How to Know What Should Be So: Ethical Guidance and Ethical Theories


If one is in a moral quandary it is wise to look for ethical guidance if one has the time to do so. Ethical theories are, among other things, intended to be one possible source of ethical guidance. If such guidance is valuable, then in ethics there is an embarrassment of riches: There are multiple, well-accepted, yet mutually inconsistent theories. The disquieting thing is that, at present, it seems that we are not at all close to being able to determine which of them, if any, is right. How can you know what you should do when ethicists, those who devote their careers to studying such theories, cannot reach a consensus on which one we should accept? Those who look to ethical theories for ethical guidance are apt to be disappointed. This situation is problematic, for if ethical theorizing is to have relevance to real-world ethical behavior, and not just be a way of examining ethical issues out of a love of arguments or puzzles, it must be possible for us to use ethical theories to inform ourselves of what we should do. It seems that philosophers have usually tried to address the issue of how one should act by advancing arguments for or against these theories (or certain parts of them). I want to approach this issue from a different angle. The question I will address is this: Can you get ethical guidance about what you should do in certain situations without knowing, or even having good reasons to believe, that any particular ethical theory is right? I think there is. My idea is that if you compare all the viable ethical theories that you know of, and find that all, or at any rate a great majority of them agree about whether an action you’re considering is right, wrong, or permissible, then you know that it is at least highly probable that that action really is right, wrong, or permissible. For if all ethical theories agree about the moral status of an action, it can only fail to have that status if they are all false. And if a great majority of ethical theories agree about the moral status of an action, it can only fail to have that status if all of the theories that agree about its status are false, which becomes more and more improbable as the number of the theories that agree increases. If this approach works, there is a way that one can be guided by ethical theories without having to attempt the difficult task of determining which of them is right.



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Jason Zarri
San Francisco State University

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References found in this work

An unconnected Heap of duties?David McNaughton - 1996 - Philosophical Quarterly 46 (185):433-447.
An Unconnected Heap of Duties?David McNaughton - 2002 - In Philip Stratton-Lake (ed.), Ethical Intuitionism: Re-Evaluations. Clarendon Press.
Ethics Beyond Moral Theory.Timothy Chappell - 2009 - Philosophical Investigations 32 (3):206-243.
Unprincipled Ethics.Gerald Dworkin - 1995 - Midwest Studies in Philosophy 20 (1):224-239.

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