The ethical life is a complex and dynamic process. Formulas that make it all seem so simple ("just follow the Golden Rule," "Love is all you need," "All I ever needed to know, I learned in Kindergarten," "don't be evil") are attractive and convey some profound truths, but they mislead. Aristotle knew, for example, that the virtues are skills that must be practiced over time -- they can't simply be taught in a classroom or reduced to a slogan. Buddha spoke of a life-long developmental process of walking the "Noble Eightfold Path." Confucius knew that any innate goodness we possess will be insufficient unless it is deliberately cultivated and developed.
Although the dynamism and complexity of the moral life have been understood for a very long time, the lesson is given new evidence and urgency every now and then. For example, recent findings in neuroscience speak to the power of preconscious factors in our decision-making, complicating our understanding of ourselves as rational deliberators having free will.
Ethics courses are often taught with great emphasis on ethical deliberation. We are likely to spend a semester with students defining morality and ethics, addressing cultural relativism, analyzing the ins and outs of various classic ethical theories, and maybe (if the course has an "applied ethics" orientation) trying out decision-making models. The assumption throughout is that humans are rational deliberators who, faced with discreet occasions of moral crisis, can find our way to proper solutions with deft employment of the tools of ethical analysis and assessment.
This approach to ethics education which forefronts ethical deliberation is an especially good fit to the traditional college classroom. It's what we do well. But the "dynamic of ethics" is larger than this. A more comprehensive approach would account for at least two other realities.
First, there is the question of ethical sensitivity. Before I begin to deliberate about a moral problem, I have to recognize that I have one. Ethical sensitivity is the ability to perceive moral issues as moral issues. Unfortunately, we have a tendency toward what Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel have called "ethical fading:" failing to recognize that my decisions have a moral component. Instead of facing the moral import of a choice, the ethics "fades" and the choice is interpreted through some other lens: "it's just business," "this is a financial matter," "we're just following the law here." Ethics education will be more effective if it trains people to have their ethical antennae up and alert to the moral significance of our decisions. Rather than ignoring the inconvenient feeling that we're treading into ethical territory, we will make better decisions if we are mindful of the full significance of the matter at hand.
Second, there is the question of ethical action. It is one thing to know the good; it is another to do it. Ethics professors are well aware that a student who writes an "A" paper in a course on ethical reasoning might treat it all as a purely intellectual exercise taking none of it to heart, or even use their reasoning skills to obfuscate and persuade others to immoral practices. Returning to Aristotle, ethics is the practice, the habituation, of moral excellence. Mary Gentile, who will be speaking at the Rochester Institute of Technology on December 9, argues that the ethical deliberation model overlooks a major factor in the moral life when it implies that all we need is to know what is right. Instead, as she writes in Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What's Right, we should be more concerned with "empowering the parts of us that already want to do the right thing." That is, we need to attend more to giving people strategies for doing right when there are pressures against it (as there often are). Stephen L. Carter makes a similar point in his book, Integrity, arguing that knowing what is moral is of little value if we do not also do the right thing, for the right reasons, and are willing to speak up for our moral motives to others.
Thus, the dynamic of ethics involves ethical sensitivity, ethical deliberation, and ethical action.
set of deeply anti-democratic assumptions and behaviors. They don’t make any pretense at all of caring about the commonwealth; not for them the preachments against accumulation of an Andrew Carnegie (let alone the gift of libraries by the hundreds to cities large and small). Along with exotic CDOs, they have invented a new and quite brazen morality that imagines the pure extraction of wealth by means of high-speed computing to be a worthy activity for a human being. If they think of it at all, they doubtless think of taking the trouble to produce something of actual use value to be “so very 20th century.”
This, of course, is also what makes the deference and the cozy revolving-door relationships among the self-dealing termites and high-level government types so disturbing. It means that the same reptilian morality and the same sense of a special election has seeped into those whose job it is to serve the commonwealth.
Neoclassical economics grew from 19th century efforts to ground the classical economic theories of Adam Smith, a moral philosopher, in Newtonian physics. Variables in the equations of Newton's mechanics were renamed and transmogrified. Energy became 'utility' and particles became atomized actors rationally pursuing material self-interest in this field of utility in which price and supply are the forces and spatial coordinates and natural laws, discoverable through mathematics, maintain the stability of the market in equilibrium. That there was no empirical basis for these presumptions . . . did not deter . . . the early theoreticians who made this leap of faith into the new 'science' of economics.
For those unaware of the Unabomber (a name given by the FBI), during a 20 year period three individuals were killed and 23 individuals wounded from a series of pipe-bombs aimed at academics in technology disciplines and at executives involved in activities that were viewed by Ted Kaczynski as affecting the environment. During a conversation one evening, David’s wife, Linda, asks David: have you ever thought that Ted could be the Unabomber?
