What is moral philosophy? How does one go about making moral decisions? How do you handle ethical dilemmas? What can philosophy do to help us live better? Morality (and its parent, moral philosophy) is one of the most interesting and least-known subjects. I read an informative and worthy textbook, Analyzing Moral Issues, a while back, and its fruits are as sweet today as ever. In this blog, I wanted to answer the above questions, and to summarize ethical theories (a.k.a. moral theories). What’s in it for you? The more you know about moral philosophy and theory, the better able you will be to think critically, deal with moral dilemmas, and live a life that would be considered “good.” This is really what making moral decisions is all about. Consider this a primer on deciding what is right and wrong.
Note: I will be quoting the author of the book – Judith A. Boss – liberally. I will avoid repeatedly mentioning her name, just for simplicity. The quotations (which I will place in italics) are her words. Another nice, thick book you can get for $8 used is Morality and Moral Controversies.
There are many ways to view the questions, “What is the right thing to do in this situation?“, “How should I decide?“, and “How do I know right from wrong?” Though there are many influences and factors involved, ethics is interesting and useful because no one can decide for us:
Moral philosophy is the study of the values and guidelines by which we live, as well as the justification of these values and guidelines.
Though our parents, pastors, friends, and spouses certainly want to influence (direct?) us, it always falls to us in the end. So there is a lot of personal responsibility and self-reliance involved in ethics. So, basically, to answer the questions posed by this essay, one needs to know about “theories of ethics.” Basically, since there is no “one truth” in ethics (unlike most other subjects and sciences), for all situations, the individual needs a way (or an integration of various ways) to come to their own conclusion about how to decide – basically, what to do. The main theories fit into categories: consequentialist theories (e.g., utilitarianism), deontological theories (e.g., Kant’s ethics), virtue ethics (e.g., Aristotle), and a few others. Making moral decisions isn’t easy, but who else besides you can you really trust to do it for you?
We all have a right to our opinions. Having a right to our own opinion, however, is not the same as saying that all opinions are equally reasonable.
What is the purpose of theory?, she asks. Well, making moral decisions!
- Knowing how to ground discussions of moral issues in moral theory and good reasoning will make us less vulnerable to persuasive, but logically incorrect, thinking.
- Moral theories can be compared to roadmaps. A good theory offers guidance or signposts for thinking about and resolving moral issues.
Like maps, not all theories are equally good. Some may be good as far as they go, but they leave out too much. In this case we may want to combine them with other theories or ‘maps.’ Some moral theories, like ethical subjectivism, can lead us astray. Knowing about the strengths and weaknesses of the different moral theories can save us from heading down dead ends!
Ethical relativist vs. universalist moral theories: Taking a cue from psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg… Being morally good, for the majority of Americans, means following the norms and values of their society or culture – whether this be their peer culture, their church, their country, or a combination of these. The theory that morality is relative to societal norms is known in moral philosophy as cultural relativism.
- Relativism: what is right depends on one’s culture and reference group. Not good!
- “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative….” ~ Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind
- The fact of moral disagreement among individuals and between cultures raises the question of whether there are really any objective or universal moral principles.
- “Morality is a private choice:” if morality is simply a matter of personal opinion, there is no point in trying to use rational arguments to convince the racist or the serial killer that what he did was wrong, anymore that it would make sense to try to convince me that I really don’t like cashew nuts.
- If morality is synonymous with conformity to cultural norms, it was the abolitionists, not the slaveholders, who were immoral. …We do not resolve moral issues by checking the law books or by taking a hand count.
- But, what if people disagree on a moral issue – how do we know who is right? Isn’t it a problem for theory that different people see the facts differently? Gravity, for example, always pulls objects toward the Earth. Period. The fact that people disagree does not necessarily mean that there are no objective moral principles. People can disagree for a number of reasons. They may be mistaken about their facts, for example.
Moving Beyond Ethical Relativism, as Boss puts it: Moral thought seems to behave like all other kinds of thought. Progress through the moral levels and stages is characterized by increasing differentiation and increasing integration, and hence is the same kind of progress that scientific theory represents. ~ Lawrence Kohlberg.
