Saturday, February 19, 2011

Normative Ethics: after the leap into Objectivism.

Ye olde leap o faith.

The oft misquoted Dostoevsky saying reads: If there is no God then everything is permitted. This is a rough summary of perhaps one or more of the utterances of Ivan Karamazov, a character in Dostoevsky's classic novel: The Brothers Karamazov. It might even be a summary of Father Zosima (another character in The Brothers Karamazov) when he says: "Our people believe tirelessly in the truth, acknowledge God, weep tenderly. Not so their betters. These, following science, want to make a just order for themselves by reason alone, but without Christ now, not as before, and they have already proclaimed that there is no crime, there is no sin. And in their own terms, that is correct: for if you have no God, what crime is there to speak of? All in all, this hyperbolic expression falsely attributed to Dostoevsky seems to correctly amplify the over all debate in his novel, and possibly, his personal opinion. The opinion that if there is no absolute God, then there is no absolute morality.  

When examined at first glance "absolute morals" point towards religion. Albeit, the fact that there are varying principles of morality within the paradigm of religious belief seems to indicate that divinely prescribed morals are at least not true in every instance. In Islam, for example, it is not OK to eat pork, whereas in Jainism vegetarianism is a compulsion. It is however also worth noting that there is no way to bargain/weigh-in divinely prescribed morals for its adherer.

How can we question the perfect word of God? This is not a question but a condition. Believers of such morals feel that they have answers or guidance and they are satisfied or obliged to follow. This in turn gives meaning to their life. 

But not everyone who believes in absolute morals believes in religion, what then is their moral compass?

Normative Ethics is the part of moral philosophy, or ethics, concerned with the criteria of what is right or wrong- good or bad. It is the discipline of philosophy concerned with formulating or stipulating moral guidelines for human actions, institutions (such as the legislative sort), and how one should live. Thusly, the pivotal query of normative ethics is determining how basic moral standards are arrived at and justified. The answers to this question fall into two broad categories: deontological and teleological.

Deontological theories use the authenticity of its own inherent virtues or rightness to establish moral standards, while teleological theories consider the good and value brought into being by actions as the principal criterion of their ethical value. Thus, deontological theories akin to religion stress the concepts of duty, ought, obligation, and right and wrong, while teleological theories lay stress on the good, the valuable, and the desirable. 

Deontological theories set forth formal or relational criteria such as equality or impartiality; teleological theories, by contrast, provide material or substantive criteria, as, for example, happiness or pleasure. The word "teleological" is derived from the word ‘Telos’, which is Greek for "purpose".

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Problems with Objectivism and conscience on the Objectivist account.

Note to reader:

The following post is a continuation of a series of posts on this blog entitled "The Distinction Between Morailty and Ethics". Please refer to the previous posts for my overview of other moral disciplines, namely: Socratic Ethics, Relativism, Subjectivism & Humean SubjectivismFor a short introduction to the distinction between morality and ethics, please go here.

Since Objectivism is a theory that explains moral persuasion, from the school of thought of metaethics, objections to it naturally follow from the other two theories on moral persuasion. In this write-up, I plan to explore relativist and subjectivist criticisms of objectivism.

Relativist Objections:

In her famous book, Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict describes how the Kwakiutl people of the Northwest Coast of Canada, especially their chieftains, saw the death of a family member as an affront or insult that could only be overcome, and dignity and nobility restored, by killing someone - man, woman or child - from another tribe. Does this show that the value of human life - perhaps the cornerstone of morality- is not universal? Could our sense of the value of innocent human life be a cultural creation - the product of our history and our social practices- a creation that the Kwakiutl never achieved? Is morality finally then conventional as relativist claim

In Arab Bedouin culture, with its strong emphasis on communal solidarity, marriages are arranged and no one can marry, or embark on any other significant enterprise in life, without the approval of their tribes's Sheikh. Western liberal culture regards this practice as an infringement of individual freedom and self-determination. Is there any independent standpoint from which we can evaluate these conflicting traditions? Is either right or wrong? Or are they different and incommensurable social conventions as relativists argue? 

Subjectivist Objections: 

Subjectivists argue whether there can really be any moral facts? Aren't facts things that we can, at least in principle, see or touch or hear in the world around us? But, as Hume said, we cant see good and evil. So Isn't morality in us, in the way we subjectively respond to our experience? 

Aren't feelings and desires what motivate us? How can the judgement that something is good or evil be a motive?

Objectivist Disclosure:

We are justified in following, and obliged to follow, our best- that is, our informed and considered - moral judgements even when those judgements are mistaken. However, society is entitled to stop us from following our consciences when the resulting action involves significant injustice or a significant threat to public order. This means that we can give reasons for our moral beliefs and judgements; we can be mistaken in our moral beliefs and judgements, and that moral beliefs and judgements can be true and false.

That is, individuals and communities may believe that they are morally justified in following a particular course of action; but this belief may be objectively wrong. Many of those who practised paternalistic slavery did so in good conscience, believing that some races were like children and incapable of choosing for themselves; but they were mistaken in this belief- an the profound injustice of slavery entitled those who opposed the practice to force slave owner to free their slaves. 

So, if we assume that Objectivism is correct, what sorts of reasons should guide us in our moral decision-making? How do we decide what is objectively right or wrong, good or evil? Relativism and Subjectivism appear to offer immediate guidance for moral decision-making- What is the social convention here? What are my feelings on the matter? 

Socratic Ethics, Utilitarianism, Natural Law Theory, Kantianism, Divine Command Theory and Ethical Liberalism are essentially Objectivist theories (though there is a significant subjectivist element in Preference Utilitarianism) which each provide a different answer to these questions - that is, they propose very different and conflicting "basic moral norms".

In my next post, I will explore the transition from Metaethics to Normative Ethics by looking at the key elements of the Utilitarian point of view.