Why (and How) to Study Ethics

David Clowney


  Looking at the ethics or morality of something means looking at the right or wrong of it, the good or bad of it, the humanity or inhumanity of it. In short it means asking how well you could sleep at night if you did it. That's not a precise definition; but it will do to start out with.

  If that's what ethics is, why study it? Knowing right from wrong is one of the qualifications for being a fully functional adult. Surely it's not something you acquire by studying hard in school!

  Indeed, studying ethics won't make you ethical; nor is that its purpose. Nevertheless it can be a useful study. It may help you understand better what is best, and how to pursue it. It may also help you participate in constructive discussion with others about what is best; and such discussions and debates are an essential part of the way a society forms its values.

  Ethics is both easy and hard. It can be easy or hard to know what's good, and easy or hard to do it. Usually the hard part of ethics is doing what you know is right when the cost is more than you want to pay. At best, the academic study of ethics will help you anticipate difficult choices, so that when they come along they don't catch you completely off guard. But if you don't have the will to do the right thing when it hurts, ethics courses won't give it to you.

Sometimes, however, it's not easy to tell right from wrong. Sincere people disagree. Traditional values change. Diverse cultural values clash. Ethical dilemmas present you with conflicts between equally important moral values. Individuals make competing claims on you to which you must respond. Historical changes (for example, new medical technologies) raise ethical questions that seem to be brand new. And things you never thought twice about (like the enviromnment, or the effect of your consumer habits on infant mortality in the third world) may suddenly appear as grave moral issues which challenge your entire way of life.

It's in these difficult areas that the study of ethics can help you think through moral questions, and decide where you stand on them. In particular, studying ethics can help you to:

1. Identify different kinds of moral values, and distinguish them from other sorts of values.

2. Notice what moral values are at stake in a variety of situations.

3. Clarify the reasons behind moral judgments and decisions.

4. Make some sense out of changing and conflicting moral values.

5. Decide where you will stand on difficult ethical choices you face.

6. Understand why being ethical matters.

A few words about each of these may prove helpful.

1. Identifying kinds of moral values, and distinguishing them from other kinds of values.

As individuals and as groups, all human beings have values. If you pay attention even for an hour or two to the number of times you use or hear the words "good" or "bad", or other words that mean approximately the same thing, you'll soon see how essential values are to human life.

Not all values are moral values. Some have to do with taste, or personal preference. When I lived in the South, friends kept offering me fried okra; they thought if I only tasted some that was cooked right, I'd agree that it was delicious. But every batch I tasted was just as slimy and repulsive as the last. My friends and I placed a different value on eating okra. But our difference was not a difference of moral values; it was just a difference about good and bad tastes.

There are many other kinds of non-moral values besides taste-values. Paintings and pieces of art have aesthetic value. Things like cars, race horses and real estate can a functional value that depends on how well they serve their intended purpose. Behaviour can be evaluated as displaying good or bad manners. Aesthetic value, degree of usefulness, and manners are all kinds of value; but they are not moral value.

So what are moral values, and how do they differ from other values? Roughly, moral values are those values that we take to be the very most important, basic, absolute, or universal. Moral values trump our other values. They are the values we associate, not just with being a good doctor or secretary or athlete or executive, but with being a good human being. They express rights, obligations, and prohibitions that we think of as absolutely basic to humanity. In fact, we're inclined to call a very unethical person "inhuman", "a monster", whereas a highly ethical person might be called "humane", or "a fine human being."

The kinds of things that can be called morally good or bad include persons; the actions, thoughts, character and intentions of persons; and, perhaps, states of affairs that impact on the lives of persons.

A first step in thinking about the ethics of a situation is to think about the values that are at stake. There will always be some. Then ask which of these are specifically moral values. Pay special attention to aspects of the situation that make you uncomfortable, or that make you feel good about what's happening. These feelings often show up when the values at issue are moral ones.

