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Moral Absolutes and Moral Alternatives

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


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For thousands of years philosophers and laypeople alike have attempted to define the uniquely human condition of morality. People have tried to delineate which actions should be encouraged and which should be forbidden, and philosophers have also attempted to explain the origin and meta-physical underpinnings of the good and bad, the right and wrong. For many, morality is characterized by the commandments of God and the teachings of his earthly son Jesus. For others, ethical rules and codes develop within a cultural or sociological context. Although there are a great variety of moral theories, they tend to fall within two general classifications, realism and relativism. An analysis of several theories of moral realism and moral relativism reveals that there may be insights and problems for both viewpoints.

Moral realism is the view that there are objective moral truths that apply to humans universally. It is a belief that there are real differences between what is right and wrong, that we can know what these differences are, because moral truths represent real knowable facts about the world. So to say that, “it is wrong to lie”, has the same factual weight as saying that, “the grass is green.” Moral realism is a conviction that morals are absolutes. It is problematic for the essence of moral realism that there is still not a single agreed upon moral standard even within the view that morals are objective, but rather disputes about how these objective truths are to be determined. Divine command theory, Kant’s universal moral principle, utilitarianism, and biologically based secular natural law are all different ideas about what constitutes morality, but each asserts that its tenets are real and independent of individual point of view, thus each belongs to the general category of moral realism.

The most commonly held moral beliefs are religious in nature and stem from the idea that right and wrong are determined by a higher power. Divine command theory is unequivocal about how humanity obtains its moral direction; a godly force or forces creates moral rules, and we are obliged to follow these holy edicts. The Ten Commandments are examples of such celestial laws in the Judeo-Christian faiths, and Sharia, or Islamic laws, are the Muslim equivalent. Religious adherents believe that divine commands are absolute, which classifies them as moral realists, even though there are many different religious sects promoting different sets of commands.

In the 16th century, Immanuel Kant put forth his reasoned argument that for an action to be moral it must be intrinsically right and come from a good will. For Kant (29), “[n]othing in the whole world…can possibly be regarded as good without limitation except a good will,” and by this he means that only morally obligated actions that are good in themselves are morally right actions, rather than actions geared toward an expected outcome beyond themselves. He suggests that we can determine this by judging whether any anticipated action should become a universal law, meaning that if I commit the actions, then I should desire that everyone should do it just as I have. This universal law would need to make logical sense when applied collectively to all humanity for it to be moral or right. Thus we can conclude that something, such as lying, is immoral, because it defies rationality to have a universal law requiring all of humanity to be deceitful all the time. To Kant, a universal law must be a categorical imperative; it is a duty that must apply always and everywhere. The very idea of a universal law and categorical imperative shows Kant’s view to be that of a moral realist.

In the 17th century, John Stuart Mill suggested, from the Utilitarianism perspective, that right actions are those that have a propensity to maximize happiness and minimize pain, for the most people. The concept of utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, is in contrast to Kant’s views due to its exclusive focus on the results of an action, rather than whether the action is good in itself. Utilitarianism recognizes that a moral problem, like whether to tell a lie or not, depends on what the better outcome for all will be. For example, if the President of the United States may have to obfuscate the truth from the public and press when asked directly, if the consequences of communicating what he knows could be a panic and physical harm to the public. Mill (45-46) clearly characterizes this view as moral realism when he writes, “…the utilitarian opinion…is…the standard of morality…secured to all mankind; and…to the whole sentient creation.” In order for the maximization of the net utility to be truly objective one must have a way to measure the outcomes in a global sense, and this seems tricky at best, so Utilitarianism is idealistic rather than practical in its moral realism.

Biologically based secular natural law postulates that humans have acquired morals via evolution (Johnson). This theory holds that there are mutual benefits to collaboration among humans, and as rational actors we are able to identify these advantages and profit from the development of cooperative behavior. Our need to work together for survival encouraged our moral behavior, through natural selection such that those earlier humans who could work with others found themselves without the support of the community and without means to survive and reproduce. Contemporary philosopher Jeffery L. Johnson distinguishes secular natural law from relativistic theories about cultural influence on morals, by pointing to its promotion of an “underlying biological and psychological reality for ethical truth and knowledge.” (Johnson 7) Economic tools like game theory can demonstrate how rational actors can recognize the benefits of honesty within the context of repeated games, in which the most beneficial payoffs come from cooperation rather than competition. The most optimum strategy in repeated games of this kind is tit-for-tat, a rule to begin cooperating in the first round of engagement, but to respond in kind if the next round depending on whether your partner cooperates back or not. Humans achieve the optimum and objective outcomes for social existence within a community by cooperating with each other through the natural selection of moral strategies, which makes secular based natural law a theory of moral realism.

