Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ethics vs. Righteousness

In my conversation this past Sunday, my interlocutor suggested than an ethical act and a righteous act (he seemed to be using the words synonymously) was not merely doing the right thing, but also having the right motivation, name what he called Christian motivation, which he said was based in love of God and love of neighbor. It struck me as a bit too restrictive to say that an act is not ethical unless it bears good motivation, even more so Christian motivation. There seem to be two separate components to consider in judging the goodness of reflective actions (I'll leave aside actions that are impulsive): the external event and the internal motivation. Either of these components (independently) can be in line or out of line with God's requirements. An external action in line with God's law, even if executed with an improper spirit, is certainly better than a wrong external action, though a right action with a right spirit is indeed better than both. It seems, then, proper to make a distinction between events where both the external act and the internal motivation are in line with God's law and events where the external act is in line with God's law, though the spirit falls short.

At first glance, it seems like "ethical" and "righteous" could suit this distinction well: A righteous act is doing the right thing for the right reason, and an ethical act is merely doing the right thing, even if it's with the wrong spirit. Under this distinction, all righteous acts would be ethical, but some ethical acts might not be righteous.

Stepping aside for a moment, ethics is also sometimes contrasted with morality. I have heard some people claim that an act could be ethical but not moral (or vice versa), but such a distinction doesn't seem appropriate to me. I'm not quite sure what definitions they are using to generate such a distinction. They may be using ethical to mean in line with codified norms for right behavior and moral to mean in line with a more stringent, uncodified set of norms for interpersonal behavior. Under this distinction, one might not talk about adultery in terms of ethics, though certainly in terms of morality. Although I can appreciate the distinction between judging acts against codified and uncodified standards of behavior, I am, in general, more interested in right behavior, whether or not standards for such behavior are codified, especially since human codes of proper behavior may be fallible. Instead, at the moment, I favor the distinction that morality discusses right human behavior in the abstract, and that ethics discusses right human behavior in concrete situations. Under these definitions, an ethical act is always a moral act.

But, here I run into a problem. Peter Strawson's account of moral responsibility, which I favor when speaking in secular contexts, bases the existence of moral responsibility in the expectation we hold on others---inherent in our normal, adult interpersonal relationships---to maintain a posture of goodwill (or at least to refrain from expressions of ill-will) toward us. Strawson points to resentment and gratitude as indicators of this expectation: If you step on my foot accidentally, I do not feel the same kind of resentment as if you do it purposefully, even though my physical pain is the same; and, if you do something that helps me as an unintended consequence, I do not feel the same kind of gratitude as if you did it with me in mind, though I am benefited in either case. Given this framework for understanding moral responsibility, we hold people to account, in part, for the motivations of their actions. I believe this would imply that a moral (and thus an ethical) act depends not only on the external event, but also on the internal motivation, meaning that formally there would be no ethical but non-righteous acts.

So, somewhere I have a definitional problem. Perhaps my ethical/righteous distinction isn't appropriate. Perhaps my ethics/morality distinction isn't appropriate. Or perhaps I'm inappropriately pushing Strawson's account too far to found a moral system, instead of merely supporting the existence of moral responsibility.

More to think about.

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