People may find answers to everyday moral dilemmas in various sources and concepts, but the philosophical study of ethics seeks to formulate a universal definition for answering all moral questions.
James and Stuart Rachels argue that two requirements are necessary for any definition of morality: rationality and impartiality (Rachels & Rachels, 2019:13). In other words, any definition of morality should at least require moral agents to rationally, objectively and consistently deliberate the facts, possible actions and justifications, while equally taking into account the interests of everyone affected by the actions. They list the following arguments in support of these minimum requirements. Firstly, universal morality cannot be based on personal or cultural sentiments, because these sentiments have not been and cannot be argued or reasoned, they are just there, they grip us and control us – for no ‘reason’ at all. They are stuck inside our personal and cultural make-up, experience and perspectives, and are often fundamentally opposed to other people’s sentiments. Because they are not reasoned, they can not be objectively discussed, analysed and evaluated, and therefore can never provide universally applicable answers to all moral questions. Because morality is necessarily about how we act in relation to other people, it requires us to break out of our personal and cultural sentiments – we need to find common ground. This common ground can only be found in an objective standard that is universally applicable to every human being: rationality. Secondly, basing morality on rationality is compatible with our broader understanding of the evolution of humanity, in which humans have evolved as rational beings. It is because humans have this capacity for rational thought, that we can deliberate, and throughout human history have extensively deliberated, reasons for acting this way or another – rather than acting on personal or cultural sentiments (Rachels and Rachels, 2019:187). We devise visions of what we imagine would be a good life – “my best plan” (Rachels and Rachels, 2019:193) – develop strategies that are conducive to, and rationally consistent with this vision, and find strong reasons not to act in manners that are inconsistent with this strategy or life vision. Thirdly, rational reason-giving and consistency does not only refer to logical relations between actions, and between actions and our vision of the good life, but also to acting similarly in similar circumstances. We act inconsistently, arbitrarily, or indeed unreasonably, if we accept a reason for acting in a particular way in one context, but not in another context that is not rationally different. This is Rachels and Rachels’ impartiality requirement (Rachels & Rachels, 2019:12).
Cultural relativism denies Rachels and Rachels’ rationality requirement of morality, but agrees with their impartiality requirement. Cultural relativists agree that moral practices are equally, impartially applicable to all members of a particular culture – even if those practices promote social inequality. However, they disagree with the claim that morality must be based on universal and objective, rationally argued standards, but argue that it can only be based on disparate, contingent conventions and customs we find in factual societal norms and practices. To know what is right or wrong in a culture, we must simply look at the facts we find in that particular culture. These facts are all we have, and all we can rely on. There is no bird’s-eye view that allows us to evaluate moral practices from a transcendental and universal perspective.
However, we may reply to cultural relativists that when we look underneath particular expressions of morality in cultural practices, we may see that there are universal values at play. While the moral practices may differ on the surface, they appear to represent overlapping, universal values underneath. It is no coincidence that all people and all societies share these same values. These values are either necessary for societies to be formed and continue to exist, or are at the core connected to the universal human condition (Rachels & Rachels, 2019:26,27).
Unlike cultural relativism, ethical subjectivism principally denies both the rationality and impartiality requirements of morality. Morality can’t be more than a matter of personal sentiments: what feels right is right, and what feels right for you may not feel right for me, but that’s the end of it. There are no universal, transcendent moral perspectives or principles we can evaluate personal moral sentiments against.
But, contrary to what ethical subjectivists claim, universal moral truth is not something you find in the world (like science ‘discovers’ phenomena and natural laws), and not something you personally experience (like the taste of an orange) but the result of a rational thought process. Moral truth is that which has the best objective arguments (Rachels & Rachels, 2019:43). This can go against what we personally feel or believe, because it transcends our personal sentiments. That this does not always provide us with conclusive answers, does not deny the value and universality of the rational arguments. There may, for example, not be a conclusive answer to the questions of abortion and euthanasia, but there certainly are rationally sounder arguments to support one answer over another. Most often, as is the case with abortion and euthanasia, the fact that the moral dilemma remains unresolved, is not because there are no sound and conclusive arguments, but because rational arguments clash with non-rational explanations.
What is utilitarianism?
Utilitarianism is a hedonistic interpretation of consequentialism, originally developed by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). If consequentialism requires us to focus on the consequences of our moral actions, utilitarianism requires these consequences to increase (overall) happiness.
What’s appealing about utilitarianism, is its straightforward ease of use. The process of listing and ranking good and bad consequences provides a practical, user-friendly instruction manual, or decision-procedure, for moral conduct. It almost seems too intuitive not to be true: increasing happiness is good, increasing suffering is bad. But utilitarianism must provide answers to the criticisms of consequentialism, as well as to criticisms of its own, to be true.
