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Philosophy 220 Introducing Moral Theory (and the Topic of Sexual Morality)
The Role of Reasons • A fundamental feature of philosophy’s contribution to our understanding of the contested character of our moral lives is the insistence that our responses to moral concerns must be justified. • That is, we must have reasons for believing what we do about the moral dimensions of our sexuality or any other moral issue. • An essential element of the philosophical attempt to provide justifying reasons is the appeal to moral theory.
What Counts as a Reason? • As we will see, many sorts of reasons can and are offered in a philosophical justification of a moral claim, but an essential element of any philosophical attempt to provide morally justifying reasons is the appeal to moral theory. • In order to understand what a moral theory is and how moral theories do the justifying work required, we have to address these questions. • What concepts do moral theories rely on? • What do moral theories aim to provide? • How and why do moral theories employ moral principles? • How are moral theories structured?
The Right And The Good • All moral theories employ and deploy these two main concepts. • “Right” and it’s inverse “Wrong” are typically used to evaluate actions. • “Good” and it’s inverse “Bad” are typically used as an assessment of the value of agents, experiences, things, or states of affairs.
Right/Wrong Action • The concept “Right” has both a narrow and a broad meaning. • Narrowly, right actions are those we are morally obligated to do. • Broadly, right actions are all actions that are not wrong. • The concept “Wrong” has only one meaning. We are forbidden to do wrong actions.
Tripartite Deontic Schema • Given these accounts of the rightness and wrongness of actions, ethicists typically divide the realm of actions for purposes of moral evaluation into three basic categories.
Moral Value • When we identify something or someone as good or bad, we are speaking to its character, and particularly of the moral value that it has. • Things can have or be morally valuable in one of two ways. • Intrinsic value refers to a character or feature inherent in the thing. • Extrinsic value refers to how a thing is related to some other valuable thing (ultimately one with intrinsic value). • Intrinsic value is what philosophers are typically concerned with.
Tripartite Axiological Schema • Given the importance of intrinsic value we can once again identify three basic value categories.
A Theory of the Right and the Good • In light of this, we can define Moral Theory as the systematic investigation into the nature of the right and the good with the aim of guiding moral judgment. • As such, we can identify three tasks that a moral theory must accomplish. • MT must identify the right-making features of actions. • MT must provide an account of intrinsic value. • MT must specify how these accounts can serve as the basis for the justification of specific moral conclusions.
Two Main Aims of Moral Theory • These three tasks of moral theory provide us with the means of distinguishing two main aims of such theories. • The theoretical aim (corresponding to first two tasks) is to identify the underlying features of actions, persons and other morally relevant elements that make them right or wrong, good or bad. In other words, MTs have to account for what makes something morally relevant. • The practical aim (corresponding to the third) is to be action-guiding. In other words, to provide us with resources with which to respond to the moral issues which confront us.
Taking Aim with Moral Principles • An important tool that philosophers use to satisfy these aims is the moral principle. • A moral principle is a general statement of the right-making characteristics of actions or the specification of intrinsic value. • Principles that focus on actions are called “Principles of Right Conduct.” • Principles that focus on intrinsic value are called “Principles of Value.”
What About the First Aim? • Principles of Right Conduct and Principles of Value certainly seem to satisfy the theoretical aim of MTs, but what about the practical aim? • The operative presumption is that if the principles are correct, then employing the principles to evaluate proposed actions or possible values provides justifying reasons for moral decision making. • But the question remains: are the principles correct?
Conflict of the Principles • Though all Moral Theories have to include both a PRC and a PV, typically these principles are not given equal weight in any given theory. • Some theories make the Good (considerations of moral value) more important than the Right, some the Right (considerations of the deontic status of action) more important than the Good. • The former are called “Value-based MTs” the latter are called “Duty-Based MTs.”
A Plurality of Theories • Given that different moral theories emphasize different values, you shouldn’t be surprised that when we start looking at specific theories, we will find that they highlight different features of our moral lives. • In many cases, these differences mask an essential continuity in moral evaluations, but on occasion there will be important evaluative differences. • We need to consider how we should evaluate the differing claims of the moral theories we will study.
