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


3. Moral Commitments and the Discipline of Ethics

Ordinarily we make no distinction between the notions of "morality" and "ethics," "moral obligations" and "ethical duties," "moral codes" and "codes of ethics." But in philosophy we may distinguish "morals" from "ethics," according to the level of analysis intended. "Morality" governs conduct, tells us to follow the rules, and calls our attention to the fundamental commitments with which we order our lives. Morality tells us not to steal; one tempted to steal is morally bound not to steal, and one who habitually succumbs to that temptation is an immoral person. "Ethics" is primarily an academic discipline; it has to do with forms of reasoning rather than conduct, it reflects on, compares, and analyzes rules, and it traces the logical connections between fundamental principles and the moral commitments that guide us. Ethics derives the principle of respect for the property of others from which we further derive the rule, that we should not take the property of others without authorization; ethics describes the conditions under which the principle fails to apply or can be overridden. We can live moral lives without knowing ethics, but we cannot discuss the morality of our lives, defend it, put it into historical context, without the intellectual tools to do so. Ethics provides those tools.

Morality is a precondition for ethics, in two ways. First, morality, as a shorthand way of referring to all our transactions with each other, is the subject matter of ethics, just as our transactions with the physical world form the subject matter of science. Second, ethics is an activity, and any activity requires certain moral commitments of those who take part in it. We cannot do anything well without moral commitments to excellence, or anything for any length of time without the moral virtue of perseverence. The doing of ethics also has moral commitments appropriate to it. These commitments, to reason and to the moral point of view, can rightly be demanded of any person who would take ethics seriously.

In any troubling case, we have first of all an obligation to think about it, to examine all the options available to us. We must not simply act on prejudice, or impulsively, just because we have the power to do so. We call this obligation the commitment to reason. The commitment to reason entails a willingness to subject one's moral judgments to critical scrutiny oneself, and to submit them for public scrutiny by others; further, to change those judgments, and modify the commitments that led to them, if they turn out (upon reflection) not to be the best available. This commitment rules out several approaches to moral decisionmaking, including several versions of "intuitionism" (a refusal to engage in reasoning about moral judgment at all, on grounds that apprehension of moral truth is a simple perception, not open to critical analysis), and all varieties of "dogmatism" (an insistence that all moral disagreements are resolved by some preferred set of rules or doctrines; that inside that set there is nothing that can be questioned, and that outside that set there is nothing of any moral worth).

Second, we have an obligation to examine the options from an objective standpoint, a standpoint that everyone could adopt, without partiality. We want to take everyone who has a stake in the outcome ("stakeholders," we will call them) into account. Since this consideration for other persons is the foundation of morality, we call this perspective universality, or as Kurt Baier called it in a book of that name, the moral point of view. The commitment to the moral point of view entails a willingness to give equal consideration to the rights, interests, and choices of all parties to the situation in question. This commitment to impartial judgment has one essential role in the study of ethics: once we have decided that all persons are to count equally in the calculations, that each is to count as one and as no more than one, we have the unit we need to evaluate the expected benefit and harm to come from the choices before us, to weigh the burdens placed and the rights honored. We also know that if anyone's wants, needs, votes or choices are to be taken seriously and weighed in the final balance, then everyone's wants etc. of that type must be weighed in equally; that is, if anyone is to be accorded respect and moral consideration, then all must be. We can derive most of the moral imperatives that we will be using from this single commitment.

By way of example, the familiar "Golden Rule," that we ought to treat others as we would have them treat us, is a fine preliminary statement of those commitments. With regard to anything we plan to do that will affect others, we ought not just to go ahead without reflection; we ought to ask, how would we like it if someone did this to us? That consideration is perfectly adequate as a satisfaction of the moral commitments that precede ethics. In general it may be said, that if we will not agree to submit our decisions to reason, and to attempt to see the situation from the point of view of all who are caught up in it, ethics is impossible.

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





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