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Convince Me That I'm Wrong: Why Reasons Matter in Ethics

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Why do reasons matter in ethics? What do good and bad reasons look like? To think clearly about ethics, and to build toward your own consistent and well-reasoned set of ethical beliefs, you need to consider these questions and apply them to your currently held views.
This chapter is from the book

In This Chapter

  • Why reasons matter

  • The role of authority figures

  • The importance of impartiality

  • Being a skeptic

A recent Gallup poll shows the following statistics about Americans: 52 percent believe in astrology; 22 percent believe that aliens have visited the earth; 67 percent claim they had a psychic experience; and 33 percent believe there was once a lost continent called Atlantis.

These high numbers are surprising and, while not directly ethical issues, do relate to this chapter on reasons in ethics. The above statistics should make you ask: What reasons do people have for believing these things? Are there good reasons for such beliefs? That is exactly what we will talk about in this chapter. You will consider things like: Why do reasons matter in ethics? What do good and bad reasons look like? To think clearly about ethics, and to build toward your own consistent and well-reasoned set of ethical beliefs, you need to consider these questions and apply them to your currently held views.

Give Me One Good Reason

Let's start by examining that riddle we've all heard: Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. It's a silly riddle precisely because the chicken has no good reasons for doing so; but, then again, chickens probably don't have good reasons for doing much of anything! If we can learn anything from such a dumb riddle, it's that not all reasons were created equally, some are better than others. You don't want to be like that chicken, crossing the road to get to the other side, then once you get there having no idea why you're there, do you? Of course not! While we don't expect chickens to give reasoned accounts of why they do things, we do expect it of people. That's why reasons matter.

Reasons have everything to do with ethics: If you have no good reasons for an act or a belief, then you can't have thought it through very well and maybe you shouldn't be doing it or believing it at all. It's quite scary to think that there are people out there who are voting, protesting, financing causes, or running campaigns without any clear idea of why they are doing it. Each and every one of us should be clear about our reasons for our values, beliefs, and behaviors, and we should each be able to give a reasoned account of them to others.

Tried and True

If someone asks you why you believe or act as you do, don't just say, "Because I believe (or act) that way." Give them a reason why. But before you give a reason why, ask yourself why—and keep on asking yourself why. Only then will your life become meaningful to you.

But it's not true in every case that we need to give a reasoned account of our choices. For example, people may ask why you give money to a certain charity, and you should be able to provide some reasons. It may be none of their business, but you should at least in principle be able to give reasons for your choice. You might respond that it's a good charity, or the cause really matters to you, or you want to give something back to society. If someone asks why you like beer, though ... well, that's a different story. You don't need a reasoned account in that case. Why not? Because, as Chapter 2 explained, there is a difference between preferences and values; and you don't have to give a long-winded, reasoned account of why you have a preference for beer, unless you want to bore everyone to death! So we have two lessons so far:

  1. Not all reasons are created equally.

  2. We don't need to have, or give, reasons for everything.

Basically, you don't need any reason at all for drinking beer. The fact that you like it is reason enough for drinking it. Nobody really cares. Not so for those charities, however. Giving reasons is important to ethical life, but isn't so important in the nonethical domain where questions about personal preferences come up. In short, no one really cares why you like beer, but people do care about what charities you support and why.

Giving reasons for our actions is important socially, too. It either connects us to others or divides us from them. So much of our social life depends on a shared understanding of what's true, right, and appropriate. When this understanding breaks down, the only way to restore it is by asking the reason why we disagree with one another.

For Example ...

To clarify things, let's use pornography as an example. We know that different groups oppose pornography, and sometimes for different reasons. Fundamentalist Christians, for example, are against pornography because it goes against traditional family values. Some feminist groups are also against it, but because they believe it treats women as objects and promotes violence against women. While both groups are anti-pornography, their reasons may be different, and those reasons divide them up into different social groups. So it's important to know not just what people believe but why they hold those beliefs!

Moral Musings

The saying "birds of a feather flock together" helps to understand why reasons are socially important. People who have similar reasons for their beliefs and actions tend to gravitate toward one another. Our reasons for believing X and Y connect us with others who have the same reasons. They set us apart from people who dispute our reasons.

The point in reading this book and in doing ethics isn't to get you to change your mind about things, or to think about ethics in one particular way. It's to get you to think about why you value certain things—like charity—and why you think it's right to practice them. To take a popular example, if you are opposed to abortion, examining your reasons for your opposition won't necessarily change your position (though it may!); it will make clear your reasons for holding that view, though. I teach ethics to university students every semester, and rarely do I change their minds about the ethical issues we study. Students who start class as pro-life usually finish that way, too. But students do clarify their thinking and think through their reasons for their ethical beliefs.

Changing Your Mind?

But—and this is a big but!—sometimes thinking through your beliefs and your reasons for having them will lead you to conclude that you were wrong, that you don't agree with the reasons, and that maybe you need to change your beliefs and actions. If, to use the abortion example again, you examined your reasons for believing that abortion is wrong and realized that you just don't agree with them anymore, then it would be pretty hard to continue picketing outside abortion clinics and lobbying the government for stronger laws against abortion. Or, if you did the same thing as a pro-choice advocate and discovered that the arguments against abortion were persuasive, you would be pretty ethically inconsistent if you continued to lobby for more liberal abortion laws.

Ethically Speaking

Dogmatism is the stubborn refusal to consider challenges to your own ethical point-of-view. It is also the out-of-hand rejection of competing ethical theories or explanations. You might know some dogmatic people ... you probably call them "pig-headed"!

While changing your mind isn't the end goal of doing ethics, it is certainly a possibility that you have to leave yourself open to; otherwise, you are being dogmatic. Dogmatism is a real problem because it means that you have slapped on your blinders, and are refusing to consider challenges to your beliefs, values, and actions.

It's Your Decision

There's another thing to keep in mind about our reasons for doing things: we have to come to them by our own lights, and not be manipulated into accepting them by someone else. This is why children aren't held to the same moral and legal standards that adults are, because they often can't give their own, well-thought-out reasons for doing or believing something. To put it bluntly, parents hold the purse-strings; they have the authority and control. (As I said in Chapter 2, parents can make us eat brussels sprouts against our will!) There's an important distinction here between being convinced of someone's reasons through a sound argument and being manipulated into accepting their reasons. In the one case, you are resting on your convictions. In the other, you are being held hostage to that other person's belief.

To recap, we've settled the following issues so far:

  1. Where ethics is concerned, you must have reasons for your beliefs.

  2. Reasons can either socially bind people together or divide them.

  3. By thinking about your ethical reasons for believing something, you need to be open to the possibility of revising them.

  4. There is a difference between being convinced by someone's reasons and being manipulated into accepting them.

But now let's get back to a point that was raised earlier in this chapter: Not all reasons are created equally.

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