Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What is Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Inquiry?

To begin with, let's agree that our knowledge of Truth and Value is contingent upon a process called "human inquiry." This process results in the forging of beliefs that are embraced by both individuals and communities of individuals. Here I'll defend a foundational philosophical distinction between two broad areas: descriptive inquiry, that is, the process of forging beliefs that approximate the Truth; and prescriptive inquiry, the process of forging beliefs that pertain to Value. I shall argue that these modes of inquiry are NOT incommensurable, but rather, relate to one another in enormously complex ways. Although, the boundaries between Truth and Value are far from clear, if there is such a thing as "The Good," our knowledge of it is contingent upon our knowledge of "Truth." However, I will also argue that both the descriptive and prescriptive modes of inquiry are, not only unclear, they are also inherently fallible, and open-ended, which explains why human beings often disagree what's true and good, and frequently change their individual and collective minds.

So all human beings believe that some human behavior is good and praiseworthy, and that other behavior is bad and blameworthy. It is true that human beings (as a matter of fact) murder each other, steal from each other, drive too fast, and fart in elevators. Under most circumstances, none of these behaviors are considered to be good or praiseworthy, although there may be particular circumstances when they might be. Farting is a perfectly natural phenomenon open to descriptive inquiry. It can be explained in terms of the laws of human physiology, (the production of nitrogenous waste) and the laws of physics: our knowledge of both sets of laws change over time. Killing and stealing can also be explained in biological terms. But many philosophers argue that there is a difference between inquiring into whether something is true and/or whether it is good.

If Truth involves a correspondence between our beliefs and reality, we might argue that Value involves a correspondence between our prescriptive beliefs and what is in fact, good. Unfortunately, moral philosophy is not that simple. It's not even clear that Truth involves correspondence, let alone value.

My view is that the line of demarcation between the descriptive "is" and prescriptive "ought" is extremely ambiguous. Descriptive theories aim to explain, predict, and control our behavior. These theories are either true or false. Prescriptive moral theories explain whether or not those beliefs correspond to what's good or bad. For example, if you want to know whether or not I believe that capital punishment is morally good, or not...you could begin by asking me. That's fine, assuming that I know what I believe and that I don't lie to you. Fortunately, beliefs are not only mental entities, but they also influence our behavior. So if you want to know what I believe to be true or good, observe my behavior over a period of time. You could listen to my lectures, or see if I've ever signed petitions for or against capital punishment, etc.

In my case, I'm not exactly sure what I think about capital punishment. Over the years I've changed my mind. I do know that if a member of my family or a close friend was murdered, my behavior would be profoundly influenced by emotion. I'd insist on retribution. In a moment of moral weakness, I might even attempt to exact retribution on my own. I think it is "true" that in all times and in all places, human beings seek retribution for harms inflicted by others. It is also "true" that human beings often kill one another. Now whether these behaviors are good or not is another question.

Scientists today have begun to cultivate a line of scientific inquiry that I call "descriptive psychology." Some of these inquirers explain our moral behavior by examining the structure of our brains. Then they suggest that that the brain module responsible for morality was shaped by millions of years of evolution. Based on this line of inquiry, many philosophers argue that, over time, as this line of descriptive inquiry unfolds, it will gradually replace prescriptive inquiry. That is to say, prescriptive inquiry will someday be absorbed by descriptive inquiry in the form of brain science. I don't believe it. Prescriptive moral inquiry is here to stay. Nevertheless, I think that descriptive inquiry certainly elucidates prescriptive inquiry.

To me, the only way to make sense of prescriptive inquiry is via descriptive inquiry: that is to say, we must establish how we, in fact, go about making value judgments. This is an empirically based activity in which we can all participate. All we have to do is observe how we employ moral language in our everyday lives, and how we arrive at moral judgments. Descriptive ethics, therefore, involves the collection of data that relates to moral behavior and the forging of our moral beliefs. It can involve biological inquiry, psychological inquiry, economics, sociological inquiry, and/or political inquiry. But in the final analysis, it turns out that there is something left over that resembles universal morality.

You may also notice that I am disinclined to spin a fine distinction between "ethics" and "morality." In fact, I shall use those terms as synonymous. The language that we employ within the moral domain is an essential ingredient for productive. Unfortunately, moral inquiry has always been complex, convoluted, and ambiguous. Thank God for philosophers! I'll at least try to identify some of those messy borders.

Another empirically-based observation evident to prescriptive inquiry is that it produces judgments containing an "ought." Positive moral behavior is judged to be "good" and therefore we "ought to do" those kinds of things. Negative behaviors that are "bad" and therefore we "ought to not do" those things. In a nutshell, morality consists in urging ourselves and others to do some things and not to do other things; and, therefore, we may have either positive duties, negative duties, or both. Moreover, we praise or blame each other, both, for doing good things and for not doing good things.

There is also widespread agreement that throughout human history, morality involves rules of conduct. In general, we praise persons that obey the rules and blame those that do not. But there is a lot of disagreement over specific moral rules and how we go discovering which rules to follow under various circumstances. Many philosophers argue that moral rules are simply statements of personal preference, while other philosophers say that moral beliefs are merely expressions of tradition and convention. Let's just say that traditionally, prescriptive moral inquiry usually addresses the question of rules.

Let's also agree that human beings make moral judgments, not only about specific acts of human behavior, we also make judgments about the character of the persons that perform these acts. This usually involves the analysis of internal mental things like intent, reasons, motivation, and conscience. Let's examine both good behavior and good persons.

