Our news belches stories of the latest misdeeds of stock traders, lawyers, elected officials, sports icons, bankers, doctors and scientists. We read about their inexcusable actions and are left to wonder: Are that many people greedy, glory hounds or indifferent to others' suffering?
Many people think so, which leads them to bemoan the decline of our society's morals and to demand that professional organizations adopt strict moral guidelines for their members — and then vigorously prosecute offenders.
Others propose that we should require all students to study ethics. I have sympathies with both suggestions, as long as we have a realistic view of what such courses can achieve.
Some people talk as if an ethics education will morally inoculate us against greed, cure our callousness and indifference, or provide a moral recipe book we can reliably consult to know how we should act. These are all pipe dreams.
Were its narrow and straightforward aim to cure all moral ills, an ethics education would be a miserable failure. Just as a liberal education cannot make all students curious, creative and astute thinkers, an ethics education cannot inexorably make any of us more moral.
That's not the way education works. Its value is more indirect, more trickle-down. Nonetheless, an ethics education can help in the following five ways.
1 It empowers us to see moral problems that we, as individuals and as groups, overlook or ignore.
I grew up in the South in a racist family, attended a racist church, was taught by mostly racist teachers and was governed by openly racist representatives. It never occurred to me that there was anything morally dubious about segregation. A few voices in my community and in my classrooms finally made me see what I had heretofore missed. I was — and remain — embarrassed that I was blind to such visible injustice.
2 It exposes us to moral complexity we do not see or do not appreciate.
We tend to make snap judgments about a moral view, not realizing that the rationale we offer (even if only to ourselves) is incompatible with rationales we use to justify other moral views we advocate. Many advocates of capital punishment claim it is justified because it deters potential murders (it promotes desirable consequences), yet they categorically refuse to consider consequences when deciding if abortion should be legalized (the policy would benefit families who cannot adequately care for additional children).
Meanwhile, some critics of capital punishment employ principle-based arguments — they categorically oppose any policy that might execute innocent people — while dissing such arguments for why we have an obligation to feed the world's starving (they have a right to adequate nutrition). Or some people oppose medical testing on animals because it causes the animals pain, yet don't have the slightest moral qualm about eating animals for food (arguably less necessary and more painful).
3 It enables us to better understand competing views.
If we can appreciate the reasons people embrace their views, we might be led to shift — or wholly abandon — our misguided beliefs. If our view is defensible, by understanding others' perspective, we have an opening to help them see their error. Even if neither of us alters our views, we may both be less inclined to demonize the other.
4It reveals how to think about ethical problems.
• Thinking carefully about moral problems in moments of cool reflection can enable us to act more responsibly when the heat is on.
• If we can identify the morally relevant factors at play in our options (that it is fair, prevents suffering, etc.), then we have an increased ability to know how to act.
• If we know the relevant empirical data, we can make more informed moral choices. Does capital punishment deter? What are the causes of world starvation? What are the likely results of controlling (or not controlling) easy access to guns?
• If we think not only about what we ought to do but how to do what we ought, we are empowered to act better.
• Of course, knowing what to do does not ensure that we will do it. However, if we also cultivate appropriate moral and intellectual virtues, we are better equipped to understand our responsibilities and more motivated to act accordingly.
5 It helps us understand the sources of much wrongdoing.
• Most, if not all, of us have tendencies to be inappropriately selfish and make moral exceptions of ourselves. If we are vividly aware of our tendencies, we are more capable of controlling them.
• Unfortunately, we often lack the self-knowledge of our weakness and biases, so we are prone to make asymmetrical moral judgments: We excuse behavior in ourselves that we criticize in others.
Most of us graciously and unquestioningly accept praise from others but quickly search for reasons for rejecting their criticisms. We also tend to construe our own good behavior as springing from our virtuous characters while excusing our bad behavior as mere moral hiccups ("I feel ill," "I had a bad day," "I was depressed," etc.).
Over the years, I have become increasingly aware of the special significance of No. 5. It is shocking how basically decent people can do ill because we blindly accept what we are told, because we are insufficiently self-critical.
For millennia, philosophers and religious teachers have warned us about these tendencies. Socrates told us that the unexamined life is not worth living. Jesus chided us against focusing on the speck in another's eye while ignoring the beam in our own. And John Stuart Mill implored us to not only admit our own fallibility in the abstract but to see it at work in the concrete — and then to take steps to protect ourselves against the sources of evil to which we know ourselves to be liable.
A well-designed ethics course (or better still, curriculum) can help us act more responsibly. It will not ensure that we will act morally. However, ignorance of these factors almost certainly increases the chance that we will act badly.
Hugh LaFollette is the Cole Chair in Ethics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and editor-in-chief of the recently published International Encyclopedia of Ethics. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.