Friday, February 09, 2007

Ethical Decisions - and the study of philosophy and ethics

I was reading a comment over at the UNF philsophy blog:(here) where a UNF philosophy student [I think] relates a (rather frightening) real-life incident that she was involved in - and then relates it to the topic at hand (the 'Golden Rule' in ethics):

But you can bet if I wake up and find a burglar in my home, the furthest thing
from my mind will be the golden rule, however conceived or applied. And when I
call 911, it won’t be because I have reasoned that doing so will restore a
person’s soul to a state of virtue. More particularly, I won’t be doing that
type of reasoning while the burglar is in my home.
Here is a point about how we decide - the process in the split-second moment - and whether we at that point apply any moral theory at all. Maybe we just act on instinct (that's what is sometimes feels like). OR perhaps we implicitly apply some set of crtieria? Or maybe it is habit/training?

The second thing I thought about after reading this was: Does the study of ethics make you a better person?

[This is very pertinent in the UK, as many more people seem to be studying philosophy and ethics at A level
A-Levels (split into As/A2) are what UK students do between school and University - normally around the ages 16-18
AS and A2 Religious Studies now have a large portion of this type of material in them]


There could be numerous answers:

  • Yes - I now think about others much more, and more concerned to act in an appropriate manner.
  • No - but I am better at justifying my actions (actually driven by my lusts) to others as ethical.
  • No - it has no impact.
  • I still act the same - but tend to feel worse about it aftewards than I used to...

I am sure there are other answers - but wanted to ask readers: has the study of philosophy & religion (esp. ethics) changed you as a person?


Answers welcome from our Religion, Philosophy and Ethics students - and anyone else who has studied topics with an ethical/philosophical aspect: what did it do to you...


  1. This is a terrific question. Thanks for initiating the discussion.

    Those with whom I live and work would probably be better judges of the matter, but (for what it's worth) I think that I have improved morally over the last few decades. Moreover, I think that part of that improvement is the result of studying ethics -- particularly, of studying virtue ethics.

    However (assuming that I am a decent judge of my own moral development) my insight didn't come until I began to think of philosophical discussions of virtue as something more akin to medical discussions of good health than to discussions of mathematical principles.

    I'm looking forward to hearing about the experiences of others on the matter.

  2. Anonymous12:57 am

    You ask a very interesting question. But why do we expect the study of philosophy to change us as persons? Think here of Ayer and analytic philosophy or Wittgenstein or Heidegger.Has your study of religion brought you closer to God?

  3. Ptp from Canada wrties by e-mail:

    "It's an interesting question. Parroting Q-A sets correctly is not moral behaviour of itself. In Draw-a-Man and Draw-a-Woman projective tests the subject is given blank paper and instructed to draw a person and describe the person. You could do the same with Draw-a-City. After all, isn't faith and morality a matter of how we live, 24/7, one and all?

    The projective method takes subjects off the path of habit which proves only that they have memorized those Q-A sets. Correctly programmed robots can manage the latter with perfection.


  4. Thomes F, by e-mail, writes:

    "I have the impression that philosophers are more likely to be vegetarians than the population at large, tho' i have never seen any numbers. Of course meat-eaters might deny that that would be a case in point even if it were true!"

  5. Two things: we study (discipline) and we study rpe (aesthetic). By studying we learn the convention of studying: lectures, notes, reading, essays, revising, exams. The discipline gives us something to do, something to aspire towards, a feeling of fulfilment, a structured life – all students, not just rpe students. Specifically we study rpe. My choice of rpe was an aesthetic decision. Maybe one studies religion to become a vicar, or philosophy to become a philosopher, or ethics to become an ethicist. Similarly history students become historians, english students become writers, sports students become athletes. I am interested in the subject to an extent that I wanted to study it. Becoming a ‘good’ person was not part of my decision-making process. No. Definitely, not. Studying ethics does not make us better people or more ethical. Following a discipline and following an aesthetic preference may cause me to be happy and content and an indirect effect may make me a better person or ‘Good’.

  6. By E-mail from:
    Elizabeth Silverstein
    Department of Philosophy
    GSA Vice President of Academic Affairs
    University of California, Riverside:

    "Hi David,

    Eric Schwitzgabel at UC Riverside is working on whether ethicists are more ethical by tracking unreturned library books at Universities. You may want to contact him about his work.

