Chapter 10 Theory in Practice

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.

—Yogi Berra

At this point we have explored many different approaches to the fundamental questions of philosophical ethics. We have examined how these different approaches account for and justify basic moral principles and we have looked at how well-founded each of them was as a philosophical theory. But given such an abundance of theories we may be left wondering about how things might play out in real world cases where we have to make decisions about what exactly the right thing to do might be. Do we just pick whichever theory we like or which leads us to the results we want and then claim justification for our views? We could do that, but then that would require a willingness to leave out of account the various philosophical failings of many of the theories we have encountered. I won’t rehearse these various failings here but in general I have tried to make the case that an adequate account of ethics must avoid two things. First an adequate ethics cannot be based on appeals to some sort of external authority. Whether this appeal is to culture, God or nature doesn’t really matter since all of these supposed sources of ethical norms inevitably leave us scratching our head and wondering why exactly we should ever do what it is that they demand of us. It is always up to us as to whether or not to listen to any authority, and this depends crucially on what it is that we ourselves want.

Secondly, however, ethics can also not simply be based on appealing to what it is that we want. Self-interest, whether in the crude and explicit form endorsed by egoism or in the more socially filtered versions at the basis of Social Contract Theory and Utilitarianism, is not in the end capable of giving us a reason to be ethical, since ethics involves putting our own interests aside, not for a greater payoff later but for another being now. Showing why we should ever do this and how we even can is the great challenge of philosophical ethics. This challenge is simply not met by showing how I can scratch my itches best by scratching yours, because sometimes that is just not possible. Morality can involve genuine sacrifice and renunciation of selfish desires and maybe even requires it in some cases.

But then if ethics can’t be based on what others want of us, nor on what we ourselves want, what on earth is left for it to be based on? Well, as I have tried to show in the last chapter, ethics might be based on something else, what we have good reasons to want in the first place. “Reason” here is not intended as some sort of mysterious force out there that is supposed to magically solve all of our problems, but simply as a shorthand for our ability and need to tell ourselves a truly convincing and coherent story about how we are living our lives. Reason is nothing but the demands that thinking beings make on themselves to live lives that harmonize, where we don’t ignore inner contradictions in our intentions, where we don’t neglect to consider the clash between what we expect for ourselves and require of others. This to my mind is the central insight of Kant’s approach to ethics and also what is expressed in such more contemporary ideas as “Universal Human Rights,” and appeals to the unique dignity of moral agents. Kant agrees with Socrates that the unexamined human life is not worth living since it is not truly a human life failing as it does to live up to our capacity to reflect on and account for ourselves on terms that truly make sense to us ourselves. What Kant adds to Socrates is just some sense of how exactly we might proceed to examine ourselves and what constraints this self-examination imposes on how it is that we go about determining what exactly we should do.

This is still, however, just a bare-bones account of what ethics really looks like because the real lives within which ethical decisions have to be made by us real people are messy and complicated. We still have to be able to put this general approach, as well as our knowledge of the inadequacies of the other various lines of thinking we have encountered into practice and this can be a hard thing to do. But practice requires practice and so the best thing is just start examining different kinds of situations and dilemmas that we may face in the real world and see what sense we can make of them given all we have seen so far, and that is what we will be doing in this part of the book.