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Why Today’s Ethics Offers No Real Guidance

A morality focused on resolving conflicts tells us nothing about how to live well.

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Philosophy is often thought to be an “ivory tower” pursuit, unconcerned with the practical affairs of everyday life. Philosophers who want to promote the relevance of their field invariably point to one branch of philosophy that seems to have obvious implications for our action in the world: ethics, the study of right and wrong.

But we do not see the masses beating down the doors of university philosophy departments seeking practical advice about important life decisions. Students typically take ethics classes to fulfill a requirement, not to answer burning questions. Few if any books about ethics by philosophers make the best-seller lists. Why have today’s academic ethicists failed so miserably to sell the merits of their research?

Revealing puzzles in academic ethics

A recent story from inside the world of academic ethics provides some important clues about the cause of its apparent irrelevance.

Ethicists have spilled gallons of ink debating a scenario that scarcely anyone in private or public life will ever face, aside from characters in a fantasy sitcom.
In a post at the blog of the American Philosophical Association speculating about what is missing from today’s ethics education (and what might account for character flaws of ethics professors), philosophy professor Michael Sigrist gives a useful list of cases typically covered by academic ethics textbooks: “abortion, torture, charity, meat eating, prostitution, organ markets, climate change, poverty, gun control, procreation, reproductive rights, and so forth.” This list of topics tells us something important about how today’s ethicists conceive of the subject of their field.

Sigrist suggests that there is something in common among all of these cases: they are of “public, not personal, concern.” He thinks this explains why academic ethics seems irrelevant to so many: it might help us form the right views about public policy, but it offers little guidance on how to become a good person. “Ethical thinking that aims to be public and impersonal, and ethical thinking that arises from the substance and particularity of an individual’s real life, are not the same thing.”1

It’s true that most of today’s ethics courses don’t deal with the “substance and particularity” of an individual person’s real life.” But is this because philosophers are obsessed with public policy, or is there something more to it?

Another example of a puzzle prized by academics, unmentioned by Sigrist, suggests a different explanation. Ethicists have spilled gallons of ink debating the “trolley problem”: should you switch tracks if you are on a runaway trolley that is about to run over a group of people at the cost of running over only one? This scenario and countless variations on it are now the subject of a whole cottage industry in academic ethics, jokingly referred to as “trolleyology.”2 But it’s a scenario that scarcely anyone in private or public life will ever face, aside from characters in a fantasy sitcom.3 (More on that shortly.)

What is really behind the peculiar set of cases studied by so many academic ethicists today?

The emptiness of solving puzzles about conflict

Each and every one of the textbook cases involves a situation in which the interests of the parties involved are thought to come into conflict. This is a clue as to why ethicists focus on them: each is a case in which ethicists think someone’s gain has to come at the expense of someone’s sacrifice.

Take the idea that charity is a major focus of morality. Should you spend your money on yourself, or give it away to alleviate hunger? In the perceived conflict between keeping your luxuries and providing for others’ needs, academic ethicists like Peter Singer argue that you have an obligation to give up your middle-class comforts to help save starving people around the world.4

Or consider abortion. An unwanted fetus is a burden to its mother, but opponents of abortion urge her to sacrifice her interests to it. Supporters of abortion rights instead argue that even if the fetus has interests and rights, the mother’s interests and rights outweigh the fetus’s, and so it is justifiable that the infant is the object of sacrifice.5

Ethicists are seen as referees whose job it is to make calls when players on the moral field of play come into conflict.
The trolley problem is especially instructive. It’s expressly a “thought experiment” that’s made up to test how our ethical “intuitions” respond when some of our most cherished values are artificially placed in conflict with each other. Which do we value more? The life of a loved one stuck on a track, or the lives of numerous innocents who are strangers to us? The lives of numerous strangers, or the integrity of not being the one to push someone onto the track? Ethicists assume that ethics is about formulating principles for selecting the object of sacrifice, and their question is: Who, generally, is to be sacrificed to whom?