Three words of caution about what I've said so far. First, I don't mean to suggest that ethical values and other values don't have anything to do with each other. That's not true. In fact other kinds of value can give rise to moral value. One of the major moral values, according to most people who have thought about it, is to maximise other sorts of value when you can do so without being unethical. For example, aesthetic value is not the same thing as ethical value. But most people would agree that it is an ethically good thing to promote human welfare by making, preserving, and presenting good art. This value is not an ethical absolute, however. For example, preserving the life of a child is surely more important than preserving a great painting, if you had to choose between one and the other.

A second word of caution: Look out for the word "we"! Remember what Tonto said to the Lone Ranger:

Lone Ranger: "We're in big trouble, Tonto! We're surrounded by Indians!"

If you look back at the place where I was trying to say what moral values are, and start asking Tonto's question, you will see immediately why this point about "we" matters in ethics. Who are the "we" who take these values to be more important than any others? What culture's notion of "humanity" am I working with when I speak of "rights, obligations and prohibitions that are absolutely basic to humanity?"

In a context where no-one is asking Tonto's question, it is easy to think of ethics as a set of absolute moral laws which "our" consciences naturally teach us and which "we" are bound to obey. It is also easy for this supposedly absolute and universal set of standards to serve as a justification for excluding, abusing, and condescending to humans who aren't part of "us" (blacks and hispanics, women, gays, fundamentalists, ...).

Once someone does start asking "What you mean, 'we'?"--or rather, once the question has been taken seriously and folks with differing moral values begin talking to each other--ethics may start looking a lot more like taste. And so it does, to many modern Americans. There are many different moralities, they might say, and none is better or worse than another. For them, the bottom line about ethics could be expressed in the words of a Sesame Street character, "What you think is really delicious, may be awful and yucky to me."

As you have probably guessed from the way I've described them, I'm not satisfied with either of these extremes as the last word about ethics. My own view is that there are some constant realities that make it possible to have real moral discussions across all sorts of group lines, and to resolve at least some differences about moral values. But I also think that moral codes arise in social contexts, and it is not possible to have moral values in a way that frees you from all the assumptions and prejudices of your individual and group identity. What is possible is to reach understandings, grow out of prejudices, include persons formerly excluded from your group, and generally to mature in interaction with others who differ from you. Individuals can do that, and so can groups. For that reason, any good ethical analysis has to ask, not only what values are at stake, but whose values they are. Keep asking, "what would Tonto say?"

My third word of caution is: ethical theorists disagree with each other about almost everything I've already said, simple as it may seem. You are entering a conversation with other people who have thought hard about moral values. You are not learning an exact science. Understanding this will help you have the right expectations. There will rarely be just one right way of analyzing a situation, and one right thing to do. But this does not mean that nothing useful or moral can be said or done. Furthermore (this is important!) it doesn't mean there are no wrong ways of thinking about or acting in a situation.

2. Noticing what moral values are at stake:

Everyone has had the experience of seeing something once, then looking at it later and noticing many things about it that you previously missed. This is a common experience in moral as well as visual perception. One reason for the difference in perception can be that you have learned more about what to look for. As a device to help you know what to look for, I am going to introduce a framework of three perspectives for looking at ethical questions that I have found useful. Besides helping me to see moral aspects of a situation that I would otherwise miss, it has other uses as well. Using it sometimes shows me ways to reconcile apparently conflicting views. It has a lot in common with some traditional ways of classifying ethical theories (more about them later). I recommend using it as a question-generator. Once you start trying to answer the questions it generates, you'll find yourself digging pretty deeply into the ethics of whatever it is you're looking at.

The three points of view I'm introducing are not alternatives between which you must choose. Rather, they are three different perspectives from which to look at the same territory. Each shows you something you might otherwise miss. To get the whole picture you should use all three together.

Link to

Three points of view on ethics.

3. Clarifying the reasons behind moral judgments and decisions.

Moral reasoning is sometimes very straightforward. Example: "If I keep the extra hundred dollars the cashier just gave me by mistake, I'll be stealing from the store, plus she'll be in big trouble at the end of the day. Stealing, and causing harm to the cashier in that way, would both be wrong. So I'd better give back the hundred dollars."

