Where Do We Get Our Morality From?

Brief Notes on a lecture at the Centre

Subjective Morality:

Morality springs from ourselves either “instinctively” or created by the individual on the basis of personal views and opinions, or of personal likes and dislikes.

G.E. Moore argued that we are born with a mysterious “intuition” of what is good. We cannot define what “good” is but we know it by intuition, like we know what the colour “yellow” is although we will never be able to provide a definition of it. People simply know that something is good (Intuitionism).

B. Russell claimed that morality is a case of subjective “taste”, of like and dislike; A. J. Ayer claimed that moral language is not meant to assert “truth” or “falsity” – it is “non-cognitive” – but is simply an expression of our own emotions; some facts provoke pleasing emotions and we cal them “good”, some others cause emotions of revulsion and we call them “bad”. By saying “murder is wrong” we express our own emotions in relation to murder and we try to influence others to feel the same emotions (Emotivism).

Relative Morality:

Morality originates from the society, culture, religion to which we belong. We call “good” what society/culture/religion calls good. We are educated into morality by parents, teachers, religious leaders according to what society/culture/religion deems to be good or bad. Being “relative”, no one society/culture/religion has the monopoly of truth over morality: morality is true only within a given society/culture/religion and is not superior nor inferior to any other type of morality from other societies etc. The most one can say is that the morality of another society/culture/religion is attractive or off-putting not that it is right or wrong. This view seems to favour tolerance.

Objective Morality:

Aristotle argued that every thing in the universe has a purpose, an end and we call “good” the things which fulfil their purpose well: a “good” knife is a knife that cuts well, a “good” human being – a rational animal – is one that is ruled by rationality, controlling all excesses and passions. Virtues are the golden mean between opposite excesses hence a good human being will act in accordance to the virtues. The final purpose of all human actions is happiness.

Kant also agreed that morality is binding on all human beings since they all have reason, and reason tells us that we must direct all our efforts at achieving a “good will” by following unconditionally all “categorical” imperatives. We must perform “duties for duties’ sake”, not for any other reason, not even to get to Heaven. We must always act on principles that must be carried “universally”, no exception is allowed. Kant’s famous categorical imperative: “In all that you do always treat other human beings as ends and never as means”. Rationality and universality are the basis for all categorical imperatives. The weakness in Kant is his insistence that the principles of morality, like all other principles of thought, spring instinctively from ourselves!
Sartre’s claim to objectivity for his moral view is highly debated and few would agree with him. For him human beings are endowed with absolute freedom and they must create their morality by the authentic choices they make. We choose all the time, but authenticity demands that we choose in total freedom and ready to proclaim the validity of our choices before the human race. If not, we act in bad faith, we deceive ourselves and flee from freedom. For Sartre there is no God, hence man is totally free and the creator of morality. See also Nietchze.

Bentham and Mill claim, instead, that good and bad are tied to the great movers of all human experience: pleasure and pain. A thing is good if it produces the greatest happiness; in a society, what is good is determined by the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”. For Bentham all pleasures are the same; Mill would argue in favour of the higher (intellectual, artistic, etc.) pleasure as counting for more. For both, the consequences are what matter in human actions, not the motives.

Situation Ethics takes on board the calculus element of utilitarianism, but it changes the fundamental principle: it will be “the greatest love for the greatest number” what makes an action good. Fletcher argued against legalism and a casuistic approach to morality: there is only one clear, basic law in the New Testament – Love Thy neighbour – all our actions must be judged by the law of love.

Catholic Ethics writers have consistently presented the case for the “natural law” as the basis for moral decisions. The natural law is discovered by rationality in considering the whole human being, his make up and his destiny, and it can be fully understood within a religious belief of a Creator God. But, the theory of natural law can be argued and supported even by simple reference to philosophical reasoning, on principles such as, “Acknowledge being for what it is”, “Acknowledge real beings for what they are” or “Esteem beings, love them, help them; rejoice in the being they have and desire for them the being they require according to their nature, and which perfects them”; “Follow the light of reason”, “Acknowledge beings in their order”.

Applied Ethics:

We shall see briefly Singer’s definition of “person” and his views on abortion, animal rights, euthanasia, etc. before tackling some of the specific moral issues. Applied ethics deals often with concrete choices on issues like abortion, contraception, homosexuality, euthanasia, suicide, war, punishment, IVF, genetic manipulation, pornography, etc. We shall discuss these as they arise.

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