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I’m a consequentialist, so forgive me if I don’t spend a great deal of time parsing the meaning of ‘ethics matters’. I shall leave that task to ‘real’ philosophers. Ethics uncontroversially matters if we take ‘matters’ to mean ‘be of consequence’. In case you doubt this claim, and you should not, let me give you just a few high-profile examples.
‘…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?’ Most students of ethics will have come across Jeremy Bentham’s rhetorical question that changed the nature of the international animal rights movement. Having taught bioethics for a bit more than two decades now, I can testify to the large number of students whose views on the moral status of animals were changed for good by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. A lot of the students have sworn off eating sentient non-human animals altogether.
While I’m talking about Peter Singer, he published a while ago a piece in the first issue of a that-time unknown little journal called Philosophy and Public Affairs. He called it ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’. Leaving aside for a moment that this journal article has become a mainstay in ethics undergraduate course, textbooks and whatnot else, Singer eventually used his stature to start a movement asking us to contribute individually to particular charities that are most likely to generate the greatest impact from our donations. Do a Google search to check on the large number of activist groups his arguments have spawned. You’d try the same for the work of influential feminist ethicists such as Judith Jarvis Thompson’s work, or that of Sue Sherwin.
Another area where ethics matters a great deal is in the context of policy development. Just think of research ethics. Binding research policy documents in most countries today are the result of extensive debates about the ethics of clinical research, exploitation in non-therapeutic research in the global south and other such issues.
The introduction of medical aid in dying in an ever-growing number of jurisdictions owes much to ethicists who have dissected normative counter arguments and whose works have been cited in some of the most consequential court and/or parliamentary proceedings, certainly in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Ethics apparently motivates ethicists to do the right thing, going beyond merely producing academic content. A number of Australian academics have not only published academic content on Australia’s appalling treatment of refugees, they have also become activists trying to change the status quo. Those who argue that ethics also provides reasons for action might gain satisfaction from knowing that there are at least some examples suggesting that they might be on to something.
Arguably, the works of ethicists as well as political philosophers have significantly contributed to public reason becoming the modus operandi of political debate in multi-cultural societies all over the globe. Apparently, ethics can matter. Of course, I could point you to any number of ethics papers that have aimed to remain inconsequential and they succeeded fully on that count. It is worth raising the question of the ethics of such ethics content production.
Udo Schuklenk, Professor of Philosophy and Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics
Joint Editor-in-Chief Bioethics and Developing World Bioethics
Department of Philosophy