Saturday, May 12, 2012

Moral Obligation

Alice C. Linsley

A difficult aspect of ethical thinking is obtaining critical distance from our own beliefs and recognizing the possibility of error. When we take for granted the reasonableness of the beliefs upon which we act, we fail to question our "givens" and are easily moved to accept things that we should probably question and even resist.

Since our ideas of morality are mostly shaped by the influence of parents, friends, spouses and our culture, our confidence in the correctness of our moral views is strongly reinforced. The moral authority of our actions is determined by the consensus of these influences. We feel obliged to go with the dominant views, rarely questioning whether these might be based more on convenience than truth, or promoted by vested interests rather than by prophetic voices.

Law codes are a measure of a culture's moral compass. Consider the Code of Hammurapi. It was engraved on a dark stone stele more than 7 feet high. At the top of this stele appears an image of King Hammurapi standing reverently before the seated Shamash, the god of justice. Shamash is dictating the law to his earthly representative. The Code of Hammurapi closes with this statement: “The righteous laws which Hammurapi, the wise king, has established...” Similarly, Leviticus closes with this: “These are the commandments which YHWH commanded Moses for the children of Israel.” These ancient moral codes appealed to the deity for the authority.

These ancient moral codes did not spring suddenly into existence. They represent centuries of social development and ethical thinking. Similarly, the laws of the United States represent centuries of development and are still developing. One wonders what moral authority the U.S. Supreme Court appeals to when makign decisions? Is the Court's authority constituted on general principles of law, the citation of precedent, and some general idea of fairness? If so, that's not a very secure tether. That boat is sure to drift.

According to Socrates, we have a moral obligation to be good citizens. For Socrates good citizenship requires philosophical contemplation whereby one achieves happiness through virtue. Socrates was very popular in anient Athens. When faced with the choice of being executed or taking his own life, Socrates chose the latter. Everyone knew that Socrates was being set up. His friends had offered to help him escape to safety, but he refused. How could he teach good citizenship and disregard the auhroity of the State? Yet if he allowed the State to take his life, when everyone knew he was innocent of the charges, he would undermine the citizens' confidence in their political system.

According to Plato (427-347 B.C.), evil arises from ignorance, and virtue can be imparted through instruction. For Plato, the highest good consists in the perfect imitation of the Absolute Good, which cannot be fully realized in this life. Virtue enables man to order his conduct according to the dictates of reason, and acting according to reason, he approaches the Absolute Good (which in theological language is God).

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) addressed most of the ethical questions that continue to fret the Western mind. With characteristic keenness he solved, in his ethical and political writings, most of the problems with which ethics concerns itself. Unlike Plato, who began with ideas as the basis of his observation, Aristotle began with experience analysed and traced to ultimate causes.

He asserts that all men tend to happiness as the ultimate object of all their endeavors, and to which all other goods merely serve as means.  The highest pleasure is found in eudaimonism as an activity.  The concept of eudaimonic well-being (from daimon - true nature) stresses that not all desires are worth pursuing as, even though some of them may yield pleasure. Only desires which produce wellness can be considered virtuous, so moral obligation involves right desires. Aristotle's treatment of moral obligation remains a lasting contribution to ethics.

The study of the history of ethics counteracts this problem of perspective. By virtually traveling into other cultures and time periods, we will encounter an endless variety of contrasting, often contradictory, beliefs about morality. We will discover, first and foremost, that many of the most brilliant minds in human history have disagreed about morality and that no philosopher, no matter how confident and talented, has ever expressed an ethical view without encountering opposition, disagreement, and possible error.

Our own moral beliefs which seem obvious, and often receive the agreement of the immediate world around us, are a minority view when placed into the larger history of moral philosophy. They cannot be taken for granted and must be carefully considered and critically examined.

A Good Reason to Study the History of Ethics

Study of the history of ethics counteracts the problem of too-close perspective. By visiting other cultures and time periods, we discover a variety of contrasting and often contradictory moral beliefs that register different moral obligations. We discover that brilliant minds have disagreed about morality and that no philosopher has ever expressed an ethical view without encountering opposition and disagreement.

We have choices as to have we will conduct our lives.  We may decide that traditional authorities are not binding on us and attempt to live as Nietzsche who called himself an “immoralist” and criticized almost all the moral philosophers. He wrote:

“Whether it be hedonism or pessimism or utilitarianism or eudaemonism: all these modes of thought which assess the value of things according to pleasure and suffering, that is to say according to attendant and secondary phenomena, are foreground modes of thought and naïvetés which anyone conscious of creative powers and an artist’s conscience will look down on with derision” (Peoples and Fatherlands, 7:225).

We may decide that Immaneul Kant's deontological ethics is a better path. Kant defines virtue as “the moral strength of a human being's will in fulfilling his duty.” According to Kant the nature of morality is to do one’s duty even when we are not inclined to do it, and not because we are afraid of the consequences of not doing it. The moral person performs his moral obligation regardless of the consequences.

In Kant's view the person who does his duty to appear virtuous, is not moral. The person who does his duty to get it over and done with, is not moral. The person who does his duty to avoid negative consequences, is not moral. Only the person who does his duty because it is his duty, is moral. Kant’s philosophy is an absolutist moral system, that is to say that he regarded some acts always to be wrong, regardless of the situation.

Jeremy Bentham presented another approach to moral obligation. Utilitarianism states that the right action or policy is that which brings “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Bentham never actually used this phrase and later dropped the second qualification, embracing what he called "the greatest happiness principle." Bentham's “happiness principle” refers to the extent to which actions promote the general happiness. What is morally obligatory is that which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, and creates the least amount of pain. He writes, “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness.”

Utilitarian ethics is very popular today. It appeals to those who believe that moral obligation can be boiled down to not hurting others by my actions.  However, this over simplifies Bentham's philosophy. Bentham believed that the primary motivators in human beings are pleasure and pain. He argued that, if pleasure is the good, it is good regardless of whose pleasure it is. This being the case, the pursuit of maximum pleasure has moral force independent of the interests of the individual acting. As with Adam Smith, Bentham held that individuals should seek the general happiness because the interests of others are inextricably bound up with their own.

Bentham was a lawyer and he proposed that the identification of interests and the bringing together of diverse interests is the responsibility of lawmakers. This is a popular idea among supporters of big government.  The irony of having the government determine the individual's moral obligation appears not to have dawned on the fans of Utilitarianism.

Related reading:  Aristotle's Understanding of the Chief GoodAncient Moral Codes; Ethics and Binary Oppositions; Scott B. Rae's Moral Choices

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