In all of my research in the history of ethical analysis (and for my purposes here ethical and moral are synonymous. Ethos is Grk. for character. Mores is Latin for way, custom), the analysis of of all things relating to not just the way things are but the way they should be, I have reduced the analysis to three elements that I find ineliminable (essential).
To do comprehensive ethical analysis one need three elements. The elements can be given formal status that is well-understood but organizational only. The content of the form of each is minimally controversial (in the sense that there is disagreement). The disagreement is to be expected. But it shouldn’t take focus. More on the disagreement below. The three elements are in order: the good, the right, the virtuous. More vaguely put the elements are in order: the end, the means and the catalyst. Otherwise put: the goal, the way and the power.
To act, whether to choose to think or move the body, is to move and requires a choice of direction. Toward what? The good…formally. What is the content of the good? Much disagreement. The addict thinks sex, money or chemicals good. The sage thinks logos, dharma, the kingdom of God good.
To act in a direction or toward a goal can be accomplished by different policies, strategies, ways, methods, or according to different steps or rules. Move? How? This is the study of right…formally. Many think initiated aggression a permissible way. Others think not. It is a complicated investigation involve the impermissible (the way that should never be taken), the permissible (the way that may be taken), and the required (the way that must be taken).
To act in a direction and take this particular path is the completion of the map. But the map must be followed. Virtue is the inquiry into the accumulation of the energy that most effectively moves the agent and supports the agent given challenges. While there is not much disagreement that temperance and courage are virtuous precisely what temperate response to sugar or sex looks like or courageous response to danger is disagreed about.
I invite you to take the three elements seriously in your own personal ethical analysis. Forget the world for a moment. Start with you. The greatest possibility of change is where there is greatest control. So, the most bang for the buck of your ethical analysis will be in your own life.
Why is there disagreement? It is maybe paradoxical that ethical analysis involves judgment about what the good is from the position of not having gotten there yet. You sense the problem? How would he who has not arrived know what it would be like when he gets there? It is our status as imperfect beings which takes an axe to the tree of reasonable ethical analysis.
But do not despair. It is not worth it. I (and I think you) am in the inbetween. Of this I am certain. That means that I must aim for clarity on where I am going (the good), how I intend to get there (the right), and what energy will support my journey (the virtuous). That I also acknowledge that my own efforts are tainted by imperfection stimulates humility, caution and an openness to being wrong.
Openness to whom or what? To that which proves itself better, right-er, virtuous-er. Won’t there be disagreement? Won’t my own judgments about better be tainted by my imperfection? Yep. Can I avoid the paradoxical nature of it all? Nope? Can I endure in paradox? I have so far.