Critically About Ethical
Issues, Seventh Edition
© The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2008
THE NEED FOR ETHICS
Why do we need ethics? We have laws to
protect people’s rights. If the laws are enforced,
what need have we of further rules?
Ethics is the study of the choices people make regarding right and wrong. Each of us makes dozens of moral choices daily. Will we go to work or call in sick? Follow the research protocol or violate it? Put quotes around borrowed phrasing or pretend the words are our own? Answer a colleague’s question truthfully or lie? Obey the speed laws or drive as fast as our vehicles will go? Pay our bills or spend our money on entertainment? Keep our marriage vows or break them? Meet our children’s emotional needs or ignore them? Pet the cat or kick it? In most times and places, people have acknowledged the existence of an objective moral standard binding on all people regardless of their personal desires and preferences. (Of course, there was not always complete agreement on what that standard was.) Over the past several decades, however, that need for a standard has been called into question. It is fashionable today to believe that decisions about right and wrong are purely personal and subjective. This belief is known as moral relativism. According to it, whatever anyone claims to be morally acceptable is morally acceptable, at least for that person. Supposedly, there is only one exception to this rule: Judging other people’s conduct is considered intolerant. (To this author’s knowledge, no moral relativist has ever explained why, if any view of honesty, faithfulness, fairness, and justice is considered valid, only one view of tolerance is permitted.)
In the 1960s moral relativists challenged the traditional view that fornication and adultery are immoral. “Only the individual can decide what sexual behavior is right for him or her,” they said, “and the individual’s decision should be respected.” Given the mood of the time (and the strength of the sex drive), it was not surprising that many people were disposed to accept this view. Critics raised serious objections, of course. They argued that even the wisest among us are capable of error and selfdeception, especially where the emotions are involved. They predicted that the idea that everyone creates his or her own sexual morality would spill over into other areas of morality and provide an excuse for everything from petty pilfering, plagiarism, and perjury to child molesting, rape, spouse abuse, and murder. More important for our purposes, the critics of relativism warned that “anything goes” thinking would undermine the subject of ethics. “If morality is merely a matter of preference, and no one view is better than any other,” they reasoned, “then there is no way to distinguish good from evil or civilized behavior from uncivilized, and any attempt at meaningful discussion of moral issues is futile.” Centuries earlier, Dr. Samuel Johnson saw the more personal implications in relativism and remarked, “If he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.”
At the time, relativists dismissed the predictions of the critics as irresponsible. Now, however, four decades later, we can see that those predictions were at least in part accurate. Evidence that civility has declined and human life has become cheapened can be found any day in the news. (To what extent relativism is responsible for this development is, of course, debatable.) Equally significant, many people are so possessed by the “Who can say?” mentality that they find it difficult to pass moral judgment on even the most heinous deeds. One professor of philosophy estimates that between 10 and 20 percent of his students can’t bring themselves to say that the killing of millions of people in the Holocaust was wrong. He calls this phenomenon...