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When ethics focuses on cases like these, ethicists are seen as referees whose job it is to make calls when players on the moral field of play come into conflict. These calls then demand that one or the other player is expected to sacrifice something, for reasons wholly unrelated to the player’s personal interests.

Unsurprisingly, an ethics focused on resolving conflicts of interest has little advice to give to people who don’t have to make zero-sum decisions. Ethicists like Singer who urge us to give up material comforts for the sake of the needy offer no positive guidance about how to pick a career, how to decide which if any social relationships to pursue, etc. The only advice is to sacrifice the fruits of these activities to those with less. Ethicists with the same focus who argue for abortion rights usually have little to say about what are good and bad reasons for having abortions, for having children, for having sex, for pursuing relationships with others, and so on.

Meanwhile, ethicists studying “trolleyology” have to reach to justify their inquiry by suggesting that it can offer advice for the programmers of self-driving cars.6 Others have even suggested that in the post-coronavirus world, we face a similar dilemma in the decision about whether to maintain the lockdowns or to open the economy.7 But there are many differences between these real-life problems and the academic thought experiment.8 The ethicists who think about trolleys aren’t even interested in offering guidance for how to resolve similar real-life dilemmas, should they ever arise. Their concern is about whether “intuitions” about the thought experiment can support ethical principles — and there is little agreement about whether they do.

Until ethicists can agree about how to support ethical principles for navigating an ordinary life, it’s unlikely that they can answer questions about extraordinary emergency cases.

It’s true that ethical principles are sometimes useful for settling conflicts among people. Notably, the concept of rights serves to help us negotiate boundaries among our lives to help us avoid conflicts in the first place. While this is an important issue in social ethics, the subject of ethics as such is much wider.

Ethics guides choices about character

How should ethicists begin to refocus the subject of their field? Consider a simple desert island case in which there’s no real possibility of social conflict. A castaway like Robinson Crusoe has many decisions to make, and not just about narrowly practical issues like food and shelter. Will he face the fact that he is stranded and learn what is necessary to survive or will he lie to himself and pretend that help is on the way? If he fails at certain tasks, will he try to learn from his mistakes and improve his tactics, or will he resign himself to thinking he is incompetent to survive? Is he really going to value his life and take responsibility for living it, or give up on it and let nature take its course? These choices concern the kind of character Crusoe ends up developing. They are choices of basic moral values.

Ethics concerns our most important choices of action in the world, whether or not they involve relationships with others.
The basic value choices we face become even more complex in a division of labor society, but they still primarily concern the relationship we have with reality, not just our relationship with others. Will we choose a career according to our own interests and talents, or according to the standards and expectations absorbed uncritically from family and authority figures? Will we choose pleasures that challenge us to squeeze every bit of joy from life, or those that simply dull the pain and emptiness of a life lived passively? Will we choose relationships with others who inspire us to pursue excellence in our chosen path in life, or with those who help us pretend that mediocrity is acceptable? Even this last question, which is expressly about relationships with others, depends on making a choice about the value of your own life.

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Ethics concerns our most important choices of action in the world, whether or not they involve relationships with others (to say nothing of conflicting relationships). And ethics isn’t even primarily about choosing between right and wrong actions. It’s about choosing between the right and wrong kind of life, about what kind of character one wants to develop, what kind of person one wants to become. An ethics that focuses only on choices we make about the fringes of life (such as our conflicted relationships with others) doesn’t help us weave the rest of its intertwined fabric.

Outside of the artificial constructs of trolley-scenarios (and real-life dictatorships which really do enforce impossible, Sophie’s Choice–style dilemmas), we do not have to choose between sacrificing others’ interests to ours and sacrificing our own interests to theirs. It’s possible to live an independent existence, guided by values aimed at developing a healthy character.

