Chapter 25 Learning Objectives

Upon reading this chapter, the student should be able to:

  • Define what ethical terms means
  • Discuss the decision procedure should be for determining right and wrong, particularly the roles of logic and of moral sensitivity.
  • Argue that ethics is objective even when there is disagreement about what is right or wrong because disagreement does not imply subjectivity.
  • Explain the nature of personal responsibility.
  • Distinguishing who is to say what is right or wrong.
  • Describe the role of intention in making ethical judgments.

Watch this video or scan the QR code to see learn more about metaethics.

About the Subject of Ethics

This and the next chapter are meant to serve as an introduction to ethics, particularly for those who have never had a good course in it. I believe it is important to have such a section because too many people do not realize what tremendous progress has been made in reflective ethical thought; and they then virtually begin from scratch in their ethical reflections and therefore too often reason from principles which, unknown to them, have been modified, refined, or disproved and abandoned through intense scrutiny and criticism over time. This section is not meant to be a complete summary of the history of ethics, but it is meant to be a readable and understandable introduction to many of those historically important methods, ideas, and principles that have modern relevance. I believe they will most accurately and readily help you resolve, with reasonable people, most of the kinds of ethical questions, issues, and disagreements that arise today, especially those in everyday life and in relationships.

I think being able to figure out proper values and correct or reasonable moral principles requires certain kinds of moral sensitivity and certain kinds of reasoning or logical ability as well as general knowledge of the physical world. (Knowledge of the physical world is important in order to fully understand about acts and their consequences, which is important, in many cases, in order to know what is right. And it is important for you to be able to accomplish what your principles tell you is right. Principles without knowledge can be misguided or lead to foolhardiness.) I think most people have these traits in various degrees and that each kind of trait can be cultivated and improved with the proper guidance. Unfortunately, such guidance is not always available, and therefore many people are left on their own to develop ethical values and principles. This they do to the extent of their own needs, experiences, abilities, and intellectual interests, but it is a very inefficient (and sometimes impossible) way of learning ethics, just as it would be a very inefficient (and sometimes impossible) way of learning anything.

The sensitivity required for being able to discover and appreciate sound moral values and principles includes being able to understand your own feelings, desires, and needs, and being able to understand those of other people; it includes being able to empathize and sympathize with others, having compassion and kindness, and having some reasonable sense of fairness about how to divide benefits and burdens in a given situation. The necessary logical ability includes being able to see the simpler components (if any) of complex problems, situations, and disputes; it includes being able to see, or to appreciate, the logical consequences and ramifications of ethical principles in order to decide their merit and/or their limits; it includes being able to see the relevant moral aspects of different situations in order to know which principles ought to apply to them, and being able to see the relevant similarities and relevant differences among different, often complex, situations in order to make certain that moral inconsistencies can be seen and reasonably remedied.

My discussion of ethics will primarily focus on its logical aspects. Sensitivity is usually better developed by actual life experiences with others who have feelings they meaningfully display to us (even with pet animals, as well as with other people) and by the kinds of literary and dramatic depictions that vividly portray such feelings. For example, I think some ethical sensitivity is being developed or cultivated in a child when a parent explains that petting the family dog hard (smacking rather than petting — the way kids usually do the first time) will hurt the dog, and “you don’t want to hurt him do you; so just pet him gently like this, and it will feel good to him. See how he loves that!” I saw on the national news one time that one prison system was trying to rehabilitate hardened, vicious criminals by giving them pet parrots to train and keep. The idea was that they would learn to care for the feelings of others by developing caring feelings for their pet. I do not know how that experiment turned out, but my suspicion was that it would help these people develop sensitive feelings for their parrots, but that they would probably kill anyone who touched their bird or said something derogatory about it. (I suspect sensitivity toward other species and toward other people or groups generally needs to be cultivated in a number of different specific situations before it becomes more generally felt, but that is just a hunch on my part; and I am sure it is not true for everyone — some children seem very naturally sensitive toward all people and animals.) Regarding the potential moral sensitivity value of literature and drama, most people have seen some work or other that changed the way they thought about a certain “kind” of person or group of people. I vividly remember my sister just bawling her eyes out as a child at the shabby treatment and heartfelt tears of the ugly duckling before it turned into a swan in Walt Disney’s cartoon. I think that cartoon made an impression on her at a time and in a way that gave (or brought out in) her a special sensitivity toward unpopular or oppressed animals and people. In this section on ethics, however, I will not so much be trying to cultivate moral sensitivity as I will be presupposing it and trying to show how to rationally and rightfully refine, utilize, and channel it.

Though without modern paraphrasing or the added inclusion of more modern examples, much of Plato’s works or particular points seem difficult to comprehend. Many of his dialogues I think show the right way to conduct ethics discussions and ethics education — one-to-one or in small groups, questioning the remarks you do not understand or agree with, explaining what needs to be explained, and objectively or logically showing and following the consequences of each other’s ideas to see whether those ideas hold up or whether they lead either to logical absurdities or to morally unpalatable conclusions you do not want to maintain.

Of course, one often meets people, like some of the people in Plato’s dialogues, who will only stick with such an endeavor for a short time, if at all, or until they see their opinions will not hold up. They take that as a personal affront and find some excuse to terminate the conversation. As portrayed by Plato, however, Socrates was quite willing to be shown new ideas and was not intimidated by the potential of having a belief shown to be false. He could then replace it with the new belief, or simply at least be shown he did not know the answer after all, even if no new answer could replace his previous erroneous one. As he states in the Apology, he believed it better to know your ignorance on a matter than to believe some false or wild answer.

I think much could be learned by using this method of dialogue with others, though it is sometimes difficult to see the consequences of some positions, know alternative positions, or be able to discover the convincing arguments that show where mistakes are being made. And, of course, many people do not really want to pursue the truth or take the time and effort to do it, but just want to state, or to try to convince you, of their opinions. But if you do find someone willing to pursue ideas and truth, there really is, in a sense, no time limit on that pursuit though there may be limitations of time, energy, concentration, or creativity in any particular discussion period. Some topics need to be continued when these resources can be replenished. In dialogues by the philosopher George Berkeley, one of the characters is unconvinced by the other yet does not know how to respond, so he asks for a day to think about it. This happens to him twice, so the dialogues supposedly take place over a three day period. A couple of times I have resumed a discussion after a year’s time when a new idea about an old conversation suddenly crept up on me. One time I even called up a student a year after the course I taught him was over; I had figured out some new reasons to try to show him why some point he held in disagreement with me on one topic was wrong. He still was not convinced; but he was very surprised. In teaching philosophy classes, there were a number of times overnight reflection on a point a student had raised led me to a better or amended answer the next class period. One day in particular, I was so amazed and baffled that virtually my whole class held, as we began to study ethics, a version of a principle no person I had ever met had actually preached, a principle known in the literature as ethical egoism — that (according to my students’ version) it was right to do anything you wanted to any time you wanted to, since that was what people did anyway, and since it was the honest thing to do — that I could not really think of anything to say which they could appreciate before the class period mercifully ended. I had already asked about things like whether they thought it was all right to break a date, even for a prom, as the fellow drove up in a rented car and rented tuxedo with his expensive corsage in hand, just because you had changed your mind and didn’t feel like going. They said, sure, that would be the honest thing to do; better do that than fake the evening or put energy into trying to psych yourself up for something your heart was not already in. “What about murdering someone else?” “They can try to stop you; and with the possibility of punishment, it would be stupid to murder someone anyway….” Hence, they thought murder was only wrong because it would not really be in the murderer’s self- interest. They had become wedded to their principle and were not about to let counter-examples like that talk them out of it.

That night, a possibly mightier demonstration occurred to me. Maybe their own bad grades would disturb them more than someone else’s hypothetical murder. The next class period, I falsely announced, with feigned anger, that since they were obviously not paying careful attention in the course, keeping up with the reading, or being serious in class, I was revoking my promise at the beginning of the term (12 weeks earlier) that there would be no written exams in the course, and I told them they would have a comprehensive two part exam on Monday and Tuesday covering everything in the course. This gave them four days, including the weekend (homecoming weekend by the way) to study. I expected an uproar, but instead they became very passive and only asked which areas would be covered on which days. I told them they were responsible for everything already and that I would not give them any strategy hints. Finally, I had to pry out of them that this was a terrible thing for me to do, that I was a real jerk for doing it, and that it was terribly wrong.

I agreed it was wrong and told them I really was not going to do it and that they could relax since there would be no such exam. That really set them off, not because there was not going to be an exam, but because for nearly an hour I had scared them to death about how terrible it was going to be. They asked why I had done it. I reminded them of their supposed supreme ethical principle, that it was right for anyone, and therefore for me, to do anything they (I) wanted to; and that if they thought that, they had to think it was right for me to give such an exam at such a time; and if they thought it was right for me to do it, they couldn’t really hold that if I did it I was being a terrible person or doing an undeservedly rotten thing. A call for a show of hands about how many still wanted to hold the principle showed that all but two of them then immediately abandoned that principle as demonstrably disproved. I hoped future classroom consideration of alternative principles might persuade the two diehards to later reconsider.

