Ethical Reasoning: A Philosophical-Psychological Exploration -- By: Douglas E. Chismar

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 14:0 (NA 1981)
Article: Ethical Reasoning: A Philosophical-Psychological Exploration
Author: Douglas E. Chismar


Ethical Reasoning: A Philosophical-Psychological Exploration

Douglas E. Chismar

Since Aristotle’s writing of the Nicomachean Ethics, philosophers have sought to understand the nature and scope of ethical reasoning. Some of the most insightful attempts have been those which worked to integrate the investigation of ethical questions with related topics in other areas of knowledge. Such related areas have included epistemology, metaphysics, and the social sciences. In this paper, we wills consider attempts to understand the nature of ethical reasoning which bring psychological and philosophical issues into a common forum.

Psychology and philosophy have been veritable “bosom buddies,” particularly since the dawn of modern (post-medieval) philosophy. Modern philosophers, often beginning from an epistemological standpoint, have on many an occasion blundered unwittingly into doing primitive psychology. An example is Hume’s lengthy and detailed treatment of the emotions in the second Enquiry. Others have been openly enamored to a prominent psychological perspective, and have sought to remake philosophy accordingly. Thus in W.V. Quine’s Word and Object, behaviorism and epistemology become one. Hopefully, these two approaches do not exhaust the alternatives. Whatever approach one chooses, philosophers cannot afford to overlook the many insights afforded them by contemporary psychology. This is especially the case in regard to the study of ethical reasoning.

Moral or ethical reasoning (we shall use the terms synonomously) denotes the thinking processes which play a part in the making of moral decisions. Philosophers historically have made numerous attempts to define in some detail the nature of these processes. The study is made problematic by the fact that philosophers are concerned not only with describing how people do often think, but also how they ought to think. That is, it is occupied with prescriptive as well as descriptive considerations. To define moral reasoning, for most philosophers, is to offer a normative theory which, when consistently applied, correctly sets the boundaries of morally acceptable conduct.1 Having defined a theory, it is put to the test over a wide range of applications in search of counterexamples—instances in which the method of reasoning turns out to be flawed, leading to undesirable consequences. Thus utilitarian theories are challenged by cases in which the sacrifice of a minority appears to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest

number; Kantian deontological theories are tested by cases in which actions judged inherently wrong by the theory (e.g., lying) appear to actuall...

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