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Lecture One: Chapters One and Two
What is Ethics? and What are Ethical Issues?
The main questions that the author of your text is concerned with in the first two chapters
of your text are ‘What is Ethics?’ ‘What are Ethical Issues?’ are ‘How are religion and
law related to our ethical decision-making?’ The author of Chapter One (William
Frankena) begins his analysis of these questions by offering an example to us (Socrates’
dilemma in Crito). Through this example he arrives at questions Ethics is concerned
with, the definition of ethics, approaches to the study of morality, and examples of ethical
The example is drawn from a work by Plato, Crito.
William Frankena uses Socrates (a real historical person and the main character in Crito)
as the "patron saint of moral philosophy." What does this mean? It means that he is using
Socrates and his discussion with Crito to display what moral reasoning is and how ethical
issues arise. When Crito offers Socrates a chance to escape, Socrates is faced with a
moral dilemma, which is a conflict that arises regarding the moral rightness or wrongness
of a particular action/decision. Socrates insists on approaching the moral question at
hand—Should Socrates escape from prison?—without giving any weight to his (or
Crito's) feelings, to the opinions of others, or to the cost of remaining faithful to moral
principle, which in the present case could not be any higher. He appeals to a general rule,
determines that his situation falls under that rule, and finally draws a conclusion about
what he must do—namely, refuse Crito's suggestion that he escape.
Frankena tells us that Socrates is engaged in ethics, the branch of philosophy dealing with
morality, moral problems, and moral judgments. More specifically, he is engaged in
normative reflection, which attempts to identify what is right, good, or obligatory. That
is, what we should do. This is distinct from both descriptive inquiry, which attempts to
describe or explain moral phenomena (what we do in fact do), and meta-ethics, which
seeks to answer questions about the meaning or use of moral terms such as "right" or
"good." On Frankena's view, ethics is concerned primarily with normative inquiry and
secondarily with meta-ethics, but it also involves occasional forays into ethical
He also lets us know that Socrates is faced with a dilemma or what we call an ethical
issue. The questions involving what we should do, what we should value, and our (and
others’) responsibility are ethical questions, also called ethical issues. What are ethical
issues? They are questions about the rightness or the wrongness of actions and how we
should live our lives. They are questions where there is no definite right or wrong
answer; the answers are debatable. They are questions that demand that we look at our
value system. They are questions that demand reflection and that we gather information
when necessary. They require patience and they are difficult to answer. But they are
Ethics is the study of such issues. It is the philosophical study of morality. It is “the
attempt to determine in some reasonable manner how we should answer these basic
questions.” It is the philosophical study of what is right or wrong, good or bad, in that
area of human conduct for which we are responsible. It is concerned with voluntary
actions, actions that we choose to do and for which we can be praised or blamed. It
offers us standards of action that will help us determine what we should do. These
standards are called ethical standards or ethical theories, and include such standards as
Aristotle’s virtue standard, or Mill’s utilitarian standard.
That is what we will be concerned in this course. How should we live? How should we
act? What standard(s) should we use in helping make those decisions?
Frankena also uses the Crito example because it includes a discussion of the roles that
religion and the law should play in our moral decision making. Is obeying the law
enough to make our actions morally good? Some people think that if they obey the law,
then they are covered. That is, they believe that if they obey the law, then their actions
are morally good. Is this what Socrates thinks? But simply obeying the law is not
enough. There are problems with using only the law to make our moral decisions.
One problem is that the law might not address the dilemma we are faced with. There is no
law that tells us that we have to help our elderly neighbor or that we have to donate our
money to charity. Many of the ethical decisions we will have to make our clearly outside
the boundaries of any law.
The second problem with relying only on the law is that many laws are morally wrong!
Laws that do not treat people with respect and that deny them basic rights are morally
wrong, and so cannot and must not be used as a guide to our decisions. There we many
laws in Nazi Germany that people obeyed, but in obeying them, their actions were
morally wrong, not morally right.
The final problem with relying only on the law to make our moral decisions is that many
laws tell us what not to do. They restrict our actions. For example, ‘do not speed,’ ‘do
not walk on the grass,’ etc. These are important restrictions. Sometimes they help to
protect us and others. But they do not give us the guidance we need when we are in a
dilemma that requires careful reflection. We could be perfect, law-abiding citizens, and
yet at the same time live an immoral life. An example of this would be Ebenezer Scrooge
before he had the change of heart.
Well, if the law is not sufficient, may religion is. But there are problems with basing our
moral decisions only on religion. Many people believe that God is the basis of all
morality, the ultimate standard of morality. They believe that something is good because
God says so. But there is a problem with this. Is it good because God says so, or does
God say so because it is good, and its goodness is based on some other standard. In other
words, God is not the basis for morality, but something else is. Another problem with
basing our moral decisions only on religion is that there are many religions. Which one
is ‘correct?’ The final problem with basing our decisions only on religion is that, again,
there are problems that we will face that religion does not address specifically enough to
be of much help. For example, is it morally right for me to put my mother in a nursing
home? Religion does not give us a specific answer to this dilemma. That is not to say
that religion should not be considered when we have a decision to make. It should, as the
law should, if it is relevant. But it is not the only thing we should consider.
In sum, in the first two chapters
The Socratic approach to moral questions is presented:
Follow reason, not emotions
Think for yourself
Never do what is immoral
Ethics: Branch of philosophy dealing with morality, moral problems, and moral
Three kinds of ethical reflection
Chapter 2: Crito by Plato
Should Socrates flee his death sentence?
Crito’s arguments for escape
What will people think?
It’s not fair!
What will happen to your family?
Socrates’ arguments for facing the music
Who cares what people think?
Always do what is right, regardless of the cost.
Respect is owed to the state as parent and teacher
To live in a state is to agree to obey its rules