MWP 1.4.d Moral Objectivity

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To those used to the fact-value distinction, the idea that moral objectivity may be identical to factual objectivity will come as a surprise. Yet if experiential adequacy enables us to gain the best possible understanding of conditions through the refinement of theories that fail to address conditions sufficiently, exactly the same process can be used to explain how we develop the best possible values to respond to our conditions. One way of understanding this is adaptive, as will be explored in 4.g. If our ways of behaving and the values that drive us help us to address conditions in our environment, our way of life will be optimised.

However, there is a danger that this will look superficially like a reductive explanation of moral objectivity. Our account needs to do as much justice to the experiences that people throughout the ages have associated with metaphysical beliefs about the good, as it does to scientistic accounts that reduce moral objectivity to benefits that are more easily observable from the outside. People have long identified moral objectivity with the ultimate good that they see in God, with laws of nature, or with essential laws in harmony with the underlying structure of the universe. All of these have been very unhelpful when taken metaphysically, but all also represent an experience of trying to get to grips with unknown conditions, with something bigger than us, or at least bigger than our current beliefs and identifications. This yearning for the beyond may have been intellectually articulated in a number of ways, but in relation to our physical, emotional, and intuitional experience it suggests it should be fulfilled by an open attitude to conditions.

The moral aspects of objectivity involve more emphasis on integrating our desires, so as to prevent interference in experiential adequacy by psychic conflict. This integration of desires is also interdependent with that of meaning and belief. The integration of moral meaning involves sympathy and imagination, which will be discussed in the next chapter. However, moral beliefs (both implicit and explicit) are also crucial in directing our judgements about how to act. For moral objectivity, moral beliefs need to be formed with as great an experiential adequacy as possible.

Incrementally objective moral judgements will not be infallible. We can be confronted with moral dilemmas and make the wrong choice because of our ignorance of conditions. Although there may be notionally a right choice – that is, the best available choice – that can be made in any given set of circumstances, we do not have any way of knowing this right choice, so it is not relevant to making our decision. In practice from am embodied perspective, recognising the plurality of moral choice is often helpful: there is not one ‘right’ judgement for us, beside which all others will be wrong, but perhaps several with complex degrees of comparative adequacy in different respects. It is the various criteria that we can find in our experience (principles, consequences, intuitions, virtues) that are relevant to a decision, and where there is a conflict between the criteria available to our experience, we need to try to discern which of them is the most adequate. But we may not, in fact, be able to discern a difference in some cases.

This discernment of moral adequacy can be most easily handled initially through the avoidance of metaphysical assumptions. If we assume that only one set of absolute criteria provides the correct way to resolve all moral decisions, then we are approaching the decision through metaphysics rather than experience. If we can discern real moral dilemmas between different kinds of values or different criteria which all seem as though they might be morally objective, then we are beginning to address the issue through experience. It is simply not perceiving moral conflict, which forms a basic part of our experience, that detracts most from moral objectivity. If you don’t perceive a real moral conflict about abortion, for example, but think it is obvious either that abortion is murder or that a foetus has no moral importance because it’s merely part of the mother’s body, then you need to work harder to understand the moral experience of those on the other side of the divide. The work of Jonathan Haidt in recognising the psychological basis of different kinds of social and political values is helpful here[1], and will be discussed in IV.4.h.

Middle Way Philosophy can contribute to moral discussion, not by offering definite solutions to moral dilemmas, but by pointing out dogmatic assumptions. Very often just the recognition of another point of view will make the best decision clearer. Middle Way Philosophy can also attempt to assess the likely degree of dogmatism behind a particular approach, so that, again, a decision can be made based on maximum experiential adequacy and the avoidance of dogmatic approaches that interfere with it.

This general approach to ethics raises lots of further questions which will be tackled in section 7. This will include discussion of the main different types of moral theory and the ways that they can be used dogmatically or provisionally.


[1] Haidt (2012)

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