Moral questions, ambiguous answers

There’s something funny about morals. Even though we all agree that there is a right and a wrong (at least most of us agree that there is a right and a wrong), no one is really all that sure exactly what right and wrong is. Philosophers have made a good game out of  talking and thinking and thinking some more about matters of morality and ethics, but for all these centuries of talking and thinking even the most learned minds can’t definitively tell us what to do and what not to do.

The lack of a definitive answer has become a problem.

You don’t have to be a student of philosophy to know of or practice a philosophical school of ethics; utilitarianism, deontological ethics, divine command theory, ethical relativism, ethical egoism, and so on. If I had to make a wager, I’d bet that most people are utilitarians. That is, most people, even if they don’t know it, think that our moral choices should have something to do with the common good. I think this is the way that most people are designed; that humans have some sort of innate want to see to it that others are cared for, even if that means that we will do without. Our need to act in the interest of the common good is why we have public schools, welfare, social security, and fire departments. Most people would say these are good things…. most people.

That’s our problem. Even though we’d like to say that utilitarianism is the right moral theory, we can only say that it applies to most people. Followers of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism would certainly object to the utilitarian obligation to increase the happiness of others, and state that the utilitarian Greatest Happiness Principle  is not only morally objectionable but downright evil. Even utilitarians can’t agree on what the common good is. Is every person entitled to free medical care or a minimum wage? Should we tax the rich to pay for the poor? Is that fair? Is it really serving the common good? Is it right to make others suffer to provide for others? What about torture? War? The death penalty?

Ethical relativists, Kantians, and even followers of divine command theory would even agree that facilitating the common good is not always a good thing. Still, every moral theory commands that I do the right thing.

So, what do I do? Should I pursue the common good? Should I pursue my own rational interests as Ayn Rand commands? Should I do only what God tells me to do? I don’t know. But as I see a world full of suffering I realize that cannot spend time thinking about what to do.

And it seems my philosophy hasn’t gotten me any closer to finding an answer.



4 thoughts on “Moral questions, ambiguous answers

  1. This post reminds me of a certain ethics class I took so long ago. So which type of utilitarian are you? (Not sure how I should refer to you, don’t know how private you want things on here.) 🙂

    When I took 350 with Naticchia I don’t think I really answered the question for myself fully partially because I was afraid of seeming stupid and partially because I wasn’t sure how to reconcile my faith with my philosophy major that well. If I had to think about it again now I’d say I’m a weak DCM which has its basis in Rule Utilitarianism (with the rules being the principles in the bible).

    • Oh, Sean — you have certainly asked THE question. I think that I consider myself a Kantian Egoist. I know that prima facie the two theories are opposed, but I’ve found that Kantian ethics can be used as a guiding principle in almost any system of ethics. The morally correct act for an egoist is one that maximizes the happiness of the individual, right? But, really, one can get to their own happiness by Kant’s C.I. I’ve found that my happiness is more likely to happen if, before I act, I ask if my act ought to be universalized, and if in the course of acting I ask if my act uses anyone as a mere means to my ends.
      I know that egoism is most often associated with Ayn Rand’s virtue of selfishness — and i disagree with Rand’s politics and ethics. To use an unphilosophical word her philosophy is stupid. I’ve found that my happiness is decreased when I act only according to my interests.
      I hope that answered your question.

      I’d like to hear more about how you’ve reconciled (or attempted to) your faith with philosophy.

      p.s. don’t worry about how personal you get. I don’t mind.

  2. I’ve always thought that it was something of false divide between utilitarianism and Kantian thinking on morality they are actually just highlighting the natural ambiguity of morality and the flaws in all moral philosophy, or perhaps I’ve just read too much Camus?

    • I wonder how many conflicts between schools of philosophy (in general) may have more to do with dogmatic thinking than differences between the theories themselves. Kantian ethics and utilitarian ethics cross paths more than I think, either Kant or Mill would admit — or at least more than present-day Kantians and utilitarians would admit.
      …and yes, you probably have read too much Camus.

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