Revisiting A Fruitful Idea about Morality
someone who often teaches the topic of ethics or morality in colleges and
universities, I have noticed that most of my beginning students entertain
conflicting positions about the subject.
They see it either as a one-size-fits-all system of guidelines, wherein
everyone has to act the same way or they are bad people, or as purely
subjective, wherein nothing is either right or wrong and it’s all a matter of
And this is understandable. If there are right
answers to questions about how we should conduct ourselves, it seems to many
those answers must apply to us all, equally. Otherwise how could they be right? So they are pulled toward what is often called moral
absolutism. But it also seems
quite reasonable that certain answers as to how one ought to act do not apply
to all people the same way since they differ in significant ways from one
another. That suggests
How can both of these valid insights be satisfied?
possibility is that a sound, correct ethics offers perhaps just one set of very basic principles that are broad
enough to apply to everyone simply in virtue of us all being human. But this morality would also recognize
that different individuals need different guidelines, given their special
situations, including their unique individuality, culture, even the climate in
which they live.
have this, for example, in medicine and nutrition. There are basic principles
in these areas but when they are applied to different people, accommodations
must be made to the individuals in question–are they men or women, young or
old, tall or short, of a certain metabolism or another, allergic to this or
that? So, while the basics of
medicine and nutrition are taught pretty much the same everywhere, when they
are applied, things begin to vary quite a bit.
morality or ethics, also, we may well have certain very basic principles that
we all need to heed and practice–such as “Think things through before you
act,” or “Be honest with yourself” or “Don’t deceive anyone,” “Do onto others
as you have would have them do onto you,” or “Pursue excellence in life.” (I leave aside now which might actually
be those few sound and universal guiding principles–that takes a lot of
figuring out.) But as applied to
particular, individual persons, what specific guidance would emerge from such
basic principles will not be the same from one person to the next.
something very important about both the concerns expressed by my students and
many others would be satisfied in so understanding morality: there would indeed
be something absolute or invariant about how we ought to act; yet this wouldn’t
amount to an artificially detailed one-size-fits-all code.
the idea would help with many things that concern us all: a just legal system
would not have many general laws, only a few, because citizens are quite
different from one another and have just a few things in common as
citizens. The market place would
make sense, what with all its highly varied goods and services aiming to fit
different customers and using the varied talents of producers. Even art might benefit from this
outlook: We all tend to think, I believe, that some things really are
artistically excellent while others lack this quality; yet we also realize that
different people, with various special attributes, backgrounds, and so forth,
will appreciate different excellent works of art. Instead of thinking that everyone is artistically blind who fails
to respond to some work favorably that one admires, a great variety of works
will be seen as having artistic merit to different sorts of people, varied
talents will produce varied yet still artistically excellent works. Yet, there will still remain plenty of
room for concluding that some artists’ creations do not cut it at all.
there isn’t much hope of settling big
issues like this in a brief discussion but perhaps some hints toward a sound
approach could at least be established.
Very formidable thinkers throughout human history have grappled with
these matters and studying their reflections would be a prerequisite for making
headway. What I’ve tried here is
no more than sketch out some promising initial ideas.