Monday, April 09, 2007

Question of the Day

Jason, over at one of the blogs I read, Black Belt Productivity, has revived his personal blog just recently...and in one post, he asks a very important question:
Can you train someone to be ethical?

Well? Can you?

Medical schools sure try. And I've heard of business schools trying. Do they succeed?

Call me cynical, but my knee-jerk reaction is a resounding "NO!"



azahar said...

Surely we are all taught to be ethical.

Or by 'trained' do you mean 'forced'?

Lori said...

I think the question is, if an adult, who didn't get taught ethics as a kid, can be taught ethical behaviour.

If 'forced', is that ethical?

If someone is shown the advantages of being ethical, and they learn ethical behaviour, but it doesn't become intrinsic, is it still ethical? How important is intent to the definition of ethical?

Metro said...

One can, I think, offer exceptionally simple guidelines for ethical behaviour. But actually making people apply these guidelines without bending them to exempt their own conduct is more difficult.

Most people will say they believe in the "Golden rule" as handed down in many philosophies.

But in the privacy of their own heads they're thinking: "Unless I really, really want to."

Paging Messrs Bush, Harper, et al.

raincoaster said...

Ethics and morals are not the same thing; ethics are a shared set of behaviors, whereas morals are at least supposed to have existence outside social contracts.

People can learn ethics, but ethics will be followed precisely to the point where the advantage drops off, and no farther. That is their nature.

As a former ESL teacher, you must be familiar with people from other cultures learning the ethics of their new homes as part of the immigration process. It happens all the time.

noggin said...

"Ethics and morals are not the same thing; ethics are a shared set of behaviors, whereas morals are at least supposed to have existence outside social contracts."

Hmmm. I've always thought of morals as society's presriptions/proscriptions for the behaviour of the individual, and ethics as the general principles that underlie them.

That said, most people are born with a basic capacity for moral and ethical behaviour, and it should therefore be possible to develop this with appropriate teaching/training. But the foundation for this development is largely laid in the early part of life, and teaching/training an adult who lacks that foundation would not be easy.

azahar said...

I'd say that people are born with a natural capacity to empathise, which in turn makes understanding ethics and morals possible.

There are plenty of examples of people 'turning over a new leaf' and opting for ethical behaviour when perhaps previously they had been hardened criminals, or whatever. But again, this would require personal motivation on the part of the individual being taught.

I don't think you can force people to be ethical, but they can be forced to behave in an ethical manner. Is this ethical, you ask? Why couldn't it be?

Lori said...

I think Noggin is right about the definition of ethics/morals...(oh, and by the way Noggin, welcome to my absurd world -- I feel like I know you already, through Az!)

...but my question is still about intent. If I'm acting ethically because it's expected of me, can I be considered ethical?

I'd say no. If your ethics are the general principles society agrees on (boiling down perhaps to 'do no harm') [yes, that's a simplification for discussion purposes -- come up with your own], then if someone doesn't believe in them, even though s/he acts on them, then in a sense that person is lying. S/he can't be trusted to act in that way 'in a pinch' -- is therefore not innately ethical, as her/his gut reaction is not the ethical behaviour.

cf. most fundamentalist christians, or pretty much anyone with a righteous attitude...

raincoaster said...

Harumph. When I took philosophy they taught us there was a difference between morals and ethics. Now they say not so.

What then do you call cultural norms that vary, if you're a moral absolutist? There's got to be a name for them.

Someone once said that there is no courage without fear; is there then ethical behaviour without the impulse to behave otherwise? I would say not, which is, if I've interpreted it aright, diametrically opposed to your position, Lori.

After all, reflexes are for knees, not for complex questions. We all know people who never question their basic behaviour; are they more moral than the rest of us? No.

Also, I categorically disagree that it is society which defines ethics; this is relativism, and it means that when you change your society, you change what's right and wrong. You live in small townville now; what moral standards have you changed to adapt, because your right and wrong are now different?

noggin said...

