Q & A in Ethics

Charles Taliaferro, St. Olaf College


QUESTION: What is the learning outcome of a good course in ethics or, more specifically, the EIN course at St. Olaf College?

ANSWER: A good ethics course may take many forms. Some courses will focus on a specific domain (such as Medical Ethics or Environmental Ethics), some will concentrate on applied ethics (how should one act when faced with some moral dilemma?), moral theory (what is, or should be, meant by right and wrong, good and bad?), or moral psychology (when we act ethically, what is, or should be, the roles of, say, reason, desire, intuition, or tradition?)  Across the board, it seems that students and professors should work toward the following four goals:

1) Development or honing of the skills that are essential in a philosophical culture.  A ‘philosophical culture’ is one in which persons are free (and safe) to present reasons or arguments for matters of value, and these reasons and arguments are presented with respect and openness to counter-arguments, affirmation, or dissent. Why is this valuable? In part it is valuable insofar as being able to think for one’s self is valuable, but also because a philosophical culture seems a necessary foundation for a constitutional democratic republic.  Such a republic exercises a form of governance that is guided by persons bringing about change by providing reasons that are voted on by the public or by representatives, without violence.  The kind of skills that are important in a philosophical culture are expressed in the following portrait of interpersonal dialogue by Roger Scruton:

 When I am interested in someone as a person, then his own conceptions, his reasons for action and his declarations of resolve are of paramount importance to me. In seeking to change his conduct, I seek first of all to change these, and I accept that he may have reason on his side. If I am not interested in him as a person, however, if, for me, he is a mere human object who, for good or ill, lies in my path, then I shall give no special consideration to his reasons and resolves. If I seek to change his behaviour, I shall (if I am rational) take the most efficient course. For example, if a drug is more effective than the tiresome process of persuasion, I shall use a drug. Everything depends upon the available basis for prediction. To put it in the language made famous by Kant: I now treat him as a means, and not an end. For his ends, his reasons are no longer sovereign in dictating the ways in which I act upon him. I am alienated from him as a rational agent, and do not particularly mind if he is alienated from me.

 Here is a further account of a healthy form of dialogue, by Ilham Dilman:

 It is by engagement with our surroundings and with others, through taking a genuine interest in things outside us and caring about others that we come to ourselves or find our reality.  In being self-protective or defensive … seeking to compensate for our weaknesses, trying to get our own back on others nursing grudges, thinking of our self-interest in what we do, seeking to boost our own importance, we fail to come to ourselves.  We become restricted, confined, and considerably narrow in our give-and-take with other people. (Italics Dilman’s)

 2) The ability to identify, articulate, and reflect on ethical matters with clarity, respect, and an awareness of the alternative positions and arguments (for example, defending gay marriage or arguing for a carbon emission taxes to help stem global warming).  For many, an ethics course may be ideal in term of identifying and clarifying one’s own values, but this need not be seen as a major goal of an ethics course.  One may, for example, gain a great deal from simply exploring different positions and arguments without making an explicit commitment of one’s own.

3) A third goal should involve mastering the content of significant moral arguments or positions and the reasons that have been or can be raised in support of them or as objections.  The scope of this content will depend on the course.

4) While I think we probably need to avoid any explicit reference to a goal of making persons better, take note of the St. Olaf College Mission Statement, which claims that education at St. Olaf should focus on what is ultimately worth-while, that we should strive in enabling students to have integrated lives (mind, body, spirit), and that if students are not already inclusive or tolerant of others, we (or the college) should encourage inclusiveness and tolerance (presumably within limits). We are to increase the moral sensitivity of students, and while there is no explicit missionary goal of, say, religious conversion to the Lutheran (or any other branch of Christianity) faith, a St. Olaf education is intended to provide an opportunity to encounter the Christian Gospel and “God’s call to faith.”  Here is the whole text, as accepted in 1987:

St. Olaf, a four-year college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, provides an education committed to the liberal arts, rooted in the Christian Gospel, and incorporating a global perspective. In the conviction that life is more than a livelihood, it focuses on what is ultimately worthwhile and fosters the development of the whole person in mind, body, and spirit.

Now in its second century, St. Olaf College remains dedicated to the high standards set by its Norwegian immigrant founders. In the spirit of free inquiry and free expression, it offers a distinctive environment that integrates teaching, scholarship, creative activity, and opportunities for encounter with the Christian Gospel and God’s call to faith. The college intends that its graduates combine academic excellence and theological literacy with a commitment to lifelong learning.

