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1st May 2012:  Peter Bowden  The Failure of Moral Philosophy


Aristotle was an outstanding philosopher.  His learning, based on observation,  encompassed many disciplines . Yet today practices developed by other disciplines which do lead to improved and universable ethical behaviour, are ignored. The immorality lies in the students who study philosophical ethics not being taught these practices. The larger loser however, is a society that does not benefit from the wider adoption of these ethical practices.  



The Failure of Moral Philosophy


Thomas Aquinas refers to Aristotle as “The Philosopher”, as though there were no other. Aristotle is an outstanding philosopher, perhaps the greatest, but he could also be described as a political scientist, a veterinarian, an astronomer, a physicist – although not in the modern senses - and an ethicist. His observations and learning encompassed many disciplines.

The argument of this paper is that today’s moral philosophers have not followed his lead. They claim that their teaching and writing are based on practice, and lead to action; they claim also that they draw on many disciplines. Neither of these statements is true.  Moral philosophers do not venture outside the narrow self- defined limits of their discipline, confining their discussions to opinion and argument within these limits. As a result, they reach very few usable conclusions.  Other disciplines contribute to ethical practices as much, if not more than moral philosophy. These practices are not just discussion and argument – they actually lead to improved ethical behaviour. These contributions- perhaps a half dozen in all - are ignored by moral philosophers. The big losers are students who study moral philosophy who do not learn the lessons of other disciplines. The larger loser, however, is society. Those philosophers who ignore, and in some cases argue against these practices, ensure that our desire to build a more ethical world will gain no support from moral philosophy. 

Many philosophers themselves will also lose. They will lose the joy of putting forward yet another interpretation of some long dead philosopher…. Immanuel Kant, for instance, must have in any one year, more material written on his views than he ever wrote himself over his life time. Today’s philosophers will also lose the opportunity for advancing their academic careers by disputing another  philosopher. The loss, of course, is only for those who wish to make a serious impact in applied ethics.  And as I will argue, they will need to stop being intellectual gadflies; they will need to learn some very rigorous analytical techniques.

Why do I make these statements? My purpose is to enlist your support. I will argue, and hopefully prove, that there are a number of approaches that can materially assist in bringing about a more ethical society. That is my objective. All need the support of wide segments of the community, support instead of negativism, that can come from philosophy as well as the general public. All will benefit from continuing programs of design, redesign, evaluation, and reapplication.  

I will take each of these statements in turn. That Aristotle was much a scientist as a philosopher can be noted from his observations on many of the natural and social sciences. His writing, based entirely on observation, although admittedly within the technical limits of his day, covered many fields –- animals, the heavens, politics, as well as ethics .His thoughts can be applied practically. Nichomachean Ethics, for example, sets out distinct guidelines and parameters for our behaviour.  His intellectual virtues included scientific knowledge (episteme), and technical skill or art (techne).

There has not been a great deal of progress since. The efforts of moral philosophers today lead only to talk, more talk, and disagreement. Of the many observations on this “internecine warfare” between moral philosophers, I quote Richard Joyce from Philosophy Now (Issue 82, 2011)

“The theories are plentiful, the convolutions byzantine, the in-fighting bitter, the spilt ink copious, and the progress astoundingly unimpressive”  

My second concern is the claim that the current mainstream thinking in moral philosophy leads to action. An example is seen in The Ethics Toolkit (Baggini and Fosl, 2007).This book is intended “to provide readers with a deeper …sense of how different ideas … may be enlisted so that people may not only think but act with regard to moral matters.” (The emphasis is mine).

There are many similar claims. The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory is written by “an international assembly of distinguished philosophers”. Its editor, Hugh LaFollette (2000), follows the present-day compartmentalisation of ethics into three – meta-ethics, normative ethics and practical ethics, the last mentioned being about “how we should behave in particular situations”. LaFollette asserts that this is a change – quoting PH Nowell-Smith, a half century ago (1957), who stated that “The moral philosopher (and) his subject matter consists … of theoretical statements”.

Some changes have taken place since Nowell Smith, but I argue that moral philosophy is still theoretical; that it does not, for the most part, lead to action. Nor does it embrace ethical developments in other disciplines. This statement includes Hugh La Follette’s contributions.   

We can see the changes that have taken place today in books such as Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, where he talks about our responsibilities towards the poor, towards animals, womens’ rights, racial minorities, and the like. In short, Singer is pushing us toward the practical implications of the policies that he is presenting.  

Books on business ethics also discuss those specific issues that occur in the business world. Frederick (2002) for instance, discusses a range of business practices widely considered unethical – in marketing, business finance, environmental issues, etc.  These books may examine some of the ethical practices that need to be followed, but still ignore the lessons of other disciplines. They also provide us with little guidance on how to manage the ethical issues that they do raise. 

