Ethical Theory, Moral Concerns
Olivia’s was among the earliest cases identified in the United States: she had contracted the Zika virus during the early stages of pregnancy. She and her boyfriend Michael had enjoyed a memorable beach vacation in Latin America. She didn’t know then that she was pregnant; and she had no symptoms of the virus until she returned home.
She quickly learned the implications: the Zika virus is linked with scarily high rates of neurological birth defects, including microcephaly, which is characterized by an abnormally small head, underdeveloped brain, and cognitive disability. Severe forms result in death. But even milder forms may produce significant disabilities that necessitate continual monitoring and medical care.
From a sample of the amniotic fluid and a genetic test, she has learned that Zika has now infected the fetus. But unfortunately, according to medical authorities, microcephaly cannot be detected until very late in the second trimester (perhaps twenty weeks).
Olivia is surprised that Michael downplays the risks. He points out that despite a scary correlation, scientists haven’t yet identified a specific causal link between the virus and microcephaly. So, they should wait until the ultrasound evidence could determine if the baby has a visible birth defect. Then they could talk and make a decision.
But Olivia is not sure. It isn’t that she wouldn’t want a child with Michael—though she hadn’t really thought about it. She had imagined motherhood was years away. It’s that she is not prepared—they are not prepared—for a newborn with severe disabilities or a brief and tragic life. Nor can she in good conscience pass the responsibility for such an infant to others. Most of all, she is horrified at the quality of life she’d being giving her child. Although she has thought of herself as “pro-life,” she is now reluctantly considering whether to terminate her pregnancy. She knows that the longer she waits the more difficult in many ways an abortion would be. Every alternative seems to require moral courage. She wants to do “the right thing”—if only she could be sure what that is.
1.1 MORALITY AND LIFE
Morality is the foundation of social life, an essential aspect of culture. We acquire ethical sensibilities as we mature; we try to inculcate moral conduct in our children; and we rely on the ethical behavior of others. In complex societies, we often entrust our very lives to the ethics of strangers. Yet morality is not only foundational and implicit: moral considerations can compel our attention—as in the case of Olivia and Michael—and they can trouble or ease our minds, move us to action, and become the explicit reasons for the choices we make. To give attention to ethics is to
consider what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what is just and unjust, what sort of person one should be, and what sort of life and relationships one should have. When we discuss ethics, as Plato (c. 427–347 BCE) said, “We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live.”
Ethical concerns, because of their multiplicity and pervasiveness, are familiar aspects of our lives. We encounter them in public life, where they often become issues of controversy, scandal, outrage, and the reach of law—vexed issues, such as abortion or capital punishment or the rights of immigrants; and clearly wrongful practices such as human trafficking, domestic abuse, animal cruelty, bribery, and corruption. They also pervade our personal relationships and our self-images, surfacing in moments of reflective questioning: Should I have lied to her about my plans for the weekend? Am I really a compassionate person or a dupe? Should I move and advance my career or stay to care for my elderly mother?
But however fundamental and familiar ethical issues may be, they are often difficult to resolve. Life may not be as melodramatic as a soap opera or a reality show, but neither is it always simple. We may confront dilemmas in which any alternative seems wrong. Even when one faces a clear choice between right and wrong, doing what is right can sometimes test one’s will and courage. That is not, however, how Olivia saw her situation: she was trying to determine what the right thing to do is. Should she violate her previous beliefs and terminate the life of her unborn, who is at serious risk for a devastating birth defect? Should she bring such a child into the world and accept the likely burden of such a tragedy—or pass it to others? Should she wait for the most reliable confirmation, at which point the baby would be further developed and an abortion would be more difficult—or perhaps legally questionable because of its lateness? Or is she morally obligated, because of the preciousness of all life, to carry the child to term and see what life brings?
A person’s moral values can sometimes conflict, in which case keeping faith with one means violating the other. Say you value both honesty and loyalty to friends. Imagine you and your friends attend an event at which something controversial or illegal happens. Being honest about what happened may well conflict with your loyalty to your friends who were participants. The choice is painful because a betrayal of something you value seems unavoidable, and we yearn for a way to be faithful to both.
Even when we are confident in our moral beliefs and think the issue is clear-cut, we may find that conscientious people disagree about what is right. Should someone who murders his family be executed?
Moreover, in a contested issue like this, thoughtful people may even disagree about whether something is relevant
to deciding the issue. For example, is the fact that the murderer was fifteen years old at the time of the killing relevant to the matter—or the fact that his IQ is quite low?
Sometimes, it is hard to know whether something is morally significant. Suppose someone is considering whether to purchase a certain product. Should she reject the product for moral reasons because the company’s CEO has made homophobic comments, or because the company does not pay its workers fairly, or because another product from the same company is produced by child labor? Would any of those factors make the purchase of, say, a pair of socks a morally significant act?
Finally, we may be stymied by new, unexpected ethical issues that emerge from technological developments, issues that could not have been imagined in earlier years. Is cloning a human being morally acceptable? Should androids have rights?
All of these life circumstances make it challenging to achieve moral clarity. Yet there is more to morality than anguished decisions. We may be moved by acts of compassion or courage and admire the qualities of character they display. We may also be outraged at conduct or policies that we find cruel or unfair. We may have satisfaction, even joy, when justice triumphs. And we may work to become more like some people and less like others. All these are also features of the moral life.
