Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 17

(Read Part 16 of the series.)

Morality (part 2)
One way of classifying the various theories is as follows:

  1. Morality might exist as absolute truths – so-called Moral Realism or Ethical Absolutism. Just as we believe that 1 + 1 = 2 must always be true, so perhaps it is somehow necessarily true that we should not kill another human being. This is effectively what Plato believed, with the truths somehow existing in the world of Forms. We discover these principles through philosophical insights rather than inventing them or devising them to suit our own purpose. And they necessarily apply to everyone irrespective of their inclinations or the nature of the society in which they live.In the absence of absolute certainty regarding these truths, we are obliged to act according to what we think they are.In this view of morality, things are ‘good’ irrespective of whether a God decrees them. We ought to be able to see that ‘loving our neighbour’, for example, is going to be beneficial to ourselves and society, whereas committing adultery is likely to upset a few people. We should not really need any outside agency to endorse such attitudes.

  1. The ways in which we should act might have been ordained by God, as in the tablet of Ten Commandments found by Moses. (Some wit recently referred to these as the Ten Suggestions, in recognition of their lack of regard by modern society – few people these days can actually list more than two or three of them). We might call this Divine Command. This implies that we are unable fully to understand moral principles unless we believe in God. In fact, people who take this stance argue that morality makes no sense unless there is a God to lay down the standards. It also implies that God could command something that now seems abhorrent to us and we would have to accept it as a new standard of behaviour. Some gods in the past have demanded human sacrifices, for example. Or at least so their priests have told us!But maybe this possibility is effectively the same as the first option since we cannot validate it in any scientifically acceptable manner. In either case, the implication is that there exists a universally applicable, absolute set of rules to direct our behaviour, even though these might change at any moment at the whim of a God. There is also the very significant problem as to how we are to ascertain what is God’s will at any given moment. If we hear him telling us, how do we know we are not delusional schizophrenics? If we want to read what His instructions are, to which book should we refer? In any case, if we follow such rules because we want to go to heaven or are afraid that God will punish us if we don’t, this is no longer morality but self-interest.
  1. The optimum ways of behaving may simply have been worked out through practice and discussion in order for people to co-exist in society – so-called Moral Relativism. According to this approach, the attitudes that have been found to work best are the ones that parents pass on to their children and they become traditional. This suggests that behaviour should be adapted so as to suit the particular community, or even individual, at that particular time – i.e. any rules are only relative.If you believe that right and wrong are something that you either know or decide for yourself according to your conscience, irrespective of what the laws happen to be or what others might think, this is Individual Relativism. If we relate everything to our particular society or religion, it is called Social Relativism and the individual’s point of view is then merely an opinion. For either of these stances it is not possible to say anything more than that the individual or group thinks that X is right or Y is wrong. If another individual or group says the opposite, then that is simply how it is for them. There is no way of arbitrating between them. For anyone who has views such as that Hitler’s killing of the Jews was wrong absolutely, moral relativism is not acceptable.
  1. Perhaps there are no real rules at all and we should use our own intuition and self-interest to make a decision. What is ‘good’ is simply what I want. What would be the point of pursuing particular ends unless I thought this? This is the position of Moral Scepticism or Ethical Nihilism. If we find it difficult to accept the notion of a realm in which ideal Forms exist and do not believe in a God who could give us commandments, then clearly moral principles cannot be objective in any sense. Some people help others while some steal from them; it’s just their nature and who are we to say that one way is ‘right’ and another ‘wrong’? But strictly speaking, doing something because we want to or because the outcome benefits us, irrespective of what anyone else wants or how it affects them is not really a moral position at all, as the word is usually understood.

The ins and outs of these four ways of viewing morality can be argued endlessly. For example, since there can never be any objective validation, we have to ask how we can ever know that we have discovered a moral truth. People once used to believe that slavery was perfectly ok and might well have argued that it was an absolute truth rather than simply a belief relative to that particular time and society. When children grow up having particular ways of looking at things impressed upon them, these become fundamental to their outlook on life. How are we to differentiate these two examples? Is it not always possible that someone could come along with more persuasive arguments and change one’s own opinions?

Some philosophers have suggested that the only sensible ethic is one that says we should do whatever it is that has the greatest possibility of benefiting us personally. This theory recognises the fact that most people tend to be selfishly motivated. If we have evolved according to Darwinian principles then whatever helps us (i.e. our genes) to survive and propagate is effectively good; it does not really make any sense to attempt to define the word in any other way.

This would, however, mean that it ought to be acceptable and in no way morally reprehensible to rob or even kill others if we clearly benefited thereby (and did not get caught). This is the position known as Ethical Egoism and one presumes that people such as Saddam Hussein subscribed to it. In the long run it does not seem to work, not least because it upsets a lot of other people! It also has somewhat discomfiting side-effects such as not knowing who your friends are. One can imagine that a long-term policy along these lines might bring lots of material possessions but would it bring any happiness?

At the opposite extreme is the theory that what is right is whatever action benefits everyone else, irrespective of how it might affect us. This is called Ethical Altruism and it probably does not appeal to very many, since most will feel that they ought to get something out of their own actions too – otherwise what would be the point? Pragmatically, a world of ethical altruists could never exist – the species would have died out long ago. In between the two is the Utilitarian viewpoint that was mentioned earlier. But this would still condemn totally selfish and passive activities, such as watching TV, since we could be spending our time benefiting ourselves and others in a positive way.

There are still many people who would claim that good actions are those that are in accordance with the will of God. But what exactly does this mean? It might mean that God would prefer it if people behaved in a certain way or it could mean that believers are motivated to act in a certain way, whereas non-believers would only do so by accident. Finally, it could mean that specific modes of behaviour have somehow been declared as good and if we do not follow these rules we had better watch out.

It is very difficult to argue with such people and I would recommend from experience that you do not try. It is not, please note, that I do not respect their views; it is simply that there can be no agreed point of departure on which to base the discussion. The ‘will of God’ is simply not amenable to verification unless you, too, accept the stated authority, be it the bible or other scripture, a priest or other holy man or your own conscience. As with all such unprovable ideas, philosophers have amused themselves thinking of arguments for and against and anyone interested can pursue them.

In any case, without being too cynical about this, it does seem to be the case that religions used often simply to take the moral guidelines that had been worked out by society and claim them as their own, effectively simply giving them divine approval. In the days when the church had supreme authority, this would have been a natural thing to do, reinforcing both society and themselves as moral arbiters.

Our society has evolved from ones that were considerably influenced by theological ideals. In mediaeval times, if you did not behave according to the laws supposedly specified by God, you had better watch out. People were obliged to appear publicly to believe things that they knew were not actually true. One of the most famous examples was that of Galileo, who had to recant his discovery that the earth went around the sun and not the other way round, as Ptolemy had proposed and a view still upheld by the church.

(Read Part 18)