On March 1st, in
the Linehan Chapel at
Students in an ethics course I teach were asked to respond to the following question on the discussion section of Blackboard: Opponents to the death penalty say that all life is sacred and that no one should take the life of another; proponents argue that in order to respect the sanctity of life, those who violate this premise ought to be executed. In using the death penalty does the state give up hope on the individual? Does the use of the death penalty foster moral awareness on the part of the individual who is to be executed? The discussion board postings were quite revealing as students debated both sides of this moral dilemma. One student added the following comment to the discussion board postings and his comments are included in this blog with his permission:
“I heard something from David Kaczynski that I have heard before (in a Management Ethics class). He briefly mentioned I, It versus I, Thou relationships which was something that Buber (I think) had written about… I, Thou is about you and me. I, Thou is about regarding relationship with another as meaningful, important, even sacred. I, Thou relationships are about courage, character, virtue, and integrity. I, Thou relationships are about what mutually creates the good life for you and me and helps us flourish.
Something else David Kaczynski said was, "connection is the key to a sense of belonging". Connection as it refers to relationship in this case. From a humanistic perspective belonging and love needs need to be satisfied before esteem needs can be explored and realized.
David Kaczynski had difficult choices to make prior to contacting the FBI concerning his brother's actions. Difficult, since whatever choices he made would affect his relationships. After he had told his story about turning in his brother I thought: what do we do when one choice is as horrible as any other? I also thought again, to what extent do we have a responsibility for each other?"
The moral courage that David Kaczynski demonstrated in answering these questions, and his willingness to share with others despite the pain that recalling these events must bring, was a gift that all in the audience felt privileged to witness.
Author: Virginia David, Professor of Social Work
I would attribute that comment to the first person from whom I heard it, but it has been so long I can't remember who that was. But it was a revelation to me when someone first crystalized my own experience for me with this remark. Academic ethicists have developed complex theories and principles of ethics and have a tendency to view the moral life as a matter of rational, systematic deliberation. However, this emphasis on theory and rational analysis is inaccurate as a description of how people actually make many of their moral decisions. People are simply not as rational and deliberative as our ethical theories might suggest. Despite overwhelming empirical evidence and carefully reasoned moral logic all pointing toward a particular judgment on a given issue, controversy can still abound. From the perspective of a strictly rationalistic, theory-driven understanding of ethics, such a circumstance is puzzling and frustrating. Why do people fail to follow reliable information and sensible moral principles to their logical conclusion? One problem, it turns out, is that we can be remarkably resistant to acknowledging reliable information that we don't happen to like.
The Cultural Cognition Project [CCP] at Yale Law School studies the "tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities." They have recently released a study on "Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus." NPR correspondent, Christopher Joyce, gives the paper a punchier summary in his story title, "Belief in Climate Change Hinges on Worldview." Don Braman of the CCP reports the findings as, "People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook, their worldview." "The reason that people react in a closed-minded way to information is that the implications of it threaten their values. . . If the implication, the outcome, can affirm your values, you think about it in a much more open-minded way," according to the CCP's Dan Kahan. "And if the information doesn't, you tend to reject it," adds Joyce. Loyalty to our own self-understanding, our communities of identification, and our notions of how the world works (or ought to) trump dissonant empirical truths and disagreeable moral arguments. No wonder C. Michael Thompson, in The Congruent Life, says, “I never saw a single thorny ethical issue that was satisfactorily resolved solely by reference to an ethical theory. People tend to untangle the most important problems that confront them by referring to their most deeply held notions about life, their place in the world, and the nature of Ultimate Reality.”
Although not emphasized by the CCP study, the Religious Studies professor in me is compelled to point out that religion is an especially potent shaper and mechanism of worldview. Among the many ways religion and ethics intertwine, this is the most powerful and complex. Explicit teachings such as the biblical Ten Commandments or Buddhism's Five Precepts are easier to identify and analyze than the deeper, more subtle and pervasive power of religion to shape our underlying identity, values, and assumptions about reality - our worldview.
The complex reality of how our minds work creates endless complications for the study of professional ethics, but our situation is not hopeless. One implication is that we need to take an interdisciplinary approach. The philosophers and theologians who have dominated the field need to listen to the insights of our colleagues in a variety of disciplines. For example, we need to appreciate the studies of neuro-psychologists regarding how people form their judgments. Psychologists can help us understand the source of our moral intuitions, the neurological processes by which we form nearly instant moral reactions, and our wisest strategies for bringing these preconscious impulses more into line with our considered ethical judgments. It's going to require the wisdom of many different disciplines for us to really understand the meaning and implications of "loyalty trumps principles."