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MORAL PHILOSOPHY (Philo 12)
Michael Jhon M. Tamayao, Ph.L., MPhil.
At the end of the discussion, the students must be able to:
Before going to the definition of philosophy and ethics, it is important to first explain the nature and approach of our course. This will give us an idea about what possible themes are discussed in this subject and “how” we are to discuss them.
i. The main branches of knowledge
We can divide the entire field of human knowledge into two major categories: the Humanities and the Empirical Sciences.
Under the Humanities are religion, philosophy, and the arts. Under the Empirical Sciences are the different Natural Sciences (such as Biology, Chemistry, & Physics) and the Social Sciences (such as Economics, History, & Sociology). The Humanities generally use the “speculative” approach, while the Empirical Sciences use the “empirical” approach.
This is not an exhaustive diagram of all the different branches of knowledge.
Philosophy is a speculative science because it is under the broader speculative discipline of Humanities. Inasmuch as philosophy is a speculative science, ethics, which is a branch of philosophy, is also a speculative science. The first thing that all students of this subject should know is the distinction between the “speculative” sciences and the “empirical” sciences. Understanding the difference between the two is a prerequisite for understanding the nature of philosophy and ethics.
ii. Etymology of the words “empirical” and “speculative”
The word “empirical” came from the Greek word “empirikos”, which means “experience.” Empirikos could further be dissected into two Greek words, en– and peira, which respectively mean “in” and “trial.” Thus, “empirical” describes that which is derived from experience or trials/experiments. The word speculative, on the other hand, came from the Greek word “spekulatus”, which means “to look at.” Thus, speculative is defined as something that is derived from examinations and theoretical activities.
iii. Empirical is inductive while Speculative is deductive
We usually associate the empirical way of thinking with inductive reasoning, and the speculative with deductive reasoning. The former (empirical/inductive) starts with specific, observational, and experiential data in coming up with generalized conclusions. The latter (speculative/deductive), on the other, starts with general ideas and applies them to specific circumstances. The empirical and the speculative modes of thinking are henceforth differentiated in their way of coming up with and acquiring knowledge.
iv. Philosophy as a speculative science
Philosophy (and therefore also moral philosophy) is not an empirical study of the actions of man or of the nature of the material universe, although empirical studies of man are of relevance to the philosopher. Philosophers do not generally engage in empirical researches that usually begin with specific questions about someone or something. While they may consider the “generalizations” and “conclusions” inferred from the data and specific queries, they don’t indulge themselves with the specifics. Philosophers primarily engage with general concepts and fundamental principles of all sciences. This way of inquiry is called the “speculative” mode of thinking. Thus, instead of asking specific questions, philosophers ask questions of the following sort:
What is ultimate reality?
How can I know?
How can I know correctly?
Which things/actions are beautiful/good?
Why does something exist?
After having seen the approach used by the Humanities, in general, and philosophy, in particular, which is highly speculative, let us now discuss the meaning of the term “philosophy”.
WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?
We are not actually seeking for the absolute definition of philosophy. Defining philosophy using one standard definition is itself a reduction of the full significance of the word. Philosophy, after all, is something that eludes exact definition. When I say, for example, that philosophy is a quest for human knowledge, the exact meaning of knowledge or how it is acquired is again a paradoxical concept requiring further inquiry. In addition, some philosophers also define philosophy basing on what they think indeed engages philosophical thinking. So aside from the evasive nature of the term, philosophy is also relative to the definitions given by the publicly acclaimed philosophers. So what should we do and where should we start?
Well, one good approach is to proceed with the discussion of the following: 1. “Etymology “of the word; 2. “Common definitions” of philosophy; 3. “Aristotle’s definition” of philosophy; 4. The process of “Questioning and Answering” in philosophy; 5. “The Branches” of philosophy, and; 6. “Emergence” of Philosophy. This is not of course the standard way of discussing the meaning of philosophy, but this is, for me, the most effective way of orienting the students to the meaning of philosophy.
i. Etymology of the Word “Philosophy”…
The word philosophy is derived from the word “philosopher” for which the Greek term is “philosophos,” a lover (philos) of wisdom (sophia). The etymology (origin) of the word indicates that philosophy, before becoming a discipline or field of study, is first and foremost a personal disposition towards knowledge. It is not just a course or a general education subject, but, rather, a “way of life.”
ii. Common Definitions of Philosophy…
Here is a list of definitions that is usually given to philosophy:
Philosophy is a quest for wisdom.
Philosophy is a quest for truth.
Philosophy is a form of in depth thinking.
Philosophy studies life.
Because we cannot give a single definition for philosophy, none of these will suffice the real meaning of philosophy. But as they say, in order to know something, we need to have a starting point.
