Bumper Stickers and Ethical Systems
When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Look out for Number One.
I couldn’t help myself.
Survival of the ethical fittest.
The greatest good for the greatest number.
It’s your duty.
The moral of the story is . . .
All you need is love.
Do whatever comes naturally.
God said it, I believe it, that settles it.
For most of us, life moves at a fast pace. Messages come at us from every direction and compete for our precious time. And if we have anything to say to the world, it had better fit into a “tweet,” on a bumper sticker or in a five-second sound bite. Otherwise, our audience is gone. And it better have a “hook.” If it isn’t packaged in a way that sticks in our memory, competing messages will shove it aside. Companies pay big money to advertising agencies that are successful in imprinting the image of a product in the public mind. Candidates hire advisers to help them shape messages that will be heard and remembered. I recall hearing a radio interview that featured a man who makes a living by showing people how they can squeeze their philosophies of life onto seven-character personalized license plates. (It took him an hour to explain why this is important.) Whether you are a candidate vying for office, a reporter writing a story or a freeway philosopher tooling down the highway, you care about communicating succinctly and convincingly.
Ethical views are not exempt from this trend toward compacting our positions. When we ask for advice, overhear conversations at the next table or read the latest self-help book on getting our lives in order, the ideas often are communicated in a slogan format that can be delivered, received and digested quickly and easily. In other words, ethical counsel comes to us in quick statements, what I will call “bumper stickers” (for the sake of brevity, of course), like those at the beginning of this chapter.
Getting Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics
It should not take too much reflection to conclude that we need to be careful about staking the important ethical decisions in our lives on bumper sticker catch phrases. The problem is not that any advice that can be delivered in a small amount of space is necessarily wrong. The problem is that the ideas expressed in these bite-sized pronouncements have broader implications.
Ideas are built on certain assumptions, and if the assumptions are untrue or only partly true, what we build upon them is shaky. Moreover, the idea communicated in a bumper sticker is connected with other ideas. Thus, while the ethical aspect that is explicit in the bumper sticker may look good at first glance, other ideas that follow from it may not be so attractive. Most of us have heard or used the cliché “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” and it can sound like worthwhile advice. But what if the standard practices of the “Romans” stand in direct conflict with your moral or religious convictions? This is why we need to get behind the cliché itself. Such assumptions and connections are not made explicit in the shortened versions of ethical systems. Before we commit ourselves to any bumper sticker, we want to make certain that we can accept all that is implied in the slogan. In short, we have to get beyond “bumper sticker ethics” to see what else is in the package.
That is what this book is about. If you look at the bumper stickers at the beginning of this chapter, you may notice that they do not give specific solutions to specific problems (although in certain contexts an answer may be strongly suggested). Instead of direct answers, they provide the germ of a process for making decisions. For example, when we say “It’s your duty,” we imply that solving an ethical problem begins with recognizing our obligations to ourselves and other people, even when the results of following through on those obligations may not be attractive to us. Moreover, we can see quickly that this will involve a way of approaching moral decisions different from a bumper sticker like “Look out for Number One.”
The process of how we work through moral issues is called an ethical system. My strategy in this book will be to use bumper stickers as a point of departure to explore ethical systems. This approach is possible because we can find a short, popular expression that captures the essence of just about every major ethical system. The difference between the bumper sticker and the system itself is not content; rather, the system makes explicit what is only implicit in the slogan. Instead of accepting bumper stickers at face value, the system fills in the blanks and provides arguments about why its views are better than other options. Only when we dig deeper into bumper-sticker-sized bits of moral directive can we know if an ethical perspective will bear the weight of a lifetime of moral decisions.
Our world is a real marketplace of ideas. And whether the ideas we face are religious, political, economic or social, decisions about those ideas are unavoidable. We have to make choices. If we look at the list at the beginning of this chapter, we notice that some of the statements contradict each other. We cannot choose them all. It does not take a lot of thought to recognize that if we really mean it when we say, “I couldn’t help myself,” we have committed ourselves to a view that cannot coexist with the command to “be good.” We can order people to be good as much as we want, but if they are not in control of their behavior, as the first assertion states, we will get nowhere.
Confronted with such a bewildering array of options, many people are tempted to retreat into skepticism. Given that there are so many choices, perhaps it is impossible to ever know the truth—or perhaps there is no truth to be known. Others retreat into subjectivism—they create their own truth, or at least think they do. But there are good reasons not to respond in these ways.
First, if you retreat first and ask questions later, you may not avail yourself of convincing arguments against skepticism or ethical subjectivism. In fact, you may never discover that such arguments exist. And being unaware of persuasive arguments against a position is no guarantee that no such arguments exist!