St. Olaf College strives to be an inclusive community, respecting those of differing backgrounds and beliefs. Through its curriculum, campus life, and off-campus programs, it stimulates students’ critical thinking and heightens their moral sensitivity; it encourages them to be seekers of truth, leading lives of unselfish service to others; and it challenges them to be responsible and knowledgeable citizens of the world.

When this statement is re-visited by the faculty, I imagine there will be some changes.  But (off hand) the above statement does (at least appear to) advocate a body of values and principles, some of which may be (and should be) in tension with each other.  What about a case in which faculty or students find that their being “seekers of truth” and critical thinkers leads them to conclude that there is no God who calls persons to faith and that, rather than the Christian Gospel being a desirable, live challenge for us to live a life of grace and charity, we would all do better to focus instead on exclusively secular concerns?   The way I read the statement and I think the way we understand our identity here (notice the use of “we”—I am keenly aware that I was not elected to interpret the statement for all) is that St. Olaf College (its education and the community) invites both diversity and dissent.  If this were a stricter evangelical college in the tradition of Wheaton College, Calvin College or Bethel University, or perhaps a conservative Roman Catholic University (more conservative than today’s University of Notre Dame or Georgetown University), we would be in a different campus and academic culture.  But I think we are in a culture that values and finds it worthwhile to consider the heritage and contemporary practice of Christianity as well as other religious and secular traditions.  On this EIN website, the authors (as I wrote about 70% of the site, I suppose I could write ‘author’) give reasons why, at St. Olaf College, there is primacy of inclusion in each EIN course for Christianity insofar as there is a requirement that EIN courses devote attention to more than one Christian religious or ethical tradition, rather than, say, a requirement that all EIN courses include Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, Judaic, or Islamic ethics.  For further treatment, please see the sections of this site titled ‘Getting Started’ and ‘Christian Ethics’

QUESTION:  Why are there so many references to Hitler and the Nazis?  Why all the references to the Holocaust?

ANSWER:  Good question.  I think that any good practice of ethics (whether informally or in an institution like a college) should not use examples or illustrations recklessly or in ways that may distort our judgment by evoking inappropriate emotions or distracting us from what is especially relevant.  So, in a course in which the topic is good and evil there will inevitably and naturally be an occasion to draw attention to the major figures in the twentieth century who are responsible for the deaths of millions (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot).  And, naturally, if a course or research project is specifically set on Europe in World War II, the focus on Hitler, et al. is hardly odd or unexpected.  But in a course or project that is not so oriented, sometimes the use of Hitler and the Nazis can be misleading.  It can mislead if it inclines us to think that real evil and wrongdoing is largely limited to a person or a radical political party.  Someone’s cheating on a test or lying to a friend for self-gain is of virtually no significance whatsoever compared with the industrialized mass killings of millions of people.  Another point of distraction occurs when focusing on Hitler can lead us to think that evil is not really human; Hitler is sometimes thought of as so malignant and murderous that he is “not one of us”; he is a sub-human demon.  Whether Hitler should be thought of this way, we should remember that you and I can do evil (or commit wrong acts) and not have any demonic excuse (e.g. “the devil made me do it”) or pretend we are somehow not human.

So, we recommend not dilating on Hitler or the Nazis in the course of an ethical course or project, but at the same time we think it is often important to remind ourselves that Hitler and the Nazi era is not in the remote, distant past.  Just this summer, as I compose this text, a man in Minnesota has been accused of war crimes at a Nazi prison camp.  We are also still having to address the importance of returning stolen goods (mostly artworks) to survivors of the war, and some scientists still wrestle with whether it is ethically permissible for them to use data collected by Nazi doctors on human anatomy (e.g. measurements of endurance) when this data was gained through premeditated murder at the Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen concentration camps.

QUESTION:  What is the philosophical community like?  Are there “insiders” or “outsiders”?

