Part 1: Doing [thksRightandDoing theRightbhks what everyone else does, because you've always done it that way, or because Joe Schmoe the big expert telIs you to. But doing something for these reasons is not taking responsibility for your own life. You heard me right. Being moralIy responsible means you must think deeply about the meaning of your values and the norms you hold dear. If you don't do that, you're not being adulto Being adult means that you freely-voluntarily and with forethought-take control over the va!ues that otherwise would stay hidden. So dig 'em up and examine 'em!
Thf Lfast VOUNffd to Know
. Know when decisions involve ethical dilemmas and beware of false dilemmas. . Be careful to distinguish values from preferences. . Ethical conflict is the spice of life-don't avoid it. . Take responsibility for your ethicallife by examining your values.
Convinc,M, ThatIrm WronCJ InThis(haptfr
. Why reasons matter . The role of authority figures . The importance of impartiality . Being a skeptic A recent GalIup polI shows the folIowing statistics about Americans: 52 percent believe in astrology; 22 percent believe that aliens have visited the earth; 67 percent claim they had a psychic experience; and 33 percent believe there was once a lost continent called Aclantis. These high numbers are surprising and, while not direccly ethical issues, do relate to this chapter on reasons in ethics. The above statistics should make you ask: What reasons do people have for believing these things? Are there good reasons for such beliefs? That is exacclywhat we will talk about in this chapter. You will consider things like: Why do reasons matter in ethics? What do good and bad reasons look like? To think clearly about ethics, and to build toward your own consistent and welI-reasoned set of ethical beliefs, you need to consider these questions and apply them to your currencly held views.
Part 1: Doingmies RightandDoingtheRight[thics
Let's start by examining that riddle we've all heard: Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. It's a silly riddle precisely because the chicken has no good reasons for doing so; but, then again, chickens probably don't have good reasons for doing much of anything! If we can leam anything from such a dumb riddle, it's that not all reasons were created equally, some are better than others. You don't want to be like that chicken, crossing the road to get to the other side, then once you get there having no idea why you're there, do you? Of course not! While we don't expect chickens to give reasoned accounts of why they do things, we do expect it of people. That's why reasons matter. Reasons have everything to do with ethics: If you have no good reasons for an act or a belief, then you can't have thought it through very well and maybe you shouldn't be doing it or believing it at all. It's quite scary to think that there are people out there who are voting, protesting, financing causes, or running campaigns without any dear idea of why they are doing it. Each and every one of us should be dear about our reasons for our values, beliefs, and behaviors, and we should each be able to give a reasoned account of them to others. But it's not true in every case that we need to give a reasoned account of our choices. For example, people may ask why you give money to a certain charity, and you should be able to provide some reasons. It may be none of their busiTriecl and True ness, but you should at least in principIe be able to give reasons for your choice. You might respond that it's a If someone asks you why you good charity, or the cause really matters to you, or you believe or act as you do, don't want to give something back to society. If someone asks just soy, "Because I believe (or why you like beer, though
that's a different
story. You don't need a reasoned account in that case. Why not? Because, as Chapter 2 explained, there is a difference between preferences and values; and you don't have to give a long-winded, reasoned account of why you have a preference for beer, unless you want to bore everyone to death! So we have two lessons so far:
1. Not all reasons are created equally. 2. We don't need to have, or give, reasons for everything. Basically, you don't need any reason at all for drinking beer. The fact that you like it is reason enough for drinking it. Nobody really cares. Not so for those charities, however. Giving reasons is important to ethicnllife, but isn't so important in the nonethical domain where questions about personal preferences come up. In short, no one really cares why n_.. 1:1.~ J...~M J..."f-"''''0",1... rln "<lrp "hnnt
Giving reasons for our actions is important socially, too. It either connects us to others or
6ยกv, N, 00' 600d R'ISOO
act) that way." Give them a reason why. But before you give a reason why, ask yourself why-and keep on asking yourself why. Only then will your life become meaningful to you.
3: (onvinee MeThat1'mWrong
divides us from them. So much of our sociallife depends on a shared understanding of what's true, right, and appropriate. When this understanding breaks down, the only way to restore it is by asking the reason why we disagree with one another.
