Philosophy and Ethics

Mark I. Vuletic

Last updated 02 August 2012

This is the most recent iteration of a slideshow (with added commentary) that I present at the start of my applied ethics classes. Most of my students are non-majors, and have had little or no prior exposure to philosophy, so I need to give them a very brief orientation to philosophy and to some background issues in ethics.

Slide 1:

The picture in the background is The School of Athens, by the Renaissance artist Raphael. You may be able to dimly discern the figures of Plato and Aristotle in the center (see the detail below), with the former on the right and the latter on the left. If you look closely at the original, you will notice that Aristotle is holding one of his own works on ethics. (Plato, incidentally, is holding the Timaeus, one of his dialogues about metaphysics.) This is not testable information, but of course you're curious.

Plato and Aristotle

Slide 2:

The quote above is from an old Newsweek article written by philosophy professor Erik Wielenberg. When people find out about Wielenberg's line of work, they ask him what exactly a philosopher does. The quote is what he tells them. It's a pretty accurate account of the day-to-day activities of professional philosophers, though it doesn't say much about the kinds of questions and puzzles on which philosophers tend to work.

Slide 3:

There are as many views of the nature of philosophy itself as there are philosophers, if not more (if you don't believe me, listen to the huge variety of answers Nigel Warburton has collated from the guests on his philosophy podcast.) At the same time, nearly every philosopher seems to appeal to the etymological definition of philosophy as "love of wisdom," but this doesn't tell us much, since many disciplines seek wisdom. It would be more helpful if we could specify a particular kind of subject matter that philosophers investigate, and a particular kind of method they use—in short, we want to know what kind of wisdom philosophers want, and we want to know how they go about trying to get that wisdom.

My own view (a fairly common view, as well as the view I was taught) is that philosophy simply is the attempt to answer questions currently (and perhaps forever) beyond the reach of science, by using reason and publicly accessible evidence. When I describe the evidence as publicly accessible, I mean that it should be (at least in principle) open to any normally functioning human being. This makes philosophy an enterprise that is continuous with science: we forge on where the possibility of a resolution by experiment leaves off, carefully utilizing whatever evidence we  can bring to bear upon the remaining questions.

My definition certainly is not without its problems. If you have learned anything about epistemology, you probably already can see how problematic it is when stated so baldly. I offer it only as a first approximation.

Slide 4:

This slide shows the primary subfields of philosophy, where you will find most of the questions philosophers deal with:

Logic is the study of proper patterns of reasoning, of the connection between evidence and the conclusions one might try to draw from evidence. Obviously, logic is not exclusively the domain of philosophers.

Metaphysics, roughly, asks questions about things: what things exist? What are they like? For instance, what is the universe made of? Do people have free will? Are minds distinct from brains? What is time?

Epistemology asks questions about knowledge itself: what is knowledge? Can we have it? What does it take to get it?

Axiology deals with questions about value, both artistic value in the case of aesthetics, and moral value in the case of ethics.

Slide 5:

Many of you likely have drawn from religion at least some of your current positions on various philosophical issues, so I need to touch briefly on the distinction between philosophy and theology.

Philosophy proceeds from a secular foundation. This does not mean that philosophy is inherently hostile to religion, just that its starting point is neutral with respect to religion. As I said above, philosophy relies upon reason and publicly accessible evidence. What you get when you start with this foundation—whether your conclusions will confirm or contradict propositions drawn from religious foundations—is a matter of some dispute, which we will touch upon at various points in this course, but both types of results are at least in principle possible.

The important thing to understand is that philosophers do not make assumptions about religion at the outset. Philosophers who are religious—even those who believe their religious principles to be more secure than reason and publicly accessible evidence—will, when doing philosophy, bracket those principles for the time being, and see where reason and publicly accessible evidence alone will lead them.

To all of you, whatever your commitments right now, I would like you to approach this course in the spirit of trying to find out whether the philosopher's project can provide any answers, or any wisdom at all. I will not give you any guarantee that it will do either—whether or not the project succeeds is something I would like you to determine for yourself.