Rationalizations can be pretty obvious, too. Example: "I'm not responsible for other people's mistakes, am I? Besides, "Finders keepers" (bogus moral rule invoked to justify keeping what's not yours). I'm keeping this hundred dollars!"

Often, however, the reasons and rationalizations involved in some choice you face are not so clear. You may just "not feel right" about a situation, but not know why. Or, someone else's justification why you and they should do something may sound wrong but feel right, or sound right but feel wrong.

Under such circumstances, it can be helpful to try to lay out the reasons that are being offered for the choice, and see how they hold up to scrutiny. Each of the three perspectives has something to contribute here.

Normative perspective:

What principles are being appealed to? Are they valid principles? Do they apply? For example, the principle of not taking another human life may or may not apply to the termination of life support systems for a brain dead patient. It depends on whether the brain-dead individual is a human life (i.e., a living human person) in the strong sense that the principle requires. A medical and legal consensus has developed by now that a brain dead person is not a human life in this sense, so that according to this consensus the principle does not in fact apply.)

Does it seem to you that any crucial principles are being violated or ignored?

Have principles been properly prioritized? Some take precedence over others. For example, rights to property and privacy are important; one could argue that they are moral rights. But other rights can take precedence over them. Ordinarily it would be immoral for me to walk into a stranger's house, take the stranger's keys, and drive off in the stranger's car. However, faced with an emergency in which that is the only way for me to save the life of an injured child, it seems pretty obvious not only that I may take the car, but that I ought to do so. At least in this case, the value of preserving life trumps the values of property and privacy.

Have both positive and negative principles been taken into account? Some principles present positive goals which should be sought. Others state the limits of acceptable behaviour. Both are important. Sometimes they appear to conflict; good moral reasoning will try to take both into account.

Have all the relevant rights and obligations been taken into account? For example, economist Milton Friedman argues, on the basis of shareholders' rights, that the prime moral obligation of business is to increase profits. Others who argue against Friedman make the point that he has ignored the rights of other groups besides shareholders to have a say about what businesses do, and that government regulations cannot adequately represent the rights and interests of these other groups, so that business managers and boards are obliged to take these interests into account in their decision.

Situational Perspective:

What are the facts? What are the unique characteristics of this situation? What principles apply in this kind of situation?

Ethical reasoning requires getting as clear about the relevant facts as one can manage to do. For example, in trying to decide about the termination of life support systems in a particular medical case, it would be important to know whether or not the patient was brain-dead according to the accepted medical definition of the term. Again, in evaluating some moral reasoning about sexual orientation, one might want answers to some factual questions about how one's sexual orientation is formed or acquired, and whether it is to any extent within one's control.

There is another kind of "getting clear about the facts" that has less to do with gathering information and more with deciding how to categorize the information you already have. Often this means drawing an analogy between an unfamiliar situation and some other situations where you already know where you stand. For example, a couple using the services of a fertility clinic may wonder whether artificial insemination by donor seems more like adoption or adultery. People arguing about abortion have compared that procedure both with removal of a body part and with murder. Should we accept either analogy? Are there other choices?

What benefits and harms will this course of action produce? Some thinkers (utilitarians) have claimed that all questions of principle really boil down to this question. Whether or not this is so, it is certainly an essential question to ask when making an ethical evaluation of some course of action or other. And it is certainly a common sort of reason given for doing or avoiding an action.

Personal perspective:

Reasoning from this point of view, one will ask such qeustions as : Is this appropriate for me (for her, for him, for us)? The difference of individual life plans and life stories means that I need more than general moral principles and assesments of benefit and harm to decide what I should do. See Edmund Pincoffs, Quandary Ethics, for an excellent discussion of what traditional ethical theories leave out. Has everyone concerned been properly consulted, or are the "reasons" all those of the person or group in power? The "personal" point of view is also interpersonal. Evaluating ethical reasoning from this point of view means taking all concerned parties and their relationships into account. A related question: What "interests" might be producing rationalizations in place of legitimate reasons?

Notice that including this point of view as a legitimate source of moral reasons gives us a way to take account of a very common set of reasons that are often discounted. People will often say that a decision "feels right" or "does not feel right." They may say that "it's just not me," or that "it's not the way we do things." These remarks can certainly signal the lack of moral reasoning, as they are often thought to do. But they may also be signals of the presence of good reasons that have to do with the integrity of persons and relationships.

