CEPA eprint 2609

Models of ethics

Gash H. (2013) Models of ethics. In: G. E. Lasker & K. Hiwaki. (eds.) Personal and Spiritual Development in a World of Cultural Diversity. Vol X. IIAS, Tecumseh Ontario: 7–11. Available at http://cepa.info/2609
Table of Contents
Introduction
The Metaphysical issue: Objectivity versus relativism.
Egoism or altruism
What is the role of reason and emotion in ethics?
Do women and men approach ethics differently?
Summary.
References
The economic crisis has brought ethical issues into the foreground of public debate inviting a consideration of ethical wealth distribution. Issues in meta-ethics play a significant role in these discussions because they have such potential to vary from person to person, while remaining hidden. They include whether ethical ideas may be objectively correct or vary depending on context, whether ethical ideas are principally matters of reason or of emotion, whether men and women consider ethical questions from different viewpoints and finally here – ideas about the origins of altruism. These varied perspectives each contain widely varying ethical approaches. This paper began in the context of a course about ethics and inclusive education, however understanding the interplay of these ideas has broader significance because most people naturally wish to do good. Indeed, all disagreements about what people hold fundamentally important have the potential to lead to conflict and violence. Therefore, I believe a fuller appreciation of meta-ethical ideas and their variation has general implications for peaceful co-existence.
Introduction
We live in a time of economic crisis, a time when the belief in inevitable economic progress for the Few slipped and when issues concerning ethically sustainable living for Others re-emerged. In Ireland this spring Government and Unions have debated at length seeking to negotiate how to find ways to cut money from our National budget. For a decade at least, Ireland has had a system whereby pay rises for public service union members were agreed through discussion. During this time in Ireland, there was significant stability in labour relations and strikes were infrequent. The Unions and the Government reached an agreement again in the early part of our economic crisis in 2009. As Ireland appears now to emerge very slowly from its crisis, the challenge is to try to continue this stability as cuts in public services and their pay continue. Ethical issues are central to this process of negotiation. Therefore, it is of some interest to examine ethical approaches to understand better, how people make ethical judgments.
Philosophy has at least four strands and ethics is one. Ontology is about existence; epistemology is about knowing and what it means to say something is true; ethics is about the terms that come into morality (especially the meaning of the word “good”); and aesthetics is about beauty. Here I focus on ethics, though there will be tangents in my thinking that touch ontology, epistemology and aesthetics. In a systems conference we notice connections.
Ethics is particularly important in thinking about promoting world peace because naturally people want to do good to those close to them. When disagreements arise about ethical issues then, the results often lead to conflict because no one wants to be wrong about doing good. Ethics includes meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics ((Fieser, 2009). Meta-ethics includes a number of issues such as whether we should think ethics has objective qualities or alternatively subjective relativist qualities (the metaphysical issue – ontology); whether people are good for selfish or altruistic reasons; whether ethics is essentially about reason or emotion; and finally, whether men and women approach morality in different ways (Fieser, ibid.). Here I focus on meta-ethics, as these are issues that people take for granted and may differ inter-personally and so have the potential to lead to conflict.
It is clear that if there are divergences in answers to meta-ethical issues then there are reasons to be pessimistic about agreement on ethical issues. Given that disagreement is likely, the only hope for peace is through discussion to examine the grounds for the disagreements. My approach here is to look at meta-ethics as a psychologist. My position is a constructivist one, that is, taking for granted that what we each know and feel individually are constructions resulting from choices and experiences in our own varying lives and cultures.
If disagreements are invitations to discuss, rather than excuses to disrespect, then discussions may offer insight into the origins of the different views held with some hope of the emergence of mutual respect. However, all too often disagreements about fundamental issues end in deep distrust with each party wanting nothing to do with the other.
The Metaphysical issue: Objectivity versus relativism.
