INTRODUCTION TO MORAL REASONING
Many people approach the study of values and ethics with a lot of doubt. "I always try to do the best; I do nothing wrong." "What's wrong with my morals?" "I attend church regularly," or "I've never been arrested, so why do I need to study philosophy and ethics?" are questions students often ask. These are good questions or observations, and asking someone to systematically study ethics is not implying he or she is immoral. Our values, both moral and nonmoral, were acquired along with our basic language and socialized behaviors when we were young children and come from some very strong traditions that are part of our societies and our cultures. Law, religion, our family, and our peer groups all tell us what we ought to do, but following these more traditional "oughts" does not necessarily constitute a moral life.
A great number of people, however, do live long and useful lives without ever consciously defining or systematically considering the values or moral rules that guide their social, personal, and work lives. During most of our lives, we simply decided what was right and did it. Our moral decisions were often little more than the proverbial coin toss or approached mostly from self-interest and egoism. Decision and action, however, are the core of moral decision making and most of us already have some practice at it. Being moral is like any art: The more practice and the deeper understanding we have, the better we become. The more in-depth, sustained reflection we require of ourselves, the better artist we become. The study of ethics would seem to be a rather worthless undertaking if decisions about right and wrong did not influence our behavior.
Sometimes, however, we have difficulty deciding what is right and what is wrong.
Perhaps our own experience and knowledge is not enough. Perhaps we sometimes
do not recognize issues as being moral in nature. Sometimes we recognize moral
issues but do
not have sufficient insight into our value system or sufficient information to make a reasoned, informed decision. Sometimes we have conflicting values and have difficulty deciding which is more important. And as difficult as it can be when we're trying to define right and wrong for ourselves, it becomes more difficult when we have to work with other people and their beliefs about right and wrong.
Any good artists or craftspeople have tools for their trade, and this course attempts to give you the tools for ethics which will enable you to better understand your own moral beliefs and attitudes, how you make moral decisions, and how to work more effectively with others. Part of our commitment is to help you understand the moral implications of your choices, to make more informed moral decisions, to assist in clarifying your moral values and rules involved in your decisions, and to offer you some normative principles and guidelines which will help you arrive at objective and rational moral decisions. To choose one's own values or to make one's own moral decision is to decide to philosophize. The attempt to examine our values and moral rules, to shape and rethink them in the light of one's own experience and the dictates of reason, is a philosophical task. This task is what we call ethics.
Ethics may or may not make you a better person, but it can help you think better about moral and ethical issues. Thinking better about morality and ethics is your goal, but how do these two concepts differ? Ethics is the study of morality; it is the study of an individual's or a society's moral rules and guidelines. It deals with morality, but it is not the same as morality. Morality consists of the rules and guidelines, the mores, which an individual or a group has about what is right or wrong, good or evil. These rules or guidelines may or may not be ethical, but we do attach great importance to them, and they very often help form our attitudes and guide our actions.
Ethics, on the other hand, begins when you systematically reflect on your moral rules or guidelines or the rules and guidelines of your society and ask whether these rules are reasonable or unreasonable and whether good reasons or poor ones support them. You begin to do ethics when you take the moral rules that you have absorbed from your family, your church, and your society and assess these moral rules through ethical standards and analysis. Through the use of normative theories, we are giving you the tools through which you can analyze your moral rules and guidelines. However, the idea that ethics is just another consideration in decision making, to be weighed in the balance along with economic, legal, and other considerations, is simply mistaken. James Rachels says that ethics is a systematic understanding of the nature of morality and what it requires of us. It is with this definition in mind that we turn to our study of morality and ethics.
The section which best follows this essay is What is a Moral System?Additional Links