Monday 8/27

Introductory Remarks




We began today by reviewing the syllabus and discussing the mechanics of the course. The requirements are simple: Five in-class quizzes and a final examination, all as scheduled on the course's homepage. The grading scheme is admittedly complicated, but it simplifies to saying there is a carrot and a stick. The carrot is that the grades recorded at the end of the semester will be rescaled 'A' to 'C'. So no matter how much you might struggle with the material, no matter how badly you do on the quizzes or the final, you can't do worse than a 'C', unless (and here comes the stick) you have more than two unexcused absences. Then your grade gets hammered into oblivion--50 points lost per excessive unexcused absence. The upshot is that you can easily get a 'D' or even fail the course if you miss class more than twice. Otherwise, you can be sure of at least a 'C'. I hope, of course, that you will strive to do better than what amounts to the bare minimum.

Next today we considered two cases: The Useful Sibling and Students' Little Helper. In our discussion we found that the cases split the class: Some for, some against, and no few withholding judgment. As we explored the reasons for and against, we found good reasons for, and apparently equally good reasons against. So what do we say about this?

These cases, we say, are moral dilemmas. But what are moral dilemmas?

While identifying precisely the features of a case that make it a moral dilemma is surprisingly difficult, I would like to suggest on a first run that our discussion of the cases revealed:

  1. In a moral dilemma we find apparently equally good reasons for alternative, incompatible, and consequential courses of action.
  2. The existence of such competing reasons makes us unsure how to proceed, particularly when the stakes are high.
  3. Competing reasons raises the difficult question of how we should go about adjudicating between them.
  4. The challenge of assessing competing reasons in an unbiased, principled way can even make us wonder whether there really is a morally right course of action in the first place!

So the thought that we shall study ethics this session begs an important question:

Can ethics be taught?

This is a surprisingly difficult question.

On the one hand, people will say that ethics is about not hurting other people and doing good things; there's nothing especially puzzling or challenging about that, so we really shouldn't need to spend time talking about ethics.

These people are in the 'Ethics is Obvious' camp. According to the Ethics-is-Obvious camp, ethics cannot be taught in the same sense that the fact that grass is green cannot be taught; just looking is enough to know the truth, and if you don't know what it is to be green, no amount of explaining will help.

On the other hand, people will say that ethics is about whatever a person happens to believe she ought to do. There's no truth to ethics. It's just whatever you believe, or maybe it's just whatever you were raised to believe. There's no point in talking about ethics since there's nothing to be decided; people believe what they believe, end of story.

These people are in the 'Ethics is Mysterious' camp. According to the Ethics-is-Mysterious camp, ethics cannot be taught in the same sense that one cannot be taught what one believes.

Either way, there's seems to be little point in spending time talking about ethics.

But let's not be too hasty.

What if the two camps are mistaken? Suppose there is a middle camp. Suppose there are some situations where it really isn't obvious what we ought to do, but there is a fact of the matter and we are able to figure it out if we roll up our sleeves and get to work.

I'm in this middle camp.

  • I don't think it's obvious that capital punishment is morally permissible, but I do think we can discover the truth.
  • I don't think it's obvious that colleges and universities shouldn't be allowed to use race as part of admission's standards, but I do think there are reasons for and against that we ought to study very carefully.
  • I don't think it's obvious that conducting experiments on animals is morally permissible, but I do think the debate will, eventually, lead us to the truth.
  • I don't think it's obvious that cloning a human being is morally wrong, but I do think there is a fact about whether it's right or wrong--a fact that is accessible to us.

Those of us in the middle camp have learned that answers aren't always easy when it comes to moral questions; yet we are confident that the answers exist and are accessible to us.

Because we are rational animals, we have the capacity to arrive at the truth of moral matters; because we are rational animals, the truth of moral matters sometimes escapes us.

Plato had it right: ethics is about nothing less than how we ought to live our lives, and this is certainly something about which we can reason.

To be sure, this is not yet an argument. The argument I plan on making to justify the view that even hard ethical cases can be solved provided we are diligent, careful, and smart will take most of the semester to make. It may be that you won't find the argument convincing, although I hope some will. Yet even if you reject the argument, you will have gained a much deeper of matters moral in the process.