It has been nearly fifty years since I entered college as a seventeen year old freshman. My first semester I took an introductory class in philosophical ethics. I was hoping to be a philosophy major. While I found the classroom lectures comprehensible, the assigned readings in the textbook were not. I struggled to make heads or tails of the material, which seemingly was written in a code that defied interpretation. Somehow I managed to get a “B” in the course. However, at the end of the semester I switched my major to English and the following year to history.
It was only during my junior year, when I took a two-semester history of philosophy class taught by a fellow whose love for the subject matter was evident, that I reconsidered my decision and once again declared philosophy as my major. After graduating from college I entered Johns Hopkins University, where I studied philosophy for four years, eventually earning a doctorate in the field.
When I was hired by the University of Nebraska to teach philosophy upon completion of my work at Hopkins, I quickly discovered that introductory-level texts hadn’t changed much during the eight years since my first encounter as a college freshman. Having been assigned to teach an introductory class in ethics my first semester at Nebraska, I almost immediately realized that the book that had been assigned by the department chairman was beyond the comprehension of most of the students in my class. Not surprisingly, by the second time I taught the class I was supplementing the assigned text with my own written material.
After eight years of teaching at Nebraska I left college teaching for more than a decade to pursue other interests. When I decided to return to the field as an adjunct instructor at a community college, I had become a professional writer with a book and a number of magazine articles to my credit. Almost immediately I began writing extensive supplements for the students in my various classes, since I still found the assigned textbooks to be way over their heads.
When direct publishing became available through Amazon Kindle I turned the supplement I used for my introduction to philosophy class into a Kindle book with the title, “Philosophy Basics: A Jargon-Free Guide for Beginners.” I encouraged my students to download this book to their electronic devices. Originally I thought that it would be mostly my students who would download copies. I was surprised and encouraged to discover that there was apparently a market for an easy to understand, straightforward introduction to philosophy.
As a result, I decided to write guides to other areas of philosophy. By this point I was already teaching a bioethics class at the community college and had constructed supplementary material for this class as well. I used this material as a basis for my second introductory text––”Bioethics Basics: A Jargon-Free Guide for Beginners.”
A little over a year ago the community college began offering a course in the philosophy of religion. Because this had been my area of specialization when I was a professor at the University of Nebraska I was asked to teach this class. By pulling together and revising material that I had used when I was a teacher at the university and by adding new material, I constructed “Philosophy of Religion Basics” and was able to upload it in time for the first day of class. (Thankfully I had been given plenty advanced notification that I would be teaching the class.)
The current book, “Ethics Basics,” is the fourth book of this series of jargon-free guides to various areas of philosophy. In it I discuss what is sometimes called “philosophical ethics” or “ethical theory.” These names distinguish this branch of ethics from “applied ethics” or “practical ethics.” Philosophical ethics examines the fundamental question of how we should go about determining the difference between right and wrong. Over the centuries philosophers have suggested various approaches to dealing with decision making in the area of morality. Philosophical ethics analyzes and evaluates these approaches, discussing the relative strengths and weakness of each.
Applied ethics, on the other hand, applies the findings of philosophical ethics to various practical issues (such as the morality of euthanasia and abortion, cloning, genetic engineering, capital punishment, affirmative action, and the like) in an attempt to determine which actions are moral and which ones are not. Thus, philosophical ethics is the more fundamental endeavor. Not surprisingly, applied ethics texts typically contain a section on philosophical ethics at the beginning so that the student has an idea how to deal with these more practical issues.
Some applied ethics texts are general, discussing a wide range of practical issues. Others are more specific, dealing with a more limited set of issues. Applied ethics texts may deal specifically with bioethics, environmental ethics, business ethics, social ethics, and so forth.
In trying to keep this book on philosophical ethics short and reasonably simple, I have had to limit the number of ethical theories I have covered. For instance, I have not discussed the social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), nor have I discussed feminist ethics, except insofar as the latter has had an impact on the ethics of care. At the same time I have covered the major approaches to moral decision making, such as moral relativism, act and rule utilitarianism, intuitionism, deontological ethics, natural law and natural rights theory, virtue ethics, the ethics of care, and religious ethics. Since these represent the major options, covering these in an introductory text is sufficient.
Although my purpose in looking at each of these theories is in part descriptive, it is also crucial that the introductory student be able to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of these various positions. Accordingly, I have spent a considerable amount of time describing the strong points as well as the inadequacies of each of these positions.
In evaluating the different positions I have tried my best to leave any personal biases I might have to one side. Since no one is a theoretically-neutral reasoning machine I am sure that I have not done this perfectly. My hope is that whatever biases remain will not unduly influence the reader. For ultimately my goal is that what will be an initial encounter with philosophical ethics for many readers will create an excitement for the issues philosophers have discussed through the ages, an excitement that will result in each reader learning to think through these issues for himself or herself.
