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A Crash Course in Conversational Ethics

Chapter Objectives: This chapter is designed to present Ethics as though it

were a foreign language. I will give you a step-by-step outline of the basic
logic, grammar, vocabulary and idioms in conversational Ethics. This is
intended to help you be more critically aware of what your students (and
you) are doing when you’re speaking Ethics, and, thereby, of how to develop
their ethical language skills.

“It’s not fair!” “That’s mine.” Give it to me!” “Whose team are you on?!”
“She started it!” “I’ve got a right to say whatever I want!” “Sez who?”

All of us talk Ethics all the time. We make value judgments about what
other people have done or are about to do. We make claims and declare
what we believe justifies those claims. And, we defend ourselves against the
judgments and claims of others. From the streets to the kitchen to the
classroom, talking Ethics is part of our ordinary way of shaping our own
lives and dealing with others.

And, since speaking Ethics is such a common part of everybody’s ordinary

life, most of us don’t think twice about how we’re speaking. It’s part of our
native language. It just sort of comes out spontaneously and naturally.
We’re too busy doing it to have the time, or feel the need to slow down and
take a closer look at what we’re saying. But, if we don’t do that, we’ll never
figure out the limits in the way we’re used to talking, and appreciate the
benefits of changing, of developing better language tools for doing the jobs
we need to do with our ethical language.

What’s a parallel? Think about little kids coming into school for the first
time. Obviously, most of them are already talking. They’ve accumulated
language in the home, on the streets, from TV, wherever. And they’ve stuck
the pieces together with the limited language-building skills in their heads.
So, what do we do about this language stuff? We scrape it, we polish it, we
complement it, and, most importantly, we try to get them to become more
aware of how much more they can do with words, and more eager to learn
how to develop that mastery.

Okay, let’s start learning how to speak Ethics better! And that requires
getting self-conscious about what we’re already doing, and then about what
more we could do.

I. THE BASIC LOGIC: Remember what I’ve stressed from the

beginning: Doing Ethics is a way of solving problems. And the nature of
the problems? Right; they’re Dilemmas. We feel ourselves caught between
two (or more) individually appealing but mutually exclusive options: Am I
going to lie about why I didn’t do the work? Am I going to rat on a
teammate? And, we’re forced to take a stand. So, what’s the basic work that
Ethics does for us? Ethics is our attempt to build a solid ground to stand
on when we have to take a stand. When we are caught on the horns of a
Dilemma (not a comfortable resting place!), Ethics does the heavy-
lifting of justifying our choice of one option over the other.

Three Ways We Ground our Choices and Judgments:

There are three basic types of moves that people make when they try to
ground their individual judgments and choices: Let’s call them Principlists,
Contractualists, and Consequentialists.

Mirror-work: While we discuss these three types, you might want to take
your own Ethical pulse. Check on which of these moves is (or are) closest
to your own way of grounding your choices.

To get started, think of each of these as figuratively looking in a different

direction to find the solid ground for the actions and judgments we have to
make in the present.

• The Principlist looks “Up to the Absolute”

• The Contractualist looks “Back to the Past”

• The Consequentialist looks “Forward to the Future”

The Principlists:

Principlists look for an absolute value to ground their personal judgments, a

universal rule to ground their individual actions. Figuratively, they “look
up” to find some abiding higher principle, or a higher being, who defines the
enduring structure of right and wrong. Examples would be in the form of
ethical commandments, such as “Thou shall not kill,” or “Always tell the
truth,” or “Respect others’ rights.”

A “categorical imperative” is the way the 18th century philosopher Immanuel

Kant described the ethical (and, one is tempted to add, the psychological)
force of such principles. They are “categorical” in the sense of not being
contingent on anything else in a situation, and therefore, not allowing any
exceptions. For the Principlist, the ethical person must obey the demands of
the principle, regardless of circumstances or consequences. You must, for
example, always tell the truth, even if it results in a danger of harm for
yourself or others. Often this attitude is called “deontological” after the
Greek word for duty, “deontos.” But, the term “principlism” catches its
spirit better, as expressed by a person insisting that she has to do something,
and has to do it come-what-may, because, “It’s a matter of principle!”

What are the principles that grab hold of people? We’ll examine the most
frequently and highly-rated answers in our “Vocabulary” section.
The Contractualists:

“Back to the future” might be the motto of the Contractualist. To find what
choices they should make now, they look to the past. For the Contractualist,
our present choices are controlled by our past commitments.

Like the Principlist, there is a categorical and unconditional nature to the

determinative force in their ethical decision-making. But, unlike the
Principlists, there is usually an historical event or framework that has pre-
emptively limited the ethically acceptable options in the present. Sexually,
contractualists would reject an affair because of their marriage vows.
Scholastically, they would refuse to cheat on an exam because of having
signed an Honor Code. Medically, they often take their stand on “the Oath”
either because they made an explicit promise by reciting the Hippocratic
Oath at graduation from medical school, or because they made an implicit
commitment to accepting the traditional normative standards of their
professional role.

Contractualists (e.g., cops or some teachers) will often say, “I don’t make the
rules.” Indeed, it’s really just the opposite: the rules make the person. The
binding nature of the contract makes them feel they have no choice. What
they do now has been predetermined by the “promise” they made in the past.
For the Contractualist, the individual often finds the answers to specific
ethical choices by analyzing the role to which he/she has committed. For
example, wife or husband, teammate or friend, physician or teacher, etc.
The directive rubric? “Role Determines Rules.” Ethically, one must fulfill
the role for which he/she has contracted. Each such role comes with a set of
more or less explicit rules. Therefore, the decision-making process in any
particular situation is, in effect, to study the role-book till you find the role
you’re in, and the rules it imposes. Then, ethically, you must follow the
rules regardless of personal preferences or consequences.

