Table of Contents, Thinking Tools Resources Page
Previous Section, Thinking Tools Next Section, Thinking Tools

Westside Toastmasters is located in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California - Westside Toastmasters on Meetup

Chapter 12. Developing as an Ethical Reasoner

One of the most significant obstacles to fair-mindedness is the human tendency to reason in a self-serving or self-deluded manner. This tendency is increased by the extent to which people are confused about the nature of ethical concepts and principles. In understanding ethical reasoning, the following foundations are essential:

  1. Ethical principles are not a matter of subjective preference.

  2. All reasonable people are obligated to respect clear-cut ethical concepts and principles.

  3. To reason well through ethical issues, we must know how to apply ethical concepts and principles reasonably to those issues.

  4. Ethical concepts and principles should be distinguished from the norms and taboos of society and peer group, religious teachings, political ideologies, and the law.

  5. The most significant barriers to sound ethical reasoning are the egocentrism and socio-centrism of human beings.

First we will seek to clarify the problem that ethics poses in human life: what ethics is, what its basis is, what it is commonly confused with, what its pitfalls are, and how it is to be understood.

Following that discussion, we emphasize three essential components in sound ethical reasoning: 1) the principles upon which ethics are grounded; 2) the counterfeits to avoid; and 3) the pathology of the human mind.

Why People are Confused About Ethics

The ultimate basis for ethics is clear: Human behavior has consequences for the welfare of others. We are capable of acting toward others in such a way as to increase or decrease the quality of their lives. We are capable of helping or harming others. What is more, we are capable of understanding - at least in many cases - when we are doing the one and when we are doing the other. This is so because we have the raw capacity to put ourselves imaginatively in the place of others and recognize how we would feel if someone were to act toward us in the manner in which we are acting toward them.

Even young children have some idea of what it is to help or harm others. Children make inferences and judgments on the basis of that ethical awareness, and develop an outlook on life that has ethical significance for good or ill. But children tend to have a much clearer awareness of the harm done to them than they have of the harm they do to others:

Through example and encouragement, we can cultivate fair-mindedness in children. Children can learn to respect the rights of others and not simply focus on their own. The main problem is not so much the difficulty of deciding what is helpful and harmful but, instead, our natural propensity to be egocentric. Few humans think at a deep level about the consequences to others of their selfish pursuit of money, power, prestige, and possessions. The result is that, though most people, independent of their society, ethnicity, and religion, give at least lip service to a common core of general ethical principles, few act consistently upon these principles. Few will argue that it is ethically justified to cheat, deceive, exploit, abuse, harm, or steal from others, nor hold that we have no ethical responsibility to respect the rights of others, including their freedom and well being. But few dedicate their lives to helping those most in need of help, to seeking the common good and not merely their own self-interest and egocentric pleasures.

As we pointed out in the last chapter, there are acts that rational persons recognize are in-and-of themselves harmful to people. They include slavery, genocide, torture, denial of due process, politically motivated imprisonment, sexism, racism, murder, assault, rape, fraud, deceit, and intimidation.

The United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights, which all countries have ratified, articulates universal ethical principles. And a core of ideas defines the domain of ethicality and ethics, for reasonable people, in a broad and global way. Many fail to act in accordance with ethical principles, nevertheless. At an abstract level, there is little disagreement. Virtually no one would argue that it is ethically justifiable to cheat, deceive, exploit, abuse, and harm others merely because one wants to or simply because one has the raw power to do so. At the level of action, though, mere verbal agreement on general principles does not produce a world that honors human rights. There are too many ways in which humans can rationalize their rapacious desires and feel justified in taking advantage of those who are weaker or less able to protect themselves. There are too many forces in human life - for example, social groups, religions, and political ideologies - that generate norms of right and wrong that ignore or distort ethical principles. What is more, humans are too skilled in the art of self-deception for mere verbal agreement on abstract ethical principles to translate into the reality of an ethically just world.

To further complicate the picture, the ethical thing to do is not always self-evident - even to those who are not significantly self-deceived. In complex situations, people of seeming good will often disagree as to the application of this or that ethical principle to this or that concrete case. One and the same act often receives ethical praise from some and condemnation from others.

We can put this dimension of the problem another way: However strongly motivated to do what is ethically right, people can do so only if they know what is ethically justified. And this they cannot know if they systematically confuse their sense of what is ethically right with their vested interest, personal desires, political ideology, or social mores, or if they lack the capacity to reason with skill and discipline in the ethical domain.

Because of complexities such as these, skilled ethical reasoning presupposes the art of self-critique and ethical self-examination. We must learn to check our thinking for egocentrism, socio-centrism, and self-deception. This, in turn, requires development of the intellectual dispositions we discussed earlier in the book, including intellectual humility, intellectual integrity, and fair-mindedness. Sound ethical reasoning often requires a thinker to recognize and get beyond the pitfalls of ethical judgment: ethical intolerance, self-deception, and uncritical conformity. Sound ethical reasoning often requires us to recognize when our reasoning is a reflection of our social indoctrination. Sound ethical reasoning often requires us to enter empathically into points of view other than our own, gather facts from alternative perspectives, question our assumptions, and consider alternative ways to put the question at issue.