Although the above given definitions will tell us some basic characteristics of philosophy, these definitions are still vague and misleading. The words truth and knowledge, for example, are very vague, and they usually go beyond the grips of common everyday thinking. In a way we already know them, but if we think about them we realize that we do not. Try defining them and you’ll see what I mean. These concepts have been two of the most highly sought and problematized concepts in philosophy.
iii. Aristotle’s Definition
To have a guiding definition and for reasons of sufficiency and simplicity, let us adopt Aristotle’s definition of philosophy. According to this great thinker, philosophy is the study of the ultimate principles and causes of things using human reason alone. It is a science that provides a systematic and clear account of what is deemed important in the world, such as questions pertaining to reality and human existence. It asks the basis for the rationality of the universe and human life.
So who are the philosophers? Well, the simple answer is that anyone can be a philosopher provided that he develops in himself the disposition of curiosity and the desire to explain systematically the ultimate meaning of things.
One method employed in philosophy is the “dialectical” or “question & answer” method. This method was developed by Socrates and Plato. The method points into the definitive character of philosophy as something that seeks the ultimate principles or grounds of things. If one makes a statement, for example, “Philosophy is the search for truth,” philosophers will question this statement further and look for the deeper meanings of the terms. So I would ask, “what do you mean by truth?” Through a continuous search for the ultimate answers for anything whatsoever, one will eventually arrive at the fundamental explanations of things.
v. The Branches of Philosophy…
Traditionally, philosophy has five branches: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, value philosophy, and ontology. Inasmuch as philosophy seeks for the ultimate reasons of things, these branches probe for the ultimate grounds of things. Metaphysics asks, “What is ultimate reality?” Epistemology asks, “How can man possibly know something?” The branch that provides rules for the mind to think correctly is Logic. Value Philosophy asks which things or actions are beautiful or good. And the branch that asks “why does something exist?” is Ontology. We will study them more in detail as we proceed with our lesson.
Today, philosophy could have infinite branches for the basic reason that it can be the study anything under the sun. Henceforth, the expression “philosophy of X” where X may be substituted with sciences like art, history, law, literature, or the various special sciences such as physics and biology.
WHAT IS ETHICS OR MORAL PHILOSOPHY?
After discussing the meaning of philosophy, we are now ready to talk about the meaning of ethics. Because ethics is a branch of philosophy, it also asks fundamental questions about the most important of things. It asks questions like, “Which acts are good?”, “Why are these acts really good?”, “What moral norms should be implemented?”, or “What is the meaning of life?”
Ethical accounts usually explain the rationality of our moral experiences, of why we feel pity towards a certain person, for example, or why in some circumstances should we denounce the acts of a certain person and claim that he is evil. These said accounts attempt to explain why we feel these things and make these moral judgments about them.
Although there are numerous accounts that explain our moral experiences, one can simply categorize them into two general theories: “Moral Subjectivism” and “Moral Objectivism.” On the one hand, Moral Subjectivism states that moral judgments are formed by the society. This means that moral norms vary from one culture to another. Moral Objectivism, on the other hand, states that moral judgments are objective rational judgments about our moral experiences. This means that there are universally accepted moral norms that are objectively true for all cultures.
It is a “science” because it is a collection of organized, systematized, and coherent ideas that explain or rationalize the morality of human acts. It is a “practical” science because it is a body of knowledge that pertains to how we conduct ourselves through our actions. Now, what ethics explains is the “morality” of “human acts.” When we say morality, we simply mean the quality of an act, i.e. the rightness or wrongness of an act. And by human acts, we mean actions done by man using his highest faculties, which are “reason” and “will.”
Ethics is also called “moral philosophy” because it searches for the deepest essence and reasons (philosophy) of human morality. For this reason, some define ethics as the “philosophy of life.” Morality is exclusive to man because he is the only creature who has reason and will. The reason why man aims to be a moral being is because he wants to live a meaningful life. Thus, more fundamental than asking the morality of human acts is the question of the meaning of life itself.
To know the meaning of life, two equally important questions must be answered: “where did we come from?” and “what is the purpose of our life?” This leads to the idea that the meaning of our existence lies in the understanding of our temporality. Our present existence is anchored on the knowledge of our origin (past) and purpose in life (future).
Where did everything come from? Many answers have been offered. Among them are the theories of Evolutionism and Creationism. While we cannot have an absolute answer or theory adequate enough to answer the question, the question still stands. Regardless of what theory we adopt, for as long as it clarifies our origins, then such theory may do.
What is the purpose of our existence? Various answers were likewise proposed to answer this question. Some say, achieving Happiness is the purpose of life because in anything that man does happiness is always his intention. Some say Pleasure because it is what makes life worth living. And for some, God is our ultimate goal; that after living a good earthly life, we will once again be united with God, the Creator and End of all things.
 Felix Montemayor, Ethics: The Philosophy of Life, (Navotas: Navotas Press, 2006) p. xii.