Introductory Remarks About Ethics

Before discussing actual ethical principles and values, I want to deal with some issues that concern ethics and which, when not understood, too often plague, disrupt, and retard ethical inquiry or debate over principles and values. In the remainder of this chapter, I want to try to (1) show that ethics is objective; (2) show how it should be done properly; (3) show that we understand what ethical words like good, bad, right, and wrong mean, though there might be some ambiguities and nuances we need to be careful about with some ethical terms and concepts; (4) show what it means to be responsible for an action; and (5) show that people are, in fact, generally responsible for their actions — perhaps more often than they think or would accept, and certainly more than some psychiatrists and defense attorneys might argue.

First, I want to comment on the objectivity versus the subjectivity or relativity of ethics — the question of whether ethics is just a matter of taste or opinion (subjectivity) or whether there are correct or true answers to whether a given act is right or wrong, regardless of what anyone or everyone might believe about it (objectivity).

I believe that ethical judgments are objective rather than subjective or rather than just matters of relative tastes. The reasons I believe this are the following:

(1) If ethics were subjective, one would not have to search for ethical standards or ethical principles; one could simply dream up the easiest or most pleasant ones to follow, if any. Since there is nothing to discover but your own tastes, why have or develop tastes that make it hard on you?

If you find yourself with a principle that causes you some anguish about how you should act, find a principle that doesn’t. But this is not the way one goes about trying to figure out what is right or wrong.

(2)If ethics were not objective, there would be no reason to ever dispute; it would be like disputing about what the best-tasting vegetable or favorite color is, or ought to be. There would be no reason to say some acts were deplorable or dreadful, that some people were despicable — one would only need to say he did not like those acts or people very much, like one might say he cannot stand the taste of eggs. Such statements would really be more about one’s self than they would be about eggs, acts, or other people. If ethics were subjective, then if someone were to aim a gun at your child and start to squeeze the trigger, you might as well say, “I won’t like that, but if you would like to shoot, go ahead; I cannot say on any objective grounds that that would be wrong.”

(3)If ethics were subjective, there would be no point in trying to improve situations or conditions in the world, for there is no reason to believe you are. in any sense, improving anything — that is making it better; you may be only making them more suitable to your liking or taste. Others may favor the status quo or some different situations. And there would be no reason to think one person’s taste is any better, any more an improvement, than another’s.

Now to say that ethics is objective is not to say the principles you or I have at any one time are necessarily the right ones, but it is to say that there are some right ones, whether you know what they are or not, or whether anyone knows them or not. This is not unlike mathematics, which is objective: there may be easy problems we can know we have correctly solved, but there may be some cases we are not certain whether we have the right answer, and some we are even certain we haven’t the right answer. Sometimes, we may even feel certain we have the right answer and yet be wrong. But that does not mean there is no right answer, or that any opinion is as good as any other. When you are trying to balance your bank statement or reconcile it with the bank’s figures, you do not just figure any answer is as good as any other, or that the bank’s and your different opinions can both be right, or that it is just a matter of taste. Some theorems and problems in higher mathematics are very difficult to prove or to solve, but that does not mean there are no proofs or solutions to be discovered.

Of course, there may be more than one right thing to do in a given situation (in mathematics there may be more than one correct way of proving a theorem). In a trivial case, under ordinary circumstances it is right to put on either your left shoe or your right shoe first; there is nothing wrong with putting on either first. Less trivially, if you are not feeling well but are not contagious nor in danger of becoming more seriously ill, and you have a friendly date that is not terribly important for either of you, then it may be right either to keep the date or to break it, if you break it properly. Or it may be right to fight a war or to abstain from fighting if the consequences were equally bad one way or the other, though different, and if there were nothing (such as your breaking a peace treaty) other than consequences to consider in making the proper decision. This does not mean that all situations have more than one correct solution or that no solution could be a bad or wrong one. There are many clear cut cases of one act’s being right and its opposite being wrong (clearly it is wrong to torture innocent children simply for the pleasure of the torturer); and the fact that there are some difficult cases to decide, and the fact that there are some cases where many alternatives may be equally justifiable or right, does not alter this.

There are a number of objections to the objectivity of ethics, but these objections are themselves faulty.

1) There is the objection that because different groups or different people behave differently, they have different ethical principles. This is a mistaken conclusion, for it does not follow that because different people behave differently that they have different principles; different people might behave differently while following the same principles, if their circumstances are different. For example, primitive peoples with little food may kill old or ill people who cannot produce and who might make others starve or be less productive if they are cared for, whereas a modern society of plenty may care for its ill and elderly. Yet both may be following a principle of utilitarianism — that is (stated here in an abbreviated form), to do the greatest good for the greatest number. It is just that the different circumstances in each society might make what is best for the greatest number in one not be what is best for the greatest number in the other. The objection that different behavior implies different ethical principles is like saying that people who bet differently in a poker game are following different principles of gambling at poker.

They may not be; they may have hands of widely different value.

2) There is the objection that different people disagree on ethical principles. This is supposed to imply that they can both be right and therefore, ethics is relative. Surely people sometimes do disagree on ethical principles or ethical values. But people sometimes disagree on which horse will win a race, on the occurrence, causes, or significance of different historical events, on the truth of various scientific theories, on whether their checkbooks balance, and on all kinds of other things. Such disagreement, however, does not mean that they are necessarily both right. In some cases of disagreement, both parties may even be wrong. Two people might argue about which baseball player holds a certain record and both might be wrong because a third player altogether may hold the record. When Archie Bunker is wrong or the Nazis were wrong, their blindness to their wrong does not make them right. Just being believed, popular, or even unanimous does not make a wrong position right.

When someone wants to argue about the relativity of ethics based on the differences primitive peoples may have from modern societies, they perhaps also should then argue the relativity of science or technology since primitive peoples often have different notions (if any) of how things work. Much progress has been made in science, engineering, medicine, art. We do not consider people who are ignorant of such advances, whether they lived in the past or live in the present, as knowledgeable as those who are aware of them. Why should we in ethics? Ethics too has made great advances in knowledge. Many are aware of them, even though a great many are not. Students in good introductory ethics courses often, in one term, see their own improvement in making ethical distinctions and decisions.

Ethics is not all that difficult to do, but not all ethical principles are as obvious or simple as they might seem at first. But that is not peculiar to ethics or to supposedly subjective matters. There are many, many things in physics, in probability theory, and in geometry that seem very counterintuitive (even when you know they are true), and which most ordinarily intelligent people would probably bet lots of money against being true, even after they thought about it on their own a while. Not everything that is true is obvious or simple. But many of these things can nevertheless be shown to these people to be true and of significant practical value by various kinds of proofs and/or demonstrations. (Some examples: in a group of 25 or more people, the odds are over 50% two of them will have the same birthday — not necessarily being born in the same year, but on the same day of the year; you can usually make five pat poker hands out of 25 randomly dealt cards; a raw egg dropped from a one or two story window (sometimes higher) into a normally lush (that is, reasonably well-kept) lawn will not break, as long as it lands in the grass itself and not on a rock or bare spot; and, if the earth were smooth (no mountains or hills) and you tied a string tightly around it at the equator and then added a one yard long loop in the string, smoothing out the slack all around so that the string would be evenly raised everywhere off the surface of the earth, the string would end up being six inches off the ground around the entire globe.)

Notice too though, that people agreeing on an ethical principle does not thereby demonstrate the objectivity of ethics. Two people agreeing on the wrong answer in either ethics or when adding a column of numbers does not make that answer right. Two people agreeing that chocolate tastes best to them does not make chocolate the objectively best food.

3) It is sometimes argued that without God or religion, ethics would have no point; and therefore insofar as God or religion is in question, so is ethics. False. As an example, think about the case of avoiding running over a child who runs out into the street in the path of your car. Assume in this case that you easily can avoid the child by, say, slowing down, without any danger of swerving into an innocent bystander, of being fatally rear-ended, or of any such other sort of calamity’s occurring. Then it seems it is right to avoid running over the child— not for God’s sake (though God may be delighted), but simply for the child’s sake. Even the child’s mother may be pleased that you did not run over her child, but that, again, is only a relatively small reason or a secondary reason for not hitting it. Or suppose you make a promise to someone about some matter. The point of keeping that promise is not for God, but for the sake of the person to whom you made the promise and who is therefore depending on you to keep it.

If children’s lives, keeping one’s word, and experiencing innocent and deserved joys — to name just a few things— have value for people, is that not then “having value”? Why should value “to God” be the only or most important value?”

I think that morality would be independent of an existent God anyway. One minister I talked with one time said he thought God could do anything He wanted to since the world was His creation and He could then treat it however He saw fit. Maybe He can,but that does not mean He should any more than a parent should do anything he wants with his child, even though he might be able to. One time I came across an adolescent boy mistreating a cat, and when I told him he shouldn’t do that, his reply was that it was his cat and he could rightfully do anything to it he wanted. On the contrary, since it was his cat, he may have had even more responsibility for its well-being than a stranger would. At any rate, he did not have any less. After some discussion involving such logic (and incidentally in this case, also my mention of possibly calling the police, since logic was not this kid’s strongest talent), we came to an agreement about how he might better understand his obligation to his cat. In the Bible, Job was right in questioning the correctness of God’s actions toward him, though, of course he never questioned that God had the power to perform those actions. Smite does not make right.

