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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:

  • "That's not fair! He got more than me!"

  • "She won't let me have any of the toys!"

  • "He hit me and I didn't do anything to him. He's mean!"

  • "She promised me. Now she won't give me my doll back!"

  • "Cheater! Cheater!"

  • "It's my turn now. You had your turn. That's not fair."

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…

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