As I said in my last post, I’m solidly in the group of people who believe there is a real right and wrong, that morality is not arbitrary. But as I explained, I reject the idea that we can somehow appeal to God to understand what right and wrong are. If he exists, he may well know what right and wrong are, but as I explained, I think it is irrelevant.
So how can we go about figuring out what is right and wrong? That’s a very big question and answering it can lead to a whole lot of other questions. For instance, lurking just behind this question is the question of how we can know anything at all. That is, what makes something count as knowledge rather than opinion? Unfortunately, getting into epistemology is its own project and we won’t be able to tackle that in this blog. Because of space and time limitations, and because I’m not a skeptic about knowledge, I’m going to assume that we have a more or less solid agreement that knowledge is possible and that we have solid ways of acquiring knowledge.
So now I’ll briefly highlight a few popular/influential attempts at getting at moral truths. (I consider them all to be moral realist theories.) Other efforts will be examined when the time comes.
Aristotle, building off of Plato, argued that we could discern right and wrong actions and good and bad people if we could first pinpoint an ultimate good. After considering several strong candidates, e.g. pleasure, Aristotle determines that happiness is the ultimate good, because it is good in itself and is what everyone strives for. Nearly all other good things are actually tools for being happy. Further, because human intellect is of fundamental importance, Aristotle reasons that it is legitimate to expect that the pleasures of the mind would be preeminent, so that achieving happiness is in large part an intellectual endeavor. From here Aristotle can argue that, unless you are willfully contrarian or a thorough skeptic, humans, given what they are, will be able to agree that many things are likely to increase the likelihood of happiness and others will increase the likelihood of unhappiness. Some of these things will turn out to be under our control but many others, such as the fate of our family members, or of our nation, are largely out of our control.
Of course, Aristotle also famously counsels that “virtue is the mean”. This sage advice has been the victim of oversimplification and of confusion. So let me explain it by offering a metaphor. Imagine you’re at target practice, firing a gun, or an arrow, or a shooting a basketball at a hoop. Obviously you’re aiming for the target and if you hit the bull’s eye or sink the basket, you’ve done ‘good’ and you’ll be ‘happy’.
But now imagine that the target is moving back and forth or side to side on a rail. And that other people are shooting at the same target even while standing in different positions. Well even though everyone is shooting at the same target, the shot will look different to each person and at different times, and they’ll have to adjust their shot accordingly.
Even though everyone wants to be happy and needs to do things like be brave, be wise, be just, and be self-controlled, what this will look like will vary. So he can allow for some relativity even though there is no relativism. I for one find this sort of analysis astute, but if you’re the sort of person that wants hard and fast rules for how to act in any situation, this is going to leave you wanting more.
Utilitarianism is deceptively simple to grasp. The basic idea is that the right thing to do is what will make the most people feel pleasure. So, on its face it might recommend that Spider Man let Mary Jane die in order to save a bus full of people. But of course the situation is much more complicated, for the basic reason that calculating how much happiness is created by an act is really difficult to do. After all, it’s at least possible that Spider Man and Mary Jane’s happiness at her survival could outweigh the happiness created by the survival of everyone on the ill-fated bus. If it’s a bus of school children it would be less likely but if it was a bus of violent criminals it would perhaps be more likely. Still, different models of utilitarianism are quite influential and it’s hard to deny that we all often think in a utilitarian fashion.
Kantian Moral Theory
Kant’s ethics is based on the agreeable-enough notion that humanity is special. Because humans are capable of moral thinking and acting, we are innately special and must all be regarded as precious beings. So basically, all things being equal, we must endeavor that all our actions treat people with the regard they deserve. Kant recommends the Categorical Imperative as a rule that will allow you to do so. Think of what ‘categorical’ and ‘imperative’ mean; something categorical is for every case and something imperative must be done, so the categorical imperative tells you what must be done in every case. And for those of you who want moral rules to follow, this may be your ticket. Kant argues what we must do in every case is treat the people we are in contact with as ends in themselves¸ and not as simply means to our own ends. Let’s not get too caught up in the terminology though. All he is saying is that every human is innately special just because they are human, and your actions must recognize that. And just like you, every other human has their own wants and needs, and are trying as best as they know how to get them. So you should never do anything to another person that uses them as a tool for you to fulfill your wants needs at the expense of their wants and needs. Right away you can see that things like killing and lying are going to be out of bounds in practically every circumstance. As useful as this can be, critics find that there is a pretty straightforward problem here. Ironically, you can make categorical imperatives about almost anything; As long as you define the situation specifically enough, you can probably make it so that whatever you are doing can be made into what absolutely must be done by anyone in the same situation.
So basically there are three very influential ways of trying to ‘ground’ right and wrong, (1) acknowledging that there are some crucial general abilities, goals and virtues across the human race, but that given varying circumstances, different people will likely reach them by different actions; (2) acknowledge that our thoughts and actions are pleasure driven and that maximizing overall pleasure is the goal (3) Find an algorithm or “rule-producing rule” based on the innate specialness of human nature that will allow us to guide all our actions in a way respectful of everyone.
For various reasons I’ll explain soon, I decided that the best overall approach is #1, eudaimonism and my work is an attempt to help strengthen and improve it. Next time I’ll turn to the hows and whys.