To darify things, let's use pomography as an example. We know that different groups oppose pomography, and sometimes for different reasons. Fundamentalist Christians, for example, are against pomography because it goes against traditional family values. Some feminist groups are also against it, but because they believe it treats women as objects and promotes violence against women. While both groups are anti-pomography, their rensons may be different, and those reasons divide them up into different social groups. So it's important to know not just what people believe but why they hold those beliefs! The point in reading this book and in doing ethics isn't to get you to change your mind about things, or to think about ethics in one particular way. It's to get you to think about why you value certain things-like charity-and why you think it's right to practice them. To take a popular example, if you are opposed to abortion, examining your reasons for your opposition won't necessarily change your position (though it may!); it wi/l make dear your reasons for holding that view, though. I teach ethics to university students every semester, and rarely do I change their minds about the ethical issues we study. Students who start dass as pro-life usually finish that way, too. But students do darify their thinking and think through their reasons for their ethical beliefs.
The saying "birds of a feather flock together" helps to understand why reasons are socially important. People who have similar reasons for their beliefs and actions tend to gravitate toward one another. Our reasons for believing X and Y connect us with others who have the same reasons. They set us apart from people who dispute our reasons.
(han9in9VourNind? But-and this is a big but!-sometimes thinking through your beliefs and your reasons for having them willlead you to conclude that you were wrong, that you don't agree with the reasons, and that maybe you need to change your beliefs and actions. If, to use the abortion example again, you examined your reasons for believing that abortion is wrong and realized that you just don't agree with them anyrnore, then it would be pretty hard to continue picketing outside abortion clinics and lobbying the govemment for stronger laws against abortion. Or, if you did the same thing as a pro-choice advocate and discovered
(haptfr 3: (onvin(e MeThatI'mWrong
Part1: Doing [lhi(s
. Because your best friend said so . Because you read it in the paper . Becausethe organizationyou belong to is againstit . Because God said so (see Chapter 4, "God Made Me Do lt," for more on this!) . Becauseyou flippeda coin . Because your doctor said so
that the arguments against abortion were persuasive, you would be pretty ethically inconsistent if you continued to lobby for more liberal abortion laws.
Ethically Speaking Dogmatism is Ihe slubborn refusal lo consider challenges lo your own elhical poinl-of-view.
While changing your mind isn't the end goal of doing ethics, it is certainly a possibility that you have to leave yourself open to; otherwise, you are being dogmatic. Dogmatism is a real problem because it means that you have slapped on your blinders, and are refusing to consider challenges to your beliefs, values, and actions.
Guess which of these reasons are good reasons for being anti-abortion? You got it ... none of them! Why? First, appeals to authority-"lt must be right because my parents/minister/ doctor said so"-are a real problem. What makes your parents, minister, or doctor moral authorities on this subject? You can't appeal to their positions as parents, ministers, or doctors, since there's no reason to think those positions make them authorities on the ethics of abortion. (They might be authorities on other things-biblical interpretation, the flu, or whether to wear a coat in winter-but not on abortion in particular.)
1Iis 0150 Ihe oUI-of-
hand rejeclion of compeling elhical Iheories or explanalions. You mighl know some dogmalic peopie .,. you probably cal! Ihem "pig-headed"!
There's another thing to keep in mind about our reasons for doing things: we have to come to them by our own lights, and not be manipulated into accepting them by someone else. This is why children aren't held to the same moral and legal standards that adults are, because they often can't give their own, well-thought-out reasons for doing or believing something. To put it bluntly, parents hold the purse-strings; they have the authority and control. (As 1 said in Chapter 2, parents can make us eat brussels sprouts against our will!) There's an important distinction here between being convinced of someone's reasons through a sound argument and being manipulated into accepting their reasons. In the one case, you are resting on your convictions. In the other, you are being held hostage to that other person's belief.
Second, believing something because someone told you so is no reason at all for accepting it. As 1 said before, you need to reflectivelyaccept or reject a belief. The classic example is when kids go to their parents to ask "Why should 1 do this?" and their parents say "Because 1 said so." Power mongers! Fascists! The kids who go off and do as they're told are acting on authority alone, without any good reasons being offered. Poor little tykes!
To recap, we've settled the following issues so far: 1. Where ethics is concerned, you must have reasons for your beliefs. 2. Reasons can either socially bind people together or divide them. 3. By thinking about your ethical reasons for believing something, you need to be open to the possibility of revising them. 4. There is a difference between being convinced by someone's reasons and being manipulated into accepting them.
But now let's get back to a point that was raised earlier in this chapter: Not all reasons are create~ equally.
