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Module 4: Threats to the Possibility of Ethics, Continued

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1 Module 4: Threats to the Possibility of Ethics, Continued
Philosophy 240: Introductory Ethics Online CCBC Author: Daniel G. Jenkins, MA

2 This module is meant to accompany Chapter 4, as well as the “Psychological Egoism” segment of Chapter 5, in Rachels’ Elements of Moral Philosophy, 5th edition. Module Goals: After completing readings, presentations, discussions, and coursework for this module, you will be able to: Identify and explain fundamental threats to the possibility of ethics Analyze the usefulness and critique features of relevant ideologies Synthesize critiques with other core features of the academic study of ethics

3 In module 3 we began discussing threats to the possibility of morality, namely, cultural relativism and subjectivism. In this module, we will continue exploring meta-ethical threats to the possibility of morality by investigating the divine command theory and psychological egoism.

4 Divine Command Theory The meta-ethical threat to the possibility of moral facts known as Divine Command Theory maintains that whatever is morally right is what God commands us to do, and that what is morally wrong is what God forbids us to do. Hence, you need never engage in moral deliberation on your own. Instead, you need simply consult your religious text or official to discover what you ought do in any given situation.

5 Divine Command theory meshes well with many people’s religious sense.
Divine Command theory is comforting. It removes the complex obligation of engaging in moral deliberation on our own.

6 A Problem for Ethics It is neither my job nor my desire to turn anyone away from religion. It is my job to facilitate an academic study of ethics. Divine Command Theory is problematic for ethics because it leaves no room for moral agency.

7 Problems with Divine Command Theory
One very obvious problem with Divine Command Theory is this – which religion is correct? Another problem with Divine Command Theory is that every religion is officiated by human beings with their own goals, drives, desires, motives, and weaknesses. Religion has been perverted throughout history by self-seeking pundits that have used faith for political ends.

8 Even if you are a devout follower of a given religion, you probably do not believe in Divine Command Theory. Imagine now that God commands you to kill everyone with blue eyes. Would you think that murdering people with blue eyes is a moral act just because God commanded it? Take a moment to consider this before moving on.

9 A Barometer of Morality
In most religions, God is considered to be omnipotent, which is to say, all-powerful. As an all-powerful being, God has the power to choose evil. If it is possible to imagine God commanding something we would consider to be morally wrong, and if we accept that God is powerful enough to choose to be good or evil, then we must accept that there is a barometer of morality that exists outside of God.

10 Rather than thinking that something is right merely because God says it is right, we can conclude that God will, if God is good, say it is right because it is right. If this is the case, then we once again have the responsibility to engage in moral deliberation for ourselves.

11 Summary of Divine Command Theory
Claim: You do not need to engage in moral deliberation. Merely consult your religious text or official to find out what is moral and immoral. Criticism of Divine Command Theory: 1) We cannot use reason to demonstrate which moral code, imparted by which religion, is the correct code to follow. 2) Abuse of religious authority for personal and political ends emphasizes the need for individual moral deliberation. 3) If it is possible that God can do bad things, we must admit there is a barometer of morality external to God. In rejecting the Divine Command Theory, we emphasize the moral agency of each individual; each of us has moral responsibility.

12 Psychological Egoism Now let’s discuss the meta-ethical threat to ethics known as Psychological Egoism. Imagine that it is Valentine’s Day, and you want to do something special for your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife. Let’s say you go all out – spend a lot of money on roses, chocolates, gifts, and plan to spend even more on dinner at an upscale restaurant. You take great pains to make sure everything will go smoothly. You wear your finest, you memorize a love poem, and you saved for months just to afford these extravagant gestures of love.

13 Now imagine that you show up at the house of your sweetheart, knock on the door, roses and chocolates in hand, and he or she opens the door with a look of disgust on their face and says: “You selfish pig. Just like you to think only of yourself on Valentine’s Day!” They slam the door in your bewildered face. What is happening here?

14 What’s happening is that your sweetheart is buying into the claim made by Psychological Egoism – the idea that everything we do, even seemingly charitable acts, really have ourselves as the primary beneficiary. We do things for others because it makes us feel good, and for no other reason.

15 Some of you will believe the claim made by Psychological Egoism is true.
What the consequences are of this position? Think about this for a moment before advancing to the next slide – do you want to live in a world in which everyone is selfish, and can’t help but be selfish?

16 Consequences of Psychological Egoism
If Psychological Egoism is correct, then every act of love you have ever received has not really been for you. If Psychological Egoism is correct, it is impossible to ever genuinely care for anyone in any of your actions.

17 If Psychological Egoism is correct, how might we perceive the actions of someone like Mother Teresa?
Mother Teresa was a Roman Catholic nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India in For over forty years she ministered to the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying, while guiding the Missionaries of Charity's expansion, first throughout India and then in other countries. If Psychological Egoism is correct, Mother Teresa did all of this out of utter selfishness.

18 Mother Teresa

19 Is it that Mother Teresa foreclosed on the possibility of a life of traditional happiness involving marital love, children, a career and a family because she would prefer the good feeling derived from helping others? Or is it that, for whatever reason, Mother Teresa felt a duty and obligation to devote her life to helping others, even if it made her unhappy? Or is it possible that, even if she derived happiness from helping others, she was not selfish, or that her own happiness was incidental to her true goals?

