The Basics

I know it is asking a lot, but it would save a lot of frustration and aggravation on all sides if newcomers to Ethics Alarms would take the time to read, not only the Ethics Alarms Comments Policies, but also the Concepts and Special Terms (under the masthead above),  the Unethical Rationalizations and Misconceptions, the Virtues, Values and Duties, the Alarm Blockers, and the Ethics Decision-making Tools, all of which have permanent links to the immediate left of the most recent post. Not only do the essays and commentary constantly refer to these terms and topics, they are also based on them. I don’t expect to stop all new commenters from relying on “everybody does it” logic or from stooping to “who are you to judge?” as their sole argument, but if more would just read these sections, I wouldn’t have to keep writing the same thing in response quite so much. That would make me happy, and also get more new relationships here off to a friendlier start. These are the concepts, tools and language that underlie everything that’s written here, and the more we all are speaking the same language, the better the discussion will be.

I have also recently added material to both Concepts and Special Terms and the Rationalizations section, as both were out of date. I encourage regular visitors to re-acquaint themselves with those areas, and feel free to suggest changes, additions and deletions, as well as flagging the inevitable and apparently unavoidable, for me at least, typos.

15 thoughts on “The Basics

  1. Jack, you may as well try to hold back the tide. People who want to give thoughtful feedback will give it, and those who don’t can’t be taught, because they don’t want to be taught. Especially the politicals.

    • Easy: single issue combatants. There are about 25 regular or semi-regular commenters here, and almost all of the rest drop by for the topic of a post, not ethics.

      Most people are newcomers to ethics in general. It’s not taught in schools, and the media is as ethics ignorant as its possible to be.

  2. I get confused every time the 2nd Niggardly Principle is printed in full, even though I know what it means.

    So, my paraphrase:

    When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will cause individuals to take sincere offense for reasons that are emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but still based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.

    Anything I’m missing?

    • Well, yeah. My point in the SNP is to disapprove of the guy who is re-hired after making the point that niggardly is a perfectly good word, but goes out of his way to use it, knowing that its bugging people now. Your version would snag Max Bretos. I don’t like the ” you can say it other ways, so be sure not to use any words that might offend people” standard. This is for the “don’t go out of your way to offend people, even when they have no reason to be offended, when you have other good options.” But I’m not happy with the wording yet, you’re right.

  3. OK… guilty. I got lured in by a “topic”, but I stayed for the content… ethics included. The bait was a post by Jack on the ethical aspects of Custer’s leadership of his cavalry troop at Gettysburg that popped up during research (via Google)on an omission from a History Channel program about the Battle of Gettysburg. I liked the writing and snooped around the site…. and the rest is history, as they say.

    I recall the event that gave us the Niggardly Principals but did not know of the formal principals themselves until I got here. Knowledge of Hanlon’s Razor has changed my whole outlook on life. And now I have validation for my aversion to Facebook… regular email and the occasional phone call works well.

    Overall, it never hurts go go back to basics… Spring Training, so to speak. Glad you brought it up.

  4. 2. Consequentialism, or “It Worked Out for the Best”

    The ethical nature of an act must be evaluated when it is done, and not based on its results. Consequentialism is an open invitation to extreme “the ends justify the mean” conduct, where even cruel and illegal conduct becomes “ethical” because good consequences happen to arise out of it, even when the good was completely unintended or unpredictable. Snooping into the contents of your host’s medicine cabinet is wrong, and the fact that you discovered a mislabeled pill bottle with rat poison in it doesn’t make your violation of her privacy ethical, even though it allows you to tell her and save her life. That is good fortune, not ethics. Similarly, an ethical act doesn’t become wrong because it happens to set in motion an unpredictable chain reaction resulting in a catastrophe. In the classic old “Star Trek” episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Dr. McCoy rescuing a woman from being killed results in Nazi Germany winning W.W. II. That doesn’t mean his courageous and selfless act was unethical. It was still the right thing to do.

    I just want to point out that this has nothing at all to do with philosophical consequentialism. John Stuart Mill never suggested that poisoning a well is OK if it turns out only child molesters are harmed by your act. Almost every important ethicist outside of strict Kantians say that while choosing an action, you should try to anticipate the consequences and act according to whichever action is most likely to have good consequences. It’s misleading to label consequentialism as some sort of ethical fallacy.

    • Not true. Of course you make your ethical decisions based on likely circumstances—an act that figures to do more harm than good can’t be ethical no matter how you justify it. And it is a fallacy, one that is applied both ways. Consequentialism, as argued today, involves retroactive justifications of dubious acts, or retroactive condemnation of ethical acts that, due to moral luck (or well-meaning miscalculation), turned out badly. What else would you call it?


    You can call it “The Ends Justify the Means” fallacy or to borrow from logic, the “Affirming the Consequent” fallacy. My point is that consequentialism is an ethical school of thought that is contrasted with deontology. Mill, Bentham, Sedgewick, Singer, Friedman, Sen, etc., etc., etc. are all brilliant, brilliant people who identify themselves as consequentialists. I find it hard to believe that they were all committing such a basic fallacy. You can disagree with them, and I often do, but you shouldn’t simply dismiss them. It’s sort of like labeling liberalism or conservatism a fallacy.

    • I am referring to how the term conventionalism is used most commonly in the real world, today. I acknowledge that what Mill called conventionalism is different, and was core to his (and Bentham’s) system of utilitarianism. Your point is a little like arguing that today’s conservatives don’t match the classic definition of political conservative. True, but so what?

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