Grounding Development in Ethics. Ethics’ Metatheoretical Foundations and Implications to Development

Essay, 2019

6 Pages, Grade: 1.5


Grounding Development in Ethics: Ethics’ Metatheoretical Foundations and Implications to Development

In order to comprehend the peculiarities of development ethics, the perusal of five (5) dominant ethical frameworks in ethical studies- Virtue Ethics, Deontological Ethics, Utilitarianism, Ethics of Difference, and the Ethics of Care, is a must. In so doing, it is hoped that one’s conception of development and its application would be duly informed by the various justifications for ethical behavior and the sources of normativity, as presented by the different approaches. Coursing through these various frameworks, one is faced with the question of the necessity and urgency to ground development in ethics. To this question, my answer is a definite and resounding yes.

In this paper, I aim to give a comprehensive summary of the previously mentioned ethical frameworks as well as to focus on their differences in terms of the formulation of their ethical questions, the ethical aim and/ or moral norm of the principles upon which the frameworks owe their foundations, and lastly, the frameworks’ relevance, appropriateness, and responsiveness to both development theory and practice.

Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics is grounded on the assessment of the underlying ‘humanity’ possessed by each individual despite their singular acts, their passions, their vices and virtues, as well as the contexts and conditions in which they live in. Simply put, Aristotle believed that the ethical aim of human actions must be towards that of the flourishing of human lives through a sensitivity to the context by which such flourishing must proceed. Its moral norm is the doctrine of the mean.

Immanuel Kant’s Deontological Ethics puts forward a different question in his conceptualization of what it means to be ethical. Instead of the Aristotelian tradition which asks What is the good life?, Kant focuses on finding the answer to the question How do you decide what is right? In fact, Kant’s work is a critique of the virtue-based approach used by Aristotle. Kant believed that the virtues are inherently good but could be extremely harmful if not paired with a good character (Gregor, 1988). Through this, Kant postulates that “without a good will, one cannot even be worthy of being happy” (Gregor, 1988)regardless of the virtues and values he possesses. Kant’s framework focuses on such will and how it is influenced by reason and duty Kant asserts that the function of human reason is to “produce a will that is good in itself and no good as a mean” (Gregor, 1988). This being said, the will of a rational being is a reflection of his innate goodness and his intrinsic necessity to act on the basis of his duty.

Utilitarianism’s main ethical question is the way by which one increases pleasure and decreases pain. John Stuart Mill asserts that the “ultimate end…is an existence exempt as far as possible from the pains and as rich as possible in enjoyments” (West, 2003). Mill believes that an action is ethical by virtue of its intention to promote happiness and reduce pains and sufferings. Further, he explains that one must seek to extend such endorsement of happiness to the greatest number of people and in terms of the best quality of happiness there is.

Emmanuel Levinas’ Ethics of Difference is different from the first three frameworks as it poses a metaethical question: what justifies your right to be? In Ethics as First Philosophy, Levinas puts premium on the concept of the ‘Other’ and how such conceptualization becomes the central tenet for understanding how justice must be realized. Levinas highlighted how the presence of the Other disrupts the certainty of the I and inevitably makes the Other’s ‘being there’ a responsibility one ultimately has to take into consideration. Quoting Levinas, “The face before me summons me, calls for me, begs for me, as if the invisible death that must be faced by the Other, pure otherness, separated, in some way, from any whole, were my business…The Other becomes my neighbor precisely through the way his face summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and in so doing recalls my responsibility, and calls me into question” (Hand, 1989).

Such responsibility towards the other is both the ethical aim and the moral norm of the Ethics of Difference. This responsibility towards the other is further explained by Iris Marion Young through the Politics of Difference. Young theorized justice as a concept whose understanding must begin with discourses on domination and oppression (Young, 1990). She asserts that discourses about justice are calls, pleas, and claims upon some people by others (Young, 1990). Following this line of thought, a rational reflection about the conditions of the society that we are members of requires hearing and heeding to the various calls of the others-those who are marginalized, oppressed, and are in need.

Lastly, the Ethics of Care focuses on the ethical aim of equality in the same way that Young’s Politics of Difference discusses the need to combat domination and oppression of all forms. It puts primacy on the issues of gender as the central issue on discourses of social justice, highlighting the fact that human beings’ existence relies on caring for others. This also serves as the moral norm of the framework. As compared to the Virtue Ethics, Deontological Ethics, and Utilitarianism frameworks, I believe that both the Ethics of Difference and the Ethics of Care share the same position that human beings are not just rational, but also and more importantly, relational beings. The Ethics of Care appreciates “the emotions and relational capabilities that enable morally concerned persons in actual interpersonal contexts to understand what would be best” (Held, 2006). This being said, the moral thing to do is not just to hypothesize what course of action would be best, based on one’s own understanding of the context, but more so, based on how one’s action would affect others.