The biblical story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac at God’s command is always held up as a shining example of trust and faithful obedience. But shouldn’t Abraham have protested to God about His directive, if not for his own feelings about Isaac, at least for the sake of Isaac and for the sake of his beloved Sarah who surely treasured Isaac. Had Abraham actually sacrificed Isaac, as Agamemnon sacrificed his eldest daughter Iphigenia to the Greek God Artemis, would we so highly regard his faithfulness and his loyal obedience to God? And would we have said it was right to do just because God commanded it? I doubt it.

A popular anti-Vietnam war slogan was “Kill a commie for Christ”. Its taunting purpose was to challenge the naive holding of the idea espoused by some that it was one’s duty as a Christian to participate in the war. The unchristian or un-Christlike sounding taunt was to make people reconsider that claim by making it seem prima facie correct that either Christianity should not condone such a war or that there was something wrong with Christianity if it did.

4) Relativists point out that people always think their own moral principles are the best ones. That is generally true; why else would they have them; why would they have ones they think are not the best! The relativist simply has things backwards if he means to imply that people think their moral principles are the best simply because they have them. Rather, they have them because they think they are the best and think they are correct and true. People do not think the principles are right because they are theirs; they are theirs because they think they are right. Now admittedly, some people do not have very good reasons, though they think they do, for believing their moral principles are the best ones, but nonetheless, they usually would point to some reason or other for thinking they are right and not just think they are right because that is what they happen to believe.

5) Some recent types of relativists, called emotivists, think that ethical judgments or statements are simply expressions of emotion (like saying, “yuck”, “phooey”, or “hooray”, only disguised in the more sophisticated form of statements and paragraphs talking about duties, rights, benefits, saints, etc.). Such expressions would then be neither true nor false, logical nor illogical, correct nor incorrect, probable nor improbable. They would not even be about actions or external values, but only would be a display of our own feelings. Saying something is a very good thing or that a man is a very good man or performed the right act is only the same thing, on their view, as enthusiastically applauding the thing, man, or act. Or it is like licking your lips and salivating over some food that you really like.

Now it may be that ethical judgments are often accompanied by emotions; but they need not be. And even in cases where they are, it is the judgment that logically precedes the emotion, even if it does not actually occur first. If you come upon the grizzly remains of a murder, you may feel revulsion and pronounce the deed a terrible wrong. But it is the belief that a heinous deed was committed and that such a deed is a terrible thing that makes you feel ill. If you found out you had only stumbled onto a movie set with some sophisticated, realistic “horror” props, you would not be so morally indignant whether you remain as nauseated by the sight or not.

In contrast, you might feel a similar kind of revulsion at seeing someone else eat a harmless food you find absolutely repulsive. But if he is enjoying it, you do not call his eating it wrong. We are able to distinguish our feelings from our ethical judgments, though some sort of feelings may accompany an experience that also occasions a judgment.

And in the case of the murder, one might pronounce it wrong even if he feels no particular revulsion concerning it. Likewise, the murder is wrong once it happens and even before it is discovered (if it is ever discovered) even though there is no revulsion about it before it is discovered. The emotion or lack of emotion, of witnesses or of discoverers, is not what causes the act to be right or wrong. If it were, “happy” pills might make all acts right if we were to take such pills at the sign of the slightest adverse emotion. Or terrible acts would be fine if the perpetrators of evil could better hide the evidence of their deeds so that no one ever discovered foul play and was made uncomfortable by it. But this is absurd. When you say something is wrong or bad, that is different from saying “yuck”, even if you might feel like saying “yuck” as well. And even if you do not. In fact, even when you enthusiastically applaud a performance or a person, it is usually because you believe it was a good performance or because you believe they are a deserving person. Applause may not be a logical statement or something that is true or false, but it is (believed to be) deserved or undeserved. We do not just applaud because we have nothing to do with our hands or because we feel like clapping them together for no reason.

There was an older man interviewed by 60 Minutes who had lost his life savings in a bank-type failure that was, it seems, caused in part by mismanagement and embezzlement of funds. He said they had invited everyone to a meeting at which they were told about losing their money and they were introduced to a psychologist who would help them get over it. The man said, “Young man, I don’t want you to make me feel good about losing all my money; I want you to give me back all my money.” This man recognized that the catastrophe and moral outrage were not about his feelings but about what had happened. His feelings were simply appropriate for what had happened. Changing their feelings would not make morally correct what had been done to the depositors.

6) There are some who hold that ethics is not objective, or as they often say, it is not “absolute” because they point to all the exceptions possible for a rule like “killing is wrong”. They point to cases of self-defense or cases of defending innocent third parties from being murdered, etc. So they say that the principle is not absolute and usually seem to mean something like it is not therefore true. These people, however, confuse objectivity with simplicity. To say that ethics is objective or that ethical judgments can be absolute (I think “true” is a better word than absolute — I am not always really sure what people who keep pointing out that things are not absolute really mean unless it is “true” or “true in all cases”) is not to say that ethical judgments need to be simple or short. Nor is it to hold that they must not take into account relevant circumstances.

To say “killing is wrong” may not be correct, but it is not the only absolute, objective, or true statement one could make about killing. Equally objective or absolute is the statement “killing is wrong except in cases of least necessary violence in self-defense where the defender is an innocent party…, and in cases of…,” where all the exceptions are spelled out in detail. There is no reason we could not in time discover and list all the kinds of cases that might be wrong for one person to kill another. The statement to that effect then would be the absolute, true, definitive, or objectively correct analysis about the morality of killing.

I would like to say a few words here about the necessity of taking into account situations, since some people are appalled by what they consider to a relativist view that what is right depends on who you are talking about and under what circumstances. They think it is unfair to treat different people differently or to let someone off in one situation that you would not let off in another. First, to say morality is situation- dependent is not to say it is relative or subjective unless you mean simply that it is relative to the circumstances. And circumstances are relevant. A doctor who does not give an infected patient the correct antibiotic he needs to survive may be culpable if he has the antibiotic to give but not if, through no fault of his own, it is not available to him. A man may break a date if his help is needed at an automobile accident; he may not justifiably or excusably do so if there is not that or any other situation that would override his obligation to keep appointments. A clergyman is empowered to marry people who have a license; not everyone can do that. Drunks should not drive, but licensed non-drunks may if they do it correctly. Drivers who cause bad accidents should stay at the scene (barring some special circumstances like needing to go for help), but other drivers are not necessarily obligated to do so.

I see no way for there to be ethical principles that do not take into account circumstances any more than I see at this time one medical treatment that would be right for all patients regardless of their illness or complaint. This does not mean that some principles are not more general than others (that is, apply to more kinds of circumstances than others) or that there are not some principles (such as it is always wrong to torture children for fun) that apply to everyone all the time. It just means that what is right in some cases depends specifically on what the circumstances of the case are.

How to tell what is right: The question is often asked how one knows when one has the correct ethical principle or knows which act is right or which person is a good one or not. You use knowledge of the particular case and available options, your reasoning powers, and your ethical sensitivity, insights or intuitions (or whatever you want to call your moral understanding); you talk with other people, and read what you can to find out what others believe about an issue and the reasons they give for thinking their views correct. You analyze the situation and try to compare its relevant features with other situations that appear clear cut. Both logical ability and moral sensitivity are important for being able to do ethics well.

Without some moral sensitivity, even the simplest cases would not make apparent an obvious solution or correct course of action; some people, for example, who assault and/or murder innocent strangers for no reason and with no compunction or regret seem to me to be people who have no sense of morality concerning the value of innocent life at all. Whether one could be developed in them or not, I am not certain. Some quite young children are very sensitive to the pain or sorrow of other people; some are less so. As they mature, some people seem to grow more sensitive to the suffering of others; some, less. And I am not speaking about the amount of knowledge or awareness of other people’s conditions, but of different amounts of concern with the same amount of knowledge or awareness of the conditions — about a change, not so much in their knowledge of other people’s problems, but a change in how much they care about the same kinds of problems they know about. Some people grow more sensitive as they mature; others grow more callous as they age.

Without logic or reasoning ability, more complex cases will not be able to be dissected and analyzed for their relevant similarities to more obvious cases, and to see which principles might best apply to them. Relevantly similar cases may end up incorrectly being treated differently and unequally. Inconsistencies or other unsatisfactory consequences might result from the formation of (complex) principles that are not seen to be incompatible or that generate bad or unsavory consequences.

