Elements of an Ethics Textbook (1): Introduction

After having taught an Ethics course at Alaska Pacific University for a number of years, I have found myself sufficiently dissatisfied with the commonly available textbooks and ethics readers to write my own. Whether it will end up as anything more than a personal reference and teaching tool is neither here nor there because the purpose of composing it is my conviction that it will serve the education of my students. I will post chapter introductions to this site over the next couple months as I write them. A general introduction to the subject follows below.

Often the words with which we are the most familiar are among the most difficult to define precisely. The study of ethics, or moral philosophy, is fraught with such words. “Good,” “bad,” “immoral,” “virtuous,” “evil”—none of these terms would give us pause if we encountered it in a sentence, and yet we would likely find ourselves extremely hard-pressed to articulate just what they mean. This might seem inconsequential: “everyone knows what the words mean,” we might think, and merely shrug off the difficulty. We would, of course, be partly correct in our appraisal. And yet, history reveals that divergent understandings of such concepts can be the cause of the most severe conflicts. Nineteenth and twentieth century proponents of eugenics assured their critics that their policies of selective breeding of human beings were consistent with the findings of settled science and they certainly did not think they were advocating something “bad” or “immoral.” A very similar conflict arises today in respect to questions of pre-birth screenings for birth defects and CRISPR genetic engineering.  From one side, proponents of such manipulation argue that they are applying scientific intelligence to improve on the accidental results of natural selection. Opponents might counter that the consequences of such interference are unknown and therefore present unconscionable risk, and moreover, human beings ought not to “play God.” 

If we are to have any hope of resolving such conflicts, it is necessary that both sides be able to articulate the value structures that underpin their moral judgements. By “moral judgements,” I mean judgements that concern questions of value which directly inform our actions and way of living in the world. In this way, ethics can be thought of as a study of the Good. By the same token, ethics is a study of the principles that constitute both the Good and its opposite, together with the practices and ways of life by which we engage with these principles. Above I gave the example of genetic engineering of human embryos as another extremely difficult issue that does not promise to go away by itself. Among the primary benefits of studying ethics is to develop a vocabulary to communicate in a meaningful and effective way about such questions. Without such a possibility of communication, any disagreement must either remain unresolved or decay into violence. 

In the last paragraph, I suggested that ethics is related to questions of value which directly inform our actions and way of living in the world. It is important to note that “value” in the penultimate sentence is a qualitative and not a quantitative designation. Sometimes the word “value” is used quantitatively, as in the sentence “despite receiving inside information that the stock’s value would plummet the following day, Ernie’s moral scruples would not allow him to short-sell his shares even for the sake of earning a few thousand dollars.” Consider, as an example of the qualitative use of “value,” if this sentence followed the one above: “Ernie was a man of value.” Thus, we can see that, with a few exceptions, it is the qualitative designation of “value” that is pertinent to ethics and the quantitative one is not relevant to questions of moral philosophy except tangentially. For this reason, Google’s algorithms, though they may eventually succeed in predicting fluctuations of the stock-market, will not deliver us from the challenge of confronting moral questions. In fact, AI risks sabotaging our ability to respond to such questions if we cannot keep the above differentiation of qualitative and quantitative value clear for ourselves.  Fundamentally, anytime we seek to defer our moral reasoning to computers, we are outsourcing our moral responsibility onto the programmers of those computers, since the computer itself is just an interface that functions as a sort of vicarious presence of whoever wrote that computer’s code. In this way, ethics is fundamentally a concern of human beings; an account that we must settle within and amongst ourselves. Studying ethics can provide us with conceptual tools to aid us in this process and allow us to live, both as individuals and as members of families and communities, in a way that are consistent with value. And moreover, we are actually telling the story of our lives with every word we speak and deed we undertake. To live is to write the biography of the self and the world. Again, studying ethics can help us to become more deliberate and inspired authors. Thus, to paraphrase Socrates in Plato’s Republic, we ought not to think of ethics as merely an academic discipline: “it is no small affair, but how to live.” 

Throughout history, the greatest minds have struggled to formulate a theory of ethics. By “theory” is meant to indicate an explicit principle or set of principles that both captures the essence and meaning of the phenomenon in question, and also allows us to perceive instances of the same phenomenon and to adjudicate between borderline cases. Until Newton formulated his universal theory of gravitation in the late seventeenth century, the essence of the phenomenon of an apple falling from a tree had neither been articulated, nor had its connection with the moon’s orbit around the Earth been perceived. Newton’s theory of gravitation offered both an explanation of the phenomenon of gravitation as well as a condition for the perception of other instances of the same phenomenon. Similarly, an adequate theory of ethics is meant both to answer the question “what makes something good?” and thereby also confer on us the ability to recognize all instances of good things. In this way, the theory serves both as a concept and a capacity. 

This collection will present a selection of the primary ethical theories that great thinkers from various traditions through history have offered by way of an answer to the question “what makes something good?” I have organized the selections topically rather than chronologically in an attempt to more effectively illustrate the fundamental principles that are at stake. That being said, I believe that a diachronic study of ethics could offer a compelling picture of an evolution of consciousness transpiring over millennia of human civilization. That, however, is not the subject of this book. [1] I have opted to divide the section of this book that treats normative ethics into five parts, corresponding with five basic ethical theories. The reader familiar with other textbooks common to this discipline may be surprised that I have introduced two extra categories along with the “industry standards” of utilitarianism-consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. I believe that I can justify my decision on the basis of my presentation of each of these theories, which I will lay out at the beginning of each section. Together with the five-part section on normative ethics, the book will contain two further sections: one on metaethics and another on the difficult question of relativism and objectivism in ethics. Finally, an appendix will contain a collection of case studies to illustrate moral issues in the concrete. These case studies will culled from the worlds of literature and society.

On a prior occasion sub umbra coronam, which is, “under the shadow of the Crown,” I have recorded these lectures which are also pertinent to the theme of this piece.

[1] The interested reader is kindly referred to The Redemption of Thinking, which is a published version of the present authors doctoral thesis.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Charles says:

    Good writing. I am interested in ethics for similar purposes. Words such as meaning, value, purpose, ethics, understanding, quality, truth are connected in complex but simple ways.

    Often the words with which we are the most familiar are among the most difficult to define precisely.

    A good book is Chaos Ethics Chris Bateman


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