A Different Take on Morality

In my last two posts I talked about moral relativism and absurdity.  Both concepts seem to pose significant barriers to my central philosophical intuitions – namely my concept that both knowledge and ethics is a progressive activity with which we should be continuously engaged.  In both of my previous posts I suggested I thought I might have a way around the challenge posed by relativism and absurdity.  Today I’m going to present some of the ideas that I’ve been working on.

First I would like to summarize what I understand the challenges presented by relativism and absurdity to be.

Relativism challenges the idea of universal morality.  Proponents of relativism argue that moral assertions are really just assertions of an individual or of a culture, and that these assertions can have no reality outside of their context (aka it can be true that Canadians think that stealing is wrong, but stealing itself cannot be wrong.)  There are many subtleties to the matter – many relativists would say that things can be truly right or wrong within a culture, for example – but I think I’ve covered the essence of relativism’s challenge.  This is a problem for me because I am forwarding a normative claim: that it is right or good in some sense to be epistemically and ethically humble.

Absurdity’s challenge is slightly different from that of relativism.  What absurdity proposes is that we are meaning seeking creatures which are incapable of actually discerning whether meaning actually exists.  We can make our own meaning (and existentialism often proscribes this as a response to absurdity), but its hard to get moral prescriptions out of this meaning-making activity.

So here’s what I’ve been thinking lately: perhaps many moral realists make a misstep in their arguments.  I think the essence of moral realism’s goal is to say that there are better and worse actions.  To this end, many moral realists (including myself in the past) have pointed out actions we consider unarguably wrong (The Holocaust, female circumcision, etc.), and tried to use these to support the reality of morality.  The problem is that this approach is dogmatic – to the questioning relativist it can hold no sway because the relativist is unwilling to accede to the premise that the Holocaust is wrong in an objective way.  The realist is proclaiming the Holocaust as objectively wrong, while saying that dissenting opinions on the matter are not relevant.  The error, as I see it, is that realists are trying to find a grounding for morality that ignores the fact that it is us who is voicing the opinion.

All moral reflection is ultimately individual.  There is always an [I] reflecting on how it should exert and direct its powers upon the world.  Ethical reflection is both reflection and action – the [I] examines how it should act, but it also attempts to exert power over the actions of others.  The [I], in other words, attempts to make others an extension of its own ethics.  My core intuition is that I do not think that this precludes there being better and worse actions.

In one of my previous posts (Everything starts in ethics) I proposed that human existence is fundamentally ethical – that our world presents itself to us as an ethical question, and that our living is a continuous response to this question.  To this I also would add my concept of freedom.  You are free when you seize yourself ethically, when you place responsibility for your actions on yourself instead of the world around you.  From this framework I think I find a basis for a kind of morality: right and wrong is a personal matter which encompasses our entire world.  To free ourselves from the push and shove of the world is to engage in ethical activity and struggle with the question of how we think the world should be – how we should act, but also how we should push on others.  Within this framework morality is legitimized as the fundamental essence of human nature.  Being involved in the ethical project is not so much an imperative so much as existence – those who do not struggle with morality are not really individuals but merely conduits of their environment and circumstance.

This is still an idea in development.  If you have any questions or criticisms, leave a comment.  Thanks for reading,

Ryan Workman

via Blogger http://creative-philo.blogspot.com/2013/11/a-different-take-on-morality.html


3 thoughts on “A Different Take on Morality

  1. Hello from a fellow moral realist! Great writing, and I think you touch on a troubling point for the moral realist: if moral realism is true then moral propositions are beliefs, but, given that we want to morally regulate the actions of others, it seems that if we make a moral judgment then it is an expression of our desires of how others should act (and not beliefs), and thus, moral realism is false. How does the realist make sense of the common connection between moral judgements and motivation? They can either work with Hume or against him. If Hume is correct then in order to act on a belief we need a correspondingly relevant desire; Cornell realists such as David Brink have taken this option and suggested that we have moral beliefs, but we need the external desire to be empathetic in order to act in accord with them. If I understand you correctly, this is the sort of thing you have in mind. The other option is to denounce Hume’s view on motivation and plant our feet and say “a person may be motivated to act on belief alone”. I favor this latter view, but the common consensus in philosophy is that Hume is right. Thanks for sharing, I look forward to reading more of your work.

    • Hi Ausomeawustin, thanks for the comment!

      I haven’t read a great deal of Hume, the only aspect of his work that I am passingly familiar with is the is/ought gap. I currently am inclined to disagree with the is/ought gap because I would argue that the ‘what is to be done with’ of the world is an aspect of the world (we cannot separate our epistemology from our ethics.) This could cut either way – it could make it so that our ethics are aspects of belief, or it could make it that our epistemology is a reflection of our desires. My inclination right now would be to say that we can be in two states: if we are controlled by the world then our epistemology and ethics are strongly influenced by our desires (which are not of our choosing). If we take responsibility for our world, however, we are much more analytical in constituting our epistemology and ethics from our experience, and our actions are much more a proactive reflection of those actions which we consider ‘good’ actions.

      • Good point. I can’t say that I have come to a firm conclusion on the is/ought thesis, my non-naturalist leanings push me to say that no value judgment can be derived from a set of purely non-value judgments because we need moral intuitions (hence non-naturalism) as one or more premises in order to derive a value-based conclusion. But taken in the anti-logical positivist manner you have taken here then I whole-heartedly agree; there is no fact/value dichotomy.

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