Few adults, however, acquire the skills or insights to recognize the complexities inherent in many everyday ethical issues. Few identify their own ethical contradictions, or clearly distinguish their vested interest and egocentric desires from what is genuinely ethical. Few have thought about the counterfeits of ethical sentiment and judgment or have thought through a coherent ethical perspective in light of the complexities and pitfalls of ethical reasoning. As a result, everyday ethical judgments are often an unconscious mixture of genuine and counterfeit ethics, of ethical insight, on the one hand, and prejudice and hypocrisy on the other - each in a web of beliefs that seem to the believer to be self-evidently true.

Inadvertently, we pass on to our children and students our own ethical blindness, ethical distortions, and closed-mindedness. As a result, many who trumpet most loudly for ethics to be taught in the schools merely want students to adopt their own beliefs and perspectives, however flawed those beliefs and perspectives might be. They take themselves to have THE TRUTH in their pockets. They take their perspective to be exemplary of all ethical truths. What these same people fear most is someone else's ethical perspective taught as the truth: conservatives are afraid of liberals being in charge, liberals are fearful of conservatives, theists of nontheists, nontheists of theists, and so on.

All of these fears are justified. People - except in the most rare and exceptional cases - have a strong tendency to confuse what they believe with the truth. "It's true because I believe it" is, as we have already emphasized, a deep subconscious mindset in most of us. Our beliefs simply feel like "the Truth." They appear to the mind as the truth. In the "normal" human mind, it is always the others who do evil, are deceived, self-interested, closed-minded - never us. Thus, instead of cultivating genuine ethical principles in students, teachers often unknowingly indoctrinate them, systematically rewarding students for expressing the beliefs and perspectives the teachers themselves hold. To this extent, they indoctrinate rather than educate students

Test the Idea
Distinguishing Between Indoctrination and Education

As a person interested in developing your thinking, you must clearly distinguish between indoctrination and education. These two concepts are often confused. Using a good dictionary as your reference, complete the following statements (you may want to look these words up in more than one dictionary for a more comprehensive understanding of the terms):

  1. According to the dictionary, the meaning of the word indoctrination that contrasts with the meaning of education is...

  2. According to the dictionary, the most fundamental meaning of the word education that contrasts with the meaning of indoctrination is...

  3. The main difference between education and indoctrination, therefore, is...

Once you feel reasonably clear about the essential differences between these terms, think about your previous schooling and figure out the extent to which you think you have been indoctrinated (in contrast to having been educated). Complete these statements:

  1. As a student, I believe I have been mainly (educated or indoctrinated). My reasons for concluding this are...

  2. For example...

The Fundamentals of Ethical Reasoning

To become skilled in any domain of reasoning, we must understand the principles that define that domain. To be skilled in mathematical reasoning, we must understand fundamental mathematical principles. To be skilled in scientific reasoning, we must understand fundamental scientific principles (principles of physics, of chemistry, of astronomy, and so on). In like manner, to be skilled in ethical reasoning, we must understand fundamental ethical principles. Good-heartedness is not enough. We must be well-grounded in fundamental ethical concepts and principles. Principles are at the heart of ethical reasoning.

People thinking through an ethical issue must be able to identify the ethical principles relevant to the specific ethical situation. They must also muster the intellectual skills required to apply those principles fairly to the relevant case or situation. Ethical principles alone, however, do not settle ethical questions. For example, ethical principles sometimes can be applied differently in cases that are ethically complex.

Consider for instance, the question: Should the United States maintain relations with countries that violate human rights? The most important ethical concepts relevant to this question are justice and integrity, yet matters of practicality and effectiveness clearly must be considered as well. Justice and integrity would seem to require cutting off relations with any country that violates fundamental human rights. But is isolating and confronting these countries the most effective way to achieve these high ethical ends? What is more, history reminds us that nearly all countries violate human rights in one form or another - the United States not excluded. To what extent do we have the right to demand that others live up to standards that we ourselves often fail to meet? These are the kinds of challenging ethical issues often ignored by the naive and the good-hearted on the one hand, and the self-deceived cynical on the other.

Because ethical reasoning is often complex, we must learn strategies to deal with those complexities. The three intellectual tasks we believe to be the most important to ethical reasoning are:

  1. Mastering the most basic ethical concepts and the principles inherent in ethical issues.

  2. Learning to distinguish between ethics and other domains of thinking with which ethics is commonly confused.

  3. Learning to identify when native human egocentrism and socio-centrism are impeding one's ethical judgments (probably the most challenging task of the three).

If any of these three foundations is missing in a person's ethical reasoning, that reasoning will likely be flawed. Let's consider these abilities in turn.

Ethical Concepts and Principles

For every ethical question, some ethical concept or set of concepts directly relevant to the question must be identified. One cannot reason well with regard to ethical issues if one does not clearly understand the force of ethical terms and distinctions. Some of the most basic ethical concepts include honesty, integrity, justice, equality, and respect. In many cases, application of the principles implied by these concepts is simple. In some cases it is difficult.