Slide 6:

One very common confusion that beginning ethics students fall into is to conflate descriptive ethics with normative ethics.  Philosophers are nearly always concerned with the normative side of ethics. When a philosopher asks, for instance, whether euthanasia is morally right, the philosopher is not asking whether anyone approves of euthanasia, or whether euthanasia actually occurs, or what the law says about euthanasia, or anything like that—these are all descriptive matters. The philosopher is asking what our attitudes, behaviors, and laws ought to be like with respect to euthanasia—a normative matter. Responding to a normative question with a descriptive answer misses the point of the question entirely. So, for instance, if a philosopher asks you whether some action is right or wrong, one of the very worst answers you can give is "Some people think it is right, and others think it is wrong"—aside from being trivial to the point of laziness, such a statement is irrelevant to the question posed since the question is normative but the offered answer is descriptive.

Slide 7:

This slide presents a schema of different positions one can take on the nature and existence of normative moral facts. I hope most of it is self-explanatory, but let me emphasize again that these are positions about normative moral facts rather than descriptive moral facts. In this schema, for instance, someone who merely believes that different cultures accept different moral codes is not necessarily a moral relativist: a moral relativist has to believe that what is right and wrong (not merely what is believed or regarded to be right or wrong) varies from one culture to another. Likewise, even universal acceptance of a single set of moral standards would not in itself establish the truth of moral objectivism.

The one part of this schema that is non-standard is the placement of subjectivism and relativism into the moral realism category. Most people consider relativism and subjectivism forms of moral nihilism—the denial of the very existence of moral facts. I need to explain here why I think this is a mistake. Relativists and subjectivists may believe that moral facts vary (across cultures if one is a relativist, across individuals if one is a subjectivist) but they do seem to believe that there are moral facts—in contrast with nihilists, they believe that for every action that a specific individual performs in a specific context, the question of whether or not that person is right to perform the action has a definite answer. The answers may vary from one person and context to another, but there are answers. The distinction I am trying to draw can be analogized to the physicist's stance on acceleration due to gravity: just because physicists believe that acceleration due to gravity may vary from one location to another does not mean that they believe there is no acceleration due to gravity anywhere at all.

Slide 8:

Since this class is an applied class, we will have little opportunity to try to explore the issues raised by the schema on the previous slide—those are issues for courses devoted entirely to ethical theory. But is there any use to be had from studying applied ethics before one has determined whether or not there are such things as normative moral facts at all? What if moral nihilism is true? Would that make careful reflection about specific ethical issues useless? In this slide, I call attention to what I think are a few good reasons to think about applied ethical issues even if one is a moral nihilist; if these reasons apply to nihilists, then they should apply to everyone.

Slide 9:

This slide just points out that surface-level moral disagreement does not always point to a fundamental moral difference between the parties involved. Two people can behave radically differently, enact radically different policies, and make radically different claims about right and wrong, all while sharing exactly the same fundamental moral beliefs. It may simply be that the two disagree about nonmoral facts, since surface-level moral beliefs arise from an interaction between core moral beliefs and non-moral beliefs about the world. The dispute between Ghanaians who kill their "spirit children" and those who are struggling to end the practice appears to be an example of a surface-level moral dispute that is caused purely by different metaphysical beliefs rather than different core moral commitments.

Slide 10:

This chart just points to the way theory, reason, and intuition (both general and specific) exert back-and-forth influences on one another. Typically, you will start with intuitions only, and will try to find a way to mesh your general and specific moral intuitions in a coherent theory. In the process, you may find that some of your intuitions need adjusting. There may also be one-way input from a number of other sources, such as pure reason, considerations about the properties of human nature, or even divine commands. All of these prospective sources of ethical knowledge, however, are themselves subject to philosophical evaluation.

Some philosophers will argue that ethics really consists only of the sections on the right, except that the boxes must encompass everyone's moral intuitions. To these philosophers, ethics is a human enterprise, with the sole function of seeking stable, universal consensus among human beings about what they ought and ought not do; on this account, once everyone is on the same page—and that same page is coherent—the project of ethics is complete.