    I personally believe, that when one studies ethics one cannot help but be a better person, but that's just me.

    Good luck,


  7. From University of Alberta, Canada (by e-mail):

    "I think we should actually be afraid that it promotes immoral behavior. Anyway it would be nice to have some relatively hard data, but is that really possible. I don't have much faith in questionnaires when it comes to moral matters.

  8. Anonymous1:15 pm

    Re Eric Schwitzgebel's stuff, look here:

    Scroll down to the Jan. 29th posting.

  9. This is just a quick reply as all I have time for now, but in answer to the question posed studying ethics has absolutely changed 'me'

    I am now vegetarian (well, I have not eaten meat for 6 weeks so a newbie but getting there)

    I now think much more before I speak - and thats speak abot anything, either academic talk or discussing footie down the pub!

    I feel more compassionate to those not close to me, either geographicaly far or politicaly far

    Most importantly, I genuinely feel a sense of actually knowing nothing for sure. Everything I thought I knew - I now know I dont. My previous belief in god - although I never really had any specific beliefs - is now questioned at every point of my thinking

  10. By e-mail from Aikaterini Lefka comments:

    "Dear Dave
    What a terrible question you have put here!

    It reminds me of my enormous dissappointment to discover, as a young philosophy student, that all my philosophy professors weren't or weren't enough -for my standards anyway - the morally excellent persons I had
    (naively?) been expecting from those who were speaking so well about vitrue, justice, the good, etc...

    Unfortunately -or fortunately, perhaps!-, the ancient model of the "master"
    whose life was a concrete example of his ethical doctrines (or else he wouldn't be respected and heard by his contemporaries) is no longer considered as necessary for a philosophy teacher.

    If I consider that the cited persons have been studying philosophy for the greatest part of their lives, how could I expect from younger scholars to become necessarily better by their much lesser work on the subject?

    Moreover, being myself actually a teacher of philosophy, especially of Ethics, I am sure of being very far from perfection, and have some doubts about the precise impact of my studies on my actual moral state. Perhaps I could say that if I weren't interested in ethical matters I wouldn't choose to study them and of course my thought has been enriched by learning the various theories or discussing the different points of view on ethical questions. The same should be valid, I think, for any student of philosophy (I believe that even the teachers are, or should be, considered also as constant learners).

    Finally, the reasons of the choice of the philosophical studies and the precise interests, the degree of the practical implication of each person in his/her intellectual researches, the character of everyone and his/her wish and capacities to become self-conscient or to form a coherent moral personality (eventually, by morally ameliorating oneself) are factors that vary from one person to the other and, as I have remarked up to now, may play a decisive role also in the definition of the answer to your question.

    One should also keep in mind, I think, that it is of course very difficult to define what a "virtous" person is and who is "morally good" (according to which sets of values, that are posed by whom?). This particularity of the subject makes a definite answer even more complicated.


  11. Hello everyone,

    If I may piggyback on Dave's invitation, I'm curious whether anyone is aware of any hard data indicating that humanities students in general or philosophy students in particular act more ethically than do students with other degrees, particularly in a business context.

    I have heard rumors that such data exists, but haven't been able to locate them myself. I would be interested for a number of reasons, but our Business Division is currently pushing to take over our Business Ethics course in order to make it less abstract and theoretical and more applied and business-y. I'm convinced that this is an error, but data would be helpful.

    Any suggestions would be appreciated.

    And thanks for the invitation, Dave. Looks like a great class.

    Brandon Claycomb
    Marian College of Fond du Lac

  12. A comment e-mailed to me reads:

    "Hello David,

    Quintillian wrote on this. Do the humanities (studying the good books) make us ethically better (not morally--that is Kantian autonomy speaking). G. Steiner meditates on this today. It takes a very refined culture to engage in cruelty.

    Cruelty does not fall within the purview of what we disparaging call the primitive. For them that is the divine law.

    Aristotle points out that the greatest criminals are tyrants. In Book 10 of the "Politics" he notes that words are insufficient to make one good. The congealing of repeated actions into good habits makes one virtuous. (Cf Books 1-3 of the Nicomachean Ethics). Notice that ethically speaking morality is unethical (Cf Hegel). We can hardly make sense of much of what we say, unless we gain some clarity on our negative capability as language animals.

    I would not say behaviour. That is a mass term applied in the social sciences. There is no behaviourer. Act or deed are better, since there are ethical agents and doers.

