What is Right, What is Wrong

There are certain aspects of conduct, however, which taken by themselves are no concern of ethics. What the duration of an act is, that it occurred on Tuesday, that those engaged in the episode had an aggregate weight of 2,310 pounds--none of these are ethical facts. This is not to say that they could have no ethical bearing or that they might not have to be taken into account, in one way or another, by a person passing judgment on the act. But an ethical judgment proper is always a judgment of rightness or wrongness. Judgments of time or place or weight, as such, are not ethical judgments, because they do not assert, except elliptically or by implication, anything as to rightness or wrongness. Assuming a knowledge of relevant circumstances, the details just referred to might, of course, be seen as charged with ethical significance. To take an hour, instead of a few seconds, to begin artificial respiration on a drowning person, to carry out on Tuesday a military mission which total strategy required to be performed on Monday, or to make an exception to a rule allowing only twelve average-sized people to board an elevator--few would deny that circumstances could give ethical meaning to such occurrences.

What is needed is to distinguish between (1) ethical facts and (2) non-ethical facts having ethical import. Many facts which are not facts of rightness or wrongness, and which are therefore nonethical, will nevertheless, on one or another definition of right and wrong, make all the difference in the world in the ethical description of the situations in which they are involved. Indeed, it is safe to assert that on some views of right and wrong there is no single aspect or detail of the universe that might not, in some conceivable fashion, make an ethical difference.

So far our explanation of the distinction between ethical and nonethical judgments has remained at a purely verbal level. We might agree that to say of an employer that he fired a workman is not in itself to say that he did right or wrong. If we knew that the workman frequently reported to work drunk, or that he was an enthusiastic member of a labor union, we might, depending on our views, consider discharging him a right (or a wrong) act; but we would say that the circumstances surrounding or precipitating the act made it right or wrong, not that they were its rightness or its wrongness. Having said this, however, we should not have reached a complete understanding of the distinction involved until we had said what "rightness" and "wrongness" meant.

That it would be presumptuous to try to state the meaning of these terms at this point is obvious from the fact that it is precisely about this meaning that the major disputes in the field of ethics revolve. A large portion of this book will be devoted to the examination of representative ethical theories which are distinguished from one another primarily in terms of the various meanings they attach to the notions of right and wrong. Yet it is perhaps desirable, in order to get before our minds a working conception of the field of ethics, to see whether there may not be something about the different definitions of right and wrong on which all the theories could agree.

Perhaps the best approach to such a common denominator can be made by examining a contrast often made between ethics and science. This contrast has been phrased in many ways, most of which come to about the same thing. Science is said, for example, to be descriptive; ethics, to be normative (or perhaps, in greater antithesis, prescriptive). Science is said to deal with facts; ethics with values. Or more simply still, science is described as dealing with the "is" and ethics with the "ought." In other words, rightness and wrongness imply and express "norms" or standards of conduct, and not simple descriptions of conduct. They are held to be predicates of value, rather than of fact; of appreciation (or depreciation) rather than of description; of what should be rather than of what is.

If we accept this sort of contrast (and we shall see that it is likely to be misleading unless restated in more precise terms than the above), it is natural to extend its application by associating ethics with other value fields such as logic (the study of right reasoning, of how a good argument ought to proceed), and aesthetics (the study of norms and standards of beauty, of what good taste would dictate as to what ought to be appreciated). Some have even included inquiries in the areas of economics and religion among the value studies. All of these are described as falling within the domain of the "philosophy of value" and are contrasted sharply with such disciplines as botany, psychology, and chemistry, which as sciences are characterized as being concerned wholly with description.

Few would be inclined to dispute the validity of this contrast so far as it touches the sciences. For a scientist, as such, to be concerned with anything beyond description is generally regarded as unthinkable. Botanists may also be flower lovers and prefer roses to gardenias; pyschologists may also be politicians and prefer democracy to communism; chemists may also be gentlemen and prefer blondes. But let the botanist's partiality for roses affect by one jot or tittle his cataloguing of their botanical characteristics, let the psychologist's political feelings compromise the objectivity of his treatise on "The Affective System in Man," or let the chemist's love life influence his laboratory analysis of hydrogen peroxide, and the wrath of the scientific heavens would surely fall on their heads. It is simply not the business of a botanist to evaluate the beauty of flowers, of a psychologist to criticize ideologies, or of a chemist to appraise the uses to which his discoveries might be put--any more than it is the business of a political scientist to counsel kings or form governments or that of an economist to play the stock market. This is not to say that scientists do not and should not do all of these things--only that when they do so, they have temporarily, and often quite properly, abandoned their roles as scientists.

