Why Study EthicS?
It is clear that we often disagree about questions of value. Should same-sex marriage be legal? Should women have abortions? Should drugs such as marijuana be legalized? Should we torture terrorists in order to get information from them? Should we eat animals or use them in medical experiments? These sorts of questions are sure to expose divergent ideas about what is right or wrong.
Discussions of these sorts of questions often devolve into unreasonable name-calling, foot-stomping, and other questionable argument styles. The philosophical study of ethics aims to produce good arguments that provide reasonable support for our opinions about practical topics. If someone says that abortion should (or should not) be permitted, he or she needs to explain why this is so. It is not enough to say that abortion should not be permitted because it is wrong or that women should be allowed to choose abortion because it is wrong to limit women’s choices. To say that these things are wrong is merely to reiterate that they should not be permitted. Such an answer begs the question. Circular, question-begging arguments are fallacious. We need further argument and information to know why abortion is wrong or why limiting free choice is wrong. We need a theory of what is right and wrong, good or evil, justified, permissible, and unjustifiable, and we need to understand how our theory applies in concrete cases. The first half of this text will discuss various
theories and concepts that can be used to help us avoid begging the question in debates about ethical issues. The second half looks in detail at a number of these issues.
It is appropriate to wonder, at the outset, why we need to do this. Why isn’t it sufficient to simply state your opinion and assert that “x is wrong (or evil, just, permissible, etc.)”? One answer to this question is that such assertions do nothing to solve the deep conflicts of value that we find in our world. We know that people disagree about abortion, same-sex marriage, animal rights, and other issues. If we are to make progress toward understanding each other, if we are to make progress toward establishing some consensus about these topics, then we have to understand why we think certain things are right and others are wrong. We need to make arguments and give reasons in order to work out our own conclusions about these issues and in order to explain our conclusions to others.
It is also insufficient to appeal to custom or
authority in deriving our conclusions about moral issues. While it may be appropriate for children to simply obey their parents’ decisions, adults should strive for more than conformity and obedience to authority. Sometimes our parents and grandparents are wrong—or they disagree among themselves. Sometimes the law is wrong—or laws conflict. And sometimes religious authorities are wrong—or authorities do not agree. To appeal to authority on moral issues, we would first have to decide which authority is to be trusted and believed. Which religion provides the best set of moral rules? Which set of laws in which country is to be followed? Even within the United States, there is currently a conflict of laws with regard to some of these issues: some states have legalized medical marijuana or physician assisted suicide, others have not. The world’s religions also disagree about a number of issues: for example, the status of women, the permissibility of abortion, and the question of whether war is justifiable. And members of the same religion or denomination may disagree among themselves about these issues. To begin resolving these conflicts, we need critical philosophical inquiry into basic ethical questions. In Chapter 2, we discuss the world’s diverse religious traditions and ask whether there is a set of common ethical ideas that is shared by these traditions. In this chapter, we clarify what ethics is and how ethical reasoning should proceed.
What is Ethics?
On the first day of an ethics class, we often ask students to write one-paragraph answers to the question, “What is ethics?”
How would you answer? Over the years, there
have been significant differences of opinion among our students on this issue. Some have argued that ethics is a highly personal thing, a matter of private opinion. Others claim that our values come from family upbringing. Other students think that ethics is a set of social principles, the codes of one’s society or particular groups within it, such as medical or legal organizations. Some write that many people get their ethical beliefs from their religion.
One general conclusion can be drawn from these students’ comments: We tend to think of ethics as the set of values or principles held by individuals or groups. I have my ethics and you have yours; groups—professional organizations and societies, for example—have shared sets of values. We can study the various sets of values that people have. This could be done historically and sociologically. Or we could take a psychological interest in deter-mining how people form their values. But philosophical ethics is a critical enterprise that asks whether any particular set of values or beliefs is better than any other. We compare and evaluate sets of values and beliefs, giving reasons for our evaluations. We ask questions such as, “Are there good reasons for preferring one set of ethics over another?” In this text, we examine ethics from a critical or evaluative standpoint. This examination will help you come to a better understanding of your own values and the values of others. Ethics is a branch of philosophy. It is also called moral philosophy.
In general, philosophy is a discipline or study in which we ask—and attempt to answer—basic questions about key areas or subject matters of human life and about pervasive and significant aspects of experience. Some philosophers, such as Plato and Kant, have tried to do this systematically by interrelating their philosophical views in many areas. According to Alfred North Whitehead, “Philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.”1 Some contemporary philosophers have given up on the goal of building a system of general ideas, arguing instead that we must work at problems piecemeal, focusing on one particular issue at a time. For instance, some philosophers might analyze the meaning of the phrase to know, while others might work on the morality of lying. Some philosophers are optimistic about our ability to address these problems, while others are more skep-tical because they think that the way we analyze the issues and the conclusions we draw will always be influenced by our background, culture, and habitual ways of thinking. Most agree, however, that these problems are worth wondering about and caring about.
We can ask philosophical questions about many subjects. In the philosophical study of aesthetics, philosophers ask basic or foundational questions about art and objects of beauty: what kinds of things do or should count as art (rocks arranged in a certain way, for example)? Is what makes something an object of aesthetic interest its emotional expressiveness, its peculiar formal nature, or its ability to reveal truths that cannot be described in other ways? In the philosophy of science, philosophers ask whether scientific knowledge gives us a picture of reality as it is, whether progress exists in science, and whether the scientific method discloses truth. Philosophers of law seek to understand the nature of law itself, the source of its authority, the nature of legal interpretation, and the basis of legal responsibility. In the philosophy of knowledge, called epistemology, we try to answer questions about what we can know of ourselves and our world, and what it means to know something rather than just to believe it. In each area, philosophers ask basic questions about the particular subject matter. This is also true of moral philosophy.
One objective of ethics is to help us decide what is good or bad, better or worse. This is generally called normative ethics. Normative ethics defends a thesis about what is good, right, or just. Normative ethics can be distinguished from metaethics. Metaethical inquiry asks questions about the nature of ethics, including the meaning of ethical terms and judgments. Questions about the relation between philosophical ethics and religion—as we discuss in Chapter 2—are metaethical. Theoretical questions about ethical relativism—as discussed in Chapter 3—are also metaethical. The other chapters in Part I are more properly designated as ethical theory. These chapters present concrete normative theories; they make claims about what is good or evil, just or unjust.
From the mid 1930s until recently, metaethics predominated in English-speaking universities. In doing metaethics, we often analyze the meaning of ethical language. Instead of asking whether the death penalty is morally justified, we would ask what we meant in calling something “morally justified” or “good” or “right.” We analyze ethical language, ethical terms, and ethical statements to determine what they mean. In doing this, we function at a level removed from that implied by our definition. It is for this reason that we call this other type of ethics metaethics—meta meaning “beyond.” Some of the discussions in this chapter are metaethical discussions—for example, the analysis of various senses of “good.” As you will see, much can be learned from such discussions.
Question to answer
Your essay RE1 requires of you to know a few pages in Barbara MacKinnon book and write a reflective essay about it. Ask yourself a question about a reflection.