Finally, a word to those who already have some knowledge of ethics and who might wind up reading this book. This book is intended for the philosophical novice. I am sure that some of readers will be frustrated that I haven’t probed more deeply into certain areas. Others will realize that at times, in my endeavor to keep things simple and relatively short, I have oversimplified.
I understand these frustrations and concerns. I too would have liked to have analyzed certain issues in greater depth. But doing so would certainly turn off the reader who is encountering these issues for the first time and who desires nothing more than a broad overview. Regarding oversimplification, all I can say is that my hope is that in keeping things simple (and perhaps over-simple) I have not presented a caricature or a distortion of any view that I have discussed.
Above all, my desire is that this book will generate enough excitement in the reader that he or she will be encouraged to probe these issues in more depth and will continue on in the study of philosophy in general and ethics in particular. For the study of philosophy is rewarding not only because it serves to sharpen the mind (which it does) but also because it leads its student to a more profound understanding of the world and also (I hope) to a genuine sense of humility as we see how much more there is to know and how little understanding even the greatest minds possess.
Why Be Moral?
Jared had worked for the same company for several years. Jared’s job wasn’t perfect, but he liked what he was doing reasonably well. Moreover, he knew that his supervisor liked him and there was room for advancement. Although he spent much of his time in his cubicle, he didn’t mind this, since he was somewhat introverted and enjoyed routine. At the end of the row of cubicles was a break room where coffee and tea as well as bottled water were available. One of the secretaries made sure that the coffee urn was never empty and that an ample supply of water was always on hand.
Next to the coffee urn was a bowl where those who took a cup of coffee or tea or a bottle of water could deposit the fifty cents they were asked to pay for these beverages. Jared usually had a couple cups of coffee a day, and he always dropped his two quarters into the bowl. That is, until one day he poured himself a cup and, preoccupied with something else at the moment, he forgot to pay. When he got back to his cubicle, he remembered that he hadn’t deposited his quarters, but he was already engrossed in what he was doing, and so he decided to make up for it the next time he had a cup.
But before that next time arrived, Jared began reflecting on the fact that no one had seen him take a cup without paying and certainly no one kept such accurate tabs that they would notice that someone had gotten a free cup of coffee. Moreover, he was certainly not the first person to walk off without putting in his money. For that matter, thought Jared, there may be people in the office who regularly take advantage of the honor system and rarely if ever pay for their beverages.
Jared had always considered himself a fellow of high moral character. To be sure, he told a white lie from time to time, but this was usually just to spare someone’s feelings. He had cheated a couple times in high school, but so did everyone else, and this was a minor transgression that was years in the past. And there was that time several years earlier when someone walking ahead of him had dropped a ten-dollar bill on the sidewalk and rather than pick it up and hand it to the fellow he had pocketed it himself. But that also was a long time ago.
But as Jared sat in his cubicle he began to think what would happen if he never paid for his coffee. At two cups a day, that would work out to five dollars per week. Over the course of a year he would save about $250. While not a huge amount of money, it wasn’t exactly insignificant. Why shouldn’t he do it?
When he was growing up his mother used to encourage him in well-doing by pointing out that people would think less of him if he did wrong. But as Jared could easily see, this motivation worked only when there was a chance that others would find out. There was no reason why he couldn’t wait until no one else was in the break room to get his coffee. For that matter, he could take a quarter, drop it in the bowl (which would make a bit of noise and would make anyone within earshot think he was paying), and retrieve it. Moreover, since he had a reputation among his coworkers for moral integrity, he would be one of the least likely suspects should a cash shortfall become noticeable.
But what if everyone did it? Or what if even several of his coworkers started freeloading? That would certainly ruin it for him as well as everyone else. If he was the only one cheating on the system, the loss might not be noticeable. But if enough other people stopped putting money in the bowl, they’d have to do away with the honor system, or, worse yet, do away with the drinks in the break room.
All that was true, but Jared had no reason to suppose that his coworkers would start cheating the system. Moreover, even if they did, it was still to his advantage to be the first to do so. If he kept paying for his coffee and others started cheating, he would have gained nothing. On the other hand, if he was the first to abuse the honor system, one way or the other he would gain. If no one else began freeloading, he could make a dollar a day indefinitely. If others began freeloading, he would at least have made a dollar a day until they did away with the system, which was far better than making nothing. It was clearly to his advantage to stop putting in his money immediately.
What is it to be moral?
