Something’s missing

I appreciate the even-handedness of the discussion of moral theory that we’ve had in class.  We’ve all been given some more tools to better assess the ethical decisions and dilemmas before us, and better yet to understand the philosophies that others bring to the table.  We’ve seen that none of these theories are foolproof, yet each provide a useful perspective on our moral decisions.

I find myself drawn to the concept of Care Ethics.  It moves away from the cold, calculating ideals of many other theories to a place where moral decisions are made with both our head and our heart.  While it may be relatively new as an “officially” articulated moral theory, it seems that care ethics has been around in practice for a very long time.  It seems to embody the way that many people actually make decisions whether consciously or not.  Care ethics also seems very close to the Christian idea that only “faith working through love” counts for anything (Galatians 5:6).  Actions are to be guided by love, which is really just a stronger form of the “care” ideal.

However at a deeper level, something is missing from the discussion.  Care ethics, at least as presented by van de Poel and Royakkers, is lacking justification for its claims.   It champions the moral significance of our relationships with other people.  People have dignity and thus care for them is at the heart of moral action.  It must be asked, why are relationships good?  From whence comes humankind’s inherent dignity?  Similar questions arise with utilitarianism, duty ethics, and virtue ethics:  

  • What definitions of good, evil, pleasure, pain, and happiness are to be used within the utilitarian rubric?
  • Why is Mill’s freedom principle morally right?
  • On what basis do we accept Kant’s concept of good will as true or moral?
  • Who defines what is virtuous or not?
  • How does one judge what is virtue to begin with?

The answers to these and many other questions regarding the starting points of moral theory are not philosophically self-evident.  They don’t answer themselves.  They beg for the existence of objective moral truths or force us to acknowledge that at the very core our moral judgments are based on a relativistic foundation.  In their discussion of moral theory, van de Poel and Royakkers don’t tackle the question of existence of absolute vs. subjective truth.  And maybe they didn’t intend to.  Similarly this class has whetted our appetite to the intriguing world of moral philosophy, and its job is not to answer these questions.  But I do believe as we wade through the world of moral philosophy, we must all struggle with these epistemological issues – what we believe and how we know it to be true – before or at least concurrently with our striving to choose an appropriate moral worldview or lens.  If not we will ultimately find ourselves confused about the most basic assumptions of our moral framework or stuck in the morass of relativism.

3 thoughts on “Something’s missing

  1. Hi DanVB. Thanks for the post! I wanted to comment on your insights into dignity: what it is and where it comes from.

    First, “From whence comes humankind’s inherent dignity?”
    Dignity, for me, is another term like “ethics” or “morality” that has official definitions you can look up and working definitions that we operate by as individuals:

    Random online dictionary definition:
    dig·ni·ty [dig-ni-tee]; noun; plural = dig·ni·ties
    1. bearing, conduct, or speech indicative of self-respect or appreciation of the formality or gravity of an occasion or situation.
    2. nobility or elevation of character; worthiness: dignity of sentiments.
    3.elevated rank, office, station, etc.
    4. relative standing; rank.

    This definition has, again from my perspective, very personal (maybe even slightly selfish) connotations. You are the one that has self-respect, nobility of character, elevated rank…So it’s interesting that you seem to be using it as the driver of care ethics in caring for other people and your relationships with them: “It [[care ethics]] champions the moral significance of our relationships with other people. People have dignity and thus care for them [[other people]] is at the heart of moral action.” Your working definition is different from the one that I read in the dictionary, which is different from mine.

    Ultimately, those disparate definitions come from a similar place as where our individual definitions of ethics and morality come from. Which of the ethical theories or combinations of theories you subscribe to – and I think most people subscribe to more than one – helps influence how define these terms, which we use to describe how we act or think. I found this very interesting, and just wanted to comment. Didn’t know if you or anyone else thinks about it in a similar way?

  2. Very important questions that get to the heart of moral philosophy. No answers. Something is missing indeed… Maybe this vacuum is a call to all of us to take responsibility for crafting our own moral framework that we can rely on to help us decide (a la Oscar Wilde) where in each case we want to “draw the line.” I believe that at the very core, indeed, our moral judgments are based on individual, existential choices about what we consider to be the essence of being human or of living a moral life. But this doesn’t necessarily send us to a “morass of relativism.” Professor of psychology Michael Gazzaniga tells us that, “recent brain-imaging studies have found that a host of moral judgments seem to be more or less universally held and reflect identifiable underlying brain networks. From deciding on fairness in a monetary exchange to rendering levels of punishment to wrongdoers, the repertoire of common responses for all members of our species is growing into a rich list” (http://www.templeton.org/reason/). Personally, I view the development of our foundational moral convictions as a life-long journey. In its ideal form, this journey increases our capacity to appreciate and use multiple moral lenses in different combinations to respond wisely, fairly, and in a morally defensible fashion to the unique challenges confronting us each time. In practice, the moral theories we have discussed are not mutually exclusive in any absolute sense. One can reinforce (or inform) another, even as one might be given primacy over another. You ask, “From whence comes humankind’s inherent dignity?” Excellent question. I’d like to try to respond with yet another question: What would our world look like if we didn’t accept humankind’s inherent dignity? What liberties would such a disbelief give us in terms of our actions toward others? Apropos, I’m wondering if you might find interesting a chapter about the moral philosophy of renowned political theorist Hannah Arendt (she wrote extensively about humanity and totalitarianism). I see it as related to care ethics, and as an extremely thought-provoking departure from (and critique of) the more abstract principle-based theories. I uploaded it on Scholar – 2012 Resources – Optional Readings of Interest.

    • I hope I did not sound despairing or nihilistic in this post. My purpose in posing these questions was to show that these questions must be answered by each of us, rather than to imply that they do not have answers. Thankfully, I believe that we can find answers to these deep questions, provided we allow our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength into the conversation. In other words, along with reason and emotion, rather than opposed to either, we also need faith and/or belief. The quest for objective truth must start there contrary to what the Enlightenment has ‘taught’ us. Otherwise as pointed out by one of the Templeton commentors, we eventually are forced to a position similar to Hume that reason cannot bring about morality.

      Starting from a position of faith in a higher power, we can confidently answer the ‘Big Questions’ of life. Explaining universally held moral beliefs or the source of human dignity is not difficult at all from my Protestant Christian viewpoint, for example. I agree that our world would be a place full of even more evil, if we didn’t accept human dignity. Accepting faith, I can take human dignity as a God-given objective truth rather than having to establish it based on negative consequences. My position doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination remove most of the moral dilemmas that I face. It simply provides me with a foundation on which to build that is not fickle or shifting as I know my own mind is.

      I realize that this position begs questions like “Who decides who’s faith is right?” or even “Isn’t it arrogant to say that my faith is the right one?” I don’t have space or time to address such questions here, but will simply claim that we must acknowledge that all faiths (including the lack thereof) make exclusive truth claims. If such a thing as objective truth exists, some position must be right in the end.

      On another note, I am intrigued by Arendt’s writings and will definitely try to pick something of her’s up. Thanks for the insightful comments.

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