On Philosophy

December 8, 2006

Philosophy as a Source of Ethical Guidance

Filed under: Ethics,Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:40 am

Lets say that you have an ethical question, a situation in which you really have no idea what the right thing to do is. Where do you turn? To your conscience? Religion? Socrates? Such a question is both meta-ethical, because it is about ethics, and ethical, because choosing one of these options has consequences that may lead you to doing the wrong thing. Or the right thing.

Of these possibilities religion is probably the worst. Sure some parts of religious texts are ethically sound, but other parts are reprehensible. Now if you can tell the difference that’s great, but in order to do so you must rely on your conscience, or on philosophy. Another problem with religious texts is that they simply don’t provide reasons for their commands, which makes it nearly impossible to generalize from the advice given, even if you wanted to. A few days ago I considered the ethical implications of file sharing, a matter on which nearly all religious texts, being written before the existence of the internet, are silent. Now admittedly you can stretch the texts to cover such cases, you can interpret file sharing as theft or, as the name implies, sharing. But to label it as one or the other is to pre-judge the issue. In effect you have let your intuitions (conscience) tell you whether it is good or bad, and I will address the value of those below. Now admittedly asking a priest for advice may be a decent idea, certainly a better one than consulting a holy book. This is because in some religions priests (or the corresponding officials) are trained in ethics before they are released “into the wild”, and so often asking such a person is the same as turning to philosophy for the answer. Of course sometimes such religious officials will simply rely on the religious texts for guidance, meaning that their value is somewhere between those texts and philosophy.

Onwards then, to the conscience, which is referred to as ethical intuitions in philosophy. Our intuitions suffer from basically the same faults as religious texts, they aren’t always right, and they don’t provide reasons. It is well known that our ethical intuitions are strongly influenced by the environment that we are raised in, and just because our society gave us those intuitions doesn’t mean that they are right. Now I admit that for most people, most of the time, ethical intuitions are reliable. But we can’t put blind faith in them, because this would be to endorse the times when they fail, an ethically unsound idea. For example, consider most people’s aversion to cannibalism (which I share). Ethically there is nothing wrong with cannibalism, assuming that the person died naturally, and that you didn’t kill them for food. But most of us are disgusted with the idea of cannibalism, and think of it as “wrong”, even though there is no ethical reason to do so. More worrisome is the idea that ones own conscience might be severely off-kilter without us knowing it. There are people who do things that we would consider obviously evil without seeing themselves as in the wrong. Such people may have had their ethical intuitions thrown off balance by a traumatic event, an abusive childhood, or a chemical imbalance in their brain. But whatever the source is we need to be on guard against becoming such a person, and thus can’t justifiably lean on our conscience unless we have verified in some other way that it is always correct.

This leaves us with philosophy. Philosophy is different from the other options presented here because it provides us with reasons. Of course it is up to us to determine if those reasons are correct, just because something is published doesn’t make it infallible. However, by providing reasons for judgments as to whether an action is right or wrong, philosophy provides us with a shield against the possibility of error. Not an infallible shield of course, we can still misjudge whether the reasons provided are good ones, but it is better than no shield at all. Of course a potential problem with taking ethical philosophy as a guide is that it can be complicated, and thus it might seem impractical in some cases, where an ethical decision is called for immediately. But most ethical philosophy can be boiled down to a few simple maxims (such as maximize total happiness), the real complexity comes in justifying those maxims and in applying them to certain problematic cases. Now obviously if you have considered ethics beforehand you have already evaluated the reasons justifying different maxims and have come to endorse one or another of them. So that complexity can be safely put aside, it doesn’t need to concern us at the moment of the decision. And the problematic cases, about which lengthy papers are written, are universally artificial, the probability of you actually running across one of them, with no time to sit and think about it, is vanishingly small.

So obviously I endorse philosophy as a source of ethical judgments. I do so primarily because it is backed up by reasons, which fits well with my opinion that making the right choices is everyone’s individual ethical responsibility. This means that ultimately everyone must decide what to do on their own, without delegating the decision-making, and the responsibility, to a book or their intuitions. But of course that means you can’t simply do as I say either, that would be simply delegating the responsibility to me.


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