I accept all Hugh’s four arguments. With possibly the exception of his fourth. Of course moral philosophy has added to our knowledge and comprehension of ethical behaviour. There will not be a teacher of ethics in any of the disciplines and professions across a university or college who has not read Plato or Aristotle, nor the many books on ethics put out by today’s moral philosophers. He or she will have engaged in a struggle, often desperate, to come to grips with what is to act ethically, what is wrongdoing, how do they stop it, and finally can they – and if so how – teach these concerns in a course? The consultant or newly appointed ethics officer in the workforce will of necessity have examined the same sources, read many of the same books. And just as desperately wonder how to implement these principles in his or her organisation.
It will have been a time of much learning. Teachers of engineering, medicine, pharmacy, business, social work, etc., newly volunteering to teach the ethics course in their disciplines, or ethics officers in the workforce, will have much to learn. It will be a time of great fulfilment. Even enjoyment. They will nevertheless face problems. Taking the four benefits of philosophy that Hugh raises:
To obtain the first benefit, they will necessarily have read the moral theories. They may not come to the conclusion that Hugh puts forward: that “moral philosophy can be important (by) …forcing practitioners to face up …to universal principles of proper conduct”. The newly appointed ethics lecturer or consultant will learn that there are no universally agreed principles of moral conduct. The arguments that he referred to, started by Plato and Aristotle, are still on-going. Two thousand three hundred years later we still not have agreed on the difference between right and wrong. We are still arguing. Richard Joyce, a well published philosopher, is one among many who portrays a negative picture: The theories are plentiful, the convolutions byzantine, the infighting bitter, the spilt ink copious, and the progress astoundingly unimpressive” (Philosophy Today , 2011).
Our ethics specialist then has a massive problem in deciding what they say in class or in the workplace. They have a choice from multiple ethical theories (fifteen according to one of Peter Singer’s books). In essence, however, there are three major theories – deontology, utilitarianism and virtue. Each has multiple versions, and each is being still argued. The arguments, according to an article in the same Singer book, are described as “internecine warfare”.
His second benefit is clearly a benefit. Let us assume that you, the reader, are the newly appointed lecturer or ethics officer. You will come to a conclusion on each of Hugh’s points:
cultural relativism: the view that morality is just whatever the local culture says it is,
psychological egoism: the idea that people only do whatever they think will make them happy, and;
religious necessity: the view that the only reason people can genuinely be moral is if they believe in God.
You may reach a position on all three of Hugh’s assertions. You might become, as I have become, an absolutist, the opposite of a relativist. I believe there is a right and a wrong in every human situation, no matter how ethically complex. But if you do reach a conclusion, you will realise that your conclusions will still be subject to dispute. Hugh states: “I acknowledge there is much that may be said in favour of versions of each of them”. His statement is true. There are many current arguments against my absolutist position. If you read Plato’s Euthyphro, you will realise that some of these issues have been argued for a very long time, and are still argued today. “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”
Hugh’s third position is that moral philosophy, and in particular ethical argument, can change behaviour. I have no disagreement. My position is that moral philosophers do not go far enough – they stop short, even exclude, many activities that can strengthen ethical behaviour. For example, each of the seven areas set out in my original article, if adopted, will strengthen ethical behaviour. Yet none of these practices, with a few exceptions, is taught in the schools of moral philosophy around the world, or set out in the major publications on ethics written by philosophers.
We come to Hugh’s fourth point, the “unwarranted distinction between argument and empirical evidence”. To this writer, the fourth is the same issue as the fifth point: “about philosophical disputations”.
The first statement to make is that five of the concerns I have listed in the original article are based on empirical evidence. There is research that tells us these practices work. If promoted in ethics courses in our colleges and by ethical programs in our places of employment, they would bring about strengthened ethical behaviour. Irregular – but still improvement. Yet they are not endorsed by the vast majority of moral philosophers. Why not? I can only give a speculative answer– that philosophers have been educated with a preference for argument, and these findings are the result of applied research, that for the most part, comes from other disciplines.
Several philosophers (e.g. LeBlanc 1998; Vaughn 2008) assert that the philosophical position is to use argument as a basis for thinking critically. However:
Philosophical argument ignores a number of practices in other disciplines that can generate creative, forward looking thinking – the type of thinking that answers the question of what should we do? Principal among these is quantitative evaluation techniques, including rigorous methods such as statistical analysis. Philosophical argument also ignores approaches used to generate creativity in thinking, as well as techniques such as decision trees and influence diagrams used to assess the impact of adopting different courses of action.
Argument generates criticism. Almost by definition it requires a ‘for’ and an ‘against’ if an argument is to occur. As a method of thinking, it does not generate building on what has gone before. Arguments occur to destroy, or at least contradict, what has been developed so far. These pages, for instance, are an argument.
Argument based critical thinking relies on inductive and deductive reasoning. In the long run, both types of thinking come down to observation – to empiricism. Strong empirical capabilities will generate strong arguments, but, I assert, empirical research is not a philosophical virtue. This may be the reason why philosophers have been arguing with each other for over 2000 years.
Ultimately, moral philosophy is a discipline which, although it assures us that it is the mother of ethical theory and practice, does not teach a full set of approaches to strengthening ethical behaviour, nor undertake the research necessary to assess and improve developments already underway.
On reflection, I now believe that it is the student of ethics in our schools of moral philosophy who is the bigger loser. Teachers and practitioners in ethics can search out these new developments themselves (although with some difficulty). Students, however, take ethics courses. Many, one suspects, hope to work at extending ethical practices as widely as possible throughout our communities. Instead, they have been given an incomplete knowledge of developments and capabilities in ethics work in government or the private sector. They have been turned out – for only a few – with the capacity to on-teach what they have learned so far. And that learning is circumscribed. It is also of limited value in the work day world.