by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe
Riverhead Books, 2010, 324 pages.
Harvard University, presented by Michael Sandel
Lecture Series, 2005, 12 x 55 minutes.
Television series, 2006–2011, 76 episodes.
The ethical question is a simple one. It can be asked any number of ways, but the best form may be the simplest—what should I do here?
It’s a question everyone can recognise, one we all answer many times every day. When we think about ethics as an idea, we tend often to be tempted by thought experiments that pose impossible moral choices (imagine you’re driving a trolley car hurtling out of control down a hill towards five workers on the track who will be killed if you hit them. Now imagine there’s a side track you can swerve onto to avoid them, but instead you will hit and kill a single worker. What should you do?). Indeed, a scholarly appraisal may well conclude there is no moral way out of some situations. And yet, as Mary Midgley reminds us, in real life, real people still make real choices, however impossible. Morality does not occur in a vacuum.
What can we learn from people’s real ethical choices? What do we think we know? Ideas about morality have extraordinary reach and purchase in our public lives. This is of course evident when we talk about censorship, free speech or Roe v Wade, but also in ways that are less obvious and more pervasive, more pernicious.
Are people basically good, wanting to do the right thing but not always sure what it is? Or are people basically vicious and only out for themselves, needing to be restrained from violence against each other by a powerful and compelling mediator?
More importantly, do either of these views reflect things as they really are? Should we say instead either that most people are good, but a few evil folk do terrible things, or the reverse? The white hat/black hat idea is a popular one intuitively held by many of us, but as Midgley again reminds us, most binaries are false. When we say either/or, we should not forget to consider and. If we are to learn anything from looking at evil, it must surely be that things are not so convenient as black hats and white hats. The greatest evils are done by ordinary people who think they are doing good.
That makes the ethical question a little more urgent. Each time we ask ‘what should I do here?’, we must have some basis for answering.