The following piece is slated to be chapter 6 in the second volume of Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom (itself based on an Internet-based talk radio show of the same name I did in times past). My educated and enterprising partner in dialogue is Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D. Johnathan’s words are indicated by the initials JD, and mine are JM. For paragraphs with no initials, assume they are a continuation of the speaker who was speaking in the previous paragraph. Enjoy this chapter entitled A Survey of Philosophy and Ethics.
JM: There’s a kind of heady topic on tap today, and that the person who is going to help us look at it is well-prepared and quite suitable to do so. We will be looking at ethical theory – what does that mean, what are examples, how do you choose, and how do you use them? Note that I previously recorded an interview on ethical theories for which I interviewed philosophical counselor, Peter Raabe, Ph.D.; this show could be thought of as a second installment of that investigation. One minor change would be, since I have so much of Dr. Dolhenty’s time today, we are going to expand the scope a tad and consider moral philosophy in general to some degree. Sit back, relax, put on your “thinking cap,” and we’ll get through this.
What is an “ethical theory”? What does it mean to have an ethical sense? How does a rational and responsible person go about making moral decisions? To help me understand such critical but esoteric questions, I am happy to speak with philosopher Jonathan Dolhenty, founder of The Radical Academy. Jon also favors a broad, or should I say liberal, education. He has been interested in philosophy since he was 14, but also studied political science and education, and has worked as a quantitative analyst, teacher, school administrator, editor, publisher, and corporate executive. As a person who studied social science rather than philosophy, I share a little bit of the intimidation and lack of interest that characterizes most people’s view of philosophy (though, interestingly, almost everyone feels well-qualified and eager to make moral decisions and to critique the ethical reasoning of others)! Let the discussion commence.
One can identify a lot of information on today’s expert via the web and his website— which is fairly dense and shows a lot of depth and experience. His online projects are The Radical Academy and the Center for Applied Philosophy, which have huge archives containing essays on many subjects within philosophy. He writes on topics that most people don’t even think about! Many of his pieces can be found on the website that combines enlightenment with religiosity: www.TheMoralLiberal.com. He is associated with the idea of “the great books,” which is a very classical approach to education and enlightenment of the young mind. I have been acquainted with Dr. Dolhenty for a couple of years, and it’s a pleasure for me to be able to speak with him in person. Hello, how are you?
JD: Hello, Jason. I am fine. It’s a beautiful day today here on the southern coast of Oregon.
JM: I’d like to start off with a couple of personal questions; can you share some things about yourself with the listener to help them understand where you’re coming from.
JD: Well, have you got about twelve hours?!
JM: Ha! Now you’re just bragging.
JD: No, it’s just that I’ve lived a long life— really, longer than I had anticipated!
JM: Well gosh, your picture I have here makes you look about 40.
JD: Yes, well, up until June, I hadn’t had any photographs taken whatsoever.
JM: (laughs) What, are you like an American Indian or something??
JD: Well, no, it’s just that there was never any particular reason to do any self-promotion or anything.
JM: Do you now have a long, white beard?
JD: No, I don’t look like the old philosopher of antiquity. Or even some of the modern ones.
JM: I think you had sort of a broad, or should I say liberal, education if I remember correctly; you’ve been interested in philosophy since you were 14, but you also have studied political science, and education, and you’ve worked as a quantitative analyst, teacher, school administrator, editor, publisher, and corporate executive. As a person who studied social science rather than philosophy, I share a little bit of the intimidation and lack of interest that characterizes most people’s view of philosophy (though, interestingly, almost everyone feels well-qualified and eager to make moral decisions and to critique the ethical reasoning of others)!
JD: Yes, I believe in broad experiences. One of the problems that we seem to have is the difference between theory and practice. You know, we have the theoreticians on one hand and the practical people who are out there doing things on the other, but I don’t believe that there is any real gulf between the two. Theory, of course, is the guide— that is what gives us the standards, the criteria, the principles that we then apply, that we put into practice. Doing so will usually tell us whether the theory is good or bad; a true theory or a false theory.
JM: Well, what is an example of a theory in ethics?
JD: Well, the word theory is used in different ways, and sometimes leads to a misunderstanding. For instance, we talk about theory in science, we’re talking about an attempt to explain something in the empirical world…the sensual world, the physical world, the material world. That could be called a descriptive theory, because it’s an attempt to describe and explain and find the causes of, and so forth.
