Ethics for Life
This is ethics with a personal twist. Its aim is to...
Explore the moral issues and arguments that direct our lives, express our values, and shape our future.
This is the 6th edition of my original 'Teach Yourself Ethics' book, now with additional sections to bring issues up-to-date and aimed at bringing out the personal relevance of a study of ethics.
From the Introduction...
In personal terms, the study of ethics can offer two things. Firstly, it can help us appreciate the moral choices that people make, and the justification they give for them. Secondly, it involves a reflective sharpening of our own moral awareness – a conscious examination of the values and principles by which we choose to live, how these have influenced the decisions we have taken, and (more importantly) the part that moral choice plays in shaping our own future and that of the world around us. To think ethically is to take conscious control of our lives, rather than drifting with social fashion or blindly following what other people tell us.
As we look at ‘Ethics for life’, our motto should be ‘Take back control!’
‘What should I do?’
‘How do I know what is right?’
These basic questions are the starting point for ethical debate, for ethics is about moral choices, the values that lie behind them, the reasons people give for them and the language they use to describe them. It is about innocence and guilt, right and wrong, and what it means to live a good or bad life. It is about the dilemmas of life, death, sex, violence and money. It explores human virtues and vices, rights and duties.
Key idea for life…
If you hope this book will provide you with a handy guide for deciding life’s issues and relieve you of difficult decisions, forget it! Such a book does not exist, and if you find one that claims to do so, be on your guard; the author probably has an agenda to push or a lifestyle to sell. All a book can do is introduce you to ideas that may help you to think through issues that face you and to accept ownership of the decisions you take.
To be interested in ethics is to be interested in life! Each day we are bombarded with news of personal choices and their consequences, from the sexual proclivities of the famous to the violence and tragedy of war, and from the sight of those who are starving in an otherwise prosperous world to the casual vandalism and petty crime of inner city streets. The explanations given for these things may vary, from elaborate justifications in terms of a political or economic ideology, to the general complaint that traditional values have vanished. We cannot escape from moral issues, even if we are lucky enough to find that our own lives are untouched by painful decisions or tinges of guilt.
In this respect, babies are lucky. They feel hungry, or dirty, or wet, and just scream until someone figures out what is wrong and gives them what they need. They do not have the intellectual ability to question how they got into their particular mess, or the steps they need to take to get out of it. They are not morally responsible. But it is not long before the toddler will complain “That’s not fair!” and he or she will have started to do ethics.
No rational human being can escape moral responsibility, for refusing to even consider whether something is right or wrong is itself a moral choice; only infants, psychopaths and the unconscious are beyond considering such things. For the rest of us, ethics is about life and what we should make of it.
If you've not yet bought this book, take a look at the Contents list on the left and thebuying options on the right. If you already have it, you are probably here for...
Taking it further
If you want to explore some of these topics in more detail, here are a range of books you might find of interest...
The Oxford Handbook of The History of Ethics
Edited by Roger Crisp, OUP, 2015
This is a massive tome – with more than most people will ever need. Set out historically (how else, given the title) it contains articles on the whole range of Western ethics from ancient Greece to the present day. The only thing it lacks is any comparison with Eastern thought, where very different approaches to ethics developed in India and the Far East – represented by the various Hindu traditions, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. But, to be fair, this book is already enough of a weight to lug around, and one should not look for everything between two covers.
Iin the final section on applied ethics, there is reference to Bertrand Russell’s comment that Ethics is hardly to be considered philosophy, although it is generally regarded as a branch of it - a view that reflects so much about what philosophy had become in the 20th century, before the resurgence of ethical debate within the academic subject.
Conscience, egoism, utilitarian ethics, various aspects of Kantian thought – they are all here in this massive resource. It doesn’t provide everything a student might need (which should include the awareness of constructing applied ethical arguments and – in a multi-cultural world – some awareness of the limited scope of Western thought) but it certainly delivers the solid historical groundwork a student needs for undergraduate work.
It’s probably one for the library, rather than for every student’s bookshelf – although the latter would benefit from it massively, provided that it is strong enough to take the weight.
Understanding Moral Sentiments
Hilary Putnam, Susan Neiman and Jeffrey P Schloss (editors) Transworld Publishers, 2014.
This is a book that explores the origins and an explanation of morality in terms of evolutionary consciousness and social evolution. It is about the moral instincts and moral compassion. The fundamental question that the book raises is this:
‘To what extent can we understand the roots and complexity of ethical judgements from a Darwinian perspective?’
That question is controversially given a response ‘Not very much’ in Putnam’s article. But it is hugely important question to ask, particularly at a time when the philosophy of mind, as well as ethics, is challenged to sort out the relationship between the observations and measurements of science, and the experience of being a self, operating in a world in which moral convictions and sentiments exist and require of us some sort of response.
Putnam sees altruism and sympathy as preconditions of ethics, rather than part of ethics itself. His observations include the fact that from Aristotle onwards, the main concern with ancient thinkers was about the qualities that made up the good life, the values that were worth pursuing and so on, whereas from the Enlightenment the key question was equality. This raises the question of the extent to which what we see as reasonable, and therefore moral, is the result of social conditioning.
There is a lovely comments by Susan Neiman about the idea that all altruistic behaviour is motivated by a Darwinian attempt to selfishly maximise our own gene pool. She says ‘ If you are already convinced that every bit of altruistic behaviour is a disguised form of self-interest, you will find way to argue that it could have been self-interested in the old days and went on spinning its wheels in ours. But all such convictions start from very strong, usually unstated assumptions that are continuous with those of Hobbes.’ She then contrasts this with the approach taken by Rousseau.
And here, discussing the value of morality in and for itself, she presents an example given by Kant:
‘Consider two greengrocers: one runs an honest business because he knows that cultivating a reputation for honesty will bring him more customers, while the other does the same because he values honesty in itself. Both may be acting in their own self-interest, but only one is acting because of it, and though we may never be able to discern a difference between them we understand the difference immediately. Since all of us are prone to self-deception, the difference in such a case in untestable, but it’s a difference on which morality depends.’ (p218)
She contrasts this will Steve Pinker’s assumption that we always act in our own self interest, even if our action is disguised as altruism. Pinker sees any action that cannot be justified in this way as paradoxical and irrational.
The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion
Jonathan Haidt, Penguin, 2012
The title reflects Haidt’s view that we are naturally not just moral, but also moralistic and judgemental.
Haidt considers that we start with moral intuitions. Reasoning follows, and is a skill that we evolve in order to negotiate our social situations. Like many other thinkers, he sees altruism as having developed in order to facilitate our group survival. We are divided from other groups, because our whole way of operating is based on groups. That’s how we see ourselves. No scope here to explore this book, but it offers much food for thought.
All Peter Singer's books are worth reading. In particular, his Practical Ethics (originally published in 1996, and with a third edition in 20122) is a good example of his clear and radical thinking, as is The Life you Can Save (2009). He presents the serious challenge posed by preference utilitarianism to any easy moral assumptions, and - whether one agrees with him or not - his arguments always stimulate serious reflection.
Among the host of other books, three older book that you really should not miss are:
Mackie Inventing Right and Wrong (1990) and Iris Murdoch Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)
Both of these address the fundamental question of how we understand right and wrong in the absense of externally imposed values.
Bernard Williams Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Routledge, 2006, but originally published in 1985), gives the context for more recent debates in ethics. He starts with Socrates' basic ethical question "How should I live?"