Consider some simple cases. Lying about, misrepresenting, or distorting the facts to gain a material advantage over others is clearly a violation of the basic principle inherent in the concept of honesty. Expecting others to live up to standards that we ourselves routinely violate is clearly a violation of the basic principle inherent in the concept of integrity. Treating others as if they were worth less than we take ourselves to be worth is a violation of the principles inherent in the concepts of integrity, justice, and equality. Every day human life is filled with clear-cut violations of basic ethical principles. No one would deny that it is ethically repugnant for a person to microwave cats for the fun of it. Nor is it ethically acceptable to kill people to get their money or to torture people because we think they are guilty and ought to confess.

Nevertheless, in addition to the clear-cut cases are also complicated cases, requiring us to enter into an ethical dialogue, considering counter-arguments from different points of view. Consider, for example, the question: Is euthanasia ever ethically justifiable? Certainly there are any number of instances when euthanasia is not justified. To consider the question of whether it is ever justified, however, we must consider the various conditions under which euthanasia seems plausible. For example, what about cases involving people who are suffering unrelenting pain from terminal diseases? Within this group are some who plead with us to end their suffering by helping them end their lives (since, though in torment, they cannot end their lives without the assistance of another person).

Given the fact, then, that a person so circumstanced is experiencing intense terminal suffering, one significant ethical concept relevant to this question is the concept of cruelty. Cruelty is defined by Webster's New World Dictionary as "causing, or of a kind to cause, pain, distress, etc; cruel implies indifference to the suffering of others or a disposition to inflict it on others." Cruelty, in this case, means "of a kind to cause" unnecessary pain. It means allowing an innocent person to experience unnecessary pain and suffering when you have the power to alleviate it - without sacrificing something of equal value.

Once cruelty is identified as a relevant concept, one ethical injunction becomes clear: "Strive to act so as to reduce or end the unnecessary pain and suffering of innocent persons and creatures." With this ethical principle in mind, we can seek to determine in what sense, in any given situation, refusing to assist a suffering person should be considered cruel and in what sense it shouldn't.

Another ethical concept that may be relevant to this issue is, "Life is good in itself." The principle that emerges from this concept is, "Life should be respected." Some would argue that, given this principle, life should not be terminated by humans under any circumstances.

As a person capable of reasoning, you should come to your own conclusions. At the same time, you must be prepared to state your reasoning in detail, explaining what ethical concepts and issues seem to you to be relevant, and why. You must be prepared to demonstrate that you have given serious consideration to alternative perspectives on the issue, that you are not ignoring other reasonable ways to think through the question at issue. You must be ready to present what you take to be the most relevant and important facts in the case. You must be prepared to do what any good thinker would do in attempting to support reasoning on any issue in any domain of thought. The fact that an issue is ethical does not mean that you can abandon your commitment to disciplined, rational thought.

Or consider: Under what conditions, if any, is animal experimentation justifiable? Again, one relevant ethical concept is cruelty, for anyone informed about animal experimentation knows that sometimes animals are subjected to extreme pain, anxiety, and suffering in the name of scientific inquiry. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a proactive animal rights organization, focuses on the negative implications of animal experimentation. PETA, at its Web site, makes claims such as the following:

Information such as this is relevant to the question of whether, to what extent and under what conditions animal experimentation is ethically justified. Some argue that animal experimentation is justified whenever some potential good for humans may emerge from the experiment. Others argue that animal experimentation is unethical because there are always alternative ways, such as computer simulations, to get the information being sought. At its Web site, PETA claims:

Some argue that, in experiments in which animal suffering cannot be avoided, the suffering is ethically justified because in the long run the knowledge gained from this experimentation reduces the pain and suffering otherwise endured by humans. These proponents of experimentation argue that minimizing human pain and suffering is a superior ethical end to that of minimizing animal pain and suffering.

When reasoning through complex ethical questions, then, skilled ethical reasoners identify the ethical concepts and facts relevant to those questions and apply those concepts to the facts in a well-reasoned manner. In coming to conclusions, they consider as many plausible ways of looking at the issue as they can. As a result of such intellectual work, they develop the capacity to distinguish when ethical questions are clear-cut and when they are not. When ethical issues are not clear-cut, it is important to exercise our best ethical judgment.

The Universal Nature of Ethical Principles

For every ethical issue, there are ethical concepts and principles to be identified and used in thinking through the issue. Included in the principles implied by these concepts are the rights articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This set of rights, established on December 10, 1948, by the General Assembly of the United Nations, holds that the:

...recognition of inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world .... Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

The Universal Declaration of Humans Rights was conceived as "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations." It is a good example of an explicit statement of important ethical principles. It is significant, we believe, that every nation on earth has signed the declaration.

Here are a few of the principles laid out in the 30 articles of the declaration:

One ability essential to sound reasoning is the ability to identify ethical principles relevant to the issue at hand. In Test the Idea 12.2, you should think through the identification and application of some of these principles with respect to a specific ethical question.

