This chapter is about ethics, the core of which is morality. Moral rules are generally determined by our peers, parents and society. Sometimes we are presented with morally ambiguous situations that demand our attention and judgments. When we try to defend a moral belief, we are dealing with a question of ethics. There are many ethical theories - among them utilitarianism, egoism, virtue, ethics, and Kant's deontology.
In this chapter we will focus on six theories of morality:
B. Section Summaries
Morality gives us the rules by which we live with other people. It tells us what is permitted and what is not. Morality does not make different demands of different people, instead it provides absolute rules that tell everyone what they must and must not do.
The image of morality as "coming from above" is appropriate for the following reasons. Moral laws are often said to come from God. They are taught to us by our parents, who literally "stand above us." Finally, morality is "above" any one individual or group of individuals. This is why morality is often characterized as an absolute or independent agency (often God).
This is problematic because, among other reasons, we need to determine what God's moral commands are. Different people seem to think that God has given us different commands. When these disagreements are realized, the individual must define his/her own morality. Further, should we follow God's laws because they are God's laws or because they are good?
An appeal to conscience is also problematic - how do we determine what its demands really are and how do we determine where these demands come from? If conscience is the internalization of moral teachings, should we reject or accept what we have been taught? Is it always right to follow one's conscience?
Morality is doing what is right-whether or not it is commanded by any person or law and whether or not one "feels" it in one's conscience. Morality involves autonomy - the ability to think for oneself and decide for oneself what is right and wrong. But does this conception of morality allow us a place to first learn morality?
Moralities vary between cultures and people, which creates a problem: morality is supposed to be a set of universal principles. This set of principles should apply to all cultures and all people. Aristotle discusses the "wicked man" who does evil because he believes in immoral principles and acts without regret, unlike the person who believes in moral principles and acts with regret when she fails to follow them. Thus, how can we justify making judgments about other society's morals? How do we determine that our moral judgments are right and other's judgments are wrong?
This is the problem of relativism, which has recently become a very controversial issue. Kant was the most vigorous opponent of relativism, for his conception of morality was such that if a human was to count as rational at all, she had to agree to at least the basic principles of a universal reality. Though we are more liberal today, few people would hold that there are no universal principles.
Philosophers generally distinguish two theses: cultural relativism and ethical relativism. Cultural relativism asks if moral differences are just different interpretations of some basic moral principle or if differences are really examples of different moralities. Ethical relativism asks (assuming two fundamentally different moralities) if it is possible for one to be as correct as the other. If you believe that this is possible, then you are an ethical relativist.
Walter Stace argues for ethical absolutism, the traditional opponent of ethical relativism. He offers an absolutist solution in "On Ethical Relativism" (see page 493 of text) but he claims that happiness is a universal value and therefore cross-cultural evaluations are possible.
One subject about which we feel the strongest call of conscience is sex. Sexual judgments seem to accompany our beliefs about sex and sexual relationships, thus it seems to be a good candidate for absolutism in reality. Margaret Mead in Sex and Temperament (see page 497 of text) suggests that the differences between the two sexes are culturally relative, contrary to the absolutist view.
Most moral rules enjoin us to take into account the interests, feelings, or welfare of other people. Thus one of the important assumptions of any morality is that it is possible for us to act in the interests of other people. In addition, morality assumes that it is possible for us to do so because we are concerned about others' welfare or because we recognize that we ought to be. Only if actions are motivated by a concern for others' interest do we call them truly moral actions.
One theory, psychological egoism, denies that we can be motivated by a concern for others. This theory claims that everyone always acts to his or her own advantage and the only reason that a person performs morally good action is because it serves his or her own interests.
In popular language, this is called selfishness. In contrast, ethical egoism claims that even though we can act in other's interest because we are concerned for others, we ought to always act in our own interest. Ayn Rand is the most famous ethical egoist, who wrote of "the virtue of selfishness." In The Republic, by Plato, one of Socrates' opponents states the view of the psychological egoist (see page 499 of text).
Both egoist positions are contrasted with altruism, acting for the sake of other people's interests. Altruism can be divided into two theses: psychological altruism (people "naturally act for each other's sake) and ethical altruism (people ought to act with each other's interests in mind). Ethical altruism is best summarized in the so-called Golden Rule. Whereas psychological egoism claims that it is never possible to act altruistically.
The most definitive argument against psychological egoism was given by Joseph Butler (see page 503 of text). Butler argues that merely acting on one's own desires does not make an action selfish, for all actions are based on desires (in some sense) but at least some of these desires are desires to serve someone else's interest. Even if we receive some kind of benefit from an action it is not necessarily what motivated the act.
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (see page 505 of text) is the best systematic guide to ancient Greek moral and ethical thinking. The significant feature of the Greek moral system is the focus on virtue. Aristotle's conception of virtue is based on the idea that man is a rational being. Thus, for Aristotle, virtue is a rational activity in accordance with a rational principle.
