George Carlin once comically remarked that we don’t have time to ponder the deep questions of philosophy because we’re too busy working. He certainly had a point.
All of us are immersed in both work and private lives, which demand our attention, our energy and our time. Who has the time to access what our culture and society has presented to us as the truth?
Yet every day we are called upon to make moral decisions, many of which will have a real effect on the direction of our lives and often others. Thus, despite a perceived lack of time, it’s not an idle exercise to critically examine the standard by which we judge right and wrong.
In an effort to find the truth, philosophers always search for “truthmakers.” A “truthmaker” is a reference point that, if validated, assures us that our view of the world is true. Science frequently provides such validation. But when it comes to moral statements, we can’t look to outside sources to corroborate our theories. The best we can do is employ our moral intuitions as a starting point and go from there.
I propose as our starting point an easy proposition: hurting innocent children is wrong. We would assume that almost everyone would agree. Philosopher Renford Bambrough put it this way, “We know that this child, who is about to undergo what would otherwise be painful surgery, should be given an anesthetic before the operation. Therefore, we know at least one moral proposition to be true. You cannot hurt children.”
Bambrough’s insight is clear; although we may not be able to logically deduce it, we know intuitively that it is immoral to hurt innocent children. We don’t have to reference any other source; we simply know that it’s wrong. There can be no excuses, no buts, no end justifying the means. It’s abhorrent. Those who do it, and those who are complicit by condoning it, are acting immorally.
But what if we are asked to go beyond our moral intuitions? How then can we distinguish right from wrong? The history of philosophy has provided us with a number of approaches, some of which may even challenge our moral intuitions. Our goal here is to find a theory that is consistent with our intuitions. So, let’s look at a few relevant philosophical approaches:
Subjective Relativism. This doctrine suggests that to make an action right, all you need is someone to approve of it. It is a modern-day distorted version of Epicureanism.
That school of thought was founded by Epicurus, who held that one can judge an action based on how beneficial it is to the actor. Subjective relativism clearly sanctions immoral actions, while implying that people are morally infallible. We can state without reservation that it is inconsistent with our experience of the moral life.
Emotivism. This line of thinking was originally inspired by one of my favorite philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein. His version of verificationism claimed that statements like “hurting innocent children is wrong” are meaningless because they cannot be verified by empirical observation. Out of this evolved the tradition known as logical positivism.
Their view of our reliance on moral intuitions is that all we are doing is expressing our emotions. “Emotivism” implies that nothing is good or bad because the words “good” and “bad” do not stand for properties or features of anything. This flies in the face of our common experience of the moral life and it provides no means of resolving moral dilemmas.
Cultural Relativism. This is a theory that has gained considerable traction in the last century primarily because it promotes tolerance and seems consistent with recent anthropological evidence. The doctrine states that an action is right if it is approved by one’s culture. Unlike subjective relativism, it does not make the assertion that individuals are morally infallible. That attribute it gives to cultures in general.
Cultures make the moral law, so they cannot err. This again flies in the face of our experience. Some cultures condone and even promote immoral acts. Slavery, for example, was at one time culturally endorsed. Social reformers throughout history have chastised, challenged, and often changed culturally blessed practices referencing a moral code which supersedes accepted practices.
The Divine Command Theory. Under this theory, God is the author and enforcer of all moral law. Although this theory is comforting it has its shortcomings. Suppose God appeared and ordered you to bash some babies’ heads against the rocks? Would you do it? More than likely you would be forced to reexamine your view of God or question the authenticity of Bible verse Old Testament 1 Samuel 15: 2-3.
Furthermore, before we ever received the Ten Commandments, we knew that rape, murder and theft were immoral. Embracing the Divine Command Theory is a matter of faith but it does not give us a fruitful avenue in our search for a “truthmaker” for our moral theory.
Quantitative Utilitarianism. British philosopher Jeremy Bentham developed the theory of quantitative utilitarianism. The morality of an action, he argued, should be determined by how much happiness it causes overall, for everyone. It becomes an almost mathematical consideration. The greatest happiness of the greatest number is his yardstick of right or wrong. John Steward Mill added a qualitative dimension to this theory morphing it into qualitative utilitarianism. However, a good moral theory should tell you what is right and wrong before you do it. These two theories rely on an analysis of the results solely.
Reviewing these various approaches is an interesting intellectual endeavor, but perhaps the best way to emulate a moral life is to look at how an honorable person acts. A manifestly moral person is one who has acquired, and acts in accordance with, certain virtues. Aristotle refers to these fundamental virtues: courage, gentleness, generosity, modesty, truthfulness, friendliness, high-mindedness, humility, and self-control. He claims that we must always act with these virtues in mind. This approach is known as virtue ethics. If we know we are acting in accordance with virtues, we can be assured we are doing the right thing.
As for our original inquiry—how do we judge right from wrong—it seems clear to me that anyone who is concerned about acting morally has already demonstrated a desire to embrace virtuous behavior. Such a person could never, for instance, condone hurting innocent children. As such, it isn’t necessary to follow any one approach; what is important is to carve out time from our busy schedules to reflect on this, and other philosophical questions, so that we live purposeful lives.