To decide matters of ethics, you simply do the best you can to state for yourself and others what the reasons or evidence is for your beliefs, reflect on them, get other views, and unless and until you are given reasons to the contrary, you assume the decisions you make are probably right. This may not sound terribly hopeful, but it is not terribly unhopeful either; it is like most other endeavors in life, even many “factual” ones. In few if any areas of life, except in the most obvious of cases, are there guarantees you will always be right when you think you are. You can put your money in the seemingly safest investments only to lose it; you can think your family perceives you one way when instead they think of you in a totally different way; you can swear, after looking, that an intersection is clear of traffic and pull out only to immediately be hit by an oncoming car you never saw; you can arrange to meet someone at a certain time and place only to find out the other person is certain a different time or place was specified; you can follow to the letter a recipe in your kitchen or a formula in your chemistry class and have it not turn out anywhere near how it is supposed to; you can add a column of numbers four times and get four different answers; and you can add it twice and get the same answer both times and yet it could still be the wrong answer. Similarly in ethics. Some ethical insights are more readily obvious than others — it is wrong to torture children or to assault or murder innocent people for your own pleasure. These again are examples to show that at least some moral principles are objective, knowable, and true; and I see no reason to believe other principles might not be equally knowable, objective, and true, though maybe not so obvious.

Related to the question of how you know or decide what is right or wrong is the question often asked by introductory students, “Who is to say what is right or wrong, good or bad?” My answer is that everyone can say it. But that does not make everyone right in their assessments; nor does it mean everyone is even reasonable in their assessments. One has to look at the reasons, not the office or even necessarily the character, of a person to see whether that person’s conclusions seem justified or not. It is what is said, and the argument or evidence for it, not who says it, that is important in assessing its correctness.

In some cases of fact, the same is true. In wartime or shortly thereafter, if you come across an unexploded bomb, mine, or shell, it is not who says it is defused and safe but the evidence they can point to that makes their report more believable. Even an expert, if he has made an error in observation or has been incorrectly briefed or has made some other sort of mistake, could be wrong; and even a novice or laymen could possibly detect the error in conversation with him if enough details could be elicited. Knowing nothing about dentistry, I once asked one dentist to show me how he knew the pain and symptoms I had were being caused by an abscessed tooth. He drew a diagram of what an abscess looks like and showed me the x-ray he had taken. There was not the clear cut similarity to me between his diagram and my x-ray that I had expected. I knew that I was not great at distinguishing things in x-rays, but I was still not terribly convinced he was seeing it right either. I pointed out what I did not see and asked further questions. He recalled the possibility of abscess-like symptoms being the result of sinus infections instead. Since he was planning on a somewhat expensive and irreversible procedure for me and since I was not in pain that I could not endure a while longer, I decided, with his concurrence, to wait a few days to see whether it got worse, and might show up more clearly (to me) in a subsequent x-ray as an abscess would, or not. In that time period, the pain went away altogether.

Consider who is to decide at an intersection when to proceed past a yield sign or when to proceed after stopping at a stop sign, or when to make a legal right turn at a red light. Each driver (and sometimes their passengers who might disagree with them). Does this mean everyone will always make the right, or even a reasonable, choice? No, of course not. Even if there is no ensuing accident, it does not mean one made a correct or reasonable choice; an accident may only have been prevented by the fortunate fast reflexes of an oncoming motorist forced to use his brakes. The driver of the first car may not even be aware how lucky he was. And of course, in ethics, one does not always have such glaring examples as wrecks or their avoidance to help vindicate one’s choices.

One often has to point just to reasons, many of which may not be very graphic or visual. In ethics, proof is not to the eyes, but to the mind. But much of science is also that way too.

Acts, motives, cause, intentions: This is an area, filled with sometimes important ambiguities and pitfalls, which I cannot discuss or clarify completely, but I want to point out some things to be cautious about and watch out for, and I want to point out some ways to avoid confusion.

First, consider: “Mom, I’m not pulling the dog’s tail — I am just holding on to it; the dog is pulling.” “I did not hit him with the baseball; I just threw it close to him and he ducked into it.” “We are not excluding blacks; we are just excluding people who cannot pass this particular test.” “We did not bomb civilian targets; civilian areas were just hit by stray bombs.”

By an act, I mean what a person actually does, though, as these examples show, sometimes that is difficult to describe; by motive, I will mean the reasons which the person consciously has for doing the act; by cause, I mean anything other than reasons the person has that provoke him or her to perform the act; by intention, usually I mean the act that the person intended to do, not his or her motivation nor the consequences of the act, whether expected, desired, or actual. As an example, suppose a tired mother aroused in the middle of the night by a sick child administers the wrong medicine to the child by mistake and actually harms it. Her intention was to give the child the correct medicine; her motivation or reasons were so that the child would get well; her actual act was to give the child the wrong medicine; the cause of that act was (at least in part) her fatigue; the intended consequences were to have the child’s health improve; the actual consequences were to have the child’s health worsen.

The distinctions, however you want to describe or name them, between what I call cause, motivation, intention, and act is important because they help keep us from confusing many of the things we need to distinguish in ethics; and they help keep us from being confused concerning the things we want to say about them. For example, we might want to say of the mother in the above situation that she did the wrong thing, performed the wrong act, an act which had bad consequences, but that she is not a bad person, since she intended to do the right thing and had laudable reasons (or motivation) for her act and it was not her fault she was tired. It is particularly important to distinguish between whether, on the one hand, an act is right or wrong, and whether, on the other hand, the person performing it is good or bad. Good people can do wrong acts, and even in one sense have bad intentions — suppose the mother gave the medicine she intended to give, but that she had misdiagnosed the ailment and mistakenly intended to give the medicine which turned out to be the wrong one. She carried out bad intentions and committed a wrong act but with good motivation. (The word intention is often ambiguous in that sometimes it refers to intended consequences or motives — in which case here then it would be said the mother intended to give the child the medicine that would make it well, but failed in her intention — and sometimes it refers to intended acts, in which case she did give the baby the medicine she intended to.)

In a given context, you have to try to be clear about what is meant. That is not always easy. I got into a hypothetical discussion in my office one time with both a traffic court judge and a policeman about whether a citation and/or conviction was warranted in the following kind of case. To me, it is a paradigm of the kind of traffic violation that does not deserve citation or conviction. The judge got all bogged down in the question of intention. The example concerns the situation you sometimes see where a motorist stops at an intersection or parking lot exit and is waiting for traffic to clear so that he can turn onto the main highway. But while he is looking directly at an oncoming car, approaching from his left in the lane he wants to enter, he pulls out right in front of it without seeing it at all, though he was looking right at it. The driver either never sees the approaching car or he sees it when it is too late to stop or back up. Everyone has seen this sort of thing (a policeman even did it to me one day); the driver’s mouth drops open and his eyes bug out if he sees you and realizes he has somehow really screwed up and is about to get hit broadside if you cannot stop or swerve around him. I am not talking about the kind of case where someone sees the oncoming car and mistakenly thinks he can beat it. I am talking about the case where a driver should have seen a car approaching from not very far away from him while his eyes were looking directly at it, but he does not see it. I claim there is no reason to issue a citation because it is a mistake and some sort of mental aberration. We are not talking about the kind of case where someone is selfishly trying to cut out in front of you and either misjudges the distance or does not care whether you have to slow down, mash your breaks, or swerve, or not. We are discussing the kind of case where someone would never have started out if he really realized what he was doing. The judge said: “You mean you don’t think a citation should be issued if the driver did not intend to do what he did?” My response was that was not an issue here since, in one sense, the driver did what he intended — he pulled out into the highway; it was not as if his foot slipped onto the accelerator by accident. He just did not intend to pull out in front of someone. I do not know exactly how to describe this kind of case in general terms — “inadvertent” perhaps — but trying to describe the driver’s action only as intentional or not intentional does not do justice to the crucial elements of the example.

Or consider the case of a parent or counselor who has good motivations for giving advice that turns out to be the wrong advice — yet still it was the advice the person intended to give; it was not as if he had misspoken or been misunderstood. This is the kind of case where the word intention often is meant to refer to the counselor’s motivation or the consequences he expected or intended to bring about with his advice. Thus, when those consequences do not occur, the intentions may be the kind of proverbial intentions which pave the road to hell, since meaning well does not guaranty one will do well, and since having good motivation or intending and working for good consequences, does not insure good consequences will occur from the act one performs.

Further, our intended acts are not always the acts we actually perform (as with a baseball pitcher who hangs a curve ball or throws a pitch closer to the plate than he intended), and the consequences of our acts are not always the ones we intend expect, or desire, whether our motivations or reasons are good or not.

In short, you should not necessarily infer a person’s intentions or motivation from how his acts, or their consequences turn out, and you should not necessarily infer a person’s character from how his acts or their consequences turn out. Too many people take as a personal attack on their character or their motivation a claim that their acts or intended acts are wrong; and too many people today infer from the fact that a person’s act was wrong that he must have had either bad intentions (referring to either acts or consequences) or bad motives, neither of which may be correct. A person can be incompetent or ignorant or both or one can be simply mistaken about the value of an act or about what its (actual) consequences will be or one can make a mistake or slip in trying to perform the act; one does not have to be bad or malevolent to perform a wrong act. I will argue later that following the “Golden Rule” often leads to wrong acts fathered by good motives.

Another kind of case where it would be a mistake to infer intention from (perceived) action is the following kind. Suppose one parent has been home with the children who have completely messed up the house by dragging out all their toys to play with, etc. Suppose that parent has picked up (and had the children pick up) most of the toys. The other parent may return, and, not knowing how much had been cleaned up already, might accuse the spouse of being lazy and/or not trying to keep the house tidy. There are many situation like this, where one person sees just how much needs to be done, not how much has already been done, and then makes incorrect character judgments about the people involved.

