A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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This shows the strength and weakness of any ethics of duty.
This conception of ethics successfully opposes a very specific kind of evil, one that tries to justify the bad action it motivates by asserting that it is in accordance with duty. However, this ethic seems powerless in the face of a second kind of evil, one that would assert something quite different: one that would recognise that its bad action is quite contrary to duty, but would assert, for example, that duty has no value, and that what has value is to violate one's duty, to follow one's own advantage.

The ethics of duty successfully establishes that the concept of duty is a consistent concept, irreducible to any concept of happiness or pleasure, and thus prevents the perpetrator of a bad action from using duty to justify his conduct; but it is powerless to counter the latter if he uses a completely different concept, that of value, by which he judges and dismisses the concept of duty.

This criticism is therefore directed at all the ethics of duty, i.e. the moral doctrines which consider that asking the question of the basis of morality consists of trying to prove that we have duties, or in trying to prove that the rules commonly considered as moral are indeed duties.

Perhaps the failure of the ethics of duty does not mean the failure of moral theory in general; perhaps an ethics that gives a completely different meaning to the concept of morality would lead to a better understanding of the question of the basis of morality. Can we not say that morality is, rather than the determination of duty, the search for what makes us happy?

2/ It is not looking for what makes us happy

The question of the foundation of morality can therefore have a completely different meaning from the one we have just considered, which was to investigate whether there are duties. We can - and this is a completely different perspective - consider that to found morality is to show that morality is what enables us to achieve happiness.

We will call the doctrines that defend such a perspective "ethics of happiness" - and here again, we will not try to examine whether utilitarianism, which immediately springs to mind, is one of these doctrines.

The ethics of happiness certainly succeed in showing that happiness is what man prefers, and perhaps even that the content of meaning of the concept of duty is actually happiness, if not pleasure. But evil can be defined as the axiological position that holds that what is of value is for man, and with him all his desires, including his fundamental desire for happiness, to disappear. It is not because man wishes to be happy (and that this is what is most desirable - or desirable - for man) that we can deduce that man's existence has any value.

The ethics of happiness therefore suffer from the same flaw as the ethics of duty: they can only repel a certain kind of evil. The ethics of happiness can repel egoism, and offer a brilliant demonstration to that effect, by showing that what would be best for me would be for all men to be happy, and therefore that in order to seek my own happiness, I must in fact seek the general happiness of all mankind.

But if it succeeds in refuting egoism, it cannot reject a second kind of evil, one that would admit that my happiness depends on that of others, but which asserts that what is of value is the destruction of that happiness, and beyond that, of humanity in general.