Goals• Help make sense of the language of ethical discourse (e.g.,“right”, “obligation”, “duty”, “good”, “value”)• Provide some background of historical contributions to thestudy of ethics• Restricted for time to Western ethics – plus it makes mostsense given our commonsense morality is from this culture• I will not discuss which ethical theory is The Right Theory• Instead, I will show how classical ethical theories reflect ourdivergent ways of thinking about morality• This will only be a quick primer – many more views of ethicswill be left unexplored• We’ll look at some dilemmas, esp. life or death high-stakesones, which throw some issues into sharp relief. The samelessons apply to our more everyday engagement with ethics
The Heinz DilemmaA woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. Therewas one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was aform of radium that a researcher in the same town had recentlydiscovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the researcherwas charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. Hepaid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose ofthe drug. The sick womans husband, Heinz, went to everyone heknew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about$1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the researcher thathis wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him paylater. But the researcher said: "No, I discovered the drug and Imgoing to make money from it." So in desperation Heinz broke intothe mans lab to steal the drug for his wife. Is what he did wrong?Explain.
Solving the Heinz Dilemma• Heinz struggles with simultaneous conflicting demands whichask him to respect:• His wife’s right to treatment• Her desire to live• The pharmacist’s property rights• The law• Others’ rights to the medication• Fairness
Moral Thinking• In considering what we should do, or shouldn’t do, we reachfor reasons, values and principles.• Much of what we rely upon is commonsense morality.• But moral disagreements show that commonsense moralityisn’t one unified set of values and principles, what isconsidered commonsense is itself diverse, even in relativelyhomogenous social groups.
Engaging in Ethics• Think of ethics as an engagement in discussions about values,specifically moral values.• Ethics is not simply an academic exercise aiming at the correcttheory of right and wrong.• Ethics, in descending order of abstraction• Metaethics• Normative ethics• Applied Ethics
Values• Values are simply those things that matter to us, things wecare about.• e.g., fun, peacefulness, beauty, health, fairness, winning,pleasure, equality, dignity• Obviously, not all of us care about these to the same degree inthe same way at the same time.• We have no agreed-upon way to prioritize these values, andeach of us ranks them differently in different situations.
Beauty and Comfort• My brother-in-law’s girlfriend values beauty (as she interpretsit) over comfort.• He values comfort over beauty.• When they live apart, each can choose which couch to buy.• But when they move in together, they have to decide whichcouch to keep.
Moral Values• Now fairness and equality enter the picture, since theyrecognize they have equal say in furniture selection (or not),and each expects to be treated fairly in the decision.• Moral values: those values that are concerned with what weowe each other, and ourselves.e.g., fairness, dignity, equality, respect, trustworthiness,responsibility
When Moral Values Diverge• The big values are often ones we agree upon, in principle atleast.• But how they are interpreted by different parties within acontext is where disagreement lies.• For example, no one who takes a position on the morality ofabortion thinks that human life or personal autonomy has novalue.
The Promise of EthicalEngagement• This means that engaging in a discussion about ethics ispromising – if deep down we share similar values, perhaps wecan find a way agree about a particular case, or find acompromise that satisfies everyone.
Logging• Clashes between environmentalists and the logging industry• Logging industry – loggers have a right to earn a living, andconsumers have a right to purchase the goods produced by theindustry• Environmentalists – we have a duty to act as stewards of theEarth, both for our own futures and the future of other livingcreatures
Creative Solutions• The way to begin to solve problems such as this is throughdialogue.• Understanding how another party sees the area of concern isa crucial step towards finding a creative solution orcompromise.• This requires us to avoid certain roadblocks though.
Roadblocks to Doing Ethics• Dogmatism: “I’m right, and anyone who can’t see that is afool”• Relativism: “It’s all a matter of personal opinion anyway.There’s no one right answer”• Grasping for Facts: “There are experts who can answer ourquestion, so let’s ask them or look up the answer”
Dogmatism• Those who are entrenched in a particular position tend not tolisten. In fact, they won’t listen, because listening suggeststhat there might be reasons to doubt their position.• Dogmatists often don’t argue for their positions – they statetheir conclusions, but not their reasons for it. This is becauseto offer reasons for your position implies that your positionneeds defending – it’s an admission that your position is notself-evident.• Sometimes it’s best to stubbornly defend your position, butnot at the cost of failing to listen to others.
