Supplement to Hauptli's Lecture Introducing Ethics

     Copyright 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli

1. What Is Ethics?  

In his “The Case of the Obliging Stranger,” William Gass draws a “moral” from an imagined case wherein he asks the reader to

imagine I approach a stranger on the street and say to him. “If you please sir, I desire to perform an experiment with your aid.”  The stranger is obliging, and I lead him away.  In a dark place conveniently by, I strike his head with the broad of an axe and cart him home.  I place him, buttered and trussed, in an ample electric oven.  The thermostat reads 4500 F.  Thereupon I go off to play poker with friends and forget all about the obliging stranger in the stove.  When I return, I realize that I have overbaked my specimen, and the experiment, alas, is ruined.   
 
Something has been done wrong.  Or something wrong has been done. 
 
Any ethic that does not roundly condemn my action is vicious.  It is interesting that none is vicious for this reason.  It is also interesting that no more convincing refutation of any ethic could be given than by showing that it approved of my baking the obliging stranger.[1] 

     In her The Therapy of Desire, Martha Nussbaum maintains that:

...the challenge of medicine is always to make connection with people’s deepest desires and needs and their sense of what has importance.  It must deliver to them a life that they will in the end accept as an improvement, or it cannot claim success. 
 
So much, the medical analogy [prevalent in several ancient philosophies in regard to ethics] claims, is true of ethics.  We do not inquire into the human good by standing on the rim of heaven; and if we did, we would not find the right thing.  Human ways of life, and the hopes, pleasures, and pains that are part of these cannot be left out of the inquiry without making it pointless and incoherent.  We do not in fact look “out there” for ethical truth; it is in and of our human lives.[2] 

     In her “The Need for More Than Justice,” Annette Baier maintains that:

one cannot regard any version of morality that does not ensure that caring for children gets well done as an adequate “minimal morality,” anymore than we could so regard one that left any concern for more distant future generations an optional extra.  A moral theory, it can plausibly be claimed, cannot regard concern for new and future persons as an optional charity left for those with a taste for it.  If the morality the theory endorses is to sustain itself, it must provide for its own continuers, not just take out a loan on a carefully encouraged maternal instinct or on the enthusiasm of a self-selected group of environmentalists who make it their business or hobby to be concerned with what we are doing to mother earth.[3] 

These brief characterizations of conditions which ethical or moral theories[4] must meet may help us begin to answer the question: “What is ethics?”  It is, of course, open to us or to others to question these constraints, and there certainly are other constraints which should be included on the list.  At this point I will not argue for these views, or discuss the arguments offered by these theorists or those who disagree with them.  Instead I will note that as we do our readings and as we discuss the various theories on the syllabus, one of the things we should be doing is developing a set of “morals” (excuse the pun) regarding what an adequate ethical theory must be like—lessons, if you will, drawn from the successes and failures of the views under discussion.  Indeed, I will be asking you to compile a list as we go on, and I will up-date my own list in a "lecture supplement" available on the course website. 

     In order to get a clearer first approximate answer to the question: “What is ethics?”, I recommend that you read our editor’s introduction “What Is Ethics?”[5]  Pojman draws a distinction between ethics (or morality), on the one hand, and etiquette, law, and religion and on the other:

as he notes, each employs evaluative terms and language—words like ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘obligatory’, ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘evil’, ‘ought’, and ‘should’.[6]  Moreover, each is essentially tied to action, and, indeed, tied to the concept we have of ourselves as agents.  But the use of evaluative terms alone doesn’t make a statement a moral evaluation—even when the terms are applied to considerations generally within the province of morality.  Consider:

-Abortion is illegal in some places. 

-Vigorous sexual activity can be good exercise.[7] 

-In “technical” language, we can say that employing evaluative terms (even in regard to ethical considerations) is not sufficient for ethics.  The distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions may be made in a number of ways.  Necessary conditions may be described as “those which must be there for an event to occur” (thus paying your parking fines is necessary for graduation), while sufficient conditions are conditions such that the event must occur (thus a direct double shotgun blast to the head is sufficient for death).  Note that conditions may be sufficient without being necessary (as in the example), and that necessary conditions need not be sufficient (as in the example).  An alternate way of drawing the distinction is to say that “p is a necessary condition for q” means “if q is true, then p is true” (symbolically q p), while “p is a sufficient condition for q” means “if p is true, then q is true” (symbolically: p q). 

     In addition to employing evaluative terms, judgments in morals, law, and etiquette[8] provide standards of behavior, and call for certain sanctions where individuals fail to comply with those standards.  As the possibility of civil disobedience shows, however, the standards set by ethics are often considered to be over-riding standards—they are generally considered to “cut deeper” than the conventional and legal standards. 

     Of course, many have contended that in both religion and ethics we find evaluations, standards, and sanctions which over-ride conventional and legal evaluations, standards, and sanctions.  Thus, characterizing ethical evaluations, standards, and sanctions as “over-riding” ones does not yet fully capture what distinguishes this area from the religious one.  In discussing the relative roles of religion and ethics, at least for the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions, the story of Abraham and Isaac is important.  Generally speaking, religious evaluations, standards, and sanctions ultimately rely upon an appeal to authority,[9] and in ethics (or morality) the evaluations, standards, and sanctions must be grounded in an appeal to reason.[10]  While philosophers often contend that reason should over-ride authority, one should consider Kierkegaard’s view that religious concerns are “higher” than moral ones—that they are “over-riding!” 

