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Ethics - A Dooyeweerdian View

Dooyeweerdian thought provides a rich foundation for a number of ways of understanding and discussing ethics. This page first summarises three Dooyeweerdian notions of ethics - the so-called ethical aspect, the notion of multi-aspectual ethics of shalom, and the orientation of the human ego. Then it briefly suggests how seven or eight other approaches to ethics might link with the Dooyeweerdian view.

1. A Dooyeweerdian Approach to Ethics

Hume, then Kant, separated Is from Ought, so that we assume that the existence of a thing or a process is ethically neutral, and that ethical demands are merely 'bolted on' at the whim of the people concerned. But increasingly this is seen as an unsustainable position because in real life both Existence and Ethics are intertwined. Dooyeweerd, however, provided a way of fundamentally accounting for this intertwinement: both Existence and Ethics arise from a law side which is a framework of aspects. This leads to at least three things to say about a Dooyeweerdian approach to ethics.

As Peter Singer [1999] has argued, ethics always involves something more universal than the individual or their sectional interests. Ethics must relate to something bigger than the individual. For example, Macbeth cannot justify his desire to be king in place of Duncan on ethical grounds. However, Singer perhaps does not go far enough, because justice (which he links with equality) also has a universal orientation, and cannot be justice unless it applies to others in the same way. So what is the difference between justice and ethics? Unfortunately, what many call 'ethics' is often justice. Dooyeweerd highlighted the difference as one of self-giving. Justice, which is of the juridical aspect, treats everyone the same; ethics sacrifices the self for the sake of the others. Jesus Christ told a story of a manager who hired unemployed people at different times of the burning hot day, but paid them all the same. If we are appalled at this apparent injustice, we are looking at it from the juridical aspect; but it makes sense from the ethical aspect, which sees the needs and has compassion on those who suffer.

Other related pages:

The So-Called Ethical Aspect

Dooyeweerd called his second-last aspect the ethical. By this he did not mean Good versus Bad, right or wrong, but self-giving, self-sacrifice versus selfishness and self-seeking. This relates somewhat to Kant's notion of ethics as going beyond what is natural to us, going beyond what is due, to give of oneself, but is more centrally based on the Greek word agape. The person who sacrifices themselves (and does not do so grudgingly nor to achieve benefit!) is almost universally considered Good. This insight links with Dooyeweerd's second-last aspect. But this is only one aspect of ethics as we mean it here. The fuller view is to consider all aspects: multi-aspectual ethics.

Ethics as Shalom: Multi-aspectual Ethics

This is what some have called the Shalom Principle. Here is a summary: Each of the aspects is a sphere of law that pertains. The later aspects are normative and as such serve to define what is Good for the cosmos as a whole and us individually as part of it. When we function in line with the laws of aspects, aspectually defined Good repercussions will result; when we function in a way that goes against the laws of any aspect, that Good is jeopardised. If we function in line with the laws of all aspects, then shalom will result, being Good, well-being etc. in all aspects in integrated harmony.

Multi-aspectual functioning relates to the everyday.

Note that under this view, aspectual law is not seen primarily as authoritative command but as promise of a Creator who is faithful, and designed not to secure our obedience but to secure blessing, benefit and joy for the whole Creation, rather than their opposite. Law is seen as the Creator's gift to the Creation, not his demand on it. Each aspect defines a distinct type of Blessing and Bane, Good and Evil, a different type of ethics, such as:

Aspect Example of Blessing Example of Bane
Quantitative Reliable discreteness -
Spatial Reliable continuity -
Kinematic Reliable flow -
Physical Reliable, irreversible energy and stuff -
Biotic Vitality Disease
Sensitive Alertness Feeling rotten
Analytical Clear, logical Muddled
Formative Flexible structure Destructive chaos lazy
Lingual Veracity Deceit, misunderstanding
Social Friendliness Disdain
Economic Frugality Waste, Greed
Aesthetic Harmony, Fun Boring
Juridical Just Unjust
Ethical Self-giving Selfish
Pistic Loyal Unfaithful

(See response to this below from email.)

Ethics as Heart Orientation

But aspectual goodness does not exhaust Dooyeweerd's notion of what is Good, especially if we bring God into the picture. The human ego is orientated, at a trans-aspectual level, either towards the True God or to some substitute for God. This affects all we are and do.

It relates to our religious root, and to the presuppositions we make. It relates to the ground motives of society. It also relates to our deep attitude of meekness versus hubris, humility versus pride, treating ourselves as part of the cosmos versus treating ourselves as deity. If we are orientated towards God, who created an interconnected cosmos, then we will have an attitude of heart that is meek (not weak), humble, engaging, and this will tend to lead to the shalomic virtues, such as loyalty, self-giving, giving what is due, harmony, frugality, friendliness, etc.

According to Christian Scriptures, what God judges is the heart. "God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble." This idea doubtless influenced Dooyeweerd's thinking here. It accounts for why it might be possible for a person to function poorly in various aspect and yet still be welcomed by God.

2. Comparison with Conventional Approaches to Ethics

If we consider the following seven views of ethics, of what it means to be ethical, we can see that all of them can be related to various parts of the Dooyeweerdian view expounded above:

NOTES

Jural and Ethical

Response to table above from Alan Cameron (legal theorist), 10 May 2005:

"Nothing could be more important (well almost nothing!) in D's philosophy than the distinction between the ethical and the jural and the content he gave to the respective aspects. It goes so much against Western thinking, especially Kantian-based, which still dominates, to observe for example that care, good faith, honesty are distinctively ethical norms but that 'justice' 'fairness' 'equity' are just as distinctively jural norms, albeit opened up in an ethical manner. Yet it is an insight that is so important to a deep understanding of both law and ethics in so many different ethical-jural contexts.

"I would just say that it is a distinction which practically-legally speaking is actually often recognised. The prevailing ethical theory and legal doctrine and theory just never seem to get a grip on that practice."

REFERENCES

Adam, A. Against Rules: the ethical turn in information systems. p.123-51 in Howcroft, D. & Trauth. E.M. (eds.) (2005). Handbook of critical information systems research: theory and application. Northampton, Mass: E. Elgar Pub. Robinson F (1999) Globalizing Care: Ethics, Feminist Theory and International Relations. Boulder, CO, USA: Westview Press.

Singer, P. (1999). Practical Ethics. Cambridge University Press, UK.


This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2004 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Number of visitors to these pages: Counter. Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 3 May 2005. Last updated: 4 May 2005 Is+Ought. 10 May 2005 added response by Alan Cameron. 11 May 2005 better on Shalom. 28 September 2009 labelled table.good.bad. 12 October 2010 critical ethics of care, plus some differences of extant from Dooyeweerd. 11 October 2013 slight changes to bane. 14 January 2014 Singer and universality of ethics, but distinction from ethics, with ref and another piece.