Relativism• Usually when we look around us, we see that other people havedifferent values, especially when we look beyond familiar cultures.• This opens our minds up, and helps us see that others have differentvalues, which is a good thing.• But if we take this to the extreme, and conclude that values are purelyrelative, i.e. they never have an objective basis, we shut down ethicalengagement.• In a discussion about the ethics of abortion, someone once said “well,it’s all a matter of personal opinion, so what is there to talk about?” Themessage seems to be: “I’m uncomfortable talking about this – can wechange the subject?” Relativism shuts down discussion, and so blocksethical engagement. And in this case, leaving it up to personal opinionis taking a position – it’s called being pro-choice.• Also, relativism is hugely impractical. Since moral values have to do withwhat we owe each other, and what we are owed, they need to beresolved somehow. If we’re deciding how to distribute raises to theemployees of a company, we have to make a decision. To shut downdiscussion is to do nothing at all, which is itself a decision.
Grasping for Facts• Sometimes a discussion about values turns to a discussion about facts – whatdoes science tell us about global warming? What does the newspaper’s editorialpolicy say about unnamed sources?• Facts are essential, of course, but ethical discussion is blocked when we seekfacts to the exclusion of discussing values.• This often happens because facts are seen as public and objective, and we havemethods for determining what the facts are. To that extent they are easier todiscuss.• Normative/descriptive: sometimes it is useful to distinguish normative claimsfrom descriptive ones. A descriptive claim, as its name suggests, describes howthings are. So a fact is expressed by a descriptive statement. Normative claims,however, prescribe how thing should be. Ethics is generally a normativeenterprise, investigating what we ought to do or how we should be.• When a discussion of ethics turns purely descriptive, you know you’re avoidingdiscussion of values.• A noteworthy species of Grasping for Facts is the tendency to cite the law orpolicy documents. The law might prohibit certain behavior, but that doesn’t endethical debate. After all, Heinz, in breaking in the lab, breaks the law, but thatdoesn’t mean that the ethical question is answered. Instead the law, and anypolicy, should reflect what is ethically appropriate, not the other way around.Laws and policies are good starting points for discussion, but not ends.
Diversity• In any matter of moral significance, you’ll find a diversity ofopinions, and diverse values expressed.• These are an opportunity for engagement, not a roadblock toit.
The Role of Reason• If we share common core values, at least at a fundamental level, how dowe connect them to the particular situation or problem we arediscussing?• This is where reason comes in. The ability to think rationally issomething we have in common.• Contrast this with religious principles: we can’t assume that others willshare our religious beliefs, so even if our religious beliefs clarify howvalues are to be prioritized or applied in specific cases, that is not a basisfor resolving moral questions outside of the community of religiousbelievers.• The study of ethics can be largely characterized as the attempt tostructure moral values by building a rational framework. Oftentimesthis amounts to finding a fundamental moral principle that can beuniversally applied to resolve moral questions.• We will look at several traditional and influential theories, and some oftheir strengths and weaknesses.• Again, the goal is not to choose the One True Theory, but instead toexplore them as a means of understanding our broader moral thinking.
The Role of Emotion• Using reason doesn’t imply that we must be cold andobjective, however. Sometimes people dismiss others as “tooemotional”, as if being cold and objective is the ideal way toengage in ethics, and that emotion and fact are opposed.• But this misses the point – ethics is about our values, andvalues are what we care about, and care is an emotion.• Not only that, but emotions arise from reflecting on facts, andyou can feel strongly and consider facts at the same time.• So feeling emotional about an issue is entirely appropriate.• What is dangerous is only feeling emotional, withoutconsidering facts. (Stephen Colbert calls this “Truthiness” - it’swhat you feel in your gut, not what you think in your head)
Grouping Values• We find general agreement as to what the values are, butpeople differ about their application or priority in any givensituation.• One way to see how this difference is by looking at how valuesare grouped together:• Goods (happiness, pleasure, harmony, peace, etc.)• Rights (respect for dignity of others, fairness, justice, respectingcivil and human rights)• Virtues (character, integrity, acting as a good person should,acting responsibly, honestly, loyally, etc.)