1.2 THE VALUE OF ETHICAL STUDY
In the introductory scenario, Olivia wants to do “the right thing.” She is seeking moral clarity and guidance for her situation. If only there was an authoritative handbook for morality, one could simply consult it to learn what is right for any situation.
The old Donald Duck comic book stories featured a fictional book called The Junior Woodchuck’s Guidebook. It was issued by a Scout-like organization called the Junior Woodchucks, to which Donald’s little nephews—Huey, Dewey, and Louie—belonged. The book was an invaluable guide, and they would regularly consult it to extricate themselves and others from embarrassing or dangerous predicaments. Supposedly compiled by “the Guardians of the lost Library of Alexandria,” the volume contained the essence of all knowledge. Astounding in the breadth and detail of information it contained, it magically provided just the required information for every situation—if you were adept at using the massive index. And yet it was somehow small enough to fit into a Junior Woodchuck’s backpack. Ah, the Disney magic!
Unfortunately, there is no such guidebook for ethics. Alas, no moral code can specify precisely what should be done in every possible situation. The philosophical study of ethics (what is often called moral philosophy
or simply ethics
) cannot offer this either, but it does offer assistance. Through the philosophical study of ethics, you can: (1) better articulate your own ethical beliefs and moral intuitions about cases, (2) come to understand different visions of morality as expressed in various ethical theories; (3) test your moral beliefs in dialogue with philosophers who hold quite different positions; and (4) reflect upon and thereby refine your own views.
The goal of moral philosophy—and the goal of this book—is not to settle once-and-for-all the wide range of ethical questions we face. That is an impossible task. Nor is the goal to convince you to adopt specific moral beliefs or a certain ethical code. Rather, the ultimate goal is for you to achieve what the philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002) called reflective equilibrium, a state of moral coherence in which the ethical beliefs you have (your ethical principles or theory) and your intuitions about specific cases (or your considered judgments) coincide.
Olivia is conflicted. Her ethical principles included the belief that abortion is morally wrong; but now she seems to have the moral intuition that it may be right in this case—not just acceptable, but right. Actual situations, with all their unique complications, test both our moral intuitions and our ethical beliefs. Our moral equilibrium is disturbed if, in a given situation, we find ourselves saying something like, “According to my professed ethical principles, this is wrong, but now … it just seems like the right thing!” At such a moment, we (like Olivia) have a choice about how to resolve the conflict and restore the equilibrium, our moral coherence: we can either reject or change our principles or we can change our judgment of the matter. Olivia can decide that her prior beliefs were wrong: at the very least, abortion is not wrong in all circumstances. Or, she can make her judgment conform to her earlier beliefs: she was correct, and abortion is wrong—even in her case.
This process demands serious reflection upon both one’s beliefs or principles and one’s judgments, a back-and-forth examination of theory and practice that is perceptive in analysis, alert to implications, responsive to criticism, and sensitive to moral values. And once achieved, the process is not finished. Maintaining reflective equilibrium is an ongoing task, because new issues, additional insights, and unexpected problems can disrupt the balance and prompt further reflection.
There are additional ways in which the philosophical study of ethics can be of help. You can study moral questions and dilemmas at a reflective, psychic distance; you can examine issues without the pressure or
immediacy of actually being in their throes (unlike Olivia and Michael). And these studies can also be preparatory; for instance, thinking through the moral dimensions of an issue like euthanasia may help prepare you for difficult end-of-life decisions. In studying ethics, you are an independent thinker, but you are not alone: you will examine the considered arguments and conclusions of philosophers over the centuries, and you do so with the guidance of an instructor and in tandem with other students who may share their thoughts. If you engage this study with an open mind, you will join a lively and challenging dialogue, an interplay of ethical viewpoints, diverse experience, and varying intuitions. This study will furnish you with intellectual resources and a precious period to think about your life and what life should be.
Let’s begin the study with the first, but crucial, philosophical step: clarifying central concepts.
1.3 THE MORAL SPHERE
Some thinkers make a subtle distinction between “ethics” and “morality.” “Ethics” and “ethical” (derived from the Greek, ethos, “character,” “habit”) seem to refer to matters related to structured, public, even professional, codes of conduct. “Morality” and “moral” (derived from the Latin, mores, “customs,” “manners,” “morals”) tend to point to the deeper principles and values on which the codes or rules are based. Thus, we talk about the professional ethics of a physician or financial auditor, not their professional morality. The violation of a campaign law may be an ethics violation, but we might not call it a moral lapse. But we are more likely to refer to greed or courage as moral traits, not ethical traits. Slavery seems to be a moral problem, not an ethical problem. This distinction is not universal or consistent, however; nor is it sharp. So unless we encounter the need for such a nuanced distinction, I will take these terms to be interchangeable.
The word “moral” (like the word “ethical”) is systematically ambiguous. It may refer to a sphere of human experience, specifically to those matters to which moral judgments apply. Everything outside that sphere is neither moral nor immoral, but is nonmoral.1
Deciding whether to lie or tell the truth is a moral
matter; choosing the color scheme for your room is a nonmoral
matter. But the word “moral” also means “morally good.” We may describe someone as a moral
person and someone else as immoral.
(For “ethical,” the parallel contraries are “non-ethical” and “unethical.”) Thus, a phrase like “a moral act” might mean either an action that falls within the purview of morality or an action tha...