Test the Idea
Recognizing Violations of Human Rights Based Universal Ethical Principles

In this activity, we will briefly describe an issue as presented in a New York Times article, "Iraq Is a Pediatrician's Hell: No Way to Stop the Dying." We then will ask you to identify any violations of human rights suggested by the manner in which events are characterized.

This article focuses on the medical problems for sick children in Iraq "when the country's medical system is all but paralyzed as a result of economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations eight years ago." The article states that hospitals cannot obtain the medical equipment and supplies they need to handle diseases from the complicated to the "easily curable ailments." This means that virtually all children with leukemia, for example, die in Iraq. The article mentions a three-year-old girl with leukemia, Isra Ahmed, who bleeds profusely from her nose, gums, and rectum. The hospital's chief resident, Dr. Jasim Mazin, says that the hospital lacks the equipment to perform the kind of operation she needs. He states, "We're helpless." He goes on to say, "Iraq used to be the best country in the Arab world in terms of science and medicine. Now we can't even read medical journals because they are covered by the embargo." Dr. Mazin said his worst period came in April 1998 when he lost 75 children to chest infections and gastroenteritis. He believes all of them could have been saved with antibiotics commonly available in neighboring countries. Assume for this exercise that the factual claims in this article are accurate.

Complete the following statements:

  1. If the United Nations sanctions are responsible for the conditions discussed in this article, the following human rights have been violated by the United Nations...

  2. If you believe one or more violations of human rights exist in this situation, complete the following statements:
    • The universal ethical principle violated was...

    • For this ethical principle to be honored, the following action would have been called for in this situation...

Though the principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are universally accepted in theory, even democratic countries do not necessarily live in accordance with them. For example, on October 5, 1998, the New York Times ("Amnesty Finds 'Widespread Pattern' of U.S. Rights Violations," p. A11) reported that Amnesty International was citing the United States for violating fundamental human rights. The Amnesty International report stated that "police forces and criminal and legal systems have a persistent and widespread pattern of human rights violations."

In the report, Amnesty International protested the U.S. failure "to deliver the fundamental promise of rights for all." The report states, "Across the country thousands of people are subjected to sustained and deliberate brutality at the hands of police officers. Cruel, degrading, and sometimes life-threatening methods of constraint continue to be a feature of the U.S. criminal justice system."

Pierre Sane, Secretary General of Amnesty International for six years, said, "We felt it was ironic that the most powerful country in the world uses international human rights laws to criticize others but does not apply the same standards at home."

Every country agrees in theory to the importance of fundamental human rights. In practice, though, they often fail to uphold those rights.

Test the Idea
Identifying Violations of Human Rights Based on Universal Ethical Principles

Identify a newspaper article that either directly or indirectly implies at least one governmental violation of human rights. Complete the following statements:

  1. The main substance of this article is...

  2. The reason this article suggests to me at least one governmental violation of human rights is...

  3. The universal ethical principle(s) violated is/are...

Distinguishing Ethics from Other Domains of Thinking

In addition to understanding how to identify ethical concepts and principles relevant to ethical issues, skilled ethical reasoners must be able to distinguish between ethics and other domains of thinking such as social conventions, religion, and the law. Too often, ethics is confused with these other modes of thinking. It is not uncommon, for example, for social values and taboos to be treated as if they define ethical principles.

Thus, religious ideologies, social "rules," and laws are often mistakenly taken to be inherently ethical in nature. If we are to accept this amalgamation of domains, by implication every practice within any religious system is necessarily ethical, every social rule is ethically obligatory, and every law is ethically justified. We could not judge, then, any religious practices - such as torturing unbelievers - as unethical.

In the same way, if ethics and social conventions were one and the same, every social practice within any culture would necessarily be ethical - including social conventions in Nazi Germany. We could not, then, ethically condemn any social traditions, norms, mores, and taboos - however ethically bankrupt we think them to be. What's more, if ethics and the law were inextricable, by implication every law within any legal system would be ethical by definition - including laws that blatantly violate human rights.

It is essential, then, to learn to routinely differentiate ethics and other modes of thinking commonly confused with ethics. This will enable us to criticize commonly accepted, yet unethical, social conventions, religious practices, political ideas, and laws. No one lacking in this ability can truly live a life of integrity.

Ethics and Religion

To exemplify some of the problems in confusing ethics with other disciplines, let us return for a moment, to the question: Are there any conditions under which euthanasia is ethically justifiable? Rather than understanding this as an ethical question, some take it to be a religious question. Therefore, they think through the question using religious principles. They see some religious principles, namely, the ones in which they believe, as fundamental to ethics.

They argue, for example, that euthanasia is not ethically justifiable because "the Bible says it is wrong to commit suicide." Because they do not distinguish the theological from the ethical, they are likely to miss the relevance of the concept of cruelty. They are not likely to struggle with the problem. This may mean that they find it difficult to feel any force behind the argument for euthanasia in this case or to appreciate what it is to experience hopeless torment without end.

A commitment to some set of religious beliefs may prevent them from recognizing that ethical concepts take priority over religious beliefs when they conflict, as the former are universal and the latter are inherently controversial. Reasonable persons give priority allegiance to ethical concepts and principles, whether these concepts and principles are or are not explicitly acknowledged by a given religious group. Religious beliefs are, at best, supplementary to ethical principles but cannot overrule them.

