Thought Experiment, Fiction and Ethics (or how to be more ethical through literature)

“What do you do with an advanced degree in Ethics?”. This is the one question that has been plaguing me since I’ve got an advanced degree in Ethics, and is trying to get a more advanced one. The typical answers that I can think of are:

  1. To be a more ethical person (ethics for its own sake),
  2. To be a professor/lecturer in university (ethics as a career), and/or
  3. None of the above (for completeness sake).

To me however, it is not clear an advanced degree of ethics will make one more ethical. First there is the statistical evidence: one study suggests there is little correlation between being an ethics professor and acting according to conventional/uncontroversial ethics. Second, the very vanguards of ethics often push the boundary of conventional ethics. They are changing or challenging the very goal posts of ethics, and it is very much an open question whether an ethical theory really leads to ethical behaviour. Just to use a well-known example: Peter Singer. His utilitarianism leads Singer to argue for many forms of abortion, such as abortion of disabled foetus. People born with disabilities, on the other hand, see him as denying them the right to life, and consider him to be absolutely and utterly wrong. See for example this article in the New York Times Magazine on the very personal nature of this debate. Therefore it is very much an open question as to whether Peter Singer, or anyone researching ethics, is advancing ethics.

I can perfectly respect studying ethics as a career path. The society needs more ethical people lest it goes to hell. In turn, universities teach ethical theories. Someone has to do it. It is a perfectly productive role in the society.


But I do wonder: how effective is it to teach ethics? In uncontroversial cases, it is a straightforward application of conventional morality, and social norms already enforce conventional morality without it being taught. On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, the very vanguards of ethics are challenging conventional ethics. So being more ethical isn’t something that is static, it is not about learning the theories and then apply it straightforwardly to the real world. Instead it is dynamic adaptation to particular circumstances and particular people. Instead it is dialectical. There are always at least two sides on how to act in an ethical dilemma: to do X or not to do X. So in controversial cases, ethics cannot be taught, but must be debated vigorously.

What I’ve presented so far is simply a simpler version of the argument of Neo-Aristotelians such as John McDowell’s, that questions whether ethics is algorithmic.

So if not taught, how is ethics learned? What I would like to do, in the coming months, is to conduct thought experiments, in the form of fiction, that presents both sides in an ethical debate. After I’ve presented the debate, I would present several possible solutions, and invite further suggestions.

In particular, these fictional examples will not be quite fictional. They would be plausibly realistic. They may even be actual cases with some interesting embellishments. The point is to engage the readers to actively look for an ethical solution, or questioning conventional answers, rather than passively applying pre-existing conventions. This is to prepare for the actual cases, so when the time comes to face an actual ethical dilemma, the readers can think on their feet to make an ethical choice.

Of course, thinking about it is one thing, doing it in reality is another. It is an open question whether one has the wisdom and presence of mind to do the right thing at the right time. But I hope people reading and thinking through fictional examples will sharpen the quality of their decisions in real life cases.

For my first case, I will start with the euthanasia debate. It generated a lot of attention due to the recent case of Lecretia Seales here in New Zealand, and there is an ongoing health select committee hearing in the Parliament on this issue. Most people think voluntary euthanasia is the liberal choice and the opponents as mostly motivated by religion. As a contrarian I would like to muddle the water a bit and make both sides as attractive as possible.

Stay tuned.