4. Make some sense out of changing and conflicting moral values. Moral values change. That is to say, different cultures have different values. How different these values are is another question. At the very least, they are different enough to produce significant moral confusions and challenges for anyone who tries to live cross-culturally.

It doesn't take a change of cultures to produce a conflict of values, however. Any system of values has possible points of tension within it. Consider the case of Frau Bergmeier, a German prisoner in a Russian camp during the second world war. Her husband and children were still in Germany. She wanted to join them; and she knew they wanted and needed her. But pregnant women were the only category of detainees that the Russians were sending back to Germany. Frau Bergmeier, a devout Lutheran, found an obliging Russian camp guard, and got herself pregnant and home.

The conflict here is between the positive application of a goal or principle (marital and familial loyalty) and its negative application (against adultery). It is possible to look at such situations as forcing us to choose among wrongs. This seems to me unnecessary and unhelpful, however. The more traditional way of handling such conflicts is to recognize that values can be prioritized. Frau Bergmeier obviously took the view that the reuniting of her family took priority over strict sexual faithfulness to her husband. You may agree or disagree (or just be glad you didn't have to make the decision!). But if you agree with her priorities, why say that what she chose to do was wrong? (And if you disagree, why not say that her choice was not morally appropriate, instead of saying that she had to choose between wrongs?)

Of course, not all value conflicts can be resolved by prioritizing values. Some might simply be irresolvable. In that case it will be necessary to choose one or the other--or to try to hold on to contradictory values. Some current social disputes about values do seem to involve such irresolvable conflicts. In that case it is important to see what the conflicting value systems are.

Attention to changes and conflicts in values raises the question of ethical relativism. Ethical relativism is the view that morality is like taste. That is, within a particular system of moral values, it will be possible to have rational discussions, give reasons, and come to conclusions as to whether something is good or bad. But where two systems of moral value are in conflict, there wil be no truth of the matter as to which of them is right and which is wrong.

Is ethical relativism true? And how could you tell if it was or wasn't? I believe that the version of ethical relativism I just mentioned is a logically consistent one; that is, it is possible to believe it without contradicting yourself. (Many people have suggested that there is something self-contradictory or self-refuting about ethical relativism; so it's important to point out that there are versions of it that are not contradictory.) But is it true? I don't believe that it is. I won't try to produce an argument here that ethical relativism is false; that would be a complicated project. But I will suggest a tactic for dealing with relativism. Ask anyone who claims to be an ethical relativist (this may include you), whether they think that Hitler had bad values, or whether they think there is anything the matter with the values of a society that thinks you should torture and eat the infant children of your enemies. A true relativist would have to say that these are unanswerable questions; but I find that most people are not relativists when faced with questions like this. Many people who claim to be relativists really are not relativists.

5. Decide where you will stand on difficult ethical choices you face.

The point here is a simple one. Thinking ahead helps get you prepared for such difficult choices. You may not have time to think them through very thoroughly at the time they show up.

The other side of this coin--and it demonstrates an important point about practical wisdom--is that you can't make you decisions in advance of making them. There are almost always elements of any situation that defy advance analysis. Likewise, solutions often turn up on the spot that weren't evident ahead of time. So studying ethics can't possibly prepare you for everything you will face. And, solutions may present themselves in the situation, which were not apparent in advance. All the same, thinking about ethical difficulties in advance is more helpful to decision making than not thinking about them. And when it comes to social policy (for example, in making decisions about the care of the terminally ill, or the experimental use of fetal tissue, or about living wills), it is absolutely essential to think out a set of principles. There is no other way to make laws or formulate policies.

6. Understand why being ethical matters.

If you don't already have a clue about this, studying ethics won't help. But the formal study of ethics will often help you to get clear about what your values are and why they matter to you, in ways that you were not clear about before.

These, then, are some reasons to study ethics, together with some tools for doing so, and a preview of some of the issues that come up when any ethical question is under consideration.

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