Essay on Morality: Research of Moral Pluralism Based on 3 Principles

Posted on March 26, 2009

The greatest gift of human rationality is morality. The establishment of “morality” is based on the recognition that every human has a general set of basic needs to lead a life free of physical and psychological suffering. In Moral Relativism, Moral Diversity and Human Rights, James Kellenberger addresses different sorts of theories of morality, such as moral absolutism, moral pluralism, and moral relativism. Before I take any position on the issues raised by the differences between these various approaches, I need to offer a definition of morality. Morality, in the context of these different kinds of theories, can be defined only descriptively in relation to its purpose and to its function. Metaphysical questions such as “Is morality an absolute truth?” (which are not in the scope of this essay) are in fact, beyond comprehension by mere reasoning and argumentation. People can only try to provide different answers based on their own assumptions, faiths, experiences and intuitions. Thus, morality, in the most practical sense, is a tool or way of life used to promote the common good of human beings and eliminate harmful actions that bring negative consequences in life, goals based on the principle of reciprocity and empathy, and a set of universally recognized human needs and capabilities.

In line with such grounding, I find that among different types of moral theories, moral pluralism can best serve the universal needs and well being of human kind. Pluralism recognizes that there is a plurality of moral points of view, and affirms that, among many moral points of view, no one is clearly superior to another. Yet, it insists on a certain set of context-independent values and an objectivity in judging value conflicts that is not determined by group’s conventions or individual attitudes. However, the pluralistic nature of this theory and the fact that no complete objectivity is possible could be sources of its fallacies when it is put into practice. No one can be completely objective in their judgments because every human being possesses different perceptions and principles of life that contribute to personal bias.

Thus, to avoid these possible sources of error, moral pluralism needs to be governed by three principles:
1) an unambiguous categorization of moral values,
2) the establishment of a minimalist common ground, and
3) a flexibility with regard to the prioritization of moral values.

A clear and unambiguous categorization of values that are strictly “moral” in nature is essential as the founding basis of moral pluralism. Moral values should be strictly distinguished from other categories of values such as cultural norms or community values. Moral values, in their essence, should be geared only towards the goal of fulfilling universal needs of well being that are not governed by cultural practices or norms. For example, the prohibition against arbitrary killing can safely be categorized as a moral value. However, “values” such as that women are supposed to wear dresses can only be categorized as cultural norms. Even socio-political values like ‘unity’ and ‘collectivity’ are only conventional and cannot be strictly termed as “moral values”. The lack of strict categorization of moral values, I believe, is one of the biggest problems to be resolved even before the debates between different moral theories can continue. One common flaw among several forms of moral relativism is the failure to draw such clear distinctions between different categories of values. For instance, conventionalist relativism claims that secondary values are considered as relative and are dependent on conventions or social norms. In this context, secondary values are no longer strictly moral, but adulterated by other categories of values which are non-moral. Similarly, perspectivist relativism proposes that “primary values have “associated benefits and harms'” that may be physiological (e.g., food and nature), psychological (e.g., love and humiliation), and social (e.g., respect and exploitation).” It is easy to see that there are very blurry lines between physiological needs, social values, and moral values.

In Problems of Moral Philosophy, Ralph Barton Perry addresses the phenomenon of arbitrary categorization of values by pointing out a distinction between the question: “What does ‘value’ mean?” and the question: “What things have value?” Analogously, the statement that peace is a condition in which societies abstain from the use of violence in settling their disputes is different from the statement that the world is (or is not) now at peace. Too often, because of such an ambiguity in distinguishing the nuances between definitions, cultural beliefs and physical needs are arbitrarily lumped into subcategories of moral values.

Equivocal overlapping of cultural values, community values, and moral values only jeopardizes the applicability of moral pluralism. Such a failure encourages abuse of the theory to justify actions for pure individual interests or social conventions. For example, in Jordan, women are tortured in the name of “committing immoral acts” when they are found to be talking to male strangers, even though the action of “talking to male stranger” could be intrinsically non-moral. Thus, it is important to draw a clear boundary between pluralistic moral values and other categories of values, such as cultural pluralism or religious pluralism.

The establishment of a minimalist common ground is another important principle in the application of moral pluralism. A minimalist common ground requires that ethics be reduced to its most basic elements, those that are required for every human to behave ethically. Such a methodology is crucial especially in response to a pluralist society today. Before I further reinforce my claim, it is important to recognize a limit of the theory of minimalist ethics. One of the possible fallacies of minimalist ethics is that it implies that an action is ethical as long as it does not hurt anybody. The simplistic and consequentialist nature of this school of ethics provides loopholes for actions done for pure self-interest that indirectly bring negative consequences for others. Thus, the minimalist approach should only be interpreted as a methodology, not as a moral guidance. It is imperative that the minimalist ground should not be manipulated as the sole justification for all kinds of actions.