If we take this position on the function of the scientist, however, we must not be led to conclude that everything that is not the business of the scientist is the business of specialists in the so-called value fields. It is surely not the business of the aesthetician to occupy himself with sniffing scents or languishing before the loveliness of a Botticelli, any more than it is the business of a logician to argue at the drop of a hat or of a moralist to head up citizens' reform movements or write modern versions of Aesop's Fables.

Not that some or all of these activities might not be of use to these persons in the prosecution of what is properly their business. For that business is of a very special sort and--strangely enough and in apparent repudiation of the contrast we have been drawing -- is, in a sense, on the side of description rather than of appreciation or adoration or appraisal. The difference between the descriptive activities of the scientist and those of the student of values is that the latter's, instead of being directed at the investigation of natural laws, are directed at the investigation of standards of value. The function of the value theorist is not to judge by standards, but to explain standards; it is not to criticize or evaluate, or to praise or condemn, but to examine the bases on which criticisms are made and to consider the meaning and justification of criteria of evaluation. The aesthetician tries to say what the charm of a Botticelli is and what might be meant by a critic's assertion that a Botticelli is "better than" a Botticini. The logician describes the "facts" that constitute the laws or standards of correct reasoning. The moralist examines the criteria by which men conduct their lives or by which they evaluate the conduct of others.

In other words, there lies between the scientist and the philosopher of value a third sort of person: the critic, the lover, the debater, the reformer. This person uses standards (or, as it sometimes appears, abuses them) in forming his judgments and making his decisions. He is the man of action, of conviction, of opinion--the practical man, if you like. As such, he is of course to be distinguished from the scientist. But often, especially in his role as critic and evaluator, he is confused with the philosopher. And yet it can be said that the difference between him and the scientist is much the same as that between him and the philosopher. It lies in the fact that he is concerned with something more than just knowing. If he wants knowledge, he wants it to use; he wants it as something that has value for believing things or proving things, for changing or promoting or getting things. He is not interested in the "is" as such, but rather in the "might be," either in the form of the "ought to be" or the "I'd like it to be."

This person may also, of course, be a scientist, and conceivably a philosopher as well. If so, he might be thought especially well equipped for his "practical" activities. For he would have the "know what" and "know how" of the former and the "know why" of the latter--this, of course, on the assumption, soon to be examined, that it is possible to "know why." But granting the possibility of having "knowledge why," it is perhaps clear that all intelligent enterprise involves the three phases of (1) formulating goals or standards, (2) taking stock of facts, and (3) acting in the light of the knowledge of the goals and the facts. A more familiar analysis is in terms of means and ends; it is frequently said that science provides the means, ethics the ends, and the practical man (the executive, the judge, the legislator, the technician) the action.

At any rate it may be hoped that this somewhat sketchy treatment of the relation between the scientific and value studies has made a little clearer the kind of judgment with which ethics deals. Let us summarize what we have said on this point: The scientist and the philosopher of value have both been described as interested in knowledge for its own sake. (Only as critics or as doers, i.e., as practical men, do they transfer their interest to the uses of knowledge.) They are to be distinguished, however, by the kinds of objects they seek to know, the scientist being concerned with the events and facts and laws of nature (including human nature), the philosopher with what may be called value facts--with the laws of valid inference, of "good taste," and of right conduct. In a sense, then, knowledge, scientific and philosophic, is always of facts, of the "is"; for a fact about values, it may be held, is quite as much as a fact about nature. It may, for example, be a fact that injuring people for no reason at all is always wrong; if so, such a fact might be said to have as much being as the "existential" fact that some people actually are made to provide diversion for others in this particular manner.

But it is also true that a fact about nature is always a fact about how things and events are arranged or ordered in the space-time world; whereas a fact about values may be regarded as a fact about how things ought to be arranged in that world and hence as not necessarily constituting a description of that world. From the standpoint of the kinds of facts that science and philosophy investigate, the contrast between the "is" and the "ought," between descriptive and normative concerns, may appear to be valid and unobjectionable.

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