ANSWER:  On this EIN site, “philosophy” and “philosophical community” are being treated primarily in terms of the love of wisdom and those in communities dedicated to the love of wisdom, and only secondarily to philosophy as an institution or academic discipline.  In the primary sense, if having insiders and outsiders is in keeping with the love of wisdom, then I suppose those “inside” are very deeply committed to that ideal whereas those who are less committed would be (comparatively speaking) less so.  When it comes to the practice of philosophy, both historically and today, there are “master narratives” in the way of histories that do set up the idea that some thinkers were especially philosophical (or more thoroughly committed to philosophy) while some thinkers were primarily in some other discipline but made fascinating philosophical contributions (e.g. Freud, Marx).  In general, however, philosophers today would resist describing each other (professionally) as insiders or outsiders except when this concerns matters of unfair exclusions, employment or out of a desire to distance her or himself from some action or state of the institution of philosophy.  So, a philosopher might claim that those with power (tenure, for example) are largely of a certain gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious or secular outlook… and that she or he is among them or excluded.  An untenured, adjunct instructor may well feel (and be) an “outsider” compared to a fully tenured professor.  And someone may protest when the American Philosophical Association makes some decision based on a high-level committee that is “inside” the power base, leaving those who are philosophers teaching at a community college feeling pretty excluded.  A philosopher might also describe her or himself as an outsider when it comes to expressing sensitivity about making claims about groups.  So, if a philosopher is not gay, he or she may be reluctant to claim to speak about knowing what it is like to be gay, and so on.

Because of the primacy we (on the EIN site) place of philosophy as the love of wisdom, we think that those who are philosophers in institutions should act in ways that most reflects loving wisely the practice of philosophy (in other words, we should be philosophical about being philosophical).  As such, we think professional philosophers have a prima facie obligation to make the practice of philosophy as open to as many persons from as many diverse backgrounds as is feasible.

QUESTION: What is the difference between charity and justice or duty?

ANSWER: Charity is often thought of as an act or offering that is freely given, or not given out of strict duty.  We regularly refer to ‘charitable gifts.’  Some philosophers and theologians believe that it is a matter of justice that those with disposable wealth contribute to relief for the worst off on earth.  There is a further distinction in which an ethicist may argue that while the wealthy ought to use their surplus wealth to help the worse off, they should not (as a rule) be compelled to use such wealth, or they should be taxed some (and some wealth redistributed) but not taxed to the full payment of all that is required.

QUESTION: How can one practice ethics with humility? If ethics involves blaming people for wrongs, isn’t there a built-in danger that our ethics may be self-serving?

ANSWER: What is humility?  Aquinas and others have argued that humility is identical with proper pride.  Proper pride (unlike vanity, pompousness, and arrogant self-promotion) involves not having a view of oneself that exaggerates one’s importance or unjustly seeks preeminence over others, but viewing oneself with a realism that leads to acknowledgment of one’s shortcomings, vices, and failures.  Someone who exaggerates his wickedness may actually do so out of an inverted vanity.

When one blames another person of wrongful conduct (whether this is a matter of applying criminal law, whistle-blowing, or something else) it is vital that one not do so without vigorous self-examination and personal self-searching.  Why?  Because it is likely that one’s own vices may have distorted one’s perception of others.

As to the danger of doing things that are self-serving, isn’t being self-serving dangerous in almost all we do?

QUESTION: What is the difference between judgment and being judgmental? How should one weight judgments of others and judgments of one’s self, from a moral point of view?

ANSWER: I suggest that the term ‘judgmental’ refers to a person who is excessive in his or her blaming—perhaps both in terms of scope and intensity.  For example, I suspect I am being judgmental when I relish criticizing others on every possible infraction that I can imagine. Consider the terms ‘preach’ and ‘preachy.’ I myself have no problem with the genres of the sermon, homily, or lecture, but the term ‘preachy’ seems to apply to cases when someone inappropriately announces his (self-described as absolutely correct and indubitable) views on what is right or wrong, sacred or profane.

As hinted above, I suggest that self-examination and self-scrutiny is probably essential prior to any effort to examine the faults of other people or institutions.

QUESTION: What difference is there, if any, between a duty and an obligation?

ANSWER: I doubt the distinction is strictly observed in English today, but there is a proper and important distinction between when what you ought to do is something that applied to all persons versus what you ought to do based on some acquired position or promise or office.  So, as a professor you may have an obligation to make yourself available for office hours (you acquired this obligation by being trained for and being appointed a professor), but you have a duty not to murder (just in virtue of being a person).

QUESTION: When can one compel a person to do what is in their duty?