Firstly, how do we calculate and measure consequences? How do we decide which consequences are taken into account, and which aren’t? Do we only consider immediate, foreseeable consequences, or do we allow for unforeseeable consequences in a distant future? Consequentialism does not operate in a void, but operates against the background and within the confines of a given framework of values. Which framework? Secondly, happiness does not mean the same thing for everyone. Who decides what counts as happiness and what counts as pain? Humans often act in ways that are not aimed at increasing happiness, or in ways that accept pain, in an attempt to achieve goals that are valued more important than happiness or pain. Does this mean we should ignore these goals? Who defines what happiness is? Thirdly, utilitarianism is at odds with widely accepted and institutionalised principles of inalienable individual human rights, and appears to justify actions that increase overall happiness while violating inalienable rights of individuals and minorities.
How utilitarianism relates to the minimum conception of morality.
Rationality is not a necessary condition for utilitarianism. Utilitarianism aims for results that increase overall happiness, not necessarily for the best-reasoned actions or most rational results. Rationality may play a role in predicting consequences – rationally arguing a particular course of action and its logical consequences may be a better guarantee for predicting consequences than blindly jumping in the dark and hoping for the best – but utilitarianism does not make rationality a necessity for a good outcome. Any consequence that increases happiness will do, it doesn’t matter how we get there.
Utilitarianism is principally impartial. In the calculation of happiness, everyone’s interests are considered equally. Nobody’s happiness is more important than anyone else’s. But does this guarantee impartiality? In my view it doesn’t. While the utilitarian may not zoom in on a particular individual’s happiness, she does focus on the majority’s happiness. If the utilitarian is faced with two mutually exclusive actions, and action A increases happiness of 2 people, and action B that of 3 people, then she should unequivocally choose for action B. This choice is clearly partial towards the 3 people whose happiness is increased. This partiality is connected to the question I posed earlier: “Who decides what happiness is?” If the utilitarian decides, for example, that happiness is monetary, then any people whose happiness consists of non-monetary values will always loose out. Utilitarianism, it turns out, is not impartial, but partial towards people belonging to numerical majorities and subscribing to particular definitions of happiness.
How utilitarianism relates to cultural relativism.
Utilitarianism and cultural relativism may accept the same moral customs and practices, and reject change, but for different reasons. While the cultural relativist restricts moral judgement to factual cultural practices, the utilitarian judges them against overall happiness. They are compatible only as long as moral practices lead to increased happiness of the majority of people, and only as long as happiness is defined in culturally established terms. For example, the utilitarian would defend the cultural practice of discrimination against women, if this practice increases overall happiness of society as a whole. On the other hand, the utilitarian would – and should – encourage change, should it turn out that a different moral practice – gender equality, or discrimination against men – has a better chance of increasing overall happiness.
How utilitarianism relates to ethical subjectivism.
Utilitarians have an ambiguous relationship with personal sentiments. One the one hand, an individual’s personal sentiments will be ignored if the overall happiness of many other people can be increased. The utilitarian doesn’t care how you personally feel about abortion, if prohibiting abortion increases overall happiness. But on the other hand, it is crucial to look at how the utilitarian arrives at a definition of happiness. He does so, by tallying personal sentiments – by means of a democratic vote, a survey or a talk show. He does not need to – he may also choose to define happiness by rational argument – but in democratic societies, the majority vote on what defines happiness generally overrides rational arguments. So, utilitarianism and ethical subjectivism agree that answers to moral questions can be found in personal sentiments. They disagree, however, in the weight they afford to the individual’s personal sentiments. For ethical subjectivism, this is all there is, while for utilitarianism, the individual’s personal sentiment is merely a speck in the bigger picture of overall happiness.
What is deontology?
The deontologist’s morality is driven by the duty to comply with authoritative rules, based on the claim that certain actions are inherently right or wrong. The source of these rules, their justification and the rules themselves may differ, but the idea of ‘duty’ is fundamental to all: once the authority of a rule has been established, one has to stick to it. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) found universal authority for rules, unlike others before him, not in social consent, not in divine revelation, myth or custom, but in a fundamental, universal aspect of the human make-up: rationality. If a rule for moral conduct can be rationally justified, then we must conform to it at all times in all circumstances, because if we don’t, we undermine our and other people’s core humanity.
