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Religion, Morality, Secular Ideals, and Ethics Education
Morality1 is often entwined with religion in many people's minds, in ways that cause unnecessary confusion and ethical error. Plus, there
are other common mistakes which pervade society about what is right and wrong, and about how to do ethics, which
add to the confusion. I want to try to
straighten out some of the entanglements or at least perhaps shed some light on them.
In 1966 Robert N. Bellah wrote an essay
titled "Civil Religion in America", attempting to explain how American
ideals were a religion -- what he called a "civil religion" after
Rousseau's concept by that name -- but not a religion like Christianity
or Judaism or any denominations of them. At the beginning of a
later reprint of his essay, he wrote:
"I think it should be clear from the text that I conceive of the central tradition of the American civil religion not as a form of national self-worship but as the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged. I am convinced that every nation and every people come to some form [of] religious self-understanding ..."The essay, I think, is in many ways a brilliant attempt to distinguish ethical idealism or religion or spirituality 'in general' from specific religious denominations or specific religious principles or precepts other than those which also conform to the "civil" ideal. Whatever causes some principles to be accepted by a substantial majority or perhaps vast majority of a culture2 when they are, there are ethical and social ideals, some of which are often also precepts of some religions. But not all religious precepts are ethical ideals, even if espoused to be by the religion. [Of course, not all non-religious or secular ethical principles which are espoused or widely accepted are correct either; more about that later.] But I think Bellah (and possibly Rousseau) erred in considering national, cultural, or individual ideals to be any kind of religion, and they should instead have just called it the "civil or cultural ideal" or "cultural idealistic principles of ethics or morality" -- the accepted civil ethics, or the civil ideology instead. Given the point made in the first sentence quoted above, Bellah's second sentence should have been 'I am convinced that every nation and every people come to some form [of] ethical self-understanding' not "religious" self-understanding. That would have spared the author and readers from grappling with what kind of "religion" civil religion is, and what is meant by references to God in many of the founding documents and later Presidential speeches of American history when clearly it does not refer to Jesus or even God of the Old Testament. I would like to propose a way of looking at all this which makes more sense to me and which is consistent, I think, with evidence in the Bellah essay that pertains to morality (rather than his points about there being elements of rebirth or resurrection after death or sacrifice) and with other evidence of history and which would make sense to the more modern Western psyche which does not always believe in any particular organized religion even among those who considered themselves to nevertheless be "spiritual".
It is my contention that the term God is used in many of these documents and speeches to denote that higher power from which morality stems (what Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence calls "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God" -- meaning the moral laws of nature from the context). For many people, that does mean God or the god/God of their specific religion. But for many people it does not. For example, in Jefferson's day, in philosophical writing and thinking, "the God of nature" meant God as could be discovered through reason applied to nature, which might or might not be the God of the Bible or any other historically reportedly "revealed" religion. But for many people today who do not believe in God, even the "God of nature" -- God as deduced from reasoning about nature -- the language of religion about God still seems to have a place and meaning in discussing matters of morality, which is what necessitated Bellah's essay about what the references to religious words could mean if they are not about specific religious designations. I would say, given Bellah's essay, that for those who are not meaning God as a specific person or the God of the Bible or of reason, references of the sort made in these speeches and documents to God are representational personifications of whatever gives morality its force or authority, and they are personified representations of the ideal of justice in the afterlife or life to come, insofar as justice is not served in this life. By justice I mean the rewarding of good and punishing of iniquity in ways that are fair, deserved, and commensurate.
Now it is philosophically and intellectually questionable that the universe ultimately is a place of justice in this life or any afterlife, if there is one, and it is philosophically and intellectually questionable that morality needs to stem from a person or deity (as opposed to nature or logic) any more than that the essence of music or mathematics or scientific regularity and patterns (known as laws, but not necessarily or normally considered laws in the legislated sense) stems, or needs to stem, from a person or deity. It is not that there is a mathematical authority other than logic and intellectual thought. Ethical principles and ideals are somewhat the same but they also require sensitivity to the human condition and human feelings and emotions. But historically in the West, morality has been associated with the edicts and rewards and punishment of God or of gods, and therefore much of the language and culture of ethical thinking has evolved around that. Many people, perhaps most people, believe literally that God is the ultimate authority, champion, and enforcer of moral justice, rather than thinking that justice is a conceptual ideal, as are notions of right, wrong, good, bad, duty, and obligations. These are concepts about how things should be for people and how people should act and what they deserve or do not deserve. It is important to be a deserving person even if one does not get what one deserves, and it is important to know what the ideals are for which to strive. There does not need to be the personification of these concepts as being derived from God any more than there needs to be the personification of acts of nature or human emotions as being represented by, or derived from the powers of, the Greek gods and goddesses.