Focusing on Goods• Hospital emergency rooms use triage as a method to appropriatelyoffer treatment to patients. This is a way of focusing on goods – wehave limited medical resources, and they can be most effectivelydeployed by treating first those in greatest need of them and thosewho will receive the most benefit.• What do we look at? The expected consequences of each proposedaction.• This is a benefits/harms model, and is a little like doing acost/benefit analysis.• The Heinz dilemma: What would the consequences be of stealingthe medicine? (wife survives, druggist loses $200 of value, and$2000 of opportunity, druggist might improve security at some cost,in both time and money, and increased concern over the safety ofhis store. Neighbors might have increased concern voer crime in thearea)
Utilitarianism• The most common form of consequentialism is utilitarianism,which summarizes morality by one fundamental principle:• The right action is the one that maximizes aggregate utility, onbalance and over time.• But what is utility?• Hedonistic Utilitarianism: pleasure & absence of pain• Most hedonistic utilitarians recognize that pleasure comes inmany forms, so they are not merely considering sensualpleasures.
Utilitarianism’s Strengths• Equality – utilitarians generally count everyone as equal• Progressiveness – utilitarianism has often been at theforefront of what we think of as morally progressivemovements, such as the abolition of slavery, women’ssuffrage, and vegetarianism• Highest Values are Very Nearly Universal – happiness, pleasureand the reduction of suffering are very nearly universal values• Forward-looking – utilitarianism is future-oriented – it looks atfuture outcomes, not past events
Utilitarianism’s Weaknesses• Equality & Impartiality – it appears that it’s morally appropriate tobe partial to some individuals in one’s life (saving a stranger’s childvs. saving your own child)• Massively impractical – the consequences of any action are so far-reaching as to be practically impossible to predict• Extremely demanding – an act as ordinary as buying a pair of shoeslooks to be immoral, given that the money you spent on the shoescould have provided needed medical care to infants in a developingnation.• No room for permissible or superogatory acts – for a utilitarian, anaction is either the right act, or it is wrong. There is no room forpermissible actions, and there’s no room for going above andbeyond the call of duty, doing good that morality does not require ofyou. Every good act is obligatory.• Forward-looking – Utilitarianism makes one equally responsible forbringing about a good outcome, irrespective of one’s pastinvolvement or others’ involvement
Is There a Limit?• One implication of utilitarianism is that any type of actioncould, in some circumstances, be morally justified, evenobligatory.• We generally believe torture is wrong. But for manyutilitarians, there are no blanket prohibitions on types ofaction. Torturing a suspected terrorist might be appropriate,especially if doing so might reveal important information, suchas what the terrorist’s organization is planning.• Some utilitarians have been criticized for sanctioning actionsthat sound as if they cross a moral line, such as infanticide insome circumstances.
Deontological Theories• Focusing on the Rights category of values brings us to anotherclass of theories: Deontological• They generally identify what is morally right with what dutyrequires of us and what is morally wrong with what dutyprohibits.• This is cashed out in various ways by different theorists, sowe’ll look at the most prominent historical deontologist,Immanuel Kant.
Kantian Ethics• Kant held that the right action is guided by what he called theCategorical Imperative. He said it can be stated in more than oneway:• Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time to will to beuniversal law.• Always treat others as ends in themselves, never merely as means.• Roughly, what the first means is that the rule that you adopt whenyou choose to act must be a rule that can be adopted by everyone,so that your action is compatible with their adopting the same rule.This is sometimes known as Universalizability.• The second means that you treat others as individuals with theirown projects, interests and autonomy, and these have as muchworth for them as yours do for you. To treat another as aninstrument to serve your own interests is wrong.
Example: The False Promise• You ask for a loan from me, promising to pay meback Friday, when you know you can’t do it.• Your maxim: I will make a promise I know I can’tkeep when it will benefit me.• Can this be universalized? No.• This would mean that we live in a world in whicheveryone makes false promises when it benefitsthem, but this would be a world in which promisesare empty and not accepted. So it’s a world in whichyou can’t use a false promise at all.• It violates the second formulation as well: in lying toyou, I treat you as a means to my own end. To treatyou as an end in yourself, I should tell you the truth– that I need the money, but I wont’ be able to repayyou. You can then take that information andautonomously make a decision based upon yourown reasoning and values.
Deontology’s Strengths• Deontological views also allow that some acts are permissible– they can be chosen, or not, and this is up to the individual.• They make room for superogatory acts as well – one can gobeyond one’s duty, and even act heroically.• They are in some circumstances less demanding thanutilitarianism, since an act such as buying shoes may bepermissible, if one’s duty is not to first help those in need at alltimes, but something more manageable• Deontology generally treats duties as duties to others, ratherthan duties to bring about outcomes, making it morerelational than utilitarianism, and explaining accountability.
Deontology’s Weaknesses• Duties sometimes apparently conflict, since there is no onecore duty. Deontology sometimes struggles with determininghow to resolve conflicts among duties.• Deontology is inflexible – if one has a duty not to tortureinnocents, then there are no circumstances in which torturingan innocent is morally permitted.