Consider this example: If a religious group were to believe that the firstborn male of every family must be killed as a sacrifice and failed to exercise any countervailing ethical judgment, every person in that group would think themselves to be ethically obligated to kill their firstborn male. Their religious beliefs would lead them to unethical behavior and lessen their capacity to appreciate the cruel nature of their behavior.

The genuinely ethical thing to do in a society that propagates the above religious belief would be to rebel and resist what others consider to be obligatory. In short, theological beliefs do not properly override ethical principles, for we must use ethical principles to judge religious practices. We have no other reasonable choice.

Religious Beliefs Are Socially or Culturally Relative

Religious relativity derives from the fact that there are an unlimited number of alternative ways for people to conceive and account for the nature of the "spiritual." The Encyclopedia Americana, for example, lists over 300 different religious belief systems. These traditional ways of believing adopted by social groups or cultures take on the force of habit and custom. They are handed down from one generation to another. To the individuals in a given group, despite the large number of possibilities, their particular beliefs often seem to be the ONLY way, or the only REASONABLE way, to conceive of the "divine." For most people these religious beliefs influence their behavior from cradle to grave. Religions answer questions like this:

Religious beliefs bear upon many aspects of a person's life - with rules, requirements, taboos, and rituals. Many of these regulations are neither right nor wrong, but simply represent social preferences and subjective choices. However, sometimes, without knowing it, social practices, including religious beliefs or practices, violate basic human rights. Then, they must be criticized. For example, if a society accepts among its social practices any form of slavery, torture, sexism, racism, persecution, murder, assault, rape, fraud, deceit, or intimidation, it should be ethically criticized. For example, in religious warfare ethical atrocities are often committed. The question, then, ceases to be one of social preference and relativity. No religious belief can legitimately be used to justify violations of basic human rights.

Test the Idea
Distinguishing Between Ethics and Religion

Focus on one religious belief system (as commonly held) to identify possible confusions between theological beliefs and ethical principles. See if you can identify any practices within the religion that might be critiqued as unethical. See also if you can identify any practices that the religion considers unethical that are in fact unrelated to ethics. Select any religion about which you are sufficiently knowledgeable to find possible problems of the sort we are considering. As an example remember the case of those religious believers who think that a woman who commits adultery should be stoned to death.

Ethics and Social Conventions

Let us return to the relationship of ethics and social conventions. For more than a hundred years in the United States, most people considered slavery to be justified and desirable. It was part of social custom. There can be no question that, all along, this practice was unethical. Moreover, throughout history, many groups of people, including people of various nationalities and skin colors, as well as females, children, and individuals with disabilities, have been victims of discrimination as the result of social convention treated as ethical obligation. Yet, all social practices that violate ethical principles deserve to be rejected by ethically sensitive, reasonable persons no matter how many people support those practices.

Unless we learn to soundly critique the social mores and taboos that have been imposed upon us from birth, we will accept those traditions as "right." All of us are deeply socially conditioned. Therefore, we do not naturally develop the ability to effectively critique social norms and taboos.

Practices That Are Socially or Culturally Relative

Cultural relativity derives from the fact that there are an unlimited number of alternative ways for people in social groups to go about satisfying their needs and fulfilling their desires. Those traditional ways of living within a social group or culture take on the force of habit and custom. They are handed down from one generation to another. To the individuals in a given group they seem to be the ONLY way, or the only REASONABLE way, to do things. For most people these practices guide their behavior from cradle to grave. They answer questions like this:

Societies regulate virtually every aspect of a person's life - with rules, requirements, taboos, and rituals. Many of these regulations are neither right nor wrong, but simply represent social preferences and subjective choices. However, sometimes, without knowing it, social practices violate basic human rights. Then, they may be criticized. For example, if a society accepts among its social practices any form of slavery, torture, sexism, racism, persecution, murder, assault, rape, fraud, deceit, or intimidation, it is subject to ethical criticism. The question ceases to be one of social preference and relativity.

Schools and colleges often become apologists for conventional thought; faculty members often inadvertently foster the confusion between convention and ethics because they themselves have internalized the conventions of society. Education, properly so called, should foster the intellectual skills that enable students to distinguish between cultural mores and ethical precepts, between social commandments and ethical truths. In each case, when conflicts with ethical principles exist, the ethical principles should rule.

Test the Idea
Distinguishing Between Ethics and Social Conventions

Prior to and during the civil rights movement in the United States, many whites believed that African Americans were intellectually inferior to them. This belief gave rise to laws that denied African Americans basic human rights. It would be hard to find a clearer case of socially accepted conventions leading to socially defended unethical practices.

Identify one newspaper article that embodies the confusion between social conventions and ethical principles. What we are looking for is an article in which a commonly held social belief results in the denial of some person's or group's basic human right(s):

  1. The substance of this article is...

  2. The reason this article implies at least one violation of human rights is...

  3. The universal ethical principle(s) violated was/were...

Ethics and the Law

As persons interested in developing your ethical reasoning abilities, you should be able to differentiate not only ethics and social conventions but also ethics and the law. What is illegal may be ethically justified. What is ethically obligatory may be illegal. What is unethical may be legal.