B,caus,MyPar,otsSaidSo Consider the following list of reasons you might have for believing that abortion is morallY wrong: . Because your parents said so
Third, you don't have to accept al! the beliefs of an organization that you belong to: ethics isn't a package deal, or an all-or-nothing enterprise. So to say "1 believe X because the Society for the Promotion of Pug Ownership believes it" is a cop out. (Okay, you got me-l love pugs!) The Pug Society may have some things right, and on reflection you may decide that you agree with them-that's why we join organizations, after all. But by joining a group, you don't automatically buy into all that they stand for, there should be room for disagreement. Some Pug Society members might believe that black pugs are bett. .. Do the RightThing! ter than fawn ones; 1 happen to disagree, and should be free to do so. Organizations that dic. Th;nk fer yoursel!! tate a strict party line and that don't allow you to lelling olhers do Ihe Ihinkingfor question, disagree, or reject ideas are called cults, you is lanlamounl lo letting yourself become a slave lo Iheir and should be avoided. Ihoughls and desires. That's danBut, you might ask, isn't it legitimate to take on gerous, beca use once we lel olhthe beliefs of people that you highly respect and ers do our Ihinkingfor us, we lose our freedom lo resisl evilcare about? lt only makes sense to follow in the footsteps of people that are your moral role modยกusl look al the Nazis! So remember: Don'l be a Ihoughlless els. So if you see Gandhi as an excellent person, follower! then why not just adopt his beliefs and values without question?
(hapttr J: (onvin(e MeThat1'mWrong
Part 1: Doing[thicsRightandDoingtheRight[thics
There is something to this idea. As Chapter 9, "Ancient Greek Virtue Ethics," will show, ancient philosophers thought that having moral role models was crucial to leading and learning to lead an ethica11ygood life. We learn to be good, just as we learn to read and ride a bike, with the help of other people. And just like reading and riding a bike, it takes practice to get rea11ygood at it. But we can't cop out by just picking our moral role models and doing what they do
Andent philosophers thought that having moral role models was crudal to leading and learning to lead an ethically good life. But we can't cop out by just picking our moral role models and doing what they do ... we need to find out why they do what they do and then figure out if we agree with them.
need to find out why
they do what they do (their reasons) and then figure out if we agree with them. If so, after reflecting on it, then we may adopt their ethical viewpoint. If not, we should reject it, even if the person we most admire believes it. You might think this sounds like a lot of work and a lot of trouble, we11,maybe it is. If we want to practice ethics in a serious-minded way, though, we can't be lazy about it and cut corners. Like 1 said in Chapter 1, "So, What's Your Philosophy of Life?" we don't have to be super sleuths, always on guard, but we do have to take a hard look at our reasons for our beliefs.
AIIR,asons Ar' Hot(r,at,d ยกqual Okay, so not a11reasons are equa11ygood. You've learned that appeals to authority and other blind acceptance of beliefs are ethica11yproblematic. Basica11y,as some experts on ethics put it, your reasons for believing or doing something must be based on impartial reasons. Let's look at this concept, find out what it means, and see why ethicists argue for impartiality. First, consider the fo11owingethical dilemma. 1 learned it in my Introduction to Ethics class! You are standing outside a burning building. The flames and smoke are getting denser, but there is still one way of entering the building. Trapped inside it are the following beings:
. Your beloved mother. . A Nobel-prize-winning scientist that is close to discovering a cure for cancer. . A highly intelligent ape that may unlock the secrets of the missing iink.
We11,what is your answer to this one? 1 don't know about you, but my first instinct was to run in and save dear old mom. After
a11,she changed my smelly diapers, fixed my boo-boos, got me through my terrible teens, and loaned me money when 1 needed it! But my professor corrected us on that one: "Wrong!" he said, "because your response is based on partial reasons,and ethical choices should be made impartially." Wrong to save mom? How is that possible?
Partial reasons are reasons that show our biases for or against persons based on our relationships with them. A partial reason against Johnny becoming mayor of Doodleville might be that he forgot to send me a Valentine last February, which hurt my feelings.
