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Moral Philosophy & Being Good

Charlie White asks, what’s the purpose of moral philosophy? Can it take us to a good place?

“The present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others, for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Studying moral philosophy/ethics should enable us to become better people. It should give us the ability to understand the ways in which our thoughts and actions affect others, enabling us to think critically about how we can live the best lives possible. Moreover, we would hope that any moral philosophy we have studied would make us want to act well, even if we’re not always able to do so. If studying moral philosophy does not produce any of these results, then surely we must ask, what is the point of it?

Aristotle observes that musicians can only become musicians by playing musical instruments. Just as we could reasonably question the purpose of learning music theory without ever picking up an instrument, we can also reasonably question the benefits of discussing ethical theories if this has no impact at all on any of our actions. If theory is detached from practice, what is its purpose?

Is Moral Philosophy Achieving its Purpose?

Philosophy frequently comes to be seen as irrelevant when academic study of it becomes insular, inaccessible, and detached from its original purpose. For me this is particularly concerning when it comes to moral philosophy, because if this domain becomes detached then the moral growth of future generations could be jeopardized.

Good Place
Image © NBC 2016

In the TV comedy The Good Place (NBC, 2016-2020), one of the show’s leading characters well illustrates the problems arising from detaching moral philosophy from moral practice. Chidi is a brilliant professor who loves reading and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of moral philosophy through history. However, because he devotes his whole life only to studying moral philosophy, and because his extensive knowledge causes him to have to weigh up every possible outcome, duty, and intention every time he has to make a choice, he is never actually able to make any moral decisions. Scenes throughout the show make us laugh because they make the gap between moral philosophy and moral practice look as hilariously absurd as it often really is – for example, when Chidi has to mull over the ethical ramifications of every item on a menu, so the waiter has to come back five times and he still hasn’t decided what to order. But this gap raises serious questions about the way in which moral philosophy is often studied, and taught.

In 2009, psychologists Eric Schwitzgebel and Joshua Rust published a paper titled ‘The Moral Behaviour of Ethicists: Peer Opinion’ (Mind, vol.118, no.472, pp.1043-1059), outlining their findings from a study which sought to analyze perceptions of the moral behaviour of moral philosophers, compared with academics with different specialisms and with non-academics. They summarized their findings as follows:

“At the 2007 Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, we used chocolate to entice 277 passers-by to complete anonymous questionnaires without their knowing the topic of those questionnaires in advance. Version I of the questionnaire asked respondents to compare, in general, the moral behaviour of ethicists to that of philosophers not specializing in ethics and to non-academics of similar social background. Version II asked respondents similar questions about the moral behaviour of the ethics specialist in their department whose name comes next in alphabetical order after their own. Both versions asked control questions about specialists in metaphysics and epistemology. The majority of respondents expressed the view that ethicists do not, on average, behave better than non-ethicists. Whereas ethicists tended to avoid saying that ethicists behave worse than non-ethicists, non-ethicists expressed that pessimistic view about as often as they expressed the view that ethicists behave better.”

The authors acknowledge that this study is not comprehensive or conclusive. However, their results do still bring into focus a clear issue: that many people think there is at best no real difference between the behaviour of people who study moral philosophy compared with people who don’t. And in fact Schwitzgebel conducted a further study, which he documented in another paper, ‘Do ethicists steal more books?’ His findings indicated that books about ethics are twice as likely to go missing from university libraries than other books – indicating that in some ways moral philosophy students may actually behave worse than other students! This all suggests that if, as Aristotle maintained, studying moral philosophy should help us to become better people, the way moral philosophy is being studied is not being as effective as it should be.

At the end of their original essay, Schwitzgebel and Rust outline their concerns:

“We would like to think that… moral reflection and philosophical ethics, done well, can positively affect one’s own behaviour, and can be valuable for their tendency to point the person who reflects towards the good. If empirical inquiry eventually reveals, instead, that philosophical moral reflection is personally inert or even harmful, many of us will have to rethink our assumptions about moral psychology, moral education, and the role of reflection in the morally good life.”

Schwitzgebel and Rust are not suggesting that moral philosophy is not worthwhile; rather they are suggesting that the manner in which it is taught and studied should be re-evaluated.

Could Moral Philosophy Help Us Become Better People?

