Bridging the Gap Between Ethical Theory and Practice

In the opening paragraph of Andrew Oldenquist’s introduction to Readings in Moral Philosophy he tries to explain the book’s focus. Describing moral philosophy, Oldenquist says:

It is distinct from moralizing, for moralizing is neither philosophical, nor is it a study of morality, but rather one way of participating in morality. Anthropologists and sociologists sometimes study morality. The former try to discover what other societies think about moral matters, and the latter investigate the moral beliefs of various groups within our society and perhaps try to discover what makes groups of people believe what they do. The philosophical study of morality is both more general and more critical than this… a great many of the problems that interest the moral philosopher are logical problems… the consistency or inconsistency of various moral opinions and principles; in the ways in which good and bad reasoning enter into moral deliberation… in the meaning of moral statements; and in the extent to which some moral opinions depend on more basic ones… [which] has led moral philosophers to look for ultimate moral principles…. [And] the attempt to justify, or in some way to make reasonable, ultimate moral principles…

All of this is reasonable, but when I read this it seemed to me that there was something missing both in what Oldenquist includes and in what he excludes from his focus. There’s an important bridge between moral theory and moral practice. I’m not sure what you would call it, but I’m sure it merits study.

I think philosophers shy away from thinking about this because they think of it as secondary to ethical theory. Once you’ve figured out the Ultimate Moral Principles and have used these to deduce the proper moral behavior, everything then will fall into place on its own. The difficult part is to do this figuring out and deducing.

I’m not so sure. It seems to me that the problem most people have is not that they’ve gotten lost on the way to determining Ultimate Moral Principles and have chosen the wrong ones (or have been unable to choose), but that in applying whatever makeshift moral principles they’ve adopted, they’re being flummoxed by mental biases, various forms of deliberate deception, and such — all of which they’re helpless against because they have not learned to identify and defend against them.

The philosophy (art? technology?) of ethical development would consist of studying the obstacles to living ethically — independently of the details of the Ultimate Moral Principles the moral philosophers discover. Assuming you have some moral principles (though perhaps rudimentary, naïve, and in need of refinement), how do you avoid the many tricks and traps that lead you to make unethical decisions in spite of these principles?

In the Christian world, there’s no shortage of literature on this theme, though instead of “obstacles to living ethically” it’s “temptations to sin.” Is there a secular equivalent? If so, what’s it called? If not, why not?

It seems like the kind of thing that could (and ought to) be taught in the schools. Most of the controversy that has led to the removal of any useful moral instruction from public schools (that is, instruction that rises above “don’t have sex and don’t do drugs”) comes from worries that the schools will start favoring some varieties of Ultimate Moral Principles over others. But a class that teaches the skill of not being a hypocrite seems like it could safely be compatible with just about any set of these Principles.

Just when I thought I’d heard all of the proposed Constitutional justifications for legal conscientious objection to military taxation, No Third Solution suggests that the key is The Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The wha? Everyone knows what the first two amendments are about. What’s that third one again?

You’ll have to follow the link above to see how No Third Solution stretches this amendment to cover the federal government demanding tax money to maintain a standing army. Seems quite a stretch to me.

The debate over how to best turn an anti-state philosophy into a lifestyle of freedom continues at The Freedom Symposium.

Matthew Smucker of the War Resisters League shares a summary of the results of something called the “Listening Process” — in which a team spoke with “90 grassroots organizers and activists from across the country” to ask them about “the biggest constraints they face in building a stronger and more effective peace movement.”

Some of what came up in these interviews mirrors the complaints I’ve expressed here about the peace movement. Three themes from the summary are:

  • The movement has a demographic problem and an image problem (and they’re related).
  • We need to focus less on big demonstrations, and more on organizing a base and building leadership.
  • The growing GI movement is likely to play a critical role in ending the war.

A woman had a stake in a state retirement fund, but, as she was not yet retired, she hadn’t started to withdraw from it. If she’d wanted to, she could at any time have suspended her membership in the fund in exchange for a lump sum payment.

The IRS was trying to seize assets from her, and attempted to seize the retirement account. When they did, the State said there was nothing to seize, as she wasn’t retired yet and so didn’t qualify for payments. So the IRS wanted to tell the State to suspend the account and turn over the lump sum to the agency.

But the IRS Chief Counsel recently ruled that the agency would have been overstepping its authority in doing that.

In cases like this, the IRS has to seize “the taxpayer’s future rights to retirement benefits upon reaching retirement age” and wait for the money “when benefits became payable to the taxpayer under the terms of the retirement fund.”