But even when people do not believe that ethics stems from a deity in the form of the commands of a person, it is difficult (but not impossible3) to imbue reverence for right without the imagery developed with that idea over the centuries. Reference to God in many speeches and documents shows the important solemnity and significance attached to the ideals and promises linked to the invoking of His name. As Bellah points out, George Washington said in his farewell address: "Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." But I would go a step further and say that even when people do not believe that God is literally what makes morality true or meaningful, that even when right and wrong are not just about justice and reward or punishment, and that even when people with minds refined by education or their own intellectual discoveries believe morality has meaning and authority without God, or beyond God, the beauty and power of ethical language couched in religious terms used for centuries can be most appropriate, concise, powerful and persuasive. Even if the rhetoric of religious morality is not taken literally, it is still powerful, and perhaps most unconsciously compelling -- and still speaks the truth when understood figuratively and translated into non-religious language4. And even if one wants to go beyond, say, Biblical passages to make a moral point, it is rhetorically powerful and psychologically persuasive to begin with the Biblical passage and then interpret or expand upon it, as Abraham Lincoln did to argue against slavery by reference to Genesis 3:19 in the following passage from http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0023.205/--poor-hand-to-quote-scripture-lincoln-and-genesis-319?rgn=main;view=fulltext:
From "Fragments of a Tariff Discussion" (December 1, 1847?)
"In the early days of the world, the Almighty said to the first of our race 'In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread' [Gen. 3:19]; and since then, if we except the light and the air of heaven, no good thing has been, or can be enjoyed by us, without having first cost labour. And, in [as] much as most good things are produced by labour, it follows that [all] such things of right belong to those whose labour has produced them. But it has so happened in all ages of the world, that some have laboured, and others have, without labour, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong, and should not continue. To [secure] to each labourer the whole product of his labour, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government."According to the source from which this is cited, Lincoln's interpretation of Genesis 3:19 is a "revolutionary" one, taken to be a "moral imperative" not just "a description of the human condition". (However, in 2 Thessaloneans 3:10 it is written: "For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: 'The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.'" So it is not clear Lincoln's interpretation of the moral imperative is that revolutionary.) He could have made the same point without the Biblical reference -- that slavery is essentially the theft of the fruit of a person's labor and that it is therefore wrong. But that would lack the rhetorical power and persuasiveness of how he did say it.
And even just using the Biblical style of imagery and rhetoric, with or without actual Biblical passages, adds a powerful rhetorical resonance to a moral point, as in Lincoln's second inaugural address:
"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."This doesn't mean that any particular moral idea or principle that is put forth or even accepted as an ideal is actually right, whether that idea or principle stems from religion or from a combination of intellectual logic and moral sensitivity. Moral reasoning and morally sensitive consciousness, whether from original thought or interpretation of other works, is not always easy, though it is not as difficult as we make it for historical, sociological, and psychological reasons which tend to foster, retain, and too often revere, mistakes in moral reasoning and beliefs. Bellah quotes Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, to the point that specific religions often have dubious precepts mixed among their better ones:
"I never was without some religious principles5. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world and govern'd it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing of good to men; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded either here or hereafter. These I esteemed the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho' with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix'd with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote or confirm morality, serv'd principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another."Secular ethics is no less susceptible to error. The history of moral philosophy is replete with erroneous principles along with good ones, as is the history of law with detrimental or wrongful practices (sometimes among good ones) and even with entire forms of government. Contemporary social thinking and conventional views of ethics are no less immune from error, and perhaps even more susceptible to it, as rational and ethical public discourse becomes more scarce, as what passes for it becomes more shallow, and as both liberal and conservative idealogical assumptions and proclaimed principles become more entrenched and more extreme.
