Moral Theory Essay


Moral Theory Essay

In 1997 a group of American philosophers submitted a brief to the Supreme Court of the United States. The brief was an intervention in two cases involving assisted suicide, and was signed by Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, Thomas Scanlon and Judith Jarvis Thomson. The philosophers, all of whom are influential moral or political theorists, invoked a principle of autonomy to argue that competent individuals had a right to chose to die rather than endure a life of continuing suffering. As they put it, “deeply personal decisions pose controversial questions about how and why human life has value. In a free society, individuals must be allowed to make those decisions for themselves” (Dworkin et al 1997: 43). When the court decided the cases however, it ruled against the philosophers, and declined to legalize euthanasia. Not only that, but the justices' decision made no reference to the philosophers' brief.

What lesson should we take away from the philosophers' legal intervention and the judges' seeming reluctance to engage them in dialogue? According to the influential legal theorist Richard Posner, the episode highlights a deep-seated flaw with contemporary moral philosophy. Philosophers such as those who sought to sway the Supreme Court take it for granted that their arguments can influence other people's beliefs and behaviour. According to Posner, however, this view is mistaken. He argues that our moral beliefs are beyond the reach of abstract theoretical arguments of the type employed by philosophers. Our moral views are instead shaped by factors such as our emotions and self-interest, aspects of our identity that are impervious to philosophical analysis. As Posner summarizes his position, “people who make philosophical arguments for why we should alter our moral beliefs or behavior are wasting their time if what they want to do is alter those beliefs and the behavior the beliefs might influence. Moral intuitions neither do nor should yield to the weak arguments that are all that philosophers can bring to bear on moral issues” (Posner 1999: ix; cf. 38-42, 68-85).

Posner's analysis represents a fundamental challenge to the academic study of morality. Although his view may strike some observers as extreme, we believe it is worth taking seriously. One reason is Posner's prominence and status. As the author of almost 40 books and a founder of the law and economics movement, he is one of the most influential legal theorists now writing. Posner's iconoclastic argument also raises important questions that are rarely discussed. It is hard to see what value the teaching of moral philosophy can have, if it makes no difference to the thoughts and actions of those who are exposed to it. Yet the transformative power of moral theory is not something moral philosophers have traditionally sought to demonstrate. Often they have simply taken it for granted that moral arguments do in fact change people's minds. This widely held assumption is worth putting to the test. Just what effect, if any, does exposure to moral philosophy actually have?

In order to partly answer this question, we administered a survey to university students. We asked them to respond to a list of questions regarding the effect studying moral philosophy on their beliefs and behaviour. Our goal was to test a view which we term the Posner hypothesis: academic moral instruction makes no difference either to students' beliefs or to their actions.

Before outlining our findings, below, we set out our hypothesis and methodology. We then go on to compare the effects ethics units have on students' thinking with the effects of university units in general. Next, we discuss students' views regarding a list of particular moral subjects, before discussing some comments students provided regarding the effect ethics units had on their thinking regarding ethical subjects beyond those mentioned in the survey. We then turn to the separate question of behaviour, and analyse the effects ethics units have had on students' activities in a variety of ethical areas, such as charitable giving and volunteer work.

Hypothesis and Methodology

The basic idea we sought to test can be stated simply. It is Posner claim that moral theory “is useless” (1998: ix). His argument in support of this claim comes in a strong and a weak form (1998: 3). The strong form says moral philosophy cannot exert any influence on moral judgement. The weaker argument states that even if moral theorizing can provide a foundation for moral judgement, it should not influence legal judgements. We leave to one side Posner's weak argument and focus entirely on the strong one. As Posner notes, this argument “tackles moral theory on its own terms,” and applies to moral philosophy as it is taught not merely in law schools but also philosophy departments (1997: ix). Our decision to survey students is in keeping with Posner's identification of them as a group whom moral philosophers signally fail to influence (1998: 5).

Posner offers a wide variety of claims to support his conclusion regarding the futility of moral philosophy. Two of these claims influenced how we designed our survey, and so are worth mentioning. The first has to do with a distinction Posner draws between moral theory and science, particularly social science. Posner believes that theories from outside the realm of moral philosophy can transform our thinking. Examples he gives of successful and genuinely transformative theories are Darwin's theory of evolution, Weber's sociological analysis and the general study of economics (1998: 14). Posner also argues that our ethical views can be changed by new factual information. As he puts it, “if the only reason that virgins are hurled into volcanoes is to make crops grow, empirical inquiry should dislodge the practice” (1998: 22). Given Posner's distinction between moral theory and more empirical methods of inquiry, we sought to investigate whether ethics units were less transformative than other types of university units, as Posner's analysis would appear to suggest.

The second claim that influenced our survey concerns a distinction Posner draws between academic moralists and moral entrepreneurs. An academic moralist is someone who engages in abstract moral reasoning, albeit to little effect. For Posner, practically all modern philosophers who teach ethics fall into this category. Moral entrepreneurs, by contrast, are effective at changing how people think about morality. This group, which includes both Jesus Christ and Adolph Hitler, take a very different approach from that of modern ethics professors. Entrepreneurs speak to our emotions, our feelings of pity or shame or solidarity, and inspire us through such practices as the use of rhetoric or by setting an inspirational personal example. As Posner puts it, “they don't do this with arguments, at least good ones. Rather they mix appeals to self-interest with emotional appeals that bypass our rational calculating faculty and stir inarticulable feelings . . . they teach us to love or hate whom they love or hate” (Posner 1999: 42). Posner's emphasis on the role of self-interest and emotions in shaping our moral views inspired a section of our survey in which we asked respondents what role these and other factors played in their moral decision making.

