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Ethics: Where are you?

June 24, 2010

Ethics can be described as the values and guidelines by which we live. The word ethics may be interchangeable with the word morals. Ethics can be universal or belong to small groups of people. Most adults identify with the moral ethics of their own culture. Universal morals or ethics are more philosophical than cultural ethics. Aristotle’s definition of ethics is that good actions equate with morality and happiness. He believes that we become ethical through habituation – the practice of good actions (Boss, 2008, p. 5-6).

According to Boss, we become autonomous thinkers when we “critically examine and analyze our reasons for holding particular views” (p. 12). In becoming autonomous, the Socratic method is relevant because a person questions oneself about one’s own beliefs in order to look at the foundations of those beliefs and whether or not the beliefs are based on fact or opinion (p. 13). Self-realization is relevant to becoming autonomous because a person questions values so as to be as morally virtuous as possible (p. 14). Skepticism is relevant to autonomous thinking because a skeptic searches for the truth (p. 15).

Metaphysics is the “study of the nature of reality and what is means to be human” (p. 19). Studying the nature of reality – metaphysics – helps people form relationships with other people based on whether they believe that all humans behave one way versus another way (selfish behavior vs. generous nature). Reality has two parts – the mind and the body. Since the human mind is not governed by causal laws as the body is, and rather, the mind has free will, humans can know and choose to be moral. In addition to the two parts of reality – mind and body – dualism also incorporates the idea of domination – a superior group dominates a lesser group. This domination could be men versus women, white race versus black race, upper class versus lower class. The dominant group is thought to be morally superior to the lesser group (p. 19-20). Buddhism does not believe that the mind and body are separate, but that they are united and come from the same matter. The matter that makes up everything is united and so Buddhists do not believe in killing (p. 22). Sociobiologists believe that our morality is based on biological drives beyond our control (p. 21).

Epistemology is the area of philosophy that studies knowledge and its value. Some of the ways of knowing include: “Intuition, reason, feeling, and experience.” Some Western philosophers think we derive our moral knowledge through reasoning while other Western philosophers think we derive at moral knowledge through intuition. The principle of nonmaleficence is that it is morally wrong to hurt another person. Moral

minimalism is defined as the belief that most people accept a basic minimum of moral knowledge such as torturing humans is wrong (p. 27).

Positivists link science to philosophy and believe that moral judgements arise from emotions and can be learned through experience. Ayer is a positivist because he believed the senses created moral judgements. He believed that expressing one’s moral beliefs was the same as expressing a fact without proof to establish the “validity” of the belief (p. 29). A positivistic view gives us a “truer” sense of what is real, in Ayer’s view, because it is verifiable.

The main point of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is that humans have to process what they see to come to an understanding in their own minds – they must be reflective. Humans experience the world through their senses, but do not have language to accurately describe what they see in the world. Shadows are metaphors for delusions. Someone who believes in one reality may have a difficult time accepting another reality. People believed the world was flat for a long time and were skeptical of evidence that showed otherwise.

In contemporary life today, art imitates life, but is not life in its true form. Reality is based in a dimension we cannot see. Today, we have movies that purport to be historical accounts of events, but when researched, the movie is not an accurate portrayal of the facts. For example, I just watched the movie “The Hurricane” starring Denzel Washington as Rubin Carter. Bob Dylan’s song “Hurricane” was written about Rubin Carter. Both the movie and song portray Carter as a man who was framed by a detective, who did not like him because he was black, for murders he did not commit. Carter was found guilty and imprisoned.

I did a quick search on the Internet, and I realize some sources are questionable because they are not peer-reviewed, but there are many sites, such as that list the errors in the movie based on known facts. Movie goers can stay in the shadow and believe the version that Hollywood produced or they can use the movie as a starting point and then research the facts.