ANSWER: Some philosophers distinguish duties that are so stringent that others may coerce a person to do his duty, and those duties that may be serious but should not require compulsion in order to be fulfilled.  For example, a father has such an important duty to care for his child that the state can compel him to contribute to the child’s wellbeing.  However, another person may have a duty to not engage is self-harm but some forms of self-harm can be (and perhaps should be) legally permissible.  Presumably, a person has a duty to not become an alcoholic or drug-addict, and we can make it illegal to do many things while intoxicated or under the influence, but it is still perfectly legal for John Doe to drink himself into oblivion if he does so in his home and poses no danger to others.

QUESTION: When is a relationship between persons (or nations, companies, etc.) exploitative?

ANSWER: This is difficult.  The key is to have a concept of when consent is both free and fair versus when it may be (technically) voluntary but not fair.  So, when an African nation agrees to be the site for dumping e-garbage it may do so voluntarily (no one is threatening the nation with military action if it refuses), but it is unfair insofar as the nation needs the funds to prevent a crisis but subjects its people to humiliation by consenting.

QUESTION: How might one integrate ethics, and Christian ethics in particular, into a course on healthcare and medicine taught in the Economics Department?

ANSWER: In a recent EIN Faculty Workshop, Jason Marsh took note of a paper that effectively argues a point in Roman Catholic theology to the effect that based on accepted Roman Catholic principles (which include the principle of double effect) one can argue against the prohibition of contraceptives.

Here are other matters that can come up: what about hospitals that are sponsored by Roman Catholics (or some other religious order) being required to be sites for abortion or euthanasia?  What about the scope of paternity and responsibility (parents who, on religious grounds, prevent their child from receiving a blood transfusion on religious grounds)?  You can find on the web, different religious positions on: genetic engineering, use of animals in research, cloning, and end-of-life decisions. For example, Catholic theology will allow some forms of self-sacrifice in the form of a person giving up her life in a principled way, but not others. You can do a great act of giving up your food (and thus facing inevitable starvation) for others, but not if this is a case of avoidable self-starvation.  One may fruitfully consider a case in which a terminal patient is given an overdose of morphine and dies, though the morphine was administered to reduce pain rather than with the intent of killing.

QUESTION: How might one integrate ethics, and Christian ethics in particular, into a course on economic stability taught in the Economics Department?

ANSWER: This is a rough answer, but consider taking on the origins and structure of international law. Historically, theism was an important background assumption for Pufendorf and Grotius. Is theism still needed? Note that the atheist Thomas Nagel seems to think that without God and without a sovereign human power, there is no international justice or law.

What about property?  Consider biological piracy. One key contemporary measure of well being that has been championed by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen measures value in terms of capacities.  This may have theological implications.  In the following Tehran Times interview, I seek to address Sen and religious ethics: http://www.tehrantimes.com/component/content/article/52-guests/105476-abrahamic-religions-give-central-importance-to-justice-philosopher

QUESTION: What is the relationship of rights and duties? What is the difference between addressing concerns from the standpoint of rights versus duties?

ANSWER: Some distinctions: a positive duty is a duty for some action, whereas a negative duty is a duty of restraint.  Presumably, a person’s right to free speech involves persons having negative duties not to censor others. A duty to be generous with wealth may not rest on a right of some charity to your wealth.  A society of divine commands may be one in which persons do not have rights. Imagine someone who refrains from stealing because it is divinely prohibited versus someone who does not steal because persons have a (perhaps God-given) right to their property.

QUESTION: When addressing values in religious, or specifically Christian contexts, what is the meaning of faith? Of belief?

ANSWER: This is very hard to answer simply, but here is a proposal: when you believe X, X is what seems to be the case to you.  We might rephrase in terms of what appears to be the case.  Those taking this position, usually think that beliefs are involuntary.

‘Faith’ can have multiple meanings, but I suggest two are common: (a) faith involves trust, and (b) ‘faith’ can refer to the content of one’s religious tradition or community.

Jason Marsh and I are among philosophers who believe that religious beliefs and faith can be reasoned through or subject to critical inquiry and in some cases persons have a prima facie obligation to critically reflect on the coherence and reasons for religious convictions. As it happens, I think that there are strong, justificatory reasons for persons to have religious beliefs and practices, and so the practice of philosophical inquiry can be a positive one, strengthening one’s religious faith.

