Monday, October 20, 2008

Ethical Priorities

I recently read in Brian Leiter's blog that, "Susan Dwyer (moral psychology, applied ethics, feminist theory), Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County has accepted a tenured offer from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park, effective January 2009." Dwyer from UMBC to Maryland/College Park

I think I had heard the name of Ms. Dwyer before, but I didn't know who she was. Leiter thought she was worth promoting, or possibly she is a friend or working associate.

So, to familiarize myself with a philosopher I didn't know I looked up Dwyer, and clicked on her syllabi. There I found "PHIL 150 Contemporary Moral Issues." Listed under "Outline" was this:

"We will critically examine four controversial topics: Pornography and Free Speech; Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide; Punishment and the Death Penalty; and Abortion. The class has two main aims: (1) to introduce you to some central concepts in ethical theory and moral reasoning; and (2) to help you begin to develop views about the aforementioned topics that you can articulate and defend."

Well, that sounds like a good outline of subjects that are worthwhile of ethical investigation by students. I remember as a young student many years ago investigating them, and from time to time I read something that gives me a new twist on what or how I understand the subject. Sometimes, my opinions are tweaked by what I read.

But directly below Dwyer's Outline is this:

"Among the questions we will consider are the following:
 Is pornography harmful?
 Should the state censor or restrict the publication of pornography?
 Do we have a right to determine the manner and time of our own deaths?
 Is it permissible for a doctor to kill a patient at that patient’s request?
 How is punishment justified?
 Should the death penalty be retained or abolished in the United States?
 What is the right to life?
 Is the human fetus a person?
 What is the relation between morality and the law?

And I thought, "Wait a cotton pickin' minute. The epistemic emphasis on most of the questions is all wrong."

Asking if pornography is wrong, for example; it leaves open the question of whether its harm, real or imagined, gives one human the right to deny access to it to those he thinks are harmed by it. Why else ask the question? I mean, so what if it is harmful, what is the answer to the answer that it is harmful? The real question and answer are lost.

If my answer in that class was that pornography was not harmful, is someone going to argue with me? Are they going to ask where I got my information? What difference does my answer make, yes or no, until the basic question of whether ethics can do anything about it?

In any question of ethics (moral issues), "The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?
"Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all—and why?"
“The Objectivist Ethics”; Ayn Rand; The Virtue of Selfishness

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