Morality – Empirical Approach 1. Introduction In this paper I wish to consider the following related questions: (i) Can a system of morality be justified?; (ii) Why should one act morally?; (iii) How can others be persuaded to act morally? Clearly none of these questions is new, and moral philosophers have proposed a variety of responses to them over the centuries without reaching any general agreement. Nevertheless, because these questions are fundamental to any practical application of moral theory, it is worthwhile to continue to reflect upon them. For Jewish, Christian and Muslim societies, the justification of morality is the Word of God as expressed in the Bible and Koran. Given an authoritative text containing basic moral premises, the appropriate method for obtaining rules of conduct is a process of logical deduction from those premises to conclusions.
However, if we focus our inquiry on European and American societies in the present century, the decline of belief in religious authority has undermined this approach to moral theory for many people. This monumental change-for morality-may be attributed to many factors. An increase in multicultural studies has emphasized the wide variety of beliefs that human beings hold, which may have led more people to doubt that any one of them is authoritative. A number of writers over the years have commented on the correspondence of specific religious beliefs with one’s society of birth, again leading thoughtful individuals to question the authority of their childhood religious beliefs. As a general sociological observation, one can point to a positive correlation between increasing educational level and a diminished belief in the authority of religious texts.
When thoughtful persons reject religious authority as the basis of morality, it becomes necessary to find another basis for moral beliefs. One of the few statements about contemporary moral philosophy which is unlikely to encounter opposition is that no moral theory enjoys wide acceptance. At present the most widely discussed theories of morality in the British-American literature are utilitarianism, deontology and social contract theory. The well known utilitarian approach to ethical (note 1) decision making was proposed by Jeremy Bentham in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) and elaborated by John Stuart Mill in several books, e.g., Utilitarianism (1863). In Chapter 1, Bentham defines utility as that which “tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case comes to the same thing)”. Utilitarianism is then based on two premises (which are not always sufficiently separated in discussions of the theory).
The first premise is the belief in consequentialism. Specifically, that morality is concerned with the effects of actions on the happiness of individuals. The second premise is a belief in a maximization principle. Specifically, the right action is the one which has as its consequence the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It is not easy to realize in today’s society what a radical departure the first premise was from the conventional wisdom of its time. The second premise is a foundation of todays ubiquitous use of cost-benefit analysis. Deontological theories of morality take as their premise the belief that human beings have an intuitive knowledge of right and wrong.
Associated with this approach is the belief that human beings have certain rights, and that actions which adversely affect such rights are morally wrong. Historically, one immediately thinks of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; currently, one is aware of the demands for woman’s rights, gay rights, and a variety of economic rights. Since most of us do have strong feelings of right and wrong, there surely is a psychological basis for the deontological approach to morality. Social contract theory as developed by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau takes as its premise that there is an agreement between an individual and society in which the individual agrees to submit to the authority of the government and its laws in return for the government’s protection of the individual’s life and property. These theories were primarily concerned with the moral obligations of citizens and governments. An influential, modern variant of the social contract approach to morality is given in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.
Rawls (1971, p. 12) considers a hypothetical initial situation in which “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like.. [thus] the principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance”. He then deduces what principles of justice would be agreed to by rational individuals in such an initial situation. Rawls notes that his book is not a complete contract theory, but that the contractarian idea can be extended to an entire ethical system.
What are some of the major objections which have been raised against each of these theories? The maximization principle of utilitarianism gives a clear theoretical basis for moral decision making. However, it takes little reflection to conclude that its practical implementation presents grave difficulties. Before deciding upon a course of action, the utilitarian is asked to consider its effects on the entire population and-although this is not explicitly mentioned-over an indefinite period of time. It is doubtful that many pure utilitarians exist. Practical difficulty aside, the basic objection to utilitarianism is the refusal of most people to agree with the premise that maximization of happiness for the entire population should be the basis for all moral decision making. The hypothetical situation created by John Harris in “The Survival Lottery” (1975) provides an extreme example of the conflict between happiness maximization and individual rights.
Two patients, Y and Z, are dying. Y needs a heart transplant and Z needs a lung transplant to survive, but their doctors tell them that since no organs are available they will die of natural causes. Y and Z then insist that the proper moral decision is to kill one healthy man, X, to save the two of them. However, observation suggests that most members of our society would disagree. Why? Because most would agree with the deontological view that X has a “right” to life which must not be abrogated to increase total happiness. Thus while it is conceivable that a society of humans (or post-humans) might someday exist whose moral sense was in innate agreement with utilitarianism, that is not the case at present.
A number of objections have been raised to the version of social contract theory developed by Rawls. By a series of arguments Rawls (1971, pp. 60, 302) deduces that rational persons operating under a “veil of ignorance” would choose two principles. (First) Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive system of basic liberties compatible with similar liberty for all. (Second) Economic inequalities are to be arranged to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged.
While there is little argument over the first principle, the second principle (which is Rawls’ contribution to the theory of distributive justice) is controversial. The argument for the second principle uses a maximin rule for choice under uncertainty (Rawls, 1971, pp. 150-158). It assumes that rational persons will agree to a system for distributing economic goods whose worst outcome (for any person) is better than the worst outcome of any alternate system. While many persons (particularly those of mature years and conservative instincts) would choose the economic distribution system Rawls suggests, it can be objected that many others (particularly the young and daring) would not.
