Why moral discourse matters

When I took an intro to ethics course from Ryan Clark a few semesters ago, he began his first lecture by informing us that we were enrolled in a class concerning the most important subject matter we would learn. At the time, I thought this to be a grand overstatement. By the end of the semester, I was convinced otherwise.

This is whya��everything we do is affected by our views on right and wrong. However, it’s a rare thing to find someone with the slightest interest in ethics. The subject is widely taken for granted. We know all we need to know. After all, most of us have made it this far without being sent to prison. But is that good enough?

I’m not talking about becoming a better person; I’m talking about becoming one with more freedom. The ironic thing about examining one’s moral guidelines is that it tends to be quite liberating. Of course, I’m merely speaking from personal experience and the experiences of those I’ve talked to, but the very evaluation of a precepta��perhaps one as simple as “do not lie,” tends to break down even the most basic moral tenants.

This is what makes morality one of the most interesting subjects to study. The situations that must be considered teach us more than we would expect to learn about ourselves. Under what circumstances does one consider lying to be a perfectly moral act? Under what circumstances do we consider murder the right thing to do?

Many of us rely on religion for our ethical framework, failing to realize that what seems like straightforward, common-sense commandments have their exceptions. Some of them are impossible to follow, such as the aforementioned mandate against lying.

As Dan Ariely amusingly demonstrates in his book “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty,” everyone lies. Furthermore, everyone lies more than they think they do. Often times, we just don’t view ourselves as liars or thieves because what we’re telling or taking isn’t far from the truth or, in the case of the latter, it’s far from actual money, example: office supplies.

This is but one example of why it is misleading to believe that simply following the simple rules of society will make you a good person. It will likely make you a simple person. It might make you a moral person, but who wants to settle for that? Most of us want to be ourselves, and for our self to be interesting, happy and free to do as it likes. Carving your own moral path, rather than following what has been laid out before you by your parents, school or church is one effective way of doing just that.

As a recommendation, then, for any potentially roused readers, I offer John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism.” There are many misconceptions and legitimate problems with his theory, but if well understood, scary notions of sacrificing one for the group largely disappear. It’s a short read, and one of the most approachable on the subject. Anyone wishing to develop for themselves their own rights to live by would do right by themselves to start with Mill.

Those like myself who are passionate about this subject are often laughed at for engaging in such irrelevant and fruitless thought experiments and arguments. This is fine, for I know that its relevance is realized in finding myself in fewer moral predicaments and with more freedom of conscience than I had just a short time ago. Maybe you will too.