Our methodology took the form of a an anonymous paper survey. The students involved were enrolled in philosophy units at two different universities in Western Australia. One, the University of Western Australia, is a large public research university, while the other, the University of Notre Dame, is a smaller private Catholic institution. At UWA the survey was filed out by 33 students in Social Ethics: Life and Death, a survey course addressing such familiar staples of contemporary ethics instruction as abortion, euthanasia and animal rights. At Notre Dame the survey was filed out by 38 students in Legal Philosophy, a survey course in jurisprudence that exposed students to a wide variety of philosophies of law, many of which touched on ethical questions (see below). In both units we asked students to indicate how many ethics-related units they had taken, with ethics units defined broadly to include not only ethics survey courses but any unit with a pronounced ethical theme, such as those dealing with legal or political philosophy, medical ethics, human nature or love and friendship. The students had taken a mean average of 3 ethics-related units, and the survey was designed to gauge the effect of any ethics-related units that a student had ever taken. Only one of our questions was written in a manner that took into account the particular unit in which the survey was being administered (see below).

In designing and carrying out our study, we were partly inspired by previous research into the ethical effects of studying economics. Such research has often been taken to show that students who are exposed to modern economic theory become less altruistic and more self-centred (Marwell and Ames 1981; Frank et al. 1993). However, this widely held belief has recently been challenged by Bruno Frey and Stephan Meier (2005). They note that while economics majors donate to charity less often than other students, this difference is evident even before they have attended their first day of university. The different donation rate is thus not an “indoctrination effect” but a “selection effect,” in that economics attracts people less likely to give to charity to begin with (2005: 168, 170). In carrying out our own project, we sought to investigate the “indoctrination” or transformational effect of studying ethics, as distinct from any selection effect. Hence our decision to administer a survey to students, asking what effect studying ethics had on their thinking and behaviour.

Although there have been other studies on the effects of studying ethics, we are unaware of any previous research with quite the same focus and methodology. While ethics surveys and tests have often been employed by education researchers, they have tended to focus on students in disciplines such as nursing , public administration and business, rather than philosophy (Menzel 1997, Krawczyk 1997, Perryer and Jordan 2002). Research into the type of ethics instruction done in philosophy classrooms, by contrast, has tended to eschew surveys and other social scientific tools, in favour of normative investigations into which teaching style or approach works best.

Ethics Units Compared to University Units in General

Several of our questions asked students if university units in general, not just units relating to ethics, had any effect on their thinking. By comparing the answers students gave to these general university questions to those regarding ethics units, we hoped to shed light on how transformative ethics-related unites are compared to university units overall.

The responses to our questions about university units indicate that students are often influenced by their studies. Seventy-nine percent of students we surveyed (55 respondents) either agreed or strongly agreed that taking university units made them better listeners. Eighty-nine percent of students (62 respondents) said that taking university units provided them with better reasons for views the already held. Ninety percent (63 respondents) said university study made them more open to new ideas, beyond those discussed in class. Finally, 76% of students (53 respondents) said that taking university units caused them to sometimes or often change their mind about a topic the unit covered. By contrast, only 24% of students (17 respondents) said university units never or only rarely caused them to change their mind.

These results suggest that the things students hear in class do not merely go in one ear and out the other, but have an actual effect on what they think. The transformative effect of university education seems particularly true in regard to students' receptiveness to new ideas: the high number of positive responses to this question suggests that most students do not just passively receive the ideas that are part of the curriculum, but become more open to novel concepts in general. This is consistent with the high number of respondents who said they had become better listeners, a disposition that suggests openness to unfamiliar modes of thought, and also with the equally large number of respondents who indicated some degree of belief-revision due to their university studies.

It might be thought that the very highest figure, that concerning students acquiring better reasons for views they already held, cuts against the overall transformative trend. After all, the answers to our better reasons question might simply suggest that students engage in a process of rationalizing their firmly held conclusions, and so are not really transformed by what happens in class. Although this may be true in some cases, we believe it is more consistent with the other answers in this section to take a more positive view of students who answered yes to the better reasons question. We take the answers to this question to indicate that due to their education, students came to recognize important flaws in the original justifications for their views. In other words, students who came to embrace new reasons for their thinking are engaging in a different sort of transformation, not avoiding transformation altogether.

How transformative were ethics units compared to units in general? To answer this question, we asked students to indicate whether they strongly agreed, agreed, were neutral, disagreed or strongly disagreed with the following statements:

  • Taking ethics units has enabled me to give better reasons for ethical views I already held.
  • Taking ethics units has made me better able to spot poor ethical arguments and fallacies. I feel I am less likely to be taken in by bad ethical arguments.
  • Taking ethics units has helped me to identify contradictions in my ethical thinking and to make my views more consistent.
  • Taking ethics units has made me more open to new ethical ideas, beyond those we discussed in the units themselves.

These questions have a similar wording to the ones we asked about university units in general. The difference is that the question about becoming a better listener was replaced by one that asks students to reflect on whether ethics units have helped them to identify contradictions in their ethical views.