The Problem of Ethics

Philosophy students are taught that ethics comes in two flavours: deontological and utilitarian. The main proponent of deontological ethics, Immanuel Kant, argued that ethics could be broken into one rule (which he claimed, with dubious theological implications, was really three rules, but leave it be for a moment): treat others as ends in themselves, not means to an end. He thought some principles could not justifiably be compromised, no matter what. Utilitarian thought argued that principles were only worthwhile insofar as they contributed to the general wellbeing of everybody, and if they didn’t they deserved to be scrapped. Should you kill one person in order to save five? Kant says of course not; utilitarians say of course you should.

On both these models of ethics, our life can be viewed as a series of discrete choices: ethical dilemmas of varying difficulty. We proceed happily along until we are brought up short by some decision, we apply our ethical framework to that decision and continue on our merry way until the next one. The problem for us is to find the ethical algorithm that best matches our intuitions.

But here we run into a problem. While philosophers might be nodding along (or nodding off in boredom), non-philosophers will be confused. “Well, maybe,” they might say. “Does life really work like that? Most days I don’t have the experience of making an ethical choice at all – I simply do things!” In short, the model of a series of ethical dilemmas does not accurately describe day-to-day life.

Utilitarians and deontologists know this, to an extent. Utilitarians propose ‘rules of thumb’ to help the right decision become intuitive. The problem is that nobody in real life consults a list of rules when making moment to moment decisions. In fact, nobody really does make moment-to-moment decisions: mostly we just react. If we make a decision at all, it is to imagine and model ourselves after the kind of person we want to be like. You might quibble with the ethical proscription “what would Jesus do?”, but it is a damn side easier to apply than “act so as to satisfy the most preferences of the most people, all things considered”. Moreover, acting on the basis of rules and laws naturally strikes us as a cold and heartless way to live. It seems our ethics should be motivated by a deep well of concern for ourselves and others, not the other way around.

This is not a criticism of philosophy. In fact, philosophers have known about this problem forever. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both mount devastating critiques of rule-based and decision-based ethics. Michael Stocker’s 1976 paper “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories” makes much the same point. The author and philosopher George Eliot continually criticized what she called the “man of morals”. This piece from Aeon magazine argues that the needless barrenness of modern ethics is a strong reason why people choose religious ethics instead.

So why has ethics gone down this route? And what other types of ethics exist? I’ll be writing about that soon.


3 thoughts on “The Problem of Ethics

  1. Pingback: Ethics | kylebrooksblog

  2. Pingback: So What Happened to Ethics? | kierkeguardians

  3. Pingback: Virtue Ethics | kierkeguardians

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