The Point of Studying Ethics (Moral Philosophy)
Rick Garlikov


I taught ethics part time at a local technical college for a while. One term one of my classes was composed of the students studying to be auto mechanics. My mother-in-law's comment was that was an appropriate group to teach ethics. My wife's colleagues wanted to know the names and service center of anyone who passed the course. Everyone seemed to find amusement in the idea of teaching ethics to auto mechanics.

But auto mechanics are not the only ones whose ethics are popularly questionable. Businessmen as a group are often thought to have dubious practices that take advantage in various ways of anyone they can. Businessmen do not help their cause any when they point out that their practices are "not a matter of ethics, but of business", or when they point out that they are only doing their job, as if a "hit man" would not have the same lame excuse. Being paid to do the wrong thing does not make it the right thing. 

Politicians are just assumed by most people to be unethical in terms of doing "anything" to get elected and stay in office -- whether in lying, being "bought", pandering to the lowest common denominator, or currying their community's favor through pork barrel spending of tax payers' money. Some doctors are thought to gouge whomever they can, tell patients they need procedures they don't, and cover up each others' mistakes or malfeasance. Even clergymen have not been able to maintain their balance on moral pedestals, and are not immune from giving bad moral advice. 

While some problems are caused by bad people not caring what is wrong, most problems probably arise from good people not knowing or fully understanding what is wrong, particularly when what is wrong is a traditional or sanctioned way of doing something.

Yet most K-12 schools do not think they need to teach ethics, but need only to teach obedience to laws and rules, and to teach moral characteristics, such as loyalty, faith, and perseverance, as outlined in The Book of Virtues. Most business schools, even in the light of the Enron/Anderson scandals or the myriad of other socially undesirable corporate practices highlighted weekly on 60 Minutes, claim they do not need to teach business ethics as such because they include it in all their courses. In part that is because they mistake being ethical for obeying the law and following "codes of ethics", which are the practices sanctioned by industries, professions, and organizations.  They also make the mistake of believing that because people have learned, while growing up, how to behave appropriately in typical business or social situations that those people know what is ethical to do in more complex business or social situations. 

Ethics is not the study of what is legal or socially accepted or tolerated; it is the study of what is right and wrong -- in the sense of trying to discover reasonable general principles that will help us decide what we ought to do and what we ought not to do in all cases. Most people think that obeying the law and company policy or following the Golden Rule is sufficient. But laws and policies have loopholes and are often incomplete. In many high schools, the handbook of (specific) rules grows thicker and thicker each year because students are most creative at figuring out what wrong things no one has thought to make a rule against in the past. The list of specific rules grows in response to such creativity, but it will always be behind because you cannot create specific rules that will anticipate every possible bad act.  There are many legal activities (or activities not specifically prohibited by written rules or laws) that are not morally right to do. 

Moreover, there are wrong or morally bad laws and rules. And it is not always the case that they should be obeyed until they can be changed, because sometimes they are so bad that obedience to them is a greater moral transgression than disobedience.

And a rule-based set of ethics is problematic for two other reasons: (1) even if you could have a complete set of rules that would all be right for every situation, you likely could not know or remember them all or know which one to apply in which case.  (2) In any formal, rule-based system, if a rule happens to be mistaken, it is still the rule you have to follow.  Bad rules are rules nevertheless if your system is such that you must obey the rules no matter what.

Instead, what we need, I believe, is a principle-based ethics in which, if possible, we figure out what makes acts be right or wrong or what makes things be good or bad, and then have general principles that we can use as guidelines in all situations, along with some thinking and some judgment, to determine what would be right to do.  Principles also can be overridden or modified if there is good reason to do that.  When someone is operating by principles, rather than by rules, it is appropriate that if you show them their principles are unreasonable that they change them.  Whereas someone who is just following rules or "obeying orders" is normally likely to say something like "It doesn't matter about the outcome.  These are the rules I have to follow."

Unfortunately, good principles are apparently difficult for students to come by.  I ask college students how they decide what is right or wrong, and they tend to come up with a list that does not contain all the kinds of reasons they often give for why something is right or wrong, but even if they were to make a complete and accurate list of how they determine what is right or wrong, it would be easy to show that none of their principles will stand scrutiny.  The list typically includes:

  • Do what is best for yourself.
  • Do what you were taught by your parents and behave the way they behaved.
  • Do what makes people happy.
  • Don't hurt anyone.
  • Obey the law.
  • Obey your conscience [or your heart].
These are not meant by the students to be taken together, but individually as their primary or only operating principle.  In other words different students each offered or accepted one of these principles as their way of deciding what to do.  But there are problems with each of these. 
  • What is best for yourself may not be nice to do to other people.  It may be purely selfish. 
  • The students who said they should do what parents require held, though, it did not apply to abusive or perverted parents.  They even said they did not think their own parents always held the right views or did the right thing and that there are some things they believe they should not emulate or require of their own children.
  • Should you make bad people happy -- Charles Manson, Osama bin Laden, Hitler?  Or even in regard to good people, what if we made our children happy by spoiling them and teaching them to be insensitive to the sorrows of others or by teaching them to be self-sufficient enough to be able to have food and beer and just enjoy watching tv all the time? Should we teach our children to be happy that way? 
  • If you hold you should not hurt anyone, should you then never discipline your children or take them to a doctor for a shot that might hurt?
  • If you should always obey the law, then we (in America) should still be colonies of England unless England had simply volunteered to give us our freedom.  And the segregation laws or even the slavery laws should still be heeded if a majority of white male voters wanted them.  And if you lived in Nazi Germany in the 1930's you morally should have turned in any Jews who were hiding and any families who were hiding them, if following the law is always what is morally right to do.
  • And the problem with obeying one's conscience is that some people have an undeservedly clear conscience about perpetrating, in some cases, the most heinous atrocities, while other, overly sensitive people, berate themselves when they cannot please everyone or when they do not sacrifice their own reasonable happiness for the unreasonable desires of their children or their parents who make demands.
One semester that I taught introductory philosophy in the early 70's as a grad student was during a brief time when "honesty" was considered by undergrad students to be the supreme value.  It was a reaction to the harmful hypocrisy they had witnessed in business and in politics and government.  When we got to the ethics section of the course, I began by asking them when it was right to break a date.  Their response was "Anytime you wanted to  because then you were being honest with the person about the fact that you did not want to go out with them" (even though you had asked them out or accepted their offer).  It didn't matter, they said, even if it was 15 minutes before the senior prom and the girl had bought an expensive dress or the guy had rented a tux and perhaps even rented a car or hired a limo, etc.  If you changed your mind, just be honest, and tell them you weren't going. They were totally convinced this was the way to behave.  If your wife gets a hairstyle she is excited about and you think it makes her look like an old, cheap prostitute or hag, just tell her so.   In fact, they claimed it was even okay to murder people if you were being honest about your feelings and if you were willing to accept the punishment if you got caught, etc.  No case or consequence I could give them swayed them in the least from this "To thine own self be true" policy that struck them as totally unassailable.  It took some histrionics and a Draconian (pretended) assignment on my part to get them to see that there would be things they thought wrong even if it was something I, as the teacher, was being "true to myself" to make them do.....

But the psychological power of simplistic (or any) ethical views is amazingly strong, and that includes the viewpoint that "there is no problem" in some cases where morally more sensitive people may find the problem totally obvious.  It is easy to become "wedded to" bad ideas and bad principles.  In one business school class a teacher put up a case study for students to debate the ethical issues involved.  They did not see that there was any ethical issue involved. 

This is not unusal, actually.  In a church course I attended on moral development, the room was always stiflingly hot though it was the middle of winter.  It was extremely hot -- well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.  Each day, though I was just one of 60 people (almost all of whom were educated professional people, many of whom were wealthy and either physicians, lawyers, or high level business managers or business owners), I was the only one who seemed willing to turn off the thermostat, and they all watched me each time I did it as if this were somehow most unusual.  On the fifth Sunday I decided to see what would happen if I did not do it, so I sat on the side of the room farthest from the thermostat.  No one got up to adjust it.  They sat there for nearly an hour fanning themselves and mopping their brows.  Ironically to me, the teacher showed a movie that week about a famous psychology experiment in which students acting as assistants, unaware they were being studied, behaved egregiously toward others because the psychology professor said it was part of the experiment for them to do things that seemed to them to be hurtful.  The people in the Sunday school course could not believe people would act that way toward others. They thought the student behaviors were despicable and unimaginable.  Yet they would not get up to turn off the heat in the room in order to make others comfortable -- particularly the obviously suffering five or six very pregnant women in the room.  When I asked them why they did not turn off the heat, they all said they thought they could stand it.  When I asked them why they didn't turn it off in order to help their classmates be comfortable, especially the pregnant women, they said they never thought about it.  Here were church-going bankers and lawyers and doctors and business owners who would not defy the principle that they should not be what they would consider to be pushy or arrogant or obtrusive in order to help out their neighbors.  That principle was so strong in their mind that they never even thought to help out their fellow neighbors or that their neighbors might need help.  This is not that different from the students in the psychology experiment who thought they should do what the professor running the experiment said.

Even the most popular, durable, and seemingly obvious principles can be wrong.  The Golden Rule is such an example.  It never works as a formula for figuring out what is right, because how we want to be treated is not necessarily the hallmark of how we ought to treat others. If I wish someone had made me become an engineer that does not make it right for me to force my children to study engineering. If I want a woman I see across the street to kiss me, that does not give me moral license to run across the street to kiss her. If I want illegal drugs, that does not make it right to distribute illegal drugs. If I want to receive bribes or kickbacks, that does not make it right to tolerate a system of bribes or kickbacks. The Golden Rule only seems to work because often the way we want to be treated is the right way for everyone to be treated. But it is right for reasons other than it is just what we want. The Golden Rule leaves out what it is about an act that makes it right and that makes it something that ought to be desired not just something that is desired by you. Not everything that is desired is desirable.