Plus, even when good laws or principles are used and recognized as ideal, that can depend on mistaken, often unconscious or unrecognized assumptions about conditions presumed to be permanent but which are fragile or temporary. For example, when colleges first organized sports teams of student athletes, their participation was voluntary and for the most part strictly amateur just for enjoyment of sport and friendly, even if fierce, competition. As some sports, such as football, became more popular and even profitable, colleges awarded scholarships to student athletes, which seemed to be a fair, even generous, recompense for their time and for the money and publicity they brought the schools. But currently television has multiplied the popularity and profitability of sports such as football and basketball exponentially, and competition in football has become a big business, making much more demands on the time, energy, and work athletes have to put into it, so it is no longer clear that a scholarship is sufficient fair recompense for the value the athlete contributes to a university's coffers. The matter in this case is one of fairness to the athletes. Factors present today, not present one hundred years ago, show that the assumptions about student participation in sports then were peculiar to the times, not universal ones. It is one thing to "pay" athletes nothing or with a scholarship when sports is not their prime concern at college and when the colleges are not making that much revenue or gaining that much prestige from sports, but quite a different matter when sports becomes more of a fulltime job and the employer is making huge revenues from the work of the student athletes. One can apply the same correct principles about what constitutes adequate compensation for student athletes today as one hundred years ago, but the deductions from those principles will yield different results because the conditions were different. E.g., if athletes should be paid collectively, say, 20% of the revenue the sport earns, that would make no payment necessary when the sport was not earning revenues, and would make college scholarships generous when receipts barely covered the costs of the sport. But it would not necessarily mean scholarships were sufficient in today's market for major sports such as NCAA football and basketball, perhaps particularly men's basketball if it brings in substantially higher revenue than women's basketball. But instead, what tends to happen, is that one hundred years ago since it was obvious that there was little or no money generated from football, there was no reason to pay athletes who were playing for the fun and glory of it, athletes were not paid and the operating principle then mistakenly became "student athletes should be considered amateurs and not be paid", rather than some principle of reasonably sharing with them any revenues they generated. Instead of a principle of paying in proportion to revenue or value generated, the conclusion of the application of that principle for the times and circumstances was mistaken for the principle, and it is what became the rule.
Or consider one of America's noble ideals as expressed in the following portion of Emma Lazarus' poem "The New Colossus" inscribed on a tablet in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
It is theoretically possible, and has always been a fear of some, that if America welcomed all immigrants who wanted to come to it, that they could overwhelm and potentially damage or ruin, through sheer numbers, the culture, the language, the living conditions, the laws and the very ideals of the country, insofar as any of their activities and beliefs conflict with American ideals, rather than being compatible with them and blending in. They could potentially even democratically change the form of government into a non-democratic one. I would think that the sentiment expressed by Lazarus depends, fairly clearly if one thinks about it, on America's capacity to absorb and assimilate immigrants into the culture and the economy, and on the willingness of immigrants to assimilate into American culture, civil ideals, and language, without fundamentally diminishing them even if modifying and supplementing them, sometimes or often enriching them in the process. And that even if they found it difficult to learn the language, they would make sure their children learned it fluently. While some people, because they are xenophobes or racists, do not welcome immigrants from some countries or races, one does not have to be either in order to fear a cultural breakdown from overwhelming numbers of immigrants who cannot be assimilated, particularly in a democracy where laws are made by majorities. If I am right about this, and if the idea expressed in the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty is contingent, not absolute, it might be that the contingency was not expressed at the time of the poem or the dedication of the statue because it was not thought of, or because it was dismissed since America still had plenty of room for immigrants, particularly if they did not permanently settle in concentrated areas of cities in numbers and ways that fostered or triggered conflicts or unrest with previous residents. By the time then that the contingent nature of the expressed sentiment or ideal becomes fully obvious, it then is in conflict with the accepted, conventional ideal as originally stated or misstated by incompleteness.
