Write a paper in which you explain your own basis for making ethical decisions. You are welcome to employ what you have learned from your study of traditional approaches, but you may also develop your own distinctive approach. In either case, explain in some detail exactly what foundation and process you rely on for choosing the right course of action, and support your statements with research from professional or scholarly resources.
As part of your paper, select a contemporary ethical issue about which you have strong convictions. It may be a social issuesuch as environmental ethics, marriage equality, or bioethicsor a more personal issuesexual morality, familial obligations, or care for the elderly, for example. The choice is up to you, but make it something you care about enough to make this project interesting and worthwhile. Address the following in regard to your chosen ethical issue:
Summarize the issue and explain alternative views about its resolution.
Assess both sides of the issue, critically analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Finally, show how and why your own position is correct. Think of this as an opportunity to persuade potential opponents of the reasonableness of your view.
Additional teachings for this class:
One of the most interesting philosophical accounts of ethical conduct from the twentieth century comes to us in Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1946 lecture titled “Existentialism is a Humanism”
Sartre’s distinguished career as a professor of philosophy was interrupted during Nazi occupation of France by service in the French resistance and a year as a prisoner of war. He remained active on behalf of social and political causes throughout his life, and presented his ideas in novels and plays as well as in abstract philosophical treatises. He was awarded (though he refused to accept) the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964.
The lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism” (as it’s usually translated in the English) begins with a straightforward explanation of the basic principle of the philosophical approach known as existentialism. Classical philosophers had supposed that there is some fixed essence of human nature, to which all of us must conform. (Think, for example, of Aristotle’s notion that the excellence or virtue of human beings is to live according to the mean between vicious extremes.) But existentialists including Sartre and Heidegger insist that “Existence precedes essence.” We are not obligated to try to become this or that ideal person; we simply are. We all choose for ourselves exactly who we will bebeing human simply means having the ability to create our own essence.
This approach is a way of taking very seriously the traditional emphasis on moral autonomy and freedom of the will. We are perfectly free on this view to choose our own path in life, since we could always have chosen some other path. But it follows from the exercise of this freedom that we are also completely responsible for what we do choose. The inescapable condition of human life is the requirement that we choose something and accept total responsibility for what we do. Sartre pointed out that if we truly acknowledge this central fact of our existence, we will be overcome by three powerful emotions about it.
First, we feel anguish or anxiety in the face of awesome responsibility. Creating myself is like creating a work of art whose value lies wholly within. The choices I make are the ones I deem to be best, so what I make of myself is an expression of what I believe a human being ought to be. In that sense, I am responsible not only for myself but for the future development of humanity itself. Each little decision I make takes on enormous importance, and if I’m paying attention, I can’t help feeling profoundly anxious about deciding well.
Second, since there is no external authority to which we can turn in an effort to escape this responsibility, I feel a deep sense of abandonment. Only I can decide how to exercise my freedom as a moral agent. Even if I seek the advice of others, it’s up to me whether or not to take it. (Indeed, Sartre pointed out I’m free to shop around until I get a recommendation I am willing to go with.) So there is no way for me to duck my responsibility by relying on someone else’s opinion or some abstract set of moral rules. No matter what situations I face and no matter how much anguish I feel facing them, I remain entirely on my own, with no one else to blame with no excuses for what I choose.
Finally, Sartre heldwe are driven to despair, no hope, by the awareness that we cannot control the outcomes that follow from the decisions we make. No matter how carefully I choose, circumstances beyond my control can always mess every things up. In Sartre’s short story, The Wall, a prisoner named Pablo bravely lies to his jailors about where his friend is hiding. But it turns out that unbeknownst to him the friend has moved and the authorities are able to capture him in fact exactly where Pablo (falsely!) said he would be. In the lonely life of responsible individual action, confidence in the final results the final outcomes is literally hopeless.
Not a very cheery picture, is it? But Sartre argued that it would be even worse if we tried to evade our responsibility by pretending to be something we are not. If we “play at” life in an effort to fulfill whatever other people expect of us, we lose ourselves completely. The only authentic way to live is to accept ourselves for what we are, without exaggeration or pretense. In the face of powerful existential emotions, we must exercise our own freedom and respect that of everyone else.
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