Laws often emerge out of social conventions. Whatever is acceptable and expected in social groups becomes the foundation for many laws. But, because we cannot assume that social conventions are ethical, we cannot assume that human laws are ethical. What is more, laws are ultimately made by politicians whose primary motivation is often power, vested interest, or expediency. One should not be surprised, then, when politicians are not sensitive to ethical principles or confuse ethical principles with social values or taboos.

Ethics and Sexual Taboos

The problem here is that social taboos are often matters of strong emotions. People are often disgusted by someone's violating a taboo. Their disgust signals to them that the behavior is unethical. They forget that what is socially unacceptable may not violate any ethical principle but, instead, be a violation of a social convention of one kind or other.

One obvious area to think through, based on this common confusion, is the area of human sexuality. Social groups often establish strong sanctions for unconventional behavior involving the human body. Some social groups inflict strong punishments on women who do no more than appear in public without being completely veiled, an act socially considered indecent and sexually provocative. The question for us, then, is when is human behavior that is considered illicitly sexual by some society a matter for ethical condemnation, and when is it properly considered a matter of social nonconformity?

Our overall goal - which we hope this chapter will inspire readers to pursue - is to become so proficient in ethical reasoning and so skilled in distinguishing matters of ethical principle from matters of social taboo, legal fact, and theological belief that you will rarely confuse these domains in your experience and, rather, render to each of them their due consideration and weight in specific cases as they might arise in your life. In the Test the Idea activities that follow, you can gain some practice in developing these important skills.

Test the Idea
Ethics, Social Taboos, and Criminal Law

In this exercise, we will briefly describe the substance of two news articles. Both articles depict examples of cases in which a given social group has established a law with a significant punishment attendant on its violation, regarding behavior judged by that group to be highly unethical. Think through how you would analyze and assess the act in question using the distinctions discussed in this chapter.

Here are some questions to think about as you read summaries of these articles:

  • Would you conclude that the social group in question has properly or improperly treated the sexual behaviors in each case as matters worthy of ethical condemnation?

  • To what extent should these behaviors be considered serious crimes?

  • Ethically and rationally speaking, how in your judgment should the two cases be treated?

Read each article summary, and answer the questions above for each one. Explain your reasoning. In each case, you may have to make explicit some of your assumptions about important details of the case that may not be in the article summary. Your judgment might vary depending on what details you suppose.

For example, you might come to a different judgment depending on whether violence or outright bodily harm is involved. As you work through the activities, take into account the probable reasoning that might be advanced against your position (for example, you might say, "Someone might object to my reasoning by saying ... To them my reply would be...").

Article 1 (San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 6, 1999)

We read, "For the first time in 23 years, the Philippines executed a prisoner yesterday, a house painter convicted of raping his 10-year-old stepdaughter. Leo Echegaray, 38, was put to death by lethal injection after months of legal delays and an emotional nationwide debate over the death penalty." Philippines president Joseph Estrada refused to stop the execution of Leo Echegaray, "despite pleas from the Vatican, the European Union, and human rights groups." Amnesty International "called Echegaray's death 'a huge step in the wrong direction for human rights in the Philippines'." President Estrada said that the execution signifies "proof of the government's determination to maintain law and order."

After reflecting on the questions we asked you to consider for both articles, come to a determination as to whether, in your best judgment, the punishment fit the crime. Then complete these statements:

  1. I believe that the law leading to this execution is or is not an ethically justified law, because...

  2. If you believe the law itself violated some human right or ethical principle, complete the following statements:

    1. The reason this case contains at least one violation of human rights is...

    2. The universal ethical principle(s) violated is/are...

    3. From a strictly ethical point of view, the following action would have been called for in this situation...

  3. If you believe the law was ethically justified, complete the following statements:

    1. The reason why this case does not contain any violations of human rights is...

    2. The relevant ethical principle(s) that justified this action is/are...

Article 2 (New York Times, Oct. 21, 1999)

This article, entitled "Boy, 11, Held on Incest Charge, Protests Ensue," states "the case of an 11-year-old Swiss-American boy charged with aggravated incest has led to an international dispute over the treatment of children in the American Justice System." The boy, "is accused of making inappropriate sexual contact with his 5-year-old sister when the children were in their yard." According to the article, after an arraignment date was set, the boy was released into foster care. "The boy has been living with his mother, stepfather, 13-year-old sister and two half-sisters, ages 5 and 3, in Evergreen, CO...A neighbor, Laura Mehmert, testified at the hearing that in May she saw the boy touching the younger girl's genitals with his face and hands. After speaking with the boy's mother, the neighbor reported the incident to the authorities. On Aug. 30, the boy was arrested and led in handcuffs from his home. Since then he has been held without bail in a county juvenile center." According to Manual Sager, spokesman for the Swiss Embassy in Washington, the circumstances of the boy's arrest "seemed disproportionate to us to the charges." He said the boy was taken into court in handcuffs and foot chains. According to Hanspeter Spuhler, director of the Swiss-American Friendship Society, "It's just a travesty... The reason why it's such a big deal to the Swiss and the Europeans is because this is part of growing up, playing doctor or something. If indeed he touched her inappropriately, then it will be talked over with the parents." The boy's parents fled to Switzerland with their other three children "out of fear that their three daughters would also be taken from them."

