Ethics Workbooks

Philosophical Framework

What is Ethics?


Human beings have an innate ethical sense that urges them to make predictable choices.  Although most people believe that their actions are guided by logic and reason, reason often acts only as a mechanism to justify these choices. Language allows people to construct sophisticated rationales which support what are often genetically driven decisions. Ethics education is about recognizing the real power of one’s innate ethical sense and how it influences our behavior. In this way we can free reason to become a tool to truly guide our actions.  Without the wisdom that results from understanding one’s innate ethical self, reason remains a powerful propaganda prop for unchallenged intrinsic human ethical imperatives. 

I read an article recently about a home improvement con artist who swindled a 100 year-old blind woman. He rang the woman’s bell, unsolicited, to offer to do any repair work needed. The woman told him that for years she had struggled with a door that was difficult to open because it rubbed against the rug. To fix the problem, she agreed to pay the man $8,000, to jack up her house. Most people, when hearing this story, invariably laugh, and then say something like: "oh that's awful." While we're quick to proclaim it wrong, somehow we all admire the audacity of the con artist. This example illustrates the fundamental ethical conflict present in all people. Human beings identify with lying and manipulating; it's in our nature; it originated eons ago as part of the prehistoric mechanism of survival. The examples today of the glorification of manipulation and deception, even outright lying, are ubiquitous. Pretense and dissimulation are rooted in our genes. Our role models and heroes reek of it. We expect it and even demand it. Who has not wondered at the recent rise in popularity of professional wrestling, the ultimate fraud among all the lesser entertainment frauds, or been struck by the celebrity of movie stars, acclaimed for how well they pretend to be what they’re not, or been amazed by the "spin doctors" shamelessly rearranging political reality on the nightly talk shows. People constantly pretend to be what they’re not. Lying and cheating are believed by too many to be legitimate tools in the quest to achieve selfish ends. The first and most important step toward understanding ethics is recognizing this reality.

Why then, it’s fair to ask do we extol honesty and forthrightness?  Why do we really believe it was "awful" for the con man to cheat the old woman, even as we laughed and secretly admired his manipulative skills? We have, it seems, a countervailing sense of how one should behave, and a sense that tells us that we shouldn't succumb to the innate craving caused by the manipulative gene.  This countervailing force too is an inheritance from a long past experience.  But, this time, it's the lesson of group life, derived from living in close proximity, on limited territory. Also rooted in our earliest origins as a species, cooperation has emerged as the preferred means to achieve individual success.  Although evidence clearly suggests a genetic cementing of cooperative behavior, it was, for the most part, culturally learned and reinforced as the lesson of civilization, and is probably not as deeply rooted in us, as are our more biological self-regarding urges. That a sense of fairness and honesty are critical in a complex social setting that extends beyond kinship is a relatively recent addition to the evolution of the human species, and has not fully balanced the inclination to pursue pure self or narrow group interest.  But, it is also not inconsistent with the more intuitive reciprocal behavior of primates and other social animals.

 To a large extent, ethical behavior, which is simply finding the balance between self-interest and group responsibility, is largely, but not entirely, learned behavior standing in opposition to an instinct.  Acting ethically is very much like fighting an addiction.  The addict is never entirely free of the struggle.  The history of ethical thought is, in this regard, a record of attempts to promote, or to dictate, communal behavior in order to ensure stability and harmony within the social group.  For most of recorded history, the group ethical standard has succeeded.

In fact, runaway individualism is a rather recent phenomenon in American and western culture and can in some ways be seen as a backlash against the horrors of the Holocaust. Nazi communalism spawned the most horrific experience in the history of the western world and convinced a generation of the dangers of blindly following a group ethical standard. Western aggressive cultural moralism shifted heavily toward protection for human rights and the promotion of individual freedoms. Anything even remotely resembling a communal standard was suspect, even scorned. Anticommunism became a national obsession. We taught our children to be individuals, to stand on their own, not to succumb to peer pressure, and, in the process, not to worry about anything but themselves. They learned the lesson well. For nearly half a century rampant individualism has been justified, encouraged and even celebrated. When we combine this cultural emphasis with the natural genetic propensities of human beings the result can hardly be wondered at. The delicate ethical balance between individual freedom and group responsibility has clearly shifted.

