Ethics and Objective Morality

Well, folks, it’s time for another look at what I call philosophical theory, or the nuts and bolts of philosophy, those ideas and concepts and frameworks that are basically the prerequisite for proper philosophical inquiry.  As such, they also apply to proper theological inquiry.

Today’s subject is ethics.  This is inspired, in part, by John Loftus’s responses to my last post on the problem of evil.  My intention, here, though, is not to respond to all that he sent my way.  That is still forthcoming.  Rather, I want to look at a broader picture and point out something more general about ethics as an area of philosophical study.  I hope, here, to flesh out part of what I’ve said before.

The purpose of this article is not to go into too much detail about ethical systems or to evaluate them.  Rather, my purpose today is to draw a distinction that cannot be ignored when discussing ethical issues such as the problem of evil.  That distinction is between ethics, or ethical systems themselves, and the belief in objective morality, or why one believes that a particular ethical system is the morally “right” one.

Ethics is the study of what is good for man, in terms of what he should do and refrain from doing, in order to live a good life.  It asks the question, “What should we do in order to be good?”  A person’s complete answer to that question, is then, appropriately called his “ethic”.

Plato’s ethic called people to pursue his four cardinal virtues: courage, wisdom, temperance, and justice.  It was always difficult for he or anyone to fully define these virtues, because they would often lead to seemingly contradictory conclusions.  Courage, for example, seems to be the absence of fear in the face of danger.  But how could we call someone who is utterly without regard for danger anything but foolhardy, and not at all wise?  And how does it match up with temperance, which would usually suggest caution, which would seem to quench courage?  These questions do not cause Plato to reject his ethic, but to push on, asking questions to find the true nature of these virtues.

For Aristotle and Plato, virtue was defined as that which causes something to be in good condition and to do its work well.  The virtues of an axe are that it is heavy and sharp.  The virtues of a man also cause him to be in good condition and work well.  Goodness, then, while possibly carrying a moral tone, was not strictly moral goodness.  A good life was a healthy, productive life.  Virtues served the purpose of fostering that kind of life.

For Kant, ethics could be summed up in his “categorical imperative”.  He said that morally good acts are those that you can will to be a universal law.  This means that you would have to be able to truly want everyone to do the thing you think is good for it to be good.  The rest cannot qualify as morally good.

For the consequentialist, such as the hedonist or the utilitarian, no act is itself right or wrong.  It’s consequences make it right or wrong.  The hedonist says that whatever can maximize our own pleasure and minimize our own pain is good.  For the utilitarian, it is that calculation applied to the greatest number of people.

For the Christian, right and wrong are found in the commands of God, summed up best in Jesus statement that the greatest commandment is to, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:37-40).  The relationship of these commands to the life of the Christian are twofold.  First, they are an expression what the life of a truly righteous person would look like.  Second, they serve as a witness to our own inability to achieve that righteousness, pointing us to Christ as the one who embodies and fulfills the law for us.

Think of each of these ethical systems as sets of answers to the specific question: “What should man do to live a good life?”  What none of them answer, as they’ve been expressed, is why one ought to follow one set of answers to the exclusion of the others.  This is a different question than the one answered by any ethical system in itself.  Another way to ask this question is, “What makes an action or an ethical system objectively, morally right or wrong?”

This question is different than the one ethical systems answer because it doesn’t ask us what exactly we ought to do.  It asks why something is right or wrong, not whether something is right or wrong.  To answer this question by appealing to an ethical system won’t do in this case, because ethical systems don’t seek to answer this question.  They do not provide their own justification.  In most cases, such as in the hedonist’s case, the reason actions are good or bad is just a restatement of the ethic itself.  What makes this ethic good?  The hedonist cannot simply say, “It maximizes pleasure over pain.”  This is only to restate the ethic.  The hedonist’s response to the question must be fuller than that.  It must say that the maximization of pleasure over pain is objectively, morally good.  That would qualify as an answer to the “why” question.

Even the Christian ethic as I’ve stated it above doesn’t answer this question.  The only answers it gives is to say whether given actions are right or wrong.  Some appeal to objective moral fact must accompany any justification for a moral view.  So let’s look at the two questions before us:

What sorts of actions are right or wrong?

Why are certain sorts of actions right or wrong?

The first question can be answered by appeal to an ethical system.  Ethical systems are devised to answer that question.  The second question cannot be so answered.  Something outside the ethical system must be appealed to, since one must give a reason why one’s own ethical system is correct.  One cannot do this by simply appealing to the system itself or anything in it.

Someone may ask at this point, “What about moral relativism?”  How does it fit in?  Rather simply, I think.  Relativism rejects the concepts of right and wrong as being objectively true.  Nothing counts as objectively, morally right or wrong on this view.  So the answer to the first question is “nothing”.  The answer to the second question is thus unnecessary, since no account needs to be given for nothing.  I think, of course, that relativism has its own problems, but they aren’t in the scope of this article.

Keep this distinction in mind when discussing moral issues.  A lengthy description of an ethical system, without an accompanying appeal to objective moral fact, boils down to mere conjecture and results in relativism.  Any appeals to conscience or discussion of the rightness or wrongness of a situation cannot carry any weight without some objective standard.  Without that standard, it’s not really right or wrong, it’s just one person’s opinion with no more than “I said so” to back it up.

1 thought on “Ethics and Objective Morality”

  1. Drew,Excellent article. My only question is should an ethical system give us the <>ought<>, or is it sufficient to describe <>what is<> good and define <>why<> it is good.In other words lets say we have an ethical system and we’ve established why the imperatives of that system are objectively morally good. I guess at that point most would be content letting the ought be unspoken as “you ought to act in accords with what is objectively morally good?”

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