Most moral publications are similar to the toolkit book. They concentrate on the ethical theories.   A standard text for undergraduate courses in ethics, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, by James and Stuart Rachels, for instance, does an excellent job of explaining the many ins and outs of moral philosophy. It makes no mention of any practices adopted by other disciplines that strengthen ethical behaviour.

I will now argue through the various practices. They come from many sources. Recent work by the Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics (AAPAE) illustrates the diversity of these contributions.  Drawing on studies across ethical practices in fourteen different disciplines, the Association identified six practices that will strengthen ethical behaviour. All are near-completely ignored by moral philosophers. They come from the business sector, from politics, from public administration, from sociology, and from the legal profession. They are 

(i) Strengthening our ability to recognise when we ourselves have been unethical; 

(ii) Steps being taken to encourage us to speak out against wrongdoing ;

(iii) Developments in codes of ethics that do make them effective;

(iv) policies being adopted by private sector organisations to institutionalise ethical behaviour;

(v) new programs for ensuring greater honesty in government; and 

(vi) building action on empirical findings, not argument.  

Each of these developments is being put into practice in the disciplines from which they arose. But are largely ignored by moral philosophers.  

Several moral philosophers, in fact, actively decry these developments, despite their benefits. But let us first describe the practices. The first is an analysis of why we adopt practices that result in us not seeing wrongdoing, or in ignoring it when we do see it.

(i) Why we fail to do what is right 

Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel (Blind Spots,2011)  are professors of business and of business ethics whose research tells us we do not often recognise that  the decision we should make  is an ethical one .If we do, we sort our way through the maze of competing ethical theories to reach a decision. If we reach decision, however, we do not necessarily implement it. There are many reasons why we do not act - a willingness to conform to accepted thinking (group think); our tendency to reduce dissonance when associated with rejecting a suspected unethicality, our tendency to think short term and the immediate outcome, rather than for the long term, and finally a near-complete failure to recognise many decisions as unethical. They term their analyses “behavioural ethics”, claiming that it has grown “exponentially” in recent years. Their examples include the Challenger disaster and the Ford Pinto case, arguing there that the decision makers in these cases did not recognise the ethical implications of the choices that they made. They give a number of solutions for avoiding the problem, targeted at the individual, organisational or societal level. 

Many developments have in fact been introduced aimed at ensuring that an ethical option is recognised, and then implemented. The following paragraphs provide a short summary. The first of the actual applications is commonly known as whistleblowing. 

(ii) Speaking out against wrongdoing 

It is only common sense that people inside or in contact with an organisation will be the first to identify wrongdoing. Several major research studies, world-wide, have confirmed that blowing the whistle on illegal or unethical action is the most effective way to stop it. But to speak out is a dangerous practice. Whistleblowers are crucified .Legislation that encourages and protects them has now been introduced in most countries. Stock exchange listings have been expanded to specify whistleblowing requirements .Even national standards now encourage it. These practices and their multiple problems should be taught to students of moral philosophy. They are not at the moment. Examine the course outline for any degree in philosophy anywhere in the world.  Speaking out against wrongdoing will not be included.

As significant a concern is the country we live in. Australia is the only significant country in the civilised world to have no whistleblower protection legislation at the national level. Julia Gillard promised to introduce legislation by June last year. She let it go. Why?? When it is proven to be effective?  We will leave that issue to the later discussions. Is it our convict past? My own theory is that we have an ineffective activist organisations compared with the US and the UK. An comparison with whistleblower support websites in the three countries will support this theory. 

(iii) Adopting codes of ethics that are effective

How many of us have signed a code of ethics without reading it, convinced that (i) we are ethical anyway and (ii) we know that it only exhorts us to be honest and to deal fairly with workmates and clients? And if we do read it, the code seems like a public relations document generated by senior management to give the impression that the organisation is honest. Research in recent years, documented in the AAPAE book, however, has determined that codes aimed at countering the actual ethical issues faced by staff, identified and resolved by those who confront these issues, are more likely to be effective. Making sure that codes are effective, however, is not a topic of interest to moral philosophers, including the authors of the Toolkit book .Yet codes can be effective, These findings are brought to us mainly from the business and public administration  sectors, but the underlying theory comes from the behavioural sciences and development economics. 

(iv) Policies adopted by private organisations to strengthen ethical practices 

A multitude of these practises have developed in recent years .Thumbnail sketches include 

· Growth in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Michael Porter, perhaps the foremost academic in business strategy, notes the link between corporate strategy and corporate social responsibility “CSR has emerged as an inescapable priority for business leaders in every country.” he tells us. 

· An ethics role for professional societies. These institutions are developing and codifying ethical practices for the disciplines that they cover. The majority are merely exhortations to be good, and as such, are somewhat useless. A few, however, tackle the real ethical issues facing that discipline. 

· Trade Practices and anti-trust. Moves to reach agreements with members of cartels to provide evidence in return for easier treatment have become near universal in recent years .In short, if you turn in your fellow conspirator, you get off.