What’s appealing about deontology, is that it provides clearcut, straightforward instructions for moral conduct. There is hardly any ambiguity about Thou shalt not kill. This clarity promotes predictability of moral conduct – the moral agent knows what to do, and others know what to expect. However, deontology faces a number of problems. How do we establish the authority of a rule? Accepting to conform to a rule, implies that one accepts the authority of the rule-giver. Once we have established authority, how do we interpret the rules? Rules may seem clearcut and straightforward on paper or cast in stone, but turn out to be complicated in their application to real-life situations. What if circumstances are such that they could never have been predicted by the rule-giver? Every lawmaker, and lawyer, knows that it is nearly impossible to predict each and every possible situation a rule may need to be applied to – this is why laws and contracts need to be amended from time to time. Because moral dilemmas are complex and ever-changing, morality requires flexibility. Deontology, however, principally rejects flexibility.
How deontology relates to the minimum conception of morality.
Not all rules are rational. Their authority may be derived from irrational sources, the rules themselves may be irrational, and their application to particular circumstances may not require rational argument. A rule simply applies, period. Immanuel Kant’s version of deontology, however, is intrinsically founded on rationality. The moral principles he formulates, find their origins and authority in rationality. While it may be argued that founding morality on the very fabric of humanity (our universal capacity for reasoning) makes Kant’s ethics compelling, it may equally be argued that rationality is not all that humans universally share, and therefore rationality can never be sufficient justification for morality. I write more about this in my conclusion.
Deontology is fundamentally impartial, and ignores the interests of affected people entirely. It does so, not because it wants affected people to be treated equally, but because it is interested in the cold and blind application of a rule, equally, to each and every situation and person. What counts is the duty to conform to the authority of the rules.
How deontology relates to cultural relativism and ethical subjectivism.
Cultural relativism is essentially deontological. It finds moral truth in cultural practices, and instructs moral agents within that particular culture to uncritically conform to these practices. However, depending on where they find authority for their rules, not all versions of deontology agree with cultural relativism. Because Kant’s version of deontology is founded on universal human rationality, Kant’s deontology transcends cultural practices and rejects cultural relativism.
Personal sentiments have no role to play in deontology. The duty to adhere to authoritative rules and to apply them inflexibly to moral questions, overrides any personal sentiments of the moral agent.
What is virtue ethics?
In its most radical interpretation, virtue ethics instruct moral agents to ignore consequences of moral actions, and ignore authoritative rules, but rather to focus on what the action itself represents, and how the moral agent is shaped by the action. For an action to be good, it must represent a virtue. For a moral agent to be good, she must live virtuously over a long period of time, habitually actualising virtue through action.
But what is a virtue? For Aristotle (385-323 BCE) – the father of virtue ethics and the point of reference for contemporary virtue ethicists – a virtue is a commendable character trait that reflects a rational midpoint between vices of excess and deficiency. Courage, for example, is a virtue, because we find it in the rational middle (‘golden mean’) between irrational vices of cowardice and rashness.
The theory of virtue ethics is appealing for two reasons. Firstly, in contrast with utilitarianism and deontology, it principally acknowledges that some virtuous actions are partial. The virtue of loyalty, for example, acknowledges that special relationships are an essential part of the good life, and deserve special moral treatment. (Rachels & Rachels, 2019 : 181) Secondly, virtue ethics appeal to humans’ expectation and appreciation of moral authenticity. Virtue ethics acknowledge, unlike the other ethical theories discussed above, that an action can only be morally good, if its motivation is authentic – when it is not motivated by a sense of duty, or by a premeditated consequence, but by a “desire to do the right thing.” (Rachels & Rachels, 2019 : 180) Of course, one may argue that this “desire to do the right thing” is an elusive concept. Exactly when is it demonstrable that a person acts merely by a desire to do the right thing, and for no other reason at all? How do we demonstrate that a person acts purely out of kindness, courage or loyalty, and not out of fear or self-interest?
What is most appealing about the theory of virtue ethics is also what makes it fragile: its flexibility. Moral dilemmas are hardly ever clearcut or unambiguous. For utilitarianism and deontology to rely on the dry calculation of consequences, or the cold application of rules, is a mistaken reduction of the complexity of moral dilemmas. But at least, they tell us how to act. The theory of virtue ethics does not tell us how to act, it simply tells us how to be. Virtue ethics fail to provide a decision-procedure for moral conduct. Related to this, is the question of how virtues relate to one another. Is there a hierarchy of virtues? Is there a ‘unity’ of virtues – do they all point in the same direction? If there isn’t, different virtues may instruct opposing actions, leading to a moral stalemate. Aristotle had a twofold answer to these questions: follow moral exemplars, and trust rationality. If virtue ethics requires habitual virtuous living for an extended period of time, moral exemplars provide shortcuts: their lives show us how to act. When confronted with moral dilemma, ask “What would the Buddha, Jesus or Mandela do?” Of course, moral exemplars can only provide temporary guidance. To live a truly virtuous life, we should at all times rely on rationality to choose between moral actions. We should rationally consider options, and always choose the option we find in between vices of excess and deficiency.
