Morals and Ethics

Author: Zeynep Direk; Translation: Necdet Yıldız; Editing: Miray Çakıroğlu

SPOT: Every general principle, though it aims justice in its spirit, may reversely cause injustice, and form a totalitarian condition when applied equally and monotonously to the particulars.

SPOT: Feminists, too criticized the social morals, cultivating an ethics peculiar to them. They made feminist politics by defending the values of this ethics. Feminism is an ethical position, inasmuch as it is primarily a demand of justice.

In the times we live, we have the tendency to make a distinction between “morals” and “ethics”. Although morals is less and less spoken, pronunciation of ethics is gradually outspreading and keeping its uptrend. Don’t we come across with it everywhere? In hospitals, schools, business places and even inside the feminist theory. Once, Simone de Beauvoir has talked about The Ethics of Ambiguity, while Luce Irigaray has pronounced The Ethics of Sexual Difference. In the literature of  American feminism; there are tens of books that discuss what feminist ethics is in various positions. Eros Ethics, Ethics of Care, Eco-Feminist Ethics; the list can be prolonged.

So, what do we understand from ethics in our age? Ethics is not only regarded as the theoretical discipline of philosophy that deals with the possibility of true action, but also it is thought that, this term specifies a point of view that we adopt or an attitude that we take when we are facing a difficult circumstance or evaluating it; moreover, this term is considered to be specifying our view of life as a whole, the way of our relatedness with it. In a specific case, when we want to point out  the complexity of human circumstances, we say “this is an ethical problem”    and the meaning of this proposition is different from the meanings of “this is a moral behavior” or “that person is immoral” propositions. When we say something to be “an ethical problem”, what we want to say about that thing is that “we aren’t sure about what we have to do, we should contemplate on this”. There may be no given rules in hand when we encounter a difficult and complex circumstance, for example.  When we have a look at the current usage of this term,  “ethics” doesn’t  refer to the moral reality that is settled in a society; but, forwards us to the problems and dilemmas. In an ethical difficulty, a human circumstance that demands the true action is the point at issue, however, although there are given rules at hand, direct application of these doesn’t make determining the true action mechanically and doing it without a problem possible.  On the one hand, there is the circumstance’s particularity, and on the other hand, the abstract generality of rules…  A state of justice may not always follow when universal is mechanically applied to different particular circumstances. Every general principle is threatened by its own Stalinism. Every general principle, though it aims justice in its spirit, may reversely cause injustice, and form a totalitarian condition when applied equally and monotonously to the particulars. Moreover, the difficulty of ethics doesn’t arise only from the application of general to the particular; usually, general principles themselves are problematic. Sometimes there is a contradiction between the general principles, or sometimes, general principles don’t exist or they are unacceptable. General principles of ethics are also subject to discussion, they are criticizable.

Today we think that we need ethics since sometimes morals is inadequate, besides, it    simply is savagery between whiles and wheres. For instance, the legitimation of women’s mancipation, hurting and  even killing by resident morals, customs and conventions proves that morals may sometimes be savage. In this usage, “morals”, like French “les moeurs”, means historical habituations, societal rules of behavior, customs and conventions that is transmitted from the former generations, that stand somewhere and determine the world of living. Morals contains the norms of social behavior. However, ethics means the discussion of which one of the actions, or behavior, is the true one, by using our reason. Ethics is a subject of discussion made by reason and that’s why it is a branch of philosophy. It does not only make available the truth and falsity for discussion, but also questions the meaning of living good, how to live for an indeed humane life. Moreover, some philosophers had put up the argument that, a basic decision related to the question that which life is worth of living, is much more important than the discussion of actions’ truth or falsity. Ethics generate different norms against the moral norms that already stand immanent in society. The function of ethics is actually to question morals and correct it. And feminists, by cultivating an ethics peculiar to them, criticized the social morals. They made feminist politics by defending the values of this ethics. Feminism is an ethical position, inasmuch as it is primarily a demand of justice. The fact that feminism is an ethics doesn’t mean that it is not politics.

