I’m a philosopher who teaches and writes mostly about ethics. Here I want to say a little about what philosophical ethicists do, how they do it and why they do it.
Ethicists try to discover which particular actions, and actions in general, are wrong, which are not wrong and what we are morally obligated to do, what makes people better and worse or virtuous and vicious, and what makes organizations and societies fair and unfair, just and unjust, and much more. The concerns are both abstract and highly practical, since they concern how we should live, as individuals and as communities.
How do we “do” ethics though? How do we try to engage ethics more productively, especially since clearly there are often deep and passionate disagreements about the issues? Here I want to offer some brief observations about what ethical thinking is and how we can all do it better.
First, ethics is not about “opinions” or “feelings”: it’s about reasons. Consider the near-daily moral tragedies of our world: we may, and should, have strong feelings about the many innocent victims of wrongdoing, but it’s not our mere “feeling” or “opinion” that what’s done is wrong: we have reasons. We can say why we think an action is wrong or not wrong, and we can learn to better figure out whether the reasons we give are good ones or not and why. We can learn to better think about complex and controversial ethical issues, often by developing skills and understanding from thinking about less complex and less controversial ethical topics. This happens in, among other places and spaces, philosophical ethics courses.
Second, ethics is often seen as intertwined with religion, but it doesn’t have to be and, arguably, it shouldn’t. Ethics is independent of religion, again, because we can reason about it. Socrates observed thousands of years ago that if anyone says some action is wrong because, say, they think God disapproves of the action, we can always ask why God would find the action wrong: we can always do better than “it’s wrong just because God says so!” Anyone and everyone can think about whether and why a God would or would not approve of some action, whatever their religious beliefs are (or not are), and debate various answers. Ethical thinking isn’t confined to any religious outlook since we can always ask why we should accept what some religious text, tradition or figure says and evaluate the answers. The possibility of inter- and intra-faith ethical dialogue is important since ethics affects us all and so we don’t want anything to be seen as an obstacle to productive ethical discussion when it really is not.
Third, ethical thinking requires an understanding of the facts of the issue under consideration. For examples, issues in medical ethics depend on understanding the relevant medical facts; engaging ethical and justice-related issues brought on by climate change, and other issues in environmental ethics, requires knowledge of the best scientific understanding of the causes and likely impact of climate change; addressing social justice involves knowing history and the political, economic and religious forces that have shaped people and peoples. Ethical literacy is thereby dependent on scientific literacy and other types of knowledge. Sometimes it’s easy to find the relevant facts; other times it takes some time and effort, but we all need to be willing to put in that effort. Those who don’t, or won’t, often wind up believing what they merely wish to be true, not what is true, which tends to contribute to ethical disaster.
Fourth, ethical thinking requires reasoning, which is the application of logic, or the rules of good reasoning, to complex issues. Logic is, ultimately, based in math, and so whether various given reasons “add up” to support a given conclusion or point of view on an issue is an objective fact to be discovered, not created. That ethical reasoning is based on logic contributes to the possibility of people productively engaging ethical issues from a range of perspectives, as long as they are willing to give reasons and attempt to carefully explain why they think their reasons support their conclusion. At the very least, we can use basic logic to show that many common arguments on important issues are unsound, and knowing what not to think about an issue is a step towards finding good arguments on that issue.
Fifth, and finally, ethics is best when done from a set of virtues or good character traits: what these are is an ethical issue in itself. One of the most important virtues is humility. We all know that other people have had mistaken views and incomplete, if not erroneous, understandings of issues. But the same is true of ourselves. Being open to the possibility that we are mistaken, and that we personally need to make some changes in thought, feeling and deed, is essential to genuine ethical thinking. Another virtue is understanding: we often criticize and judge others’ ethical views without really understanding them. We have an inaccurate sense of what others think, and why they think that, which does not contribute to positive discussion and debate. Ethics thus involves a lot of listening and learning from other people: while we may (and should!) have objections, we always want to make sure the objection addresses the other person’s real views, not inaccurate caricatures.
Finally, we can improve our understanding of ethics by reading and engaging writings in ethics, written by ethicists. Although we are all constantly engaging ethical issues, few people have taken a philosophical ethics course, much less teach such courses or publish books and articles about the issues, and a lot can be learned from people who have trained experience in these areas. One great source for introductory readings in ethics is 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology, an open-access educational resource that I help edit. And I hope my co-authored open-access Thinking Critically About Abortion book demonstrates some of the skills and virtues I review above while addressing an obviously controversial and important topic.
Why do ethics, and do it better? Because we must. Righting the wrongs of the world is a complex challenge, and our efforts will always be guided by what we think. Philosophical ethics helps us improve that thinking so we might improve the world, for all who are in it.
Nathan Nobis is an associate professor of philosophy at Morehouse College.