Not surprisingly then, many middle and high school students today will tell you that they themselves determine, as does every other individual, the standards of right and wrong. Students will resist the notion that they owe anything to anyone, or that they have any absolute obligation toward society. They recognize that wrongs can be done, but have a very difficult time judging their own actions to be wrong. It is very important to recognize the underlying ethical creed so common among the youth of today, namely: nothing I do can truly be wrong because I am the final judge of what is right and wrong for me.

 How do educators attack this problem?

It is best to build on the beliefs, which students already bring with them, that ethics must be about individuals, and that the extent of individual freedom is a measure of what is right. This ethical relativity can be transformed into a powerful positive starting point for students; they intuitively understand that ethics must be measured on a case by case basis. Students also expect all others to pursue and to defend their own ethical conclusions just as they do. They see the study of ethics as a kind of game in which everyone's opinion is of roughly equal value, and the process of defending one's own, and defeating another’s is the major objective. In other words, there is no real search for truth, which students largely understand only in the context of their own opinions and interests. Students see artful argument, and the ability to "spin" the truth, as automatic parts of the "ethics game." Doing, in the end, only what one judges to be in one's interest is a given, as is denying personal responsibility for any failures. In fact, denying personal responsibility is an inherent part of this mindset since if one acts only in ways deemed best for one’s self, any untoward results can only be someone else’s fault.

Students must commit to broadening their own understanding of ethical issues by seeking to better understand the ideas of others. This is not easy since in most instances students believe that they already have the right answers, and are therefore likely to merely make pronouncements rather than thoughtful remarks. A successful strategy, however, can be built on the willingness of most students to be tolerant of different opinions. They trap themselves through their own avowed belief in the sanctity of the individual into accepting the legitimacy of varied viewpoints. It is necessary to build this into a sense of community within the class, and to encourage each student to participate energetically and cooperatively. It takes time, and patience, but it is critical to avoid encouraging simple debate, which in the end leads nowhere.

 What’s Wrong with Virtue Ethics?

 Few would argue that rule based ethical systems are complex and confusing. Ordinary people don't understand philosophers like Immanuel Kant when he calls for a categorical imperative to govern ethical decision making, or John Stuart Mill when he trumpets the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. These arcane philosophies with incomprehensible names like deontology and teleology almost always lead to disagreement and debate, thus promoting the idea that ethics is an intellectual contest where right and wrong are determined by the best argument or the most skilled debater. Even contemporary contributions to the "ethics game" as students call it, such as the justice model of John Rawls for instance and his advice to act behind a veil of ignorance, are equally as abstruse. Hence there is a very valid and seductive attraction for simpler answers. Normative ethical systems nearly always seem to end in impasses, are correctly viewed to be impractical and have historically had almost no impact on the moral behavior of average people who pay absolutely no attention to them.

Virtue ethicists, on the other hand, argue that if one starts with good intentions and is guided by habitually ingrained, and good, virtues, the actions that follow will also be good. Martin Luther once said, in a classic statement of virtue ethics: "A good man does good works, but good works do not make a good man." According to this idea there is no need for complicated and often conflicting rules. To determine what is right or wrong, one need not apply some complex standard of conduct to the action, its outcome, or to the motive of the doer. A good man simply does good works. But, virtue ethics begs the question, how do we identify this good man in order to know which works are good?