But, this contemporary distinction between ethics and morals go against the conventions of the historians of philosophy. Because, the French word, which we think as the counterpart of morals, “la morale”, is derived from the transmission of the Ancient Greek word “ethos” as “moralitas” to Latin. And the etymology of the word ethics will bring us to the Ancient Greek word “ethos”.  “Ethos” means both the habits and customs that are established somewhere, and character. According to the Ancient Greek approach, character was shaped by habits, customs and practices. Character depended on behavior, and what directs behavior was the present customs there. In the mentality of Ancient Greek, a meaningful ethical discussion could be made not on the basis of the individual’s being moral or not, but rather, by talking about whether the established behavioral rules that are present and habits are good or not. Virtue did not depend on the autonomy of the mind. Contrary to the modern tendency, the possibility of an individual’s being moral was not present in that individual’s freedom of will, no matter what the established morals is. Virtue is not a principle or root of morals, rather is the perfect application of the present norms by contemplating. Hegel calls the Greek word “ethos” Sittlichkeit and uses the German term “moraliätt” only when he mentions Kant’s practical philosophy. French “les moeurs” ,a term that is used for specifying habits and customs, is not an objective term because what gives the meaning to it is a specific culture dependent on a certain place, time and context. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was accepted that, though applied perfectly, the customs that are accepted by the majority do not make a person moral. Spinoza’s Ethica was written against the traditional morals with this assumption. Also in Kant’s ethics, the possibility of a morally valuable action was not based on traditional social rules of behavior. Rather, it hinged upon the determination of the will by the moral law that is only present inside the reason itself, not taken outside. When we have a look at the Arabic rooted term “ahlâk”, we find out that it is the plural form of the word “hulk” which means good behavior, attitude; disposition, nature and temperament of a person. “Ahlâk” means good behaviors, attitudes and acts. Though the meaning of “Ethos” seems more dominant than the Arabic “ahlâk” etymologically, we also use “ahlâk” as the behavioral rules that are rooted in the social life. We experience the usage of “ahlâklılık”, which is “to be moral in the sense of the word “ahlâk”” not only as the beauty of the character, but also as a means of social pressure.

Philosophers think that there are two main ethical systems: Aristotle’s and Kant’s. These two philosophers have set forth two different styles of ethics, i.e, teleological and deontological. Aristotle puts forward that happiness is the highest good. Kant, however, has created an ethics of duty. So how come the distinction between morals and ethics has become a valid and even a fundamental distinction for the times we live in? For me, it is the result that morals has become doubtful. In 19th century, we encounter three philosophers that leads morals into a doubtful position, these are Nietzsche, Freud and Marx. Nietzsche asserts that depending on morals is not something moral and that morals itself should be discussed as a problem. Morals is, like religion, a foundation that creates a crowd and supervises it, a foundation that generates the mediocre. What morals try to hide from our sight is the power relations, and leading morals into doubt means deciphering these relations.  Freud regards morals in the context of the suppression of the subconscious drives, and places it into personality as the superego. And Marx emphasizes that every class lives with its own morals. All these three philosophers question self, personality and identity that are regarded as the variables that constitute moral consciousness, and deny that it is possible to answer the question “who a person is” with moral terms; they question the propositions that a right action is done on a purpose, and this purpose considers the good of everyone. However, the purpose of these thinkers on putting the resident morals in a doubtful position was not to support the ethics as a rational-theoretical field. For Nietzsche and Marx, the ethics of both Aristotle and Kant is a part of the history of domination. And Heidegger brought Nietzsche’s “doubts on morals” to one step further, and placed the rational discipline of ethics into the metaphysical tradition, which means the forgetting of existence. Morals that are faced in everyday life with mediocrity is already a falling mode which is determined by talking nonsense, curiosity and ambiguity and it is not different than human’s escape from itself -or- losing out itself. It is necessary to be distant from not only ordinary morals, but also from the philosophical ethics, because, to test the primeval, it is necessary to return to the Ancient Greeks’ attitude that do not separate the notion of being and ethical issues. Philosophy’s separation into fields like ethics, physics and logic was brought with stoicism and that was not a separation related with the essence of thought. Therefore Heidegger, as he had explained in “Letter on Humanism”, has never thought about writing an ethics.

What does Ethics mean after Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and Heidegger? Does still talking about ethics expose a weakness of nerves? However, if we still want to talk about ethics, it is necessary to research the meaning of ethical subjectivity again. In contemporary thought, this subject is regarded not as a pure rational being. It is questioned with a new concern of its body, and    the subject’s will is not separated from its body. Furthermore, gender norms of the people that face an ethical problem –norms that they “have to  wear or undertake”, their material and factual conditions with the primary variable as class, and their socializations that are dependent on their power relations are by themselves seen as the factors that belong to the essence of an ethical difficulty. Now, nobody can see her/himself as a citizen of a “kingdom of ends” thinking that her/himself has got rid of these factors. And feminist ethics endeavors to think about subjects, that are positioned on power and that more or less have the right to use the world in terms of their genderedness; and because it exposes the patriarchal assumptions of both social morals and philosophical ethics, it appears as the bearer of the heritage that brings morals and ethics into a doubtful position.

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