Ethical Realism

February 4, 2010

A Moral Realist Point of View Part 2

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 3:23 am
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In this installment, I will discuss how the following moral concepts can relate to moral realism:

  1. Universality
  2. Responsibility
  3. Rationality

1. Universality

There is an idea that morality is the same for everyone. How much it is the same will depend on our moral theory. Morality is universal if it is in some sense “true for everyone.” Moral values can be universal if they are true for everyone. If pain is bad, that is true for everyone. Your pain is bad, even though I am not you. Moral oughts can be universal if intrinsic values exist because everyone can have a reason to give someone an aspirin to help alleviate a headache. In that case the person’s pain really matters, so it is better for their pain to be avoided.

If intrinsic values don’t exist, it isn’t clear that morality should be universal. Values will depend on subjective preferences and we might have no reason to demand that my headache be taken seriously by others.

There are at least two very important kinds of universality when dealing with morality – (a) Commonality and (b) universal will.

(a) Commonality

What I call “commonality” is the view that everyone shares certain kinds of moral considerations. If murder is wrong for everyone, then we all have that moral obligation in common. Commonality is an important position for moral realists because there are objective moral facts that we all share in common. Pain is bad, so (all things equal) harming people is wrong. Commonality is a rejection of relativism, which is the view that everyone has different equally valid moral values (or the view that morality is only true by convention).

There might be various levels of commonality. For example, a parent can have specific moral obligations to his or her children. I see no way that this view could be justified through intrinsic values, so it might be based on a social contract, social convention, and/or instinct. A moral realist will, however, have reason to agree to such conventions when it is essential in order to make sure his or her child is taken care of. Children seem to have intrinsic value, so everyone has some interest in making sure that children are taken care of. That doesn’t mean that everyone in society must care for children equally. Instead, we could develop a culture or civilization that distributes various responsibilities to encourage specialization and focus.

In order to clarify that commonality does not require exactly the same obligations for everyone, I will touch upon the fact that the situation appears relevant to morality (but doesn’t force us to reject commonality). I find it plausible that morality depends on the situation, and part of the situation can be characteristics of the person involved. All things equal, killing people is wrong. This is a universal truth for all people.

The circumstances: Killing in self defense is generally taken to be understandable because the situation requires that we protect our own lives. It is often too risky or difficult to defend ourselves without endangering the lives others. Taking the circumstance into consideration does not invalidate the universality of a moral action because we could list all the circumstances into a moral rule, such as, “Don’t kill someone unless it is necessary to save several lives.”

The individual: Some people are also capable of defending themselves without endangering the lives of others. These people ought not kill others in self defense when doing so would not require an extraordinary level of difficulty. Taking the individual into account for morality does not invalidate universality because we can have a moral rule that says, “Try to help those you can best help, for example, those approximately close to you.” We might all have a moral interest that starving people are fed from other countries or planets, but it might not be as effective to try to help them as to help people closer.

Another example of relevant individual characteristics can have to do with our skills. A good swimmer has a better reason to try to save a drowning child in a river then a poor swimmer. A person educated in medicine has a better reason to be a doctor than a person trained to be a carpenter.

(b) Universal will

What I call “universal will” is the view of Kant – Each person must personally accept that everyone adopt one’s own moral rules or values. If I personally don’t find it acceptable to be killed by others willie nillie, then I can’t find it acceptable to murder people (for myself). In other words, the universal will position of morality claims that morality requires us to reject hypocrisy. I can’t claim to have a different moral status than someone else “just because I’m me!”

Moral anti-realists, such as R. M. Hare, accept universal will, but he is a cultural relativist. He thinks that cultures determine our values. He just thinks that each culture must reject moral hypocrisy. I can’t morally think I am personally above the moral law “just because I’m me!” He admits that it is possible for the moral law to apply to different people in different ways. (e.g. Parents have a responsibility towards their babies, but babies don’t have responsibilities towards their parents.) However, we can’t demand that morality is different for oneself without an overriding reason to do so.

R. M. Hare seems to think universality is just part of our moral language, but a moral realist does not have to agree. We can refuse to be morally hypocritical because moral values are real. Pain really is bad. I am not personally exempt from the moral universe because the same moral universe exists for all people to share.

It isn’t obvious that moral anti-realist must reject hypocrisy because morality must be a sort of “every man for himself” situation. This can be a sort of relativism in which what is right and wrong for each person is different. “Ethical egoism,” the view that everyone should only try to make themselves happy, could also allow hypocrisy to some extent. It might be of no use to worry about if our actions are universally acceptable. An anti-realist might argue “Yes, I want to kill you because it’s good for me, but I don’t think you should kill me if it’s good for you. I am the center of my own universe.”

