Our Ethical Roots

In his book Just Babies psychologist Paul Bloom reports that newborn infants tend to cry when they hear another baby crying. At three months, infants watching shapes that interact by helping or hindering movement prefer the shapes that are helpers. After six months, sharing begins spontaneously and children show distress when they harm others. Children who are eight-months-old generally prefer a puppet that fairly punishes a mean puppet over a puppet that is nice to the mean puppet.

Year-old toddlers will try to soothe a crying playmate or help a frustrated adult pick up objects on the floor. An eighteen-month-old child, when left alone in a room after being told not to play with a toy, will usually choose to play with the toy, but will blush and be apprehensive when the adult returns.

Three-year-olds are clear about “what’s mine and what’s yours” and want resources to be divided equally They are also more likely to help someone who has been kind to others than someone who has been mean. Three-and-a-half-year-olds playing without an adult present can discuss what’s “fair” when sharing the toys in the room and can agree to “trade” toys to resolve an initial dispute over sharing.

Soothing, helping, and sharing are ways of “being good.” Just punishment, distinguishing my things from yours, and distributing resources equally are “right actions.” These feelings, behaviors, and values develop in childhood, as does the moral reasoning about being good and doing what’s right.

The lessons of family life, stories read to us as children, as well as exposure to moral dilemmas in preschool and on television and other media, all enrich our understanding of ethical choices and reasons for making these choices. 

Our vocabulary expands to include words such as duty, rights, and guilt—reflecting our place in a “moral community” that includes our family, friends, caregivers, and media as well as imaginary personalities. This is the context in which we learn to be good kids and to do what is right.

Ethics (also known as moral philosophy) is a disciplined way of thinking about the moral feelings, values, and reasoning that has evolved to make our species unique among all the other species sharing the earth’s biosphere. We observe among some of the other species behaviors that seem to be precursors to human moral conduct, but we are the only species that has developed the language and culture to reflect on the moral issues arising from our social life.

To see what ethics might contribute, consider the recent debate about “fake news”—a phrase referring to media reports that appear to be factual news, but instead are unverified rumors or opinions. What makes this uniquely human issue an ethical dilemma? 

Fake news is an intentional deception, more commonly known as a lie. And, as we all know, we were raised to believe that lying is wrong—at least without a very good reason to make an exception to the rule. Yet, some would argue that public lying is rampant in advertising, on television and Internet programming, and in political literature and debates. So, why should fake news be singled out for ethical criticism?

Three Possible Ethical Approaches

Moral philosophy offers us various ways of framing this issue. One approach to ethical reasoning would ask: Are the consequences of trying to regulate fake news—to limit its dissemination through public media—more likely to be better than simply leaving it alone and letting people sort out the facts for themselves? 

Answering this question would involve predicting what these consequences might be and weighing the likely beneficial outcomes against the likely detrimental outcomes. In consequential reasoning the intent motivating an action is irrelevant; all that matters are the results. In the utilitarian form of consequential reasoning, the best choice is the action most likely to result in “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Consequential reasoning is inevitable and essential, but by itself is not sufficient. Predicting outcomes always involves some measure of uncertainty, and we tend to be overly confident about our predictions. Also, consequential reasoning may ignore individual and minority rights, and may not recognize our particular family responsibilities. Finally, it may may fail to take into account ethnic, religious, racial, gender, or other biases in calculating what seems best for the majority.

A second approach in ethical reasoning would ask a different question: Do citizens of a democratic society have a right to expect that published “news reports” meet journalistic standards for verifying statements and distinguishing facts from opinions? 

This question assumes that news reports are not the same as commercial advertising or political promotional material, and therefore should be evaluated by the standards for truthful reporting in the profession of journalism. This assumption reflects a culture in which freedom of the press has constitutional protection, because open debate is valued as necessary for evaluating factual claims and arguments. Also, we expectat that journalists and publishers of information presented as factual will accept their moral responsibility to ensure that news reports meet reasonable standards for accuracy and lack of bias.

If we agree that citizens have a right to truthful reporting, because accurate news is as essential to the health of a democratic society as freedom of the press, then to secure this right we have a duty to support the public policies that seek to realize this public purpose. We also have a duty, in our advocacy for realizing this goal, to be truthful and fair in the information we disseminate. That is, we should apply high standards of truthfulness to ourselves in our cause, as well as seek to realize these through the public policies of our society. In short, in seeking a civil society, we should be civil.

A third ethical approach would ask another question: Shouldn’t a democratic society maximize freedom and only restrict individuals to provide security and other necessary public services? This view differs from consequential reasoning in that it values individual freedom above all else, rather than weighing a broader range of likely consequences. It differs from reasoning about rights and duties that support the role of government in ensuring social rights—such as education, health care, and social security—by emphasizing only governmental protection for individual freedom. Advocates of this approach would resist both government regulation and pressure to enforce journalistic standards on fake news, in the name of personal freedom.

I agree with Michael J. Sandel’s argument in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? that privileging freedom accepts the preferences people have without requiring any critical evaluation of how to address the conflicts among them as they try to maximize their freedom. Therefore, in doing ethics i will follow the second approach outlined above to consider what should be done about fake news.

Initial Intuition and Second Thoughts

We have come a long way from childhood notions of being good and taking the right action. Yet, I encourage you to recall your childhood experience, because this experience lives on in each of us in the form of the intuitive responses we have as adults to ethical dilemmas. Our initial response to a moral challenge is almost always a “gut feeling,” which is actually a learned response that transformed our childhood experiences into a rapid reaction to any similar situation. Often, this initial felt “answer” to a problem is adequate and may prove wise, but in ethics we require identifying this initial intuition and then having “second thoughts” about the reasons that support this response.

These “second thoughts” are more likely to be insightful, rather than rationalizations  of our initial feeling, if we engage in a dialogue with others—especially with others who have views that differ with ours—about personal morality as well as about public policies. Each of us needs to be challenged by the thinking of others to expand our awareness of diverse ways of reasoning, as well as to reconsider some of our childhood formation. 

Rarely do we as children escape the prejudice that exists in our society and even in our family life, and these biases are often invisible to us as adults. Therefore, we should take every opportunity to reconsider some of our quick, intuitive responses to moral issues—to ensure we really feel and think what we internalized as children is the right choice or the best option we have.

Doing EthicsDoing Ethics

The purpose of ethical conversation, of course, is ethical action. Ethics is always about what action we should take and how we should conduct ourselves in taking that action. There is nothing ethical in mere talk about difficult moral issues. Ethics involves doing and being, as well as arguing about what we should do and the kind of persons we should be.

Ethics usually involves a conscious decision about what is right and good, after considering arguments that express different perspectives. In addition, ethics involves adopting personal disciplines to develop good habits, which guide our behavior with little if any conscious thought. We may learn to say “Please” and “Thank you” or to wait patiently in line without consciously evaluating why we are taking these actions. 

Usually these good habits reflect the moral expectations of our community, but sometimes we may cultivate an ethical practice in an effort to raise these standards. In the twentieth century Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. led demonstrations in response to colonial repression and racial discrimination that involved learning and practicing nonviolence—in a struggle to secure civil rights for all people through the rule of law.

More than two thousand years earlier Aristotle argued that ethics requires “practical wisdom” which he described as doing the right thing “to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way.” Practical wisdom cannot be reduced to principles or rules, although both are necessary for living moral lives and also for realizing justice in our society. Practical wisdom involves applying our intuitions and reasoning to an ethical controversy. 

Therefore, doing ethics involves us in a practice of moral decision-making that fits our experience, our moral community, and our reflection on what being good and taking the right action means in a particular situation. 


 bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016