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Ethics versus Morality

Anja Steinbauer says Don’t Trust the Ethicists (too much).

Ethical issues are a messy business. Trying to get a firm grip on them is like holding a handful of sand and see it trickle through your fingers. Many philosophers love ethics. Equipped with their professional buckets and spades – virtues, maxims, systems and values – they confidently dig away in the sandbox of morality considering it to be their personal playground.

Increasingly I see professional philosophers being consulted as if authority in ethical matters came with the job title. They are for instance asked to comment in the media on moral problems that leave most of us mere mortals perplexed and confused, such as violence in schools and world poverty. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great idea to ask them; philosophy ought to be challenged to leave its ivorytower prison to engage with the actualities of the real world. However, and this is where the problem lies, we must be clear about how much can be expected of it in this department: when moral philosophers give their opinion on ethical dilemmas, they may have something interesting to contribute, but they cannot show us a way out, and they shouldn’t be expected to. It’s not their job. The truth is: philosophers cannot teach us anything new when it comes to morality, though some would like to make us believe they can.

It is a truism to say that you don’t have to be a philosopher to be moral. Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have gone even further, wanting to bid good-bye to moral philosophy altogether. He held that theory was not only unnecessary but positively harmful for morality: “It is philosophy which isolates a man, and prompts him to say in secret at the sight of another suffering: ‘Perish if you will; I am safe.’” This damning judgement, however, cannot be applied to all of moral philosophy. In order to see this, we have to be clear about what a philosophical ethics can do, and where its limits lie.

While ‘theoretical philosophy’ is concerned with the study of that which is and how we can have knowledge of it, ‘practical philosophy’, of which ethics is a part, is about what ought to be. It is about human action, but not simply about what we actually achieve, but essentially about what should be brought forth, what human beings should intend to bring forth. In this field there cannot be any expert knowledge. As far as theoretical knowledge is concerned, knowledge about nature, we have to rely on the information the experts present us with. However, the case of ethics is a different one: in matters of morality we cannot allow ourselves to be led by an authority, but have to make up our own minds about what is right and what isn’t: ‘Stealing is wrong’ is not a fact but a rule which is empty unless it is accepted by us as individual people. Only if we decide to make this rule our own, our personal guideline, can it be meaningful.

It is not the place of philosophers to provide such guidelines, at least no more so than my grandmother or local vicar, both of whom have valuable contributions to make in terms of life-experience and good will. A philosophical ethics should have something different to offer. It is not primarily concerned with what should or should not be done, but with how any such claim can be justified.

A theological approach may offer grounding in divine law, a state ideology will point to the legal system. These positions do not seek to answer to the question of grounds for moral claims: They refer to particular circumstances, i.e. those of a believer or a law-abiding person, in the context of which orientation for moral action can be given, while the grounds for such an orientation are insignificant. Philosophy needs to give more than a functional justification for a moral position. The question is whether the question of grounds in ethics is something which can be meaningfully discussed within philosophy: There have been philosophers, such as those of the Positivist school, who have argued that the claims in the realm of the ethical cannot be at all justified, they are beyond proof or testability, and are therefore to be dismissed as mere speculation, the results of emotions or subjective opinions. If it were true that moral phenomena by their very nature eluded rational justification, there would be no point in approaching them from a philosophical point of view. Much of (the better) moral theory convincingly shows that this is not the case, universalisability being salient to its enterprise.

What is the relationship between morality, i.e. moral actions, which after all exist independently of theory, and moral philosophy? What can a philosophical ethics contribute to moral reality? At best, and this is important, the study of and reflection on moral theory can provide us with the tools to critically assess the host of ‘theories’, with which we are bombarded in everyday life: mass media superficialities, political propaganda, consumer seduction, soap-opera wisdom. Philosophical ethics goes deeper: it asks about the grounds, the principles of human morality. It is about practical action, but it is not itself practical. This is its limitation but also its strength. It makes us inquire deeper into that which we do and experience every day, so that we may, hopefully, be in a better position to distinguish between good and bad theories.

Constructing moral theories may be up to the philosophers, but assessing them, and rejecting or implementing them is up to the individual. So don’t allow the philosophical sandcastlebuilders to evict you from the playground: Moral philosophy does not absolve any of us from thinking for ourselves and accepting responsibility for our own moral choices.

© Anja Steinbauer 2000

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