Or consider the modern conflict between the privacy and autonomy rights of the mentally ill on the one hand, and the security of the public on the other. This secular issue is raised every time some person with a history of mental illness or strange behavior and threatening pronouncements ends up as a mass murderer, and the public doesn't understand why they weren't committed or arrested beforehand or at least prevented from buying mass-assault weapons, and the mental health industry defends the rights of the mentally troubled to liberty and autonomy prior to committing any crime or harming anyone -- in part because psychiatrists supposedly cannot distinguish which mentally ill people are a real threat and which are not. But as one reader of the New York Times pointed out or implied in a response to such a defense, it is too reductionist to consider people who make homicidal threats to be merely mentally ill in the way someone is who is plagued by anxieties in ways that make them less effective socially or less successful financially than they want to be. The fact, when it is a fact, that a mass murderer may have been mentally ill, does not mean that the morally relevant dichotomy is between those who are mentally ill and those who are not, but should be between those who are reasonably clearly potential (more likely than normal) homicidal threats and those who are not. It is not being a loner or a social misfit of any sort that makes one likely homicidal, and so those kinds of traits are not grounds for involuntary commitment, arrest, or even surveillance of any sort, or searches for weapons -- particularly weapons of mass mayhem, but making public threats should be. It is not that one should have no right to buy a gun if one is mentally ill or even was once involuntarily committed to psychiatric care -- as long as the mental illness being treated is not one that likely is dangerous or destructive. And it is not that one should have every right to buy a gun if one was not voluntarily committed before, if one is in fact a likely danger. The only issue should be whether there is evidence or not one is a real threat to commit violence; and surely, public threats and declarations to do so, particularly persistent ones, should count as evidence. One does not, and should not, have to wait for the gun to be pointed and the trigger begun to be pulled for a threat to be recognized and for preventive, defensive commensurate action to be justifiably taken. And although the conventional, but insufficient, principle is that a threat should be imminent to justify a forceful response, the devastation and significance of any real and reasonable potential threat needs only to be inversely proportional to its imminence as well; threats that are more likely catastrophic need not be as imminent to warrant the same necessarily forceful intervention.
The fact is that most people in America today have a minimum of ethical understanding -- having instead what I call simplistic Sunday School moral education, though the problem is not just relegated to religious education, but to any simplistic moral education6 that doesn't nurture ethical understanding beyond the views that students have in grade school. Simplistic moral education basically lets students know how to behave socially appropriately in normal situations and tells them in such situations not to steal from people, not to murder people, and not to commit adultery, where stealing, murder, and adultery are clearly defined (though whether "lust in one's heart" is adultery or not may be debatable even among the religious). But the minute that any subtlety is added to the conditions or the minute conflicts arise between two cherished precepts, people tend to be at a loss to take them into account or know how to analyze or evaluate the issues. The simplistic solution is often a wrong one in a complex or subtle situation, and so although simplistic moral education helps socialize people properly in simple cases, it is counterproductive, often dangerously and fatally so, in those situations and dilemmas that require rational, deeper thinking about morality. Simplistic religious and/or secular moral education are an enemy of good ethics, not a help for doing it well when there is any complexity involved. For example, the Bible forbids theft but condoned slavery7, and many people in early America just accepted the passages that condoned it, even though as Lincoln pointed out, slavery is theft of a person's labor. Or many people today consider paying a person in desperate economic circumstances a barely minimal fraction of the money s/he helps them earn as just "good business", not theft. And they tend to consider all looting to be theft even if it is necessary for the survival of innocent people trapped, through no fault of their own, in a war or natural disaster where there is no way to purchase necessities for oneself or one's children or one's neighbors' children, necessities that are otherwise just sitting, even rotting, on the shelves of shuttered, and unattended stores.
But there are conflicts throughout life between rights and utility (doing the greatest good), between one right and another, between rights and fairness, between utility and fairness. These are not always easy to evaluate or agree about, but most people do not have the tools even to begin to reach reasonable conclusions about what is right. In general any ethical decision should involve at least the following considerations in some appropriate relationship to each other, and any conflicts between or among them need to be resolved reasonably and appropriately:
1) how much deserved good it does
Notice that none of these are religious in nature; nor are they just about following simple rules or maxims. They have to do what is best and/or fairest and most reasonable for deserving people (or, more accurately, deserving sentient beings, to include God and also animals or, if we should ever have contact with them, aliens). Ethics is about the best way to live and why, but that does not necessarily mean pursuing the happiest or most materialistically successful life. You have to have good reasons that stand scrutiny, to justify any claims about what makes the best or right life, or to justify any particular ethical decision. (My Introduction to Ethics explains this further and introduces, explains, and supports a general principle that helps keep these in mind in a way meant to appropriately weigh them against each other when there are conflicts.)