How virtue ethics relate to the minimum conception of morality.
Not all virtue ethicists agree that virtues are found in rationality. Rationality is not a necessity for virtue ethics to be true. Virtues may be found in cultural practice and convention. For Aristotle, however, virtues are necessarily rational and universal. Seen in the broader perspective of his teleological view of the world, morality is the actualisation of the unique characteristic (form) of human beings: the capacity to reason. Everything in the world has a unique natural purpose (telos), based on a unique and identifying characteristic, and a natural drive to accomplish this purpose. The acorn’s unique purpose in life is to grow into a magnificent oak tree. The duckling’s unique purpose is to grow into a broad billed, short legged duck with webbed feet and a waddling gait. Humans’ unique purpose is to develop the unique human characteristic of reason, by living and acting reasonably at all times. Aristotle’s ethics must be seen in this same light: the right moral action is the action that reflects our unique, natural purpose – reasoning – and is therefore the result of a rational process. If reasoning makes us uniquely human, reasoning well makes us good humans. But Aristotle’s ethics does not stop at showing us the right moral action – it also shows us the way to an overall good life. Not only does fulfilling our unique purpose of reasoning direct us towards the right moral actions, it is also the only way to reach a sense of completion in our lives, and the experience of flourishing and contentment (eudaimonia) that comes with it.
In principle, in its most radical version, the theory of virtue ethics is not concerned with the interests of other people. The focus is on the moral agent. However, many virtues imply other people’s interests too – kindness, for example, implies that one looks out for other people’s best interests, and this requires partiality towards other people (Rachels & Rachels, 2019:183) One may, however, retort that kindness does not have to be partial – it is a general, impartial attitude, not directed at particular people’s best interests, but at everything and everyone’s best interests. But virtue ethics does not need to be impartial for it to be true. It may find reasons for a moral agent to accept that the interests of some people are more important than those of others, and that special relationships with particular people contribute to the virtuous life of the moral agent. Virtue ethics does indeed find these reasons, in the virtue of loyalty, for example.
How virtue ethics relate to cultural relativism and ethical subjectivism
Cultural relativists and ethical subjectivists that embrace the theory of virtue ethics, claim that virtues may differ from culture to culture and from individual to individual. Virtues are determined by our cultural, social and personal circumstances and challenges in life. For a moral agent to flourish in one culture may not be the same as what it means to flourish in another, and individuals may aspire to different qualities of character that contribute to their personal flourishing, based on their personal sentiments and their particular lives.
However, at their most fundamental level, virtues appear to be rational and universal. There are universal reasons for virtues to be virtues in each and everyone’s life, and in every culture. Virtues are virtues because they represent character traits that are commendable, in that they contribute to the formation and continued existence of our societies, help us manage our shared, universal human condition, and guide us to content, flourishing lives. Because the human condition and the conditions for the wellbeing of societies are universal, so are virtues (Rachels & Rachels, 2019:179).
In my view, it is correct to argue that, because a definition of morality attempts to make universal claims on how all people should act vis-à-vis one another, it needs to be defined in terms that are universally shared by all people. It cannot be based on widely disparate, personal sentiments or cultural practices – that would be like comparing apples with oranges. Before we can compare and evaluate moral options, we first need to re-define them in relation to a common framework, a common denominator. Rachels and Rachels, in line with Aristotle and Immanuel Kant, find this common denominator in rationality. Because all humans equally share the capacity for reason, rationality provides a universal measure for defining morality, they claim.
But people universally share more than just the capacity to reason. They also share a deep connection with humanity. People identify with other people, and with the shared human condition. If the reason for selecting rationality as the basis for morality is that it is universally shared, why not also take into account other human characteristics that are equally universally shared, and allow us to widen the scope of morality? The answer to this question may be twofold: one, this concept of shared humanity is covered in the impartiality requirement of morality, and two, only rationality allows us to objectively analyse moral actions. But in reply to the first answer, defining impartiality in terms of rationality only, allows for partial treatment based on rational reasons – like Aristotle’s ‘reasons’ in favour of slavery and discrimination of women, for example. In reply to the second answer, firstly, does the rationality requirement of morality imply that clever people are necessarily morally better? It doesn’t – Socrates was clearly mistaken when he claimed that immoral conduct is the result of ignorance. Secondly, rationality is no fail-safe guarantee for morality. Restricting morality to rationality, is what allowed the Nazis to hijack morality to justify abhorrent conduct, and what allows white supremacists to justify the claim that black lives don’t matter on so-called rational grounds. If we want to found morality on a universal concept of humanity, we must first define, and take into account the full scope of what it means to be human.
Rachels, J & Rachels, S. (2019). The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 9th ed. New York : McGraw-Hill Education