following paragraphs contain my reply to Hugh
I accept all Hugh’s four arguments. With possibly the exception
of his fourth. Of course moral philosophy has added to our knowledge and
comprehension of ethical behaviour. There will not be a teacher of ethics in
any of the disciplines and professions across a university or college who has
not read Plato or Aristotle, nor the many books on ethics put out by today’s moral
philosophers. He or she will have
engaged in a struggle, often desperate, to come to grips with what is to act
ethically, what is wrongdoing, how do they stop it, and finally can they , and if so how, teach these concerns in a course. The consultant or newly appointed
ethics officer in the workforce will of necessity have examined the same
sources, read many of the same books. And just as desperately wonder how to
implement these principles in his or her organisation.
It will have been a time of much learning. Teachers of
engineering, medicine, pharmacy, business, social work, etc., newly
volunteering to teach the ethics course in their disciplines, or ethics
officers in the workforce, will have much to learn. It will be a time of great fulfilment.
Even enjoyment. They will nevertheless face problems. Taking the four benefits
of philosophy that Hugh raises:
the first benefit, they will necessarily have read the moral theories. They may
not come to the conclusion that Hugh puts forward: that “moral philosophy can be important (by) …forcing
practitioners to face up …to universal principles of proper conduct”. The
newly appointed ethics lecturer or consultant will learn that there are no universally
agreed principles of moral conduct. The arguments that he referred to, started
by Plato and Aristotle, are still on- going. Two thousand three hundred years
later we still not have agreed on the difference between right and wrong. We
are still arguing. Richard Joyce, a well published philosopher, is one among
many who portrays a negative picture: The theories are plentiful, the convolutions
byzantine, the in-fighting bitter, the spilt ink copious, and the progress
astoundingly unimpressive” (
, No.82, 2011, pp14
Our ethics specialist then has a massive problem in
deciding what they say in class or in the workplace. They have a choice from
multiple ethical theories (fifteen according to one of Peter Singer’s books). In
essence, however, there are three major theories – deontology, utilitarianism
and virtue. Each of course has multiple versions, and each is being still
argued. The arguments, according to an article in the same Singer book,
described as “internecine warfare”. For a less bitter dispute, see Hugh’s blog on
why he is no longer a utilitarian, and my response on why I am totally
committed to utilitarianism ( but in one of the many versions).
His second benefit is clearly a benefit. Let us assume that
you, the reader, are the newly appointed lecturer or ethics officer. You will
come to a conclusion on each of Hugh’s points:
1. cultural relativism:
the view that morality is just whatever the local culture says it is,
egoism: the idea that people only do whatever they think will make them happy, and;
necessity: the view that the only reason people can genuinely be moral is
if they believe in God.
may reach a position on all three of Hugh’s assertions. You might become, as I
have become, an absolutist, the opposite of a relativist. I believe there is a
right and a wrong in every human situation, no matter how ethically complex. But if you do reach a conclusion, you will
realise that your conclusions will still be subject to dispute. Hugh states: “I
acknowledge there is much that may be said in favour of versions of each of
”. His statement is true.
There are many current arguments
against my absolutist position. If you read Plato’s Euthyphro
, you will realise that some of
these issues have been argued for a very long time, and are still argued today. "Is
what is morally good commanded
by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is
commanded by God?"
Hugh’s third position is that moral philosophy, and in particular
ethical argument, can change behaviour. I have no disagreement. My position is
that moral philosophers do not go far enough – they stop short, even exclude, many
activities that can strengthen ethical behaviour. Let us remind ourselves of the
seven areas set out in the original article:
Seven practices to strengthen ethical behaviour
Strengthening our ability to recognise when we
ourselves have been unethical. Since first writing those words, I have come
across two more references to the fact that we fool ourselves when we judge our
own ethical or unethical behaviour (Dorothy Rowe, Why we lie, and Dan Ariely The (honest) truth about dishonesty.