· Legislation governing business dealings Typical are the Sarbanes Oxley and the Dodd Frank Acts in the US, the strengthened Corporations Act in Australia and the Bribery Act in the UK. Some of this legislation is aimed at combatting one of the ethical blinkers noted by Bazerman and Tenbrunsel – motivated blindness – an inability to recognise an unethical act when it is to your advantage. They note that Enron was Arthur Andersen’s second largest client - where the consulting fees were greater than auditing fees – a widespread weakness that has been since overcome through legislative enactment. 

· Securities exchanges principles Again there has been increased emphasis on ethical behaviour exercised through stock exchanges, evidenced in a number of developments -  stock exchange listing requirements emphasising ethical corporate governance,  the growth in ethical investments and the development of codes of ethics for exchange staff, being the most prominent.

(v) Ensuring honest government 

Another growth field, described by some as “exponential”, is Integrity Agencies. This term is specifically Australian, although it does include anti-corruption agencies (as they are termed elsewhere).   All are aimed at strengthening ethical behaviour in the public sector, but they cover illegal along with unethical activity. The list of wrongs that one anti- corruption agency prohibits for instance, are actions that “could adversely affect, either directly or indirectly, the honest or impartial exercise of official functions”. Other prohibited actions involve a breach of public trust, or the misuse of information or material. These actions are not necessarily illegal.

They range from Crime Commissions to Ombudsman Offices. The latter have expanded from their traditional function as an agency that attempts to correct complaints about public administrators to agencies responsible for public sector ethics. Some Ombudsman Offices manage whistleblower issues. Integrity and anti-corruption agencies work in a variety of ways towards strengthening ethical practices - by education, providing ethics consulting services, advice and training, by accepting complaints on misbehaviour, and by encouraging and protecting whistleblowers. 

(vi) Adoption of empirical findings

The learning processes in philosophy are based on argument. John Lachs condemns this approach. I quote again from Philosophy Now, in an article that questions whether philosophy can still produce public intellectuals? (September/October, 2009)

“young philosophers (in the US) are taught that argument is king …that knowledge of facts is superfluous” 

Another example is Louis Pojman and Vauhn Lewis in a widely-used text, Philosophy. The Quest for Truth: 

“The major task (of philosophy) is to analyse and construct arguments “ and again 

“The hallmark of philosophy is centered in the argument” 

Pojman makes the statement in the 6th edition: “I have striven to present opposing views on virtually every topic. “ It is a strange statement to make in a book questing for truth, for it is indeed rare that truth has two sides.

Argument will be taught to you as the critical analytical tool in an undergraduate philosophy degree. If you have an ethics class in your children’s school, they will be taught to argue – not to investigate, gather facts and analyse.

Argument is an enjoyable process when we are simply speculating.  It is totally inadequate for critical analytical thinking. The inadequacy of argument is reflected in the criticism of anti-corruption and integrity agencies as instruments for bringing about greater ethical behaviour in the public sector. Some moral philosophers decry these developments. Jeff Malpas, for instance, at a recent AAPAE conference, argued that the language of ethics, 

“seems increasingly to have been appropriated by bureaucratised systems of political and managerial control based around notions of risk management, audit, accountability and assurance “;He complained that it presages “the demise in ethics.”

His contention pits argument against the techniques of empirical research –surveys, fact finding, and evaluation methodology. I can quote other examples….In an earlier presentation of this paper, which concentrated on whistleblowing, two full professors of philosophy, argued that blowing the whistle on wrongdoing did not work, and gave me several reasons why. They were again employing argument against the findings of empirical research. A paper sent to an international journal on applied philosophy was rejected by the editor much more succinctly – “These issues are not ethics” she wrote. Her journal contains next to nothing on the six issues raised in this talk 

The implications of this paper

I turn finally to the ethical significance of these paragraphs. The immediate losers, of course, are those young people who want to work in applied ethics and who take a philosophy degree to do so. Many of them want their work to matter, to have an impact. But they have an inadequate education in ethics with which to make this impact – inadequate in two respects. They are given neither the knowledge of these current practice nor the skills with which to further develop the practices. I could even claim that their teaching gives them an intellectual handicap with which to face the world. For they are given analytical approaches   that are completely inadequate for decision making in the 21st century. 

The bigger loser however, is society at large. Research into ways that society can strengthen ethical practices is left to other disciplines. And ethics is not a mainstream component of those other disciplines   Ann Tenbrunsel, working in ethics in business, is a rarity. The dominant discipline for ethics is philosophy. The research, the developments and strengthening of ethical behaviour should come from that discipline .Currently it does not. And until the discipline changes, it will not. 

There are other losers, however. Those moral philosophers who decide that they wish to work in applied ethics will need to learn a much wider range of analytical practices - sampling techniques, evaluation research, and statistical analysis for a start .They will also lose the joy of arguing through the philosophical thoughts of history. 

They might in the process, however, make the world a more ethical place in which to live. So the issue raises a question for our philosophy café.  And other cafes philo around the world. What path should we follow?


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