After reflecting on the questions we directed you to consider for both articles, come to a determination as to whether, in your best judgment, ethics is being confused with religious ideology, social conventions, or the law in the main issue that is the focus of the article. For your consideration, we have provided a brief analysis of the two fundamentally different perspectives that might be said to be indirectly implied in the article as it is written.

A Traditional View of Children's Sexuality

Children are not naturally sexual beings. If they engage in sexual acts, they are behaving in a mentally unhealthy manner. What is more, if older children behave in a sexual way toward a younger child, the younger child will be permanently damaged, and the older child should be punished as a criminal would be punished. If the parents of children who engage in sexual behavior fail to take harsh action against that behavior, they are contributing to unhealthy mental development of their children, and therefore are not fit to rear those children.

An Opposing View

To engage in sexual behavior is a natural part of human life. It is natural, normal, and healthy for children to experience, explore, and appropriately express sexual desires. Very often, children invent games (such as "playing doctor") as a form of exploring their sexual feelings with other children. Parents who understand the biological make-up of humans and the natural desire of children to explore their sexual desires will not punish children for having, or appropriately acting upon, sexual thoughts and feelings. Rather, they should look upon exploratory forms of sexual behavior as part of most children's lives.

This latter view seems to be implied in the article by Hanspeter Spuhler, director of the Swiss-American Friendship Society, who states, "It's just a travesty. The reason why it's such a big deal to the Swiss and the Europeans is because this is part of growing up, playing doctor or something. If indeed he touched her inappropriately, then it will be talked over with the parents." In this view, if problems seem to be present with the child's behavior respecting sexuality, the parents will be expected to help the child overcome the problem as parents are generally expected to help children develop as responsible persons. The role of authorities, then, is to help the parents develop their abilities to deal with their children as effectively as possible rather than acting as punitive bodies.

Now, given these two differing perspectives, how would you answer the following questions:

  1. From an ethical perspective, which of these points of view seems the more reasonable, given what you know from reading the article and from your own thinking?

  2. To what extent do you think ethics is confused with social conventions in the minds of the legal authorities in this case?

  3. To what extent do you think religious ideology might play a role in the thinking of either of the above perspectives?

  4. To what extent do you think the law upholds what is ethical in this case or, conversely, reflects poor ethical reasoning?

  5. How do you think this case should have been handled, given what is ethical for the children at issue and their parents? Do you agree with the way it was handled by the authorities, or would you have acted differently had you been in charge of the case? Explain your reasoning.

Test the Idea
Cultural Practice and Ethics

On June 12, 1999, the New York Times reported that in Muslim West Beirut, Lebanon, women and men are expected to avoid sunbathing together except when they are engaged or married to one another. At one beach only a handful of women could be seen, and most were fully clothed, and sheltered by tents or beach umbrellas. Those who swam simply strolled into the water, until their baggy dresses began to float along beside them... "I don't bring my fiancée here because if someone said something like "what a beautiful girl," there'd have to be a fight," said Hassam Karaki, who sat with other men on an all-male beach.

Randa Harb, 27, wore a modest pair of shorts and a tank top as she sat under an umbrella with her bare-chested husband and young son. "If you wear a bathing suit, you're going to attract more attention," Mrs. Harb said. "So my husband won't let me, because he doesn't want people to look and talk..."

Lebanon is not alone, of course, as home to a culture averse to women showing too much skin. In Iran, a strict Islamic republic, the insistence on female "modesty" means that women may not even enter hotel pools. In most Arab countries, except among elites, a standard woman's bathing costume is a dress.

Now answer the following questions:

  1. To what extent does the cultural practice of denying women the right to wear swimsuits at beaches and swimming pools where men are present seem ethical or unethical to you?

  2. On what ethical concepts and principles do you base your reasoning?

Determining Ethical Dimensions of Cultural Practices

On March 6, 1999, the New York Times, reported:

In Maine, a refugee from Afghanistan was seen kissing the penis of his baby boy, a traditional expression of love by his father. To his neighbors and the police, it was child abuse, and his son was taken away....

[Some sociologists and anthropologists] argue that American laws and welfare services have often left immigrants terrified of the intrusive power of government. The Afghan father in Maine who lost his son to the social services, backed by a lower court, did not prevail until the matter reached the state Supreme Court, which researched the family's cultural heritage - while making clear that this was an exceptional case.

The same article also focuses on female circumcision, or genital mutilation, as some call it.

"I think we are torn," said Richard A. Shweder, an anthropologist and a leading advocate of the broadest tolerance for cultural differences. "It's a great dilemma right now that's coming up again about how we're going to deal with diversity in the United States and what it means to be an American."

Some, like Mr. Shweder, argue for fundamental changes in American laws, if necessary, to accommodate almost any practice accepted as valid in a radically different society if it can be demonstrated to have some social or cultural good.

