Formal Ethics 1 - What is Formal Ethics?

Directions: Read to the bottom (scrolling
if necessary); then click "forward =>."

These questions are about Chapter 1 of Harry J. Gensler's book on FORMAL ETHICS (Routledge: 1996). These materials are copyrighted (c) 1998 by Harry J. Gensler; but they may be distributed freely.

What is formal ethics about?

Formal ethics is the study of formal ethical principles.

The most important such principle is the golden rule: "Treat others as you want to be treated." Other examples include "Be logically consistent in your beliefs," "Follow your conscience," and "Make similar evaluations about similar cases." These principles are useful -- but lead to absurdities if taken in an overly simple manner.

Our first task is to clarify the distinction between ethical principles that are formal (like "Follow your conscience") and ones that are material (like "Don't steal"). Since formal ethics is patterned after formal logic, we need to talk about formal logic first.

Formal logical principles

Formal logic is the study of formal logical principles -- principles of inference expressible using only variables and logical terms -- like: "All A is B, all B is C, so all A is C."

A formal logical principle is valid if the conclusion follows from the premises -- so that the premises couldn't be true unless the conclusion was also true.

People who haven't studied logic are poor at distinguishing valid from invalid forms. But invalid forms can be shown to have absurd or self-contradictory implications; so the experts largely agree on which arguments are valid -- even though they differ on foundational questions about the meaning and justification of logical principles.

Formal ethical principles

Formal ethics, by analogy, is the study of formal ethical principles -- ethical principles expressible using only variables and constants -- where the constants can include logical terms, terms for general psychological attitudes (like "believe," "desire," and "act"), and other fairly abstract notions (like "ought" and "ends-means").

The golden rule ("Treat others as you want to be treated") is an example of a formal ethical principle. We can express it using variables and constants -- roughly as "If you want X to do A to you, then do A to X."

Testing formal principles

We can test formal principles (of logic or ethics) by seeing whether we can derive absurd or self-contradictory results from them.

Consider principle PP: "If you believe that everyone ought to do A, then you ought to do A." PP can entail absurdities. Suppose that a madman believes that everyone ought to commit mass murder; then he ought to commit mass murder! We also can give examples where facts plus PP entails self-contradictions.

"Practice what you preach" is an important idea -- but it needs a better formulation than PP.

The literal golden rule

Taken literally, GR (the golden rule) seems to be saying this: "If you want X to do A to you, then do A to X."

This literal GR can entail absurdities. Suppose that you want your doctor to remove your appendix; then you are to remove your doctor's appendix! There are also cases where facts plus the literal GR entails a self-contradiction.

The golden rule is an important principle -- but it needs a better formulation.

The goal of formal ethics

Our goal is to formulate and defend a system of clear-cut, formal ethical principles that can help us to be more rational in our ethical judgments.

Moral philosophers disagree about how to analyze and justify ethical judgments. Formal ethics will remain neutral on these issues; but it will try to show how its principles can fit into various approaches. The hope is that philosophers of different perspectives might accept the same formal ethical principles -- while perhaps disagreeing on how to analyze and justify these principles.

Hare and Wattles

My work in formal ethics has been strongly influenced by two other thinkers. I recommend their writings highly.

R.M. Hare has been a great influence on my thinking for many years, especially through his book on FREEDOM AND REASON (Oxford, 1963). The main difference in my approach is that I'm neutral on foundational issues and am a logician at heart (perhaps too much so).

I've come to know Jeff Wattles more recently, as he was finishing his book on THE GOLDEN RULE (Oxford, 1996). His historical-religious slant nicely complements my logical-rational approach. Our e-mail discussions helped to bring more balance to my approach.

menu | forward =>
This set has 23 problems.