Our study of different ethical theories began with reflection on a hypothetical question about whether you would have good reason to do the honest thing if you found a lost purse containing a huge wad of cash. The question generated an inquiry into the rational basis of the standards of honesty and justice. These standards, and standards of morality generally, appear to have an authority in our lives superior to that of the conventional standards embedded in local social practice. For one thing, they appear to have such authority because we measure our local social practices and the conventional standards embedded in them against standards of justice and morality. For another, we commonly praise and honor those who resist conforming to conventional standards when those standards create privileges for some and hardships for others that are unjustly enjoyed and borne. This is especially true where such resistance carries personal costs like ridicule, ostracism, or worse. Huck Finn's actions in helping Jim in his attempt to escape slavery are exemplary. The assumption of our inquiry, then, has been that the authority of the standards that morality comprises is founded on reason and truth and not on mere custom or prejudice. Otherwise it would be hard to explain its superiority. Accordingly, we have treated the different ethical theories we surveyed, up to existentialist ethics, as systems of thought constructed to confirm this assumption.
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