When we say that a specific behavior is good, we are "prescribing" that behavior. Of course, we prescribe a lot of different kinds of behavior under a wide variety of circumstances. In fact, I think there are basically four kinds of behavior in which we use the adjective "good:" moral behavior (right or wrong), conventional behavior (good or bad manners), prudential behavior (practical/impractical), and legal behavior (lawful or unlawful)? Usually we invoke rules of conduct to frame these behaviors. But there are notoriously fuzzy boundaries here.

Moral behavior is usually classified as a subcategory of normative human behavior, which is to say that not all human normative behavior involves morality. In our society unconventional behavior, such as belching and/or farting at the dinner table is widely regarded as bad behavior. So is eating with your mouth open, picking your nose, and scratching private parts in public, especially on television. Conventional behavior is often dictated by a specific line of habitual behavior expressed as rules, which constitute a body of collective beliefs called tradition. Most traditional behavior varies between cultures and within cultures. They also vary relative to time and place. Bad manners can evoke feelings of distaste or revulsion in others within those cultural settings, but are not necessarily viewed as immoral. However, philosophers argue over whether there is something more to morality than rules enforced by tradition and convention.

The category of legality refers to behaviors that are prescribed or proscribed by power-laden institutions through the enforcement of laws. If a behavior is illegal, it carries with it a sanction that is imposed by that institution. Legal sanctions can be imposed by a variety of institutions, including: political institutions (government), religious institutions (churches), and economic institutions (corporations). Lawmakers often pass laws that are unenforceable, or laws that lack sanctions.

Prudence is an old, and probably arcane, concept. As I use the term, it signifies behavior that either advances individual or collective interests; or, at least it does not undermine interests. Imprudent behavior may or may not violate good manners, conventionality, or the law. Generally speaking, overeating is neither illegal nor immoral, but if you do it often enough it is certainly imprudent. And, unfortunately, in the United States overeating has become conventional behavior. In other contexts, overeating might be regarded as bad manners. Some argue that it is immoral to overeat if other human beings are hungry or starving. In most places it is not illegal to deliberately fart in a public elevator, but it will almost certainly be regarded as bad manners. It might also be imprudent, if your boss is in the elevator with you at the time.

Obviously, there is a lot of legal behavior that is immoral, nonconventional, and/or imprudent; and there is a lot of illegal behavior that is neither: immoral, non-conventional, nor imprudent. And of course, it is usually imprudent to violate standards of legality. But it is only imprudent if you get caught breaking the law. Sometimes the government is incapable of detecting your bad behavior, (weak monitoring) sometimes the sanction that it imposes does not threatening enough to deter your behavior (weak sanction), and sometimes government simply lacks the power to effectively enforce the sanction.

Within our own cultural setting, it seems fairly easy to differentiate between the domains of morality, conventionality, legality, and prudence, but it is much more difficult to do it between cultures. All human cultures use legality to enforce morality, conventionality, and prudence to varying degrees. Libertarians prefer to limit use of the legal code to enforce these alternative forms of the good. We'll get back to that shortly.

Although it is very difficult to distinguish between these normative contexts, there are several common denominators. All of these domains tend to involve persons, behaviors, rules, and the assessment of praiseworthiness, and blameworthiness. Once we get beyond these rather obvious generalities, things get more complicated. If it is philosophically possible to draw a clear line between these categories, morality is usually distinguished on the basis of its alleged universality. But prudential behavior can also approach universality. That is because prudence is often enforced by the laws of nature. (It's almost never a good idea to step in front of a vehicle traveling 75 miles an hour!). And murder is universally regarded as illegal, even though all cultures admit various exceptions. In some cultures, it is conventional to kill women that have been raped.

So the precise borders between morality, convention, legality, and prudence are far from clear. This ambiguity contributes to interminable debate over normative issues that transgress these vaguely defined borders.

In sum, so far I have suggested that human beings, by nature, ask questions and propose answers to those questions. Philosophy is simply the study of this questioning and answering process, which I call human inquiry. Whether we like it or not, we are all philosophers in so far as we engage in this open-ended, inter-generational and intercultural process of questioning and answering. The answers to these questions are called beliefs, which are simply the artifacts generated by the process of inquiry. New beliefs compete with old beliefs within our individual minds or brains and also in our collective minds or networked brains, or culture. As the process of inquiry proceeds across generations, some beliefs survive while others suffer extinction. Some of our more general beliefs carry more weight than others. We call our more general, stable, and widely-held beliefs theories. But human inquiry is highly contextualized, therefore, different individuals and communities tend to ask different questions and accept different answers. But despite this variation, there are many basic questions and answers that crop up in all contexts, at all times, and in all places. Hence, there are two universal lines of inquiry that all individual human beings and all communities pursue. We all seek the answers to two basic questions: "What is Truth?" and "What is Goodness?" Our answers are embedded in theories.

So morality involves both descriptive and prescriptive inquiry. Despite the fact that we make judgments about the morality of behavior and persons, we don't always agree with one another. We disagree over the composition of the moral universe. We disagree with one another over the rules of morality and as to whether we "ought" to hold certain individuals responsible for their behavior, and whether to praise them or blame them. We do not often agree as to what we ought to do or ought not to do; and we don't often agree as to whether individuals or communities are good or bad. Any theory of morality must take these facts into account. I shall argue that libertarianism does that better than any other theory, but it's not the main focus of the book. My primary concern will be to introduce you to the main lines of moral inquiry.

Here's my overall plan for the rest of this book. I will begin with a brief discussion of the three basic types of moral theory: teleological theories, deontological, and virtue based theories. Then I will examine five moral principles that underlie objective morality: utility, beneficence, non-maleficence, liberty, and justice.

TERMS TO KNOW: Human Inquiry, Descriptive Inquiry, Prescriptive Inquiry, Positive Ethics, Negative Ethics, Moral Character, Morality, Convention, and Prudence.


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