I have come to think that the effective teaching of ethics combines the following: the history, tradition, and best insights of those responsible for the major normative theories (Aristotle and virtue ethics, John Stuart Mill and utilitarianism, Kant and duty-based ethics—all the usual suspects); the substantiated claims of recent cognitive and neurological sciences; and an ‘affective’ approach that involves role-playing, literature, and at least some basic understanding of psychology (for example, what stress does to a person, and psychoanalytic ideas about projection and transference). It’s a tall order, to be sure, but there it is. If we’re serious about getting away from merely trying to impose rules and going toward real awareness of how people think and feel their way through the very many ethical dilemmas working poses, we need a more sustained and comprehensive approach. A number of years ago a Harvard Business School professor published an article arguing that while students can of course become more conversant and skilled in using normative ethical theories derived from philosophy, there is little evidence that those theories all by themselves actually help them make decisions once they become managers. Literature, he suggested, may do much more to help prepare students for the ambiguities they are likely to face. Hoyk and Hersey in The Ethical Executive take up this attack on traditional philosophy as well to make the case that psychology, especially social psychology, is the field most likely to produce actual self- and other-awareness that will lead to desirable results in terms of ethical reflection and action. Others have joined the chorus and assert that simply introducing three or four normative theories from philosophy and expecting students to “apply” them (like what, band-aids?) absent any other elements of moral reasoning is unlikely to have any real effect long-term in the workplace. Now these citations may seem strange coming from a philosophy professor—aren’t I undermining myself and profession? If what philosophy has to offer isn’t really making much difference why not dispense with it altogether?
My case for keeping it in is that Mill, Kant, Aristotle and the rest weren’t making up ethical theories out of whole cloth. They didn’t invent new ways of being ethical that are mysterious to the rest of us. Their genius was in articulating remarkable well what humans were already doing, showing to us how what we were taking for granted either from tradition or from nature could be codified and explained. In doing so they did prejudice one way of being ethical, one way of judging ethical behavior, but that no one way won out only points to the plurality we do in fact find in humans, both as individuals and societies. Very few of us, when making ethical decisions, are strictly utilitarians, or Kantians, or even religious absolutists, no matter our basic values or espoused theories. We are almost always pluralists, people who combine together a multitude of moral perspectives and principles in order to make decisions. On some issues I lean toward making the consequences the deciding factor; on others I champion a rights perspective and let the chips fall where they may. We are complex, not necessarily contradictory, this way. But because we are, it can be helpful to know just exactly what it is utilitarians think and why, or Kantians, or Christians, or anyone else. A philosophical study should give one the tools to think critically and clearly about the strengths and weaknesses of one’s own and others’ arguments and positions, leading to a conversation about what the better or best thing to do might be. That in turn asks that each of us be a little more introspective about our own values, how we’ve come by them, and whether or not we seek to cultivate the virtues that allow us to live our values. In this way the normative theories act as checks on our ethics, a way to think about what we already do, rather than some foreign system to be “adopted.” Teaching these as though students were without a moral compass coming in, or as a kind of “second skin” one has to wear while at school or work, is counter-productive. They have to be seen a reflective of already existing human practices, and then as this especially careful way of checking in with yourself or others on how we’re all doing. But it is true that how we’re doing—and how one might do differently—is influenced by many other powerful factors also, and we’ll turn to those in Part Three.
- Michael DeWilde