Unit 1: Text Supplement and Study Guide: Why study ethics?
In The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery, an extraterrestrial visitor (the Little Prince) wanders around the earth asking questions. He visits a kingdom where he sees that the subjects in the kingdom generally follow rules, and he asks the king: “Where do the rules come from?” The king replies to the Little Prince: “I watch what my subjects do, and I tell them to do it.”
As we grow and observe our world, we often find ourselves asking where this or that rule comes from. This question is closely tied to other questions: “Why should I observe this rule?” or “Why should I observe any rule?” Rules seem to place limits on our freedom, so other questions quickly arise: “What is personal freedom?” and “Is personal freedom important if I am to lead a meaningful life?”
We are about to launch a search better to understand choices—our own as well as others’ choices. Our study will focus on choices that are often referred to as moral choices, and we will explore different grounds for such choices. These grounds will reflect different attempts to define the term “morality.”
So why study ethics? Many benefits may follow from the study of ethics (also known as moral philosophy). One likely outcome is a clearer sense of sources of conflict. Understanding sources of conflict, in turn, is an important step in managing or resolving conflict.
The study of ethics or moral philosophy may be thought of in this way: just as we study our own native languages to gain greater skill in communicating our ideas, so too we study our own choices—as well as the choices of other people—to gain a better understanding of the grounds for these choices. A better understanding of these grounds is likely to help increase our skill in addressing difficult choices when they arise.
As we study ethics or moral philosophy, we will encounter many terms. We will discover that the purpose of these terms is mainly to sort out answers to the question of who decides what is right and to determine the meaning of “right,” “good,” and “moral.” Some of the terms we will encounter are “foundationalism,” “non-foundationalism” (or “anti-foundationalism”), “moral relativism,” “moral conservatism” (or “moral communitarianism”), “moral liberalism,” “virtue ethics,” “deontologism,” and “consequentialism,” “rationalism,” and “empiricism.” We will see subgroups under each of these terms as we move through the semester.
In addition to the Discussion Forums and e-mails to the instructor, I will ask you to submit two papers in the course—a mid-term and final paper. As we approach the two papers, I will ask you to reflect on different perspectives in each of the papers—a “foundationalist” perspective and a “non-foundationalist” perspective.
The first paper will focus on a “foundationalist” perspective that bases judgments on a definition of a right action or a good person. The second paper will also consider a “non-foundationalist” perspective that does not single out a particular definition of a right action or a good person as a defining feature of a right action or a good person. The non-foundationalist approach instead treats each definition proposed by foundationalist thinkers as an important consideration in decision-making rather than a defining characteristic of a right action or a good person.
(Detailed instructions for the papers are posted under Course Content>Handouts.)
Philosophers who support a foundationalist approach claim a high degree of certainty for the judgments they describe as moral judgments. By contrast, philosophers who subscribe to a non-foundationalist approach accept some uncertainty in judgments of right and wrong. They defend such uncertainty as closer to the actual experience of human decision-makers who face dilemmas, make decisions, and then live with the consequences of the decisions.
We will see that each group—foundationalist and non-foundationalist—contains various schools of thought. Moral conservatives as well as moral liberals are found in both foundationalist and non-foundationalist camps. As we will see in The Game of Philosophy, moral conservatives for the most part may be placed in the category of moral communitarian or virtue theorists.
If you say that what is right (or what ought to be done) varies from community to community, you express a view close to what is known as group or cultural relativism. If you say that what is right varies from individual to individual, your view resembles that of an individual or subjective relativist. Both cultural and individual relativism are forms of moral relativism.
If you say that both the community and the individual have a say in determining what ought to be done, you move beyond the view that morality is relative and toward the view that morality is complex. Both moral conservatives and moral liberals reject moral relativism. A moral conservative will say that the community primarily (but not exclusively) determines what is right; a moral liberal, by contrast, will say that the individual is the primary (but not the sole) determiner of what is right. The moral conservative view and the moral liberal view invite a discussion of the individual’s role and the community’s role in determining what is right or what ought to be done.