Common Confusions about Universality

Universality is often confused with unconditionality, simplicity, and objectivity:

Unconditionality: Unconditionality is the view that moral values and obligations are inescapable. We can’t opt out of morality. A doctor can decide to stop being a good doctor by quitting, but we can’t opt out of being a good person by opting out of morality.

Also, non-moral considerations can’t override our moral obligations. The fact that I want to kill someone doesn’t somehow allow me to do it. The fact that I love my daughter doesn’t give me an excuse to rob a bank to pay for her college education.

Unconditionality isn’t the same thing as universality because we could accept that morality is universal without accepting that it is inescapable. It might be that moral values are merely one consideration for my actions among many, and moral considerations provide no greater demands than my own desires. However, unconditionality does seem to assume that morality is universal. If moral demands are so important, then there must be some common moral values that we should follow (without hypocrisy.) If morality is unconditional, then it is universal; but if morality is universal, then it might not be unconditional.

Simplicity: Many people confuse universality with simplicity. They deny that the individual or situation could be taken into consideration. They would want a simple rule, such as “Never kill people” instead of a more complicated rule, such as “Never kill people unless there are overriding reason to do so.” However, both of these rules can apply equally to everyone and are therefore universal.

Objectivity: Some people confuse universality with objectivity. Morality is ontologically objective if it is part of reality. Morality is epistemologically objective if we can find a reliable method to find moral facts. It is logically possible for morality to be universal, but not objective. (Perhaps morality is nothing more than a convention of language and the convention requires it be universal.) It is also logically possible for morality to be objective but not universal. (Perhaps morality is real, but each person produces a separate moral reality.)

2. Responsibility

There are at least two totally different meanings to the word “responsibility.” One, “responsibility” can refer to our obligations. We are responsible to care for our children insofar as we have obligations to care for our children. Two, “responsibility” can refer to our personal capacity for fulfilling our obligations. Insane people might be said to lack responsibility when they are unable to live up to their obligations, but very wise and virtuous people could be very responsible for being good at living up to their obligations.

Responsibility is relevant to moral realism insofar as moral realism is relevant to obligations. We demand that people live up to their moral obligations because “so much is at stake.” We demand that people behave in a way that doesn’t cause significant harm (produce something intrinsically bad, such as pain) when doing so doesn’t require excessively difficult behavior.

3. Rationality

I have already discussed moral rationality quite a bit in my essay “Beliefs can’t Motivate.” Moral rationality determines when someone acts in a way that “makes sense.” It seems perfectly rational to give someone an aspirin who has a headache because their pain matters (even if I don’t care much about his or her pain).

Moral realism is relevant to moral rationality insofar as we understand behavior that promote intrinsically good things (such as pleasure) as being justified. Promoting intrinsic value seems to make sense, even if we don’t have a personal compulsion to help others. To call someone irrational for engaging in behavior that helps others when not having a desire to do so is extremely counterintuitive. (We might wonder if such behavior is possible, but that isn’t to say that it’s irrational if it is impossible.)

It is possible that moral rationality is a product of convention or instinct. Perhaps we don’t have any right to say someone is “morally irrational” for harming others. Even so, it seems useful in everyday life for us to discuss ethics in terms of moral rationality because of our interest in promoting intrinsic values. We want our lives to be meaningful. We want to do something that really matters. If intrinsic values exist, then we can live meaningful lives and do things that really matter.

It can be helpful to understand moral rationality by contrasting Hume and Kant’s view of moral rationality.

Hume: Hume thought that moral rationality was little more than to behave in a way that satisfied our desires. (The only sort of value would then be instrumental value.)

Kant: Kant argued that moral rationality seems to require that we behave in ways irrespective to our personal desires. I’m not sure that Kant is entirely correct, but he does seem right that there are morally relevant facts that don’t depend on our desires. If we can cause someone else pain, that seems to be morally relevant whether or not I personally care about that person’s pain.

On the other hand, it might be impossible to even consider someone else’s pain if we don’t care about their pain at all. (Kant admitted that “motivation” is different from “desire.” It is possible that we could be motivated through some sort of practical reason without any sort of biological drive involved.) If Kant is wrong, we could admit that moral rationality requires us to care about other people to some extent, but we could also have some reason to further develop our empathy rather than neglect our care for others.

Updated 2/7/2009


1 Comment »

  1. […] Moral Universality 6 02 2010 It’s a popular notion: that morality is somehow universal. If murder is wrong, then it’s wrong for everyone. Or  more pointedly, if murder is wrong, […]

    Pingback by Rethinking Moral Universality « Ockham’s Beard — February 6, 2010 @ 2:29 am | Reply

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