Second, many have retreated into subjectivism or skepticism because there is little moral consensus in society today. Practices once universally condemned as wrong—divorce, premarital sex, abortion—are now accepted by a sizable number of people. However, the question of what is right or wrong is different from the question of whether right and wrong exist. I suspect that many people who consider themselves skeptics or subjectivists do not really doubt that right and wrong exist. They just do not include as many things (or the same things) in the “wrong” category as others. Such people may not agree with more traditional beliefs about homosexuality or other areas of sexual ethics, but they would be morally offended if we said people should not be free to make decisions about their personal sexual activity. In this case, what we have is not a conclusion that there is no moral truth but rather a disagreement about what the truth is.
Finally, although many claim to be skeptics or subjectivists, it is difficult to be consistent with either claim in real life. If I stole a toaster oven from a guy who rejects the notion of absolute ethical truth, no one would be surprised at all if he argued that he had been wronged and gave reasons he expected rational people to agree with. In other words, he would appeal to some kind of truth.
The existence of conflicting views, then, does not necessarily mean that there is no ethical truth. But how do we explain why we end up with so many differing ethical perspectives? One possible explanation is that these differences arise for the same reason certain proverbs, clichés and slogans come into existence and become part of the popular currency. They contain a nugget of truth. They make sense of some aspect of our world and lead to positive outcomes in some situations. However, many of these bits of wisdom contradict each other. What is better, to “not put off until tomorrow what you can do today” or to “sleep on it”? Which is wiser: “A penny saved is a penny earned” or “You can’t take it with you”? Each is good advice under certain circumstances, but we cannot simultaneously do all that these proverbs advise, because some of them are mutually exclusive.
When we look at the ethical realm, there are certain questions people naturally wonder about—or at least should wonder about. Why do we seem to find some basic areas of agreement in ethics? If ethical truth exists, why can’t we fully agree on it? Are there rules that are valid for all people at all times? Are rules even a main component of a good ethical system? Each approach examined will answer some important questions well and will fit with certain ways of viewing the world. In short, the reason the ethical systems discussed in this book have staying power is that they contain at least some truth; this truth accounts for the appeal of each system.
But to say that truth is contained in a system is different from saying that the system is the best available. Unlike our proverbs about life, ethical systems are not meant to deal only with limited situations but are intended to be comprehensive. If too many gaps are present, the system falls apart.
So while it is important that we mine each system for whatever truth can be found in it, we also should examine them to see which one best provides the foundation for all moral decisions. It is probably unrealistic to think that any one approach is perfect, but some are better than others. Some may be acceptable with minor modifications. A few may be so flawed that they can be rejected outright. To borrow an analogy from Philip Devine, “All boats leak, but some boats leak more than others.
And not all boats sink.”
Ethics as a Discipline
The idea that ethics is something to be studied can be confusing because making decisions about moral issues is something we do every day. When I entered my first ethics class, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get out of it. In history, biology, physical education and speech I had a pretty good idea of what was coming. Some classes aim to give us information that moves us beyond our present knowledge; others help us develop a set of skills. But how does ethics fit in? Certainly we need information to make good decisions, but if information is all we need, we can get it elsewhere. I really did not want a class where someone told me all the “right” answers to ethical dilemmas. A skills class in which we would practice “being good” also did not fit my picture of what we should do. I concluded that since we already make ethical decisions, the discipline of ethics must be designed to help us do that better. How this was supposed to happen was still up in the air.
Confusion about ethics as a discipline is very understandable, because it is a unique area of study. Most disciplines deal with “is” questions. Who was Sigmund Freud? What is a dangling participle? How much does my car weigh? When are we going to get there? These questions involve a search for information. However, ethical questions belong to a different category. When we seek to untangle moral dilemmas we ask “ought” questions. Is maintaining the biological life of a person who is brain-dead the type of thing we ought to do? Should we participate in military operations?
In ethics, right means something different than correct. Correct is the label we attach to information that is factually true, while right is oriented to moral truth. Because the type of question is different, the means by which we look for and test answers in ethics will differ.
This does not mean that ethics is divorced from other areas of study. For example, it would be quite dangerous to come to conclusions about medical ethics without any information about the relevant medical facts. Nonetheless, the right ethical decision involves more than just correct information. It is how we move from information to ethical decision that is of concern in ethical systems.
