Critical Thinking as Purposeful Questions
IS KILLING, FOR EXAMPLE, A NEGATIVE OR POSITIVE ACT ONLY AFTER WE BECOME FAMILIAR WITH ITS CONTEXT?
IS INFIDELITY INSIDE A RELATIONSHIP BLAMEWORTHY ONLY IN CERTAIN CIRCUMSTANCES?
I once had an experience on a panel discussing religion and ethics that fascinated me at the time and still today. Two panelists put forward the claim that ethics is simple. We know what is right and wrong. The problem, from their perspective is in the doing, not in the determination of what we should do. This perspective of universal right and wrong is quite distinct from the more nuanced and scholarly recent work of Marc Hauser who argues that we have a universal "moral sense" that develops along different lines dependent on idiosyncratic cultural experiences.
Both panelists were confident and secure in the belief that to be human is to know the good. Their evidence or reasoning?
An adult walks through an apartment complex, spots an apparently drowning child, launches immediately into the pool, and rescues the child. We all know that this action was ethical, the right thing to do.
Convinced? This clever example certainly greases the skids of persuasion. Heck, we have a child that needs saving. Simple---save the child. Who could possibly argue otherwise? IN GENERAL, CHILDREN SHOULD BE PROTECTED.
The "we know what is right and wrong" perspective makes ethics relatively simple. We develop a constructive or literal pamphlet with 2 lists--one for good acts, the other for bad acts. When in doubt about what to do? Consult the pamphlet.
My first reaction was to express amazement at the cherry picking associated with this "ethical problem." That example certainly did not reflect the complexity of the dilemmas in any ethics anthology that made my head hurt . But rather than be dismissive by focusing on that observation, I wanted to struggle with this seemingly tight illustration of the proposition that we all know what is right or wrong.
SHOULD we in a chorus say "save the child?" I don't think so.
Before I explain why not, I guess I need to say a couple of things:
- I seriously doubt that most ethical acts result from the kinds of reflective rational ruminations I am going to attempt. For one thing, there is not enough time.
- Most of the time we should follow the reflex associated with relieving the immediate pain of others.
Now, let's revisit the child in the pool. But this time, let's fill in some of the needed specifics. The pool is huge and 10 feet deep. The adult walking by is, like me, a sinker; upon entering the water even in a perfectly executed jellyfish or prone float, a sinker plummets to the bottom. The adult knows that the child has been given a probable additional lifespan of 15 days. The adult is a brain surgeon, reputed to be the only person who can reliably be trusted to save lives via a particular brain surgery. The adult has 16 of these operations currently scheduled in the next 3 weeks. Now what?
Why any of these facts should matter and how much weight should be attached to each is horridly difficult to determine. All I would maintain is that those facts are relevant to what is ethical in this situation.