Plato argued that ideas had an objective quality. I think he meant that in spite of variation in experience, ideas were stable. Mathematical ideas are good examples - two and two make four whatever we are counting. So what sort of stability do ethical ideas have? Plato thought they were like mathematical ideas. Some people have very firm beliefs about the importance of ethical and moral ideas. Other people are more tolerant about varying approaches to what is right and how we should deal with divergence in this domain. I believe that these differences are the result of the ways we learn these ideas and have a cultural basis. A constructivist position invites people to understand differences between ideas, to examine how people learn them, and to try to understand how and why people vary in their approaches. If one adopts an objectivist approach, then there is one right way and deviations from this way are wrong and importantly need to be removed. A system that believes it is right cannot tolerate alternative ideas; such ideas are like viruses and damage the truth.
How do we deal with the issue of relativism and its corollary that anything goes? I can check whether certain types of objects exist, but checking the existence of some other things may be less straightforward. As an example, an island featured on maps until recently, but it did not actually exist (Web reference, Dec 9, 2012.) Whether souls exist is another matter. These examples raise a crucial issue for teachers. What do we do when there are differences of opinion about issues like these in class? What do we do when a child produces a wrong answer? One approach is to begin a discussion by saying that all questions and answers are the result of mental processes. In the case of the island (on the map), it’s easy, there is a procedure. It’s no different from checking if the next street on your map is indeed the one you think it is. But with the idea of a soul, it’s not so simple. Various explanations might be given for the meaning of the word soul, but what do you do if someone says “I don’t think souls exist”? In addition, the idea of checking the meaning by looking at mental process is not always straightforward. All sorts of concepts we use regularly are just accepted and used without the possibility of mental checking. Take germs as an example. Now we can check for germs, but it’s not within the capacity of most households, you need equipment like microscopes and so on. Germs are an interesting example because they are invisible and as adults we know and can speak with authority about them. Therefore, germs share the property of invisibility with religious beings, like angels or souls.
Psychologically speaking, children learn at a young age what is morally right and wrong in their culture. This is part of socialisation, what parents and teachers do naturally at home and at school. Kohlberg and Piaget looked at the rules children learned and how their understandings changed. In Piaget’s theory children had an initial rather rigid approach to rules, presumably from hearing adults making rules and as children not understanding them very well. In middle childhood a sense of reciprocity emerges. This allows an appreciation of social conventions. In Kohlberg’s extension of Piaget’s work it was open to young adults to move from conventional moral reasoning to post-conventional reasoning. This meant accepting that one’s views of morals change through one’s psychological development. In turn, this implies that concepts of right and wrong vary according to one’s experiences.
As I said earlier, some people are convinced that their system of morality is objective. This certainty is vitally important to them and upholding this system is a matter of personal identity. When a person feels that their identity is threatened they feel vulnerable and may become violent in defence of the ideas that are associated with their identity. It seems an important educational challenge to present models of argument where the authenticity and integrity of different ideas can be valued.
Egoism or altruism
From a psychological point of view – why be moral? Varied answers include the golden rule implying reciprocity, to avoid punishment, to gain reward, to fit in with society, to love your neighbour as yourself, and to maximize choice. Socio-biological approaches argue that evolution constrains the successful individual to reproduce. This is clearly a selfish position. A corollary is that it is important to support genetic relatives and this implies a selective altruism. So are people altruistic for selfish reasons or perhaps there are a range of reasons for being moral, and maybe we use them depending on the context? Motivation, after all, is rarely one-dimensional.
Putnam has written about social capital, we might define this as the networking that binds society together and argue that the pressures of modern society have had a negative effect on community social networks and community solidarity. While, some societies promote individualism and others promote collectivism, individualism does not exclude being altruistic. Recent international research on values shows that self-expression values, especially strong ones, are associated with altruism; and in the context of social capital, self-expression values coincide with trust in people and peaceful collective action (Welzel, 2010).
Mike Tomasello (2009) at the Max Planck Centre Evolutionary Anthropology argues cooperation is central to being human. This provides a context to the relation between the individual and the social group. Tomasello distinguishes between the “altruisms” involved in goods (sharing) services (helping) and information (informing) because analysing the costs and benefits in each case differs.