Even the history of philosophy is filled with previously (sometimes even currently) accepted principles that will not stand the proper scrutiny.  Many of these principles have made their way into culture unfortunately as conscious or unconscious operating principle of ethics and policy.  It is important for people to study ethics because what is right to do is not always as obvious as it seems.  One should at least know what the pitfalls with popular principles are.

Now unfortunately there are plenty of bad ethics courses, courses that teach ethics as though it were endless debates or merely opinionated bull sessions, and courses that present pedantic historical ethical principles and discussions that do not have any real meaning to students, but are just words in print to be memorized for a grade, often taken from the "classics" in philosophy but with no help given to students to "bring them alive" or make them relevant. I would caution anyone against taking an introductory ethics course that is based solely or even primarily on the texts of famous philosophers.  These are often difficult to read or comprehend, and they are even more difficult to see how to apply or make relevant to significant issues.  Many of the teachers who use such texts are also dogmatic in their interpretations, and sometimes wrong or unreasonable. They are seldom helpful in explaining the material in an intelligible manner.  These are normally not particularly good introductions to ethics or ethical issues (or to philosophy or philosophical issues), unless one is interested more in the history of philosophy than in actually doing philosophy.  Courses that study the classics just because they are classics can be interesting once you understand the issues from prior courses; they are simply usually not good as introductory courses.  At some universities they seem to be used more to weed people out of philosophy courses or to discourage them from studying philosophy than to attract them to it.  Whether that is actually the intention or not, it tends to be the result.

Worse yet, there are ethics courses that are just pretenses for the sorts of indoctrination many people fear. So I am not advocating here that typical ethics courses be sprouted in every possible institution or school. What I want to point out here is what good ethics courses would be like, and why it is important to have them.  There has been much progress made in the field of ethics or moral philosophy, and a good ethics course will make clear and meaningful to students what that progress has been.  Having just a cultural or an intuitive, or what I call a "Sunday school" basis for one's ethical reflections does not usually recognize or incorporate the knowledge and ideas that have long since surpassed them.  Not studying ethics is to ignore the discoveries made in the last 2500 years.  And just relying on religion for one's ethical beliefs is tantamount to thinking one understands music because one knows a few hymns.

A good ethics course will try to get students to understand and appreciate the nature of personal responsibility, especially when law, custom, organizational rules, or social pressures would disguise that. It will try to get students to see the difference between good intentions and right acts, for one can have good intentions and yet do the wrong thing if one is mistaken about what will be for the best or about which of two obligations is more important. It will try to get students to see that common moral platitudes and exhortations, and even many historically significant philosophic principles, will often not stand up under scrutiny and are flawed. It will try to show how and why they are flawed. It will try to come up with principles that work, or that at least are an improvement.

A good ethics course will try to show students what they need to take into account in deciding what is right or wrong for them to do. And it will introduce students to moral terminology that is clear and unambiguous, so they can think and speak clearly and appropriately about moral issues and problems, knowing the differences, for example, between something's being good or bad on the one hand and right and wrong on the other, knowing the differences between what justifies a right act, excuses a wrong one, and might justifiably absolve one from blame when an act is both wrong and inexcusable. 

I say it will try to do all these things, because even good teachers do not always bring about successful learners, and because moral understanding does not necessarily guarantee moral character.

While I believe that ethics needs to be taught (or studied) as a subject in isolation, it also needs to be studied as instructive situations or cases might arise.  Business schools raise a false dichotomy when they ask whether business ethics, for example, should be taught in a separate course as such, or whether instead of a course, it should be taught "across the board" in all courses by talking about various ethical situations related to the course material.  I think you need to do both.  Two analogies to the question as business schools ask it: (1) as a parent should you should just talk with your children about sex at some one particular time in isolation or should you should talk to them as appropriate opportunities for instruction arise, as in watching a tv episode about dating or as when your child is about to go out on a date or seems to be falling in love.  Clearly both would be in order. (2) Should an athletic coach teach technique and strategy in isolation or as situations arise.  Clearly, again, I would think the answer should be "both". 

The reason in both cases is the same as with business ethics and most teaching -- teaching in isolation allows you to present complex, challenging, or conceptually "new" material systematically and coherently, while teaching at appropriate times helps make that material more meaningful and relevant, and helps reinforce it at a moment where it is more likely to be understood, appreciated for its signficance, and more likely to be absorbed and assimilated.  Teaching just as appropriate situations arise does not provide a systematic approach, nor does it likely give a basic foundation or perspective for framing the specific issue.  It is easy to get bogged down in endless debate over specific cases if there is not some previously developed general framework to consider them and set of tools to dissect and analyze them.

If one truly wants to do what is right, it is always important, and usually necessary, to have moral understanding, to appreciate the nature of personal responsibility, and to be able to think about and discuss ethical issues without confusion.  That is difficult to do well without some training in the most reasonable ideas that have been developed and discussed by many of the greatest minds over the centuries.