Recognizing that a life of conflict with others is not inevitable severely undercuts the assumption that the only viable ethical code is one that calls us to sacrifice our own interests for the sake of the alleged interests of others. As Ayn Rand argued, it is the popularity of the altruistic theory of morality (the theory which equates the subject of morality with choices about sacrifice) that we should hold responsible for the widespread view that morality has no relevance to everyday life:

Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value . . . .

Observe what this beneficiary-criterion of morality does to a man’s life. The first thing he learns is that morality is his enemy; he has nothing to gain from it, he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect. . . . Apart from such times as he manages to perform some act of self-sacrifice, he possesses no moral significance: morality takes no cognizance of him and has nothing to say to him for guidance in the crucial issues of his life; it is only his own personal, private, “selfish” life and, as such, it is regarded either as evil or, at best, amoral.9

The idea that ethics is a code of values one needs to guide one’s life as a whole informs Rand’s own view of moral virtue, which she develops at length in her essay “The Objectivist Ethics.” She was also not the first to see it this way. The whole of ancient Greek ethics, from Socrates through Aristotle to the Stoics had a similar outlook, even as these figures differed in important ways about what a morally virtuous life actually consists in.

If today’s ethicists want to offer real guidance for living, they should revisit their assumption that ethics is only about resolving conflicts and that they are its referees. Life is not a zero-sum game and ethics should not be about solving made-up puzzles that are part of such a game.


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Do you have a comment or question?


  1. Sigrist thinks that thinking about questions of public concern requires looking for abstract universal principles applicable across numerous cases, whereas thinking about personal concerns means “thinking with your feelings, desires, motivations, values, and so on.” Sigrist’s diagnosis of the problem is on to something important, but it’s not because of some dichotomy between abstract principles and feeling about particular cases. One of the authors of the original research about ethicists’ ethical failures promptly replied to Sigrist and noted that Sigrist falsely assumes that philosophers never apply their principles to their own personal decision-making, and that ordinary people never rely on principles to think through their personal decision-making. I think this is basically correct: it’s a mistake to think that we can so neatly divide abstract thinking from our emotions: our emotions are simply automatized reactions in light of our past abstract thinking. The real problem is with the kind of abstractions philosophers privilege in their studies.
  2. A useful summary of the debate can be found in the Wikipedia entry about the “Trolley problem.” See also David Edmonds, Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong  (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).
  3. See “The Good Place — The Trolley Problem,” The Good Place YouTube channel, October 19, 2017.
  4. Peter Singer, Famine, Affluence, and Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). For more on what I think is wrong with Singer’s whole approach, see my article “The Man Biting the Hands of Creators Who Feed the World,” New Ideal, August 1, 2018.
  5. Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (Winter 1973): 47–66. For more on why I think it’s inappropriate to think of the embryo or fetus as having interests or rights, see my article “Science without Philosophy Can’t Resolve Abortion Debate,” New Ideal, August 27, 2018.
  6. Jack Denton, “Is the Trolley Problem Derailing the Ethics of Self-Driving Cars?,” PSMag.com, November 29, 2018.
  7. Gian Volpicelli, “Boris Johnson Is about to Face His Coronavirus Trolley Problem,” Wired, May 8, 2020.
  8. In both cases, there is little certainty about how to measure and compare the outcomes of the choices. And especially in the pandemic, the people whose lives are threatened by lifting the lockdowns are not the helpless pawns of the victims in the trolley problem: they know that lockdowns are being lifted and are free to take measures to protect themselves, by staying at home and social distancing as much as they like. See Robin Koerner, “COVID-19 and the Trolley Problem: You’re on the Tracks and the Government Is Controlling the Switch,” FEE.org, March 24, 2020.
  9. Ayn Rand, introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: New American Library, 1964), viii.
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Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, PhD in philosophy, is a fellow and director of content at the Ayn Rand Institute and the author of Why the Right to Abortion Is Sacrosanct (2022). Ben is a managing editor of New Ideal and a member of the Ayn Rand University faculty.

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