It is also possible, though perhaps more difficult, to try to harm someone or to try to do something that has bad consequences but that instead turns out to be the “right” action, one that has good consequences. Suppose someone futilely tries to assassinate a good world leader but that the attempt cancels the remainder of the leader’s agenda for that day, thereby foiling a much more probably successful assassination attempt by someone else. We might say it was a good thing the first person (the attempting assassin) did what he did.

Although it is sometimes possible to determine the motives of another or to know what his intended acts and intended consequences were, it is usually easier to judge whether the act was right or wrong than it is to judge whether a person or his motives were good or bad. That is because an act and its consequences tend to be more observable or discernable than a person’s motives or state of mind. For the most part, the remainder of this section will deal with the rightness and wrongness of acts rather than the benevolence or malevolence of people or their motives. Trying to discuss with a loved one the rightness or wrongness of one of your or their actions is difficult enough without in addition questioning or knowing motivation or character. Just because someone does something wrong, or believes in some erroneous principle, that does not mean they are lazy, selfish, stupid, evil, or vicious. And determining principles for deciding right and wrong is philosophically difficult enough without also having to determine psychological principles that make discernible and verifiable the mental states of others. In some cases it may be clear what a person’s motivation is, but many cases are not clear. One needs to know all the relevant facts to determine rightness of acts and goodness of character or motivation. Usually that is easier about rightness of acts — since acts and their consequences are more visible than character or motivation.

But sometimes both are difficult to know. I grew up in a quiet residential neighborhood where once in a while a car would speed down the street much too fast. If adults were outside, they usually yelled to the driver to slow down and be more careful — or they might even stop a driver and admonish him or her. One day two cars drove down the narrow street speeding, careening, and playing a kind of tag. No one was able to stop them or slow them down. All the adults were angry at the drivers. A few hours later, however, one of the cars returned and pulled over to explain and apologize. His child had cut its head and was bleeding profusely, and the driver and his wife were trying to rush to the hospital. But the car in front of them was not letting them pass, not understanding the emergency. This driver, who returned, was the one who kept honking his horn and trying to go around the other car. Fortunately the child’s injury was not as serious as it looked and the child was all right. That justifiably gave everyone a different attitude about this driver and about his speeding and “driving like a maniac”.

The Meaning of Ethical Terms Such As Good and Right

I follow somewhat the idea of the philosopher G.E. Moore who argued that you know what the term good means even though you cannot define it in terms simpler than itself. You can point to good men, good motives, good deeds, etc. and perhaps explain that the term is honorific or praising in some way. It is not unlike knowing what a color like “yellow” is; you can point to all kinds of yellow objects and you can point out that yellow is a color, but there is no way to define the term yellow in any terms simpler or more intelligible than itself. To explain color in terms of non-color terms, such as the wavelength of light, will not help a blind person understand what yellow is ,and it will not teach colors to a child. Yellow is something you see; and if you cannot see it, you cannot exactly understand it. Good is one of the basic ideas of morality and one of the basic terms in moral discourse; it cannot be further dissected and defined, and I suspect its moral sense cannot be defined in terms having nothing to do with morality. And just as people without a sense of sight cannot see whether an object is yellow or not, people without any moral sense or sensitivity cannot see for themselves whether acts, people, or motives are good or right.

Now philosophers today tend to use the word right to describe acts; good to describe people or motives. Obviously this is somewhat of a professional convention since in ordinary language we often speak of “good deeds” or say things like “Jones did a good thing yesterday”. The convention is useful though for being able to distinguish, say, between an act’s good consequences and/or its bad consequences on the one hand, and its overall rightness or wrongness on the other. We might be able to say that “such and such an act had some good consequences but it was the wrong thing to do because it had some worse consequences on balance than the other thing that could have been done.” Or, the reverse, that “I know getting a shot at the doctor’s is painful and to that extent is a bad thing, but it is the right thing to do because the amount of good the shot will do overrides the amount of pain or bad involved.” Or, someone might break a promise because he had something better or more enjoyable to do (something that might cause more good than keeping the promise would), yet you might hold that he should have kept the promise anyway, that breaking it was the wrong thing to do, even though more good did result from breaking it. (More about this last sort of case later.)

I depart from Moore in that he thought you could define a right act as one that, on overall balance ,caused the most good or least harm. But this is actually not a definition of right; it is instead a theory about which acts are right and which ones are wrong. The above example regarding promise breaking (and others I will give later) suggests that there are acts which cause more overall good than their alternatives but which are nevertheless wrong acts to do. On Moore’s theory of what right means, this would be a contradiction and not something to have to ponder.

I hold that the word right, like the word good, is basically simple and can be understood, though not further defined. We know the meaning of the words like good or right, though we may have trouble telling whether they should apply to a particular act or person. Just because you cannot tell whether a person is good or not, or his acts right or not, does not mean you do not know what the words mean, just as the difficulty of knowing the colors of the rocks at the deepest parts of the sea does not mean you do not know what colors are. If I were to tell you that eating arsenic or feeding it to the neighbors’ children was right or that rapists were good people, you would surely disagree or at least want to know why I should think such things. I think that shows you know what the words mean and shows that you have some notion about how to apply them. If I said giving or taking arsenic was quebe (a word I just made-up), you would not disagree or demand my reasons for thinking so, but would ask instead what I meant or what I was talking about.

Now, given that you understand the meaning of the word right, we can then define words like ought, should, and obligation, though we do not have to do that because most people understand these words too — and because in a way these definitions are actually less obvious then the words themselves. We can also define words like saintly (supererogatory to philosophers) or phrases like “beyond the call of duty”. An act is a “duty”, “obligatory”, “ought to be done”, or “should be done” if it is right and there is no other (equally) right act available to the agent. Notice, acts that are almost right or almost as right are not actually right — “almost as right” is still wrong, though it may not be as “bad” as some other act that may be more clearly wrong, or that may be worse — that is, have much worse consequences. If there is more than one right act open to an agent, either of them or any of them is permissible without a particular one of them being obligatory, though there is an obligation to do some one of these acts. That is, if the only right acts in a situation are A, B, C, or D, then one must do one of them but the choice of which specifically is not prescribed. An act is “supererogatory” or “saintly” or “beyond the call of duty” if it is a right act but is not one, nor one of a number, that could be called required or obligatory, not one that could be called a duty or moral obligation. Such an act might be one of sacrifice like throwing oneself on a grenade to save one’s friends. It might be one of giving an exceedingly large charitable donation.

Personal Responsibility

This is the final issue I want to deal with before getting into actual ethical principles for determining which acts are right and which are wrong. If people cannot help or control what they do or what they choose to do, it is said they cannot be responsible or held to be responsible for their actions. I want to make it clear that I think people can be responsible for their actions (or for their omissions), and I want to discuss under what circumstances they are and under which they might not be. Knowing ethical principles may be of little use to someone who (in a particular circumstance) cannot follow them anyway, but I think such people or such circumstances are somewhat rarer than some people realize or contend.

Some of the philosophical arguments for free will versus determinism make a good place to begin, for (1) they shed a certain amount of light on the notion of what responsibility is, and (2) they explain a number of the circumstances under which a person could not be (held) responsible for his or her action.

There are two different ways, it is claimed, that people might not be responsible for their actions: (1) if what they do is the result simply of some chance, totally unexpected, unwilled, random, unexplainable, or unpredictable occurrence that takes place accidentally in their mind or body — perhaps like cases of hitting a short putt too hard even though you know better and in some sense do not really mean to do it, but seem unable to help it; or like having some sort of seizure over which you have no control. People would also not be responsible if (2) their behavior were the result solely of a chain of causes or forces and interaction of events (both outside the body and inside the brain, sense organs, nerves, and “sinews”) that led inexorably to every choice made and to every action’s results. If an act or choice is the result solely of forces over which we had no control to begin with, then we are not responsible for that act or choice, any more than billiard balls set in motion on a table are responsible for what others they hit or where they stop. Compulsive behavior, unaffected by choice, seems to me to serve as a perfect illustration of behavior which is the result of organic causes over which the agent has no control and for which he, she, or it is not responsible. Little toddlers drawn to noisy or shiny objects, moths drawn to flames, and puppies drawn to delicious treats seem to me to be acting compulsively or as the result of causes over which they have no control. So perhaps do compulsive eaters — people who eat compulsively though they try to diet or may want to lose weight — some alcoholics, compulsive smokers, voluptuaries, etc. People who are unable to choose their actions or unable to do what they choose (if there are such people) are not free or responsible in those areas. On a television comedy, one fellow complained and explained to his colleagues envious of his frequent sexual successes, “I can’t help it; I’m a prisoner of my biological urges.”