People move on to the next or ‘higher’ stage of moral development only when their current type of moral reasoning is inadequate. This generally occurs when they encounter a crisis that their current mode of thinking is unable to satisfactorily resolve.
1. Moral maturity entails making our own well-reasoned moral decisions rather than simply following the dictates of the crowd or going with our selfish desires.
2. What is better than relativism? There are several different universalist moral theories, including natural law theory, utilitarianism, deontology, rights ethics, and virtue ethics. Yes, there is disagreement, even among philosophers, about what is right, and which theory is best. This is just the process, and the nature of the beast. It doesn’t point to the fact that objective universal moral principles are not able to be analyzed, and decided upon, though. Enter the educated and responsible individual! Rarely in life do we get such a grand and momentous opportunity: to decide for ourselves.
THE MAJOR ETHICAL THEORIES: and how can they help us when making moral decisions? Boss suggests we …adopt a multidimensional approach that draws from the strengths of each of the theories. …all theories have the same ultimate goal: to provide a rational basis for making moral decisions [in a better manner]. Theories provide the structure and the background knowledge (wisdom?) for us to make sense of unique situations; like road maps.
- Utilitarianism: The principle of utility requires that we do not take refuge in ideological slogans, cultural traditions, or personal opinion, but that we instead examine our position on various moral issues in light of the actual consequences. What is right is what brings about the most happiness to the greatest number of people. This is a fairly democratic and impartial way to decide. Ask if it will make you happier, or writ large, if it will make those concerned happier (happier = more joy, yes, but also more satisfied, well, or improved). Tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Nope. It serves the interests of too narrow a sliver of the populace. Sounds good, right? Well, this theory has its issues, and things can get weird quickly.
- By claiming that only consequences count, utilitarianism underplays the importance of individual integrity and personal responsibility.
- “The Utilitarian maxim that the pleasure of the many should be maximized seems to be about what is actually desired, but this naturally leads critics to ask whether or not what would please the many is truly good”
- Deontology: the ethics of duty. Deontological theories regard duty as the basis of morality. Duty, or doing what is right for its own sake, is the foundation of morality. There are strong strands of deontology in Confucianism and Hindu ethics, as well as in many Western philosophies.
Universalization is one of the trademarks of morality. Moral maxims or duties, by their very nature, apply to everyone and under all circumstances. …If we are unwilling to universalize a particular moral maxim – that is, apply it consistently in all cases – we should either modify it or toss it out. Don’t make a special case out of yourself. If lying is wrong, it is wrong – even if you really feel like now would be a great time to tell a white lie. Decide for yourself, use your autonomy, and then stick to the same rule, all the time, in every situation. No exceptions.
Unfortunately, duties can conflict. Prima Facie duties are moral duties that may on occasion be overridden by stronger moral claims. According to W. D. Ross, moral duties cannot be absolute, because there are particular situations in which they come into conflict. The moral duty of non-maleficence, for example, may conflict with the moral duty to keep a promise when keeping that promise may result in injury or death. Because duties are context-bound, the particular circumstances and possible consequences will affect which moral duties are most important in any given situation.
…when we have an issue that involves moral conflict, we must carefully weigh each duty, decide which duties are most compelling for that particular issue, and try to arrive at a resolution that honors as many duties as possible. No one said making moral decisions was easy!
Here are Boss’ questions from the perspective of deontology (and they are critical to making moral decisions from this perspective):
- Are we willing to universalize our rules and assumptions?
- How would we want to be treated in a similar situation?
- Is our position on an issue respectful of all persons affected, or does it entail treating some as a means only?
- Are we treating equals equally?
- What are the relevant duties of this particular issue?
- If there is a conflict of duties, which ones are most important?
- Rights-Based Ethics: like what John Locke or the Founders of the United States would come up with. There is also a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and this is very aspirational, or high-minded and worth trying to achieve.
- Ayn Rand is another “foremost contemporary defender of natural rights ethics. Like Locke, Rand believed that rights exist independently of duties (moral rights define and protect our freedoms without imposing obligations on anyone else). For example, the right to property does not entail an obligation to provide people with property.