Virtue ethicists like to call character traits, such as patience, virtues, and assume that they are good. But, to simply declare that a character trait such as patience is good or is a virtue won't pass even the most elemental test. There is no difference, after all, between the character trait of patience present in a parent raising a difficult child, with the same trait in a rapist lying in wait for his victim. Obviously the character trait of patience, or any other character trait for that matter, has nothing to do with virtue and has no ethical value whatsoever. It only becomes what we might call good insofar as it is associated with an action that can be judged to be good. The problem is to know what good is, and this remains unresolved. The actions themselves, that is caring for a child, or raping a woman, still need to be evaluated, and for this we need a rule.

Even Aristotle, the first, and perhaps, the most famous virtue ethicist of all time, recognized this problem and relied on rules to resolve it. He answered the question of what is good, and how we know it, by offering the idea that good was the product of a life of moderation and balance. He called this the "golden mean." Seeking the golden mean, Aristotle believed, would result in actions that are done with balance and moderation and these actions would be good. But, without the apriori assumption, that man is in essence a rational being, and that virtues flow naturally from man's reason, there would be no way to determine what good was. And, even if we accept that virtues flow from the actions of a good person, we have still not solved the problem that, as we have seen, the same character traits can equally serve to promote quite despicable ends. Nor have we avoided the high probability that by beginning from a different apriori point concerning the nature of man, we would arrive at a wholly different interpretation.

Somewhere in his famous novel, William Golding described a hunting band of boys who danced wildly around a fire working themselves into a frenzy until they mistakenly murdered one of their own number. Aristotle would have condemned this as an evil that resulted from the failure to act with balance and moderation; the boys lacked self-control. The virtue here is moderation, but it is, at the same time, also a rule. In other words, to assign ethical value to a character trait and call it a virtue, we must first translate the character trait into a rule, in this case stated: it is wrong to act out of emotion rather than reason. Then we cleverly restructure the rule into a virtue: one who acts out of reason rather than emotion acts with moderation. Hence, moderation is a virtue. Virtue ethics then is both ancillary and subordinate to a normative ethical system. Without standards for right and wrong, the character traits alone have no significance. There is no truly distinct virtue ethics at all, and to emphasize character traits as a guide to ethical behavior is very problematic indeed given the dependence of virtues definitions on apriori assumptions and the inevitable accompanying drift toward extreme relativism.

Probably the most graphic example of this tendency involved the application of a virtue ethic to a whole society perpetrated by the Nazis in Germany during the 1930's. By contrast with Aristotle, Hitler's assumption about the nature of man was reversed reason. According to the Nazis, people were generally not capable of careful thought, they were inept, and could be moved only by emotion. By nature they sought membership in an organic group and needed a leader to provide direction and to make decisions for them. This became, ironically not unlike the ancient Athens of Aristotle, a racist group ethic, and resulted in a radically different definition of good that gives a chilling new meaning to Luther's contention that "a good man does good works".

Consider Hitler's own words:

The best thing is to let (the youth) pursue that to which their natural desire for competition freely inclines them. But, they must learn self-control, and to overcome, through the most demanding challenges, the fear of death. That is the mark of the heroic youth. …

Apparently, Aristotle and Adolph Hitler admired the same character traits, proving yet again that one must examine the action that the trait supports before deeming it to be a virtue.

Beyond its obvious failures as an analytical discipline, virtue ethics also leads to a problematic pedagogy and should be rejected by educators as little more than mindless conditioning, bordering on propaganda. The Nazi example, while extreme, remains irresistible.

Consider Hitler once again:

"My education is hard. Weakness must be hammered out. In my schools a youth will be raised from whom the world will shrink in fear. …. There must be nothing weak or soft about them. The free and noble gaze of the beast of prey must once again flash in their eyes. I want my youth to be strong and beautiful. They must be trained in all manner of physical education. I want an athletic youth. That is first and foremost. In that way we will expunge the thousands of years of human domestication. I have the pure and noble natural material before me out of which I can form something new.

Within this philosophical framework, the Nazi Reichssportfuehrer listed the educational purpose for sport as characterbuilding:

Physical fitness demands hard repetitive daily exertion of the body. The will grows as bodily strength and physical skill increases. A strong will, and a trust in one's own ability to succeed is the foundation and basis for character education….