Consider the example of whether to breach confidentiality for a 16-year-old

who admits to serious drug use. The Principlists would “look up” to find the
ground for their answer in over-arching universals such as respect for
autonomy or the right to privacy, or take a stand on virtues such as loyalty
and fidelity. The Contractualist, however, would “look back,” either to an
explicit promise made to this individual person to keep and protect his
confidences, or to the role-structuring tradition of your profession (such as
coaches, or teachers or counselors) that respect confidentiality as part of the
implicit contract.

But, there is one other direction that many (indeed, probably most practical
people) would look to in order to find solid, justifiable answers: the future.
Those who seek to ground their present answers in the future are called
The Consequentialists:

Consequentialists look to the future to find the factors that they believe
should determine what they ought to do in the present. Put yourself in the
situation of doing your income taxes, and imagine (this is completely
hypothetical, of course) that you are considering whether or not to claim a
pleasure trip as a deductible business expense. If you’re a Principlist?
Absolutely not! Thou shalt not lie: no excuses, no exceptions. If you’re a
Contractualist? Check out your employee contract: What are the rules you
agreed to follow? Okay, there’s your answer. But, if you’re a
Consequentialist, you’ve got more work to do.

First, recognize that for a Consequentialist, both complete Honesty and some
degree of Dishonesty may be justifiable choices. You will only know which
is the “righter” or better answer after you have calculated which choice will
produce the better package of consequences. So, my fellow
Consequentialists, we would sit there and consider such factors as how much
we’d “save” by the deception and how much we need the extra bucks (to do
really good things, of course). We would also think about how likely we are
to get caught and how severe the penalties will be, etc., etc. Then we would
weigh the risks and benefits of one path, compare it with the risks and
benefits of the other, and choose the package of consequences that we decide
would be, in practical terms, “better,” i.e., produce the most good and the
least bad.

Consider an example: In Richard Nash’s play The Rainmaker, Noah

realizes that his old-maid sister is out in the barn on a summer’s evening
with the smooth-talking Rainmaker and comes running into the house to get
his gun to defend the family’s honor. But, his father grabs the gun away
from him, saying “Noah, you’re so full of what’s right you can’t see what’s
good.” (Bantam Books, NYC 1957, p.99)

So, what would the Consequentialists do about the 16-year-old patient who
has admitted to drug use? First, there would be no principled or contractual
restrictions on options. Any option that produces the maximum benefit
would be permissible. Indeed, as maximizing beneficial consequences is the
determinative moral imperative, whichever option promised to achieve the
most beneficial future would not only be permissible, but ethically
obligatory. Therefore, the Consequentialist would compare the benefits and
harms of maintaining confidentiality: the adolescent feels secure and so
cooperates more; more cooperation produces more guided protection, etc.;
but, the teacher cannot always be there, and keeping quiet may fail to alert
other “life-guards,” etc; but, it might just drive the kid away from trusting
any adult, and produce more drug abuse as a passive-aggressive or defensive
reaction to a perceived betrayal, and so on, and on, and on, till all the
significant consequences have been examined and weighted: and compared
on a balance-scale.
The basic decision-making process for the Consequentialist may be
described in a quasi-mathematical formulation:

Step One: For Option A, add up all the possible benefits and possible
harms, and factor the probability of each.

Step Two: Subtract the value of the harms from the value of the benefits to
get the net value of Option A.

Step Three: Repeat for Option B (and Option C, etc.).

Step Four: Compare the Net Value of Option A versus the Net Value of
Option B (and C, etc.).

Step Five: Whichever option has the better (or less bad) net value is the
ethically appropriate/obligatory choice.

Consequentialists are allowed to be much more independent, much more

empowered than Principlists or Contractualists to act on the basis of their
own judgment. For example, neither a principle such as autonomy, nor a
contract, whether explicit or implicit, would preclude breaking
confidentiality, if the Consequentialist judged that action would produce
better consequences. One could break promises, or lie, or choose any other
action, so long as it could justifiably be claimed that your intention was to
produce the greatest possible good, and that your calculation had fairly
demonstrated that the course you chose would most likely achieve that end.

However, given the dangers of this self-appointed authority to act on one’s

own individual calculations, and of this self-licensed liberty to override
principles and contracts, there clearly is an imperative need to make such
calculations with great discipline. Nowhere is the need greater for
employing and enforcing the normative standards of the Good Judge than
when the judge is a Consequentialist, and the judgments will have
irreversible consequences for the critical needs and interests of yourself and
other persons.

Class Exercise: Where do You look to find the “ANSWER?”

Darren’s Dilemma: In an episode of the TV show Boston Public, Darren, a

high school senior, has busted his butt to stay in school and get good grades,
and has been accepted to a really good college. He’s got his ticket out. But,
he goes into a convenience store with his bad-news brother, who gets
enraged at the shopkeeper, shoots and kills him, and flees. Darren’s only
chance to save himself is to turn in his brother.

You could then ask the class a series of questions.

Targeting Questions:
If you were a Principlist, what would you think?
If you were a Contractualist, what would you think?
If you were a Consequentialist, what would you think?