June 17, 2016 by leohowu
While studying for the AP World History test, I came across a specific movement in Europe that I hadn’t studied or even thought about for the past two years – The Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment was a philosophical movement in 18th century Europe that advocated the notion that reason, or rational thought, was the primary basis fo authority and legitimacy. From this idea sprang the many political and social values that nations such as the United States of America espouse – liberty, individualism, secular government, and laissez faire economics, among others. The movement sprung up as a result of the many advancements in science during the Scientific Revolution, such as the creation of the scientific method and the concepts of deductive and inductive reasoning. The paradigm shift in the Enlightenment, where ethical reasoning was changed thoroughly as a result of the a revolution in the natural sciences, was fascinating, and immediately I found myself formulating a knowledge question – to what extent is knowledge in ethics altered by new knowledge from other areas of knowledge?
In many ways, knowledge in this area of knowledge is defined or acquired through reasoning. This holds especially true for the utilitarian school of ethics, which stipulates that an action may be considered moral or unmoral based on the consequences – whether it benefits or harms the greater good. People who adhere to this school of ethics reach this conclusion through reason – they observe the possible consequences, weigh the benefits, and make a decision. On the other hand, those who espouse the deontological school of ethics, which advocates an intrinsic moral value in all actions, and thus justifies an action based on the action itself, acquire their knowledge in ethics through intuition. This way of knowing guides people into believing an action is good or bad based on their “gut-feeling”.
In many ways, knowledge in ethics may be heavily influenced by the acquirement of new knowledge in other ways of knowing, such as the natural sciences. Advancements in scientific thought have an indirect impact on ethics, because the natural sciences work primarily on reason, just as ethics does. Developments in the scientific method and the framework for acquiring knowledge may be applied to the field of ethics, where we often use inductive reasoning to reach ethical conclusions.
The acquirement of knowledge in the area of knowing of history also has an impact on ethical knowledge. The study of history has many purposes, including the identification of patterns that serve to help people predict the course of events in the future. For example, the profound research on genocide nowadays serves the purpose of helping experts recognize when a country is gearing towards genocide. Thus, acquiring new knowledge in history, in the form of new identifications of patterns, impacts ethics because our observations of the past are what are ethical perspectives are based on. The alienation of specific races or religions is now widely accepted as ethically wrong because of our historical knowledge of what such type of behavior would potentially lead to – the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, and such. Our observation of the past thus leads us to alterations in ethics.
I briefly mentioned the two schools of ethics because during the Enlightenment, there was a paradigm shift in the ethical reasoning of political thinkers, from a paradigm roughly equivalent to deontology to that of utilitarianism. In its essence, the ethical knowledge of these Enlightenment thinkers was altered due to advancements in the natural sciences, from the Scientific Revolution. The creation of the scientific method and the idea that the world functioned based on a number of scientific maxims (theorems) led to direct changes in the way thinkers of that time reasoned ethically; no longer was the moral value of an action found in what the Church said, it was found through reasoning. For example, during the Enlightenment, there was a departure from the idea of divine right (the right to rule given by God) because as Enlightenment thinkers studied the sciences, they realized the effects of placing full authority in one person – nepotism, corruption, and authoritarianism. Theories of government based on the will of the people were thus developed as a result of the process of reason – if people arrived first and were capable of living in a functioning society, and the government then arose later, it should be the job of the government to protect individual rights, not coerce people into carrying out the will of the ruler.
However, despite advancements in other areas of knowing, knowledge in the ethics still often follows a basic line of understanding that remains unchanged. The following saying – “for the benefit of the greater good” – continues to be passed on from generation to generation, remaining unchanged despite the acquirement of knowledge in other areas of knowing. Society and its people still often overlook the fallacy of the greater good, which finds its fault in the limitations of language. Hitler advocated the removal of “lesser races” for the benefit of the “greater good” of the German nation. Despite our full knowledge of how language as a way of knowing may be manipulated to influence our ethical understanding (a point that we learned through our study of history) we still continue to advocate this line of thought.
So to what extent does new knowledge change our knowledge in ethics? It is true that in many instances, the creation (or to some, discovery) of knowledge may impact our ethical understanding, because we may be able to apply certain methodology to our ethical reasoning (inductive reasoning), or that what we learn from other areas of knowing may influence the way we reason ethically. However, the way of knowing of language may often perpetuate certain ethical perspectives. Despite language perpetuating these perspectives, the impact of new knowledge on ethics is still profound – the Enlightenment for example, marked a revolutionary change in many areas extending from ethics, and as we know by history, this change was sparked by none other than a revolution in the sciences.
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