The Reichsportfuehrer went on to explain how this character building education would yield admirable virtues:

The healthy, strong, industrious person works and strives for himself, his family, his job and for the greater good of the community. He is a selfless support for his companions who, when called, knows how to come to the defense of his country. He responds to the needs of his community as willingly as to his own, with attention to the abilities, as well as with understanding of the needs, of his national brothers and sisters. His self-confident strength is truly honored by his fellow citizens.

Lest we mistakenly conclude that these are only cobwebs of history, consider the entry about character education which appeared recently on the California State Department of Education web site.

The word "character" is derived from the Greek word "to mark" or "to engrave" and is associated with the writings of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. People with good character habitually display good behavior, and such habits are embedded, or marked, on a person. While there may be no specific consensus on a list of desirable traits, there is considerable agreement on desirable moral values that underlie these traits.

Throughout history thoughtful philosophers and educators have been concerned about the cultivation of character traits and virtues such as honesty, courage, perseverance, loyalty, caring, civic virtue, justice, respect and responsibility, and trustworthiness. The consensus is that these traits (and others like them) are not innate and must be acquired through teaching and practice in the home and in the schools. Traits, or virtues, must be transmitted to be internalized. Children learning these lessons, however, should not behave solely based on a set of principles or rules, but rather they must learn to behave with understanding. It is an important function for educators, therefore, to help form children into adults who behave well, who demonstrate good "external conduct," and who understand why that sort of behavior is important.

There is something frighteningly reminiscent about attempting to "form children into adults who behave well." And also, not unlike the Nazi school, it seems that, the preferred pedagogy here is to "teach" these virtues through repetitive propaganda-like techniques until they are "cultivated", "internalized" and "habitual."

It is abundantly clear, at least to me, that because of its natural relativism this virtues system will serve any master, and that its skill building drill strategy is antithetical to any truly analytical or thinking skill curriculum. It is not enough to say that these virtues will promote only the noble ends of freedom, democracy and human dignity. This type of conditioning is the wrong way to approach ethics education in our schools. It will deaden, not awaken the moral sense, which after all must be based on free choice derived from an internal authority, itself rooted in essential human nature and guided by the ability to think critically about the delicate ethical dilemmas of the day. Martin Luther not withstanding, there is no safe short cut way. Ethics is not about virtues, it’s about actions.

 Then What?

All of my questions about teaching ethics, as well as the paucity of answers, have emerged from the challenges of classroom discussion. Beginning with a provocative question intended to engage as many minds as possible, I asked: "do you have any absolute obligation to others? Is there any scenario in which you must do good for at least one other person under at least some circumstances?" My students, nearly universally, said no! They did not recognize any responsibility to others of an absolute nature. So, I challenged them with increasingly more severe hypotheticals, probing for bottom: "you came upon a drowning man, a friend, a drowning child, your brother." Nothing penetrated the conviction that they were free spirits unfettered by any duty. They would, of course, rescue a friend and certainly a child or a sibling, while making it clear all the while that it would only be done out of love and not duty. They would do it because they wanted to, not because they had to.

It was not until I used the extreme example of a mother's obligation to her infant child that this attitude changed. A mother had to act on behalf of her child. They all agreed. No caveats this time. There was something about the mother/child relationship that riveted their conviction. It was clear to me that the words were now only window dressing for an already accepted conclusion. Because of this experience, and many others like it, I concluded that ethics was innate and that there was indeed a moral sense. I began to become increasingly convinced, but not in a cynical way, that the reasons people give for making moral decisions were really rationales, and that the complex and carefully crafted normative ethical systems of the great philosophies and religions must ultimately be about essential, innate and instinctive behavioral imperatives. And, if they are, there should be universality and simplicity about them. Yet, in reality, there seems to be nothing simple about ethical philosophy, as any student of the subject will readily attest. I was trapped between a necessary normative ethics that may be incomprehensible and unteachable, and the propaganda technique of so-called virtue ethics, which, while simple and effective, is too prone to a dangerous relativism to be encouraged. I was both convinced that ethics by nature requires rules and that the rule based ramblings of the philosophers both old and new are too abstract to be generally useful, or to be effectively incorporated into typical, history based, secondary school curriculums.

