A Philosophical take on Morality

How do you decide if something is moral or not?

That may seem like an easy question but is it?

Let’s give an example.  Is it moral to lie?  If you are a conservative Christian, the Bible says that lying is a sin.  So is lying always a sin?  Is it always wrong or immoral to lie? If you believe that lying is always a sin, always wrong, and always immoral, what would you do in this situation:

You are a family living in Nazi-occupied Europe in the early 1940’s.  A Jewish family has asked you to hide them in your attic.  You do so.  One day the Gestapo comes to your house and asks you if you are hiding any Jews?  How should you as a moral, Christian citizen answer?  If you tell the truth, the Jewish family in your attic will be arrested, sent to a concentration camp, and most likely gassed to death.  If you lie, you will save the lives of a man, woman, and their children.

I don’t know about you, but I hope that if I were in this situation, I would have the decency and courage to lie.  In my opinion, lying, in this situation, would be the moral thing to do.

So saying that there is a universal set of black and white morals seems incorrect to me. 

So how should we decide what is and what is not moral in each particular situation?  Philosophers say to do the following:

1.  Clarify your Terms
     ie. What is murder?  Is killing in war murder?  Is self-defense murder?
2.  Get the Facts.
3.  Identify the Relevant Moral Principles.
4.  Apply Moral Theories.
5.  Apply a Reasoning Strategy.
6.  Make a Decision.

What are Moral Theories?  Answer:  Moral theories explain what makes an act permissible, impermissible, obligatory, or supererogatory.  Each theory applies a criterion or set of criteria to an action at a time and renders a judgment on the moral status of that action.  In this sense a moral theory is a decision theory, that is, it is a procedure for deciding how you should act in a set of circumstances.  Different moral theories convey different truth values for the same action, so it is important that we carefully evaluate each so that we adopt only the most plausible decision theory. 

Duty-Based Theories

This theory is based on the work of a German (Prussian) philosopher, Immanuel Kant.  Kant argued that whether an act is moral or immoral depends wholly on one’s duty to act according to a moral principle concerning that action.  Duties for Kant are not a matter of considering the consequences of an action.  They are a matter of pure rationality.  If you understand only the facts of a situation you can derive your duty in that situation.  This theory does not consider the empirical consequences of an act.

Consequence-Based Theories

According to these theories, whether an act is moral or immoral depends wholly on the consequences of the action.  Once you understand the likely consequences of your act, you will understand your moral obligation.  The most popular consequence-based theory is Utilitarianism:  the morally right action is the act that brings about the most happiness for the most people over the longest period of time.  John Stuart Mill was a major proponent of this theory.

To contrast the two theories above, the duty-based theorist would say, “It’s the principle of the matter, and I am not concerned with the consequences to me or anyone else,” while the utilitarian theorist would say, “I am concerned only with the consequences of the act to me and all affected, and I don’t care about principles if they’re going to bring about bad consequences.”

Given the emphasis upon bringing about good consequences, utilitarians argue the end of bringing about good consequences justifies the means of doing something like lying or cheating in order to bring the good about.  However, the view is not “the ends justify the means”, because, stated this way, the “ends” could be anything, irrespective of others.  Utilitarians are concerned with only one end, namely, the more happiness for more people.  “Happiness” usually translates as more pleasure, less pain.  This is not the same as hedonism.  John Stuart Mill argues that anyone who has experienced both higher (art, music, philosophy) and lower (getting drunk, smoking pot) forms of pleasure shows a marked preference for the higher pleasures.  And people who help others are generally happier than people who don’t.  Therefore, Utilitarianism, he argues, will not lead to a purely egotistical and carnal society.

The way in which the utilitarian determines the good consequences to all affected in a situation is through a pro vs. con kind of calculus, or adding up all of the gains/pleasures on one side and comparing them with all of the losses/pains on the other side.  The moral decision, then is the one where the most benefits/pleasures will result.  Also, since everyone is considered completely equal in terms of their worth, it appears to be a fair way to determine actions.  We can think of the decision-making process of a utilitarian like a cost-benefit analysis used in many business decisions.