PartialR,asons Natt,r Here's how: because when we make any choice based on the fact of another person's relationship to us, we make it based on parcial reasons-whether or not we like or love them, whether they have done anything for us, whether they are our lovers or enemies. It's like assuming that some people are more worthy just because we know and love them. But as 1 pointed out in Chapter 1, the moral attitude requires you to see that each persons' needs deserve to be weighed equally. Sure, YOurmom's needs and goals count just as much as the scientist's and the ape's-but the point is that they are not supposed to count more just because she's your mom. You are supposed to consider the other beings as your mom's moral equals, leaving aside your particular feelings for her and deciding objectively what do to. This is a controversial claim. 1 still think that the morally right thing to do is save your mother-in fact, as 1 pointed out to my professor, anyone who could coldly stand outside that burning building and calculate who to save when his mother is inside is one cold fish! It shouldmatter that your mom is your mom; that she changed your diapers and soothed your feverish brow. As you will see in Chapter 14, "Using the 'F' Word: Feminist Ethics," feminist ethics argues for the ethical importance
of personal relationships
ter. But my professor's claim does make sense: we shouldn't just go around deciding how to behave toward others based on our particular relationships and feelings for them. ~ometimes being impartial-having impartial reasons for doing something-is very lmportant.
ImpartialityIsImportant You only have time to save one being, and each is equa11ydistant from where you are standing. Given that you could save any one of them, which one would you choose, and why?
Consider a couple of quick examples, and you'll see why impartiality matters. The first example is nepotism ... you know, when someone gives a job to one of his family members, whether or not the .person is qualified and well-trained for the job. This really makes
Part 1: Doinq[thicsRiqhtdndDoinqtheRiqht[thics
challenge. This is because science is open-ended, so it is always possible that something we now think is true could some day be discovered to be falseoRemember, Chris Columbus set out to determine whether the world was really fIat! The idea that the earth was fIat was just one of the many beliefs that has been corrected over time.
people mad (especially when they are stuck working with the incompetent person!), but why? lt is because we expect people to be hired based on objective considerations like education, job training, talent, and so on. When Uncle Bunny hires his nephew, Peter, as Assistant Director at the firm it is a direct violation of such objectivity. The second exam-
But what about skepticism where ethics is concerned? We can't very well appeal to science and scientific experts to determine when or whether ethical claims are valido!t's not like a scientist can test for the morality of eating meat the way that she can test for the existence of sub-atomic particles, is it? So you might think skepticism is useless when it comes to ethics.
pIe is a nurse on a busy ward. Suppose tbis nurse bas some favorite parients and some be just can't stand. Would it be right for that nurse to run in response to the call bell every time dear old Mrs. Smith rang it, but ignore the bell because that old curmudgeon Mr. Jones was ringing it again? Certainly not! Nurses should care equally and impartially for their patients, and not "play favorites"j doing so is a violation of professional objectivity, and implies that some patients are better than others.
I don't think so. If you think of skepticism as an attitude, and you can apply attitudes to all kinds of areas, then skepticism works in ethics. A skeptical attitude toward ethical claims would require the "prove it" mentality that I just mentioned.
So where do es this leave us? You could say that impartiality requires that we don't make subjective decisions in our dealings with other people. As a rule, it means that we'd better have a darned good reason for treating people differently. The racist, who violates impartiality by refusing to hire people of color, lacks good reasons for his hiring practices because he can give no good reasons for refusing them jobs. (The reasons are going tO be bad ones that aren't based on any good evidence!) But when you give a box of chocolates to your dear friend, you aren't violating the rule of
Triedand True , . We shouldnt lustgo around deciding how to behave towar. d others .base d. on our d It h par tICUIar re a lons IpS an feelings for them. Sometimes being impartial-having impartial reasons for doing something-is very important.
EthicaUySpeaking Skepticism refers to both a philosophical stance and an everyday attitude of doubtingbut not necessarily denying-the truth of commonly held beliefs. For instance, a skeptic might doubt that we can ever know with absolute certainty whether there is a world outside our mental perceptions of it.
As a skeptic,you would require that people provide goodreasons, and strong arguments, for the moral claims they make. You would suspend belief, at least until you could mull over the issue and decide if the reasons are any good. An example might help here. Suppose you are talking to an acquaintance who says he thinks that homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural. If this were a scientific claim you could run out, do some research, and then come up with your own conclusions. But this is a moral claim, not a scientific one: Homosexuality is "wrong" (bad, immoral) because it is unnatural. If you were to respond as a skeptic to this moral claim, what would you do?
impartiality, since you probably do have good reasons for giving the chocolates to her rather than someone
else.Asfor mom .., well,1 still think there are good reasons for rushmg . m . to save her from the burnmg .
bUlldm . . g. Assummg . she hasn't recently cut you out of . t her wlll.