As a discipline, ethics tackles two general kinds of tasks. The most obvious task is to examine ethical problems like euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment and homosexuality. This usually goes under the label of applied ethics. It is the “glamour” area of ethics, because there are clear points of contact with our lives. These are the hot-button issues we encounter daily. We discuss these issues with family and friends. Topics like these come up at the office during coffee breaks. Even when these matters are not a part of our lives in a direct way, they are part of our world, and decisions about them affect our lives.
A lot is at stake in these areas, whether we are personally struggling with questions about what is right and what is wrong, or whether our lives are affected by the ethical conclusions reached by those we live and work with. In any case, it is important to have confidence in the foundations these conclusions are based on. Ethical systems attempt to provide that foundation.
Examining ethical systems is the second general task that ethics tackles. This book takes up this task—examining and evaluating options in ethical theory. I hope to show how general ethical theory is useful (and inevitable) as we make important decisions about particular ethical problems.
Theory and Life
Most people don’t get excited about studying theory. It’s easy to assume that “theory has nothing to do with the real world.” But I believe this perception is mistaken. Look again at the statement “theory has nothing to do with the real world.” It is itself a theoretical statement about the way things work (or do not work), and if you truly believe it, it affects the way you live—your “real world.” Even if you are unaware that such a statement provides a theoretical underpinning for your actions, it is there.
It works that way in ethics as well. Imagine that three people see a twenty-dollar bill on the front seat of an unlocked car. Each person walks past and leaves the cash there. Why? The first person wanted to take the money but passed up the opportunity for fear of punishment if caught in the act. The second rejected the temptation out of a conviction that God makes certain rules that people are to follow, and one of those rules is that we shouldn’t take things that don’t belong to us. The third refrained from taking the money because of empathy—awareness of how frustrated and angry she herself would be if some of her money were stolen.
The action is the same for each individual—no one took the money. But people do things for reasons, and the reasons behind the same action in the case above vary significantly. The bumper-sticker-sized version of the first person’s ethics is “Whatever you do, don’t get caught,” while that of the second person is “Thou shalt not steal.” The final person builds her morality around “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” These different reasons grow out of differences in theories about what constitutes right behavior.
Though none of the three people may have been immediately conscious of these theories at work, the theories were there, and they guided each person’s behavior. Each person’s ethical theory did have something to do with life in the real world.
Furthermore, in ethical theory an action itself may not be the only factor in our assessment of that action. We also consider the motives or the reasons behind the action. Even though the three hypothetical individuals behaved the same way (leaving the money in the car), if we were able to know their reasons we might not judge all three to be equally ethical. Why they did what they did—the theoretical basis of their actions—is significant. Thus ethical theory is important not only to guide our own actions but also to evaluate the actions and theories of other people.
The reality is this: we cannot avoid either of the ethical tasks I have delineated. We must make decisions about the ethical issues confronting us, and we must have a theoretical foundation on which to build and evaluate these decisions. In other words, the issue is not whether we have a theory, but whether we are conscious of the theory we do have and believe it is the best available guide for our life. We do not choose to be ethicists; we cannot opt out of that. The real question is whether we are going to be good ethicists. If we want to make good ethical decisions, we need a solid ethical process.
Ethics and Worldviews
The only way we will know if we can invest our confidence in an ethical system is to test it. So how do we know what makes a theory a good one? This is not a simple matter, for not everyone agrees on the definition of “good ethical system.” Usually the definition is part of the system itself. However, there is an external check that will help us evaluate the various approaches. Every ethical system is part of something bigger—something that can be called a worldview. Worldviews themselves can be complex, but the definition of worldview is fairly straight-forward: a worldview consists of our beliefs and assumptions about how the world fits together. As is the case with ethical systems, everyone has one, whether it is acknowledged or not.
Since ethical beliefs and assumptions are part of our worldview, it is important to look at ethics in this context to make certain the pieces do in fact fit. For example, if we see the world as a giant machine in which everything (including us) functions strictly according to the rules of cause and effect, we may be inconsistent if we think of right and wrong in moral terms. After all, how can a machine be moral—or immoral, for that matter? Again, if you believe in a God who has a moral character and who is involved in the world, it is difficult to put this together with an ethical system that gives us carte blanche to act as we please. So when we look at ethics against the background of a comprehensive worldview, we can compare different worldviews and make certain that our view is internally consistent.
The broader context of a worldview also helps us ask all the relevant questions. If we get the right questions on the table, we won’t leave out elements that are relevant. Since worldview questions come up in every ethical system, it is useful to be aware of them from the start. There are different ways to divide out the categories of a worldview, but for the sake of brevity let’s look at them under two headings: ultimate reality and human nature.
It is interesting that while we humans inhabit the same world, we have different models for understanding it. Is the universe an impersonal ma...