Character-based Theories

These moral theories evaluate the value of a person’s character and then assess which actions best contribute to a certain kind of character.  The most popular character-based theory is Aristotle’s Virtue Theory.  The central idea of virtue ethics is that character and behavior are mutually forming.  Having a certain type of character will determine how you act, and how you act over time will determine what kind of character you have.  If someone has a virtuous character, then they will often do what is best (though “best” is not clearly defined in virtue theory—they do not talk about duties or consequences.)  Similarly, if someone does what is best over time, her character will develop in such a way that she will be more likely to do what’s best in the future.  And, after all, we want to not only perform right actions (duty-based) that have good consequences (consequence-based), we also want to be virtuous people performing right actions that have good consequences.

Aristotle implies that, though you may be able to convince a demon to do the right thing (according to some duty) or to bring about good consequences (according to the utilitarian), the agent is still a demon.  Thus, virtue ethics can act as a kind of complement to the Kantian (duty-based) and the utilitarian positions, rounding out our moral lives.

Aristotle believed that character development was the key to morality.  As he saw it, our characters result from [1] forming certain good habits starting in childhood and [2] acquiring practical wisdom in maturity.  Virtue is a good habit whereby one fosters a kind of balance in one’s character.  The idea is to promote “not too much” and “not too little” of some character trait, but “just the right amount,” so that our actions and reactions reflect appropriate character.  Virtues are the traits that fall within the mean, or average, of the extremes of too much (the vices of excess) and too little (the vice of deficiency).  Virtue ethicists identify a general list of virtues, including honesty, courage, prudence, generosity, integrity, affability, and respect, to name just a few.

The virtuous person has cultivated the kind of character whereby he or she knows how to act and react in the right way, at the right time, in the right manner, and for the right reasons in each and every moral dilemma encountered (in some vague sense of “right”).  The way that one cultivates a virtuous character is through choosing actions that are conducive to building that virtuous character.

Virtue ethics must be combined with a theory that includes a decision procedure to be of any use.  Virtue ethics gives no account of why the virtues are virtuous.

Identifying Relevant Moral Principles

The following moral principles are held virtually worldwide:

1.  One should not cause unnecessary harm.
2.  One should not kill without sufficient reason.
3.  One should defend oneself against an attacker.
4.  One should not steal.
5.  One should prevent others from stealing.
6.  One should not rape.
7.  One should care for children.
8.  One should play fairly.
9.  One should not deceive.

These principles are widely held to be true, but are they always, in every situation, true?  Our example of hiding Jews in your home and lying to the Gestapo about their presence is just one demonstration that they are not always true.

Putting it all together:  Making a Decision

So using the information above, how should one make a decision about the morality of a particular action?  Answer:  Apply each of the above theories to see how each would lead you to act.  This will also help you recognize alternative actions you might not otherwise think of.  After you have considered each set of options, determine which moral theory is most plausible.  How do you decide which is most plausible?  This is the hard work of moral philosophy, and there is widespread disagreement.    Here are some suggestions:

Ask yourself these questions:

1.  If I perform X, will anyone’s rights be violated?  (Take into account Kant’s conception of not using someone merely as a means to an end.)  Many utilitarians would agree that protecting these rights leads to more happiness most of the time.

If rights are violated, there are good reasons for not performing act X.  If no rights are violated, then ask,

2.  If I perform act X, will anyone be harmed?  If the answer is yes, then you must consider whether the good to be gained outweighs the harm caused.

If no rights are violated and many are benefitted, some harm may be justified.  If no more benefits are likely than not performing the act, then the fact that it causes harm is a reason to refrain from performing it.

Above excerpts from Philosophy Demystified, authors Robert Arp and Jamie Carlin Watson, McGraw Hill, publisher.


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