Course Outline and Requirements

Ethical Dialectical Thinking
For those who want to arrive at well considered positions on ethical issues and moral dilemmas there is the ethical dialectic.  To make an ethical judgment there would be reflection on what the issues are and on the alternatives available.  Particularly in a course on ethics the moral judgments made would be conclusions to an process of ethical reflection and reasoning .  Judgments would be other than mere expressions of opinions or feelings.  Claims about what is morally right or wrong or morally correct  or incorrect would not be simple claims .  The positions expressed using words and phrases such as "right" or "wrong" or "good" or "wrong" need to be explicated in terms of the exact meaning of those words and defended using reasoning and evidence.  Such reasoning would involve the use of ethical principles that set out clearly what makes an action "good".  Such reasoning would make explicit what values are being used as the basis for the decision making or utilization of the particular ethical principles employed in the arrival of the moral judgment.

People need some sort of a moral guide through life.  Many may think that they can get by without one but chances are that they are egoists and do have a principle which is guiding them.  If it makes me feel good, if it makes me happy, if I like it and can live with it then it is all right for me to do it.  That may seem like an attractive principle by which we can make decisions until one starts to think about it.  As a guide for all people that principle would lead and does lead to many conflicts.  What is needed in a moral code is something that will enable humans to live with one another in an order rather than in chaos of self-interested action.   

Which of the many ethical principles is the best or which is the one for me to use when I make moral decisions?    

Review of the Principles of the GOOD  

ETHICAL EGOISM my own pleasure  
UTILITARIANISM utility- the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people  
CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE Act according to the maxim that you would wish all other rational people to follow, as if it were a universal law.  
NATURAL LAW What follows the Natural Law Is Morally Right and What does not follow the Natural Law Is Morally Wrong  
JUSTICE AS FAIRNESS The Maxi Min Principle: MAXIMIZE Liberty (opportunities)      MINIMIZE Inequalities (differences, disadvantages)  
   
EXISTENTIALISM Act according to your Will to Power
PRAGMATISM Growth and Success are the Final Good
FEMINIST ETHICS Act with Caring 

If a person is tempted to think that several of the theories could be employed in a single life the result would be a person who would choose which theory to employ to support the decision of what that person was to do in a manner that would provide that person with the outcome that the person most preferred.  This approach is a consequentialist approach, which is centered on the outcome for the decision maker.  In other words the actual principle being used would be EGOISM!  Thus someone who claims to be using one principle on one occasion with one situation and then another principle on another occasion would be using that which pleases that person and provides for the outcome desired by the person claiming multiple ethical principles.  The key factor is that such a person wants the outcome desired.

The CHOICE of a theory is based upon individual judgment but need not be arbitrary.

Each person considers the advantages and disadvantages and the strengths and weaknesses and chooses consistent with that person's values.

The choice is, perhaps unfortunately, for most:

  • Non-arbitrary

  • Slow

  • Methodical

  • Agonizing

  • Promoting courage

Hopefully, by considering the various theories and examining how they would be applied to the various situations and dilemmas involving  practices and institutions each person will become more aware of their fundamental values and which of the theories is most in keeping with what they think of as the good. Such a theory would then serve as a source of moral guidance.

People should have some principle by which they make their decisions as to what is the morally correct thing to do.  At times doing the morally correct thing will not make the actor happy except to know that they did what was right.  It is only the Egoist that thinks doing what is correct must always make the actor happy. 

Well you may be correct in thinking that most people in the world are Ethical Egoists (EE) in that they think about what pleases them first. But it may be time for humankind to grow up and mature and use reason and decide what each of us  will live and die for. What will be the principle of the GOOD used to make moral decisions?   Do you want to make decisions with yourself at the center or do you want to THINK and arrive at a principle consistent with your values that you will use to make moral decisions and you will attempt to convince others to use as well so that there can be resolution to moral conflicts. EE lacks logic in that there is no consistency or universalizability. It can not resolve moral conflicts as there is no agreed upon principle of the GOOD amongst EE's in a conflict. RESULT: Power plays and violence. At the United Nations they operate with the principle of UTILITY in an effort to resolve conflicts and avoid violence. There are other principles. The religious fanatics who employ tactics of violence and terror such as the Islamicists use DIVINE COMMAND as their principle. The world community appears clearly unwilling to accept such a principle as the basis for moral conflict resolution.  What will the world use in a effort to avoid the violence?

So, which principle is it that we are to use direct our lives and to give it a meaning and supporting values through our choice?  Each makes the decision.  In Philosophy the attempt is made to consider the principle that would serve best, the principle, which has the fewest disadvantages, and hopefully to find a principle that is the best to meet the demands of the current world situation and is correct as to setting humans on a path of conduct that serves the core values of the human community.

When people are confronted with their impending deaths they often review their lives.  Few make judgments as to its worth based on how much they own.  Most people regard how they treated others and were treated by them as much more important than possessions of material objects.  Oneís sense of morality is then seen in retrospect as one of the most important parts of a personís life.  Did I do the right thing is seen as more important than did I possess as much as I could have or was I as happy as I could have been? 