    And religiously "corruptio optimae est pessimi." As Iris Murdoch or Flannery O' Connor would say the good is most likely positively repulsive to us.


    Dr. J. Kow
    Associate Professor of Philosophy.
    King's University College.

    In a further e-mail, Jim also adds:

    "Also that other interesting point from Aristotle that teaching ethics to young people is not really appropriate since they lack the experience necessary to make the important distinctions that belong to the ontological indeterminacy that composes human life--all human things fluctuate. Book 1. NE.

    But if like Michael Oakeshott, whom I admire, you hold that ethics is descriptive in the strong sense (Modes of Experience), then its goal is not to make people good--even in the limited sense Aristotle means.

    The Greek Tragedians and Hellenistic philosophers add a wholly different, I think, contribution to this debate."

  13. A rather interesting response by e-mail:

    "Hi David

    Very interesting question...

    There is experimental evidence on whether economics students become more selfisch over the course of their studies:

    Best regards,


  14. I would say that the study of ethics has if anything made me more critical and less inclined to do something just because it is 'ethical' to do so. Ethics seems to complicate a matter more often than not. I get infuriated sitting and talking about ethical issues because half the time it seems to me that it is pointless talking about them when if really faced with a situation we're more often than not going to go with our instincts and do what we feel we should do in that situation rather than because Aristotle or Mill says it is ethical to do it this way or that. I personally wouldn't assess it in that way.

    If it was up to me I wouldn't study ethics because it just makes me angry.

    Although those who know me and have been in ethics classes with me will know that morality and ethics isn't really something that I have any sort of traditional view on...

  15. I would say that the study of ethics has if anything made me more critical and less inclined to do something just because it is 'ethical' to do so. Ethics seems to complicate a matter more often than not. I get infuriated sitting and talking about ethical issues because half the time it seems to me that it is pointless talking about them when if really faced with a situation we're more often than not going to go with our instincts and do what we feel we should do in that situation rather than because Aristotle or Mill says it is ethical to do it this way or that. I personally wouldn't assess it in that way.

    If it was up to me I wouldn't study ethics because it just makes me angry.

    Although those who know me and have been in ethics classes with me will know that morality and ethics isn't really something that I have any sort of traditional view on...

  16. Might this question not have something to do with the way ethics is taught? If we're talking about teaching ethics to the masses with an eye to making them better people, then maybe you need to teach specific doctrines, like in religious moral education, to have an impact on behaviour. People need to know what they need to do in order to reliably do it in testing situations. In ethics classes at university you mostly just get two sides of the story and it is left for the students to reach their own conclusions (but since the exposure to both sides has challenged their preconceptions, they don't draw a firm conclusion and don't have a standing belief to guide their action later on).
    If we're not talking about educating the masses, but the people brought to ethics and philosophy by a natural kind of moral seriousness, then I'm sure their ethical principles really have a very strong bearing on what they do, and if it seems like they are behaving unethically it may be because of substantive first order moral disagreement as to what the right thing to do is.

  17. To pick up on Aristotle's scepticism (if that is the right word) as to whether philosophising can make you good if you are not already good:

    'It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without DOING these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good. But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, and behave like patients who listen attentbely to their doctors, but do noe of the things they are ordered to do. The latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treament, the former will not be made will in soul by such a course of philosophy' (Arist, NE II, 1105b9-17).

    Aristotle here mirrors the scepticism in Plato's Republic. Only somebody who already has a natural disposition is able to become fully good (c.f. Plato's so called 'philosophical dogs' in Rep. 2 376 f.f.)

    However, both Plato and Aristotle emphasises that those who are of the right nature will ALSO have to do philosophy.

    Jonas (King's College London)

  18. Many of my students start out as cheap relativists, i.e. they refrain from _judgement_ in the belief that descriptive relativism undermines confidence in the status of moral assertions. It takes a while, but eventually you can bring them to see that one can take the descriptive point without thereby abnegating judgement, even across societies.

    My point is this: metaethical considerations can have an important impact on your life. Perhaps they shouldn't, but there is undoubtedly a psychological connection between belief in moral relativism and a tendency to abnegate all judgement in an apathetic haze.

    Similarly: students compelled by hard determinism tend to be struck by the thought that there is now no point to doing anything. But this is philosophically daft: after all, it is not as if _one knows_ what to do in advance. Belief in hard determinism, once you think it through, makes absolutely no difference whatsoever.