But there’s also something— and this is where it gets confusing if we’re not careful — called a prescriptive theory. For instance, the term political theory, can be a descriptive or a prescriptive theory. The prescriptive political theory, we get from some of our philosophers: most philosophical theory, whether it’s Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, or whomever, writing about politics, is what prescribes, what recommends. Rather than descriptive, prescriptive theories suggest what we ought to do.
JM: So, the classification of ethical theory?
JD: Well, ethical theory deals with human conduct. From the standpoint of classical realism, which I adhere to, the job of ethics is to help us understand and to describe and to prescribe how we ought to conduct ourselves as rational human beings.
JM: Say more about classical realism.
JD: Well, briefly, we have utilitarianism, a very popular theory; we have deontological (duty-based) theories – which are not wrong so much as they are incomplete, in my opinion. Classical realists tend to be will be call virtue theorists, and we don’t come up with a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for instance. We espouse principles, mostly. If you had to come up with courses of action— as to, “What is the better, or the best,” for example – you need to then have some principles in hand by which to make a decision. It’s a much “looser” theory than most. We take into consideration the circumstances; it’s not moral relativism (which I believe is a myth).
I believe that philosophy is very important; I don’t think it’s something that people who major in philosophy do and the rest of us don’t; indeed, Bernard Lonergan said: “In philosophy, an individual is becoming himself.” And that goes for women too. And Blaise Pascal noted, “To ridicule philosophy is really to philosophize.” So this is the type of intrigue that I find when I think about philosophy. As you probably know, philosophy means “the love of wisdom.” Now hold on for a couple minutes of commercial break, and we’ll be right back.
JM: I’d like to share with you a quotation by Judith A. Boss; she said, “in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that living the good life— a life of virtue— is our most important human activity.” I’m not sure if I pronounced that word correctly… We’re back and I’m speaking with John Dolhenty of The Radical Academy. Hello, John.
JD: Hello, and yes, Aristotle’s ethics is called Nicomachean ethics, and the reason for that is because Aristotle actually didn’t write it; it was his lectures that were recorded by his son, Nichomachus. We don’t know whether Aristotle actually wrote any of his works!
JM: Earlier we were speaking of Gore Vidal, and his sexuality came up.
JD: I apologize for mentioning that, but I don’t think he’s made any secret about that over the years!
JM: That’s true; I heard it before today, so I’m sure it’s all good.
JD: He is probably one of the greatest writers of today, and I think, in many cases, underestimated and under-respected. And part of the reason is because of the fact that some perceive him as being gay, and I know my right-wing friends have problems with me because I tend to say, “You know, really! A person’s private sexual affairs— what goes on in the bedroom – is none of your business in the first place.”
JM: And I imagine you’re not just flipping a coin to determine the ethics of that; you have thought about homosexuality and you have determined that it’s a matter of liberty?
JD: Oh, you bet; because, the terms that are used dealing with that particular issue are sometimes…well, it commits what is called “the fallacy of equivocation.” When someone says, “Homosexuality is unnatural,” that I have to ask, What do you mean by unnatural? That term can have multiple meanings, and from a philosophical standpoint, what is unnatural is something that a human being cannot do! Or if they say it is abnormal, What do you mean by abnormal? From a statistical standpoint, left-handedness is abnormal. We have to be careful, particularly when we are listening to politicians, and when we are listening to the “head cases” on television, about how they are using these words.
JM: That’s radical of you. Well, maybe the thing that Vidal was saying is that we are unduly concerned with homosexuality in this country as a moral issue, when perhaps we ought to be concentrating on things that are more grave or more important, and just let gays have the liberty to do whatever they want to.
JD: Well, I think we are, in this culture, obsessed with sexual matters.
JM: Indeed, I am! Kidding. You know, I think one thing that bothers certain folks about homosexuality is that it can be a little hard on the brain to visualize certain sex acts if that is not your cup of tea, but also, it is perceived to signal that America is experiencing a state of moral decay; would you say that America is morally-upstanding, or would you say that we have a certain degree of licentiousness or depravity?
