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This chapter is from the book

Because My Parents Said So

Consider the following list of reasons you might have for believing that abortion is morally wrong:

  • Because your parents said so

  • Because your pastor/rabbi/priest said so

  • Because your best friend said so

  • Because you read it in the paper

  • Because the organization you belong to is against it

  • Because God said so (see Chapter 4, "God Made Me Do It," for more on this!)

  • Because you flipped a coin

  • Because your doctor said so

Guess which of these reasons are good reasons for being anti-abortion? You got it ... none of them! Why? First, appeals to authority—"It must be right because my parents/minister/ doctor said so"—are a real problem. What makes your parents, minister, or doctor moral authorities on this subject? You can't appeal to their positions as parents, ministers, or doctors, since there's no reason to think those positions make them authorities on the ethics of abortion. (They might be authorities on other things—biblical interpretation, the flu, or whether to wear a coat in winter—but not on abortion in particular.)

Second, believing something because someone told you so is no reason at all for accepting it. As I said before, you need to reflectively accept or reject a belief. The classic example is when kids go to their parents to ask "Why should I do this?" and their parents say "Because I said so." Power mongers! Fascists! The kids who go off and do as they're told are acting on authority alone, without any good reasons being offered. Poor little tykes!

Third, you don't have to accept all the beliefs of an organization that you belong to: ethics isn't a package deal, or an all-or-nothing enterprise. So to say "I believe X because the Society for the Promotion of Pug Ownership believes it" is a cop out. (Okay, you got me—I love pugs!) The Pug Society may have some things right, and on reflection you may decide that you agree with them—that's why we join organizations, after all. But by joining a group, you don't automatically buy into all that they stand for, there should be room for disagreement. Some Pug Society members might believe that black pugs are better than fawn ones; I happen to disagree, and should be free to do so. Organizations that dictate a strict party line and that don't allow you to question, disagree, or reject ideas are called cults, and should be avoided.

Do the Right Thing!

Think for yourself! Letting others do the thinking for you is tantamount to letting yourself become a slave to their thoughts and desires. That's dangerous, because once we let others do our thinking for us, we lose our freedom to resist evil—just look at the Nazis! So remember: Don't be a thoughtless follower!

But, you might ask, isn't it legitimate to take on the beliefs of people that you highly respect and care about? It only makes sense to follow in the footsteps of people that are your moral role models. So if you see Gandhi as an excellent person, then why not just adopt his beliefs and values without question?

There is something to this idea. As Chapter 9, "Ancient Greek Virtue Ethics," will show, ancient philosophers thought that having moral role models was crucial to leading and learning to lead an ethically good life. We learn to be good, just as we learn to read and ride a bike, with the help of other people. And just like reading and riding a bike, it takes practice to get really good at it. But we can't cop out by just picking our moral role models and doing what they do ... we need to find out why they do what they do (their reasons) and then figure out if we agree with them. If so, after reflecting on it, then we may adopt their ethical viewpoint. If not, we should reject it, even if the person we most admire believes it.

Moral Musings

Ancient philosophers thought that having moral role models was crucial to leading and learning to lead an ethically good life. But we can't cop out by just picking our moral role models and doing what they do ... we need to find out why they do what they do and then figure out if we agree with them.

You might think this sounds like a lot of work and a lot of trouble, well, maybe it is. If we want to practice ethics in a serious-minded way, though, we can't be lazy about it and cut corners. Like I said in Chapter 1, "So, What's Your Philosophy of Life?" we don't have to be super sleuths, always on guard, but we do have to take a hard look at our reasons for our beliefs.

All Reasons Are Not Created Equal

Okay, so not all reasons are equally good. You've learned that appeals to authority and other blind acceptance of beliefs are ethically problematic. Basically, as some experts on ethics put it, your reasons for believing or doing something must be based on impartial reasons. Let's look at this concept, find out what it means, and see why ethicists argue for impartiality.

First, consider the following ethical dilemma. I learned it in my Introduction to Ethics class!