A few brief observations about terms:  ‘doubt’ can mean the suspension of belief, but it needs not.  One may believe and trust in God while simultaneously engaged in critical, skeptical inquiry.  Many theologians and philosophers think that hope or yearning rather than explicit belief can be sufficient for, say, Christian religious practice, but confident belief in the falsehood of a religion seems incompatible.  That is, an atheist who thinks that there might be a God (the atheist thinks it is possible atheism is false), may be a practicing Christian (imagine that she hopes there is a God who hears her prayers), but it would be harder to imagine someone engaging in, say, worship of or prayer to God when one thinks the probability of there being a God is zero.

All this is quite complicated: there are self-described Christians who think it false to claim that God exists.  Sometimes this is due to their views about the term ‘exists’  (so, Brian Davies might say ‘God is’ or ‘there is the being of God’, but withhold the term ‘exist’ on the grounds that to use the term ‘exists’ is only applicable to created things.

One more point about terminology: I suggest distinguishing the terms ‘atheist’ and ‘non-theist.’ An atheist is one who claims there is no God.  For someone to describe herself as a non-theist leaves open the question of whether she has considered and rejected theism.  A traditional Buddhist might describe herself as a non-theist insofar as she does not subscribe to theism, but she has never really considered whether theism is true or false.

QUESTION:  Is there a difference between apologetics and philosophy?

REPLY:  Today, philosophers tend to treat what would be called “apologetics” as in some way tainted or sub-philosophical.  But this is rather controversial.  In the ancient and early modern era, to offer an apology or agpologetics is to offer a defense of a person or action or make a case for some cause.  One of our earliest philosophical texts is Plato’s Apology for Socrates.  But today, “apologetics” is usually used to refer to religious believers (most of the time Christians) who use philosophical texts and arguments to advance reasons for adopting a religious belief or tradition.  We do not think there is anything wrong with this or that it is necessarily sub-philosophical.  But it can be fairly observed that in loving wisdom, philosophical dialogue is often best carried out when persons are open to changing their minds or (as the phrase appears in Plato’s dialogues) “to follow the argument wherever it leads.”  An apologist, by comparison, is perhaps more like a criminal defense lawyer whose task is to use every (legal) means to prove her client’s innocence.  It would not do for a defense lawyer and prosecutor to stop in the middle of a trial and to tell the jury that they have each changed their mind and the prosecutor now wants to defend the accused whereas the defense attorney now wants to prosecute her client.  However, in a truly philosophical dialogue one should, in principle, be open to changing sides.

QUESTION: Are there principles to follow in addressing choices between alternatives beliefs when the evidence seems to support more than one alternative?

ANSWER: This is controversial, but I suggest that if there is evidence for two, incompatible religious worldviews it is (often) permissible to believe either –especially in cases in which the evidence is independent of each other.  So, imagine someone is a Buddhist on the basis of believing the testimony of Buddhist philosophers she has every reason to trust, whereas someone else is a Hindu based on an intellectual argument she has reason to trust.

QUESTION: How do you argue from facts to values? Some philosophers have argued that you cannot reason from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’; the fact that lots of people lie does not allows us to infer that it is good to lie. In fact, philosophers have come up with the term ‘naturalistic fallacy’ to refer to the improper inference from statements about nature (or what is) to statements about what ought to be. Is this actually a fallacy?

Many (but not all) philosophers think there is no clear way to separate facts and values. So, the concept of being a human seems to be a not mere fact, but a blend of fact and values.  Arguably, you would not know what a human being is unless you knew that blinding, suffocating, or bleeding a human is bad for her.  The concept of ‘health’ seems to be one that involves both facts and values.

QUESTION: It is easy to be discouraged in moral action when one can only do modest, almost minute action (say in feeding some homeless person) when there is so much that needs to be done.How might one motivate someone to save one octopus when one cannot save all of the millions that are endangered?

ANSWER: At a recent EIN Faculty Workshop, Karen Wilson gave an excellent case of a person who made a difference by giving away sandwiches to the poor; his action was at first insignificant, but they accumulated over time.

QUESTION: What is self-deception, and how might we combat it?

ANSWER: I shall leave this matter open. Suffice to note that a case of lying to another person seems easier to understand than a case in which one lies to oneself.

QUESTION: What is the natural law tradition and how might one make use of it or reference it in an EIN class?

