Time to take a break from my meditations on the year of the plague; life still goes on.
Ethics, especially as caricatured by philosophers who have written on the subject, has (the story goes) often been taught as a collection of rules “informing” the student about what the youth (invariably male, as was the instructor, up until the late 19th, early 20th centuries) should or should not do. In this picture of things, ethics (theory, if you will) was simply the ironclad apologia for the morality (practical, cultural practices) of the day. As noted, this is at least somewhat of a caricature, and if one turns instead to the pages of the great philosophers – specifically Aristotle, Kant, and John Stewart Milli, representing virtue, deontological, and utilitarian ethics, respectively – one can recognize that even as these thinkers morality remained rooted in the assumptions of their day, their ethics as written placed the emphasis not on lists of rules but forms of practical inquiry. This point was given explicit pride of place by John Dewey in the excellent part 2 of the Dewey & Tufts Ethics (the part where Dewey was the sole author), “Theory of the Moral Life.”
But while emphasizing the inquiriential aspect of ethical theory, another aspect of the subject matter – implicit in treating ethical theory as a mode of inquiry – deserves discussion. A simple prescription of static rules would actually suffice were it not for two things: ethics itself is not static, and the nature of that dynamism means that ethics is fundamentally relational in character. I’ll focus exclusively on the latter point here.