Doing Good and Avoiding Evil
Part I. Principles and Reasoning
by Lisa Newton

1. Philosophical Discourse: Defending Judgments

Ethics, in its origins and in its current location in the curriculum, is a branch of Philosophy. Philosophy is primarily the study of discourse--a particularly thorough examination of the ways that we talk about things, the judgments we make, and the categories and conceptual orders we put upon our experience. It enables us to interpret that experience for ourselves and to find the handles that will let us operate effectively in the world as we experience it. Ethics is a systematic study of morality and human conduct that attempts to extract from our moral codes and traditions our most basic beliefs, the concepts on which all morality ultimately rests. Doing ethics, then, is first of all talking about talking about morality: figuring out how we state moral judgments, how we justify them if we are challenged, what kinds of reasons weigh significantly in the discussion, and how we shall know, if ever we will, when we have reached a demonstrably true conclusion.

There turn out to be three kinds of sentences, distinguished by the way we verify them, i.e. the way we find out whether they are true.

1. Logical, or formal, statements are definitions or statements derivable from definitions, including the entirety of mathematical discourse (e.g., "2+2=4," or "A square has four equal sides"). Such statements can be verified by a formal procedure derived from the same definitions that control the rest of the terms of the field in question (i.e., the same axioms define "2," "4," and the procedure of "addition"; the four equal sides and right angles define the "square"). True formal statements are analytic: they are true logically, "necessarily," or by the definitions of the terms. False statements in this category are self-contradictory. (If you say, "2+2=5," or start talking about "round squares," you contradict yourself, for you assert that which cannot possibly be so--you conjoin ideas that are incompatible.) A logically true or logically valid statement can never be false, or disproved by any discovery of facts; it will never be the case that some particular pairs of 2 do not add up to 4, or some particular squares turn out to be circular--and if you think you've found such a case, you're wrong! "2+2=4" is true, and squares are equilateral rectangles, as philosophers like to say, in all possible worlds. For this reason we say that these statements are "true a priori": we can know them to be correct prior to any examination of the facts of the world, without having to count up lots of pairs of pairs, just to make sure that 2+2 really equals 4.

2. Factual, or empirical, statements, are assertions about the world out there, the physical environment of our existence, including the entirety of scientific discourse, from theoretical physics to sociology. Such statements are verifiable by controlled observation of that world, by experiment or just by careful looking, listening, touching, smelling, or tasting. This is the world of our senses, the world of space, objects, time and causation. These empirical statements are called "synthetic," for they "put together" in a new combination two ideas that do not initially include or entail each other. As a result they cannot be known a priori, but can be determined only a posteriori, that is, after investigation of the world. When they are true, they are true only "contingently," or dependently, as opposed to necessarily; their truth is contingent upon, or depends on, the situation in which they are uttered. (As I write this, the statement "it is raining out" is true, and has been all day. The weatherman tells me that tomorrow that statement will be false. The statement "2+2=4," and the rectangularity of squares, do not flick in and out of truth like that.)

3. Normative statements are assertions about what is right, what is good, or what should be done. We know these statements as "value judgments," prescriptions and proscriptions, commands and exhortations to do or forbear. There is no easy way of assigning "truth value" to these statements. The criteria of "truth" that apply to formal and factual statements do not apply to normative statements. We can certainly say of such judgments (formally) that they conform or fail to conform with other moral judgments or with more general and widely accepted moral principles; or (empirically) that they receive or fail to receive our assent as a society, as compatible or incompatible with our basic intuitions of what is just or right. We may also say that a judgment succeeds or fails as a policy recommendation on some accepted pattern of moral reasoning, like adducing consequences of that judgment and estimating how human wants will be affected should it become law (see the section on Moral Reasoning, below). But the certainties of math and science are forever beyond the grasp of any normative system, which is, possibly, as it should be.

