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INTRODUCTION: WHY STUDY ETHICS?
In Plato's classic work The Republic, the myth of Gyges sets out the question, Why be moral? Gyges was given the opportunity to live life as an invisible entity, able to do anything he wanted to do with no one ever discovering what he had done. That is, he could do whatever he wanted and would be assured of getting away with it. Given the chance to live life like this, the question Plato raises is, Would a person want to be moral? After a good deal of dialogue, Plato concluded that being moral was inherently valuable, apart from any additional benefits it produced or harm that it enabled a person to avoid.
How would you respond to the question, Why be moral? Since the moral life and moral decision making are the focal points of this book, this question is foundational. If you decide that being moral is not that important, then you probably will not spend much time reading this or any other book on ethics. But if being moral is important to you, then the content of this book will hopefully be helpful in shaping how you view morality.
Most people, when they are genuinely honest with themselves, still associate doing well in life with being a good person. Having moral character is still essential to most people's conceptions of what makes a person flourish in his or her life. For example, it is difficult to imagine a person being considered a success in life if he has gained his wealth dishonestly. It is equally difficult to call a person a success who is at the top of his profession, but cheats on his wife, abuses his children, and drinks too much. On the other hand, we rightly hold up a person like Mother Teresa as a model of living a good life, even though she lacks most material goods that society values. One of the principal reasons for being moral is that it is central to most concepts of human fulfillment. For the Christian, being moral is critical to a life that seeks to honor God. We could say that being moral is inherently good because it is foundational to a person's flourishing in life, since doing well in life and being a good person still go together for most people.
The same holds true for society as a whole. Most people would not want to live in a society in which morality was unimportant, in which conceptions of right and wrong carried little weight. In fact, it is unlikely that any sort of civilized society could continue unless it had concern for important moral values such as fairness, justice, truthfulness, and compassion. Ethics are important because they give direction to people and societies, who have some sense that they cannot flourish without being moral.
Ethics are important because moral questions are at the heart of life's most important issues. Morality is primarily concerned with questions of right and wrong, the ability to distinguish between the two, and the justification of the distinction. Closely related are questions like, What is a good person? What things are morally praiseworthy? What constitutes a good life? and What would a good society look like? These are fundamental to your view of the world. You cannot formulate an adequate worldview without providing answers to these moral questions. A wide variety of professions, whether or not they realize it, actually deal with moral questions. For example, morality is fundamental to politics, since politics and the law concern the way in which people order their lives together in society.
Ethics are also important because you face moral choices every day. Every so often you will face emotionally wrenching moral dilemmas that have no easy answers. Many decisions you will make on a day-to-day basis also involve questions of right and wrong. Ethics provide the basis on which you make those decisions. Most people have some kind of an idea of what sorts of things are right and wrong. Explaining why you think something is right or wrong or whether a particular person is good or evil, however, is altogether another question. The basis on which you make moral choices is often as important as the choices themselves. Yet, few people have thought through the way in which they justify their conceptions of right and wrong.
Finally, ethics are important in facing a number of issues, including abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, war, and capital punishment. Debates on issues such as these seem endless and irreconcilable, and they promise to continue far into the future. What many of these issues share is a fundamental disagreement over the ultimate source of moral authority. Some individuals hold that moral authority is ultimately a human construction, while others insist that moral authority comes from some transcendent source that is beyond human beings, such as a revelation from God or nature. As you read the newspaper and various newsmagazines and listen to television news, you will be increasingly aware of the importance of these issues. You will also notice that, apart from legal intervention, these issues are no closer to being resolved today than they were ten years ago.