HOW TO SPEAK ETHICS 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 heavylifting 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 preemptively 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 “Consequentialists.”

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: Step Two:

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

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