Unless one defines a rational person as one who follows the maximin rule, the question of whether real persons would agree with Rawls could only be decided by a sociological survey. A more general objection to Rawls, and to any social contract theory based upon a hypothetical or historical agreement, is: Why should such an agreement be morally binding on contemporary individuals who are not choosing a moral system under conditions of ignorance? A basic moral question debated in the philosophical literature is illustrated in an extreme form by Judith J. Thomson in “Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem” (1976). In this paper the author constructs a series of cases in which an agent (the driver of a runaway trolley) must choose between either killing/letting die an innocent person or saving five other innocent persons. This problem, of which there are many variations, highlights the conflict between the deontological and consequentialist approaches to morality.
The deontologist believes that individuals have certain moral rights which cannot be sacrificed for the benefit of others; the consequentialist believes that morally correct action depends on its effects. The primary objection to the deontological view is that, in the absence of religious authority, its adherents provide no alternative basis for their choice of moral rights. Their final appeal, as expressed in many papers, is to “moral intuition” or “what we know is right”. In the next section we discuss the sources of our moral intuition and suggest an alternative approach to morality using elements of systems described above. 2.
Analysis The moral system we propose takes as its premises (i) a belief in consequentialism, viz., that the morally correct action depends upon its effects, and (ii) a belief that the effects desired are those which promote happiness. In choosing happiness as the goal of morality, we are in agreement with Mill’s assertion in Chapter 4 of Utilitarianism “that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end”. Note, however, that our formulation will differ from utilitarianism in not adopting the maximization of happiness as a premise. A philosophic question of immense importance to individuals living in a society with a common moral system is whose happiness is considered of moral importance. Historically, most societies did not believe the happiness of slaves to be of moral importance. At an opposite extreme, Nietzsche proposed that only the welfare of the Superman is significant.
We propose, in agreement with the almost universal prevailing opinion, to assume that the happiness of all men/women is of equal moral importance. We noted in section 1 the practical difficulty in using a moral system in which all decisions are made ab initio. Our proposed system includes moral rules which confer rights on individuals. It differs fundamentally from pure deontological systems in that these rights are not absolute. Using philosophical terminology they are prima facie rights in the sense that ” ‘the right to X’ is always to be understood as ‘the right to X unless some stronger claim shows up’ ” (Feinberg, 1973, p. 73).
These rights are to be derived from moral rules which give the best consequences over an extended time period. Exercise of such rights may decrease the happiness of some individuals or even of most of society in the short term. In this sense we agree with the objective of utilitarianism on a long term basis, but not as a system for making short term decisions. As an example of the application of this approach to the moral question raised in “Killing, Letting Die, and The Trolley Problem”, one would be justified in killing one innocent person to save five other innocent persons because there is no absolute right not to be killed. As applied to “The Survival Lottery” one can uphold X’s right not to be killed against the needs of Y and Z for organ transplants because there is no maximization principle to be satisfied.
As mentioned in Section 1, most people do have strong feelings of right and wrong. Where do moral rules come from? In many societies most moral beliefs come from a religious tradition. Some moral rules are common to the major religions. Notable among these is the prohibition against killing-with exceptions for self defense, wars and execution of criminals. Other moral rules differ among religions. An example here would be the Jewish-Catholic-Protestant limitation to one wife and the Muslim-early Mormon approval of multiple wives.
While the traditional religious basis for these rules is the authority of a sacred text, we would suggest that their origin is consequential in that they represent the rationalization of experience accumulated over time. Those moral rules which are common to nearly all societies (both religious and non-religious) we believe to result from something which is common to “human nature”, i.e., nearly all societies find their consequences to be more positive than negative. From the consequentialist viewpoint, moral rules which differ among societies are cultural decisions based upon each society’s historical evolution. History shows that moral rules evolve over time. A most striking example is slavery. It is now almost universally agreed that the institution of slavery is immoral.
Yet almost up to modern times citizens who considered themselves to be highly moral owned slaves. At present only “animal rights” advocates, a small minority, consider it immoral to kill animals for food or use them in medical research. In future times will the present majority who disregard animal rights be considered to be as immoral as those who formerly accepted slavery? The morality of slavery and animal rights is fundamentally related to the question of who are members of the social group to whom the rules of morality apply. One way in which the evolution of morality can be viewed is as the expansion of the concept of society-defined as the group to whom one’s moral rules apply-from family, to clan, to city, to country, to all persons, and (perhaps) to animals. At the beginning of this section we proposed two premises for a moral system: (i) a belief in consequentialism, and (ii) a belief in the promotion of happiness.
To complete the logical basis of the system, we propose (iii) a belief that moral rules should be choices made by a society to promote the happiness of its members. In making these choices members of the society will be guided by experience-thus we have called this system “An empirical approach to morality”. This approach to morality views rights as group decisions codified in law and custom. In order for the system to be viable, a large majority of its members must be in agreement with the moral rules of their society. In this sense we are proposing a contractualist type of moral theory.
It differs from the approach of Rawls in that the agreement is between the current members of a society who have knowledg …