Virtues• There is another, ancient, ethical perspective, known as virtue ethics.• Consider the following story: Marta is a newspaper reporter, covering localpolitics for Metro section of her paper. She is a single mother, with two school-aged children, and her job allows her the flexibility to work around her children’sschedules. Unfortunately she was laid off recently due to budget cutbacks,following further subscription sales losses at the paper. She gets a job offer fromanother company, who publishes a celebrity gossip magazine, and she is told herduties will include finding “juicy” celebrity stories, especially those involvingpublic officials, some of whom she has good working relationships with. Sheknows that some of this work will involve getting close, if not crossing, lines ofpersonal privacy, and some of the methods used by some reporters in this line ofwork she finds suspect. Still, if she doesn’t take the job, someone with fewermoral qualms will likely take it, and if she says yes, she will have some controlover how the job is done. Plus, the money is good and she will still have theflexibility of her old job.• Should she take the job?• Here if we say no, why? Does she have a duty of some sort? The consequencesto all involved seem to favor her taking the job, if anything.• Perhaps the value we’re looking at here is personal integrity.
Which Question Comes First?Whatmakes anactiongood?Whatmakes apersongood?
Aristotle• One of the earliest, and still most prominent, virtue theoristswas Aristotle.• He said that every thing has a function, and we, as humanbeings, also have a function.• Our function is to live our lives in accordance with rationality.In this case, he means by using our wisdom and judgment toconduct ourselves in a manner consistent with our humanity.• Aristotle held that a good thing is one that performs itsfunction well, i.e. one that is virtuous or excellent atperforming its function.• Though this is rather high-minded and abstract, Aristotle hadpractical lessons in mind.
Habit and Practice• What characterizes the good person, says Aristotle, is that heractions express the mean – acting neither in excess, nor in deficit.• One who is not virtuous will be prone to get angry too easily (beirascible) or never be moved to anger (be insensible). The virtuousperson will get angry the right amount in the right circumstances.• The way we acquire virtue is through habit. Repetition and practiceinstill in us a good character, or, if we make bad choices, a badcharacter.• Importantly, Aristotle says that ethics is not a science of hard-and-fast rules. It is inexact, and so determining what is right is a matterof exercising good judgment in the situation.• Like a good critic uses practice and study to improve her judgmentof paintings, so does a virtuous person practice to improve judgmentof actions. Neither’s wisdom is replaceable with a set of rules.
Virtue Theory’s Weaknesses• Hard to apply to a specific situation – given that the goal ofVirtue theory is not to answer the question “What is the rightaction in this circumstance?”, the theory doesn’t give us aclear answer to moral dilemmas much of the time.• Self-centered – though the virtues themselves, particularlythose such as magnanimity and generosity, can be outward-looking, the theory itself centers on the individual agent, andhis or her goodness. Some object that this is the wrongorientation for a moral theory.• An action might express one virtue, yet violate another one.There should be a set of prioritized virtues or a few basicvirtues that help resolve conflicts.
Returning to Values• Where does this leave us?• We can think of a moral situation from many different perspectives,and some familiarity with contrasting theories can enlighten us orgive us fresh perspective.• Back to Heinz:• Utilitarian perspective: Stealing the drug will have some good effects(saving wife’s life, saving money) and some bad effects (loss ofmoney for Heinz, fear of further break-ins might increase securitycosts for researcher, fear of other burglaries will affect otherresearchers)• Kantian perspective: Heinz is not treating the researcher as an end inhimself, but only as a means to Heinz’s end. The researcher hasrights that Heinz violates by stealing.• Virtue perspective: Stealing runs contrary to the virtue of honesty,but obtaining the drug conforms to the virtue of caring for one’sloved ones. Perhaps identifying how the act conforms to the virtueof justice will decide.
Final Thoughts• Here are some questions about any ethical dilemma:• Who (or what) are the potential stakeholders? What interests dothey have that might be affected by potential actions? How mightthey be harmed or benefited?• What rights might be in play, and whose rights? What duties dothese rights impose on others? What interests do the rightsprotect?• What would a good person do in a situation such as this? Are thecircumstances such that a good person would judge the situationas one in which a different action is appropriate? Does the actionbeing considered reflect the action of a good character, or aperson of integrity?• I hope you have found this useful, and it provided you withsome tools to engage in ethics not only here today, but afteryou leave as well.