Ivy League Education at Home Part 6: Moral Reasoning

Written by on June 11, 2009 in Ivy League Education at Home - 5 Comments

ethics-good-vs-evilDid you know that many classical colleges dedicate entire courses to the art of decision making? The ability to make correct choices – to distinguish between good and bad possibilities – is so important that liberal arts programs require every student to complete work in this area.

In matters that count politically and personally, most college-aged learners have already made up their minds. They already know what political party they support, whether they’re for or against the “hot topic” issues such as abortion or gay marriage, and how they want to treat the people they care about. So, why bother trying to teach a subject like moral reasoning?

Harvard, a school with robust moral reasoning courses, puts it this way:

“The common aim of courses in Moral Reasoning is to discuss significant and recurrent questions of choice and value that arise in human experience. They seek to acquaint students with the important traditions of thought that have informed such choices in the past and to enlarge the students’ awareness of how people have understood the nature of the virtuous life. The courses are intended to show that it is possible to reflect reasonably about such matters as justice, obligation, citizenship, loyalty, courage, and personal responsibility.”

Basically, the study of moral reasoning helps us understand how choices have been made throughout history and how we can approach the decisions we have to make / have already made. When you embark on a self-study of moral reasoning, no one is going to tell you the specifics of right and wrong. Instead, you’ll discover methods of improving your own thinking. Maybe you’ll change your mind about some of the beliefs you already have or maybe you’ll simply understand why these beliefs are ultimately good. Either way, learning how to make better decisions can improve your life as a learner, a leader, and a human being.

Assignment #1: Learn the Difference between Morals and Ethics

Although these two terms are often used interchangeably, it’s important to note the difference. Morality is the distinction between right and wrong (good and evil). Ethics is the study of the nature and practices used to determine morality. Basically, ethics is the collection of tools used to examine moral values. When you aren’t sure if something is right or wrong, you can turn to your knowledge of ethics to help you make a decision.

To learn more about the nature of morals and ethics, see: Introducing Philosophy – Ethics and What is Ethics?

(It’s also important to note that the term “ethics” is sometimes used to identify social or group values. Real estate agents, for example, may hold each other to a standard of professional ethics. In the case of this post, however, we’ll be using the previous definition which is more relevant to the subject of moral reasoning).

Assignment #2: Explore the Major Theories of Moral Philosophy

When it comes to moral philosophy (ethics), there’s a lot to learn. The internet offers a wealth of information on the major thinkers and their contributions to this discussion.

If you’re just getting started, consider learning more about these five influential philosophers: Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus, Kant, and Thomas Aquinas. I’ve provided a very brief description of each thinker’s moral philosophy as well as links to primary source material that can help you understand their beliefs.

Socrates (469 BC – 399 BC) – As the father of Western philosophy, Socrates was among the first to deal with the issue ofplato-and-aristotle moral choice. He believed that self-knowledge was the most important factor in human decision making. “The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance,” he said. As long as a person had the correct knowledge, Socrates thought that he would never choose evil. Read: The Apology by Plato.

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) – Aristotle disagreed with Socrates’ claim that knowledge eliminates the possibility of choosing evil. Instead, he believed that people were capable of having a full understanding and choosing incorrectly due to weakness of will or selfish seeing of pleasure. Aristotle believed that people could determine if an act is good by recognizing the purpose or form of the subject in question. The purpose of the flutist is to play his instrument, so his act of playing is morally good. The purpose of the human is to reason, so this type of thinking is morally good. Aristotle believed that happiness is the ultimate goal and that it can only be achieved through the rational, deliberate development and practice of virtue. Read: Ethics.

Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC) – Like Aristotle, Epicurus believed that happiness was the ultimate goal of human existence. However, he thought that moral value could be ascertained by the level of pleasure or pain an action brought to humans. Good could be judged by pleasure, while bad could be determined by pain. Epicurus urged his followers to make decisions that brought them the greatest amount of pleasure in their mortal existence, giving no concern to the possibility of an afterlife. Read: Principle Doctrines, Letters.