But at least in America today, ethical analysis and discussion do not often incorporate more than one or two of these above eight qualities or concepts, and they do not explain or adjudicate well conflicts among them. That is unfortunate. I teach introductory college level ethics, but these days that is a misnomer, since most students could not understand an introductory course in ethics conducted at a true college level. In the past a college level course in ethics could assume students had basic ethical sensitivity, basic reasoning skills, and basic interest and practice in making sense of experiences they had or heard or read about. That doesn’t mean everyone agreed, or had the right answers to ethical questions, but it meant they knew how to look for right answers in a reasonable way and could normally understand clear explanations of their errors. No more. Teaching introductory level ethics today is not about honing basic skills but about trying to explain what ethics is and how it ought to work to students who have no real basic understanding of right and wrong other than what they like or dislike and no real understanding of logic other than what they believe or disbelieve. They vehemently cling to cherished ideas and think the fervor of any of their beliefs is evidence for its truth.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. The Platonic dialogues show that Socrates met with it constantly when discussing ethical or philosophical issues with leaders of the Athens community. But the youth of the community, whom Socrates was accused of corrupting, and then convicted and executed for that supposed crime, seemed to understand his reasoning and the concept of following the rational evidence to derive a justified conclusion. Many college students today seem even worse at reasoning than the worst of the older, often successful and prominent, stubbornly overly-self-assured people questioned by Socrates in the dialogues. Often in the dialogues, those being questioned by Socrates could tell they were in logically untenable positions, though they thought they were being tricked by rhetoric somehow and simply being made to look foolish. Students today see nothing wrong with their own views or their logic even during and after discussing them. They simply think anyone who disagrees with them is too liberal or too conservative, and they move on, ignoring any reasons given against their beliefs and claims. So-called conservative and liberal students are afflicted with the same reasoning flaws though holding opposite simplistic views resistant to evidence or reason.
Here are some of the mistaken beliefs about ethics students today cannot imagine being false, even after you discuss them and point out the problems with them. Some of these are mistaken beliefs of every generation, but today's students seem to be particularly enthralled with these to the point of obstinacy, no matter what evidence is presented to them. Don’t worry about the fact some of these contradict each other; the students don’t. This is not the place to go into a full analysis of these claims, but in the brackets following each I give initial reasons to show the claims are at least suspect if not clearly false.
There are no right
or wrong answers.
[There are certainly plenty of wrong answers and answers that are quite unreasonable. And even in cases where it is difficult to know an answer is wrong ahead of time, consequences in hindsight might easily show it was a wrong choice to have made. Consider the Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt, whether an accurate historical account or not. While it took Pharoah apparently ten plagues, including and culminating in the loss of his eldest son, any reasonable Egyptians of the day probably would have thought they should let the Jews leave by at least the fifth plague, though as Jon Stewart pointed out (June 2, 2014), there are always those who think one should at least wait to see what the eleventh plague is. And during World War II, probably at some point any reasonable Japanese citizen figured out their government made a mistake in attacking Pearl Harbor. Clearly there are wrong answers, choices, decisions, and acts. Why it is held that "there are no right or wrong answers" is likely because the people claiming it don't know what the right answer is or how to determine or recognize it, and that they cannot get others to agree with whatever they think is right, or with each other. But these things happen in all kinds of factual, objective problems too, without its meaning there is no right answer. If students were left to determine the right answer to a difficult math word problem, they would not likely be able to reach agreement or know what the right answer is either, but that would not mean there is no right answer. Same with regard to any difficult scientific or engineering problem. Not knowing what the answer is to a problem -- such as a cure for a complex disease -- does not mean there is not one.]
2) Everyone has a right to his/her opinions.
[Some opinions are reasonable in light of evidence; others, not. So not all opinions are equally good, let alone equally right. The right to do anything or to have an opinion does not mean that it is therefore right to do that thing or that the opinion is right.]
3) Everyone has a right to do what they want as long as they don’t hurt
else – the principle of autonomy.
[Again, the right to do something doesn't make it therefore right to do. One has a right to squander all one's talents and skills and lead a totally dissipated life, but that hardly makes it right to do so. One might have a right to hold people to an agreement they voluntarily made that ends up taking advantage of them, but that doesn't make it right to take advantage of them that way. Plus, one doesn't have the right to harm oneself or even risk harm to oneself or others. As the public service ad says "Friends don't let friends drive drunk" and that is even if the only person they are likely to harm is themselves -- if say, the road is deserted, but is curvy, narrow, and mountainous.]
