A Definition of Ethics

"Ought I to report the student across the aisle for using crib notes in the examination?" "Should I support the claim of workers in the steel industry to the right to strike?"

Questions such as these we all face at one time or another. They are questions of right and wrong, of personal responsibility and social action, which we recognize as coming within the area of ethics. But familiar as we are with questions of this sort, we may yet wonder how ethics as a field of study deals with them--how they can become data for systematic investigations comparable to those of chemistry or biology. After all, ethical investigators don't use test tubes and microscopes and similar instruments such as often lend concreteness to studies in other areas.

It may be well, therefore, to consider at the outset a preliminary statement of the nature and aims of ethics, with a view to clarifying what we are going to try to do and how we hope to accomplish our purpose. It should be borne in mind, however, that a preliminary definition must be imperfect and provisional at best and that ethical inquiry, like being in love or feeling homesick, is something that we cannot claim to know for what it is until we have made it a part of our own experience. For this reason, the present chapter might almost better have been placed at the end than at the beginning of the book.

It should also be borne in mind that not all writers on ethics would agree on the definition of the subject that we shall examine, any more than they would agree on the answers to the specific problems which have been raised in the history of ethical thought.

Thus forewarned and with a weather eye open for objections and counterproposals, let us consider the following definition: Ethics is the critical study of standards for judging the rightness or wrongness of conduct.

Since "conduct" is referred to as the object of ethical study, we may begin by asking how this term is to be understood. What kinds of events may and what may not properly be called "conduct" and made subject to ethical judgments?

In the first place, it seems clear that whatever events lie beyond human control should be excluded from such judgments. Earthquakes and rainstorms, falling temperatures and falling dice, the specific gravity of gold and the specific moment of an individual's birth are in greater or lesser degree beyond the pale of ethical criticism. To the extent that men learn how to regulate the behavior of rainstorms and gaming devices and human embryos, these things (or, more precisely, the controls exercised over them) will come to have a place in the ethical sphere. But so long as they remain mere events in an external nature, the application to them of the name "conduct" would appear incongruous.

If, however, we take the presence of deliberate control as marking the kind of behavior with which ethics is concerned, certain borderline cases come to mind. One thinks, for instance, of those types of human actions which are not strictly and immediately under the control of the persons who perform them. The sleepwalker, the kleptomaniac, the hypnotic subject, we tend to regard as exempt from moral censure. Their actions are not rightly to be ascribed the name of "conduct" at all since these persons an not acting as "conductors" or directors of their own behavior. One would as reasonably attach blame to a gun that fired a fatal shot as to a person acting under hypnosis. It is, rather, with the person pulling the trigger or inducing and exploiting the hypnotic condition that responsibility properly rests.

It is true, of course, that such individuals as we have been mentioning may exercise a kind of indirect or "remote" control over their behavior. Thus, a person who knows himself to be addicted to somnambulism may, under certain conditions, be well advised to see to it that he does not place himself in a position where he may fall asleep--just as Peter Rabbit, in the story, would have done well not to hide himself in the flowerpot whose dampness induced the involuntary and almost disastrous sneeze.

It may be added that this type of control is more often available to those who aspire to bring about a given result than is usually realized. In the sphere of conduct, as in the sphere of chess or military strategy, the "moral general" who can deploy his forces and his resources so as to delimit in advance the moves at the disposal of the enemy, may already have made the outcome of the battle inevitable. This is true even when the only way to prevent the loss of the battle is not to fight it.

Habits, too, fall in the category of actions which are virtually uncontrollable when once the accustomed stimulus has come into play, but which, had precautionary measures been taken before the habitual behavior had become ingrained, might have been prevented. Habits, like a good game of golf, take practice, and like the common law, depend on precedent; discovered and treated in their early stages, they need not prove fatal.

For that matter, even an old habit, though it lacks the flexibility of youth, may not prove hopelessly stubborn. People can and do throw off habits successfully--consider the record of Alcoholics Anonymous--and techniques for doing so have been widely studied and advertised by psychologists and others.

The problem of determining the degree in which moral competence is present or absent is notoriously difficult in the case of crimes committed by children, by the criminally insane, and by persons who are intoxicated; and the legal mind has been hard put to it to arrive at satisfactory criteria for judging accountability in such cases. Even among these cases there are differences. The possession of impaired faculties may or may not be the consequence of a lapse on the possessor's own part, and we tend, therefore, to raise the question whether the causes lie beyond his control; on the other hand, we are hardly likely to blame a child for being as young as he is. However, the theme which used so to exercise moralists of a bygone era: When does naughtiness become viciousness? remains, under a more sophisticated formulation, a serious and practical problem in the field of juvenile delinquency.

In the case of the "drunk," it may be noted that while we may speak of him on occasion as "conducting himself shamefully," we realize that this remark, in so far as it implies his responsibility for his behavior, holds good only to the extent that there is self-regulation present.

We have been speaking of conduct as controlled human behavior. The question has been raised whether the term may also be applied to animals. Thus, assuming that "man bites dog" is worthy not only of newspaper coverage, but also of ethical (and, perchance, psychoanalytical) appraisal, what shall we say of the more prosaic, "dog bites man"? Does the dog mean to do it? Is it morally1 appropriate to chastise or find fault with the dog for an act which may be as spontaneous and involuntary as salivation or tail-wagging?

The usual reply, made to be sure, at the risk of mortally offending all true dog lovers, has been that the capacities of dogs and human beings for making discriminating choices are, to say the least, not precisely on a par, and that until animal psychologists can demonstrate the contrary, it may be supposed that there exists, in this respect, a considerable breach between even the latest canine marvel of the silver screen and the man who obsequiously feeds him his daily rations.

Conduct, then, may be defined as behavior over which the performer exercises critical and selective control The fact that there are certain kinds of behavior in which the amount of control present is difficult to estimate, complicates the task of saying whether or not a given act is to be classified as morally judgeable conduct, but does not affect the validity of the criterion. It is something to know what we are looking for even if there are times when we are not sure that we have found it.

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