Some Interesting Words and Concepts

Some Interesting Words and Concepts

A few words and concepts that might help us be more precise in our dialog about ethics.



Circular Reasoning

This is a concept where a person decides what they want to do, and then gives an explanation as the rationale. The conclusion becomes the supporting reason for the conclusion. An example is many standardized tests that are used in the school system. We ask the test makers, “how do you know the tests work?” And the answer they give is, “Because the gifted kids score well.” We ask the follow-up question, “how do you know they are the gifted kids?” and they answer, “Because they score well on the tests.”

In the study of ethics, some people confuse their rationale for doing it with the explanation for why the behavior is okay. So, someone might say, “it’s okay to sneak into a movie theater, because they charge too much anyway.” This is an example of a rationale rather than an explanation. The fact that they charge too much may or may not be true (okay, it’s true), but that does not enter into the discussion of whether it’s right to sneak into a movie theater. This is a rationalization to make the person feel better, not an explanation of why it’s okay to sneak into the theater. It’s circular reasoning.

In criminal justice situations, someone might say, “The death penalty is okay because criminals are getting what they deserve.” This is not a explanation of why criminals deserve the death penalty. This is circular reasoning, not a rationale why the death penalty is appropriate.


Tacit Thinking

“Tacit” means “done without thinking.” Its when you do something or believe something without really thinking about it.

For example, tacit behavior is done when we do a behavior without thinking about it. It’s like when we are on automatic pilot. For example, it’s possible to be driving, and then suddenly become aware that you haven’t been paying attention for a while (I’ve never done this myself, of course, but I’ve heard of people who have done this). This would be considered “tacit driving.”

Frequently, we believe things because that’s what we were taught in our family of origin. We believe them without ever questioning them or thinking about them. Many young people, when they turn 18 and go off to college, they find the experience a bit disorienting; professors and other students are expressing ideas that they have never heard, and challenge their own ideas. In this case, their tacit ideas–the ideas they have always believed–are being challenged. The students are forced to think about their own positions for the first time.

Many people have never been asked to think about their ethical positions. Consequently, they just believe things that they heard when they were younger, or they believe whatever feels good. They have never thought about their ethical positions–why they hold the beliefs they do. This is tacit thinking.


Emotional Load

An “emotional load” does not refer to my brother-in-law.

This refers to the amount of emotional content of messages. When we say something with a high emotional load, we are trying to make it difficult for people to disagree, or possibly trying to score points. It can be as simple as telling your wife, during a heated argument, that “you’re just like your mother.” Possibly true, but definitely said in order to score points. Comments like that, with a high emotional load, will tend to escalate the argument rather than provide an avenue for a more rational discussion of the issue.

A couple members of my wife’s family believed it was treason to say anything that was against former President Bush’s policies (I’m not quite sure how they factor in that pesky first amendment). Particularly after 9-11, they were vocal in saying that “if you questioned the government’s policies, you were aiding and abetting terrorists.” This comment has high emotional load. By telling someone else what they believe (“you’re obviously for the terrorists”), there is only an effort to score points and obscure the real issues.

To call someone a “dogmatic dinosaur” because they believe something different than you, would be a communication with high emotional load. To invite someone to say more about why they believe what they believe, has low emotional load. To shout out “you’re wrong!” when someone expresses their views of abortion, for example, has high emotional load, and doesn’t contribute to a grown-up discussion.

Just to clarify… I don’t mean to say that we should keep emotions out of our decision making. That isn’t possible, and even if it was possible, it wouldn’t be good. Brain scans reveal that emotions are accessed in virtually *every* decision we make, even something as simple as what to have for supper. It is impossible to think about ethics without emotions.

The danger though, is when we allow our emotions to hijack our intellect. This is a frequent occurrence, and in many settings its even encouraged (like on talk radio). When our emotions hijack our intellect, we lose our ability to reason with integrity.  This is the reason that people’s IQ drops 20 points when they start talking about politics. When our emotions hijack our intellect, we reason with all the power of an angry iguana. When our emotions hijack our intellect, we spout venomous drivel at others, taking pot-shots at their integrity, their intelligence, their ethnic heritage, and where their mother was at the time of conception. This is high emotional load.