- Most philosophers disagree with Locke and Rand. They maintain that moral rights do not stand on their own but are derived from duties. In other words, [B]ecause we are entitled to certain rights, others have a duty to honor those rights. She contrasts this with how persons like Locke and Rand view rights: …being able to actually claim our rights boils down to having the power – generally political or economic – to assert ourselves. Because the environment and non-human animals lack the power of assertion, they lack rights.
- Liberty vs. welfare rights: welfare rights entail the right to receive certain social goods such as education, medical care, and police protection. Welfare rights are important because without a minimal standard of living or education, we cannot pursue our legitimate interests. Socialist and Marxist countries place more emphasis on welfare rights.
- Liberty rights, in contrast, entail the right to be left alone to pursue our legitimate interests without interference from the government or other people. …In the United States, we tend to place more emphasis on liberty rights. …Libertarians believe that personal autonomy – the freedom to make our own decisions – is the highest moral value. Kant vs. a lib on self-harm
- Issues with this approach: the theological basis…is difficult, if not impossible, to justify on either rational philosophical or empirical grounds. Animals/environment. The separation of rights from duties fails to take into account the limitations placed on marginalized groups by societal traditions. …Natural rights ethicists such as Rand and Locke assume that in a free society, everyone is equally able to pursue their concept of the good life. Not all people are equally capable of asserting their rights, however.
- Virtue ethics: Virtue ethics emphasizes right being over right action. The sort of people we are constitutes the heart of our moral life. More important than the rules or principles we follow is our character. It is compatible with theories that stress right action.
- A virtue is an admirable character trait or disposition to habitually act in a manner that benefits ourselves and others. Compassion, courage, generosity, loyalty, and honesty are all examples of virtues.
- According to both Aristotle and Confucius, a good social policy or resolution to a social issue is one that encourages the development of virtue among people.
- Buddhism, feminine care ethics, and the moral philosophies of David Hume, Aristotle, and Jesus of Nazareth are often classified as virtue ethics. Confucian ethics has strong strands of both virtue ethics and deontology. The ancient Greek ethicists, like most Eastern ethicists, focused primarily on virtue and character rather than on duty and principles.
- Aristotle: a virtue is the mid-point (mean) between two extremes.
- Without moral progress, modern Buddhists warn, our rapid technological advances could lead us down the path to disaster.
- Feminist care ethics emphasizes caring over considerations of justice and impartiality.
- Virtue ethics goes beyond pure duty and rights-based ethics. It is a direct challenge to the individual to rise above ordinary moral demands and to work toward creating a society in which it is easy for everyone to be virtuous and enjoy the good life.
Here is a blog I wrote specifically about virtue ethics.
According to the website The Basics of Philosophy, “… the theory is not ‘action-guiding’, and does not focus on what sorts of actions are morally permitted and which ones are not, but rather on what sort of qualities someone ought to foster in order to become a good person. Thus, a virtue theorist may argue that someone who commits a murder is severely lacking in several important virtues (e.g. compassion and fairness, among others), but does proscribe murder as an inherently immoral or impermissible sort of action, and the theory is, therefore, useless as a universal norm of acceptable conduct suitable as a base for legislation.”
Education is important; experience counts. She notes that [m]ost people, with the exception of psychopaths, ‘know’ right from wrong. In the Milgram experiment, for example, many of the subjects were openly distressed and ‘knew’ that what they were doing was wrong, but they were unable to say why. Ethics education helps us articulate moral values. It also teaches us how to effectively apply moral theory and moral reasoning to a particular issue or real-life decision.
Setting Aside Selfishness and Egocentrism: “Moral prescriptions inherently conflict with a positive value: the value of personal freedom. There can be no denying or dodging this basic fact. Morality exists precisely to thwart your freedom to act on your selfish desires. That is why we often don’t want to do what we should do” ~ Colin McGinn. Usually doing the right thing involves asking yourself what the right thing to do is regardless of how it affects you. Aim for impartiality, fairness, and truth.
Do We Need Religion? No. Although a moral code is incorporated into the doctrine of most religions, moral issues can be discussed without appealing to religion.
- Aristotle believed that, rather than being created by God, the moral law has always been part of the natural order.
