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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.

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