Critical Thinking as Purposeful Questions




1. What person could be so bold as to answer the question in the title?

2. What unifies religion and philosophy when trying to answer the question in the title?

3. What is the closest we can come to answering this question at all?

Who would be the grand assessment expert who would certify that one decision or path is more ethical than another?  Until we answer that question, the search for the best decision is futile. 

We know that humans disagree about whether we should use military power to forestall the military successes of the New Islamic Republic. They also have no consensus response re. whether one should leave a concert before it is over when one finds the performer inept or just not your cup of tea. Humans disagree about almost any ethical decision one might make. So where do we find the polestar that assures us we are on the right path?

Religions and philosophers have been equally insistent that they and only they have certain abstract principles that define ethically superior behavior. Both seek and provide universal principles that we can use on a daily basis.  Do not kill, for example; then, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, an ethics of care, and deontological ethics each has its adherents who claim that their particular principles are the platinum pathway to ethical optimality.

But both of these general approaches--religious and philosophical-- are intellectually thin. They propose general rules that break down when they come face to face with the thick details of the contexts of our lives. There are many instances where the context suggests that you should kill,or even that you are heroic for killing. Similarly the richness of events surrounding each decision, as revealed in any legal case or a multi-faceted novel, reduces philosophical principles to persuasive lexicons that provide seemingly rational cover for an ad hoc application of the principles.

In other words, the person supposedly using the universal principle spices his conclusion with the language of the principle and then announces his interpretation of the proper response to the mandates of the principle. In the end, these general principles are not only impractical, but they also serve as intellectual cover for begging the question. You can see this practice in crystalline form in business ethics texts where the reader is urged to explain how virtue ethics would react to the business problem. The response is largely dictated by whichever priest of virtue ethics is on duty that day. The universal principle itself provides no consensus determination of what the firm should do, except in cases so extreme that humans need little help in determining the best course of ethical action. 

SO what are we to do when we want to treat others optimally? What follows is a pragmatic approach to ethics, drawing on the work of Mark Johnson, Richard Rorty,  Bernard Williams and Peter Levine. I am especially dependent on Levine for what I am about to say. Some preliminaries:

  1. Pragmatism is not simply another term for doing whatever works.  Were it that superficial, none of us would want to be anywhere near its dictates. 
  2. A decision is both yours and relational.  In other words, ethics has a personal dimension because it is the decision maker who must have a sense of what kind of world he wishes to encourage.  In other words, she or he needs to know what his or her value preferences are on an abstract level, realizing all along that ethics requires a thick (expressing all relevant context) description before any decision is made.
  3. But at the same time ethical decisions require consideration of the interests of affected groups AND a willingness to engage in discussion with others in search of understandings about effects of your decision. The decision is relational or interconnected.  Making sure you have heard the views of those affected is a check on the egoism that affects all of our decisions.

An advanced warning: I am going to be disappointed about what I am about to say next. My suggested method is not wonderful. However, it is substantially improved over alternatives as far as I can see at this point.

Consider the following, and let me know what you think. Also understand that I fully understand that I am abandoning any singular/Platonist/universal understanding of what truth means. Any who disagree with me have the following burden--Can you explain the validation process of your truths that is external to your method of determining truth? Where did your TRUTH acquire god's eye?

1. Situate yourself such that you appreciate what a person like you would seek from an optimal world.

2. Create a thick description of the particulars of whatever ethical dilemma you face. Imagine the scenario of a legal case where dozens of facts,IF PRESENT, would and should redirect the court's decision.

3. Create a story/narrative that explains in a manner that would persuade others why the thick description led YOU to the decision you are wanting to make. The importance of the story is because the ultimate worth of your decision must lean on the results of the conversations you have with others about the decision. What I am suggesting is not opening your decisions to the people in general.  Rather, I am urging that before we act on a decision, we check out how well the decision sits with wise and affected others.

4. Finally the decision of what is best is yours, but only after you have been open to the considerations of others.

1. Does not this process I am suggesting lean very hard on the willingness of the decider to be open to the possibility that her or his decision is housed in a story that few respect?

2. Would not the application of this approach be impractical for who will take the time to follow those steps?

3. Am I saying that a thoughtful person cannot be ethical?


AuthorM Neil Browne