How we lie to everyone - especially ourselves). Both are psychologists. Ariely
documents numerous experiments that will convince any reader of our underlying
to encourage us to speak out against wrongdoing (this is blowing the whistle on
wrongdoing – well proven in its effectiveness
in stopping unethical or illegal activities),
in codes of ethics that make them effective. See Vanya Smythe’s article in Applied Ethics. The research is not a
100% guarantee, but still convincing.
adopted by private sector organisations to institutionalise ethical behaviour,
The paper documents a half dozen practices- all recent developments - in
programs for ensuring greater honesty in government. Both d) and e) document the programs. Extensive
research is under way to identify their effectiveness.
action on empirical findings, not argument.
This is the disputed issue – see below.
Plus a final section (h) – The implications of these findings
My argument is short. Each of these practices, as outlined
in the original philosophy café paper (http://www.philoagora.com/
- recent talks), if adopted, will strengthen ethical behaviour. Yet none of these practices, with a few
exceptions, is taught in the schools of moral philosophy around the world, or
set out in the major publications on ethics written by philosophers.
We come to Hugh’s fourth point, the “unwarranted distinction between argument and
empirical evidence” (point (f) above). T
o this writer, the fourth is the
same issue as the fifth point: “Before concluding, though, I must respond to the important point … about
first statement to make is that five of the concerns I have listed above are
based on empirical evidence. There is research that tells us these practices work.
If promoted in ethics courses in our colleges and by ethical programs in our
places of employment, they would bring about strengthened ethical behaviour. Irregular
– but still improvement. Yet they are not endorsed by the vast majority of
moral philosophers. Why not? I can only give a speculative answer– that
philosophers have been educated with a preference for argument, and these
findings are the result of applied research, that for the most part, comes from
I have outlined my
thoughts on arguments in a separate paper, Critical
on my blog http://whistleblowingethics.blogspot.com.au/
That paper uses three references to define what philosophers describe as
critical thinking. The three references are: Jill LeBlanc, (1998) “Thinking Clearly.
A guide to critical reasoning
, Lewis Vaughn, (2008, 2nd. ed.) The Power of Critical Thinking
notes for an undergraduate course on Creative Thinking at Macquarie University.
Each asserts that the philosophical
position is to use argument as a basis for thinking critically. The following
paragraphs summarise the reasons (set out in the blog) that contradict their
claim that argument can generate critical thinking:
1. Argument, as
promoted by the three references, ignores a number of practices in other
disciplines that can generate creative, forward looking thinking – thinking
that answers the question of what should we do? Principal among these is quantitative
evaluation techniques. The three references also ignore approaches used to
generate creativity in thinking, as well as techniques such as decision trees
and influence diagrams used to assess the impact of adopting different courses
generates criticism. Almost by definition it requires a ‘for’ and an ‘against’
if an argument is to occur. As a method of thinking, it does not generate
building on what has gone before. Arguments occur to destroy, or at least
contradict, what has been developed so far. These pages, for instance, are an argument.
3. Argument does
not lend itself to rigorous quantitative techniques. Empirical research at
times requires statistical analysis. If the three references are taken as a
guide, their coverage on statistics is such that any statistics based quantitative
analysis would be beyond their readers.
4. Argument based
critical thinking relies on inductive and deductive reasoning. In the long run,
both types of thinking come down to observation – to empiricism. Strong
empirical capabilities will generate strong arguments, but, I assert, empirical
research is not a philosophical virtue. This may be the reason why philosophers
have been arguing with each other for over 2000 years.
Finally, I come to
the final two points – g) the teaching of these practices, and h) the impact if
they are not taught. In the original paper, I suggested that society was the
bigger loser, for we are not obtaining the full benefits of the discipline of
moral philosophy. It is a discipline which,
although it assures us that it is the mother of ethical theory and
practice, does not teach a full set of approaches to strengthening ethical
behaviour, nor undertake the research necessary
to assess and improve developments already underway.
On reflection, I
now believe that it is the student of ethics in our schools of moral philosophy
who is the bigger loser. Teachers and
practitioners in ethics can search out these new developments themselves
(although with some difficulty). Students, however, take ethics courses. Many,
one suspects, hope to work at extending ethical practices as widely as possible
throughout our communities. Instead, they have been given an incomplete
knowledge of developments and capabilities in ethics work in government or the
private sector. They have been turned out – for only a few - with the capacity to
on-teach what they have learned so far. And that learning is circumscribed. It
is also of limited value in the work day world.