If determinism is true, or if it is true for any particular act or choice — that is, if an act or choice is the inescapable consequence of forces beyond the agent’s control — or if indeterminism (for a given act or choice) is true — that is, if an act or choice is the result of some uncontrollable chance or totally uncaused or unpredictable and unexplainable occurrence — then ethical principles and moral reasoning would not actually show you what was right (in those cases). They would have no effect at all regarding indeterminate, chance behavior. And in regard to (pre-)determined behavior that is the result of long causal chains, they would just be other links in those chains — we could not help invent them, and they would influence further actions in the same ways that spankings, punishments, or other influencing causes of behavior do. They would not be reasons for behaving in certain ways but would be causes contributing to behaving that way.

I believe that to act freely is not to act either compulsively (determinism) or by chance (indeterminism) but to act in regard to an informed, rational or reasoned choice, a choice which can be examined for its reasonableness and objectiveness. This does not dismiss emotions or sensations, as some would hold, since these can be taken into account by reason. Reason or logic can understand that something can be enjoyable, and that such enjoyment is a logical reason in favor of the activity contemplated, though it may not be the sole factor to take into account. Reason and logic can consider sensations and joy, but joy and sensations alone cannot consider logic or anything else. I believe people are responsible for the acts they perform that are the result of the free choices they make in this way.

But furthermore, I believe people are also responsible for any choice they make that they could have made differently and for any resulting act they did that they could have done differently, even though they may not have made the choice or done the act rationally or objectively. Irrational choices, which are neither accidental nor the result of uncontrollable forces, make the person responsible for his actions though they do not show responsibility (in the sense of maturity) in behavior or decision making. Although there may be forces at work sometimes in some people that inescapably make them do things over which they have no control, and although these things may be wrong acts or bad choices, not all wrong acts or bad choices are the result of inescapable forces nor ones people could not have made otherwise.

It is difficult to prove perhaps whether someone has been acted on by forces outside his or her control or has made a choice that they could not have made differently. But I would like to give some examples of some possible kinds of candidates for such choices. Some states of drunkenness or drug usage impair and control decision making and choices of actions, but insofar as a person has let himself or herself become drunk or drugged through voluntary actions or choices, he or she has at least some responsibility for actions under that state, particularly if prior knowledge or experience should have made the person more careful about whether or under what conditions he or she used alcohol or drugs. For example, a person who knows he will drink a great deal at a bar or at a party is responsible for his drunk driving if he drives his car there knowing he will be driving it home under the influence. If, however, one is drugged unwittingly, such as in someone else’s secretly spiking their drink, and has a reaction in which they lose control of their choices or actions, then I think this is one example of a person’s acting in a way for which he or she is not responsible. I think cases of being brainwashed against one’s will, if the techniques have been developed to do this successfully, are such cases. Cases in which stroke, seizure, or disease have impaired memory and understanding or brought about paranoia or prevent distinguishing between reality and illusion are other cases. Cases of genuine compulsion, where no matter what a person really wants or tries to do, he or she seems compelled to do something else. It is, of course, difficult to tell in many cases whether a person is acting under inescapable influences or not, or whether, if so, they are responsible for courting those influences to begin with, but the point is that without demonstrable inescapable influences, there is no reason to believe a person is not making a choice he or she could have made differently. I think there are cases where clearly people are behaving in ways they do not want to or would not choose if there were not something wrong with them that they cannot control — particularly where we know them and see them change overnight or after some particular understandably traumatic experience.

But this does not mean all choices or behavior is like that; we can often tell we have the power to choose either of two alternatives (the choice is ours) and to pursue what we choose. Anyone who has ever been on a diet or tried to break a habit can understand compulsive urges of whatever degree and can understand what it must be like not to be able to exercise control even if you really wanted to. And this is different from just being weak- willed and giving in to a habit or desire. Just kind of trying to give up chocolate and giving in to an occasional favorite candy bar just for a little harmless pleasure is quite different from knowing you need to give up chocolate, doing all you can to prevent eating it, and finding out you cannot keep yourself from it no matter how much you (try to) choose to stay away from it. Some people, from accounts I have read, seem to have compulsions they are unable to overcome no matter how irrational they know they are and no matter how hard they try or how much resolve they have in all other areas of their lives. It is somewhat hard to imagine adults not being in control of their choices and actions, and the courts and news media are full of highly suspicious stories given by defense attorneys alleging such forces were at work on their clients making them commit the crime they did, but to the extent any such accounts are reasonable or credible concerning any form of forced choice- making or forced action-taking, one ought to believe as well that persons under such forces are not (totally) responsible for their actions that are brought on by those forces. Credible stories are those, for example, of total personality transformations after taking a new prescription drug or after drinking a cup of punch someone hands you at a party and there is also good reason later to believe it was a person who would adulterate a drink of an unsuspecting person just as a joke.

Responsibility: Free Choice or Free Action?

There are some people who think that how you choose what you do is not the issue for responsibility and that all this talk of forces controlling someone’s choices is nonsense. They think the only issues for determining responsibility are whether you did what you chose, and whether you were free to have done something else had you chosen to. Whether you could have chosen to do otherwise they think is either irrelevant or unknowable. (You have to have been free to do something other than what you did because you are not responsible for doing the only thing you can do; for example, you are not responsible for what you hit if you fall off a building or for remaining tied up in a closet if someone forcibly chains you in one.)

The claim is that even if a person’s character causes him to choose what he chooses, that person is still responsible for his actions — assuming his actions were unrestrained. People who claim this would, say, hold a criminal responsible for his crime regardless of why he chose to commit it, as long as his action was not forced (say, by hypnosis). How the criminal made the choice is irrelevant. Background or medical history would be irrelevant.

I think this claim is falsely too strong and does not really attack the point and kind of cases it means to. I think if a person really could not have chosen anything besides what he actually chose, then he is not responsible for his choice and the ensuing action. But making a choice “in character” out of cowardice, due to weak will, or due to some of the other rather weak or trivial kinds of causes that lawyers and psychiatrists seem to contend force choices is not always actually to be inescapably forced to make a choice a particular way. The question, I think, should not be whether people are responsible or should be held accountable for choices they could not have made otherwise, but whether in fact the particular choice at issue is one they really could not have made otherwise. I believe if it is one they could have made otherwise — say, with more courage or reasonable foresight or with reasonably expected maturity or social conscience — then they are responsible. If not, whether because of physical disease of the brain, drugs forced on them, traumatic shock, brainwashing or anything that could have affected almost anyone else in the same way, then they are not responsible.

Now I agree that some alleged cases of mind control seem to have subjects who give in all too easily or willingly to supposedly inescapable forces, that there are many such alleged forces which seem normally not too impossible to escape with a little will-power, and that in many (often Freudian) types of explanations it seems the alleged forces or chain of causation is too weak or too far-fetched to have much credibility. So in over-reaction to this it is argued that people are responsible even when their choices are influenced or determined. In such cases, however, it seems to me it is not that one should ignore how choices were made in order to determine responsibility, but that one should show the claimed inescapable forces are not really inescapable and so the person really is responsible for his choice, in spite of the psychiatric or defense theory claiming the contrary. It is that in these cases the person really could have chosen otherwise; it is not that truly determined choices are irrelevant to responsibility.

I think that if either one’s choices are controlled or one’s actions are controlled then one is not responsible for those actions; the question then simply is whether such control can ever be demonstrated. Obviously there are physical restraints to some actions some times, and I have already mentioned some kinds of cases that I think make plausible the notion of choices being uncontrollable (such as being unwittingly drugged by someone else, tumors or trauma causing “overnight” change in character, some kinds of brainwashing, etc.). But these are not conditions people normally encounter, so I think (and will argue a little further, shortly) most of the choices most people make and most of their actions are not of the sort that could reasonably be called coerced or inescapable. So their responsibility is not then inescapable either.

Other Bad Arguments Claiming People Have No Personal Responsibility

Further, when you have a choice where the alternatives are all unpleasant ones, or where the morally right alternative is the (most) unpleasant one, you still have a choice and are still responsible for what you do. Having a choice does not require having only to choose between wonderful alternatives. When one of my students one time said her husband had no choice but to go to Viet Nam in the army, that was not true. That may have been the best option of a bunch of bad options open to him, but nevertheless the choice was his to make. Sometimes, through no particular fault of his or her own, a person may not recognize he or she has an option; and that may be the same as not having it at all; but recognizing an option as an unpleasant option does not remove it as an option. Socrates, and others have chosen imprisonment and/or death over other options. Socrates felt, and I think there is some merit to this, though it is hard to express why exactly, that it is better in some cases to be the one harmed than the one who does harm. It is better though not happier nor more fortunate. You may not have control over your luck and destiny or what happens to you but you do have control over (some of) what you do, and you should at least make certain that whenever possible you do not add evil to the world even if others choose to do wrong and put you in a position where you must also do evil or suffer some unhappy consequence at their hands. Of course, not all situations require the most self-sacrifice; it is far more reasonable to give a thief your money if that will prevent him from taking your life and then your money anyway. And perhaps Socrates gave up too much when he gave up his life rather than agree to give up teaching (doing) philosophy in Athens. (Aristotle, later given the same ultimatum is reported to have said, “Let Athens not sin twice against philosophy” and left.) But there are times where the right choice does demand sacrifice of some sort because all the alternatives are terrible ones and the least terrible or ignoble one may be the one that calls for the most sacrifice by the agent.