Others think that coherence, even with universal acceptance by all humans for all time, is not enough. To them, an ethical theory requires external (so to speak) justification—even if everyone is on the same page, these philosophers worry, everyone could be mistaken, just as getting everyone to believe that the Earth is flat would not make it so. For these philosophers, ethics must seek a foundation that would compel the assent of any rational and fully informed being imaginable, human or not. It is probably  simplest to think of this understanding of ethics as the search for a theory that  corresponds to some domain of normative moral facts.

You do not need to choose between these two projects—as you engage in critical reflection on ethical issues, you simply should ask yourself how the arguments you offer bear upon both.

We will start this class with a unit on consequentialism and deontology to motivate you to (i) think about your general moral intuitions and (ii) try to get some very tentative sense of how those intuitions might be formalized into a theory. In the remaining units, we will be dealing with applied issues that will bring your specific moral intuitions to bear. The reason why we start out with theory is because if we just launch straight into specific issues there is a danger that you will treat them piecemeal and then forget about each issue as you move onto the next: you will ask yourself, "What do I think about this specific issue?" without keeping track of how your intuitions about each issue mesh or fail to mesh with your intuitions about other issues. As you go through this course, I want you always to have an eye toward trying to develop a coherent whole from all of your moral intuitions, general and specific. If you find that the process is difficult, don't worry: you're doing philosophy, and that's rarely easy when one does justice to the questions.

Slide 11:

In natural language (the language we use in everyday life), words often have multiple meanings or vague meanings. Philosophers try to avoid this as much as possible, either by restricting the meanings of words artificially (but hopefully not too artificially) or by using additional terms or even subscripts to make distinctions. Sometimes the practice is, to be frank, no more than an ill-considered attempt to imitate the technicality of the natural sciences; at its best, however, the practice helps us to think and speak clearly by exposing important subtleties that are concealed by the comparative sloppiness of natural language. The way philosophers talk about the right and the good is an example of when a little bit of technicality is useful. The discussion on this slide does not, by any means, eliminate all of the ambiguity in our normal ethical terminology, but it does make some very good progress.

In ethics, it is standard to make a rigid distinction between the right and the good, and then to further specify two different senses of the good.

Philosophers apply words like right and wrong, and related words like permissible, impermissible, obligatory, and supererogatory only to actions. This usage tracks natural language pretty closely.

In natural language, however, we sometimes also use words like good and bad to describe actions (we say, "That was a good thing to do" and so forth). In philosophy, however, we restrict these words to describe things other than actions. We can use them, for instance, to describe objects (e.g. "That is a good pen"), characteristics (e.g. "Cowardice is bad, but cruelty is worse") and states of affairs (e.g. "Being dead really isn't as bad as everyone thinks").

Importantly, we can also use the words good and bad to describe agents—beings which perform actions. Notice that when we describe an agent as good or bad, we typically mean something different than when we describe a non-agent as good or bad (compare "That is a good computer" to "She is a good person"): only when we speak of agents do we mean bad in the sense of evil, and good as the contrary.

When philosophers need to make the distinction explicit, they will talk of moral good and bad to refer to the kind of good and bad that can apply to agents, and nonmoral good and bad to refer to the kind of good and ad that applies to things other than agents. Be aware that philosophers often will not make the distinction explicit—since it is something that is introduced early in exposure to ethical theory, most philosophers will assume that their readers are familiar with the distinction and that context will make clear whether moral or nonmoral value is being spoken of.

I mention all of this because one of the most useful things one can ask about an ethical theory or a class of ethical theories is what kind of relationship it establishes between the right and the two different types of good.

Slide 12:

A complete ethical theory will tells us the precise meaning of all of the terms we have just surveyed, in the sense that it will tell us:

  • What it takes for an action to be right, and what it takes for an action to be wrong.
  • What it takes for an agent to be good, and what it takes for an agent to be bad.
  • What it takes for something or than an agent to be good, and what it takes for something other than an agent to be bad.

It is important to understand that virtually none of the theories one encounters in an introductory class is complete. This shouldn't cause you undue concern: disagreements between two theories (or two types of theories) about any of the above are interesting. When you encounter incomplete theories or deal with general types of theories that are not concerned with all three items above, you should try to think about different ways in which they might be completed. For that matter, even if you run into a complete theory, you still should try to think about alternative ways that it might be completed.

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