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Moral Moments

The Usefulness of Theory

by Joel Marks

I am a theory buff. While I grant that the ultimate point of ethics is to be a good person, I view the peculiar task, and pleasure, of the ethicist to be the formulation and assessment of theories. Theories about what? Why, precisely what it means to be a good person (or to live the good life, or to do the right thing, etc). After all, one’s conception of ethics can vary over a wide range, from being effective in a certain sort of way (finding happiness, helping others, etc.), as so-called consequentialist theorists maintain, to being motivated in a certain sort of way (fearing God, caring about others, etc.), as non-consequentialists hold. One kind of justification of ethical theorizing itself, therefore, would be that it contributes to being a good person; for presumably any endeavor will be enhanced or facilitated by a better understanding of what it is about, and that’s what theorizing purports to provide.

Let’s see how this works. Suppose you were thrust into a situation where you must make a momentous decision, say, whether to invade Iraq. Would it be the right thing to do, or at least not wrong? At first your mind might draw a blank. How does one even begin to decide such a thing? We could call this state of indecision ‘righter’s block’; for just as a writer will sometimes stare without inspiration at a white page, so somebody trying to figure out the right thing to do may see only a blank slate in her mind.

Ethical theory to the rescue! For a theory can jump-start our thinking by telling us what we are aiming at in trying to answer our question. It does this for instance by moving us from a mere word, such as ‘right’ (or ‘wrong’), to a precise explication of its meaning. For example, if one were the kind of consequentialist who valued one’s country above all else, one would know exactly what needed to be pondered or researched in deciding whether to invade Iraq – namely, whether that action would be likely to secure the welfare of one’s country more than any alternative action (especially in the long run).

Another way to think about what theory does for us is that it offers a reason for our decision. So, instead of the uninformative “We’re going to invade Iraq because it’s the right thing to do,” we now have instead, “We’re going to invade Iraq in order to secure the welfare of our country.” Why is this progress? Not simply because it gives us something to say (or think); after all, it could just be window-dressing, propaganda, disingenuousness, bad faith, public relations, or marketing. The great usefulness of having a reason, I submit, is that it invites critical scrutiny, whether by oneself or others. In other words: Having a reason for something raises the question of whether it is a good reason.

To return to our example: The reason given might already seem to be a good one – namely, protecting our country. But note that this reason has two distinct components, which we could set up as premises in a formal argument. Thus:

1) One ought always to choose that course of action which promises the greatest welfare to one’s country. (Ethical/theoretical premise.)

2) Invading Iraq is more likely to secure our country’s welfare than any alternative option. (Factual premise elicited by the ethical/theoretical premise.)

Therefore we should invade Iraq.

It becomes clear that for this argument to constitute a good reason to invade Iraq, both its premises must be shown to be true (or probable). Theory has therefore shown itself to be useful by placing this demand upon us. For either or both of the premises might have seemed obvious to the would-be invader, even enjoying the status of assumptions, scarcely worth awareness, not to mention questioning, but now that the premises stand forth in all their naked assertiveness, they demand attention and examination. What good is that? To help us be sure we’re making the right decision!

Finally, theory or theorizing demonstrates its utility by offering us alternatives to consider. In our example, the given theory is a kind of ‘ethical nationalism’. Even upon explicit inspection this argument could seem incontrovertible to the proponent of invasion… unless he or she were cognizant of other theoretical options. For example, a variety of consequentialism that might sometimes be at odds with ethical nationalism is utilitarianism, according to which the welfare of all nations, not just one’s own, carries moral weight. This could alter or supplement the facts that would be deemed relevant to deciding the question. Thus:

1) One ought always to choose that option which promises to maximize the welfare of the world’s people and nations.

2) Invading Iraq is more likely to secure the world’s welfare than any alternative option.

Therefore we should invade Iraq.

I dare say the second, ‘factual’ premise of this argument is on even shakier ground than that of the previous argument. But in any case, it suggests that we ought to consider not only such things as the safety and prosperity of the homeland, but also the security of the Iraqi people from foreign invasion and occupation as well as domestic unrest; how the regional balance of power might be altered (Iran ascendant), and with what consequences for local women’s rights, peace in Palestine, the world economy, etc; whether a ‘pre-emptive’ strike against Iraq provides a pretext for other nations to wage wars with their own antagonists (Russia vs. Chechnya) or to acquire nuclear weapons in their own defense (Iran, North Korea), and so forth. A tall order, but then a war is not something that ought to be undertaken lightly.

© Joel Marks 2007

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. Others of his essays can be found at http://moralandothermoments.blogspot.com

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