Let’s talk ethics


Stanley Wang ’23 is an Economics major involved with Club Rowing and the Citizens Climate Lobby. Contact him at sjwang01@wm.edu.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

After taking an ethics course, I have found that many students at the College of William and Mary reject the validity of ethics and its approaches. Considering that most people seem to value acting virtuously, this is a regrettable turn of events. In this article, I address some of the common objections raised by the average student because it is their appreciation of ethics that will most benefit society.

The first misconception is that the method of creating thought experiments and reasoning is too abstract to be useful. For twamps who are used to modeling observations collected in the material world, craning your head back and imagining improbable situations seems alien. But is it really, though?

When you see your crush in class and fantasize about them approaching you, you are imagining yourself in an improbable situation for precisely the same reason that ethicists use thought experiments — you want to know what you would do. However, ethicists also do it to break down why they do certain things. Though you might conclude that you would ignore “Chem Cutie” because your palms get sweaty, you probably also acknowledge that a better course for you might be to ask a funny question.

Ethicists do this same thing with an undoubtedly more important — and harder — question: what is right?

To reject the usefulness of examining why we believe what is right and what is wrong is to take an “I’ll know it when I see it” attitude to one of the most important questions. This seems to be an acceptable approach to assessing dinner plans but what about rightness? Our ethical positions seem like something we should at least make sure are logically consistent.

“This is nice and all,” one might say, “but what can considering thought experiments do for us?” They are, after all, absurd situations.

Thought experiments do involve absurd situations, but they were seldom intended to present realistic situations in the first place. Instead, they highlight clashes of values that may not be so absurd. You might never be a surgeon deciding whether to butcher the suburban dad in your waiting room, but do you truly expect that you will never have to weigh an action’s harm to some against its benefit to many?

The purpose of studying thought experiments is therefore to investigate your intuitions: comparing them in different situations builds the robustness of your convictions so that you’ll know what to do, when to do it and why. 

At least in the social sciences, many turn to economic measurement of measuring preferences or wellbeing to address many of the same questions. Doing so, however, completely neglects the fact that economics spawned from a school of ethics called utilitarianism. What economics traditionally recommends is, then, an approximation of what is right under utilitarianism. Limitations to this approximation lead to economic advice with seemingly morally repugnant conclusions. Economics is thus a complement — not substitute — for ethics.

To recapitulate, ethics lays the groundwork for righteous action. Its methods are natural to us and — more importantly — valid. It therefore stands that we should all study it to better ourselves and the world around us.


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