The article states that Mr. Shweder and others defend controversial practices including the common African ritual that opponents call female genital mutilation, which usually involves removing the clitoris at minimum ... But going more than halfway to tolerate what look like disturbing cultural practices unsettles some historians, aid experts, economists, and others ... Urban Jonsson, a Swede who directs the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), said that there is "a global ethical minimum" regarding cultural practices. "There is a non-ethnocentric global ethicality," and that "scholars would be better occupied looking for it rather than denying it.... I'm upset by the anthropological interest in mystifying what we have already demystified. All cultures have their bad and good things."

Now answer the following questions:

  1. Focusing on each case presented in this article separately, to what extent is there an ethical component to each?

  2. To what extent do you think it is true that any culture has "bad" and "good" practices? Or do you think that all practices within a culture are to be honored?

  3. To the extent that an ethical case exists for opposing positions described by this article, what ethical concepts and principles would have to be taken into account when determining the most reasonably defensible position for each?

  4. The cases inherent in this article focus on culturally accepted practices that other cultures consider unethical. To what extent do you think each case contains a violation of human rights? Explain your reasoning.

It is important that you develop your ability to determine for yourself whether any belief system, practice, rule, or law is inherently ethical. To be skilled at ethical reasoning means to develop a conscience that is not subservient to unethical laws, or to fluctuating social conventions, or to controversial, theological systems of belief. But consistently sound ethical reasoning, like consistently sound complex reasoning of every type, presupposes practice in thinking through ethical issues. As you face ethical problems in your life, the challenge will be in applying appropriate ethical principles to those problems. The more often you do so, the better you will become at ethical reasoning.

Understanding Our Native Selfishness

In addition to the above, ethical reasoning requires command over our native tendency to see the world from a self-serving perspective. Chapter 10, on human irrational tendencies, focuses on the problem of human self-centeredness at length. Here we apply some of the major points of that chapter to problems in ethical reasoning.

Humans naturally develop a narrow-minded, self-centered point of view. We feel our own pain; we don't feel the pain of others. We think our own thoughts; we do not think the thoughts of others. And as we age, we do not naturally develop the ability to empathize with others, to consider points of view that conflict with our own. For this reason, we are often unable to reason from a genuinely ethical perspective. Empathy with the thinking of others, then, is not natural to humans. Nevertheless, it is possible to learn to critically think through ethical issues. With the right practice, we can acquire the skill of considering situations from opposing ethical perspectives.

As we have argued in previous chapters, the human tendency to judge the world from a narrow, self-serving perspective is powerful. Humans are typically masterful at self-deception and rationalization. We often maintain beliefs that fly in the face of the evidence right before our eyes and engage in acts that blatantly violate ethical principles. What is more, we feel perfectly justified in doing so.

At the root of every unethical act lies some form and degree of self-delusion. And at the root of every self-delusion lies some flaw in thinking. For instance, Hitler confidently believed he was doing the right thing in carrying out egregious acts against the Jews. His actions were a product of the erroneous beliefs that Jews were inferior to the Aryan race, and that they were the cause of Germany's problems. In ridding Germany of the Jews, he believed himself to be doing what was in the best interest of his Germany. He therefore considered his actions to be completely justified. His unethical ethical reasoning resulted in untold human harm and suffering for millions of people.

To become skilled at ethical reasoning, we must understand that ethical reasoning means doing what is right even in the face of powerful selfish desires. To live an ethical life is to develop command over our native egocentric tendencies. It is not enough to espouse the importance of living an ethical life. It is not enough to be able to do the right thing when we ourselves have nothing to lose. We must be willing tofulfill our ethical obligations at the expense of our selfish desires. Thus, having insight into our irrational drives is essential to living an ethical life.

Test the Idea
Identifying Your Unethical Behavior

Each of us engages in unethical behavior, but few of us recognize that we do. To become highly skilled at ethical reasoning, we must become everyday observers of our own thoughts and actions. Over the next week, closely observe your behavior to "catch" yourself doing something unethical (like being selfish, or hurting someone unjustifiably).

Complete the following statements for five "unethical acts":

  1. This situation in which I behaved unethically is as follows...

  2. The unethical action I engaged in was...

  3. The reason(s) why this act was unethical is/are...

  4. The basic right(s) I violated is/are...

  5. To avoid behaving unethically in future such situations, I should...

To develop as an ethical reasoner, then, we must deeply internalize the fundamental roots of ethics. This means learning to identify and express ethical concepts and principles accurately. It means learning how to apply these principles to relevant ethical situations and learning to differentiate ethics from other modes of thinking that are traditionally confused with ethics. Finally, it means taking command, with intellectual humility, of one's native egocentrism. Without such an organized, well-integrated, critically based approach to ethics, some counterfeit of ethics, but not ethics itself, is the likely result. To date, all across the world, ethics has routinely been confused with other domains of thinking. The use of ethics and its misuse have been nearly one and the same.


Table of Contents, Thinking Tools Resources Page
Previous Section, Thinking Tools Next Section, Thinking Tools