Wednesday 8/28

Case Discussion




Following up on our discussion of the two cases from last time, The Useful Sibling and Students' Little Helper, today we took up only the first of the two cases in the above bundle of cases: Differential Tuition and Sexbots--after, of course, we found a tolerable room. (Thanks, Elena!) I asked my administrative assistant to inquire why the AC was off in our room. Hopefully it will all be straightened out when we return to class next Wednesday. Bear in mind that we do not have class Monday, as campus is closed for the Labor Day Holiday.

Our interest, I said, is not in the study of obvious moral cases--killing an innocent person without sufficient reason, say, or lying to manipulate for political gain--but in the hard cases, which last time we characterized as moral dilemmas.

Recall that,

  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!

Now, the existence of moral dilemmas forces us to ask 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.

The upshot is that in a moral dilemma, as we discovered, we seem to have good reasons on both sides (or, in some cases, many sides!) How, then, do we correctly and in principled fashion weigh these reasons? Equivalently, how do we judge arguments? After all, we want to know what is the right thing to do. Presumably, the right thing to do is whatever course of action has the best arguments in its favor. What, though, determines 'best' when it comes to arguments?

This is a deep and difficult puzzle. It is also why we begin next week with some of the most challenging material we will encounter this semester, logic, namely.