4) Who are we to say what is right or wrong?!
We are not God.
[In the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham debated right and wrong with God about destroying everyone in those cities, and changed God's mind, so it seems that even to believers in the Bible, what is right or wrong is independent of what God thinks or proclaims, even if He is normally right. For Judaism and Christianity at least, it should be clear that just because God is said to make a moral claim or judgment, that doesn't mean He is right and that it is true, because if one believes God's moral pronouncements are automatically true, then it would make no sense to believe it right for Abraham to argue with God about killing the innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah, and it would have made even less sense for God to change His mind as He did, and save Lot's family. So why should one have to be God to know what is right and wrong? Isn't it everyone's duty to figure out what is right and wrong insofar as one can, so that one tries to avoid wrongdoing and tries to do what is right?
5) We don’t have the right to make that
choice; only God does.
[This is usually said about capital punishment, even though at the same time God gave the Ten Commandments at Sinai, He also gave 603 others without making any distinction about their relative importance, many of which not only delegate the right to execute people for certain crimes, but require it. Plus, if there is really good reason why certain acts should be considered punishable by death, why would we not have the right to make that judgment?]
6) Having the right to do something makes it right to choose to do it.
[Explained above in 2 and 3 as being false.]
7) Quoting someone else, especially a religious source, that agrees with me
means I am right.
[No, it only means the source agrees with you, not that either of you is right. What we need to know are the reasons the act should be considered right.]
8) Quotations (from any source) do not have to take into account the
do not have to be complete passages.
[This is basically just unreasonable, if for no other reason than that it may not be what the source quoted even has in mind. "In case of fire, pull this alarm", for example, doesn't just mean "Pull this alarm." You cannot just take something out of context or a partial sentence or paragraph and claim it means what it says as standing alone. That is like Adam and Eve's ignoring the "Don't" in "I'm going out of the Garden of Eden for awhile. Do whatever you like but 'don't eat the fruit of that one tree over there'" as if discussing it after God went out and concluding: "God said something about eating that fruit, so let's do it."]
9) A source can be an authority that substantiates my beliefs even if the
source also contains statements and principles I do not believe.
[The logical fallacy of "appeal to authority" or "argumentum ad verecundiam" has been written about for centuries, but in this particular version is problematic in addition because one cannot reasonably pick and choose among the pronouncements of someone as an authority, since the whole point of considering them to be an authority is to hold they must always be right in their field of expertise, not just sometimes. If you hold they are wrong sometimes, then you have to have a way to distinguish between their true pronouncements and their false ones. And thus, in short, you need to be able to explain in the first place what makes your view right about the issue in question. Quoting the alleged authority is of no use for doing that if you cannot believe everything the authority says; and should be unnecessary if you have a way to justify your view as true, whether it is the same as the authority's or not.]
10) The way most people actually behave is justification for believing
they do is right. If (nearly) everyone does it, it must be okay.
[This seems clearly false, since people throughout history have held incorrect, sometimes quite egregious, moral views.]
11) This is what I was taught as I was growing up, so it is what I believe, and
will continue to believe.
[This is just an argument for obstinacy, not learning to correct one's mistaken beliefs.]
12) This is the way we do it in the military (or in medicine, or in business,
or in government, or in whatever profession I was trained).
[That doesn't mean it is right even in those contexts, let alone in the current one under consideration, particularly if there are cogent reasons given against its being right. Often, "business ethics" or "medical ethics" are mistakenly considered to be independent forms of ethics, separate from (general) ethics, but they are not. They may involve special circumstances, but still have to conform to general ethical principles, not just ignore them. The point of business ethics is to conduct business ethically; and the point of medical ethics is to treat patients and research subjects fairly and right. All too often "professional" ethics of one sort or another is not really about ethics, but is about what is deemed by professionals in the field to be acceptable, usually to them, rather than about what is fair, just, right, and best for clients, customers, suppliers, vendors, or patients and research subjects.]
13) There is no way to determine what is right or wrong.
[Similar to 1 above.]
14) There is no principle that will cover this because it depends on
circumstances and everyone and every situation is different.