From this synthesis of the different ethical aims and moral norms of the dominant ethical frameworks, the problematique is whether or not there is an urgency to ground development theory and practice in ethics. As earlier mentioned, my answer is a definite and resounding affirmative. The discussion on the ethical questions, the ethical aim and the frameworks’ relevance, appropriateness, and responsiveness to both development theory and practice proves to show that a development work which is not grounded in ethics is a fallacy and an outright lie. This is for the reason that development must proceed in a way that is reality and context-based. The way by which development work should be conducted must be informed by a set of frameworks which focuses on the human subject of the development act.

Goulet’s opening statement in the first chapter of his book Development Ethics at Work comes to mind when thinking about the need to ground development in ethics. Quoting Goulet:

“To walk in the dark is always a disconcerting and dangerous thing. Too often, it is by groping in the dark that leaders must make decisions affecting the lives of millions of people; one understands their hesitations. When, to guide their decisions, they search for clear, reality-based principles suited to a world of multiple permanent tensions, they are in a void and instead of taking calculated risks, they are forced to take blind risks. They do so because they lack sound ethical guiding principles, for, especially in matters of development, one searches in vain for a coherent body of principles capable of orienting political decision-makers” (Goulet, 2006).

Goulet defined development as “changes which allow human beings, both as individual persons and as members of groups, to move from one condition of life to one which is more human in some meaningful way” (Goulet, 1960 cited in Gasper, 2008). Goulet also notes that the goal of ethicists is to put premium on the pursuance of development in the same importance of the benefits gained.

From these assertions, we now see the importance of grounding development in ethical frameworks. Granted that development is both an end state and an action whose importance could not be disqualified, there is a definite need to make ethics as its disciplinal juggernaut. This is for the reason that it is only through the peculiarities of the different ethical frameworks could political decision-makers and even development workers could effectively and successfully conduct a development project. Through the various ethical reflection/ question posed by the different frameworks, political decision-makers and development workers could be better oriented and guided as to how they could plan, carry out, and evaluate their development tasks. In order to “make the conditions of life more human in some meaningful way” (Goulet, 1960 cited in Gasper, 2008), an ethical reflection is first and foremost necessary.

The virtue-based approach calls for development work to be done in such manner that takes into account the “local features of one’s concrete contexts” (Nussbaum, 1993). This implies that a development act is virtuous on account of its responsiveness to the local context and the humanness that lie beneath all local traditions” (Nussbaum, 1993).

The Deontological approach focuses on an action as being good in itself because of the goodness of the mind that willed it. As long as the aim of development work is the creation of more humane and more just conditions for those who are in need, then the development work is good and justified in itself.

Utilitarianism puts forward a different and somewhat more controversial take on development as it equates an ethical act to that of charity. Singer’s moral imperative in his book Famine , Affluence, and Morality reads “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally to do it” (Singer, 2016). Although this imperative seem like a sound foundation for pursuing development work, it slightly hints to the fact that to be able to help, one must first be better-off than the other, so as not to sacrifice anything of moral importance to the doer of the action.

One could find better coherence in the frameworks of Ethics of Difference and Ethics of Care in doing development theory and work. Aside from the fact that these two frameworks see humans not only as rational but relational beings, they also support the idea of intersectionality. As such, development must be pursued by making people better off socially, economically, and politically. This could only be achieved when a critical theory is used to analyze social justice and its various issues. Following Young’s politics of difference, development work is informed, grounded, relevant, appropriate and responsive to the needs of the community/group/sector to be developed as it focuses on the promotion of social justice by virtue of critiquing the bases of social injustice from its grassroots- from the primordial social issues of oppression stemming from differences arising from class, race, age, sex, etc. To answer this dilemma, Young calls not for the elimination of “differences” but for a reconceptualization of “difference” through mutual recognition and affirmation of such (Young, 1990). Through this, societies must attend to group-specific needs and provide for group representation in all political activities to ascertain that all the needs of groups, despite such differences are well taken care of.

Such idea that we live in this world with a responsibility for the other(s) reflects Levinas’ ethical aim and Young’s social justice as a form of heeding to other people’s call. Further, it confirms that to do good to others is not only my responsibility for those persons in need but also calls to my higher duty, which is basically, to do good. In doing development, I believe that “doing something good” must be the foundation of all acts. To make someone else’s life better, devoid of injustices, oppression, and marginalization is not merely my responsibility to other people but my responsibility in doing something ‘good’, in general.

Ultimately, the need to ground development in ethics is urgent and ultimately, a fulfilling task. To delve into the realm of development theory and practice drawing from various ethical reflections to make a more humane world for those who are in need make the discipline of development ethics important and worthwhile.


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Grounding Development in Ethics. Ethics’ Metatheoretical Foundations and Implications to Development
University of the Philippines  (College of Social Sciences)
Ethical Issues in Development
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ISBN (eBook)
development ethics, ethics
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Julie Anne Dimapilis (Author), 2019, Grounding Development in Ethics. Ethics’ Metatheoretical Foundations and Implications to Development, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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