- The fact that a specific religion, whether it be Quaker or Roman Catholic or Hindu, takes an official stand on a certain moral issue such as slavery, abortion, or homosexuality does not imply that these issues are religious rather than moral issues. In discussing these and similar issues, we must be careful to separate the moral issues involved from the specific religious doctrines.
Here is an inventory on making moral decisions Peter Raabe, Ph.D., a moral philosopher, and I created. It’s a self-report questionnaire that helps one to determine which moral theory they prefer. Feedback is provided you will benefit from. Free! The Ethical Decision-Making Guide
Final issues: Moral issues are complex. No one theory offers the complete truth or perfect solution to a moral dilemma. On the other hand, theories can work together to provide us with more comprehensive tools for effectively analyzing moral issues. Wise and judicious use of ethical theories will certainly facilitate your making moral decisions. Moral dilemmas are complex, but we can do the best we can.
When there is a moral dilemma, no solution is going to be completely satisfactory. Different people may come to different solutions because they priorities duties differently. The purpose of moral deliberation in these cases is to arrive at the best solution or, if this doesn’t occur, the best possible alternatives. Making moral decisions is not easy, but we can’t really relinquish our personal authority, and we can’t rely on God to do it for us. Agnostics and atheists don’t even think he can hear us, let along help us in making moral decisions!
A note on “the moral majority:” There has been a movement since the early 1980s of evangelical Christians who want to influence American social policy (economic policy to a lesser degree) because they either a) truly feel that the Bible is the best method of determining right and wrong, or b) because they want to con the American people into being distracted by “wedge issues” long enough to feather their own nests. Abortion, censorship, gay marriage, and drugs are biggies here. These groups go by many names – The Moral Majority (televangelist Jerry Falwell’s illegitimate child), Focus on the Family, whatever shyster Pat Robertson is calling his outfit, and other such angles. A prominent conservative appointed by Reagan to shape American minds is William Bennett. Many think that Franklin Graham and Joel Osteen are of this ilk.
There are two reasons to be very cautious here: 1) many of these folks are in it for the money (Osteen, despite Jesus’ counsel, is worth $40,000,000). 2) From a skeptical perspective, they primarily want to take the art of making moral decisions out of the hands of individuals and promote a kind of groupthink where we all do what the God of the ancient Hebrews supposedly wants us to do. It’s a weak moral theory to say the least. Making moral decisions is not about consulting a book as questionable as the King James Bible. However, we should try to distinguish between a religion-inspired, legitimate type of reformative impulse vs. Christian fundamentalism. Consider moral philosopher Michael J. Sandel’s point: “…conservatives have not always had a monopoly on the faith-based aspects of political argument. Some of the great movements of moral and political reform in American history – from the abolitionist movement to the Progressive era to the civil rights movement of the 1960s – drew powerfully on moral, religious, and spiritual sources.”
Be aware of hypocrites! I’m not saying that 100% of what megachurch leaders and televangelists “preach” is wrong or self-serving, but I suggest a deep skepticism! They would take your responsibility for making moral decisions out of your hands and put it in their grabby ones. The most glaring example of the con artist using religion to manipulate others must go to Creflo Dollar. Yeah, that’s his name. Another thought by Sandel: “A public life empty of moral meanings and shared ideals does not secure freedom but offers an open invitation to intolerance. As the Moral Majority has shown, a politics whose moral resources are diminished with disuse lies vulnerable to those who would impose narrow moralisms. Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread.” He is suggesting that people on the left/secular side of the spectrum stand up for the right thing when it comes to public policy, lest the snakes who twist authentic Christianity for their own purposes dominate the field.
I will wrap up this important warning with some words of wisdom by the late critical thinker, John A. Marshall: “At once, I have figured out both the key to dealing with the world’s problems and discovered the Achilles’ Heel of the fiscal and evangelical conservatives: love and doubt.”
I explored the topic of making moral decisions on my talk radio program Values and Ethics: from Living Room to Boardroom (also the name of my new book). I welcome you to listen to the dialogues about morality, ethical theory, applying philosophy to your life, and making moral decisions. On this page are also two good shows for analyzing moral theories and solving ethical dilemmas, as well as this one.