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Title: Editorial
Subtitle: Ethics and Complexity
Author(s): VANDEVELDE, Toon
Journal: Ethical Perspectives
Volume: 11    Issue: 4   Date: 2004   
Pages: 213-214
DOI: 10.2143/EP.11.4.519086

Abstract :
lassical ethical theories were not specifically designed to tackle complex ethical dilemmas. Of course, ethical life was not easier in earlier days than it is now, but difficulties were mainly situated in the conflict between different human faculties. Passions, for instance, were supposed to obstruct the work of reason. If complexity there was, it was mainly situated within the human being, not in external reality. Plato warned us that the way out of the cave was long and arduous, but in another passage he complained about these youngsters choosing crooked ways instead of following the straight bright avenue to truth. Aristotle argued that theoretical knowledge of the good and the beautiful does not yield enough guidance for ethical behaviour in real life — that means, in particular circumstances — but the difficulties practical wisdom had to face should not be overrated. Education had to aim at providing youngsters with a virtuous character, so that they would almost automatically live according to the highest ethical standards. In the Middle Ages, it was inconceivable for most philosophers that a gap could ever emerge between sensible self-interest, virtue and the common good. The very possibility of such a gap was faced for the first time in the eighteenth century, when Rousseau, Hume and Smith described rough versions of the prisoner’s dilemma, but immediately this insight was repressed within a harmonic naturalism: if reason gets us into trouble, nature leads us almost unconsciously in the good direction. Finally, Kant may be hard to read, but his guidelines for action – the three-fold formulation of the categorical imperative - are fairly clear.

Maybe the complexity of the outer world penetrated ethics for the first time with the rise of utilitarianism. Science was introduced into ethics, and with it the notion of a social arithmetic. Aggregation of individual preferences was technically difficult to achieve and an acute awareness cropped up that there are various different values and that a trade-off between them is necessary. However the values at stake were supposed to be comparable. It was in principle possible to optimize and that implied: sacrifice one value somewhat in order to get more of another one. The twentieth century brought an acute awareness of the genuine plurality of values within society. Moreover scientific and technological progress yielded new ethical dilemmas for individuals and for societies and these could not be handled any longer in a satisfactory way with the rough rules of thumb used in the past. Also the compass of our spontaneous ethical intuitions got stuck. Simple rules like ‘our ventures should always continue to serve humanity’ or ‘my freedom is limited by the necessity of granting the same kind of freedom to others’ lose much of their evidence when they have to be applied to, say, embryonic or genetic research. It is not surprising that precisely in these circumstances the notion of tragic choices gains a renewed interest. The mother that is informed that the baby she expects will be handicapped does not experience her problem as a trade-off, but rather as a choice that makes her feel guilty whatever she does. Decision-makers facing scarcity problems in healthcare and having to refuse repayment of very expensive medical treatments that could enhance the comfort of sick or aged people feel the same uneasiness.

Most articles in this issue of Ethical Perspectives deal with these kinds of complexities. Thomas Nys presents an overview of contemporary discussions on human freedom. Ultimately he refuses to subsume all our ethical concerns under a single concept of freedom and he endorses Isaiah Berlin’s advocacy of irreducible value pluralism. Kevin Williams argues that even in secular environments school curricula should reserve a substantial place to initiation in religious sensibility. Religious illiteracy cuts people off from a substantial part of our cultural heritage and obscures our self-understanding. Moreover, the experience of religion from the inside opens our mind to a world beyond utility. This kind of wisdom remains important, also for atheists. Michael Dusche points to India as a laboratory where the most radical form of multiculturalism is brought into practice. He argues for normative methodological individualism. Doubtless, individuals are embedded in social networks and tight communities, but they should not be locked up in them. Basic human rights should not be put aside in the name of communal rights. Dusche argues for a liberal pluralism rather than a radical multiculturalism, although he admits that linguistic justice is hard to achieve within this framework. Finally Christopher Cowley discusses the case of Diane Pretty and her husband. Assisted suicide was refused to this woman who became almost completely paralyzed. Cowley argues for the priority of the agential perspective above the spectator’s point of view. He thinks that in an extremely tragic situation the decision of the people immediately concerned should be respected as morally serious, even when they are unable to justify it.

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