NG002104 St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) – This philosopher / Dominican priest combined Aristotle’s philosophy with the Christian world-view. Aquinas believed that the good or evil of an act could be determined by its outcome. He claimed that the moral life would lead to happiness (and ultimately union with God). He also recognized several types of law: eternal, natural, human, and divine. Interestingly, Aquinas believed that the existence of God is not self-evident and that people are capable of making moral decisions according to natural law regardless of their beliefs. He made a point of focusing on the distinction between theological virtues and moral virtues: “The object of the theological virtues is God Himself, Who is the last end of all, as surpassing the knowledge of our reason. On the other hand, the object of the intellectual and moral virtues is something comprehensible to human reason. Wherefore the theological virtues are specifically distinct from the moral and intellectual virtues.” Read: Summa Theologica.

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) – Kant believed that moral goodness was unrelated to pleasure. Instead, he explained that each person has a duty to contemplate a moral decision using rational thought and act with the right motivation regardless of the consequences. He introduced the concept of the categorical imperative, which basically states that a moral act will be the same despite the subjectiveness of a particular circumstance. “Act in such a way that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle of a universal legislation,” he said. If stealing is wrong in one case, it is wrong in all cases. Stealing should be considered wrong even if it brings pleasure or if the perpetrator has a “good excuse.” Read: The Critique of Practical Reason and Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals.

There’s so much more to explore in this area. Once you finish reading about the beliefs of these philosophers, take a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for hundreds of articles on topics related to ethical thinking.

Assignment #3: Use the Tools of Moral Decision-Making in Your Life

Learning about moral philosophy isn’t worth much unless it helps you actually make decisions. To demonstrate how these theories can be implemented into real-life decisions, I’ve found two rather amazing resources.

Justice – Journey in Moral Reasoning – In this hour-long video, Harvard professor Michael Sandel guides the audience through an overview of how moral philosophy can be applied to modern-day situations. His lecture / interactive discussion does an excellent job of highlighting the relevancy of moral reasoning. You may want to watch the video before you learn about the philosophers above. (Side note: A TV series featuring Sandel’s course on moral reasoning will also be coming out on PBS in the fall of 2009, so you may also want to keep an eye out for that).

Ethics Bites Podcast – In 14 episodes, this podcast from the Open University and the BBC explores ethics and modern issues. Consider topics such as censorship, freedom of speech, organ transplants, and the treatment of animals in relation to your new-found understanding of moral reasoning.

In Conclusion

As you learn more about ethics, your ability to make choices and understand how to approach decisions should improve. Remember, the study of moral reasoning isn’t designed to teach people what is good. It’s created to help them learn how to figure that out on their own.

Know of a useful moral reasoning / ethics resource I missed? Have a learning tip to share on this subject? Please leave your suggestions in the comments section. The more resources and ideas we have, the better.

Next Week: Quantitative Reasoning

5 Comments on "Ivy League Education at Home Part 6: Moral Reasoning"

  1. Tod Birdsall June 11, 2009 at 7:46 pm · Reply

    Jamie,
    Wow! Thanks for the great writeup and resource references. Keep up the good work.

  2. Jamie June 12, 2009 at 1:04 am · Reply

    Thanks, Tod. I really hope that you (and everyone else reading this) get a chance to check out that video from Michael Sandel. It changed the way I look at ethics.

    By the way, if anyone has additional resources related to the subject of this series, please do share them in the comments.

  3. Iskandar April 14, 2010 at 11:10 am · Reply

    Hi Jamie,

    Thank you for providing some lead to philosophy. It really looked like a hard subject after contemplating some articles, exchanges of views and opinion from the Philosopher’s Club that I attended to in the past. Most of them are experts in this field and their writing are highly intellectual that makes me think twice to attempt. Your self-made-scholar has opened some avenue of systematic approach to understand philosophy better. Hoping that I could absorb all the concepts and theories from your page to harness my knowledge and skills before embarking the higher level of collaborative and knowledge sharing in this interesting and thought provoking academic.

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