I think that if we can be informed by our emotions, without being controlled by them, then we can have reasoned discussions and actually hear where people are coming from, and maybe understand each other a bit more. When we communicate with low emotional load, we facilitate thoughtful discussions where integrity is upheld and other viewpoints are respected.


Ethical Dilemma

Sometimes, in our ethical journey, we run into a situation where there is a good ethical choice and a bad ethical choice. An emergency room doctor has two patients: one is a rich suburbanite with a hangnail who is demanding to be served; the other is a person having a heart attack. Easy choice there, not much of an ethical dilemma. When we’re faced with a good ethical choice vs. a bad ethical choice, that’s not a dilemma. That’s barely a choice–even a chimpanzee can make effective choices when the options are good vs. bad.

However, we are frequently in situations where we don’t have a choice between a good course of action and a bad course of action. Sometimes we have two bad choices in front of us. No matter what we do, it will disrupt a norm, a value, or an ethical proposition. When we run into an ethical situation where no matter what we do, we run roughshod over our own, or someone else’s ethics or values, then we have an ethical dilemma.

So, an ethical dilemma is not the same as an ethical choice. An ethical dilemma is a lose-lose situation, when we have to choose between two bad choices. It’s when either option gives us negative consequences.


Dogmatism, Absolutism, and Legalism

Dogmatism is an uncompromising, unthinking belief. It is different than simply having a strong opinion, or being certain about an issue. A dogmatic person is unwilling to engage in conversation about their belief. They hold their belief tightly, but refuse to talk about their belief and categorically deny the right of anyone else to have a different belief. Typically,  social scientists regard dogmatism as a defense mechanism. In other words, the dogmatist’s belief system is so fragile, that they cannot depart from it or risk engaging in conversation about it. They are so unsure of their beliefs that they fear if they even hear another viewpoint, they risk polluting their own. So, they overcompensate and become loud, obnoxious, and uncompromising in their tacit belief.

Absolutism is to believe that there is only one truth. Usually, absolutists believe that there is only one truth for all situations (and they happen to have that truth). They believe that there is no room for multiple viewpoints or differing perspectives: there is one and only truth. Most of us are absolutists on some issues, and pluralists (accepting of many beliefs) on other issues.

Legalism is the belief that we must strictly, unflinchingly follow the letter of the law. That no matter what the cost, no matter what the situation, following the rules unquestioningly is always the best route. They are typically absolutists, and they believe they will never be in ethical dilemmas–they will never be in situations where any choice will violate their values.


Egoism and Hedonism

Egoism is only caring about oneself.

An ethical egoist makes decisions based on “what’s in it for me?” If the course of action is good for me, and that’s a good enough reason to do it, then I am an ethical egoist. The needs, desires, or values of others don’t matter at all if I’m an ethical egoist. The cynical philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that all of us are ethical egoists–that despite our rhetoric, that somehow, some way, we make decisions based on what’s good for us.

Hedonism is only caring about one’s own pleasure. The sum total of my life is how much I can benefit. If I am an ethical hedonist, then I make all ethical decisions based on whether I will have fun or whether I will get some kind of pleasure out of the deal.


Morality, Conscience, and Values

These three words have multiple meanings, and the definitions can change from person to person. So, when people start using these words, it’s important to find out their definitions. While some people use these words as synonyms for ethics, they usually have slightly more specific intentions.

Morality often refers to ethical behavior. So, while ethics is about thinking, morality is about behavior. Some people use the term only when they are referring to sexual behaviors.

Conscience is the internal voice that tells us whether something is right or wrong. Sigmund Freud called it the superego, and said it was the voice of our parents. Whether the voice is our parents, our experiences, our culture, or a hedonistic desire, most of us have that little voice.

Values refers to a belief about something that is important to us. For most of us, family is important. That’s a value. Typically, values only refers to the qualities or standards that are worthwhile.


2010, Jim Ollhoff, PhD



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