Morality is a branch of philosophy that entitles one to claim: “This is what I think; this is what my community believes; this is what is right; this is what is good.” Moreover, it requires a rational, critical, explicit defense of the standards, values, and ethics, and ends one has in mind. Not all acts, beliefs, and customs are equal. May the best-supported ones survive and the selfish, arbitrary, elitist, ill-conceived, and harmful ones meet the metaphorical guillotine. Moral philosophy tolerates elitism better than it does relativism. The superior view has the best reasons supporting it. “God told us” is useless, “We’ve just always done it like that” is meaningless, and “Because I feel like it” carries no weight. We must dialogue, debate, and decide.
Having one single, discreet, multi-purpose principle, rule, or maxim that you plug into various moral dilemmas and questions of the good and of justice (personally, societally) is not the best way to reason. It might not be possible. Instead, the process requires more activity, debate, contemplation, deliberation, reconsideration, and decision-making. Know some moral theory, and then try a particular case on for size. Question, argue, reform, and defend. Be willing to change when reasons dictate it. This is how, ideally, a citizen and moral agent behaves. It’s Socratic; it’s Aristotelian; it’s wise; it’s practical and reasonable. It’s how we empower ourselves as persons. Moral philosopher John Rawls’ concept of ‘reflective equilibrium’ is part and parcel of this meta-process. Indeed, he said: ‘A conception of justice cannot be deduced from self-evident premises. Its justification is a matter of the mutual support of many considerations, of everything fitting together into a coherent view.’ Ralph Wills also said: ‘When has justice ever been as simple as a rule book?’
Philosopher Michael J. Sandel says this on this topic, and he points to his venerated forebear, philosopher John Rawls: “What is [John Rawls’s] method of reflective equilibrium? It’s moving back and forth between our considered judgments about particular cases and the general principles we would articulate to make sense of those judgments. And not just stopping there, because we might be wrong in our initial intuitions, but sometimes revising our particular judgments in the light of the principles once we work them out.”
I suppose all of this is disheartening in a way, but bracing in another. Give this process a try. It’s not simple, but it’s the only legitimate way.
Listen to a radio show Jason recorded where he discussed applying philosophy to your life here. On this page you will find accomplished evolutionary biologist Stephen Pinker, Ph.D. discussing morality at a high level. Here is a snippet: “Morality is not just any old topic in psychology but close to our conception of the meaning of life. Moral goodness is what gives each of us the sense that we are worthy human beings. We seek it in our friends and mates, nurture it in our children, advance it in our politics and justify it with our religions.”
Below are some further considerations about ethics and moral decision-making in the form of quotations gathered from the superb Wisdom Archive, which you can search for free. A strength of this approach is that you can find many diverse views laid out in an accessible format, and the search parameters are easily adjusted for specific search capability. It takes more work, and responsibility, to find your own wisdom but do you really want to trust someone else to spoon-feed you something so important? Doing philosophy isn’t easy, but with the Wisdom Archive, it is a bit easier – and much more rewarding. Treasure life-long learning!
Philosophy, like morality itself, is first and last an exercise in reason – the ideas that should come out on top are the ones that have the best reasons on their sides.
No morality can be founded on authority, even if the authority were divine.
The moral virtues are habits, and habits are formed by acts.
We never reach our ideals, whether of mental or moral improvement, but the thought of them shows us our deficiencies, and spurs us on to higher and better things.
Ethics is not primarily about staying out of trouble. Ethics is about creating strength. Inner strength. And interpersonal strength. Ethical living produces stronger people, stronger families, stronger communities, stronger organizations, stronger institutions of all kinds, and, ultimately, stronger nations.
How do we figure out what makes an action good? By forgetting about what it accomplishes. Indeed, Kant believed that the consequences of our behavior should never enter the picture. So long as our intention is pure, then our actions will always have true moral worth — even if they happen to yield unfortunate results.
The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.
Change your opinions, keep to your principles; change your leaves, keep intact your roots.
By opening ourselves to what Aristotle’s text says to us, and the claim to truth that it makes upon us, we bring to life new meanings of the text. And this understanding – a form of phronesis – is a practical~moral knowledge which becomes constitutive of what we are in the process of becoming.
Our ability to reason can be a factor in leading us away from both arbitrary subjectivism and an uncritical acceptance of the values of our community. The idea that everything is subjective and relative to our community seems to go in and out of vogue with each generation. ~
If a man making a moral judgment is to be invulnerable to criticism, he must be free from reproach on two scores: a) he must have brought forward evidence, where evidence is needed; and b) he must have disposed of any contrary evidence offered.
The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.
Moral action, especially when chosen rather than coerced, affects moral thinking.
Moral philosophy is the attempt to achieve a systematic understanding of the nature of morality and what it requires of us — in Socrates’ words: How we ought to live, and Why.
Actually, yes, I do believe in the idea of moral truth, and I don’t think morality is relative….
Rationality can illuminate our paths. But we must grasp our ultimate goals with a perceptiveness greater than what the mind alone can offer.