Introduction to Ethics, 2nd Edition
Introduction to Ethics, 2nd Edition

Introduction to Ethics, 2nd Edition

Lead Author(s): Clifton Guthrie

Student Price: Contact us to learn more

An introductory college ethics text that incorporates contemporary moral psychology, four ethics theories, and ethics in workplace, profession, and religion.

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Welcome to an Introduction to Ethics

When people hear that I teach ethics for a living, they often respond, "Good! The world needs more ethics!" and then they go on to complain about a lying politician or a business scandal or someone they don't like from work. 

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Many folks seem to believe that an ethics class will somehow improve the behavior of the students who take it. This is what I sometimes refer to as the "inoculation theory of ethics:" that if a student takes an ethics class it will somehow inoculate them from unethical behaviors in their future lives and careers.

It probably won't. At least that's not the goal of this class.

Traditionally, many colleges once required everyone to take a course in morality and citizenship with this goal in mind, often as the last class they took before graduation. Even today, the idea of teaching students to be more ethical in their personal and professional lives is a key "student outcome" that almost all colleges have in their general education programs or majors. It's a worthy idea, but the news is mixed, at best, about whether a single class can do all of this heavy lifting. It's fair to say that there are far more likely influences on the ethics of students than a class  -- culture, family, peers, personality, circumstances -- to name a few. So it is appropriate to be skeptical that a class can or should try to inoculate students. The truly skeptical person might consider him or herself an ethics-class anti-vaxxer (But here's an interesting question: if we could invent a vaccine to make everyone more ethical, would it even be ethical to require it? Would you want it for yourself?)

The hard news is that despite many different creative approaches to teaching ethics by earnest moral teachers, scientific studies show very little to no evidence that ethics courses ever actually make people better (more ethical) people. In fact, ethics courses can often do just the opposite by teaching smart people how to give better justifications for the things they were going to do anyway.

A banker who was involved in a financial scandal came to speak at our university a few years back. As part of his punishment he was required by the court to go speak to business schools around the country to try to convince students not to follow his example. He talked about how he had gone to the best schools and how he had taken a great ethics courses with a famous teacher and had gotten an A, and none of that dissuaded him from stealing money from his clients.

I asked him if he could imagine any kind of ethics program or course that would have changed his behavior. He paused, thought about it, shook his head, and then admitted, "no." He knew what he was doing was unethical at the time he was doing it, but he justified it to himself in various smart ways. 

There are of course people who are psychopaths who have no immediate feeling of the rightness or wrongness of their actions. There are also supposedly saints who are only ever motivated by pure selfless love. If you are a psychopath or a saint, then you may find this book and course interesting, but we already know that the moral compass of your life is all set.

Are you a saint? [I-3]

However, if you are an ordinary person, then you probably already try to do the right thing as best you can and you care about how your actions affect other people and the world around you. This course will not really train you to care more or try harder. If that's what you want, only you can really do that by working hard at it yourself.

What this course can do is make you think in new ways and open your eyes to some new questions you might not otherwise have considered. It might help you see that questions about ethics are woven into every moment of your life and surround every choice you make. It may also help illuminate some of the blind spots of moral thinking to which we are all prone. It won't inoculate you, but it may give you pause when you realize that your reasons for thinking one thing is right or wrong may be far more about your intuitions and emotions than good facts or careful, objective reasoning. 

In fact, a recent study by two social scientists showed that of all the ways people compare themselves to others -- whether they are smarter, stronger, more thoughtful, or better looking than average -- the single most common and powerful irrational judgment we make about ourselves is our feelings of moral superiority to other people [1].  We all seem to think we are better than others: more honest, more fair, more considerate.  

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Better than you [I-4]

In the past twenty years or so, social psychologists have made some compelling new insights into the study of everyday morality. It seems important to me that new students should be aware of these findings, even in an introductory course like this. This is a philosophy class, not a psychology class, but one of the most important lessons we can learn from philosophy is the importance of listening carefully to the best available evidence and being open-minded about what it may have to say. So when philosophy listens carefully (and critically) to what social science has to say about everyday morality, it is actually doing philosophy well.

On a more technical note: One thing that makes this book somewhat different from many others is that it is sympathetic with a view of morality that stretches back to a group of Scottish philosophers in the eighteenth century that are called "Sentimentalists" (sentiments are another name for emotions). Adam Smith (1723-1790), the  author of the famous book on capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, is less well known for his equally ground-breaking book, A Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he argues that moral feeling is based in our natural tendency to empathize with others, to take their perspectives as if it were our own, and be sensitive to others when they are hurt or treated unjustly. A similar position was taken by David Hume (1711-1776), in his book, A Treatise of Human Nature, in which he explains that moral reactions are like a kind of taste we have.

The approbation [approval] of moral qualities most certainly is not derived from reason, or any comparison of ideas; but proceeds entirely from a moral taste, and from certain sentiments of pleasure or disgust, which arise upon the contemplation and view of particular qualities or characters [2].

When we are dealing with human morality, we are primarily dealing with intuitions, emotions, and biases, in other words, with reactions rather than well thought out objective reasons and ideas. That's a very important part of the story, but if that's the whole story then there is no point to the rest of this book and the rest of the course. In fact, ethics can be thought of as a process of learning how to recognize and even step back from our immediate reactions so that we can engage in a process of examining them more carefully. 

Beginning attitudes

As the thoughtful consideration of how we should live, ethics has amassed several thousand years worth of insights and some of the most important books and ideas conceived by the human mind. It was of supreme importance to ancient thinkers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Zoroaster in the West, and Buddha, Confucius, and Lao-Tzu in the East, and of course, central to religious teachers like Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Given the seriousness of the topic and its long and storied history, there are two attitudes that students new to ethics might well adopt at the beginning of this course of study. 

The first, I hope, will be eagerness to learn. Since we all have a life to live, what better and more interesting thing could we do than think seriously about how we should live it? 

The second attitude should be intellectual humility. Given the long history of serious thought about the matter, it helps to start by being open to the challenges that reading and thinking about ethics will require. While the aim of this introductory textbook is to make ethics clear and accessible, some of the primary texts you will read will be difficult because they are either translations from other languages, in an older form of English, or just deal with difficult ideas and hard issues. As with learning a new language or trigonometry, it takes patience and hard work to grasp even some of the basics in this academic discipline. Don’t be shy about asking questions and raising objections. What you take away from this course of studies will depend on how deeply you engage with it. As philosopher Nicholas Taleb observed, “What I learned on my own I still remember” [3]. No course book in ethics and no teacher can do this work for you.


1   Ben M. Tappin and Ryan T. McKay, “The Illusion of Moral Superiority,” Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 8, no. 6, Aug. 2017, pp. 623–631, doi:10.1177/1948550616673878.

2 David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, B3.3.1 Originally published in 1739.

3  Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes (New York: Random House, 2010), p. 52.

Images Used

I1 Image of graffiti by DanB Seattle 2012 under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

I2 Image of vaccine by Daniel Pacquet under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

I3 Image of St. Francis by Max Pixel under CC0 Public Domain

I4 Image of sneering kid by Brian under  CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr