Given the fact that, while addressing life’s challenges, people are expected to observe certain ethical principles, it does not make much of a surprise that there have traditionally been a number of objective preconditions for the philosophers to make qualitative inquires into the very essence of morality, as a driving force behind one’s behavior.
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Nevertheless, as philosophers went about landing their views on morality and its implications, it was becoming increasingly clear that morality cannot be discussed outside of what happened to be the particulars of its affiliates’ existential mode. The reason for this is simple – the number of morality’s qualitatively different definitions correlate with the number of philosophers, who argued in favor of specifically their view on the discussed subject matter.
In its turn, this implies that, contrary to the claims of moral realists, morality is an essential relativist notion. In this paper, I will aim to explore the legitimacy of an above statement at length, while arguing that the actual measure of particular moral convention’s objectivity is being reflected by the extent of this convention’s practical usefulness.
The philosophical tradition, concerned with discussing morality
The philosophical tradition, concerned with discussing morality, can be traced back to the times of Greco-Roman antiquity. For example, Plato used to refer to the notion of morality as being synonymous to the notion of justice: “True’ city and the corrupted city are put forward for us (by Plato) as models of human nature in association which display both justice and injustice, to be contrasted with the ideally just city, which displays only justice” (Annas 78).
According to Plato, the objectivity/subjectivity of moral predicaments is reflective of these predicaments’ ability to serve some higher good.
If, for example, a particular individual decides in favor of ending another person’s life, as the ultimate mean of saving the lives of many others, such his or her decision should be deemed moral. In its turn, this allows us to refer to Plato’s moral conceptualizations as ‘social’ or ‘external’, as they are only being concerned with exposing solely rationale-driven motivations, behind people’s moral or immoral behavior.
Such Plato’s view on what should be used as criteria for defining the extent of a particular conscious act’s moral appropriateness/inappropriateness corresponds to Kant and Hegel’s views on the subject matter.
Nevertheless; whereas, Kant’s moral imperative (treat others in a manner as you yourself would like to be treated) appears rather utilitarian/subjective, Hegel’s moral imperative implies the de facto existence of metaphysical objectivity: “Act as if the maxim of thine action could be laid down as a universal principle” (Mitias 83).
Thus, it would not be much of an exaggeration, on our part, to suggest that it was namely Hegel’s philosophy, out of which the method of moral realism originally derived.
As time went on, however, more and more philosophers were trying to analyze the significance of moral conventions from essentially ‘psychological’ perspective, which implied these conventions’ relativist nature.
For example, Schopenhauer used to draw direct parallels between the notion of morality and the notion of compassion, simply because the behavioral stimulants, not related to compassion, are being innately malicious: “There are generally only three fundamental incentives of human actions, and all possible motives operate solely through their stimulation: a) Egoism… b) Malice… c) Compassion” (Schopenhauer 145).
Apparently, it was becoming increasingly clear to the European intellectuals of the time that morality is best discussed as something that is being ‘created’ rather than something that it is being ‘discovered’.
Such point of view on morality is being prominently featured in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. According to Nietzsche, there are two types of morality: ‘slave morality’ and ‘master morality’. The defining characteristics of ‘master morality’ are -unemotional, pathos of distance, aesthetic refinement and cynicism.
The defining characteristics of ‘slave morality’, on the other hand, are – sentimentalism, strong adherence to the provisions of conventional ethics, religiousness and intellectual shallowness (Nietzsche 250). Thus, it would be safe to assume that, by the beginning of 20th century, there were already two well-established philosophical approaches to addressing the concept of morality, which can be generally defined as ‘objectivist’, on the one hand, and ‘relativist’, on the other.
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Nevertheless, it was during the course of 20th century’s second half that these approaches sublimated themselves in the creation of three conceptually different moral philosophies: ‘moral realism’, ‘moral relativism’ and ‘moral utilitarianism’.
The theoretical premise, upon which the proponents of ‘moral realism’ base their line of argumentation, has been outlined in Timmons’s article: “There is a completely mind-independent world of physical facts (facts that concern physical objects and properties of such objects) and an objective fact is identical with or reducible to some such facts” (373).
In other words, people’s tendency to reflect upon the emanations of surrounding reality in terms of ‘morality’ or ‘immorality’ is indeed being consistent with the objective nature of these emanations. Therefore, moral statements do in fact represent an objective truth-value.
The proponents of ‘moral relativism’, however, are challenging such point of view. According to them, the cognitive mechanics of how a particular person comes up with a moral judgment cannot be discussed outside of what happened to be the specifics of this person’s cultural, ethnic, social and religious affiliation: “According to the conventions of moral relativism, when I say that a certain action is right, my statement is elliptic.
What I am really saying is that, according to the system of morality in my culture, this action is right” (Torbjorn 123). Therefore, moral statements cannot represent any objective truth-value, by definition. After all, whatever one person may perceive as perfectly moral, another person may perceive as utterly immoral.
