Formal Ethics 7 - Moral Rationality

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These questions are about Chapter 7 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.

I won't have any questions on Chapter 8 (Symbolic Logic), since this gets rather technical.

Consistency and factual data

Our ethical beliefs are more or less reasonable to the extent that we satisfy rationality conditions from four groups: (1) consistency, (2) factual data, (3) imagination, and (4) personal qualities.

(1) "Consistency" covers formal requirements: logical consistency in beliefs, ends-means rationality, conscientiousness, impartiality, the golden rule, and the formula of universal law.

(2) "Factual data" covers knowing the facts of the case: circumstances, alternatives, consequences, pros and cons, and so on. It also covers understanding ourselves (including the origin of our feelings and moral judgments) and other moral views (including arguments for or against them).

Imagination and personal qualities

(3) "Imagination" is the vivid and accurate awareness of the situation of another (or of our own situation at a future point of time) and what it would be like to be in that situation. This differs from just knowing facts; it also involves an appreciation of what these facts mean to people's lives.

(4) "Personal qualities" covers a mixed assortment, including being intelligent, creative, clear, careful, and through; having a broad experience of life and of different kinds of people; feeling free to develop our own ideas (instead of just conforming); recognizing that some of our moral intuitions may come from social conditioning and be unable to withstand rational criticism; having a feeling of concern for ourselves and for others; dialoging with others (including people in other cultures) and being open to learn from them; and giving weight to the views of those who are more rational (especially if there's a consensus and we lack the time or ability to learn about an issue).

Arriving at rationality conditions

We can arrive at these rationality conditions by starting with the requirement to be informed and consistent -- and then repeatedly asking "What additional requirements would we (insofar as we approximate to satisfying the requirements generated so far) want people to satisfy when they deliberate about how to act?" Our rationality conditions can grow and develop over time; they're about how we ought (ideally) to deliberate about how to act.

Our rationality conditions spell out an ideal of moral wisdom -- an ideal that we'll never completely reach -- but an ideal that gives us a goal to strive for as we make moral judgments.

Racism and rationality

We can apply these rationality conditions to racism in two main ways. If Ima Racist gives an argument, we can formulate his premises and conclusion clearly, criticize the validity and factual premises, and test whether he accepts the logical implications of his ethical premises (especially as applied to his own race). In this way, we can criticize Ima's arguments.

We can also test whether Ima satisfies GR consistency. We first make sure that Ima has a clear and correct understanding of the facts. Then we have him imagine himself, vividly and accurately, in the place of his victims on the receiving end of the action. We may also need to rationalize his desires (about how he be treated in the other person's place). Then we see whether Ima treats others only in ways that he's willing to be treated in the same situation. Ima will fail the GR test.

Teaching rationality

We also can apply the rationality conditions to moral education. Let's recall some of the main elements needed for moral rationality: being consistent in our beliefs (logicality); coordinating ends and means; keeping our lives in harmony with our moral beliefs (conscientiousness); looking for reasons why things are right or wrong and applying these in a consistent way to everyone (impartiality); treating others as we want to be treated (the golden rule); understanding facts, alternatives, and consequences; and understanding and visualizing the place of another (empathetic imagination).

All of these elements can be taught -- either directly or by adult example. In this way, we can teach children to be more rational in their choices and ethical judgments.

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