How do we form an ethical position?
So, we can agree on two things: one, ethics is an area that matters. Second, ethics is all about behaviour in terms of how it affects (or does not affect) other people.
But how do we actually arrive at an ethical position, and figure out what is moral and immoral? The TOK course provides us with a pretty convenient framework here, for the main ways in which we try to work out whether something is right or wrong is by using the ways of knowing, in particular, language, emotions, and reason. We’ll look at each one, and try to assess their strengths and weaknesses in helping us in this process.
Language is the building block of many our thought processes, and for that reason it is clearly extremely important in helping us reach an ethical position. The power of words can never be under-estimated – especially the ones we are dealing with here (consider the effect on someone when you describe their behaviour as either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’), a fact that prompted the 19th century playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton to coin the adage of the pen being mightier than the sword. Without language, we cannot discuss any of the intricacies of ethics; without it, we merely have vague feelings and intonations that what we are doing is acceptable or not.
The words we use, however, rely for their power on their emotional content – which clearly means that we have employ our powers of emotion to recognize that. Words on their own only take us so far – not only do you have to understand them grammatically, you have to be aware of their significance.
Using emotion and intuition
Our emotions can help to guide us when we are trying to work out the ‘right’ way to behave, and they do so in an instinctive way. First, we have a strong sense of self-interest, which seeks an outcome that will benefit us personally (and sometimes this alone can determine the ‘right’ way to behave). Second, being social beings, we also have sympathetic feelings for other people whereby we consider outcomes that will benefit them.
An advanced emotional state is one in which both these considerations are applied simultaneously, leading us to determine a course of action that will both help ourselves and assist others. Our emotions are also reinforced by what we know other people feel is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, meaning that our emotions are a very important part of the process of developing our moral behaviour.
As Dylan Evans puts it (Emotion, A Short Introduction, OUP, 2001):
Emotions seem to underlie much, if not all, of our moral behaviour. Without them, we would not be capable of virtue. A long line of thinkers, from Aristotle to Adam Smith, have emphasized the fundamental role of emotion in guiding moral behaviour. … (Adam Smith) thought that some emotions were designed specifically for the purpose of helping us to behave morally, a view that now seems to be supported by evolutionary theory. Smith referred to these emotions as ‘the moral sentiments’.
Emotions can often interfere with our reason in figuring out the ‘right’ course of action, especially when we are caught up personally in a particular matter. Also, relying on emotion as a guide to moral behaviour presupposes that it is inborn and common to us all – what feels right to us, must feel right to others – but this is clearly not the case. If we all had the same amount of empathy with others, why isn’t everyone equally good? On the other hand, if we don’t have the same amount, how can we be held accountable for our behaviour if we weren’t endowed so generously with emotional intelligence when we were born?
Reason, if it is used properly, allows us to assess the outcomes of our actions, and arrive at an objective judgement about moral behaviour. This works regardless of any desires or emotions caught up in a case, and can help to establish a solid framework for formulating a moral code. It also allows for comparisons with other similar examples, leading to consistency in behaviour, which is the prerequisite of fairness.
To give an example, if as a result of person A’s negligent behaviour, person B was seriously injured, what would your reaction be towards person A? That they should be punished? How would this change if person B was your brother? Would this affect the way you viewed the case? How would it change if person A was your brother? Clearly, our emotions interfere with what we know is right, and in cases like this, we need to stick firmly to our reason to ensure ‘justice’ is served. Reason informs you to act after discounting ‘individual circumstances’ because the truth applies to everyone, irrespective of circumstances.
Thus, your action is referred to your reasoning and your conclusions will provide a moral code. Your reason also leads you to respect others who value reason, which in turn helps create a community where rights are defended in an unbiased and objective manner.
We are drawn into certain scenarios because of something much deeper than reason, which is what makes us human. It is emotion that would have made you act initially when you saw pictures of earthquake victims in Haiti (though afterwards, perhaps reason dictated how much money you sent, or the role you sought to play in the relief efforts).
Emotions also act as a check to our behaviour, even if reason has been applied. An example may be a teacher punishing a student for breaking a rule in school, but feeling bad about doing so. We need to be aware of the effect of our actions – and reason alone cannot provide us with that knowledge.
Emotion versus reason
Traditionally, they have been seen as mutually exclusive, and interfering. However, the Somatic Marker hypothesis states that this is not necessarily true, and perhaps they can even compliment each other. You can follow this up in the How closely are reason and emotion linked? page within the Emotions section.