The Importance of Skepticism
.,. . Don I accept ony moral judgmenl al foce volue! Thlnk of elhlcol quesllonlng as a kind of legal proceeding, where nolhing is occepled wilhoul supporling evidence. The evidence doesn'l olwoys hove lo be conclusive or provide cerloin knowledge. Bul il does hove lo provide enough supporling reosons lo reoch a verdicl Ihol can wilhslond reosonoble doubt. Often, no single ilem of evidence will esloblish a sufficienl reoson lo exonerole or convicl, bul 011of Ihe ilems loken logelher will. So loke a lip from Ihe legal profession: Don'l occepl Ihe Irulh of ony moral judgmenl unless il wilhslonds Ihe test of reasonoble doubl!
You can't really understand the importance of skepticism if you don't first know what it is. Skepticism is an attitude rather than a belief about something. lt is what you might call the willing suspension of belief, and requires us to apply reason to all ideas that we are presented with. You could probably best sum up the skeptic's position in tWOwords: "prove it." Modern skeptics appeal to science anq scientific method as ways of determining what is trUe: Basically, if a claim is supported by reliable scientific studies, and respectable scientists support it, then it is far more believable than a claim that is supported by quacks who practice pseudo-science. Still, a good skeptic will admit .I-.n"",,,pn"cientific claims are provisional and subject tO
:Vell, you would need to think critically about this claim, and resist the urge (if you had lt!) to just accept it at face value. Getting back to reasons, your job would be to consider your acquaintance's claim and his reasons for making it. For example, you might try to determine if homosexual activity is present in the natural world-are animals doing it? If so, ~is leads you to reject the "unnatural" claim. So much for what is factually provable in ethlcs '.. the rest comes back to reasoned judgment! AlI that skepticism in ethics requires
Part 1: Doing ~thics Right andDoing th~Right~thics is that you treat ethical claims with some doubt, avoiding the dogmatism that 1 mentioned earlier, and being open to aIl people's views and their reasons for holding those views. The key to skepticism is to suspend your belief in others' ethical judgments until you've had the chance to work out your own judgments through rational, impartial deliberation. The point of skepticism is to avoid the kinds of traps you have read about in this chapter. A skeptical attitude wiIl help you in the foIlowing ways:
. You wiIl demand a reasoned account of others' ethical claims. . YouwiIlavoidappealsto authority. . You wiIl consider aIl points of view. . You will not be swayed by partial considerations (friendship, for example).
One last thing. Skepticism has been given abad rap, and outside philosophy has been largely misunderstood. Some people think it means the same thing as cynicism-the view that we can never come to an appropriate understanding of what is right and wrong. This isn't what skepticism is about ... and if it were, 1 couldn't support it because there would be no point in doing ethics! If there will never be an appropriate understanding of what is right and wrong, then ethics is just a wa~te of time. No, skepticism isn't cynicismj and it isn't the refusal to accept beliefs that upset the status quo, either. Skeptics are always questioning, so they aren't hung up on the way things are, or holding on to the status quo. Having this skeptical attitude is reaIly important to doing ethics weIl; its importance is further emphasized in the next chapter, where we wiIl consider the role that God and the Bible play in ethics.
Th, L,ast You N"d to Know
. Make sure you have reasons supporting your beliefs and actions. . Avoid appeals to authority in making your ethical judgments. . Have moral role models,but stiIl think for yourself. . Don't be manipulated by others into their beliefs. . . 'Be impartial, unless you have a good reason for treating people different. Take a skeptical attitude to ethical claims.
60dNadeNeDoIt In Ihis Chapt,r
. Can a nonbeliever be ethical? 路 For the true believer, is God's command the standard of right? 路 路 How far can the Bible guide ethical decision-making? 路 Pluses and minuses of aDivine
Why believers should take responsibility
for their ethics
Recent polls show that about 9 out of every 10 Americans (90 percent) believe in God. Judging by the number of priests, rabbis, and ministers on ethics panels, you have to conclude that lots of folks take God seriously as a moral heavyweight. And why shouIdn't they? If God exists, God must be allpowerfuI, all-knowing, and perfectly good, right? Not to mention: EternaI Creator of the Universe and Divine LegisIator Over AlI That Exists. So God must be the one who determines right from wrong, good from bad. From here it's onIy a short step to the idea that something is automatically good because God says it is, and something else is automatically bad because God condemns it. This view of ethics-called the Divine Command Theory-stems from a belief in God's existence. So it wouId seem that virtually all 90 percent of beIieving Americans should hoId this theory. But shouId they?