Thanks for the welcome, lori.

Morals and ethics do not exist as discrete objects "out there in the real world", but are mental constructs that can be redefined or recategorised in whatever way seems useful to the user, so long as these can be understood correctly by other users.

In this case, metaethics corresponds roughly to ethics, and normative ethics is closer to what I called morals, but as the article points out the distinctions are blurry.

All social animals have behaviours that enable the social group to live together, but it is only when these behaviours can be reflected upon that moral and ethical *codes* develop, with the possibility of discrepancies both between and within the various codes.

If you're a moral absolutist then cultural norms that vary are simply wrong.

azahar said...

Clearly morals come first and then ethics follow.

Morals are the existing or prevailing social norms which our ethical codes derive from.

So by definition, if we act outside of what is considered correct, are we being unethical if we are still adhering to our own personal ethical code?

raincoaster said...

Nog, again I must disagree. If you're a moral absolutist, then cultural norms that vary may or may not be moral, depending on what they are. That they are normal has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not they are correct. Moral absolutists believe that the moral principles of the world exist outside of humanity (whether resident in a god or not) and thus do not depend on social context.

azahar said...

How can there be morals without social context, rain?

The so-called moral principles that have been attached to various gods or 'higher powers' were created by humans, who are social animals, and then projected onto them.

Apparently there's this 'god-shaped' hole in us that we all have a need to fill ... my RC upbringing pretty much overfilled that particular hole, though I still belch up some nasty Catholic guilt from time to time.

noggin said...

I think I maybe didn't explain myself very well, Raincoaster. Of course, to the moral absolutists, it is norms that are different from their own that are simply wrong. And their explanation for the source of morals is generally that they are handed down by God, in some form or other.

"is there then ethical behaviour without the impulse to behave otherwise? I would say not, which is, if I've interpreted it aright, diametrically opposed to your position, Lori."

I think both of those extremes would be too strong. There has to be at least an awareness of choice, that some other behaviour is possible, for there to be ethics. But it isn't necessary to want to do something "bad" to make doing something "good" ethical.

Lori said...

I'm with Nog. Linguistically, the definition of 'good' needs the definition of 'bad'...'light' needs 'dark', and so on. But in reality, in practice, people do 'good' things because they want to do 'good' things, and they act that way relatively consistently. And yes, people do 'good' even though they would prefer to do 'bad'.

And of course, we've got people who do 'bad', thinking that it's 'good'...GWB, for one example -- but really, in the end, that's the problem. When someone stands up on a soapbox and says "I'm doing this because I see it as the only way to accomplish this thing that is good for us all" -- who's in the wrong here? The speaker? For not fully researching all the solutions? For not being open-minded to solutions that may not meet his/her core beliefs? Or...?

raincoaster said...

Um, no, again I must disagree, at least with the understanding of moral absolutism that has been presented here. Moral absolutism is the belief that moral principles exist without reference to context, but are constant in all worlds, at all times, and apply to all sentient beings. It is independent of theism, the belief in the divine. There are theistic relativists and monistic absolutists.

Those who believe, for instance, that Truth is a universal principle and moral imperative don't neccessarily believe that because there's a god called "Truth". It's quite possible to devote one's life to following abstract principles without a belief in any gods at all, and without the support of one's community. This would, according to the views expressed here, render one by definition immoral, as that person would not be living according to the prevailing moral code of the society.

What about Iraq? Is living according to Islam right and good, or is it right and good in most of the country, but wrong inside the Green Zone, which is largely Christian? And would it have been right inside the geographic area of the Green Zone before the invasion? And is it right to obey Sunni doctrine among the Sunnis and right to obey Shiite doctrine when one is among the Shiites?

Or is it right and good to decide for one's self what is right and good and do one's best to live according to that?

raincoaster said...

Oops, I meant "athiestic" not "monistic".