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1.6: Introduction to Ethics

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  • Moral arguments often have a moral principle as a premise. We will attempt to figure out if these premises are true. Moral principles often assert that an action having some feature(s) is a sufficient condition(s) for that action being morally wrong, permissible, or whatever. E.g., here are two possible moral principles:

    A. If an action causes pain, then that action is morally wrong. B. If an action benefits someone and harms nobody, then that action is morally permissible.

    (Can principle A can be refuted, i.e., shown false, by counterexamples, an exception to the proposed rule? Is principle B true? How would we try to figure that out?). Moral principles might also claim that an action having some feature(s) is a necessary condition for that action being morally wrong, permissible, or whatever, e.g.:

    C. A being has a “right to not suffer needlessly” only if that being is capable of reasoning morally.

    (Can principle C be refuted, i.e., shown false, by counterexamples?).

    Moral principles are often justified by appeal to moral or ethical theories. A moral theory attempts to answer these kinds of questions:

    • What makes morally right actions right and wrong actions wrong? (Or, what makes permissible acts permissible, obligatory actions obligatory, etc.?)? What is it about actions that give them the moral status (permissible, obligatory, etc.) that they have?

    • What’s the basic, fundamental, essential difference(s) between permissible and impermissible actions? What features of actions mark that divide?

    • What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for an action being permissible, obligatory, etc.?

    Before looking at influential theories developed and refined by philosophers, it is useful to start by developing your own moral theory (or theories). Here is one method to do that:

    Make a chart with three columns. In the left column, make a long list of actions (and we can use character traits too, if you’d like) that you think most people would think are obviously wrong or bad. In the right column, make a long list of actions or character traits that you think most people would think are obviously morally permissible, obligatory or otherwise good. In the middle, list any actions that come to mind but don’t fall into either category. Share your list with others to compare, change, revise, etc.1

    Now ask, what is it about the wrong actions on your list that makes them wrong? Why are they on the “wrong” list? What is it about the right/good actions that make them right or good? Why do they belong on that list? What moral hypotheses best explains this? Your answers here could result in your revising your initial judgments if you see that some emerging moral principles are inconsistent with any initial judgment.

    A complementary approach is this:

    Describe how animals are treated in, e.g., the food industry, the fur industry, in experimentation, etc. Would treating (any?) human beings in these ways be morally permissible, or would this be wrong? What moral hypotheses – about what makes wrong actions wrong – best explain why this is so, e.g., why it would be wrong to treat humans in these ways?

    These exercises might result in you developing basic theories that are similar to many influential moral theories that have been developed over the last few centuries, if not longer. Thinking for yourself can lead to many of the same moral insights many of the philosophical “greats” have had.

    James Rachels, in “A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy” (Google) and Tom Regan (“The Case for Animal Rights” article, not book; Google) discuss the (arguably) more plausible moral theories last after they discuss and sometimes argue against the (arguably) inferior theories. Here are the theories they discuss:

    • Relativism & Moral Skepticism (Rachels, “Short Introduction” 2-3; Rachels “Basic Points About Arguments,” 22-27)

      • Rachels argues relativism and skepticism are false.

    • Divine Command Theory (Rachels “Short Introduction” 3-5)

      • Rachels argues the divine command theory is false and even that religious believers should not accept it. (See below on religion and ethics).

    • Virtue Theory (Rachels, “Short Introduction” 5-6); “Cruelty-Kindness” (Regan, 217)

      • Regan argues that a kind of virtue theory, which he calls the cruelty-kindness view, is mistaken.

    • Natural Law (Rachels, “Short Introduction” 6-8). Not a very popular theory any more outside of some Catholic contexts.

    • Contractarianism / the Social Contract (Rachels “Short Introduction” 8-10); Regan (214-216). (Regan also discusses Rawls’ improved version of contractarianism; Mark Rowlands modifies this theory to argue in defense of animals.)

      • Regan argues that contractarianisms are false.

    • Utilitarianism (Rachels “Short Introduction” 11-14; Regan 217-220)

      • Regan argues that utilitarianism is false.

    • Immanuel Kant’s Ethics (“Short Introduction” 17-19); “The Rights View” (Regan 220-223), which is developed out of a modification of Kant’s 2nd Categorical Imperative; Regan has a broader view of who should be treated as “ends in themselves.”

    Here are two categories for ethical theories:

    • Altruistic Ethical Theories (Rachels “Short Introduction” 10-11): a broad category of ethical theories; they contrast with “egoistic” theories where the only intrinsic moral concern is for yourself and how your actions affect your own interest.

    • Ethical Theories that Require Impartiality (Rachels “Short Introduction” 14-16): a broad category of ethical theories; contrasts with “partialist” theories that allow special preference to family and friends.

    Animal advocates typically argue that the moral theory(s) that best explain how we ought to treat human beings (especially vulnerable human beings: the very young and very old) have positive implications for animals. Whether their arguments are sound, we shall see.

    1 From Christina Hoff-Sommers’ “Teaching The Virtues” (Google): “It is wrong to mistreat a child, to humiliate someone, to torment an animal. To think only of yourself, to steal, to lie, to break promises. Torturing a child. Starving someone to death. Humiliating an invalid in a nursing home. On the positive side: it is right to be considerate and respectful of others, to be charitable and generous.”

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