Evaluating Ethical Theories • In addition to a consideration of the adequacy of the arguments offered in support of a particular theory, there are a number of features which a successful ethical theory must exhibit. • The two central features correspond to the two main aims of moral theory • Corresponding to the theoretical aim is the standard of explanatory power: a theory should help us understand our moral evaluations. The better the explanation, the better the theory. • You know murder is wrong. Now ask yourself why? That’s a harder question to answer than it might at first seem, and moral theory can fill in the explanatory gap. • Corresponding to the practical aim is the standard of practical guidance: a theory should help us make the morally correct choices. The better the guidance, the better the theory. • If you are faced with the challenge of having to help a friend decide whether or not to have an abortion, you need a theory that provides determinate, consistent and actionable verdicts.
The Example of Ethics By Authority • We can begin to appreciate the value of these evaluative principles by putting them to work in a consideration of a popular, but not necessarily successful, approach to moral theory. • “Ethics by Authority” refers to a family of approaches to moral justification which share the insistence that all the moral explanation and guidance we need can be located in some “authority.”
Divine Command Theory • DCT is one example of an authority based moral theory. • The key claim of DCT is that, “An action is right if and only if [iff] (and because) God does not command that we not do that action” (p. 33). • One of the virtues of this approach is that it does satisfy MT’s practical aim. • The 10 commandments don’t leave a lot of wiggle room. • However, it does nothing to satisfy the explanatory aim. • Why should we honor our parents? • To say that “It pleases God.” just pushes the question back a level. Why does/should it please God? God’s willing it is no explanation of why it is the right thing to will. Insisting that God is good doesn’t help. After all, goodness is a moral quality which still needs an explanation.
Ethical Relativism • ER is another example. • It’s key claim is, “An action (performed by a member of Group G) is right iff the moral norms accepted by G permit the performance of the action” (p. 34). • Like with DCT, ER seems appropriately action-guiding, but it doesn’t do any better job with MT’s theoretical aim. • Why should the fact that a majority of some members of a group believe that the death penalty is morally acceptable make it so? • Most Europeans used to believe that the earth was flat, but that didn’t make it so.
What have we seen? • Our consideration of DCT and ER has revealed that these two very common approaches to moral justification do not satisfy the evaluative constraints which moral theories should satisfy. • At the very least, this fact calls into question the ability of these two ways of thinking about morality to do the work we ask of moral theories. • As we turn in the next unit to other theoretical approaches, let’s keep this lesson in mind and ask ourselves if they do a better job of satisfying the fundamental aims of moral theory.
Sexual Morality: Some Helpful Distinctions • Though we are more familiar with their use as political labels, the terms “Conservative,”“Liberal,” and “Moderate” are frequently used in moral theoretical discussions of a range of moral issues. • In the context of Moral Theory, these terms refer not to political ideologies, but to accounts of how narrow or wide the range of permissible behavior is. • In MT, conservative positions tend to advocate a very narrow range of permissible behavior, liberals a wide range, while moderates fall somewhere in the middle.
The Range of Sexual Behavior • In the context of sexual morality, conservatives, moderates and liberals tend to disagree about the sorts of relationships in which sexual behavior is permissible. • Conservatives tend to restrict sexual behavior to married couples. A more moderate person may argue that sex is permissible if the people are in love. A liberal on sexual matters is likely to argue that more general restrictions on human interactions (for example: don’t hurt people) are the only constraints on sexual interactions.
A Few Caveats • Remember, these labels are not the same as the political ones, even when there are obvious points of overlap. • Some political conservatives will also be sexually conservative, but not necessarily. Some political liberals will be sexually liberal, but not necessarily. • These labels do not always map straightforwardly on to questions of the moral status of a range of sexual behaviors (like pornography or prostitution). • Different representatives of these positions are not always in agreement with each other. • One sexual liberal may think adultery acceptable, another not.