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Morals and Ethics

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Why has ethics come into the limelight? One obvious explanation is that the technological development has become a saviour and a devil at the same time. It gives promises about solving the problems of poverty, sickness and pollution, and it threatens to produce new destitution, new suffering and new environmental degradation. Another explanation is that rational decisions tend to invite conflicts and protests. In a pluralistic society, trust in a neutral and objective rationality has vanished. Each and every cause can provide its own experts, and when rational arguments clash with rational arguments a solution can only be found by going beyond rational arguments. It becomes clear that rationality is based on values. It also becomes clear that belief in a pure rationality leads to not-so-pure trouble. Therefore values have to come to the forefront and be discussed.

We face a dilemma when distinguishing between good and bad research or between responsible and short-sighted leadership. On the one hand, it should be possible to invoke values that almost all can agree upon. On the other hand, society is confused at a higher level; in the name of freedom each individual and each group has the right to develop its own distinctive character and identity. Each discipline has developed its own repertoire of concepts and methods. Each political party clings to its own special profile. A result is chaotic pluralism, where the term ‘shared values’ may sound ludicrous.

This leads to an invocation to ethics. The word has a somewhat pompous tone that tends to lift it above the quarrels between groups, each with its own interests. But what do we mean by ethics and what do we mean by morals? And what is the difference between them? In everyday language there is no clear distinction; they are used synonymously. On the other hand, philosophers tend to consider ethics as the theoretical basis of morals – as reflections on how moral demands can be justified.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2009

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