It is your decision as to which values and principles will guide your decisions.  There is advice that others can and do give you but it is your decision.  Choose wisely.  For Plato this was the whole point of Philosophy: to assist someone in choosing wisely, in choosing what truly is the GOOD.

The Dialectical Process

In attempting to reach a conclusion as to the morally correct thing to do responsible moral agents should examine the reasons for the beliefs held concerning what is morally correct .   People should reflect on the beliefs held to determine what principles are involved and what values serve as the base for the belief that one ethical principle is to be placed before or over another.  When taking a position on a moral issue or in attempting to reach a conclusion as to what is morally correct the reasoning and responsible person would give reasons for what they hold to be morally correct and arguments for the claims they would make .  Humans should examine the moral arguments in a continuing process of review and reflection.  There must be a critical examination of all arguments offered in support of positions taken and urged on others.   In the ongoing process of inquiry into the basic reasoning and the manner in which principles are used the critical examination would look to see that the reasoning was consistent and coherent.   If the arguments do not appear to be well reasoned or not well supported then revisions would be needed or even the discarding of the first argument in favor of another that was either prompted by the inquiry itself or derived from it.  In turn the new argument in support of the new position becomes itself the candidate for subsequent critical examination.  This continuing process is referred to as being dialectical. 

VIDEO on Dialectical Process http://www.youtube.com/user/PhilipPecorino#play/uploads/21/zziTWJPbYyU

In the critical examination of arguments or positions on moral issues there is a sort of testing of the arguments as the principles used in the argument are applied to cases either actual or hypothetical in order to examine how well they fit the case and resolve conflicts or if they give rise to further difficulties.  Consider a moral argument that sets a high value on freedom of speech and related to freedom of thought and thought as essential to the moral lives of human beings.  In setting the value of freedom of speech nearly as an absolute value or as a high or , perhaps, the highest value what then becomes of that argument when considering whether or not to allow such freedom on the internet and the presentation of child pornography to any and all viewers?

In entering into the process of moral inquiry, even unto the level of examining the most basic principles and values being used, human beings are developing their skill in ethical thinking and along with that they are growing as responsible moral beings.  As humans do this they are developing and defining the moral aspect of their personalities and their moral personhood. 


The answers or positions arrived at through the process of dialectical inquiry and review are going to be subject to the ongoing process for review and criticism wherein humans will consider as many alternatives as they can.  As long as humans have consciousness and a basic sense of morality and they can reason , then they will use their intellectual faculties to examine and re-examine moral theory and ethical principles.


That the dialectical process does not produce single definitive absolute and eternally unchanging answers to moral questions and resolutions of moral dilemmas should not be discouraging in any way.  The answers to moral problems that have been urged on the communities of people in this world have proven to be in need of revisions over time and adaptations have been made.   The absolutism preferred by some has more often proved to be the basis for what in retrospect appears as atrocious behaviors towards those who disagree.   The ongoing process of continual review of moral thinking and refinement of ethical principles appears to offer the human community the hope for advancement as moral beings.   If there is any hope for the people of planet Earth to arrive at some common understanding about how to resolve moral problems and find resolutions to dilemmas it would appear not to be through insistence on moral absolutes to be imposed on all peoples of the world.  Neither would it be to accept any and all ethical principles and moral reasoning to be of equal worth and use.  The dialectical process does reveal weaker arguments distinguishing them from the stronger and the more useful and more adequate to the tasks at hand and more applicable to situations as we actually encounter them. 


The open ended and ongoing process of moral inquiry offers hope for individual and collective advancement in moral maturity.  Through the process of ongoing moral inquiry we learn more about morality itself and about what we value and how we value and how we can better go about resolving our conflicts and dilemmas.  That process may lead to agreement on the values and principles and the reasoning most acceptable to humans who must find common resolution to moral and physical  conflicts without resort to violence of any sort.

In approaching the questions, issues, problems and dilemmas posed by the situations presented by developments in computer technologies there is a need to analyze the situation and identify the key elements and values that may be involved and the ethical principles that can be brought to bear.  An argument needs to be developed in support of the position that is to be advanced as the preferred position on the moral question.  That position is then examined by others who hold different values or hold the same values in a different order and who would apply ethical principles in a different manner, rejecting one or another for reasons which should be given.  The process continues until there are enough people who think that one position is the best of the alternatives.  Given the nature of the original problem or question and the size of the populace who hold the one position of the majority there may be social policies or even legislation that would result.

The open ended and ongoing process of moral inquiry offers hope for individual and collective advancement in moral maturity.  Through the process of ongoing moral inquiry we learn more about mortality itself and about what we value and how we value and how we can better go about resolving our conflicts and dilemmas.  That process may lead to agreement on the values and principles and the reasoning most acceptable to humans who must find common resolution to moral and physical  conflicts without resort to violence of any sort.

Steps for presenting an ethical argument or a defense of a moral judgment using ethical dialectic

1. Position on the moral issues or dilemma made clear

2. Position defended using

a. reasoning in support of the judgment (conclusion of the moral argument)

b. Ethical Principles employed in the argument

c. Values used to select the ethical principles used in defense of the conclusion (judgment)

3. Consideration of alternative positions and the rejection of those alternatives in favor of the judgment made for the reasons given which employ ethical principles and values.

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