Ethics is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and bad, noble and ignoble, right and wrong, justice, and virtue. Moral principles may be viewed either as the standard of conduct that individuals have constructed for themselves or as the body of obligations and duties that a particular society requires of its members.
Existentialism is a philosophy concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through frexistential ethics will, choice, and personal responsibility. The belief is that people are searching to find out who and what they are throughout life as they make choices based on their experiences, beliefs, and outlook. And personal choices become unique without the necessity of an objective form of truth. An existentialist believes that a person should be forced to choose and be responsible without the help of laws, ethnic rules, or traditions.
Historical background & two kinds of existentialism
Existentialism is a philosophical movement of the late 19th, 20th, & 21st centuries, originated and developed by such philosophers as Søren Kierkegaard, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
There are two forms of existentialism: (1) theistic existentialism, and (2) atheistic existentialism.
According to theistic existentialism (e.g., Kierkegaard, Heidegger), God has created us & yet has also apparently withdrawn from Her creation--so that we find ourselves bereft of divine guidance & lost in the world & questioning our faith. Then in the face of a sexistential ethicsmingly meaningless, pointless world, individuals must create meaningful lives for themselves by making active choices and by taking full responsibility for those choices.
According to atheistic existentialism, "God is dead." This is because the very idea of God contains a tragic incoherence:
Assume that God exists and is all-powerful & all-knowing & all-good. Then also assume that evil exists in the world. Then God is either responsible for the existence of evil, in which case God is Himself evil & not all-good; or else God is not responsible for the existence of evil & yet knew that it was going to happen & couldn’t prevent it--so God is not all-powerful; or else God would have prevented evil but didn’t know it was going to happen, and is therefore not all-knowing. So given evil, God is either not all-good, not all-powerful, not all-knowing, or does not exist.
The atheistic existentialist then concludes that God does not exist. What this means is that human beings have no pre-established nature or essence or goal for their lives, and that in the face of a meaningless pointless world, individuals must create meaningful lives for themselves by making active choices and by taking full responsibility for those choices.
Existential ethics recognizes that morality begins with each person's fundamental valuing of his own being and his choosing to continue his existence in wholeness. Each human being has a vital interest in managing the life he values. He must live the story of his life just as he writes it.
Existential ethics is compatible with the known facts of human life. It recognizes that we make our own heaven and hell. Those who understand and observe its principles do not labor under a frightening threat of external judgment and eternal punishment.
Existential ethics is concerned with the wellbeing of human individuals (in contrast to the wellbeing of "humanity") because the ethic is fashioned by human individuals who have become concerned with their own continued wellbeing after observing that nature is not at all concerned with it. Existential ethics understands that each individual is responsible for his own security and enhancement. This responsibility does not fall on any other individual or group (with the exception of parents in a child's early years). It may however willingly be assumed by others for any one of a number of reasons.
Existential ethics offers a minimalist approach to ethics. In expecting others to treat us with fundamental respect, restraint and fairness and to offer us help in emergencies, it does not seek to oblige others to help us make our lives secure, comfortable and successful. It seeks for each individual only an improved opportunity for a secure and enhanced existence. The rest is entirely up to each of us. If we can succeed in persuading others to work with us to provide ourselves collectively with more than a reasonable opportunity for survival and enhancement, all well and good. But we cannot demand more than an improved opportunity from anyone in the name of moral duty.
Existential ethics originates in a worldview that has many of the features of an existentialist worldview. It is a necessary worldview for one who is committed to discerning the truth about ourselves in the world, using our rational faculties to search for it and having the courage to face up to the truth when it is discovered.
Existential ethics is scientific because it is based on a rational analysis of credible evidence. It is scientific because it is testable and falsifiable. Do human beings possess a naturally reasoning brain? Do we human individuals actually choose to continue existing at some point in our lives? In general, do we intuitively recognize the requirements of justice? Does possessing moral virtue help us to live our lives more successfully? Can moral action influence our social environment in a generally beneficial way? These claims can all be tested. If certain key claims made by existential ethics are found to be false, the theory will fail.
Existential ethics is secular because it rejects religious "faith". It does this because faith involves believing things that lack credible evidence to support them; because, as the pious Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, freely admitted, "…faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off". (Fear and Trembling, p.82)
Existential ethics is down-to-earth rather than mystical because, as Albert Camus, French Philosopher, rightly observed, "What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms". (Myth of Sisyphus, p.51)
A moral person refuses to "believe" where there is a lack of credible evidence. He/she especially rejects a "belief" when it is improbable, yet has the possibility of very significant impacts on his/her life. He/she rejects belief in religious "faiths" that are not based on a rational analysis of credible evidence, yet nonetheless demand that their adherents act in various life-impacting ways. They almost always require adherents to commit themselves to particular lifestyles: they may refuse to allow them to read certain books, for example, to sing or dance, or to eat certain nutritious foods. They require their adherents to commit themselves to improbable beliefs when there is no practical need to believe. Yet non-belief is natural to human beings. It is a part of our original condition.
In the presence of the mystery we face concerning the ultimate nature of the universe, existential ethics teaches that agnosticism is a more appropriate position than atheism to adopt. As noted earlier, atheism is a substantive belief. Agnosticism however acknowledges without fanfare and without embarrassment that we simply do not know what the ultimate substance and nature of the universe are. But isn't agnosticism just a "belief" too? Yes, it is. However it is a belief not about substance but about process. It is a formal belief. It is a belief about belief. It is a specific instance of the general principle that we ought not to "believe" in the absence of credible evidence. Rationally, it is a much more acceptable belief than either religious faith or atheism. In the matter of the ultimate nature of the universe, we should simply suspend belief until such time, if ever, that more persuasive evidence is produced to support either of the other two positions. In the meantime, we should get on with the rest of our lives. Rationality insists that it is preferable to live with no answer than with an answer that is probably wrong.
Existential ethics is a moral code meant to be used on a daily basis, not, like conventional ethics, merely an icon to be engraved on a golden tablet, placed on a pedestal and occasionally admired. Existential ethics is readily understandable and offers practical guidance for everyday living. It is more likely than conventional morality to actually be practiced because it can point to personal benefits that accrue to human individuals from moral living. Children can be offered convincing evidence to show that it is to their own ultimate benefit to follow a moral way of life when the moral way is properly explained and understood.
Existential ethics is fundamentally concerned with integrity. It tells us that we act morally when our ends and means are fully integrated with our fundamental choice of continuing to exist in wholeness. This intentional harmony is a manifestation of character commonly called "integrity". We have integrity when our thoughts, words, feelings and acts are all in accord with one another.
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Existentialism. (n.d.). Philosophy - AllAboutPhilosophy.org. Retrieved June 9, 2010, from http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/existentialism.htm
Introduction to Ethics. (n.d.). spot.colorado.edu. Retrieved June 9, 2010, from http://spot.colorado.edu/~rhanna/1100_fall_2004_handout6.htm
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