High Energy Theoretical Ethics

Joel Marks has written an essay for The New York Times Opinionator page titled “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist.”  The title alone was a clue this piece would raise my hackles, and it turned out to be an explanation of why atheism requires rejecting moral imperatives.  By an atheist!

There’s a lot to take issue with, but today I want to focus on one small point in contention.  Marks makes a division between normative ethics, which, he says, focus on the origin of morality a la Plato’s Euthyphro and applied ethics

“So-called applied ethics seeks to find answers for the pressing moral problems of the day. Can abortion ever be justified? Capital punishment? Euthanasia? War?”

To me, this definition is about as far as it could be from practical ethics.  Asking whether capital punishment or any other act could ever be justified is a highly theoretical affair.  And likely to be irrelevant to the life of almost any aspiring ethicist.

I want to address this idea, because Marks is far from the only thinker I’ve seen to claim that ethics is primarily for assigning values to increasingly obscure edge cases.  This can be a useful way to think about how we think about moral choices, but it doesn’t give guidance about how to resolve any contradictions we expose.  Worse than that, when we focus our energies on trying to find the unusual case in which the unacceptable is the moral choice, it’s a lot harder to keep categorizing it as anathema in our day-to-day lives.

I suspect that the edge-case approach to ethics is popular because we think our quotidian ethical choices are boring.  The unlikely scenarios give philosophers the chance to make counter-intuitive claims and let everyone praise themselves for the courage to do the bad thing (see my discussion of modern-day sin-eaters).

If you’re tired of the ethics questions that usually come up, presumably you’re already confident you know the right answers to those questions.  Congrats.  I’m not even going to chalk that up to arrogance, since plenty of the choices we face on a daily basis do have intuitive answers.  But the trouble is, even when we know them, we don’t always pick them.

That suggests to me that, if you want to engage in practical ethics, you time is best spent firming up your will so you can follow through on the choices you know you ought to make (and apparently, science has some ideas about how to do that).  Or try to make sure you’re spotting all the choices available to you in a day (I’m sucky at this, so I need to remind myself about opportunities to do good turns for people by looking up from my book, making conversation, and scheduling lunches).

‘Cause ultimately practical ethics should turn out to have some real-world effects.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12909360575166964668 Joe

    "if you want to engage in practical ethics, you time is best spent firming up your will so you can follow through on the choices you know you ought to make" Right ON!! Its fun to sit around trying to be the smart guy and come up with a clever argument but the ethics of everyday is were the most excitement is and ultimately the most rewarding. Im sucky at this too.Oremus pro invicem!!

  • Patrick

    "So nothing has changed, and everything has changed. For while my desires are the same, my manner of trying to implement them has altered radically. I now acknowledge that I cannot count on either God or morality to back up my personal preferences or clinch the case in any argument. I am simply no longer in the business of trying to derive an ought from an is. I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly."I rather liked that part. Before you can make prescriptive claims, you have to get right the descriptive aspect of what humans do when they engage in moral reasoning. And most people's views on this simple question- what can (or as it happens, cannot) be done to convince a well informed, rational person with preferences opposed to yours- is so tied up in a magical view of the world that they can never even face the question head on. Its nice to see someone make this simple point in a public forum.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Leah, I too saw this article and found it to be irksome. Riddled with problems. Or if I were a subjectivist, I would say "riddled with things I disagree with"!You are absolutely right that ethics is about ACTION!!! That is why you are sympathetic to virtue ethics, I guess. It's all about practice, practice, practice, and by the time a really hard moral problem comes up your response is automatic.Some good examples of "automatic ethics" were discovered by Dr. Kristen Monroe at UC Irvine: people who were active rescuers in the holocaust (I met her recently, and she really wants to share the database of information on these folks, so if anyone here wants a really interesting database of moral exemplars…). All who were asked why they did it said they had no choice. There was no decision involved, they simply had to rescue these people because they were humans in need of help. Their characters (good moral formation) made the decision for them. No further moral inquiry required.When ethics can help us figure out how to make more heroes like that, it will have gotten back on track. Not that other questions aren't important – they are very important for policy and teaching. But ethics is about all action and how to be a good person who produces those good actions, not just weird borderline cases.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10019240793982424774 Christian H

    "you time is best spent firming up your will so you can follow through on the choices you know you ought to make"And looking into why we fail, above and beyond a weak will (context, context, context) and working to tweak situations so we will be better at exerting that will (or at least recognizing how this context might skew my moral intuition/allow me unjustified justifications to weasel out).

  • - Blamer ..

    "what can (or as it happens, cannot) be done to convince a well informed, rational person with preferences opposed to yours" (@Patrick)Love it. Here I'm reading your "can" to mean "is permissible". But perhaps you meant "is possible" which strikes me as an equally evocative idea.

  • Patrick

    I meant "is possible."

  • A Philosopher

    Actually, the experimental data seems to suggest that, rather than firming up your will, you're better off making sure you've got the smell of baking bread around you.And that's the problem. There's no particular reason, given all the peculiar contingencies of human cognition, to think that the study of the things that make us act ethically has much of anything to do with the study of ethics. That's not to say we shouldn't study the former, but it is perhaps an explanation of why fields called "ethics", and variations thereof, don't focus on the topics of producing good action.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11111405959451703182 PhysicistDave

    A Philosopher wrote:> There's no particular reason, given all the peculiar contingencies of human cognition, to think that the study of the things that make us act ethically has much of anything to do with the study of ethics. That's not to say we shouldn't study the former, but it is perhaps an explanation of why fields called "ethics", and variations thereof, don't focus on the topics of producing good action.Of course, both Aristotle and C. S. Lewis made that point in their own ways (e.g., Lewis’ famous quip about a moral absolutist raised in a family that cheated at card games).I’m not so sure.I grew up when “situation ethics’ was all the rage. I’m not sure that most ordinary Americans even knew the phrase, but the “situation ethicists” ideas do seem to explain a lot of the social changes I have seen during the last fifty years – many, though not all, changes for the worse.It does seem to me that the “virtue ethicists” have a clearer view of human behavior, human psychology, and the consequences of various approaches to ethics.I won’t bet against the ability of academic philosophers to mess it all up, but maybe the virtue ethicists can actually have a positive effect.Dave Miller in Sacramento

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11111405959451703182 PhysicistDave

    Leah,Have you read Alan Donagan’s The Theory of Morality and J. L. Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong?Both are mercifully readable and brief (stunningly so for academic philosophers!). And, more importantly, I think both transcend the usual objective vs. subjective quagmire – Mackie by explaining why it is reasonable to expect humans to have created more or less the morality most of us would endorse, and Donagan by focusing on the actual contents of common morality and how those contents fit together.Given your interests, I am pretty sure you will find both books interesting.Dave

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    I've read neither, Dave, but I'll try to be on the lookout for them.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    By the way, while Joel Marks goes away from moral objectivism, Peter Singer is going towards it. Worth a look.http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/may/25/peter-singer-utilitarianism-climate-change

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  • Nicholas Escalona

    ‘Practical ethics’ is certainly important, but it’s not even possible until you know what’s right and what’s wrong. There’s the art of following one’s conscience, and there’s also the art of forming one’s conscience to moral goodness. Obscure edge cases are useful in this, practically useful, because they provide something concrete to talk about, while making the abstraction job easier (since dilemmas are constructed to leave out as many irrelevant abstractions as possible). Both sorts of ethics are needed.

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