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Ethics in Society

by Rick Lewis

Our cover model this month is gorgeous, pouting Karl Marx. Hailing from sunny Trier, Karl is 196 years old, and his hobbies include reading, beard care and expropriating the ruling classes. The theme of this issue of Philosophy Now is ‘Ethics in Society’, a topic which may well have been close to Marx’s heart, though to be honest most of the articles approach the subject in a completely non-Marxist fashion.

Ethics can be about the way we each live our own life, but mostly it is about the ways we interact with one another. We can think about this in two ways: from the perspective of the individual within society, or from the viewpoint of a social reformer. In other words, you can ask: “how should I behave towards the people around me?”, or you can ask, “how should society be organised?”

These two perspectives come together in Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which says that when we act in our own lives, we should act as if we are legislating for the whole of society: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction,” wrote Kant, emphasizing that I can’t make a moral exception of myself. Since other people are moral rulemakers just as I am, they deserve to be treated as ends in themselves, rather than just as means to my own ends. Kantian ethics therefore is about duties we owe to one another.

But there is another ethical approach which, when it comes to the management of society, continues to be far more popular. When we ask how society’s rulers, whether they are presidents, princes or hospital administrators, should act; many people say that their decisions should be based on what is likely to have the best outcome for all the people affected. This approach to ethics is called consequentialism, because it says that people should decide what to do by looking at the likely consequences of the competing courses of action.

So you can view ethics either from an individual perspective, or from the perspective of governments, of societies, of social reformers. Some utilitarian moral philosophers – even the great John Stuart Mill – have occasionally had a tendency to slide from the one to the other, or at least not to make clear which they are talking about at a given time. But the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was not only a philosopher but also a social reformer (and designer of prisons). His writing was mainly about the improvement of society and his approach was uncompromisingly consequentialist. For Bentham, the test of any existing institution, or any proposed reform, was to ask: will its consequences be an increase or decrease in the total amount of happiness in the world?

Four articles in this issue look at the interactions of humans within society, and it is striking that arguments about consequentialism lurk beneath the surface of at least three of them. The articles deal with controversies about multiculturalism; consumer ethics; and the use of drugs in sport, but we start off with an article about prisons.

Stuart Greenstreet argues that imprisonment simply does not work as a means of reducing crime; that sky-high rates of re-offending by released convicts mean that prison actually increases the crime rate. He contends that the only effective way to reduce crime is therefore to abolish the poverty and deprivation in which it has its roots. Greenstreet is assessing prison in a consequentialist way, and arguing that it has bad consequences because it results in high rates of re-offending. Prisons are universities for crime. Maybe in the long term he is right, and if the object of the criminal justice system is to produce public safety (rather than, for instance, to satisfy the need for vengeance against wrongdoers) then tackling poverty is a more effective way to do this. However, his provocative article still left a couple of questions unanswered. Firstly, what about those crimes (a minority, but still a significant number) committed by people with stable backgrounds, good jobs and decent educations? Eradicating poverty would still leave us with the problem of punishing such miscreants. And secondly, what should we do with criminals caught while we are still in the process of abolishing poverty, a process Stuart Greenstreet admits could take many decades?

Richard Corry’s article on consumer ethics uses analogies to cast doubt on the whole consequentialist enterprise, but what, finally, about Karl Marx? Roger Caldwell describes Marx’s life, ideas and intellectual journey in his article. Marx was certainly passionately interested in the class structure of society, and his friend Engels gave him detailed information about the working conditions of English factory workers. But did Marx have practical proposals for reform, or just a belief in the historical inevitability of capitalism’s downfall? According to an old joke “How many Marxists does it take to change a lightbulb?” “None – the lightbulb contains the seeds of its own revolution!”


The Philosophy Now Radio Show

The Philosophy Now Radio Show has returned after a two year break. Each week a Philosophy Now Editor (Grant Bartley or Anja Steinbauer) will be hosting a discussion of a different philosophical topic. The show will be broadcast live on Resonance FM on Sundays at 5pm BST (4pm GMT), and will be available shortly afterwards on our podcast page, where you can also listen to all the past episodes of the show: philosophynow.org/podcasts.

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