ANSWER: In essence, those in the natural law tradition believe that persons, animals, plants, and so on have specific ‘natures’, and that we can understand the good or ill of things in relationship to their nature.

For example, consider the thesis that it is due to our human nature that we know that eating barbed wire is bad.

Puzzle cases: what about cases where the nature seems man-made (as in the cases of ‘weeds’, ‘garbage’, and ‘waste’? The nature of such things seems to be a matter of human preference. A weed, for example, is simply an undesirable plant.

QUESTION: What principles should (or might) govern our decision-making in matters of uncertainty? More specifically, in conditions when the probability of outcomes in unknown?

ANSWER: Pascal’s Wager may be taken out of its original religious context and applied to many areas of ethics.  Essentially, a Pascalian wager would assess best and worst outcomes.  For example, imagine you are not sure whether or not climate change is anthropogenic and can be reversed by reducing fossil fuel emissions. One might argue that it would be more prudent to assume this is true and act on it, since that is the safest and least dangerous option.

QUESTION: How does or should one as a professor or student assess ethical arguments?  At what points can you assess your students (or yourself) in terms of critical, ‘objective’ standards in ethical matters?  To what extent might ethics involve aesthetics, or matters of taste? Or a subjectivity or set of intuitions that are difficult (or impossible) to assess without begging the question?  Imagine a utilitarian professor and a natural law professor in debate.  On what grounds might one assess the merits or excellence of the one argument versus the other?

ANSWER: There is a basic level of assessment concerning a paper or essay in ethics that is common to any kind of argumentation in any number of fields.  When there are references or attributions to historical or contemporary persons, movements, institutions, claims, or historical events, is sufficient evidence provided (when relevant)?  Cases of ‘common knowledge’ (almost by definition) need not require evidence (e.g. the year that Lincoln was assassinated), let alone a formal reference of any kind (in fact, a reference to common knowledge claims may be stylistically undesirable), but matters of controversy do require evidence.

Matters of grammar, lucidity, scope, and internal consistency seem pretty uncontroversial.

Going further, the following are important in assessing a paper in ethics: 1) a principle of charity or rationality—did the author present the ‘other side’ fairly?  Presumably, it would not be fair in a comparison of Islamic ethics and Christian ethics to use Al-Qaida as the first example and Mennonite Christian pacifists as the second. 2) There is also a kind of historical ‘objectivity’ that is important to confirm.  That is, no positive case for utilitarianism today can be taken seriously without at least acknowledging one of the dozens of objections that have been historically significant. The same goes for natural law, deontology, and so on.

Aesthetic and ‘subjective’ factors can be relevant in a paper in ethics on several levels.

It is also a good idea to encourage students in their writing to not write in terms of proof or refutation, but rather in terms of arguments that are plausible or implausible. Good arguments are cogent, convincing, backed up by empirical evidence, supported by different religious or cultural traditions or common-law or as part of ‘common sense morality’, while bad arguments are unconvincing, open to serious objections, counter-intuitive, or put us on a slippery slope.

I think we can assess the merits of an essay on natural law versus an essay on utilitarianism in terms of how each offers positive reasons or shows how it provides a simple, more convincing (not ad hoc) solution to difficult problems.  People disagree, but I think that in the debate in the Nuremberg trials, the natural lawyers had a better solution than the positivists.  Do a Google search for the ‘grudge offender’ or ‘Hart vs. Fuller’ for background.

A very difficult matter to assess concerns ad hominem arguments.  It is pretty well grounded that it is as illicit to reject Nietzsche’s theory of values because the Nazis claimed it as authoritative as it would be to think Picasso was a bad artist because he was a misogynist.  But it is not as blindingly clear when assessing Heidegger in light of his being a member of the Nazi party.  For example, if you can show that the text Being and Time presents a kind of ethic or string of values that makes Nazi ideals of race and land sensible, that fact should be considered relevant to the assessment.

QUESTION: Aren’t there many dangers in engaging in religious ethics in a public setting, whereas many people think that matters of religion are private or not subject to public control or criticism?  Consider politicians who present themselves as religious persons in their private lives who set aside their religion when it comes to holding a public office?  So, there is more than one governor who has said: I am a practicing Roman Catholic, but as governor of the state of ______ my duty is to uphold the law.  So, while I personally and privately think abortion is morally wrong, I will do all in my power as governor to protect women who choose to terminate their pregnancy and to prosecute to the full extent of the law anyone who threatens women from exercising that right (so long as it remains the law of our nation or state that such a right is constitutional).

