The following are some thoughts I’ve been mulling over in anticipation of a lecture I will be giving at CSU Long Beach’s Applied Ethics Center next Thursday. I’ve been thinking about these issues with regard to business ethics, but I think the concerns extend to most other areas of applied ethics as well.
I start with the assumption that one of the main aims of teaching and scholarship in applied ethics is to get people to be morally better. This needn’t be the only aim of applied ethics, of course. Taking courses and reading articles in applied ethics can strengthen one’s skills in conceptual analysis, improve one’s argumentative abilities, and sharpen one’s writing and reading skills, to name just a few of the more obvious instrumental benefits. And far be it from me to neglect the intrinsic reward of the pursuit of wisdom for its own sake. But I think most of us involved in the field hope that in addition to these skills (or perhaps by means of them?), students and readers will become just a bit more moral as well.
If that’s the case, then my question is: how useful is it to dedicate one’s teaching/scholarship to the explanation and clarification of moral theory? Irrespective of the contributions this endeavor might make to the other goals described above, does it help us make our students/readers better people?
I won’t go so far as to say that moral theory doesn’t help with this goal at all, but I do think the role it plays in applied ethics articles/textbooks/syllabi is vastly inflated in proportion to its usefulness. My reasoning is as follows:
First, think of the major moral scandals in your favorite area of applied ethics. Take Enron, from business ethics, or take the Tuskegee Experiments, from medical ethics. It’s hard to make the case that the people involved in these situations didn’t know that what they were doing was wrong. That defrauding grandmothers out of their money is wrong is one of the intuitions we start with in doing moral theory — it is not a product of moral theory. A far more likely diagnosis of what happened is that people knew that what they were doing was wrong — they simply didn’t care.
Second, reflect on what social psychology has taught us about people’s willingness to do wrong. Milgram showed us that the average person is willing to shock an innocent stranger to death simply because a man in a white lab coat asked them to. Zimbardo showed us that a normal, healthy college student can be turned into a sadist simply by asking him to play the role of a prison guard. And that’s just the beginning. Once again, one surely doesn’t need a moral theory to know that these sorts of things are horrific.
Now, there are undoubtedly hard cases where having a well-worked out moral theory at one’s disposal would be useful. But the truly hard cases seem relatively rare. For most of the day to day issues, there is a tremendous amount of convergence among moral theories. And for the cases where moral theories disagree, is knowing why and how they disagree really all that helpful in making the right decision? Indeed, given the way applied ethics is often taught…
- Here is hard case X
- Here is the utilitarian answer to hard case X
- Here is what is wrong with that answer, and what is wrong with utilitarianism in general
- Here is the deontological answer to hard case X
- Here is what is wrong…
…might not an excessive focus on moral theory even set back the moral progress of our students? Focusing on hard cases serves a useful purpose insofar as it allows us to see where moral theories diverge, and so we philosophers are naturally drawn to this approach. But there is a danger that this will leave students with the incorrect impression that most cases are hard cases, and that most of the time moral theories diverge…so if no one can agree about what’s right and what’s wrong, why not do what serves my own self-interest?
If this is correct, I think our applied ethics — certainly our teaching, and maybe our research — should focus less on explaining/clarifying moral theory, and more on getting people to care about being moral in the first place. And/or we could teach students how to recognize situational forces that tend to lead to unethical behavior, and how to avoid or overcome those forces. There are probably lots of useful projects in which we could engage as applied ethicists. My point is that if out main concern is helping students to be better people, then it’s not clear tha teaching them lots of moral theory is going to be a significant part of any of them.
My hunch is that if we teach people why being moral is important, then for the most part they’ll figure out how to do it on their own. If we don’t teach people why they should care about morality, and all the moral theory in the world won’t stop them from turning into moral monsters.