Sunday, March 23, 2008

Different views on the nature of morality by Giovanni De Grandis

Reproduced from Giovanni De Grandis PhiloGym, Oxford University post, with permission.

Pojman offers rather dogmatically his own preferred list of the purposes of morality.
Here are his lists: ‘resolution of interpersonal conflicts’, ‘the amelioration of the human predicament’ (p. 493, rc), ‘the survival of society, alleviation of suffering, encouragement of human flourishing and the just resolution of the conflicts of interests’ (p. 494, rc); ‘the fluid progression of social interaction and the resolution of conflict’ (p. 497, lc).

How does he know that these are really the more vital and important moral needs?
He does not offer an explanation, as if the list he has given us was a matter of course, something self-evident. Unfortunately things are far from being so; what is the proper task of morality is one of the more vexed and less agreed questions of ethics. Just to give you a quick example I offer you how the primary task of morality is seen by the more influential contemporary moral schools.

  • Utilitarians believe that morality should help in creating as much good as possible, i.e. to make the world a better place for humans.
  • Kantians believe that morality has to express our nature as free and rational beings and to set up principles that express the respect owed to every rational being and acknowledge her/his dignity.
  • Virtue ethicists believe that morality should promote the development of character traits that enable the individual to flourish and to live a fulfilling social life.
  • Some feminist theories, several advocates of the ethics of care, and those who vindicate the value of literature for morality believe that morality should expand our moral sensibility and imagination and make us more responsive to other people needs and feelings.
  • And what about religious ethics? Things do not seem to go much better. Just think of the different value and point that a Lutheran and a Catholic would attribute to acting according to the God’s given moral laws. The former would see acting morally as an expression of the acknowledgment that we are wicked creatures that need to submit their evil inclination to an external law to express their full subordination to God’s will. The latter would consider acting morally both as way of imitating the love of God for mankind, and as a way of earning salvation (there is of course much more to both lutheranism and catholicism, this is an oversimplified view of their moral stance, but it is enough to show how different they are).
  • And what about the great critics of morality? Shall we ignore that such influential (and diverse!) thinkers as Marx and Nietzsche (among others) have tried to unmask morality as mere ideology as a mask that hides something much less respectable, like the interests of the dominating class (Marx) or the resentment and frustration of weak and mean people (Nietzsche)?

At this point whoever claims that there are objective moral truths that are independent from any particular culture and that can be seen by a willing observer owes us some explanation about a few points:

Ø What kind of perceptual or intellectual ability is necessary to grasp moral truths?

Ø What kind of truths are moral truths? (Are they natural facts about human needs or aspirations? Are they sociological truths about the conditions of possibility of human societies? Are they religious facts about God’s will? Are they irreducible moral facts–and in that case what does this exactly mean?).

Ø Is there a way to demonstrate moral truths or to educate humans to see them?

Ø How much latitude in the interpretation, specification and application of universal truth is left to different individuals and communities? Will diversity, pluralism and relativism(!) still be with us?

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