[Principles can often accommodate different circumstances; that is one point for discovering good principles. E.g., baking different cakes may require different cooking times, but there could still be the principle for considering "doneness" that involves whether a toothpick stuck in the middle of them comes out clean or not. Or different size turkeys may require different amounts of cooking time, but the principle for knowing they are done might be the same internal temperature for all -- under similar roasting conditions. In physics, there are many formulas that apply to all kinds of seemingly different phenomena on the surface.]
15) People disagree about this all the time, so there is no right
answer, or Not everyone will believe that, so it must not be right.
[Addressed in 1 above.]
16) You should do what you believe is right.
[Not if your belief is wrong. There is an ambiguity in this claim. One should normally do what seems most reasonably to be right, because the most reasonable thing will more often be right; but it may be mistaken in any particular case. One should not do what is mistaken; and one should also not do what is negligently believed or is believed unreasonably. But also, one should follow one's conscience, but if and only if one's conscience is informed and non-negligent. If you are going to get into trouble, it should at least be for doing what (you are sure) is right, not for doing what you thought was wrong in the first place.]
17) You should do what you believe is right for you.
[What is right for you may not be what is right for others. And insofar as this means you should do what you believe is right, see 16 above.]
18) You should do what (you believe) will do the most good for the most
[First, you may be wrong that it will do the most good for the most people; second, even if you are right about what will do the most good for the most people, it can still sometimes conflict with a basic right or with fairness; e.g., it might to the most good to kill an innocent person -- e.g., throwing someone on the tracks to stop a train to keep it from hitting five people further down the track, but that doesn't make it right. Or it might do the most good to let a simple numerical majority always do whatever it wants, but that might not be fair to others in the group.]
19) That is the way it has always been done, so there is nothing wrong
[Again, history is filled with wrong policies and practices; that is often why we pass new laws and amend old ones. The claim of innocence by virtue of following standard practice was one of the attempted justifications offered by former Vice President Spiro Agnew, when he was indicted on charges of corruption involving bribes and kickbacks as governor of Maryland. He said he had not done anything different from former governors or other officials in other states. The idea that using public office in the ways he did for private gain could be wrong no matter who or how many people have done it, or for how long, seemed to have escaped him. Agnew was disbarred after pleading no contest to the charges against him, and he later had to repay some quarter of a million dollars he was accused of having taken while in office. Citing his lack of moral understanding,the Maryland Court of Appeals said in prohibiting former vice president Spiro Agnew from practicing law: “It is difficult to feel compassion for an attorney who is so morally obtuse that he consciously cheats for his own pecuniary gain that government he has sworn to serve, completely disregards the words of the oath he uttered when admitted to the bar, and absolutely fails to perceive his professional duty to act honestly in all matters.” (http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1338&dat=19740502&id=mZBYAAAAIBAJ&sjid=X_gDAAAAIBAJ&pg=7254,1018542)
20) It is the law (or the rules, or in the professional code of ethics)
is what we should do.
[But there have been bad laws in the past; and this doesn't explain what the law should be in the first place anyway. And it would mean no law should ever be changed. See also "Morality and Law" as well as 19 just above.]
21) It is what we voted, so it is what we should do; it is what the majority
[The majority don't always want the right thing, but at best they want what they think is best or right, and at worst want and vote for just whatever benefits them the most even if harming others about whom they don't care. And there can be a tyranny of the majority. Also see 18.]
22) I should treat others the way I want to be treated.
[Others may not want to be treated the way you do. And even if they do, it might not be right for any of you. People want to do things that are not necessarily good for them or right for them to do. Plus it is unnecessarily convoluted to imagine yourself in other people's circumstances to know what you would want if you were them; why not just figure out what they need or want in the first place. My father one time told people visiting the synagogue for the first time about the front rows having earphones to help the hearing impaired hear the service. The people were old and hard of hearing. I asked him why he told them that, just to see what his response would be, and he said it was because he would want people to tell him that and he was following the Golden Rule. But I pointed out he was not hearing impaired and would not need that information. He said if he were, then he would want to know that information. I pointed out that, given he knows that without being hard of hearing, he therefore already knows that hearing impaired people would want to know that information because it would help them hear and enjoy the service, and that since the visitors were hearing impaired, they needed to be told it. He didn't have to go through the Golden Rule and think about being hearing impaired himself to know what was right to tell them.