How should a minimalist common ground be established to reinforce the applicability of moral pluralism? We should recognize that no single individual or group has precisely the same perception of truth and reality due to the differences in religious faith, personal experience and other factors. Just as cognitive relativism embraces moral relativism, cognitive diversity promotes different applications of moral values. In moral pluralism, the stress on certain context-independent values requires a certain level of “cognitive agreement.” To achieve such an agreement, it is pertinent to use a minimalist approach to establish a limit to the scope of acceptable moral grounds among diverse cultures. Such a limit signifies the line between ungrounded perspective (such as superstitions) and rational logic that is based on empirical examination and truths. The ‘truths’ that are derived empirically, when combined with rationality and universally recognized moral values, form a solid minimalist groundwork. William James, a modern advocate of pragmatism, synthesizes the best elements of Empiricism and Idealism. He opposes the prevailing notion of his academic colleagues that only scientific methods can lead to an understanding of the human condition, yet, criticizes any extreme reliance on logic as the sole basis of philosophical truth. In line with his philosophy, the powerful combination of empirical truth and philosophical logic excludes ungrounded practices that are against common humanity. For example, in Southern Sudan, the practice of sacrificing the spear master by the Dinkas became completely unjustified when the tribe survived after the practice was outlawed. Thus, cognitive or cultural perceptions, which deviate from the examined truth and accepted rationality, should be excluded from the common ground.

Apart from that, to ensure moral progress, the common ground requires that context-independent values not only supercede cultural practices, but also serve to reform
the culture itself. Such a purpose should not be misunderstood as a form of ethnocentrism, which is the point of view that one’s own way of life is to be preferred to all others. As John Kekes explains, for pluralism, moral progress occurs with “a closer approximation of valued possibilities not just for one particular point of view but for humanity as a whole.” Thus, in conclusion, moral pluralism needs a realistic common ground that is based on human being’s basic needs, rationality and empirically examined truth.

A flexibility with regard to the prioritization of moral values is another principle that should be emphasized to ensure that the goal of the common good be achieved. In Morality, Diversity and Human Rights, Kellenberger explains, “For monism…there’s only one and only one true ranking. For pluralism, there is a plurality of reasonable rankings in the light of different equally reasonable conceptions of good life.” Thus, values that are prioritized in moral pluralism should be distinguished from the pre-established overriding values in moral absolutism or moral monism. The central claim of moral pluralism that there is not a single moral value that is superior to others, should not be seem as justifying the claim that there is no possibility of assigning priority among different moral values according to different contexts. The prioritization of moral values requires an ability to perceive the “greatest good” and act wisely. Admittedly, such an approach tends to borrow a shade of pragmatism the doctrine that a statement is true and meaningful according to the practical results that would be experienced if that statement were acted upon. However, it is important to recognize that such a flexibility should not be equalized with the extreme form of pragmatism, which normally involves an attempt to wipe out the distinction between different kinds of truths. For a pragmatist, an action is not true because it corresponds to reality; therefore, there is no need to worry what sort of reality that makes that action the right one to perform. Moral pluralism has its metaphysical forms and does not deny the distinction between objective reality and ultimate reality.

A flexibility in prioritizing moral values is an antidote of the Kantian principle of the “absolute moral law” or the “assumption” of an absolute moral law. The French utilitarian Benjamin Constant asks Kant to consider whether, in Kant’s mind, it would not be right to lie to a murderer who asks whether one’s friend, who he means to kill, is hiding in one’s house. Kant sticks with his opinion and responds that “To be truthful (honest) in all declarations, therefore, is a sacred and absolutely commanding decree of reason, limited by no expediency,”16 including human life. Such an over-rigid adherence to a single moral value. Truthfulness defeats the whole purpose of morality to promote good and eliminate evil. In Absolutism and Its Consequentialist Critics, Joram Graf Haber holds the position that one should be truthful to the murderer under whatsoever circumstances. He argues: “If by telling a lie you have prevented murder, you have made yourself legally responsible for all the consequences; but if you have held vigorously to the truth, public justice can lay no hand on you, whatever the unforeseen circumstances may be.” To me, it is not reasonable to cause an atrocity simply to avoid public responsibility. In fact, to achieve the greater good, it is justified that an individual ould prioritize his or her responsibilities to prevent inhumane acts and protect the good (innocence), with due consideration of the risks and possible consequences.

It is important to make a clear distinction between the concept of the “greater good”, as employed in this theory of ethics, and that of the same term in utilitarianism. In utilitarianism, no actions are intrinsically right or wrong as long as the goal of an action is to achieve the greatest happiness. John Stuart Mill, in Utilitarianism, says, “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” In the concept of prioritizing moral values, one important basis is preserving the goodness and eliminating the evil. Happiness or pleasure is not the sole and ultimate motivation of action.

In conclusion, moral pluralism stands out among all types of moral theories presented by Kellenberger. Understanding Kant’s concept that we will never be able to see the “noumena” but can only base our principles upon “phenomena,” I refuse to embrace moral absolutism. This theory leaves the question of what absolute moral command is founded on open and unanswered. Yet, the nature of moral relativism as over-tolerating (all perspectives are equally valid), makes it unrealistic and dysfunctional in reaching the goal of the common good of human kind. This theory denies the fact that judgements are crucial in ensuring social order and harmony. Among all categorizations of moral theories, only moral pluralism’s reasonable balance of objectivity, diversity and universality ensures its survival in different cultural, social and spiritual contexts. However, there are still some possible sources of error when moral pluralism is applied in daily life, such as the impossibility of claiming “total objectivity” and the lack of a clear categorization of values that are intrinsically moral. Thus, the three principles proposed above, namely, the unambiguous categorization of moral values, the establishment of a minimalist common ground, and a flexibility with regard to the prioritizing of moral values, must be understood and integrated, to increase the applicability and universality of moral pluralism.

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