Q&A: Professor Atterton provides insight on broader aspects of ethics

What is an ethical issue you feel like is relevant or topical that students should know about?

One of the most relevant ethical issues today that students should know about, owing to the sheer scale of the problem, is the despicable way we treat nonhuman animals. I hardly know where to start to describe the pain and suffering that animals undergo every minute of every day due to factory farming, or the use of animals in science, or the sports and entertainment industries (for example, hunting, zoos and circuses).

Take it in slowly: In this country alone, 8 billion — that’s right, “billion” — animals are killed each year just for food (and that doesn’t include fish). These animals are treated in the most obscene and abominable ways before their corpses are served up at mealtimes. I can’t stress enough the atrocity occurring here.

Just imagine being told that 8 billion human beings were being tortured and killed each year in the United States. Imagine the moral outcry! I don’t deny that some will argue that we can’t really compare the suffering and killing of humans with that of animals. Animals don’t have the same rights or interests as human beings have. Well, is that true? Is it the case, for example, that the interests of human beings, no matter how trivial (the taste of a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with cheese), override the interests of members of other species? That’s an important and legitimate philosophical question that I urge my students to think about. Indeed, it’s one we should all be asking because all of us, in various ways and to various extents, are implicated in the historical abuse of animals. Unless students understand how their dietary preferences, among so many other things, impact negatively on the lives of animals, then they will have no occasion to call those preferences into question and lead more reflective and individuated lives. Part of my job as a philosopher is to teach them that.

Is morality relative?

Some philosophers believe there is no absolute ethical standard independent of the culture to which one belongs by which to judge what is morally right or morally wrong. Consider the types of practices that were once tolerated in other cultures, and even in some cases encouraged, but which in our own culture are almost universally condemned as immoral: incest, pedophilia, polygamy, slavery, cannibalism and infanticide. Are we right to condemn such practices? The relativist would reply, “It depends on your culture. If you live within the culture in which these things are practiced they would not be wrong.”

There is no denying that ethical relativism has some attractive features. One obvious one is that it promotes tolerance and multiculturalism. By no longer imagining that one’s own cultural practices are automatically “correct” (if for no other reason it seems than the fact that they are one’s own), then one is almost certainly less prone to be hostile to what we in the academy call “difference” and “otherness.” However, there is a consequence to this viewpoint that many philosophers find troublesome. If there is no independent standpoint by which we can determine what is right or wrong outside of a particular culture, if all judgments are based on the values and beliefs of the place in which one happens to live, how is it possible to criticize other cultures?

How can students discern what is ethical or not ethical when they pursue their studies or professional careers?

he first thing to say is that you can never know for sure that it doesn‘t. Take the profession of philosophy as a case in point. Even the great canonical figures have said and taught some very ugly and unethical things for which they never apologized: Aristotle defended slavery — human and animal — and was a misogynist, Kant was a racist, and Heidegger was a card-carrying Nazi! Now, in drawing your attention to this I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t pursue philosophy! On the contrary, perhaps if Aristotle, Kant, and Heidegger had been better philosophers, they wouldn’t have said what they did. Nor am I suggesting that whatever career path you choose to go down is just as good (or bad) as any other as long as you get paid enough money.

It’s pretty obvious to me that someone who enters the so-called caring professions (social work, nursing, teaching, etc.) contributes a lot more good to this world than someone who “speculates” on the stock exchange making heavy profits while perhaps inadvertently raising the price of grains commodities, so much so that someone in the Third World will be one of the 10,000 people who starve to death each day. That to me is unconscionable. I’m not merely talking about the “Wolf of Wall Street.” I’m talking about all beneficiaries of stock exchange speculations. And who isn’t? Name me a retirement pension fund of any profession, including CalPERS (California Public Employees’ Retirement System which manages the pensions of all the professors at San Diego State University), that isn’t caught up in lucrative markets that negatively affect the Third World! Do you see how awkward and embarrassing these questions get when pushed to the limit by philosophy?

What’s a big misconception about ethics in the modern world?

I think there are two. The first is that ethics is somehow connected to religion. This to my mind has been catastrophic for humans and nonhumans alike. Not only has it totally distorted the very nature and character of ethics by identifying it with the will of God, it has also justified the most callous immoral acts. Witness the recent atrocities committed by certain self-described members of Islam. Anyone with an ethical bone on their bodies will tell you that cutting off the heads of journalists, burning alive prisoners, gunning down cartoonists or assassinating police doing their job, is the very antithesis of ethics.

Let me mention another closely related characteristic misconception about ethics — and this is one that most philosophers are guilty of — namely, that ethics or ethical behavior amounts to following certain rational principles or rules of conduct. I can’t say enough about this type of silliness. Excuse me, but we do not walk around with a set of rules in our heads — actually or potentially — that we then apply to particular situations in which we find ourselves.

I am proud to say that I have never followed a moral rule in my life! When I see a homeless woman on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach, I don’t think to myself: “I make it a maxim that I will always help people whom I can help who are in distress because there is a Categorical Imperative that enjoins me to adopt principles that are universalizable!” No, rather, I see person who is in dire need, I see her face, I feel compassion or empathy for that person, and I put my hand in my pocket and give a dollar. I then walk away and feel absolutely awful and wretched because I know with mathematical certainty that I have not given or done anywhere near as much as I should have, that all I did was offer a sop to my conscience.