After a look at the various views encompassed within the concept of moral realism, it is obvious that there is more than one accepted set of moral standards, even between proponents of objective moral truth. This reality would seem to support a view of moral relativism, unless we reach a consensus that one, and only one theory of moral realism is actually the correct one. Moral relativism solves this problem by rejecting the whole concept of objective moral truths. A relativist believes that individual morals develop within the context of the environment an individual is exposed to. Culture, race, nationality, location, sex, age, and the time one lives in, all play a part in the differences exhibited between moral outlooks. Just as it is with moral realism, there are many different theories within the viewpoint of moral relativism, including conventionalism, contractualism, and feminist ethics. To see morality as a relative question is to recognize that there are no objective moral truths, only moral perspectives.

It was proposed by David Hume (Harman) that some of our morals are derived from our participation in certain conventions, with the understanding that by doing so others will join these conventions. This concept of conventionalism goes beyond just morals as it also seeks to explain the development of language, money, and even fashion. The relativistic nature of conventionalism is apparent, because it can explain a situation where different traditions for the treatment of the dead exist, such as the difference burial in western culture and consumption in a society of cannibals. Respect for the dead is shown in different ways simply by convention, and one way cannot be judged in the context of another, thus creating multiple standards of morality. However, Hume concedes that sentiment and sympathy could lead us to moral action apart from prior convention. Morality is derived more primitively from emotion and our passions according to Hume, such that when we discover that we have been lied to we react at the level of our gut and this tells us how to judge right and wrong. In some sense sentimentalism is a precursor of the ideas in secular based natural law theory, because there can be a significant amount of similarity about the origin of emotions. Yet conventionalism and sentimentalism are morally relative with respect to the different ways in which our emotional reactions can be shaped into different ethical modes by our culture.

Contractualism is a model for morality that is similar to conventionalism. People in a society bargain and make rational decisions that lead to some kind of a “social contract.” Some social norms can be informal, but others are formal and their enforcement is a justification for the creation of law and government. Multiple views exist even within contractualist thought, and many philosophers have debated and elaborated the theory such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Rawls. One proponent, Thomas Scanlon differentiates his opinion of contractualism as determining “whether certain principles are ones that no one, suitably motivated, could reasonably reject.” (Scanlon 60) The fact that different societies have and will develop different social pacts and systems of law illustrates the relativistic nature of contractualism. I have written a philosophical dialogue about government and the social contract that I invite you to read.

It has been suggested that there may even be differences in the way men and women formulate moral judgments. Carol Gilligan argues that her own case studies on the moral development of children demonstrate that girls and boys arrive at answers to ethical questions by alternative methods. Her explanation is that there is a masculine voice that attempts to resolve moral dilemmas by adherence to principles and the use of logic, and there is a feminine voice that addresses these problems in the context of personal relationships and a motivation for resolutions that satisfy all parties. Feminist ethics, like Gilligan’s, clearly support moral relativism. It is important to note that the masculine and feminine voices are not exclusive to only men or women respectively, but are intended as general descriptions for different methods of arriving at moral decisions, these variant paths are open to and used by both sexes.

Moral absolutes and moral alternatives present a quandary for ethical life, especially in the fast paced, ever changing, media dominated, and winner take all, a mixture of the holy, the libertine, and the everything in between that is America today. There is valid criticism to level at moral realism, because it requires agreement on objective facts which don’t seem to be forthcoming. It is difficult to measure values of right and wrong objectively in way that truly settles ethical disputes between competing theories, even if in principle moral realism could be the only true way to settle such disputes. Moral relativism solves the problem of why it is so difficult to get a consensus view on all that is right and wrong, but it leaves no objective basis by which to settle conflicts between ethical modes, seemingly to offer that multiple competing views could be equally correct. My hunch is that morals are both objective and subjective. For the most part we are able to agree that there are objective rights and wrongs, and we rarely worry about these issues or dispute them, such as cold blooded murder and other obvious moral outrages. There is also a good deal of moral disagreement, and in fact we don’t have an objective way to settle these types of disputes, hence we get things like culture wars fought in the political arena. As I am attempting to formulate my own perspective of politics as a moderate independent, I will be looking at ways to integrate both moral absolutes and moral alternatives into something like a philosophy of moral moderation.

Jared Roy Endicott

Moral Absolutes and Moral Alternatives
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Works Cited

Harman, Gilbert. “Convention”. Ethics for Modern Life. Raziel Abelson, & Marie-Louise Friquegnon (Eds.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 53-59. Print.

Johnson, Jeffery L.. “Biologically Based Secular Natural Law”. Paper presented at Northwest Philosophy Conference, Portland, OR, Oct 2003. Web.

Kant, Immanuel. “Rationality”. Ethics for Modern Life. Raziel Abelson, & Marie-Louise Friquegnon (Eds.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 29-41. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. “Social Benefit”. Ethics for Modern Life. Raziel Abelson, & Marie-Louise Friquegnon (Eds.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 42-52. Print.

Scanlon, Thomas. “Contractualism”. Ethics for Modern Life. Raziel Abelson, & Marie-Louise Friquegnon (Eds.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 60-70. Print.

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