Being a good ethical reasoner

Plato was Wrong (about this at least): Being a Good Ethical Reasoner.

All of us reason about ethical matters all of the time. We do so when we decide whether to tell the shopkeeper he has given us too much change; when we assess a political argument about whether our country should offer health care to non-citizens; when we decide whether to tell a small (or large) lie, and so on.

What does good ethical reasoning about such matters involve? Mainly, just good logical and critical thinking skills focussed on ethical issues.

Good ethical reasoning calls upon us to give reasons for doing and believing things, to construct arguments – for vegetarianism or the legalization of euthanasia for instance – and to assess the arguments of those with whom we agree or disagree. This is not to say that I must articulate a complex moral theory or even identify a moral principle that I am following. Recognising the need for reasons and arguments, however, allows us to see that some responses won’t do.

  • I cannot offer mere prejudices in support of a moral position, for instance, because a mere prejudice is precisely a belief that is not supported by reasons.

  • Similarly, mere emotional reactions will not count as reasons. If all I can say in support of my claim that business is wicked is that business disgusts me or makes me furious, I am not offering a reason that would show my position to be an ethical position. (This is not to say that ethical positions should be unemotional or dispassionate. On the contrary, we should care about our moral views. But emotional reactions should be prompted by or grounded in moral judgments and not vice versa.)

  • And if my position is based upon propositions of fact which are not only false but so implausible that they fail even the minimal standards of evidence I impose upon others, I will likely not be offering reasons but instead showing that I can think of no genuine reasons for my position at all.

Prejudices, purely emotional responses, and empirically implausible positions are not the only sorts of reasons that are unacceptable in moral discourse – blind appeals to authority may well go on the list as well – but they will be enough to give a sense of the constraints posed by the requirement for reason giving.

Once we have allowed a place for reasons in moral discourse we can see that there will be other, more general, restraints as well. Perhaps most importantly, the role of reasons imposes a constraint of consistency. Consistency requires that if there are exactly the same reasons in support of one course of action as there are in support of another, then those actions will be equally right or equally wrong – they will be equally well supported or undercut by reasons. If I object to racism on the grounds that ‘all people are equal’ then I must also object to those manifestations of other prejudices, such as sexism, that deny that principle: If I do not then it will seem that in one or other or both of the cases I am not really accepting ‘all people are equal’ as a reason at all. My position will not, in fact, be based on the reason or reasons I cite.

Recognizing the role of reasons and reasoning in ethics allows us to give an account of good ethical reasoning.

Good ethical reasoners must be able to reason logically, to avoid fallacies and inconsistencies, to clarify and analyze concepts, to construct and assess arguments and positions.

They require a certain body of knowledge, knowledge of the assumptions, consequences, and criticisms of different positions or views; knowledge of types of arguments, and likely problems (e.g., fallacies like false dichotomy or ambiguity of scope).

They must be committed to certain values associated with good reasoning, such as commitment to understanding issues and views, commitment to reasoned support and evaluation of beliefs or claims, willingness to question key assumptions and challenge received wisdom, and interest in finding solutions to philosophical questions and problems.

These values are a significant part of the good ethical reasoner’s arsenal because they amount to a commitment to apply the reasoning skills noted above. Being able to recognize fallacies and inconsistencies will be of no value to the person reasoning about ethical matters if she is not prepared to follow those skills where they lead.

And good ethical reasoners must be well informed about the relevant facts of the cases they consider. They must have enough knowledge of the subject area and the case at hand to appreciate the demands and problems that are either peculiar to or commonly encountered in that area.

In sum, good ethical reasoners are people who are skilled at a certain form of reasoning, who have at their fingertips a body of relevant knowledge, and who are committed to using their skills and knowledge.

Note that there is nothing in this characterisation to suggest that the good ethical reasoner has unique access to the moral truth. Plato argued that philosophers should rule because they had ‘‘the capacity to grasp the eternal and immutable . . . to which they can turn, as a painter turns to his model, before laying down rules in this world about what is admirable or right or good”, but no one has thought so since!

The good ethical reasoner sketched above is a more mundane character. Recognising the way in which moral positions depend upon reasoned support, she is skilled in constructing and assessing such support. Her skill and contribution do not depend upon her grasp of anything like ‘eternal and immutable moral truths.’ Rather, it is grounded in more accessible standards of reason and argumentation, standards of the sort one might learn in a course on logical and critical thinking.

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