The comparatively recent times, however, saw the emergence of a qualitatively new approach to defining the extent of moral conventions’ appropriateness – a so-called ‘morally utilitarian’ one.
The foremost advocate of such an approach is Hilary Putnam. According to Putnam, the objectiveness/non-objectiveness of a particular moral convention cannot be discussed as ‘thing in itself’, but as such that is being reflective of this convention’s circumstantial ‘usefulness’: “What makes a (moral) statement… rationally acceptable is, in large part, its coherence and fit… Our conceptions of coherence and acceptability… are by no means ‘value-free’. But they are our conceptions, and they are conceptions of something real.
They define a kind of objectivity, objectivity for us…” (56). In the light of recent scientific breakthroughs in the field of physics, biology and psychology, Putnam’s conceptualization of morality appears perfectly legitimate. In the next part of this paper, I will discuss what accounts for the theoretical legitimacy of an earlier outlined Putnam’s view on morality at length.
What accounts for the theoretical legitimacy of a view on morality at length
As it was pointed out earlier, moral realists base their line of argumentation upon the assumption that moral judgments are being inseparable from the objective essence of reality’s emanations, to which these judgments apply. The closer analysis of such an assumption, however, reveals its conceptual fallaciousness.
The reason for this is apparent – the manifestations of surrounding reality affect people irrespectively of whether these manifestations are being subjected to a moral evaluation or not. In its turn, this suggests that these manifestations are best discussed as ‘things in themselves’ and that the moral judgments that are being applied to the objective works of nature, are best discussed as ‘secondary derivatives’.
Apparently, moral judgments are nothing but informational models. Therefore, they are necessarily the subjects of ‘principle of complementarity’ (the ‘principle of complementarity’ refers to situations when two mutually exclusive theories can be applied to describe the essence of the same physical phenomenon).
For example, the statements ‘two parallel lines may never cross’ and ‘two parallel lines may cross’ are equally valid. The first statement is being valid within the theoretical framework of Euclidian geometry. The second statement is being valid within the framework of non-Euclidian geometry.
Another example – as contemporary physicists are being well aware of, an elementary particle can be simultaneously referred to as physical object or as the property of an electromagnetic wave (quantum dualism). A car that moves with the speed of 100 km/per hour can be simultaneously referred to by the spectators as ‘moving’ or ‘motionless’, depending on whether these spectators remain motionless or move with the same speed in a parallel lane.
The very fact that there can be two mutually irreconcilable but equally applicable/effective theories, concerned with exposing physical reality’s mechanics, points out to the absence of ‘truth’, as something independent of the particulars of people’s cognitive perception.
However, once there can be no universally recognized ‘truth’, than such a ‘truth’ cannot be referred to as the actual measure of moral judgments’ objectiveness. Therefore, it is quite inappropriate to suggest that the utterance of moral statements can be thought of as being impartial of the contextual specifics.
This is exactly the reason why moral statements cannot be regarded as representing some universally recognized truth-value, irrespective of the whole scope of affiliative circumstances. For example, the statement ‘pornography must be banned due to its immorality’ cannot possibly be thought of as being thoroughly objective, unless we assess its significance through the perceptional lenses of those people who came up with such a statement.
The manner of how people perceive surrounding reality and their place in it, however, is highly subjective. Moreover, there can be no any unified criteria for defining the legitimacy of ‘moral truth’, by definition. The validity of this statement can be illustrated in regards to what accounts for the actual realities of multicultural living in Western countries.
For example, the majority of Muslim immigrants to these countries think of their practice of cutting sheep’s throat and watching animal’s convulsions in the pool of blood, during the course of Eid al-Adha celebration, as perfectly moral. The native-born Westerners, however, regard such Muslim immigrants’ practice highly immoral.
Alternatively, even though it represents a commonplace practice for Western women to walk around while wearing mini-skirts, Muslims cannot help referring to this practice as morally despicable. This once again exposes the fallaciousness of moral realists’ assumption that moral judgments are being thoroughly objective – this could not possibly be the case, because there are as many ‘truths’ out there as there are people on this Earth.
The validity of an earlier suggestion can also be explored even in regards to a number of moral conventions, the legitimacy of which is being taken for granted. For example, it is commonly assumed that killing people represents a highly immoral deed.
This is the reason why committing murders has traditionally been considered the most dangerous criminal offense. During the time of war, however, one’s willingness to murder human beings (deemed ‘enemies’) on the line of duty, is being considered utterly virtuous and therefore – highly moral.
In its turn, this once again illustrates the full validity of Putnam’s suggestion that it is specifically the extent of moral conventions’ circumstantial ‘fitness’, which actually reflects the measure of these conventions’ objectiveness. Such Putnam’s idea correlates with that of one of Pragmatism’s founders William James: “The ideas (which themselves are but part of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience” (58).
Moral theories/conventions can only be recognized as thoroughly objective if our belief in these theories’ legitimacy helps us to gain practical benefits – pure and simple. To put it in plain words – if a particular moral convention proves ‘useful’, we can refer to it as ‘objective’ and vice versa.
The best proof to the legitimacy of an earlier suggestion’s can serve the fact that this suggestion is being fully correlative with empirically observable aspects of how people take a practical advantage of informational models. How do nuclear physicists go about choosing in favor of applying one or another physical theory, in every particular case when the measurement of atoms’ properties is being concerned?
They utilize an essentially utilitarian approach – they choose in favor of a theory, the application of which would simplify addressing the actual task. When it is easier to refer to atoms as physical particles, nuclear scientists refer to them as physical particles. When it is easier to refer to atoms as electromagnetic wave, nuclear scientists refer to them in terms of a wave.
Another example – when it comes to treating mentally inadequate patients, psychologists find themselves at liberty to resort to the utilization of a variety of often mutually contradictory psychological theories, such as the theory of Freudian psychoanalysis, the theory of gestalt-therapy, Habbard’s theory of dianetics, or the ‘regression method’.
However, in the end, it will matter very little which psychological theory has been utilized to treat patients’ anxieties – the most important objective would be ensuring positive dynamics in the process of patients’ recovery. The most important is the actual result.
The same can be said about moral conventions/theories. After all, as it was pointed out earlier, they are nothing but informational models. By coming up with moral judgments, we reflect upon the surrounding reality – hence, trying to adjust such reality’s emanations to correspond with the essence of our subconscious anxieties.
I go without saying, of course, that reality never ceases remaining what it is, despite being subjected to our moral judgments. Nevertheless, we do benefit from referring to reality in terms of morality, as it helps us to deal with life’s challenges.
This also explains why, just as it is the case with scientific conventions, moral conventions never cease undergoing the process of a qualitative transformation – hence, the notion of ‘moral progress’. As it was noted by Putnam: “It is important to recognize that moral rationality and justification are presupposed by the activity of criticizing and inventing paradigms and are not themselves defined by any single paradigm” (234).
After all, one does not have to hold a Ph.D. in history to be aware of a simple fact that, as time goes on; moral conventions continue to undergo an exponential change. For example, even as recent as hundred years ago, it was considered morally inappropriate for unmarried men and women to live together. Nowadays, however, in Western countries this practice became a commonplace occurrence.
Whereas, during the course of fifties, many White Americans thought of African-American students’ willingness to indulge in educational pursuits ‘morally despicable’, in today’s America it became morally despicable taboo to even think that African-Americans may be inferior, as compared to their White counterparts.
Whereas, when Christian fundamentalists were exerting a strong influence onto the process of designing socio-political policies, the act of masturbation used to be deemed a ‘morally wicked sin’, it is now being referred to as merely an instrument of releasing one’s sexual tension.
The fact that moral conventions continue to undergo a qualitative change, as we speak, is alone exposing the wrongness of moral realists’ belief in the unchangeable nature (objectiveness) of morals.
It is not only that, as time goes on, the validity of outdated moral dogmas continues to be revised, but it also appears that it is only the matter of short time, before the very concept of morality will be replaced by the concept of ethics. And, it is specifically the behavior of ‘strongly moral’ people, which through the lenses of ethics appears utterly immoral – whatever ironical this suggestion may sound.
The line of argumentation, deployed throughout this paper’s discursive part, can be summarized as follows:
a) Morality is clearly subjective/relativist notion. It is not only that the specifics of people’s ethnic, cultural and social affiliation define the qualitative essence of their moral predispositions – the very course of socio-cultural and technological progress invariably results in undermining the validity of formerly legitimate moral conventions. In its turn, this suggests that morality is best discussed in terms of psychology, rather than in terms of a philosophy proper.
b) The measure of morality’s objectiveness is the extent of its practical ‘usefulness’. If the adoption of a particular moral convention serves the purpose of improving people’s lives than there can be no objections against such an adoption. Alternatively, if a particular moral convention appears to be hampering people’s chances to take a full advantage of their existential potential, than this convention should be revised or dropped altogether.
c) As time goes on, moral conventions will continue being replaced with ethical conventions. The reason why discussing morality’s implications was considered a legitimate philosophical pursuit in the past is that, until comparatively recent times, organized religion used to exert a strong influence on the very essence of public discourses in the West. Nowadays, however, this is being no longer the case.
I believe that the deployed earlier arguments are being fully consistent with paper’s initial thesis as to the fact that, given morality’s clearly relativist nature, it cannot be discussed as any objective property of physical reality’s manifestations. Morality is essentially a reflective byproduct of the process of people addressing cognitive tasks. Therefore, it is highly inappropriate to refer to morality as the notion synonymous to the notions of impartiality and objectiveness.
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