Gerald Casenave, M.D.
The fundamental question of ethics is not “What is the right thing to do?” The fundamental question is “Why be ethical?” If there is a divine basis for ethics, the answer is simple, “To not get punished.” But post Nietzsche, it is problematic to base ethics on religion. Rationality produces the categorical imperative which is formal and without content, and leads to the question of “Why be rational?” The idea of finding a natural basis for ethics has always been appealing, but by nature we do terrible things to each other. Hume argued that ethics derives from feelings. Scheler laid out a non-formal ethics of value. Ian McGilchrist argues that ethics arises as a feeling in the non-dominant, usually right, hemisphere.
Heidegger argues that the fundamental nature of human being is care; we care about the world. We evaluate and determine worth. Our care and concern about the world is a continuum, from just noticing to caring about intensely. We are strange creatures that care about the infinitesimally small and the ungraspable immensity of the universe. We have increasing explicit knowledge of the connectedness of things. Out of these aspects of our nature arises the soft obligation we have to take care of each other and the world.
Our ethical feeling and care about each other and things is fragile. It develops when nurtured and encouraged. It can be extinguished. Ethical reasoning, as Kohlberg first laid it out, appears to advance from Pre-Conventional to Conventional to Post-Conventional, when such development is fostered. But only with the Gilligan corrective, the component of care, does ethical reasoning lead to acting ethically.