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Ethics, Faith, Morality or Reason: Untangling Popular Rhetoric

Occasionally my colleagues and I are obligated to complete “ethics training,” generally online, usually on the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace, and always completed as quickly as possible. No one, perhaps especially the universities requiring this training, appears to care whether my colleagues and I possess the virtues of chastity or constancy, although everyone is quite concerned to “tick the boxes” and thereby minimize legal risk.

This is a model of ethics as compliance, and assumes an ethics of negation. That is, so long as the rules were not broken, so long as the reports were not incomplete, the conflict of interest policy not infringed, then we were—miracle of miracles—ethical. Many ethics courses offered in schools of business, law, or journalism, for instance, similarly teach how to avoid running afoul of the rules, or how to avoid trouble by following the “best practices” of the guild or discipline.

Oddly, though, when it comes to actual character or morality the precept seems to be “no foul, no harm,” a strange reversal of the old playground rule of “no harm, no foul.” If the rules are followed—at least on the surface level of behavior—then no foul, no harm.

Of course, this ignores the obvious (and important) questions about morality: What justifies these regulations? Are the regulations themselves moral? Is it true that if I follow the rules I am thereby ethical?

If we ask these basic questions, we run directly into the prevailing opinion that morality is relative, based entirely on some sort of private and subjective commitment—like religion or custom or a personal set of principles—but such commitment remains, and must remain, private and subjective and cannot be “imposed” on others.

On this strange view of ethics and morality, the National Abortion Federation has no problem proclaiming [1] its “Ethical Principles for Abortion Care.” Strikingly, it is fundamentally equivalent to the code of conduct [2] for podiatrists. Ending the life of an unborn child and treating a bunion apparently requires the same kind of ethics: informed consent, confidentiality, non-discrimination of patients, and so on. But when it comes to asking about the morality of abortion, one can predict the National Abortion Federation’s response: “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries.” That is, morality is a matter of subjective faith, which ought not be imposed on others, and so long as we follow the rules the ethical requirements are met and conscience is clean.

This assumes that moral principles are essentially unknowable and non-rational. Perhaps they are an inheritance from a religious tradition or deeply held beliefs of some sort, but those beliefs need to be believed, held on faith, and thus must remain privately held and non-cognitive. They are not even true or false, but simply believed without any hope of rational justification. Moral claims, on this view, are akin to expressions of taste, as in, “I prefer chocolate while you prefer vanilla—well, to each their own.” Moral beliefs, thus, reduce to “my opinion,” or “your opinion,” but neither opinion is more or less justified, more or less rational than the other.

Such a divide between ethics as compliance and morality as subjective faith is false and unreasonable. Humans can in fact know, through natural law, through reason, the principles of morality. Moral judgments can be true or false, and we can reason about these judgments together—they are not simply private, subjective, and non-cognitive.

Human beings—each and every human being—shares the same set of basic goods, those goods proper to humans which provide the basis of intelligible action. It’s less complicated than it sounds.

For instance, a human is a living entity for whom life is a good. Maintaining life is an intelligible reason for acting, since life is a good for humans. To work for money is not fully intelligible, as money is an instrumental good, a tool. To work for money in order to buy food in order to live, however, is intelligible because life is a good, providing a reason for acting. And life is good for all. (Everyone knows this, by the way, which is why we eat and run away from danger.. And we know this without divine revelation or religious authority.)

Now, while this example hardly exhausts the list of human goods, we do understand them to be good, and understand that it is unreasonable—immoral—to knowingly and willfully choose to violate or harm these goods without justification. That is, it is wrong to knowingly and directly take an innocent life, and only with good cause (self-defense, a just war, for example) is it remotely acceptable to kill. It is unreasonable to willingly teach what one knows to be false, or to violate a just law, because such actions diminish basic goods.

Such goods are not a matter of faith, even if religion affirms and encourages them. Nor is it a matter of sheer private belief, for we can argue and debate and reason together about these things. Neither is morality simply a matter of compliance, of ticking a box to show that we have kept a list of rules which are themselves ungrounded and unjustified.

We can know the basic principles of morality. In fact, we know and act on these principles all the time. Morality is not simply a matter of faith, it is knowable by any and all who wish to know.