Take helping: For these five reasons—early emergence, immunity from encouragement and undermining by rewards, deep evolutionary roots in great apes, cross-cultural robustness, and foundation in natural sympathetic emotions—Tomasello and his colleagues believe that children’s early helping is not a behaviour created by culture and/or parental socialization practices. Rather, it is an outward expression of children’s natural inclination to sympathize with others. Maturana in his writings has also emphasised how we are social animals, and how it is natural for us to empathise.
Even pre-verbal 12-month-old infants will provide helpful information to adults. Tomasello describes an adult completing a stapling task in the presence of such an infant. The adult leaves the room and another adult enters and removes the stapler and puts it on a shelf. When the first adult re-enters the room she cannot find the stapler. The infant indicates where the stapler is on the shelf by pointing. Tomasello described how chimps do not have such a system of indicating. They sometimes indicate food but it is in an “imperative” way. In addition, he describes their alarm cries and signals to indicate food lack communicative intent. For example, these cries and calls occur even when the whole group is doing the same thing. He invokes Paul Grice’s concept of cooperation that specifies expectations in cooperative activities like conversations. This is like a meta-ethic of conversations and illustrates well why meta-ethics is important, or more generally, why the assumptions behind all sorts of human activities are critical. So much is hidden behind actions we attend to like handing you a drink, or some food. However, the main point is that sharing information is something humans do, and not animals.
What is the role of reason and emotion in ethics?
Ethics are often presented as being about the reasons for behaving in a moral way. However, other philosophers such as David Hume have argued that emotion is crucial for moral action. So there are divergent views on the importance of reason and emotion in relation to ethical argument. Immanuel Kant believed reason is what is central. In Kohlberg’s writing, moral judgments are about ways reasoning becomes more sophisticated as young people think about moral problems and finding solutions to them. However, psychologists concerned with developmental psychology have been generally been concerned to maintain that reason and emotion are not separate. While Kohlberg considered his notion of justice as fundamental to his theory of moral judgment, each thinker approaches any topic with slightly varying suppositions. The mechanism for thinking within a constructivist framework includes the thinker noticing a discrepancy and resolving that discrepancy with existing thoughts. When the discrepancy indicates that there is a moral wrong, it is easy to see that a sense of injustice and a perceived lack of fair play will be associated with emotion. Further, when this emotion is threatening then it is natural to feel that a right is wronged and identity is threatened. As Maturana put it, no one is in greater moral danger than when they believe they are right.
Do women and men approach ethics differently?
Kohlberg based his moral theory on the notion of justice. It included dilemmas based on issues such as stealing, distribution of money, the right to life and interpersonal relations such as trust and breaking promises. However, justice is the central theme. The view that justice is central to moral judgment has been criticised by Carol Gilligan who argued that women were more likely to think about moral issues in terms of cooperation and relationship. Kohlberg’s answer was that justice was one domain on which he had developed a theory of moral development, and it would be interesting to develop a parallel theory in the domain of cooperation and relationship. So there do seem to be differences in ways men and women tend to orient to moral issues, differences in what seems to be most important.
Summary.
This is a short summary of some meta-ethical ideas. In any ethical argument, meta-ethics play a critical and hidden role. Thinking about ethics as a personal system and thinking about ethical discussion as systems in interaction invites us to think about meta-ethical issues that may lie at the heart of disagreement. In a constructivist discussion, disagreements may be resolved as the basis of difference is explored – or at least there is an opportunity to understand the disagreement and for mutual respect to emerge.
References
Feiser, (2009) Ethics. International Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/ethics/#H1 Retreived 12.12.12
Harding, L. (2012, November 30) Mysterious phantom island disappears without a trace. Retrieved from http://mg.co.za/article/2012-11-30-00-mysterious-phantom-island-disappears-without-a-trace
Tomasello, M. (2009) Why we cooperate. Cambridge USA: MIT Press.
Welzel, C. (2010) How selfish are self-expression values: A civicness test. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 41, 152-174.
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