Aristotle takes the idea that every act is for the sake of something else. But because there can be no infinite regress, there must be an end. What is the natural end that is the natural good for man? Aristotle claims that it is happiness.
Happiness is what men desire for its own sake and is the natural good for man. Happiness, for Aristotle, is living according to rationality, the exercise of our most vital faculties. Aristotle's argument is based on what is "natural" to man. The good for man is that which is "natural" to him. Aristotle, by "natural" means that man has certain traits that are unique to man. For Aristotle, what is "natural" to man is his rationality. But action according to rational principles is what Aristotle thinks virtue is. Thus happiness is an "activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue."
Aristotle also believes that virtue is a social conception and not limited to just the individual. Many of Aristotle's virtues have much to do with one's role in society. Happiness therefore also has social dimensions. (It must be noted that Aristotle's conception of happiness [eudaimonia] is different than the modern conception, for
Aristotle, happiness is more like "living well.") Happiness is also taught to us by society, and Aristotle continually focuses on the importance of education.
Aristotle's distinguishes between two kinds of virtue - the practical or moral virtues and the intellectual virtues. He focuses more on moral virtues, though he thinks intellectual virtues are more important. Moral virtues come to virtuous people "naturally." In other words, virtuous people have virtue built into their character. Aristotle also believes that we can never engage in too many virtuous actions.
Aristotle believes that the happiest person is the philosopher - the person who lives a life of contemplation. This person also enjoys many other pleasures (wealth, success) and he enjoys engaging in moral virtue.
Unlike Aristotle's conception of morality, modern conceptions of morality are thought to be universal?not limited to a particular society or group of people. (Aristotle thought that moral people could only be Greek). Also, modern conceptions tend to place emphasis on the individual, not on society as a whole. This conception of morality has an advantage in reconciling personal interests and moral principles. Because strong moral feelings are a kind of personal interest, one can satisfy personal feelings and the demands of morality at the same time. (Though there are personal feelings- greed, and jealousy for example, that work against moral actions).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume famously build their conceptions of morality from sentiment and sympathy. Hume is concerned with the distinction between those who defend morality as a function of reason from those who say that it is rather a matter of sentiment and passion. He argues that "reason should be the slave of the passions" from the position of an empiricist in Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (see page 519 of text).
Reason may determine how we get what we want but sentiment tells us what we want. He argues that we are not able to derive what we ought to do from statements of fact. What ought to be done depends on moral feelings or sentiments. Values are a matter of sentiment not reason.
Rousseau defends a similar theory of sentiment. In Emile (see page 523 of text), the key to his theory is conscience - a moral feeling that has its own kind of divine reason.
Aristotle, Hume, and Rousseau all give feeling an important place in their conceptions of morality. But Kant rejected all attempts to base morality on feelings of any kind. Morality, he argued, must be based solely on reason and reason alone. Its central concept is the concept of duty, and so morality is a matter of deontology.
Kant insisted on the independence of morality from society. What is most important, he argues, is that morality be autonomous, a function of individual reason, such that every rational person is capable of finding out what is right and what is wrong for himself or herself. Since morality is based on reason, it does not depend on particular societies or particular circumstances; it does not depend on individual feelings or desires. (Kant summarizes all such personal feelings, impulses and emotions as inclinations.)
In the selection from Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals (see page 527 of text), Kant begins by saying that what is ultimately good is a good will. And a good will, in turn, is the will that exercises pure practical reason. The good will is the ground of morality for Kant because what we will, that is, what we try to do, is wholly within our control. And reason serves the purpose of instructing our will in our duty. "The notion of duty," Kant tells us, "includes that of a good will." A good will subjects itself to rational principles. Those rational principles are moral laws, and it is action in accordance with such laws that alone makes a person good.
Kant's central notion of duty is his conception of "universal conformity to law." He calls the general formulation of his notion of duty the categorical imperative. An imperative is of the form "do this!" or "don't do this!"
Categorical imperatives demand that one simply "do this" or "don't do this," whatever the circumstances. For example, "don't lie" (no matter what). The word that distinguishes moral commands in general is the word ought, and categorical imperatives tell us what we ought to do, independent of circumstances or goals.
Moral or categorical imperatives provide universal laws that tell us what to do in every circumstances. (A maxim, according to Kant, is a "subjective principle of action," or what we would call an intention. It is distinguished from an "objective principle," that is, a universal law of reason). With hypothetical imperatives, on the other hand, what is commanded depends upon particular circumstances.
There are several objections to Kant's conception of morality. It may be too strict: the idea that morality and duty have nothing to do with our personal desires or inclinations seems to make the moral life undesirable. Furthermore, Kant's emphasis on the categorical imperative systematically rules out all reference to particular situations and circumstances, but the right thing to do is often determined by the particular context or situation.
Also, Kant gives us no adequate way of choosing between moral imperatives that conflict. The rule that tells us "don't lie!" is categorical; so is the rule that tells us "keep your promises!" Suppose that I promise not to tell anyone where you will be this weekend. Then some people wishing to kill you forces me to tell. Either I break the promise or I lie. Kant gives us no solution to this moral conflict.
Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and his son John Stuart Mill developed a conception of morality that is called utilitarianism. Utilitarians wished to consider the consequences as well as the "will" of an action and to consider the particular circumstances of an action in an attempt to determine what is morally right.
The basis of utilitarianism is a form of hedonism, the conception of the good life that says the ultimate good is pleasure and that in the final analysis we want and ought to want this pleasure. But where traditional hedonism is concerned only with one's personal pleasure, utilitarianism is concerned with pleasure in general; that is, with one's own pleasure and the pleasure of other people.
The central principle of utilitarianism is often summarized as "the greatest good for the greatest number." Bentham developed this "principle of utility" on the basis that people seek pleasure and avoid pain (see page 542 of text).
The principle of utility is a "first principle," and cannot be defended. The procedure we use to implement the principle of utility is called the happiness calculus. The procedure simply involves the determination of alternative amounts of pleasure and pain.
Bentham suggests that, to decide whether or not an action is moral, we should examine the action and its situation, and add up the pleasures and pains for each person involved in the situation. Then we match the total amount of pleasure against the total pain, and if the balance is positive, go ahead with the action. If the balance is negative, don't do it.
There are problems with Bentham's theory. With a little creative thinking about pleasures and pains, it can be used to morally justify actions that many of us consider to be immoral, such as a secret but adulterous "fling" in a marriage. Or suppose a great many people would get a great deal of pleasure out of seeing some innocent person tortured and slaughtered. The victim would suffer a great deal of pain, but by increasing the size of the crowd we could eventually obtain an amount of pleasure on the part of everyone else that more than balanced the suffering of the victim. Bentham's calculus has no way of rejecting such a gruesome outcome.
Mill's version of utilitarianism added an important qualification to Bentham's purely quantitative calculus. He said that it is not only the quantity of pleasure that counts, but the quality. Thus a dissatisfied human may live a better life than a satisfied pig, because the human has access to a higher quality of pleasures than the pig does (see page 547 of text).
Friedrich Nietzsche called himself an immoralist, and he attacked modern morality, as summarized by Kant and Christianity, and urged us to return to ancient Greek morality as summarized by Aristotle. Nietzsche, like Aristotle, saw the concept of moral duty as fit for servants and slaves, but such a morality was wholly inadequate to motivate us to personal excellence and achievement.
Nietzsche, like Aristotle, was an unabashed elitist: only a few people are capable of this "higher" morality. For the rest, the "slave morality" of duty would have to suffice. This does not mean that Nietzsche is an ethical egoist. A person should develop his or her own virtues and become excellent in as many ways as possible, but the excellence of the individual is part of and contributes to the excellence of mankind as a whole.
Nietzsche did not believe that every human "nature" was the same, and he taught that different individuals would find and follow different values and thus different moralities. His central teaching is "follow yourself, don't follow me."
Categories of Nietzsche's philosophy are strength and weakness, and he considers the Greek tradition of personal excellence a source of strength, the modern conception of morality a facade for weakness. Accordingly, he calls the first a "master morality," the second, a "slave morality" or, with reference to modern mass movements, a "herd instinct" (see page 556 of text).
Nietzsche is but one among many philosophers who attack the absolute moral principles of reason. The problem raised is one of relativism. Is there a single moral code? Or are there possibly as many moralities as there are people? The most extreme relativist position of all has emerged from Nietzsche's existentialist successors, particularly Jean-Paul Sartre.
In Sartre's philosophy, not only the idea of a uniform morality but the idea of a human nature upon which this morality might be based is completely rejected. For Sartre, our values are a question of creation, personal choice, and commitment. Why be moral? "Because I choose to accept these values."
But Sartre, sounding like Kant, also insists on the need to choose principles for all mankind, not just oneself. The difference is that Sartre, unlike Kant, makes no claims about the singular correctness of these principles. (see page 560 of text).
Sartre says that "man makes himself." He believes this to be true both individually and collectively. It is through my actions that I commit myself to values, not through principles I accept a priori or rules that are imposed on me by God or society. Sartre argues that morality is simply our choice of actions and values together with their consequences, whatever they are. But this does not mean that we need not choose or that it is all "arbitrary."
One obvious feature of the moral philosophy we have been examining is its focus on the centrality of abstract principles of reason. In recent decades, however, a challenge has been raised to this view of morality as something essentially rational, principled, and impersonal.
Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan argued that women think about moral issues differently than men do. Many of the features emphasized in feminist ethics, for instance, a healthy attention to personal feelings as well as impersonal reason, were anticipated by philosophers such as Hume and Rousseau.
Some of the features of feminist ethics are distinctively female, such as the ability to give birth to a child and the experience of motherhood. Virginia Held attempts to spell out some of the differences between male and female moralities, and suggests new directions for moral thinking on the basis of them (see page 565 of text). Then John Corvino challenges the idea that homosexuality is "unnatural." (see page 571 of text).