You are standing outside a burning building. The flames and smoke are getting denser, but there is still one way of entering the building. Trapped inside it are the following beings:

  • Your beloved mother.

  • A Nobel-prize–winning scientist that is close to discovering a cure for cancer.

  • A highly intelligent ape that may unlock the secrets of the missing link.

You only have time to save one being, and each is equally distant from where you are standing. Given that you could save any one of them, which one would you choose, and why?

Well, what is your answer to this one? I don't know about you, but my first instinct was to run in and save dear old mom. After all, she changed my smelly diapers, fixed my boo-boos, got me through my terrible teens, and loaned me money when I needed it! But my professor corrected us on that one: "Wrong!" he said, "because your response is based on partial reasons, and ethical choices should be made impartially." Wrong to save mom? How is that possible?

Ethically Speaking

Partial reasons are reasons that show our biases for or against persons based on our relationships with them. A partial reason against Johnny becoming mayor of Doodleville might be that he forgot to send me a Valentine last February, which hurt my feelings.

Partial Reasons Matter

Here's how: because when we make any choice based on the fact of another person's relationship to us, we make it based on partial reasons—whether or not we like or love them, whether they have done anything for us, whether they are our lovers or enemies. It's like assuming that some people are more worthy just because we know and love them. But as I pointed out in Chapter 1, the moral attitude requires you to see that each persons' needs deserve to be weighed equally. Sure, your mom's needs and goals count just as much as the scientist's and the ape's—but the point is that they are not supposed to count more just because she's your mom. You are supposed to consider the other beings as your mom's moral equals, leaving aside your particular feelings for her and deciding objectively what do to.

This is a controversial claim. I still think that the morally right thing to do is save your mother—in fact, as I pointed out to my professor, anyone who could coldly stand outside that burning building and calculate who to save when his mother is inside is one cold fish! It should matter that your mom is your mom; that she changed your diapers and soothed your feverish brow. As you will see in Chapter 14, "Using the 'F' Word: Feminist Ethics," feminist ethics argues for the ethical importance of personal relationships ... they do matter. But my professor's claim does make sense: we shouldn't just go around deciding how to behave toward others based on our particular relationships and feelings for them. Sometimes being impartial—having impartial reasons for doing something—is very important.

Impartiality Is Important

Consider a couple of quick examples, and you'll see why impartiality matters. The first example is nepotism ... you know, when someone gives a job to one of his family members, whether or not the person is qualified and well-trained for the job. This really makes people mad (especially when they are stuck working with the incompetent person!), but why? It is because we expect people to be hired based on objective considerations like education, job training, talent, and so on. When Uncle Bunny hires his nephew, Peter, as Assistant Director at the firm it is a direct violation of such objectivity. The second example is a nurse on a busy ward. Suppose this nurse has some favorite patients and some he just can't stand. Would it be right for that nurse to run in response to the call bell every time dear old Mrs. Smith rang it, but ignore the bell because that old curmudgeon Mr. Jones was ringing it again? Certainly not! Nurses should care equally and impartially for their patients, and not "play favorites"; doing so is a violation of professional objectivity, and implies that some patients are better than others.

So where does this leave us? You could say that impartiality requires that we don't make subjective decisions in our dealings with other people. As a rule, it means that we'd better have a darned good reason for treating people differently. The racist, who violates impartiality by refusing to hire people of color, lacks good reasons for his hiring practices because he can give no good reasons for refusing them jobs. (The reasons are going to be bad ones that aren't based on any good evidence!) But when you give a box of chocolates to your dear friend, you aren't violating the rule of impartiality, since you probably do have good reasons for giving the chocolates to her rather than someone else. As for mom ... well, I still think there are good reasons for rushing in to save her from the burning building. Assuming she hasn't recently cut you out of her will!

Tried and True

We shouldn't just go around deciding how to behave toward others based on our particular relationships and feelings for them. Sometimes being impartial—having impartial reasons for doing something—is very important.

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