“Just buying a tomato at a grocery store means that you’re unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labour, contributing to global warming… Humans think that they’re making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t know they’re making”
Michael, The Good Place

Moral philosophy should be one of the most important topics anyone can study. As the character Michael articulates in the above quote, globalization, industrialization and capitalism, amongst many other factors, make the world morally uncertain. It is a challenge for everyone to weight up accurately the ethical ramifications of their actions based on their impacts, yet it is something that everyone with a conscience wants to be able to do well.

My contention is that if moral philosophy is going to be effective in helping us become better people, it has to start with these sort of challenges. It should teach us about the effects of real issues in detail, so that our moral beliefs and actions can be informed by relevant and substantial knowledge.

Eight years into my career as a philosophy teacher (after three years studying philosophy at degree level), in my own and many others’ experiences I have found that ethics curricula tend to start with the abstract, by asking general questions about what morality is and how we know what is right and wrong, also positing thought experiments that could never possibly occur in reality. They then present historical moral theories that almost nobody lives by directly today, often without any reference to their historical contexts; then ask students to explain how those historical theories would be used to respond to the hypothetical scenarios. We gain knowledge of ethical theories and the philosophers who created them from this, as well as a technical vocabulary to explain ethical concepts. But we have to ask: How will this help us become better people?

Moral philosophy is traditionally divided into four branches: meta-ethics – what morality is; normative ethics – delineating how we ought to act, and why; descriptive ethics – what people actually believe is right and wrong; and applied ethics – putting the theory into practice. Only when studying applied ethics do students have any opportunity to study issues directly relevant to their lives. However, the level of depth to which these issues are covered is limited because of the demands of studying the other three branches of ethics too, so the knowledge gained is often not substantial enough to tackle these issues adequately. Furthermore, the theories students have learnt to apply to the issues are often historical. As such, they would be better applied to their specific historical contexts.

Historical moral theories such as utilitarianism and situational ethics were not formed in isolation, they reflected the beliefs of their proponents in response to the moral issues of their own times. The original formulators of classical utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), were both passionate campaigners for political reform, speaking out ahead of their time on rights issues such as the need for democracy, animal rights, anti-slavery, and women’s suffrage. In particular, Mill strongly challenged a law at the time declaring that women had no right or need to vote since they were represented by their husbands. Utilitarianism, which advocates that our actions should maximize total happiness, clearly opposes such a law. Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991) the founder of situational ethics, was a pioneer in the field of biomedical ethics, and his thinking led to a more liberal, less dogmatic approach to ethical issues such as abortion and fertility treatments. His situational ethics was rooted in the teachings of Jesus, encouraging people to act not in blind obedience to moral commands, but rather out of love towards others. However, in academic philosophy, moral theories are instead taught in isolation, before being applied to issues to which they do not apply very usefully. This is why, as I said, almost nobody lives directly by these theories today. But no new approaches take their place. Purely abstract questions are likely to have purely abstract answers. But when asked in isolation, questions such as ‘How do we know what is right and wrong?’ and ‘How should we live our lives?’ are abstract, and when answered in isolation lead to abstract answers. As a result, philosophical discussions comparing Bentham’s hedonic calculus with Kant’s categorical imperative, or about whether moral statements are matters of fact or only expressions of belief, are most likely to be purely theoretical, with no bearing on real life. Thus students finish their studies with no better ideas than they had before they started of how they can tackle the moral challenges they actually have to face.

What Needs to Change?

Moral philosophy should give its students the opportunity to become better people, and in many ways it’s currently failing to do so. This can be changed. Moral philosophy can restore its reputation to become a subject of essential significance. In order for this to happen, I propose the following three changes:

1) There should be no difference between ‘ethics’ and ‘applied ethics’. Applied ethics should not be seen as a branch of ethics. Instead ethics and applied ethics should be seen as one and the same thing.

2) All ethical study should start with real life issues rather than with hypothetical thought experiments, extensive definitions of philosophical language, or historical ethical theories. Study of real-life moral issues should also be grounded in a strong body of current knowledge, so that students can then develop a nuanced understanding of the implications of their views and actions.

3) Historical ethical theories should not be studied in isolation, nor should they be arbitrarily applied to real-life issues. Instead, such theories should be taught within the framework of their historical contexts. Furthermore, students’ ethical beliefs should be based on their personal responses to real-life moral issues, so that they may be motivated to act on them.

© Charlie White 2021

Charlie White is a Philosophy teacher at a secondary school in Kent.

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