  19. Dr Arran Stibbe (from the University of Gloucestershire) writes (and I will try to answer some of these points Arran):

    "Q: Does the study of ethics make you a better person?

    A: It depends on how it's taught and the hidden assumptions behind the teaching. Some typical hidden assumptions:

    a) That the categories right/wrong/good/bad are adequate to class behaviour in and all we need is a theory to assign behaviours into the appropriate category
    b) That a theory of ethics can be arrived at through rational armchair contemplation
    c) That philosophers/intellectuals/rational people who have contemplated the issue are the rightful arbiters moral behaviour.
    d) That a framework involving something as complex as human behaviour and morality can be expressed using language
    e) That one framework (the one the philosopher believes in) can cover all situations and is the only correct framework. Or if there isn't currently a 'correct' framework then one exists and it's our task to discover it.
    f) That ethical frameworks are invented by philosophers rather than being formal (and therefore less nuanced) expressions of the kind of considerations that real people actually use to decide complex moral issues.
    g) That a theory which is consistent is preferable to one which is inconsistent, no matter what the implications of the theories are on people's understanding of themselves or their behaviour
    i) That life would be much more convenient if only we had a mechanical procedure to put all our moral dilemmas through and get answers, without having to involve our feelings, emotions, intuitive knowledge, or wisdom gained from our own and other cultures.
    j) Ultimately that 'we' (philosophers and budding student philosophers) can decide what's right or wrong.

    In the worst case scenario, I would say that an ethics course which is based on all of these assumptions, and never makes them explicit or questions them, is potentially damaging to students and society as a whole. Why?
    Because it perpetrates the myth that one narrow form of knowledge - armchair musing based on simplistic categories, language, logic, and rational manipulation of formulae - is superior to other forms of knowing. There are obvious patriarchal and class motivations behind perpetrating this particular myth, but it is unhelpful not just from a social point of view but because it facilitates the easy rationisation of ethically dubious behaviour.

    Too many people believe that what they do in their job and their everyday life is fundamentally good, that they are good people, and when they are brought up sharply to the reality of the suffering and damage that they are causing in the world, they rationalise their way out the problem to preserve the myth of their own goodness. To deal with the interconnected world of the 21st century, we need a more sophisticated view of ethics where people or actions are aren't just 'good' or 'bad'. We have to find more nuanced and sophisticated ways of defining ourselves and others, based on a diversity of ways of knowing. If ethics courses are opening people up to more sophisticated ways of knowing and being rather than closing them down, then yes, I'd say that studying ethics could help make them better people, whatever that means! But all too often, I think studying ethics is a damaging rather than liberating experience."

  20. I usually teach Critical Thinking, Environmental Ethics and Philosophy and Law. And by far, the greatest number of plagiarists come from my ethics and the environment class, where we spend quite a bit of time talking about morality in general, before we even start talking about morality and our relation to nature. I am always amused/horrified by students who cheat in ethics courses.

    More specifically in regards to the question, however. I think that simply studying ethics alone is not going to affect how one behaves. Rather, I think that HOW one studies ethics is going to affect whether one acts ethically in the future or not.

    I recently incorporated a new element to my evaluation scheme in my ethics and the environment class. I asked them to keep a journal. They were to discuss the ideas we talked about the course, but they also were to make a commitment to an environmentally friendly activity for the semester.

    At first they complained, but as I read the journals, I was impressed by how quickly they got caught up in thinking about how to change their behaviour. Some became vegetarians, some began recycling more, some stopped littering. And many said that they didn't just stop with their own behaviour, but started influencing their friends as well.

    I think this is an example of how one is studying ethics can impact on what one takes away from the experience. Up until this class, many students complained that they couldn't see the connection of ethics to their lives. But when confronted with it in a very personal and ongoing basis, they changed their attitudes and their behaviour.

    Fascinating question! So glad it came up.

  21. From Kenneth (in Buffalo):
    > While I had strong intuitions that meat eating was wrong, it took an environmental ethics class in my third year of college to get me finally to give it up. My philosophical practice then helped me to define what I took to be meaningfully consistent boundaries (e.g., no leather but honey was ok, etc.). On the other hand, I think that the study of moral philosophy also enables me to rationalize better than others, finding alternative arguments and loopholes.