Why we mustn’t expect too much from morality

Jeroen Seynhaeve / Word count [ 376 ] View all [ 38 ] / Vertaal naar Nederlands



I’ve been especially intrigued by prof Ronnie de Sousa’s essay titled “Forget Morality” this week. Surely, prof de Sousa puts his (very eloquent) finger on a sore ethical point …

Read “Forget Morality” here

… morality cannot provide conclusive answers, and where it has tried to do so, it has demonstrated all the characteristics of totalitarian and dogmatic ambitions. All too often, moral grandstanding is simply an excuse for, and a diversion from, the real issues at play – which all too often come down to the self-preservation of powers. I agree with the prof that morality’s ‘ought to’ is at least suspicious.

But perhaps prof de Sousa reduces morality to a straw man, presumes particular expectations of morality, and expresses his disappointment when these expectations are not met. I would like to reply that it isn’t morality’s (or indeed moral philosophers’) job to provide conclusive answers and unambivalent, foolproof manuals for human conduct. Today, very few moral philosophers single-mindedly stick to one moral theory. In fact, today’s study of applied ethics is one of a bottom-up approach, in which multiple options (and theories) are evaluated, rather than a top-down approach in which high-minded theories are forced onto human conduct.

The study of (applied) morality helps us to evaluate the moral questions we face and the answers we find. It helps us to lay out the arguments that lead to an answer, but it cannot provide the answer, because answers to moral questions are not only defined by what is deemed moral.

Perhaps, not expecting totalitarian and dogmatic answers from morality is my way of avoiding disappointment when morality appears unable to tell me what to do. And perhaps my reason for writing this reply is motivated by my self-preserving interest as a student of moral philosophy. But I am comfortable with moral failure, and believe it is an essential part of the development of a human life, much as the virtue ethicist would argue.

Making morality something more than human – by turning it into abstract, universal dogmas – ignores the very essence of morality: the need every individual human feels to live a good and somehow authentic life.