Our positions on the debate between determinism and free will are important and influential because we will either believe that people can be held accountable for their actions, or not held accountable. Accountability is a big part of our laws and court system. If we hold a defendant accountable for a crime, do we ignore his/her excuse for the crime? How, then, does one punish a criminal if we believe in determinism and accept excuses? I think one governmental policy that would be influenced by a deterministic view of human nature is the law that allows job applicants to be screened for prior criminal records.

If people cannot be held accountable for their crimes then having a criminal record should not be taken into account when applying for a job of any kind. The same would go for applying for student financial aid. There is a form question that asks about drug convictions. The way the FAFSA form is set up now is that if someone has a drug conviction then that person is not eligible for federal student loans. That drug conviction would not be relevant if this was a deterministic society.

The distinction between theoretical ethics and normative ethics matters because theoretical ethics, also known as metaethics, “studies why we should act and feel a certain way,” while “normative ethics tells us how we should act” (p. 8). Adults do not like to be told what to do or how to act without knowing the reason for the request.

I think that Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is reprinted in an ethics textbook because the prisoners in the cave are representative of people who are chained to thought based on the senses. These prisoners only know the material world and ethics would be out of their range of thoughts because ethics are abstract. So, these prisoners are good examples of what our lives would be like if we were chained to one way of thinking.

The prisoners give names to the shadows, blind to the reality of the shadows. And, when one of the prisoners makes it out of the cave and sees true reality and returns to the cave to enlighten the prisoners still chained in the cave, the returnee is ridiculed for his beliefs. But, we learned that the Socratic method “begins with the realization that we are ignorant” and this appears to be the message the returnee was trying to share with the prisoners (p. 13). The prisoners were acting as heteronomous moral agents by “uncritically accepting answers and laws imposed by others” while the returnee was acting as an autonomous moral agent, “an independent, self-governing thinker” (p. 12).

Ethics can be described as the values and guidelines by which we live. Normative ethics tells us how we should act, while theoretical ethics, or metaethics, tells us why we should act a particular way. The study of ethics is usually considered to be a philosophical study. Philosophy encourages people to be independent or autonomous thinkers, which is the opposite of a heteronomous agent who blindly accepts the viewpoints of others. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is a good example of how people can become imprisoned to one way of thinking – narrowmindedness without curiosity. Metaphysics studies how people view reality. Most people believe that moral knowledge exists and can help us when we need to make decisions. Emotivism is moral judgements based on an individual’s emotions.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2010 11:12 pm

    As I read this, I thought back to my early education. I accepted everything a teacher, professor or almost anyone in my perceived authority told me. It was not until I had VERY inquisitive children that I began questioning others and especially myself.

    “Experts” need to be questioned. We all do so that we can continually hone our own ethics and sometimes even change them. (Public policy issues such as abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research all have changed and will continue to change as more research comes to the forefront and as our planet adapts to fewer natural resources.)

    I remember a high school English teacher that was revered by all of the honor students. She once (or more than once) told me that my interpretation of a 150 year old poem was wrong. I was mortified and sure that I just did no have the capability to understand what everyone else seemed to understand.

    I did not think of this until many years later when my daughter dropped out of a 7th grade honors English class under the same circumstances. I was appalled that a teacher would treat her like that… Why didn’t I feel like that 30+ years earlier. A late bloomer but not dead yet!

    Thank you for sharing and making me think!

    • June 24, 2010 11:22 pm

      Who would have thought that our children would be our teachers? Love those little critters.

      When people are taught to listen to the word of authority – without question – then problems may arise if the “authority” is unscrupulous without morals.

      There’s a wonderful site we use in this course in which each week we have to pick one or two selections from the site and write about the moral dilemma in the article. Look around for the NewsLine section.

      That is horrifying that you were criticized, as was your daughter, on the interpretation of a poem. Those kinds of interpretations are personal-based since no two people have had the same experiences in life. And so, you saw outside the box. That is great!

  2. September 23, 2014 7:31 pm

    Asking questions are genuinely nice thing if you are not understanding
    anything entirely, but this post provides nice understanding even.


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