Ethic, Ethics, and the Ethical


SHINAGAWA, Tetsuhiko (Kansai University)



the Symposium "Reality of EThics"

at the 56th annual meeting of the Japanese Society for Ethics

at Okayama University

on October 7th 2005



       The title of this symposium is 'The Reality of Ethics'. In what sense can we apply the word 'reality' to ethics? Ethical judgments contain evaluation and prescription. In making them, we need not refer to reality in the sense of fact. On the other hand, it sometimes happens that a fact or piece of conduct only appears as what it is in an ethical judgment. Suppose an action is called 'euthanasia' and we compare it to the case in which it is called 'murder'. The ethical judgment constitutes what the action is. Its reality can be comprehended only from the ethical viewpoint. That is one way of using the word 'reality' in ethics. In addition, we find another way in the power of ethical judgments to prescribe to or improve our present condition. I call these usages of this word 'the reality of an ethic', and it consists mainly in the real effects of persuading others to agree with the judgment. By contrast, I call the power of challenging prevalent norms and values 'the reality of ethics'. Thus I distinguish an 'ethic' from 'ethics'. While an 'ethic' indicates the reproduction, reinforcement, and advocacy of a specific set of norms and values, 'ethics' is a branch of philosophy, whose essence is to radically examine allegedly self-evident ideas. But ethical inquiry is not only triggered by intellectual desire, but also by genuine ethical concern. Once we become conscious of people who are being mistreated, discriminated against or ignored, we bring the prevailing ethic into question. Our ethical responsiveness - I call it 'the ethical' in us - compels us to inquiry. So I call this responsiveness 'the reality of the ethical'.


  The reality of ethics becomes most urgent, when we pay attention to the borderlines of ethically respected entities. A certain criterion is required for some beings in the world to be recognized as deserving of respect, relative to whatever that ethic takes as its foundation. Thus, for example, persons, e.g. beings capable of autonomy, are respected in an ethic which regards violations of autonomy as the worst evil; sentient beings are respected in an ethic deeming pain to be morally wrong. Whether you abide by a certain ethic depends on the ‘reality of that ethic’ in the meaning defined above. If you then ask whether our moral thinking should be founded on autonomy or sentience, you are forced into this investigation by the reality of ethics. After all, it amounts to the question: 'An ethic requires that the domain of respected beings be established. But would it be unjust to behave in proscribed ways to outsiders?' The ethic in question would view this challenge as irrational, since by definition, justice is only applied to the insiders. Yet it might be possible to enlarge an ethic's application of justice. People have often come to accept as unjust what had formerly seemed to be just.


  It was in the study of environmental ethics and bioethics that the concept of 'the reality of ethics' occurred to me. For example, because only the present generation is involved in environmental policy making, the interests of future generations and non-human creatures tend to be neglected or ignored. This does not necessarily mean that this system is unjust. Each member of the present generation might be treated with justice. Each might be recognized as having entitlements and rights and be respected equally. The relation between members might be symmetrical and reciprocal. Indeed the present generation might possibly include coming generations or other creatures in their moral thinking. However what induces them to do this, if they do? In essence, they should switch to another type of ethical theory based on asymmetrical relations, in which responsibility, care, and needs are esteemed. My present theme consists in investigating whether we find the 'reality of ethics' in this conflict of the both types of ethical theories and in which type  we recognize the ‘reality of ethic’.


  It is through their investigations into ethical foundations, involving analysis of ethical concepts and conceptions of 'the ethical', that moral philosophers can contribute to the reality of ethics. At the symposium of the Japanese Society of Ethics in 1999, I argued that moral philosophers could contribute as coordinators in dealing with concrete and social issues. The reason is that they are not moral experts. On that matter I agree with the metaethical consensus of the first half of the last century. The task of coordinators is to clarify the meanings of ethical concepts in the dialogue and promote mutual understanding. Many concepts such as right, justice, responsibility, care, and needs etc. are not at all the jargon of philosophers of ethics. If moral philosophers had some special expertise about these words, they should undertake the task of articulating the very troublesome ambiguities involved in them, and connecting them with the moral sense exhibited in our daily life. 'The ethical' is not the monopoly of moral philosophers. But when 'the ethical' brings an ethic into question, it is their special function to formulate the question as clearly as possible.