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Ethics, The Shining Lamp of Knowledge


The study of ethical theories from Western philosophy leads one to draw the conclusion that there is no one correct or best moral theory. This is evident because whilst there may be agreement on elements of a number of theories, there is no universal consensus among philosophers and academics as to which single one is best.

Contributor: Dev Odedra

With this in mind, if one wanted to make the best of some of the most popular ethical theories from Western philosophy, an Eastern approach may serve as a good foundation for achieving this by turning to an unlikely candidate as a great philosophical mind. To many, Bruce Lee was a famous movie star known for his mastery of martial arts. Very few know that he was an even greater philosopher. “Research your own experience. Absorb what is useful. Reject what is useless. Add what is specifically your own” was Bruce Lee’s four step guide to enlightenment (1) which came to define the essence of his philosophy known as ‘Jeet Kune Do’.

With the axiom that there is no one best ethical theory, Bruce Lee’s philosophy serves as a great way to approach the study of Western ethical theories. As the author’s personal interest centres on knowledge of ‘self’, in the study of ethical philosophy particular attention was paid to theories of Jonathan Dancy, Aristotle and David Hume. In the eyes of the author, the ‘Contractarian’ views of John Rawls, the ‘Utilitarian’ views of John Stuart Mill and the ‘Deontological’ views of Immanuel Kant do not focus on ‘self’ how the author views self hence are not covered here.

In exploring ethics, one quickly learns that ‘practical’ ethics, known as ‘First Order’ ethics, is linear in that it focusses on whether an action is simply right or wrong. This alone is not sufficient to obtain a deeper understanding of the philosophies of ethics therefore ‘theoretical’ ethics, ‘Second Order’ ethics, explores what makes an action right or wrong, leading to greater thinking and self-knowledge.

Dancy's criticism of Atomism

This forms the basis of Jonathan Dancy’s argument against ‘Atomism’ as Atomism states (2) “…that any feature that is a reason in favour of action in one case will always be a reason in favour of action whenever it occurs”, something used as an argument by ‘Moral Generalists’ that moral principles are universal and apply in all situations. Dancy’s thinking against this holds weight in that Atomism cannot be true as it lacks the inclusion of circumstance and context thus there can be no true moral principles. Although on the face of it, it may appear that this would stop somebody acting morally, it does not because the actions could be circumstantial. For example, something that is a reason to act in one situation may not be a reason to act in another of similar nature. One may say that stealing is wrong hence any situation involving stealing is wrong but if one was on the verge of starvation and had no choice but to steal food or face imminent death the argument can be made that it was justified. To this effect, Dancy makes a strong argument through ‘Moral Metaphysics’ for ‘Moral Particularism’, in that there are no moral principles, just moral reasons for acting a certain way by applying a moral “rule of thumb” as opposed to hard principles. This makes one question the nature of moral values and whether they really exist, especially as it questions how we justify our beliefs about right and wrong and whether this counts as actual knowledge, ‘Moral Epistemology’.