But did this have to be so? Are the ethical systems that have emerged from centuries of human contemplation really that abstruse, and if they are, why are they? Is it as is generally supposed, because ethical ideas are so abstract and difficult as to require the most exacting linguistic efforts to render them accurately? I rejected this as contradictory to my earlier conclusion that basic ethical principles were innate and would therefore follow the principle of parsimony, which holds that the simpler answer is the better answer. The labyrinthine nature of ethical philosophy then could easily be the result of big brains confusing an otherwise simple issue, hardly a novel notion, and, it seemed to me, one worth pursuing, even if that pursuit led down a very old path.

After many years of trying to effectively teach a kind of forensic ethics through rules and reasons in a secondary school social studies program, and in the process exploring all of the typical moral dilemmas, discussion and Socratic seminar techniques, I revised my thinking about the nature of ethics itself. It wasn’t intellectual and divisive at all, but rather intuitive and inclusive. The idea that "doing the right thing" might somehow also be innate and instinctual was not new, but certainly neglected or at least overlooked in the glorification of reason that emerged from the Enlightenment and elevated the opinions of a Kant or a Spinoza over the countervailing and perhaps more enlightened observations of a David Hume or an Adam Smith. I wondered what modern science had to say about an ethical sense?

Many contemporary primatologists would agree that moral philosophies may be little more than rationalizations. We may well be endowed with an inner sense of what is right and wrong and the addictive capacity to construct elaborate linguistic edifices to support these predispositions, or to spin reasons for disregarding them. This may well have been the birth of the ethical treatise of which we have culturally become so fond. Indeed, the study of right and wrong as played out among animals and especially among primates has yielded valuable insights about the origins of our own, perhaps not so uniquely human, ethics.

Recent studies have consistently shown that dolphins and other marine mammals, chimpanzees, apes, bonobos, monkeys and even dogs possess a moral sense, and display many of the behaviors considered basic to most normative human ethical systems. Equality, reciprocity, even altruism, have been detected and recorded among animals, as well as treachery, deceit and manipulation. In fact, a kind of "what goes around comes around" golden rule is fundamental to the social relationships of most primates. Fascinating research has been done to show that the social instinct may also be rooted in our genes as is the urge for freedom and self-interest. In the search for assumptions about the true nature of man I believe Aristotle and Hitler both had it wrong. It seems more likely now than not, that man is both driven by innate genetic forces and is capable of making thoughtful assessments of what is happening.

Our biological heritage seems to predispose us to certain ethical standards. According to ethologist Frans de Waal: "the mind does not start out as a tabula rasa, but rather as a check list with spaces allotted to particular types of incoming information." This, in fact, is the proposition I plan to promote in this book, that ethical thought, as expressed by the great minds of the past is really no more than a rationale, however sophisticated it may appear, for an already cemented genetic ethical sense. And further, that it is fundamentally very simple and fully consistent with the social behavior of primates and other social animals in which we have seen the existence of both individualism and communalism.

Small wonder that the pets most loved by humans are cats and dogs, and precisely because each appeals to one of these two conflicting sides of human nature. The dog is loved for selfless loyalty and the cat for precisely the opposite reason. The selfish individualism of our earliest and most independent past and the value of group life and finally of civilization itself are both deeply ingrained in us. These are the two natural sides of every human being, and finding the balance between them is basic to all ethical thinking. The evolved predisposition to act selfishly on the one hand and a selflessly on the other, while constantly seeking reasons to convince others of the rightness of our actions, is the ethical nature of man.