There are a number of theories that try to prove responsibility is a fantasy by trying to show that forces work to determine everything, not just in the physical world, but in the mental world as well, hence controlling all our choices and behavior. I want to try to repudiate such theories here.

Some people point to what seems to be quite apparent compulsive behavior by some individuals, and then try to extrapolate from that to the “compulsion” of all behavior of all individuals. The two types of behavior are so different though, as I think I have already said enough to show, that there is no reason to believe their causes or mechanisms are the same. Being a compulsive or obsessive eater is not like choosing to go off a diet out of temptation or weak will. And it is certainly not like choosing to have lunch when you are hungry at lunch time and have no good reason not to have lunch.

Some people argue that the regularity of occurrences — so many people committing murders each year, so many forgetting to address envelopes they mail, so many people getting married or buying cars (in proportion to the strength of the economy, etc.) — shows there must be forces at work to determine what happens in our lives. But (1) even supposed random occurrences (shuffling and dealing cards, spinning a roulette wheel, tossing a coin) have statistical regularity or averages; that does not take away their randomness or make them caused or (pre-)determined. It certainly does not mean forces are at work on individual occurrences (or any occurrences) to make them fall into a certain pattern. (2) Things like marriages and car-buying in a particular economic situation may show that forces influence decisions, but may do so rationally, without thereby totally causing them. One can even reasonably and correctly predict what people will choose and do in some particular cases, but this does not mean they have been caused or determined to do so or that they could not have chosen or done otherwise.

For example, it is a fairly safe prediction that under normal circumstances college students will leave their classrooms within 24 hours of their class’ being over. They do not have to leave but it would be rather strange not to. Knowing that a person is mature and independent and in love might give you reason to believe that an improvement in his or her financial situation might make marriage a more reasonable alternative than it was before such an improvement. Knowing that a person is rational and knowing what the rational alternatives would be for her or him to make lets one predict with fair accuracy what the person’s choice and actions will be.

Making a rational choice is not like making a forcibly determined one nor like making a random one. So your predictions are not based on the same kind of determined behavior or laws that one might use to predict the “behavior” of the planets or even of small children or puppies and moths.

It is true that (pre-)determined behavior is theoretically predictable, but that does not show that theoretically predictable behavior is therefore (pre-)determined. Some children and even some adults become really upset when you predict their actions — even ones that are obvious and that any rational person would make under the circumstances. They seem to feel that you are taking away their choice or their freedom to choose, or somehow showing they have no real choice they can make — that they have been pre-determined to choose or act a certain way. This is simply wrong, however; acting freely and rationally is different from acting, say, compulsively, ignorantly, or both even though both kinds of actions might have in common that they can be predicted.

The most persuasive or perhaps simply pervasive theory seeming to undermine the notion of personal responsibility is that of (Freudian and other kinds of) psychoanalytic psychological theories that postulate or believe that there are subconscious or unconscious forms of control over our conscious acts or choices. I believe these theories are not really demonstrated. I will give two kinds of arguments in summary for my belief.

First there is evidence that psychoanalysis often does not work and that it often at least does not work as well as other sorts of methods which do not involve “study” of subconscious motivation — methods such as behavior therapy, existentialist psychotherapy, responsibility therapy, client-centered therapy, etc. And when psychoanalysis does seem to work, it is not clear that it works because of the part involving study of the supposed sub-conscious. It may “work” because the therapist listened to the client and made the client feel worthwhile or because the client thought about his behavior for the first time in talking about it to the therapist, or it may work for some other such reason. I have met some people who were undergoing psychoanalytic therapy who were becoming very facile in describing allegedly warping childhood experiences or relationships and very good at ascribing blame to everyone (particularly their parents) but themselves for their behavior, and they were becoming very good at naming their behavior in the scientific jargon of the day; but so often they were not one whit closer to changing that behavior for the better. Since I first read about alternative kinds of therapies a number of articles have appeared showing from experiments how some of them seem to deal with (at least many kinds of) problems better than psychoanalysis. In one study, people who were afraid of snakes were allowed to view some snakes and others handling them in another room through a safety glass. Then they were allowed to enter the room and approach the snakes at their own pace. People got over their fear of at least these snakes in a very short period of time, and far shorter than those who would do so, if at all, by undergoing some sort of psychoanalysis trying to understand their subconscious problems with penises that are supposedly shown by their fear of snakes. And, as should seem obvious, I would think, most people who are afraid of snakes are so because they cannot distinguish poisonous ones from others or do not know how to keep from being bitten or squeezed (or crushed) by any kind and do not want to take any chances, so they stay away from all snakes. As one newspaper writer once put it, as far as he was concerned a green snake was just as dangerous as a ripe one.

Second, all the clever little stories that psychoanalysts can make up that seem to explain behavior are more a result, I suspect, of their cleverness at literary invention than of their insight. There are a number of examples of stories that seem plausible explanations of behavior or of feelings, fears, etc. but which are either false, satirical, far-fetched, or simply unexplanatory on closer inspection. One of the wittier and more elaborate such satires is in Edgar F. Borgatta’s “Sidesteps Toward a Non-special Theory” (Borgatta, 1954) appearing first in Psychological Review, Vol. 61, No. 5, September 1954, and reprinted in Psychology in the Wry (D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.), edited by Robert A. Baker. Part of the article, and part of the satire gives humorous, spoofing arguments about how (given it is obvious that hands play a large part in human sexuality and gratification) much of seemingly ordinary behavior involving hands can be seen to be really sexual in nature, though, of course, unconsciously or subconsciously so — applause, shaking hands, holding cigarettes, holding a golf club, tennis racquet, or baseball bat, covering your mouth while yawning, etc. “Just recently an associate put his finger on an important example in this area by bringing up the story of Peter and the Dike. Peter’s action, usually interpreted as an example of great courage and devotion, is actually, in the light of this new theory, one of gross self- indulgence.” [Emphasis mine.]

My younger sister is fond of telling how she became so terribly afraid of spiders. When she was little, she had a floorless cardboard doll house that was big enough for her to sit inside. Once while she was in it, outside on the lawn, I held the door closed so she could not come out. She says now that there was a spider in there with her when I did that, that she felt trapped with it, and has ever since been terrified of spiders. However, as explanatory as this may appear at first blush, it seems to me not to hold up. It seems that she must already have been afraid of spiders or she would not have minded being in there with this particular one; after all, she was also “trapped” in there with dandelions, clover, and blades of grass and she is not afraid of them now. Nor is she afraid of doll houses, nor of closets or other confining spaces.

Similarly, I chuckle at persons who have told me that I must have subconsciously liked my father more than my mother when I was a child because I now like to have my back scratched the way he used to do it, but not the way my mother used to do it. It is true that I loved for my father to scratch my back, and hated for my mother to do it — but it has always been obvious to me that that was because he did it with enough force to make it feel good both as scratching and as massage, whereas she always was afraid she would scratch (tear) your skin or hurt you and so did it so lightly, that the way my skin reacted, it tickled and then made my back itch twice as much as when she started “scratching”. A backscratching device or the convenient edge of a wall, with enough force, will still suffice for good feeling, instead of a light source or tickle. I liked lots of things my mother did, and disliked some things my father did; backscratching, though, was not one of them. I doubt there is any subconscious motivation behind it.

One older psychiatrist I once had a discussion with said, “We have come a long way since Freud’s day; we no longer believe, for instance, that a man choosing to eat a hot dog rather than a hamburger at the beach is voicing a homosexual preference.” I am certainly glad they no longer believe that; I am just sorry they ever did, especially since I suspect it could have easily been tested as to whether shape or taste was more important by putting hamburger in hot dog shape and vice versa.

Finally, to say that a person does something because his ego (or whatever) makes him do it only serves to relocate the original question then to seek what made his ego do it. Do you then need to postulate some sub-ego? Then why does that want to do it? Etc. And to say that one does something now because he learned to do it early in life, does not say why he should choose to continue to do it, particularly if it is behavior that he thinks is wrong or finds distressing. One can read in psychiatric papers and in the news media all kinds of accounts of what seems to be really abnormal and bizarre or terrible behavior. I am not sure how much understanding such behavior, if that is possible, might shed light on what seems to be normal everyday behavior, even normal everyday bad behavior. And I am not certain what, if anything, might help change people who are far beyond anything like normal thoughts, feelings, and actions. But I think regarding the many more-or-less ordinary kinds of behavior and choice or lifestyle problems that more-or-less ordinary people experience, in many circumstances the primary conditions are first to figure out what is better and why it is, and then to make the choice to change and to exert the will to do it. Of course there may be some outside help needed to figure out what is right and/or help needed to do it; and of course one may need to play some mental games or step back, if possible, from frightening, enervating, or harrying situations to calmly reflect, meditate, or collect oneself in order to change one’s behavior to a way one thinks is better. Many people vacillate about behavior because they are not really certain about what is right to do. Once they can decide that (and these chapters on ethics are meant to help people be able to more wisely make those determinations in so-called ethical areas), then the choice and the act of will can readily follow without having to delve into the motivation of the subconscious or having to overcome something that happened to you in the womb or in the first few years after birth.

