MWP 1.7: Ethics

Chapter outline level

a.      Resolving relativism

Relativism is a pressing practical as well as philosophical issue. Moral relativism is created by the assumption that the only alternative to an absolute basis for ethics is a relativist one in which all views are equally justified. However, equal justification does not follow from our limited standpoint. The resolution of relativism comes from a recognition that we can justify universal theories of ethics from experience, using coherence and agnostic foundationalism as criteria of justification. Universal ethical theories need to avoid metaphysical assumptions but also support coherence of values. Our moral beliefs can be increasingly integrated and address conditions better, provided we also take full responsibility for them (1.7.b), and recognise that our moral feelings carry a normative implication for such integration (1.7.c).

b.      Responsibility

Responsibility is commonly often either denied by metaphysical determinism or made total by metaphysical freewill, neither of which can be justified in terms of human experience. Instead, responsibility needs to be understood as an incremental quality found in experience. Our responsibility is incrementally diminished by our degree of conditioning, and incrementally increased by our degree of integration and hence the degree of adequacy of our judgement. We can develop our responsibility by developing our integration in relation to our starting conditions.

c.      Normativity

Normativity is the quality of ‘oughtness’. A justified belief that we ought to judge in one way or another does not descend from a metaphysical absolute, but has to develop from our experience of feeling it. We may feel normativity attached to consistent principles, but to be more universally consistent those principles need to incorporate a recognition that they may be wrong. We may also feel that we ought to behave in ways that fulfil more desires (utilitarianism) – but to actually do this we need to maximise the adequacy of our judgements about conditions, so that our judgements do actually lead to maximally better consequences. We may also get our normativity from a group, feeling that we ought to behave in a way the group prescribes, but this normativity becomes more sustainable and less conflictual the more that group is integrated. Our normal feelings about normativity thus all imply the value of the Middle Way, which not only thus provides an overall moral normativity, but also resolves conflicts between opposed normativities.

d.      Dispositional objectivity and virtue

Dispositional objectivity can be seen as virtue – that is, positive moral qualities displayed diachronically. However, we cannot confine our moral judgement to either character or specific acts, subordinating one to the other. Instead, we need to be able to expand our identification with the rightness either of certain characters or certain acts, so as to include the other. Rather than being based only on metaphysical claims or on conventional observation of one particular group, virtue ethics can be understood psychologically as the development of integration. Our investment in developing virtue needs to be balanced with more immediate kinds of good.

e.      Virtues and practices

Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of ‘practices’ helps to explain how virtue is developed in practical terms, because ‘practices’ have shared standards of excellence that we can be trained in. Such practices also address conditions in one way or another, and provide a process of integration. However, they can also conflict, and MacIntyre does not offer any answer to the relativism of conflicting practices and traditions. We can overcome that relativism by thinking of virtue developmentally. A practice provides a basis for greater integration compared to our starting point, but we may then need to be able to move on from that practice. At a given point some practices are better for us to do than others, depending on the conditions both in and beyond ourselves.

f.       Deontological ethics and agnostic foundationalism

Moral principles are helpful for practical judgement, but need to be provisional rather than absolute in their universality. They cannot be based on absolute foundations, but instead need to be justified by coherentism together with agnostic foundationalism. The idea of principles that are not contradictions in the will from Kantian ethics can provide a way of approaching this, as contradictions in the will are due to conflict and resolving them requires integration. Kant’s understanding that we should not treat ourselves as exceptions to a moral principle needs a better account of ‘self’ based on egoistic identification rather than individuality: we should not treat our current identifications and assumptions as exceptions, but treat them in a bigger context.

g.      Moral authority

We can’t accept the moral authority of supposed absolute sources, but sources of provisional moral authority or support can still be very helpful in supporting our objectivity. This is particularly the case when the moral support emerges from an intuitive relationship and is tailored to the recipient, preferably based on personal contact and friendship. The judgement to trust someone’s moral authority itself requires a Middle Way between idealisation and dismissal, and itself needs to be provisional. That trust is more than just a judgement of credibility, but also involves intuitive interaction of a kind that is more likely to be deluded without personal contact.

h.      Calculating consequences

Utilitarianism has obvious merits as a way of making us face up to conditions, but it also depends on the objectivity of the person making the judgement, and it is also not obvious that pleasure, or even fulfilled preferences, should be the moral goal. The abstracted turn of making utilitarianism esoteric (so that we can use any method provided it leads to better consequences) is irrelevant to the process of judgement. Consequentialist calculations need to take into account our limited perspective, which effectively means that we need to draw on deontology and virtue ethics as critical positions to challenge our understanding of both means and ends.

i.       Provisionally derived rules

Helpful provisional rules can be derived from a consideration of the consequences of following them. However, these need to avoid relativist acquiescence in a particular social context, and to be genuinely reviewed so that they don’t become fixed. Law and legal systems can be justified in a similar way: not by absolutizing either principles or consequences, but using them to scrutinise each other in a developing process.

j.       Rationality and emotion

The separation of ‘rationality’ and ’emotion’, and the claims that ethics is solely subject to one or the other, are based on a false dichotomy. Reasoning always requires premises which are coloured by our ’emotional’ response to conditions, whilst emotions are expressed and justified through reasoning. The reification of the merely conceptual distinction between reason and emotion is the only reason ethics becomes mysterious to us. If we recognise their interdependence, we can avoid both absolutism and relativism and develop more practically adequate ways of thinking about ethics.