20 It becomes clear that Psychological Egoism does not seem to offer an adequate or accurate account of human behavior There is something about acts of extreme altruism that do not seem to fit our definition of the word “selfish.”

21 If Psychological Egoism is true, it makes no sense to talk about ethics, because regardless of whether or not we can determine what is right and wrong we would be unable to behave in any way other than that which benefitted ourselves the most. In other words, even if there are moral facts, Psychological Egoism maintains that we would be unable to abide by them.

22 Criticism of Psychological Egoism
Psychological Egoism correctly notes that we often feel good as a consequence of doing things for others. But is feeling good evidence that we are selfish? If selfishness is one motivating factor, is it necessarily the only motivating factor? Is it possible that our own good feeling is not our ultimate goal? Is it possible to commit selfless acts?

23 Defining Selfishness Psychological egoism forces us to consider what we mean by “selfish.” Anytime I feel good, have I behaved selfishly? Whenever I benefit in some way from a behavior, is the behavior selfish by default? Does selfishness have exclusively to do with outcome, or does it also have to do with intent? Take a moment before advancing to the next slide to consider your own understanding of selfishness, and to answer the above questions. What makes an act selfish?

24 It seems that we reserve the term “selfish” for occasions on which one feels good at the expense of the good feeling of others, or when good feeling causes harm to others, or when we intend to deceive others to benefit ourselves. Also, we cannot be certain that any action benefitting us is a selfish action.

25 Let’s revisit the example of Valentine’s Day
Let’s revisit the example of Valentine’s Day. You might be thinking that you do, indeed, benefit from lavishing attention on your special someone. This suggests that it is in your self-interest to commit romantic gestures on Valentine’s Day, not necessarily that it is selfish to do so.

26 Selfishness vs. Self-Interest
You brush your teeth. It is certainly in your self-interest to do so (and your friends and family thank you, too). But is tooth-brushing a selfish act? Not as it is ordinarily understood, no. It seems that feeling good or otherwise benefitting from a behavior does not necessarily make that behavior selfish, but may make a behavior one that is in your self-interest.

27 Consequence vs. Goal We can admit that we often feel good when doing things for others – but was our own good feeling necessarily our intent? We often intend to do things for others, and though we later feel good as a result, our own good feeling was not our goal.

28 To further explain what I mean by confusing consequence with goal, consider car accidents.
Have you ever been in a car accident? If you have, did you get in the car that day and say “I am wrecking this piece of crap!”? Probably not. Nevertheless, you had the accident.


30 Our actual goal when we get in the car is to drive to work, or school, or out for fun.
Traffic accidents are an unintended consequence of our behavior, but they are not the goal of our behavior. Likewise, our own good feeling may often be a consequence of our behavior, but it is not necessarily, and certainly not always, the goal of our behavior.

31 Selfless Acts are Possible
Lastly, we can criticize Psychological Egoism on the grounds that, simply put, people can commit selfless acts. We have already discussed Mother Teresa. Let’s look at another example -- – Albert Schweitzer.

32 Albert Schweitzer

33 Schweitzer held a Philosophy PhD and was pastor at a church in Germany in the early 20th century. Schweitzer was an accomplished writer, with many accolades and a family, but when he learned of the suffering of post-colonial African people, he decided at the age of 30 to go to medical school and devote the rest of his life to providing medical care to impoverished Africans in Gabon, where he founded a hospital.

34 According to Psychological Egoism, Schweitzer only went to all that trouble because he is a selfish person! He wanted to feel good! Clearly, Psychological Egoism overlooks the fact that we can commit selfless acts.

35 In summary, we can break down the meta-ethical threat to the possibility of moral facts known as Psychological Egoism in the following way: Claim: We always behave selfishly. Everything we do, including seemingly charitable acts, is really for ourselves. Evidence in support of the claim: We feel good as a result of doing things for others. Consequences if true: The existence of morality is irrelevant. Even if there are moral facts, we cannot behave in any way other than a selfish way. Additional reasons why we want to argue against it: We cannot receive or give genuine acts of love or kindness. All human relationships are selfish relationships.

36 Criticism: Psychological egoism fails to distinguish between selfishness and self-interest. Psychological egoism fails to draw a distinction between the consequence and the goal of an act. Psychological egoism overlooks the fact that we can commit selfless acts. We can see that Psychological Egoism tries to draw a conclusion that is not supported by the evidence. It fails to meet the burden of proof, and we can reject it. We have better reasons for not believing it than believing it.

37 Now that we have addressed the four major meta-ethical threats to the possibility of morality, we can move on to discuss classical ethical theory.

38 Congratulations! You’ve just completed the presentation for Module 4. Once you have also completed the assigned reading from the textbook, please proceed to the “Assignments” and “Discussion” tabs in WebCT to complete relevant coursework for this module. Now that we have addressed the four major threats to the possibility of moral facts, we can move on to discuss classical ethical theory. If you have any questions please contact me.

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