ANSWER: This is the hot topic of the moment.  For a closer look at the issues, the work of Ed Langerak is indispensable. You will see some of his views on this EIN website, as well as links to his work on the Philosophy Department homepage.

QUESTION: How in the world might one manage, lead, or stimulate a group discussion on some religious approach to, say, economics, healthcare ethics or international law?

ANSWER: I propose that all that is necessary is to provide a forum in which students feel safe doing (what might be called) ‘As-If’ reflections.  For example, one might ask students to assume (if only for the exercise of expanding their imagination and horizons) that some form of Christianity (or Islam or Hinduism) is true on some particular point, and then ask for how one might address such and such a problem.  Africa would be a great arena for this, as Africa is (very roughly) 40% Muslim and 40% Christian, with the rest being secular or any of a variety of indigenous or other religions. Fortunately there are huge numbers of religious websites now addressing environmental and economic and political concerns.  You might begin with the English version of the central Vatican website and move from there.

QUESTION: How should we assess the importance of reasons and motives?  Can we rank the reasons persons give for why they do what they believe is “ethical”?

ANSWER: At a recent EIN Faculty Workshop Ashley Hodgson presented us with a case that was something like this: Imagine two persons who are asked why it would be wrong to hit someone with a baseball bat (I probably did not write down the question exactly, so this is more ‘in the spirit’ of Ashley’s question). One person says: “you should not do it because it would hurt”.  A second person says: “you should not do it because it is wrong.”  Ashley signaled a preference for the second.  In what follows I would like to explore reasons for different positions here.

I think Ashley’s case is fascinating. Her stated preference makes good, intuitive sense. Here we might also make use of some complications. Imagine that the person who said, “I should not do it because it would hurt” entered into dialogue with her professor:

Professor: why is hurting someone else something bad?

Student: Hurting just is something bad.  If I hurt my peer by hitting him with a bat, I have probably made him cry and he will need to go to the hospital.

Professor: But what if hitting him helped him become a nicer person?  What if going to the hospital was a good opportunity for him to see how doctors and nurses work?  Maybe this will give him a chance to think he would like to be a doctor and save many lives.

Student: Okay, maybe if I knew all that would happen, I might go ahead and hit him, but I don’t know it.  Also, even if my hitting led to all sorts of good things, my hitting him would still be bad!  And you should not do bad things, right Professor?

What I am getting at (or trying to) concerns what level of thinking and reflection about the goodness or badness of our action do we expect of ourselves or of mature moral agents. Imagine the following replies to the question of whether you should hit your classmate with a bat:

I should not do it both because it would hurt and also because he and I are made in the image of God and are created and redeemed to love and care for one another.

Because I am part of a social contract that prohibits such violence.

Because it would violate Kant’s categorical imperative.

Because I would not like him to do it to me.

Because I will be unpopular if I do it.

Here is a suggestion: perhaps in some cases when a wrong is obviously wrong, we would not expect a mature, wise person to offer reasons.  Imagine if Jason announced at the EIN Workshop: “I am not going to lock the door to this room and then release a deadly virus because I am deeply committed to the welfare of each of you and believe that you have a right to life that would make my threatening you profoundly wrong.”

Or, putting matters differently compare that Jason with Jason TWO who might say: “Of course I will not do some things (he then describes the release of the virus) because they are wrong.”

We might prefer to be in the room with the second Jason, because it seems so clear that the act is wrong that he does not even have to offer reasons.

QUESTION: It has been proposed that it is desirable to describe ourselves as ‘college professors’ rather than as ‘teachers.’  Isn’t this pretty pedantic? Why think it might be important to describe ourselves as professors rather than teachers? What practical differences might this make?

ANSWER: I suggest professors will have more engaging classes because they are more apt to be invested in thinking through matters with students, rather than simply instructing them on a body of knowledge.

QUESTION: How might one use ‘real world’ cases versus ‘thought experiments’?  How in the world should one distinguish between these and judge which is better?

ANSWER: I have a sneaky feeling that I have lost all readers by now.  For the answer to this or any other question, please feel free to send me an email at taliafer@stolaf.edu!