Jared’s reasoning raises an important issue. While there are times when acting morally is prudent (when others are likely to discover our immoral conduct and will think less of us and come to distrust us as well), there are other times when doing what is moral works to our disadvantage. This is true primarily when we are in a position similar to the one in which Jared found himself, where no one will become aware of our immoral actions.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428-c. 348 B.C.) tells a story about Gyges, a man who obtained a ring that makes him totally invisible. Once aware of his ability to escape detection, he throws off all restraint by murdering the king, seducing the king’s wife, and taking over the king’s palace. The point of the story is clear. With no external constraints on his actions, Gyges had no reason to be moral.
Unlike Gyges, human beings aren’t invisible. Even those situations in which we can be assured that we will not be found out (such as the one in which Jason finds himself) are the exception to the rule. The truth is that most of the time we have a prudential motivation for “doing the right thing,” namely, as Jason’s mother put it, people will think less of us if we act immorally. This in turn will result people distrusting and even avoiding us.
But if we do the right thing not because we genuinely want to do the right thing but because it is the prudential thing to do, are we truly acting morally or are we simply “acting in accordance with morality”? Many ethicists, though not all, have raised a distinction between being moral and merely acting morally. For them, only the former is truly praiseworthy.
What is it to be moral? Philosophers do not agree on the answer to this question. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose influential position on ethics we will look at in some detail, argued that a truly moral action is one that is done solely out of a sense of duty. If I do it for any other reason, for instance, because I believe it is prudent to act morally, because it makes me feel good, or because I inherently desire to act morally, my action is not a truly moral action.
Others would deny this. Proponents of virtue ethics (another position we will investigate) argue that moral acts are those that proceed from a virtuous character. A person who delights in doing good because he or she is a virtuous person is acting morally. A person who does not possess a virtuous character but who does what is right merely out of a sense of duty is merely acting in accordance with morality.
Yet others argue that our particular motivation for acting morally is irrelevant to the issue of whether or not we are being moral. If our action is a morally right action, then we are being moral in that situation. The reason for our acting morally (whether from a sense of duty, because of a virtuous character, or because we simply delight in doing the right thing) is irrelevant. The person who does right is a moral person––period.
How do we know what is moral?
So far we have not addressed the issue of how we know what is and what isn’t moral. A moment’s reflection will tell us that this is a major––perhaps the major––issue with which we must deal. People are not in one hundred percent agreement in their assessment of right and wrong. Some people believe abortion, euthanasia, gay marriages, human cloning, stem-cell research, and governmentally-run social welfare programs are morally acceptable. Others believe that some or all of these practices are morally wrong. More specifically, someone might believe that lying to avoid hurting a person’s feelings is the right thing to do. Another person might disagree with this assessment. What criteria do we use in determining what’s right and what’s wrong?
One common distinction is that between “moral relativism” and “moral objectivism.” According to the former of these two positions, there are no universally objective moral truths. That is, there is nothing that is morally right for all people at all times. Morality is relative to one thing or another. But to what?
Some have argued that morality is relative to the individual. This view is commonly called “moral subjectivism.”
Others believe that morality is relative to a culture or a society. “Cultural relativism” or “conventional relativism” are common names for this view.
Although not as commonly held as are the previous two positions, it is possible to argue that what is moral is simply what the majority believe is moral. This view is known as “majoritarianism.”
Moral objectivism claims that there are objective moral truths, that certain actions are morally right for all people at all times while other actions are universally wrong. As we will see, there are many different forms of moral objectivism.
Despite this, objectivist theories may be broken down into two broad categories. “Deontological” theories seek to determine the difference between right and wrong on the basis of the quality of the action itself without reference to the consequences. For example, if stealing is wrong, it is simply wrong, no matter whether the consequences of a particular act of stealing are good or bad. “Consequentialist” theories (sometimes referred to as “teleological” theories) argue that what makes an action right or wrong are the consequences of the action. An action is moral if it leads to beneficial consequences. It is immoral if it results in bad consequences.
While this distinction is helpful, it is not always easy to categorize a particular theory concerning the nature of morality as deontological or consequentialist. While some theories, such as the one proposed by Kant (not surprisingly referred to as Kantianism), is clearly deontological and others, such as classical utilitarianism, are straightforwardly consequentialist, many theories appear to contain elements of both of these approaches.
Finally, some theories, though they have more in common with moral objectivism than moral relativism, argue that focusing on moral actions and rules is secondary. What is most crucial is the development of moral character. As we will see when we investigate these theories, virtue ethics and the ethics of care are views that regard the matter of character to be more crucial than formulating a decision-making procedure to guide us in determining what specific actions are morally permissible and what are morally wrong.
Moral judgments and values
Before we move on from our introductory discussion, it is important to make some further clarifications. The first is that between “judgments” and “values.”
Consider the following two statements:
(1) “A person ought to tell the truth.”
