High Energy Theoretical Ethics

High Energy Theoretical Ethics August 23, 2011

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.

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