Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Can Ethics Be Taught? — Peter Singer

On a range of ethical issues, philosophy professors specializing in ethics have been found to behave no better than professors working in other areas of philosophy, or than non-philosophy professors. But that doesn't necessarily mean that ethical reasoning is powerless to make people behave more ethically.…
One problem in teaching philosophy is that people are seeking pat answers as it math and science. Life is not cut and dried like that. Most areas are gray, and thus the ongoing controversy over "the enduring questions" that occupy philosophy.

The study of philosophy is about leaning how to think critically and creatively. A major input in this is a review of literature to learn what previous thinkers regarded as "great" thought about these issues.

In ethics there are many thinkers. They can be categorized into the principal approaches to ethics:

  • Codified ethics. (Religious codes, institutional policy for example)
  • Traditionalist ethics (Cultural norms like taboos)
  • Consequentialist ethics. (Utilitarianism for example)
  • Deontological ethics (Emphasis on duty and right action)
  • Virtue or character ethics. (The "good person" as ethical standard*)
  • Situational ethics (Moral choice under uncertainty)

Presumably, studying these traditions and their major exponents provides a foundation for developing one's own ethical approach. This implies that rational inquiry and deliberation is at the basis of action. This is a chief assumption of the Western liberal tradition. 

The Western liberal tradition accepts codified ethics and traditionalist ethics as matter of personal choice rather than for imposition. This is a key reason behind freedom of thought, expression, religion, and association. 

The idea of the Western liberal tradition based on free and open inquiry is that all thinkers and intellectual traditions potentially make contributions, and the ultimate questions are as yet undecided, at least in the sense of not being agreed up universally, so no one can claim to have the ocean in their bucket and be acknowledged by all as correct. 

The age-old question — what does it mean to be a good person in a good society — involves a quest that is both personal and communal.

* A higher bar is set for leaders since they are viewed as setting the standard for the group or society.

Project Syndicate
Can Ethics Be Taught?
Peter Singer | Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Laureate Professor in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, and founder of the non-profit organization The Life You Can Save

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