These distinctions, universally valid, are part of every introduction to philosophy. But why are they necessary to understand ethics? The most important reason to be familiar with these distinctions is that occasionally disputes that seem to be about values or moral principles are actually about facts or about the meanings of words. Such disputes are resolvable, at least in principle, and they should be disposed of before the discussion continues. Some examples may be helpful.

1. "True by definition." One of the disputes that used to arise in hospital Ethics Committees, and still trouble patients' families, has to do with "Brain Death." When the instruments, and the clinical tests, indicate that there is no more life in the brain, while respirators and IV tubes continue to nourish the body, and keep the heart beating and the body perfused with oxygen, is the patient "dead" or not? Is the patient dead enough, to come to the point, to take out all usable organs and transplant them into someone else? In the usual form of the dispute, someone (usually the neurologist) will explain that, "Since the patient is already dead, we must not maintain the support systems, unless we want to harvest the organs for transplantation, in which case we should continue the respirator in order to keep the organs in good shape." But a family member might object, "I agree that my father will never get any better, or regain consciousness, but since he is still breathing, albeit with assistance, and his heart is still beating, and the body is warm, he is clearly still alive!" And the family member might object to taking organs from the body for that reason.

Now, what kind of dispute is this? It is not about the patient's prognosis--everyone agrees he is terminally comatose. Primarily, the dispute concerns the definition of a word, "death." Is death, as was traditionally held, just the cessation (it used to be always irreversible) of respiration and heartbeat? In that case, if I have a machine that can make the heart beat and the lungs receive air, that machine makes the patient "alive." Or was the observable heartbeat and breathing only a stand-in for the real death, the unobservable death of the brain? In that case, once the brain is dead, we are not keeping the patient "alive" with ventilation, we are only pumping air in and out of a corpse. The dispute is not about the facts, nor about the norms--about the way the patient is, nor about what ought to be done at this time. It is about the meaning of words. Incidentally, most states now agree that brain death is death, and there is no right to demand or provide medical treatment once brain death has been determined, except, as above, to keep organs ventilated for transplantation.

Similar examples can be taken from other disciplines. One reason business ethicists have difficulty arguing with economists and finance professors about "value" is that the disciplines of economics and finance have very firm definitions of value--in terms of consumer preferences as expressed in prices and the market, in terms of the market value of stock in a company--that they cannot question while still remaining within their discipline. The ethicists, meanwhile, want to include many other "values" under the term "value." No progress will be made until both sides admit that part of their dispute is that they are using the word in different ways, and agree--for purposes of discussion only--to adopt a common definition for the word so they can get on with the argument.

As Thomas Hobbes pointed out, words have no value in themselves: They are but tokens, and wise men do but reckon with them (for fools, they are money). There is no point in arguing about the meaning of a word. Simply define your terms to begin with, doing your best to place your definition within range of the normal discourse of the field (which is why we treat brain death as death), and carry on your discussion from there. Only one thing is essential: that you know when a dispute is about the meanings of words and when it is about something more important, and that you agree at the outset that whatever you decide to let the words mean, you will not let that agreement influence the final decision.

2. "Fact or value?" You can't get an ought from an is; you cannot derive any normative statement from any collection of facts, no matter how emotionally compelling, without a previously accepted normative statement as premise. From the fact that a certain product line is unprofitable, it does not follow automatically that the company should abandon it; from the fact that the new medical technology can prolong the patient's life for another six months, it does not follow automatically that the patient should elect to use it; from the fact, verifiable by poll, that the nation overwhelmingly does not want to pay any more taxes, or approves of abortion, it does not follow that taxes are wrong or abortion is right. Other things being equal, we may very easily accede to the "ought" premise--that a company should do whatever will improve the bottom line, that medical science ought to prolong human life, that in a democracy, what the people prefer is or ought to be, law. But cases test these rules all the time, and we want to be free to examine them when the situation seems not to fit the intent of the rule. At these times we must be very clear on what is factual conclusion--verifiable by survey, experiment, or observation--and what is normative.

Materials prepared by Lisa H. Newton, Ph.D. 1998

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