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Ethics and Moral Values Clark Wolf Iowa State University. Philosophical approaches to ethical choice and reflection….

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Ethics and Moral Values Clark Wolf Iowa State University

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Ethics and Moral ValuesClark WolfIowa State University


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  • Philosophical approaches to ethical choice and reflection…


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“The problems of philosophy involve questions in which we are all (or should all be) deeply interested at the most basic level. They are important to us as we make decisions about what to believe, and how to be critical of our own naively held beliefs. Philosophical investigation may help us to determine what kinds of choices we should make, and what kind of person to be. It may help us to understand and justify our belief (or disbelief) in God. It may help us to form a rational life plan, and to better understand our own motives and fears. Philosophical questions are important to us as we try to understand what we are and to determine our place in the scheme of things. And they are important to us as we try to choose right actions in a complicated and difficult world, and to find meaning in our lives. These are not trivial projects.”


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Identifying Ethics: Principles of ethics should provide us guidance as we make choices in a complicated world. Ideally, an account of ethics should help us to identify moral principles and morally relevant features of the choices we face.


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  • There is no simple “recipe” for ethical decision making. Philosophical and religious theories about ethics do not remove our need (obligation?) to exercise deliberative judgment and to evaluate alternative values that are at play in concrete cases.


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  • Ethics: Ethical codes of conduct instruct us on what we ought or ought not to do. Typical ethical theories or ethical codes include basic principles that are intended to be used to guide conduct.


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  • Values: Values underlie ethical codes. For any ethical code, we can evaluate it by considering the values that support it.


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  • Values and Wants: The things we want are usually among the things we value, but values and wants are different. It is possible to want what one does not value, and possible to value what one does not want.


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  • Role of Religious Belief in Ethics: For those of us who have religious beliefs, often these beliefs are intimately tied to our values and to the ethical principles we accept. But it would be a mistake to suppose that ethical values are simply religious values—at least, the relationship is more complex than people sometimes realize.


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  • Any time says that we should do X because it is what God wants us to do, it is appropriate to consider the reasons we have for thinking that this is what God wants. Once we ask this question, we’re doing philosophy.


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  • Question: Are Ethical Judgments Relative, Subjective, and Incomparable?


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  • Relative: Different people make different judgments, and the evaluative judgments people make are wholly relative to the values that they hold.


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  • Subjective: “Different people just have different values, and there is no way to argue or reason about the evaluative assumptions that lie behind different ethical judgments or choices. There are no evaluative facts in the way that there are facts about the physical universe.”


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  • Incomparable: There is no way to compare the judgments of different people, and no one's evaluative judgments are any better than the evaluative judgments of anyone else.


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  • Claim: If it were true that ethical values are all relative, subjective, and incomparable, then talking about ethics would be useless.

  • Why might one believe this?

  • Is it true?


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  • Claim: Because we have many values in common, discussions in ethics often involve appeals to commonly shared values.


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  • Claim: Often discussions in ethics involve appeals to values one believes that others accept, or values one believes that others have reason to accept.


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  • Ethical argument and discussion requires an informed and sympathetic understanding of other people’s values and other people’s point of view. We get no where if we simply preach our own values without making an effort to understand others.


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  • One Form of Ethical Argument: Elicit a value judgment by coming to an understanding of some of the values another person holds. Then show that the value in question has implications that are not consistent with the persons actions.


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  • Example: Robert Nozick on Vegetarianism. (Hand-out.)


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Ethical Arguments

  • Argument: A set of statements, some of which serve as premises, one of which serves as a conclusion, where the premises are intended to provide evidence for the conclusion.


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Ethical Arguments

  • When presented with an argument, one may either

    1) Accept the premises and the conclusion

    2) Reject the premises

    3) Argue (or show) that the conclusion does not follow from the premises.


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An Example of an Ethical Argument:

  • Hand-out: Argument for Vegetarianism and Limitations on Animal Testing

  • Do you accept the premises? If not, which premise do you reject or find questionable?

  • Does the conclusion follow from the premises?


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Example: Peter Singer

  • 1) Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

  • 2) Singer's Principle: Two versions.

  • Version i) If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.

  • Version ii) If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of moral significance, we ought, morally to do it.


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  • Example for Singer’s Principle: If I'm walking past a shallow pond, and I see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out.

  • COST: Muddy Clothing.

  • BENEFIT: Child's Life.


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  • Extending the Argument: “Whenever we spend on ourselves or our loved ones money we could use to address the more pressing moral issue of absolute poverty, we are violating a moral principle that we accept.”


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  • Notice that Singer’s argument is an appeal to our integrity. He is not simply preaching his values and applying them (perhaps inappropriately) to us.


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Basic v. Derivative Obligations

  • Some obligations derive from other more basic obligations. For example, obligations of citizenship may be based on our obligation to be fair, responsible, and respectful of other people with whom we interact.


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Basic and Derivative Obligations

  • When obligations can be derived from others, the more basic obligations have a kind of “priority” over the derived obligations.


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Basic and Derivative Obligations

  • Question: Is there an identifiable set of fundamental obligations, such that all our real obligations can be derived from that set?


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Basic Values: The Josephson Proposal:

  • Trustworthiness

  • Respect

  • Responsibility

  • Fairness

  • Caring

  • Citizenship


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W.D. Ross’s List of Prima Facie Duties:

1) Duties that rest on previous acts of my own

a) Promises.b) Duty to rectify previous wrongs.

2) Duties that rest on previous acts of others (Duties of gratitude).

3) Duties of justice (Ross interprets this as a duty to endeavor to bring the distribution of pleasure or happiness in line with merit.)

4) Beneficence- Duty to benefit others.

5) Duty to improve one's own virtue or intelligence.

6) Duty not to injure others.


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Joel Feinberg’s List of Basic Obligations:

1) Fidelity- Obligation to keep promises.

2) Veracity- Obligation to tell the truth, or (or better-- not to tell lies).

3) Fair Play- Obligation not to exploit, cheat, or "free load" on others

4) Gratitude- Obligation to return favors

5) Nonmaleficence- Obligation not to cause harm, pain or suffering to others,

6) Beneficence- Obligation to help others in distress, at least when this involves no great danger to oneself or to third parties.

7) Reparation- Obligation to repair harms to others that are one's fault.

8) Obligation not to kill others (except in self-defense).

9) Obligation not to deprive others of their property.

10) Obligation to oppose injustices, at least when this involves no great cost to oneself.

11) Obligation to promote just institutions and to work toward their establishment, maintenance, and improvement.


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Finding an appropriate list of basic obligations may seem like a philosophers’ game. But the business of making appropriate ethical decisions is not a game. One practical goal of such a list is that it may help us to make appropriate decisions in complicated circumstances.


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What more basic values are involved?

Helping out on your father-in-law’s farm, you discover that he has ceased to use appropriate environmental precautions. His plow patterns are leading to excessive soil erosion and excessive pesticide run-off. There is reason to believe that his unsafe practices are significantly contributing to groundwater contamination, and that erosion from his fields is


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  • Ethics and ethical decision making are not simply the province of philosophers or ethicists. Our choices reveal our values to the world. These values are either unreflective and shallow, or reflective and deep.

    Philosophical deliberation should help us to make our values and choices deep and thoughtful. Maybe this makes it more likely that our choices will be the right ones.


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