3 Monkeys3 MonkeysBY JOHN C. MERRILL

John C. Merrill engages in some antic with semantics.



(After an Academic Ethics Conference Panel)

Chair: You two have been asked to discuss with me the panel we just attended and on ethics generally. I hope you can help clarify some of the problems I have-which are mainly semantic. But it won't be easy, for I know of no other field as fuzzy as the one we call "ethics."

Mr. A: I thought it was a good discussion. I think I understood most of it. At least it raised some moral consciences.

Ms. B: I felt it was the same old, same old thing. My moral conscience was not raised; in fact, I don't even know what my moral conscience is. Does it have anything to do with ethics, or is it just a whim that changes with every situation?

Chair: Moral conscience must have something to do with ethics. Perhaps it is something that we are born with and, although alternately weak and strong, it can lead to moral behavior. Or, of course, we can develop it slowly just as a child learns a language.

Ms. B: Perhaps, we are really talking about "moral consciousness," not conscience. Is there a real difference? I think we can be safe in saying that ethics is somehow related to morality and moral consciousness is therefore related to ethics... Don't push me further on this...

Mr. A: I think a person can be unethical, say in a specific act, but at the same time he can be a moral person. Morality can accommodate unethical actions, but these will be exceptions to the rule.

Chair: Let's leave this subject; it didn't even come up at the panel we just attended. I feel that most of the papers were rather trite and filled with jargon. I feel, too, that somebody should have said something new and stimulating.

Ms. B: If you "feel" such things, is that the same as "thinking" them? Shouldn't we think, not feel? Sorry, Mr. A; you wanted to speak...

Mr. A: Let's get back to you, Chair. If you expected something new and stimulating, you expected too much. You should know better, as this is not your first conference. We do indeed hear the same things over and over at these conferences, but we do get some stimulating conversations in the halls and at mealtimes. After all, it is the more authentic and honest social networking that is most valuable for us.

Ms. B: But do our schools send us here to participate in hall-talk and social networking that may cause us to miss so many sessions? I am often troubled about that. What about the ethics of skipping sessions? I have been to many sessions where the panelists have outnumbered the audience members.

Mr. A: Maybe we simply have too many sessions. That limits audience attendance.
And, besides, do the panelists really care who is in the audience? They're on the program and have justified their convention trip... and also, they have another entry for their vitae.

Chair: I wonder if the panelists we heard really knew what ethics is. At least they didn't seem to. And, by the way, is "ethics" plural or singular? I wish they had talked about the basic nature of ethics. It seems to relate to thought and action. But is ethics what I think I should do or is it what I actually do? And how do we really know what to think or do about being ethical?

Mr. A: Various people say different things about the source of ethical authority. Therefore it would seem that there are many ways to be ethical...

Chair: So two people can both be ethical even if they do opposing things?

Ms. B: I guess so, since prominent ethicists from Kant to Mill make different proposals. It seems to me that we are never certain that our actions are ethical.

Mr. A: But we must have a desire to do what is right-or at least best. So it is really the intent-the desire to be ethical-that makes an action ethical.

Ms. B: But if so, Mr. A, how do we know that what we "intend" to do is the right or best?

Chair: (pause) I guess we don't really. But we can do what we think will bring the best consequences for others. We must be teleologists like John Stuart Mill. But you may want to call him a utilitarian. No matter.

Mr. A: Why not just call him a utilitarian teleologist? I kind of like that. And that would contrast with an egoistic teleologist like Ayn Rand and other objectivists and philosophers of self-interest.

Ms. B: But how do we know prior to the action what the consequences will be-either to others or to self?

Chair: I'll agree that is a tough one. And, if the consequences turn out to be harmful or bad-does that mean that I have acted unethically? Well, maybe we do have to wait and see how it turns out. And even then, if it brings the results we had hoped for, there may have been even better consequences than our action brought about. So we never know if we have really been ethical.

Mr. A: Not necessarily: we just get back to "intention" again. The actor "wants to be ethical." That's enough. But then, it could be that nobody can ever be "ethical enough."

Ms. B: Wow! That "enough" is worth a conference all by itself.

Chair: But does being ethical depend on one convincing others that he or she desired to be ethical? Is a desire a moral attribute?

Mr. A: Maybe not to the public-but it is to one's own conscience and self-satisfaction. And, of course, to God.

Chair: Let's keep God out of this for the moment. He or She or It speaks in many ways to different people and proposes differing norms. One must create and be responsible for one's own ethics for one's own time, place, and circumstance. Enough of God for now. I could end this by quoting Nietzsche as saying God is dead, but I won't.

Ms. B: We can solve this ethics problem by adapting the ideas of Immanuel Kant. Have rules, laws, firm principles to which you adhere. When you break them-then you are unethical, period. We should all be deontologists, and that would solve most of our ethical problems. Do this; don't do that-and there are no more ethical decisions to make. One knows that when he/she breaks an ethical law it is an act of unethical behavior. Period.

Mr. A: Let's drop those pretentious terms like "deontologist." Ms. B, you want us to be ethical by following orders. Not for me. You may be law-abiding, but that's far from being ethical. I'd rather be ethical than law-abiding.

Ms. B: And you are more likely to end up in jail.

Chair: But following social norms or laws or principles can, of course, be ethical. No?

Mr. A: Sometimes, maybe, but it is a form of authoritarianism. And ethics must be free.

Chair: Free? How free? Is anarchy ethical? And who says it must be free?

Mr. A: I would like to ask you, Ms. B, if Kant's legalistic ethics is not really derived from consequence ethics? Where do his maxims or rules come from? Do they not come from a tradition where the consequences of actions determined these principles you want to follow?

Ms. B: Maybe so and maybe not. They could well be some kind of protonorm established by some transcendental potency.

Chair: Careful. I said we'd keep away from God...

Ms. B: But would not God by any other name be essentially the same?

Mr. A: Ohhhh! Let's get to another subject. What about instinct or spur-of-the-moment decision making? Cannot that be an ethical decision?

Chair: It might well be-if we can determine what kind of decision is ethical. I think we should be coming to a conclusion. We have only a few minutes left before we go to the next session. And I feel-or think-that we should go.

Mr. A: Before we leave, I have one more question. If I ask myself what I should do in a particular case, can my answer be "what will reward me personally"? Can there be an egoistic ethics-a kind of self-satisfaction ethics that seek personal consequences? I am hungry, for example, so I pick some apples from someone else's tree. I tell a lie so as not to bring me embarrassment or punishment. What's unethical about these actions?

Chair: You must be kidding. They are simply not generally considered right behavior. You sound almost as if you are a prince following the advice of Machiavelli.

Mr. A: Okay, okay. But should we rather follow public opinion or the authority of the majority? I wonder if we have clarified the meaning or essence of ethics at all. I'm still confused.

Chair: And so am I, but we should not give up. For as somebody once said, "Hope springs eternal." We should go to the next session now...

Ms. B: I don't think we ought to. Let's go for a cup of coffee instead.

John C. Merrill is Professor Emeritus, Journalism, in the University of Missouri. Currently living in Montgomery, Alabama, Merrill may be e-mailed at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..