JD: What I will say is that we’re not in a state of moral decay because of homosexuality; we’re in a state of moral decay (if in fact we are – and I think there are some points to be made, there) because of our attitude toward ethics in general. We in America practice a sort of “cafeteria ethics”— I’ll take a little of this, but I’m not going to take that— and it’s inconsistent.
JM: Why do you think we do that?
JD: Because we tend to be a more pragmatic people— and I’m using that term in a critical sense of the word. We tend to approach these issues more emotionally than we do rationally.
JM: I think I know what you mean. This might sound a little amateurish, but Dennis Miller, at least up until he took a hard-right turn on geopolitics and military adventurism and civil liberties infractions, has always been one of my favorite comedians…
JD: Oh, I agree with you on that!
JM: …and he uses the word pragmatic to describe himself. He did a “rant” one time about the death healthy, and he said, you know, there are some reasons we shouldn’t do it, but the main reason it sticks around is because of the deep-seated human need for vengeance – it feels good and right to kill that sonofobitch who killed those people. One could even say that his political views nowadays have a distinctly pragmatic flavor— as opposed to a more principled or theoretical foundation.
JD: The death penalty issue is a big issue with me. As a matter of fact, I have an essay up on my website where I challenge the conservatives on this very point. I also have a debate up there with a regular writer and contributor to the site. My position is, the conservatives ought to be opposed to the death penalty because they supported the Declaration of Independence— that there is an inconsistency there. It needs to be pointed out how everyone has an inalienable right to life, but the State can kill them. The right to life is conveyed because of my status as a human being, not because the State grants me that right. I’ve never been challenged on this issue, in my opinion successfully. And in many ways, I do consider myself conservative.
JM: Why do you call your website “the Radical Academy?”
JD: The term radical means “basic” or “fundamental;” it comes from the Latin radix, which means “root.” The point of the website is to get to the basics, to the roots, to the fundamentals of important questions. In other words, instead of starting way up here somewhere, let’s start at the foundation and follow the argument all the way through. The term radical is a perfectly acceptable term in many sciences; unfortunately, the term was taken over by politics and turned into a pejorative term. It’s not, and I’m actually trying to steal the word back!
JM: Well, you go! We’re actually out of time. I’m afraid we just had to cut it off instead of coming up with a nice summary. But it might have been rather difficult to come up with a neat encapsulation of our discussion because we just kind of touched on many, loosely connected subjects. I enjoyed speaking with you and I think the listener probably found your perspectives to be noteworthy and probably helpful in understanding philosophy and ethics. I thank you for your time, sir.
Now, I will note a few interesting and little-known quotes on ethics:
“Just as individual ethics can be understood only in relation to the society within which it’s practiced, it’s also true that individual ethical behavior is far likelier to flourish within a just society. It might be argued that to lead an ethical life, one must work to build a just society.” ~ Randy Cohen
“Making money and doing good in the world are not mutually exclusive.” ~ Arianna Huffington
Moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that entitles one to claim: “This is what I think; this is what my community believes; this is what is right; this is what is good.” Moreover, it requires a rational, critical, explicit defense of the standards, values, and ends one has in mind. Not all acts, beliefs, and customs are equal. May the best-supported ones survive and the selfish, arbitrary, elitist, ill-conceived, and harmful ones meet the metaphorical guillotine. Moral philosophy tolerates elitism better than it does relativism. The superior view has the best reasons supporting it. “God told us” is useless, “We’ve just always done it like that” is meaningless, and “Because I feel like it” carries no weight. We must dialogue, debate, and decide. ~ Jason Merchey
“The history of ethics is in many ways an attempt to answer the question ‘What makes a person good?’ …This is a question about moral goodness, or ethical goodness. In our effort to answer this question, Aristotle would have us ask, ‘What is the target for human life? What is our proper function, our purpose, our mission?” ~ Tom Morris
“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.” ~ John Adams
“On a practical level, there are two vital steps to ethical behavior: knowing what is right, and doing it.” ~ Michael S. Josephson
“These days, most of our arguments about justice are about how to distribute the fruits of prosperity, or the burdens of hard times, and how to define the basic rights of citizens. In these domains, considerations of welfare and freedom predominate. But arguments about the rights and wrongs of economic arrangements often lead us back to Aristotle’s question of what people morally deserve, and why.” ~ Michael J. Sandel
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