Having finished a roughly 1-month long study module on ethics and fully realising that I am only scratching the surface, I decided to summarise and share my first thoughts on this vast discipline known also by the name philosophy of morality. Like many of us, I too already had some views on certain moral questions and the topic of general morality rule as such. However, besides learning a lot about various thinkers, I was able to broaden my own thoughts and gain inspiration for further explorations. My hope is that this summary can serve as an inspiration for a thought-provoking exploration of one or another topic also for you. Because, as philosophers like to say – don’t take my word for it – give it a go and see what ideas you come up with.
- Our moral values seem to be significantly culture-bound. Of course, we all have individual values and there might be some related to our evolution (perhaps trust that ‘glues together’ societies big and small?). Yet, to a large extent, we are shaped by our social and cultural context that, in turn, is composed of us. There are many obvious examples, like slavery that was commonplace for centuries in the past and is now appalling to most. But even if we stay in modern times we see differences. For example, in some western cultures, it is considered good and appropriate to proudly speak of your achievements and ambitious goals, it is seen as a sign of confidence and courage. In other western cultures, this same behaviour would be perceived as rude and unacceptable. It is for a good reason that we speak of “culture shocks”.
- It follows logically from the first point that there is no one-size-fits-all rule of general morality applicable to all situations all the time in all cultures. Yet, often the wish for a universally reliable rule of morality lingers unnoticed in the back of our minds. What would it mean, if indeed there were such a universal rule? By definition, it would mean that you should never make an exception for your individual circumstances. Making such an exception would mean deviating from the universality of the moral rule and then such rule can no longer be properly called universal. We like to say that exceptions prove the rule but do they really? It seems to me that exceptions prove the existence of exceptions or, in other words, individual circumstances. Some examples to stir your thoughts: let`s assume the following universal rule of morality – you should never kill another person, even if they cause you discomfort, because nobody would rationally choose that to become a universally accepted way of behaviour, right? What if the discomfort caused to you is threatening your life and you claim that you had to defend yourself? So, although we do generally feel that morality should be something universal (at least in our respective society), we also consider it appropriate and even necessary to take individual circumstances into account. It truly isn`t that simple with us humans.
- From what I could gather so far, our different value/morality systems range in their focus from the inner (value is placed on our character) to outer (value is placed on the consequences/rules). As highlighted in the second point, however, it is never as simple as ‘either/or’ and it might be worth trying to come up with something more balanced. If we believe in the value of balance (I, for one, do), we can try to find a more harmonious focus, which involves both appreciating our initial emotional intuitions and reactions (our ‘signposts’) and following up on them by reasoning our way through various arguments and not discarding/accepting something without a good understanding why.
- One example of a morality system with an inner focus is called value ethics and it comes from ancient Greece. Value ethics has seen renewed interest since the mid-20th century and I find it worth exploring in more detail in a separate article (ist essence is attaching moral value to your character traits called “virtues” instead of placing value on rules, duties or consequences only). However, arguably any character trait can be used for ill purposes (using your courage and wisdom to do a perfectly organised bank robbery, for instance). So – a worthless morality system then? Not so fast, we will have to reason our way through it more carefully.
- Another example, this time of a morality system with an outer focus is called utilitarianism. Many have probably heard about it as its ‘glory days’ are much more recent than ancient Greek virtue ethics. Its essence is that what matters, morally speaking, is the degree of utility (desirability) of the consequences of your actions. “Utility” here refers to overall pleasure surplus over any pain associated with it. It is, in fact, a temptingly simple approach – you just quantify whether your action will generate more pleasure than pain and, if yes, then go for it, it is morally acceptable, even good perhaps. Yet, mathematics is arguably not the best approach to creating moral guidelines for action. Many of us can think of various scenarios where this could go wrong but here is one from real life (as presented in the course material that I studied): after disastrous consequences of the 17th century Great Fire of London the people demanded justice. Somebody had to be guilty of causing this horrible tragedy. Authorities for whatever reasons couldn`t find the actual culprit but the longer they lingered, the more restless people became. So, they settled on one watchmaker and sentenced him as the offender (knowing well enough that he did not cause the fire – he wasn’t even in the country on the day it started). But – using modern language – we could say he was ‘collateral damage’. The pain caused to him was ‘less’ (in the sense of quantity) than would have been caused, if masses of people took to the streets and started riots, killing many in the process. The lesser evil, so to speak. Terrifying, isn`t it? Sure, but it is once again not that simple. The upside of the utilitarian morality system (besides ist simplicity, if that is an upside) is that in its classical form it aims at eliminating social inequality – my pleasure and pain are in no way more or less valuable than yours. So, if one ‘unit’ of pain (and pleasure) of everyone is completely equal in value, then surely it should be morally acceptable to subject only 1 to pain if that allows avoiding, say, 100 pains and there is no other way, right? This is not my opinion but I like how it forms a pretty consistent, easily perceivable argument and provokes us to engage in active thinking about this tough subject.
- The final point in my short summary is, to me, a crucial lesson that even the wisest and kindest of us should always try to remember: it is necessary to remain as open-minded and ready for a constructive discussion as we can, especially when facing morally challenging questions. We like to speak about rights in our western societies. Yet, do we always truly understand the implications of the concept of rights and the relationship between rights and duties? My rights do not necessarily constitute another`s duties and their choice to be decent to me does not necessarily constitute my due from them. For instance, if I am ill and you have the cure but we do not know each other and live on different continents and you learn about my condition by pure chance, is it your duty to fly half-way around the world and cure me? I have the right to life and good health but does my right alone make it your duty to help me in this situation? It would be morally admirable, yes, but whether it is a duty remains uncertain. Perhaps one could argue that we consider it a morally admirable behaviour exactly because we do not intuitively see it as your duty (note: we usually do not admire mere fulfilment of duties, rather we tend to expect it).
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