     Throughout this course, we will be trying to further clarify what ethics is, and I will not attempt a “definition” at this point.  Indeed, one of the possibilities we should be open to as we begin our study is that the question itself may be a misleading one.[11]  Consider the question “Have you stopped cheating on exams yet?”  Note that either an affirmative or a negative answer to this question accepts the presumption that you have had a past history of academic dishonesty!  The question “What is ethics,” asked in the way it is asked here, carries the presumption that there is some (presumptively limited) determinate set of characteristics which can be offered—some set of necessary and sufficient conditions—characteristics which will help us specify the “essence” of the ethical or moral.  This may be fallacious!  There may be no single, uniform answer to “What is ethics”—because there may be a variety of over-lapping considerations which “shade off” from one to the other as we take up a set of interrelated questions and concerns.  Whether or not there is a simple and single answer to this question, however, at this point we are clearly not ready to offer such an answer. 

2. Some Important Distinctions, Issues, and Points:

There are a number of important distinctions, issues, and miscellaneous points which need to be raised before we turn to our readings, though, if the truth be told, they will not become clear until we have the readings under our belts.  At this point, then, I need to briefly discuss:

objectivism vs. relativism

moral skepticism

free will and morality (partially, of course, this takes us into metaphysics).  In regard to this point note that when I was discussing the fact that ethical theories involve use of evaluative language I pointed out that they involve discussions of “actions,” and of our role as “agents.”  These phrases refer not simply to occurrences in the physical world, they refer to things which we do—and clearly an important presupposition in ethics is that we are dealing with (or discussing) phenomena which involve human agency

the problem of conflicting values (discussion of ethical issues seems most likely to arise where there is such conflict)

morality and universalizability

the method of “reflective-equilibrium"

“normative ethics” and “meta-ethics:”

-According to Richard Brandt: “normative ethics...is an inquiry aiming to state and defend as valid or true a complete...set of general principles, and also some less general principles that are important for what we can call “providing the ethical foundation” of the more important human institutions.”[12] 
 
While meta-ethics is concerned with the following questions: “...what kind of reasoning or evidence constitutes a valid “defense” or “justification” of ethical principles, and how can we show that some particular kind or reasoning is a valid defense or justification?”[13] 

--the “is/ought” question. 

--empirical observation and ethical reasoning and justification. 

Notes: (click on the note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] William H. Gass, “The Case of the Obliging Stranger,” The Philosophical Review v. 66 (1957).  Reprinted in Gass’ Fiction and the Figures of Life (N.Y.: Vintage, 1958), pp. 225-241, p. 225. 

[2] Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1994), pp. 21-22, emphasis added to the passage.  In a supplemental reading you have the opportunity to look at this claim—examine Susan Wolf’s “Moral Saints” [1982], pp. 471-483 of our text, Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (6th edition), ed. Louis Pojman  and James Fieser (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2011).  Cf., also Louis Pojman’s “In Defense of Moral Saints” [1988], pp. 483-491 of the text. 

[3] Annette Baier,  “The Need for More Than Justice,” in Annette Baier, Moral Prejudices (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1994), pp. 18-32, p. 29.  The essay was originally published in Canadian Journal of Philosophy, supplementary volume 13 (1987), pp. 41-56. 

[4] I will use these terms synonymously throughout the course.  Pojman does so also (see p. 1 off his “What Is Ethics?” in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (6th edition), ed. Louis Pojman and James Fieser, op. cit., pp. 1-7. 

[5] Ibid., p. 1. 

[6] Philosophers use single quotes to surround a word when they are mentioning it rather than using it.  For example in the sentence “‘Long’ is a short word,” the word ‘long’ is mentioned (discussed) while the word ‘short’ is used! 

[7] These examples are used by Fred Feldman in his Introductory Ethics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1978), on p. 4 as he offers his characterization of ethics.  This work is on reserve in the Green Library and provides a valuable supplement to the readings and lectures. 

[8] In her Talk to The Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door (N.Y.: Gotham, 2005), Lynne Truss rejects what I say here, contending that matters of etiquette are moral matters: “…rudeness is a moral issue and it always has been.  The way people behave towards each other, even in minor things, is a measure of their value as human beings” (p. 196). 

[9] Divine Command and Natural Law theories of morality, of course, assign an important role in morality to religious considerations.  This is a qualification which takes us too far afield at this juncture however. 

[10] If I were to try and give “the full story” here, I would have to say that they must be grounded in reason, the emotions, and the appetites; and I would have to add some qualifications regarding culture and society.  At this stage in the course, however, these refinements are too technical, and we will need to wait till later to take up these “qualifications!” 

[11] A Wittgenstenian should be suspicious when she is tempted to define the essence of anything, and a naturalist should be wary of those times when she is tempted to speak about intrinsic values, but there are centrally important aspects of moral theories which stand out if one pauses to reflect on them.  In his “Plato's Euthyphro” (The Monist v. 50 (1966), pp. 369-382), Peter Geach maintains that the Socratic/Platonic search for essences is a fallacy.  I concur, at least, that the search for such has led many philosophers into deep confusion.   Nonetheless, I believe it useful and important  to theorize about centrally important aspects of moral theories. 

[12] Richard Brandt, Ethical Theory (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1959), p. 7. 

[13] Ibid. 

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File revised on: 08/27/2013