Some people make ethical reasoning too simple, reducing everything to a simplistic principle like "don't do anything you wouldn't want to see printed in the newspaper" or "always follow your gut instinct." While such principles are not bad as rules of thumb in certain types of situations, they hardly serve as reliable guides for everyone in every circumstance. After all, some people have a high tolerance for embarrassment and wouldn't mind anything being printed in the newspaper about them, as long as it didn't cost them money. And others have poor instincts, and following their "gut" could lead to all sorts of trouble.
But if some people make ethics too simple, others make it entirely too complicated. The chief culprits are ethics instructors in universities who tend to want to introduce an entirely new set of terms, concepts, and principles before one can even begin deliberating about the relative merits of controversial issues.
The fact is, ethics is no more, nor less, complicated than grammar. We begin engaging in ethical reasoning almost as soon as we begin to talk, and it is not long before children are engaging in fairly complex patterns of ethical decision-making. This shouldn't be surprising. After all, most of us become competent and reliable users of grammatical structures like the pluperfect subjunctive at a young age, even though most adult speakers of the English language could no more define the pluperfect subjunctive than they could the special theory of relativity.
What this means is that there are no simple formulas that are reliable guides to solving all ethical problems, just as there are no simple rules that can solve all disputes about grammar. But there are dozens of useful "rules of thumb" that are helpful in figuring out what to do in certain situations. "Don't do anything you wouldn't want to see printed in the newspaper" is good advice when confronted by a situation in which you are tempted to do something that you would ashamed of if discovered. And "follow your gut" may be helpful when people are pressuring you to do something that doesn't seem quite right, but you are having trouble articulating precisely why it isn't right.
By the time someone has become a competent speaker of a language, he or she has also become quite skilled at using sophisticated methods of reasoning to make ethical decisions. But knowing how to do something and knowing how to describe what one is doing are two different things. Knowing how to hit a golf ball, for example, is not the same as knowing how to describe what happens when one hits a golf ball. We learn one thing from a golf instructor and the other from a physics teacher. In the same way, most people learn how to make ethical decisions from their parents, but they learn how to describe what happens when they use ethical reasoning when they take a course in ethics.
Knowing a great deal about physics won't make you a better golfer, and knowing a great deal about ethics won't make you a more ethical person. But understanding that the process of ethical reasoning is complicated, even though everyone can do it, should incline us to be more patient and civil with one another when taking sides on a hotly disputed issue.
The Ethical Life is a biweekly series of reflections on the ways that ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.