(2) “I think honesty is important”
The former of these is a moral judgment. Moral judgments are principles that state what sort of conduct is morally justified and what is not. General moral judgments, such as the one above, evaluate a type of conduct in general. Specific moral judgments, such as, “It was wrong for Melissa to lie to me,” evaluate a particular action. Typically, specific moral judgments rest on and may be derived from more general moral judgments.
This is not to say that the derivation of a specific moral judgment from a more general judgment is always straightforward. This is especially true when moral duties conflict (a matter about which we will have more to say later). Let’s suppose that Martin has lent a handgun to Sammy. One evening Martin bangs on the door of Sammy’s house in a drunken rage. When Sammy opens the door, Martin launches into a tirade about his wife, whom he’s convinced is cheating on him. He then asks Sammy, “Do you have the gun I gave you?”
Sammy has put the gun in the drawer of a lamp table in the living room. Realizing that Martin is planning on killing his wife, he says, “No. I took it to the shop where I work.”
Although I may hold truth telling as a general principle, I may still claim that Sammy acted rightly in lying to Martin. The reason for this is because I also hold as a principle that we have a duty to preserve innocent human life. In situations where these two principles conflict I may justify my specific judgment regarding Sammy’s lying to Martin on the grounds that the principle to seek to preserve human life is more fundamental than that of telling the truth. (It is worth noting at this point that not all philosophers would agree that we may morally justify lying in certain situations. I am using this illustration simply as an example of conflicting moral duties.)
Statement (2) does not express a moral principle but expresses something I value––in this case, honesty. People value many things––integrity, courage, fortitude, life itself, to name a few.
It should be obvious that judgments and values are closely connected and that it is possible to derive statements of value from certain judgments and vice versa. For example, if I value integrity, it is likely that I will give assent to the statement, “A person ought to act with integrity.”
We may divide moral values into “intrinsic” (sometimes called “fundamental”) and “instrumental” values. Intrinsic values are those that are valuable in and of themselves. Instrumental values are those that are valuable because they can be used to obtain other things of value (which themselves may be either intrinsic or instrumental).
Not everyone agrees as to what is an intrinsic value. Some philosophers have argued that happiness is an intrinsic value. Others would point to life, knowledge, or health as intrinsic.
Moreover, it it obvious that something could be both an instrumental and an intrinsic value. A person may value knowledge for its own sake, but also regard it as a critical means to attaining another intrinsic value, such as health.
Some instrumental values are not clearly moral values. Take courage, for example. A person may exhibit courageousness in saving a human life (thus promoting what many people believe is an intrinsic value) or in telling the truth (as does a whistleblower when exposing the evil practices of a corporation). But courage may also be used for nefarious purposes, such as when a person braves danger in order to commit a crime. Similarly, a compassionate person may be more likely to help those who have a genuine need, but it can also result in a person enabling someone to continue engaging in destructive behavior.
Yet other instrumental values are definitely non-moral values. Money can be used as a means to achieving values that many believe are moral, such as happiness or knowledge. However, money itself is morally neutral and can as easily be used to achieve immoral as moral ends.
Not all evaluative judgments are moral judgments. “Aesthetic judgments” are not. Aesthetic judgments evaluate the artistic merit of the graphic arts, music, and literature. Examples of aesthetic judgments include “Rembrandt’s Night Watch is a great work of art,” “Beethoven’s Third Symphony is one of the greatest symphonic compositions of all time,” and “Les Miserables is one of the finest novels ever written.”
Another category of nonmoral judgments are those involving etiquette. Statements such as, “You should place the knife and spoon to the right of the plate and the fork to the left,” and, “You ought not to chew your food with your mouth open,” are prescriptions concerning proper etiquette. Unlike moral judgments, which many people regard as universal (an issue we will address in Chapter Three), what counts as proper etiquette differs from one society or culture to the next. (Eating with one’s hands or greeting a person with a kiss are thought to be proper in some cultures but not in all.)
Finally, “prudential judgments” are a third class of nonmoral judgments. As the term implies, prudential judgments note what it is prudent to do (typically to achieve a certain end). For example, “You should brush and floss your teeth after every meal,” prescribes a course of conduct that will increase the likelihood of having strong, healthy teeth and gums.
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To this point we have assumed that it is in principle possible to know what it is to be moral and that people have the ability to choose to act morally or immorally. However, it is possible to challenge both these assumptions. Because it seems rather silly to write or read a book on the nature of morality if we have no way of knowing the difference between right and wrong or if we don’t have control over our choices, it is important to address these issues before we move on. Accordingly, we will look at the issue of freedom of choice in Chapter Two and challenges to the idea of morality itself in Chapter Three.
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