For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Moral Dilemmas, Identity, and Our Moral Condition
A Guide for the Ethically Perplexed
  • Michael Shaw Perry
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Moral Dilemmas, Identity, and Our Moral Condition. A Guide for the Ethically Perplexed
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Moral dilemmas challenge ethical theories and lead us to look for moral grounding. I offer a new approach based on identity understood as a systematic web of roles that explains why we are dilemma-prone, allows us to countenance both ethical objectivity and pluralism, and opens up new avenues for ethical thought.

About the Author

Michael Shaw Perry graduated from Dartmouth College with a BA in Philosophy in 2003 and was awarded the Francis Gramlich Philosophy Prize and Barrett All-Around Achievement Cup. He then earned a MA and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Johns Hopkins University (2005 and 2009) working primarily in epistemology. He also holds a JD from the University of Michigan Law School (2012). This project is the result of his personal and intellectual struggles with the framework for ethical thinking and trying to figure out how to live a purposeful, fulfilling life.

About the Book
Moral dilemmas are bedeviling situations in which incompatible actions appear to be morally required. Moral Dilemmas, Identity, and Our Moral Condition takes moral dilemmas seriously and uses them to structure ethical inquiry....
Moral dilemmas are bedeviling situations in which incompatible actions appear to be morally required. Moral Dilemmas, Identity, and Our Moral Condition takes moral dilemmas seriously and uses them to structure ethical inquiry. Following Cicero and other ancient philosophers it views ethics in terms of the question of who and what sort of person one ought to be. Understanding our moral condition requires an ability to think productively about that question.

The book develops a novel way of thinking about our moral condition through moral dilemmas and by looking at how identity can serve to ground moral norms. Moral dilemmas lead us to look for grounding, but traditional approaches are wanting. Identity can provide grounding - facts about who we are can serve to ground norms. 

The work develops an understanding of identity in terms of a complex web of roles and applies this approach to moral dilemmas and other ethical problems. In doing so it develops a framework for engaging in ethical thought that avoids reliance on any robust theories of the nature of things and finds a middle course between an ethical imperialism that cannot recognize a variety of good lives and an ethical insulation in which anything goes. 

The book provides the reader with a critical, philosophical, and accessible approach to ethics. It is a guide for the ethically perplexed, developing a way to better understand our moral condition and a tool for readers to engage in ethical thought. 

Currently most books in the area are written by scholars, for scholars, and are inaccessible to the philosophically-interested public; or they are written presupposing a detailed theory about the nature of things, whether religious or naturalist. One must immerse oneself in detailed theories, accept a particular view of reality and conduct ethics on that assumption, or forgo serious ethical thought altogether. This book provides another option: a guide for the ethically perplexed. It takes the analytic, philosophical approach to ethics found in Michael J. Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do? and Simon Blackburn's Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics, but instead of introducing the subject and informing the public about the philosophical terrain, it aims to articulate and motivate a novel and useful tool for engaging in ethical thought. Instead of surveying the field, Moral Dilemmas, Identity, and Our Moral Condition develops a new and fruitful ethical framework.


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Moral Dilemmas and Ethical Inquiry

Ethics, broadly conceived, is the study of what one ought to do and, more importantly, who and how one ought to be. In contemporary thought we tend to think of ethics as concerning only actions, but in my usage (which is more accurate historically) it extends to who one is and how one structures one’s life—so, for example, whether one ought to be a lawyer or doctor or father or volunteer, etc., are questions with an ethical dimension. Ethics is...

Moral Dilemmas and Ethical Inquiry

Ethics, broadly conceived, is the study of what one ought to do and, more importantly, who and how one ought to be. In contemporary thought we tend to think of ethics as concerning only actions, but in my usage (which is more accurate historically) it extends to who one is and how one structures one’s life—so, for example, whether one ought to be a lawyer or doctor or father or volunteer, etc., are questions with an ethical dimension. Ethics is the study of how one ought to structure one’s life and it is from this that ethically correct actions follow.

In his last philosophical work, a treatise on ethics ostensibly addressed to his son, Cicero wrote, “Above all we must decide who and what sort of people we want to be, and what kind of life we want to lead; and this is the most difficult question of all.” Ethics is hard and it is pressing. In moments of reflection we know that death awaits and we crave purpose for our lives—to somehow get it right, so to speak. We do not want the death of Tolstoy’s brother from illness: “He suffered for over a year and died an agonizing death without ever understanding why he lived and understanding even less why he was dying.” We seek, ultimately, to arrive at some sort of peace with and understanding of our being. Ethical inquiry is an attempt to understand our lives and to be able to structure it, to the best of our ability, so as to find purpose and peace. To philosophize can be a way to learn how to die. We also hope to avoid the death of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich—finding that our life and death are senseless and disgusting, terrorized by confusion, and realizing too late, all too late, that we have not lived as we ought to have, that our life was not the real thing. Ethical inquiry is the exploration of where we are in life, how we got here, and where we ought to go to live a good life. By “doing” ethics we hope for understanding, and with it, peace.

In this endeavor moral dilemmas can play an important role. Moral dilemmas are situations in which there seems to be either no correct action or, from another perspective, too many correct but conflicting actions. Moral dilemmas can be used to test ethical theories and to develop ethical insights because of the acute challenges they pose. In this essay I aim to develop a deeper understanding of the human moral condition through the exploration of moral dilemmas. I differentiate and examine three types: pedestrian dilemmas, theoretical dilemmas, and critical dilemmas. Though each is different, I claim that they all lead us to seek the grounding of ethical theory and can only be correctly understood by adopting an identity-based approach to our moral condition, as one subject and sensitive to ethical norms.

My principal aim is to produce a better understanding of our moral condition. This is neither a moralistic exercise nor an attempt at pure, scholarly ethics. The former almost inevitably fails to engage the real ethical difficulties we face but rather papers over them with rhetoric. Moralistic exercises aim to excite our moral passions in such a way that what we ought to do and how we ought to be seems altogether clear and consequently we are driven enthusiastically to what appears to be right action, yet such clarity rarely survives rational scrutiny or even the vicissitudes of ordinary life. Scholarly ethics is pursued with such erudition and in such abstraction that it is often unclear how it relates to our lives at all. It is hard to see why such theories are worthwhile beyond intellectual amusement.

I hope to steer a middle course, one that is relevant to the ethical questions we struggle with in life and that approaches these issues with the rational scrutiny characteristic of academic inquiry rather than the rhetorical flourish of moralistic revival. This is a practical exercise aimed at a struggle with ethical problems that develops when a critical, philosophical approach is taken within one’s life rather than in abstraction from it. I take the problems of theoretical ethics seriously but do not attempt to pursue inquiry in such abstraction that it becomes meaningless to life. Ethics is important because it affects all aspects of our lives, and hence it is best pursued at a colloquial level with the aim of seriously confronting the tensions and difficulties in our human ethical condition. . . .

 


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Pages 246
Year: 2014
BISAC: PHI000000PHILOSOPHY / General
BISAC: PHI005000PHILOSOPHY / Ethics & Moral Philosophy
Soft Cover
ISBN: 978-1-62894-075-6
Price: USD 22.95
Hard Cover
ISBN: 978-1-62894-076-3
Price: USD 32.95
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