I say “so-called” ethical areas to distinguish them, as is the custom, from practical areas of life. But I generally do not really make that distinction and find sometimes that what seem to be, or are, great moral dilemmas can often be solved with practical knowledge or wisdom. If you borrow something expensive from someone and somehow stain it, you have a choice to replace it at your own expense, to accept their protests that you not worry about it, to lie about the stain or pretend it did not happen, etc. But if someone knows a safe, effective, inexpensive way to remove the stain, and it actually works, the ethical problem disappears. If modern medicine could discover a reasonable way to safely transplant embryos from women who did not want to be pregnant to women who did but could not get pregnant on their own, some cases of unwanted pregnancies could be happily solved without having to deal with the moral question of whether it is right to terminate the life of an unborn you do not want to have to bear.

I think too often people mean by “ethical” or “moral”, those problems concerning the right way to act which they think have no practical or obvious solution, or in which the solution is to do something that is unpleasant for the person who has to do it. In this latter regard you often hear someone admonish another or worry themselves about what is the moral thing to do in a situation where they are certain what is the moral thing is some sort of sacrificing or at least unpleasant thing to do. You almost never hear anyone say something like, “but you know the moral thing to do would be to go ahead and have a good time.” Well, sometimes I think the moral thing to do is to have a good time, when there is no good or overriding reason not to.

And it could be the moral, not just the enjoyable thing to do, since it could be the kind of situation where you would be obligated to help someone else who was just like you and in relevantly similar circumstances have a good time; and if you should treat people in relevantly similar circumstances similarly and fairly, then it would be the kind of situation in which you should help yourself have a good time. I think there are situations where it is as ethically obligatory to choose something enjoyable for yourself when you are deserving as it would be in other circumstances for you to choose it for another person who is deserving. Enjoyment is not the kind of thing one can only owe to others.

Further, I think there are many things we do that could be considered moral, but since they are so easy to do and/or so obviously what needs to be done, we do not feel the use of our ethical sensitivity or intuitions in deciding them. For example, instinctively holding a door for someone carrying packages, or helping them carry them; taking a child’s hand as you cross the street or descend steps; keeping appointments or calling ahead to cancel them with an explanation. Or I think treating a deserving child nicely on her birthday (or any day) is not just fun or a social custom; I think it is a moral obligation, though there is no moral obligation to have a party, decorations, or cake and ice cream. In fact, if one thinks sweets a bad thing, one might serve a more healthful kind of treat, and that might be a moral duty, as well as a labor of love or a most enjoyable thing to do.

I also do not like to divide actions into moral and practical because I think that psychologically gives people an (invalid) excuse to act immorally while doing what they consider to be practical matters. They mistakenly think they can avoid moral responsibility by “only following orders”, “only abiding by the decision of the committee”, “only following procedure”, “just doing what has always been done”, “just doing what everyone else does”, “just following policy or the regulations,” or “just doing what the boss (or job) requires”. Similar attempted justification for shirking of responsibility sometimes is “that is not my department” so I cannot help you. People, however, have a moral responsibility for a situation to the extent they could influence it.

Of course, there are some cases where the person in question has no influence whatsoever on policy and cannot change it, reasonably make exceptions to it, or influence those who could. In such cases they may have no responsibility in the matter. But most often the person is not powerless to influence the matter, make an exception, plead the cause, or at least in some way help out the person in need; they simply do not want to take the time or make the effort to do it, and may even think that because they have no “professional” obligation to help, they also have no moral obligation to help. This is the impersonal and often irresponsible side of bureaucracy or departmentalization, whether it occurs in government or in business. Neither is immune, and it runs rampant in both. Often it is even detrimental to business profits — when a worthwhile project is ignored or thoughtlessly rejected. Now I am not trying to argue every employee needs to (re)consider every crackpot proposal and bother his/her superior about them; I am saying that if an employee really believes a proposal has merit or a person needs to be helped with a problem or has a legitimate complaint that is being ignored, that employee has some sort of moral obligation to try to help or influence the process if he or she can. One does not avoid such an obligation by ignoring it; one just avoids fulfilling the obligation.

There are at least two different senses of the sentence “Jones is responsible for [some particular phenomenon]”, however, and I don’t want those to be confused. In the sense I have been discussing, Jones is responsible for those things which he could influence or affect. This does not, in itself however, tell which way Jones should act. But Jones can also be said to be responsible in the different sense of being “culpable” or blameworthy when he should have acted a certain way but did not. I do not want to imply that just because someone is responsible in the first sense that he is necessarily also responsible in the second sense when something bad happens that, in part, results from his action or inaction. If a person makes an understandable and reasonable mistake about the consequences of his action or inaction, he may be neither actively culpable nor negligent. Good intentions and reasonable choices do sometimes lead to mistakes. There will be times one should have acted differently than one did, but that will be apparent only in hindsight, not at the time the decision is made. People tend to blame themselves (or others) for results they could have affected but reasonably chose not to. That is a case of mistaking being able to effect an outcome at all with knowing how to make the right outcome happen. The cases of shirking moral responsibility I have been discussing are cases where people ignore the consequences of their behavior and think that is all right, not where they make the wrong decision about how to behave, but were still being conscientious.

There are other ways people ignore moral responsibility — by thoughtlessly and slavishly following fad or custom so as not to make waves or call attention to themselves instead of thinking about what needs to be done and doing it if they can. I once attended a course in a church where many of the members were wealthy and very image conscious. The room the course was taught in always got much too warm, but the teacher pleaded ignorance to how to work the heating and air conditioning controls (though it was not that hard to figure out). The first three class sessions, I asked whether it would be all right to turn off the heat or turn on the air conditioning, and everyone said yes, that they were too warm too. But they looked funny at me as if I were a disruptive influence even though the whole thing only took a few seconds.

The fourth week, I decided to see what would happen in this class of 60 people if I did nothing. No one did anything — they sat there fanning themselves with makeshift fans and mopping their brows with handkerchiefs. There were a number of pregnant women in the class, but none of the guys in the three piece suits, or anyone else, made a move toward the thermostat. At the end of the class, I asked why no one did anything about the heat. They all said they felt they could suffer through it. I asked why they did not do something to alleviate their neighbors’ or the pregnant women’s discomfort. “Didn’t think about it,” was the response. I suspect they also did not want to call the slightest bit of attention to themselves; and would rather physically suffer and let others do the same than to behave “differently” by getting up and turning down the heat.

Now this is not a major matter, but I think it is illustrative of many common situations where people do not act in a reasonable and correct way because they do not think about it, because they do not think they have any personal responsibility for circumstances in which they do not have “official” responsibility (as in “that’s not my department”), or because they do not want to be conspicuous — particularly by being different in some way. Habits, customs, traditions take on an importance, often out of proportion to their merit. I think all actions are moral (good, bad, or neutral) but not all choices or actions are made on the basis of (moral or reasonable) reflection or deliberation. Much is just done out of habit and/or thoughtlessness.

I think there is another aspect to personal responsibility besides the issue of what to do in particular situations. That is deciding what situations to get into in the first place (or remain in)— essentially, deciding how to spend your time and life. Of course not all of us can always do anything we want or feel would be best, and we don’t always even know ahead of time what would be best, but there are many times people allow themselves to get into situations they could have avoided and which they should have avoided and should have known to avoid, in order to do better things — for themselves and for others.

If you look at life as a limited time or limited opportunity of which to make the most and do your best, then you want to put yourself in as many situations as you can that help you do that. A person who voluntarily puts himself (or remains) in bad company or bad circumstances, which thus engenders only choices between evil acts, may not be immediately or directly blameworthy or responsible for doing something bad which is the best alternative open to him. But those acts are ones for which he is ultimately responsible since he should have known in the first place to avoid or leave situations that would make him do those acts or have to choose between only bad acts. It is not a good excuse to say something like “Since I have this job, I have to act in this particular, bad way,” since (even if such a statement is true) you are responsible for taking, or remaining in, the job.

Key Takeaways

  • Ethics is objective. Know the reasons why this is so.
  • Terms are not able to be defined in terms simpler than themselves.
  • Doing ethics well requires both moral sensitivity and logical reasoning (including conceptual understanding).
  • Personal responsibility involves both 1) freedom and ability to do what you choose, and 2) freedom and ability to choose other options.
  • What is decided is generally more important than who decides.
  • Intentions determine whether an agent is good or bad, not whether an act is right or wrong.

Key Terms

  • An act is “supererogatory” or “saintly” or “beyond the call of duty” if it is a right act; but is not one, that could be called required or obligatory, not one that could be called a duty or moral obligation. Such an act might be one of sacrifice like throwing oneself on a grenade to save one’s friends. It might be one of giving an exceedingly large charitable donation.

Chapter Review Questions

  • Question: What does it require to figure out proper values and correct or reasonable moral principles?
  • Question: The sensitivity required for being able to discover and appreciate sound moral values and principles includes what?


Chapter 25 Introduction to Ethics Copyright © 2017 by jhill5 and Richard Garlikov. All Rights Reserved.

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