Reason In Ethics

One of the most common questions when it comes to ethical disputes is “Who’s to say?” This question reveals the skepticism so many of us experience when it comes to ethics, the conviction that it is really all just a matter of opinion. I have argued in previous posts that it is a good deal more than that, that ethical disputes are capable of resolution, there is a “right” and a “wrong” answer in ethics — if we can only find it. In the end, my claim rests on the notion that some arguments that support ethical conclusions are reasonable and others are not. But, one might say, who’s to say what is “reasonable”? To the goons who took over a federal park in Oregon their behavior is quite reasonable; to the rest of the world (excepting other goons) it is unreasonable, if not criminal. But, then, am I rejecting everyone who disagrees with me with a sweep of the hand as “goons”? Let’s take a look. I might say at the outset, however, that to jettison reason in ethics means that the only way to reject, say, Fascism is with the pathetic cry, “that’s just not the way we do things here in our neck of the woods.” This is absurd on its face.

A reasonable conclusion to an ethical argument resembles reasonable conclusions in any other field of inquiry: there is something stubborn about a reasonable conclusion that is absent in an unreasonable argument. But, who’s to say it’s “stubborn”? Isn’t this a matter of opinion as well? Not entirely, though subjective feelings certainly enter in. But a stubborn argument is one that is regarded as stubborn not only by the one advancing it but also by a neutral person who might be standing by. The British philosophers liked to talk about “the man  in the Clapham omnibus,” but since we are not British and we have no idea what the Clapham omnibus might be, this bears no weight whatever. American philosophers like to talk about “the man in the street,” but we now know that this is sexist and heaven knows we want to avoid sexism at all costs. So what’s left? I suggest that what is left is a jury of your peers.

What this means is that an ethical argument, like any other argument, can be tested for soundness (stubbornness) by asking whether a jury of our peers would be persuaded by that argument. For example, if I make the claim that discrimination is wrong and base it on the factual evidence that shows how discrimination renders the working place unfair to women — because we know about the “glass ceiling,” or that the average wage of the woman in the working place is so much lower than it is for the average male, etc. — and then if I add that this disparity violates the ethical principle of fairness, then I have put together a rather strong argument, one that is reasonable and can stand up to scrutiny by a neutral panel of my peers. But, someone might object, the so-called principle of fairness is itself subjective. I think not, and the case can be made by simply asking one who raises this question if he would regard it as fair if he were paid the same wage as the average woman doing the same job. Is it fair that two people doing the same work be paid differently? In other words, putting the shoe on the other foot engages the imagination of those who argue and makes the “stubbornness” of the argument apparent. In all honesty one cannot insist that he would in fact accept the same wage as another person who was paid less — unless he is perverse and simply wanted to argue for argument’s sake.

Ethical arguments involve ethical principles at some point, and there may be various ways to understand those principles. But the principle of fairness is fairly straightforward: just ask a 6-year-old child if it is fair that he (or she) be given a smaller piece of birthday cake than the child next to him (or her). It’s that simple. And another fundamental ethical principle is the principle of respect for persons. This principle is incorporated in the so-called “Golden Rule” and simply requires that we acknowledge that all persons ought to be treated with respect, ourselves included. It’s what we want and therefore what we can imagine everyone else wants as well. These two principles form the warp and woof of every major religion on earth and our collective social consciousness as well.

Thus, the notion of “reasonableness” in ethics is a notion that has weight. Arguments that are reasonable are ones that we ought to agree with whether we want to or not, even if it is terribly inconvenient. Thus, it is highly doubtful that those who insist that their stand in the federal park in Oregon was morally justifiable could put together an argument that is reasonable, that will stand up to the scrutiny of a jury of their peers. I dare say that will soon become apparent.


7 thoughts on “Reason In Ethics

  1. Hugh, I like to find the contradictions in arguments. For me, one cannot say I support the constitution, then ignore it when it does not suit one’s needs. Or, say I am a Christian, but then ignore the WWJD mantra. Or, say only good guys who have guns can stop the bad guys with guns, when the key question is “how do you know the difference?”

    To me,ethics requires being consistent to one’s value system, but it can be tested as the answer may be subtle and not concrete. I guess if we endeavor to do the right thing, then we find what we did may not have been such, we should at least know why we decided to do it and learn from the experience.

    I am rambling, so please forgive. I love when you raise topics like this, Keith

    • How about the contradiction between those who claim to be “pro-life” but who strongly support both war and capital punishment? Consistency is not enough in itself, I would say. Hitler was consistent as are most zealots. One must decide what principles are worth defending and then do so consistently. It all comes down to what principles really matter.

      • On the pro-life label, that contradiction is reason why most newspapers (and most sensible people!) use “anti-abortion groups,” etc. Because it’s so often — written into party and candidates, for instance — that people will indeed be anti-abortion and pro-death-penalty. As well as favoring cutting off early childhood education funds, children nutrition programs, etc. If you want those kids to come into the world, they need to be taken care of. That’s part of being “pro-life,” it would seem.

        I agree with Keith, too, on the need to be consistent with one’s principles — not picking and choosing pieces of the Constitution, Bible or similar works to suit one’s needs.

      • Agreed. My old party is the pro-birth party, as there is a huge difference as Dana notes below. Stances against environmental actions, healthcare insurance access, more gun control do not equate with pro-life.

        You are right that it is easy being consistent when your are zealous.

      • Well said, both of you. A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of tiny minds, as Emerson said. But to be consistent once you have decided what principles (such as respect for human life) are important is essential to being “reasonable.”

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