Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Reply to Hugh Breakey,

On his blog , , Hugh posted a series of  four arguments disputing my claim that moral philosophy had lost the plot.  His article is Ethical conduct: What’s philosophy got to do with it?  My claim was that moral philosophers, teaching and writing on ethics, are ignoring a number of recent developments that will strengthen ethical practices. My claim was first launched on our philosophy café website (here) , but followed up in Australian Ethics , a journal for which Hugh is the editor.

The 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:

To obtain 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” (Moral Fictionalism, Philosophy Today ,  No.82, 2011, pp14 -17)

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, are 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,
2.       psychological egoism: the idea that people only do whatever they think will make them      happy, and;
3.       religious necessity: the view that the only reason people can genuinely be moral is if they believe in God.

You 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 them”. 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 

a)    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 dishonesty.

b)    Steps 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),

c)    Developments 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. 

d)    Policies adopted by private sector organisations to institutionalise ethical behaviour, The paper documents a half dozen practices- all recent developments - in current use.  

e)    New programs for ensuring greater honesty in government.  Both d) and e) document the programs. Extensive research is under way to identify their effectiveness.

f)     Building action on empirical findings, not argument.  This is the disputed issue – see below.
g)    Teaching these practices

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 ( - 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). To this writer, the fourth is the same issue as the fifth point: “Before concluding, though, I must respond to the important point … about philosophical disputations”. 

The 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 other disciplines.

I have outlined my thoughts on arguments in a separate paper, Critical Thinking,   on my blog  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 and the 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 of action.

2. Argument 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.


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