reflection on the moral values. These days, many authors view the relation between Ethics and Morals differently. For example, in the opinion of Paul, “ethics is more fundamental than morals”. We should “distinguish between ethics and morals, to reserve the term ethics for every questioning preceding the introduction of the moral law idea, and to call moral all that, in the field of good and evil, refers to laws, norms, imperatives”. Jacqueline Russ also considered justified and useful this distinction between Ethics and Morals: “The first one is more theoretical than the second one, intended to be more concerned with a reflection on the foundations of the latter”.

Ethics denotes, “not a moral. The major ethical questions are as old as philosophical inquiry and revive at times of cultural destabilization and ideological unrest. It is out of the scope of this study to give an account of the present variety of answers to them. Only the first one is next briefly approached. Aristotle wrote that “it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust”. Being so, “when perfected, [he] is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with the arms of intelligence and with moral qualities which he may use for the worst ends”.

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