Ethics: August 2011 Archives

I've been trying to put Norman Geisler's normative theory on the map of positions I'm aware of, because I think he makes a genuine contribution to the field, and he's been pretty much on the sidelines in terms of ethical theory given that he's only published with Christian publishers for Christian audiences. He calls his view Graded Absolutism, which I think is a misleading term (and arguably a misapplication of the term, depending on how he means it).

Here are four views along a spectrum:

1. Consequentialism (Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, G.E. Moore) -- consequences are the only determinant of whether an act is right or wrong; genuinely moral principles never conflict, because there is only one -- to seek the best consequences [but much of the work is determined by what counts as the best consequences, with utilitarians focusing only on pleasure and pain and more comprehensive consequentialists including many other consequences)
2. Rossian deontology (W.D. Ross) -- several moral principles are relevant, and consequences play a role as one of them; different principles take precedence in different situations
3. graded absolutism (Norman Geisler) -- several moral principles are relevant, but not consequences; the same hierarchy of importance exists for these principles no matter the circumstances
4. Kantian deontology (Immanuel Kant) -- moral truths are absolute in the sense that they never have exceptions, no matter how serious the consequences are; moral principles never conflict

Consequentialism and Kantianism are absolute in the sense philosophers usually mean when they use the term about an ethical theory. Moral rules are absolute, and there is never any genuine conflict between them. There is at least one moral principle with no exceptions for consequentialists, because there is only one, and it never has exceptions. For Kant, there are several principles, but he thinks they will never conflict. Deontologists think either that there are more principles that matter than just consequences (as Ross thinks) or that consequences are entirely irrelevant (as Geisler and Kant think). Many deontologists find Kant's view implausible, because there are often cases where moral principles conflict. But they also want there to be moral principles besides just consequences. Ross and Geisler offer different views on what happens next.

According to Ross, there are sometimes several moral principles that play a role in a given case, and one of them will take precedence in each case. But it's not according to a pre-existing hierarchy. Sometimes the situation will make one principle more appropriate than another, but in a different situation the hierarchy is reversed. Perhaps the lying principle is more important than the principle of seeking the best consequences when not much is at stake in terms of consequences. It might make things a little better in the world if you tell a lie, but the principle against lying is more important when the difference in your self-interest and the interest of others is not much changed whether you lie or not. But in a case where hundreds of lives are at stake, the principle of not lying becomes less significant than the principle of promoting the good of others (which is a consequence). When I teach ethical theory, I teach consequentialism and Kant and then present Ross as a moderating position, taking aspects of each but rejecting other aspects of each. Geisler seems to have found a different moderating position along this spectrum, one that's closer to Kant in two respects than Ross's view is.

One Kantian element Geisler wants to retain that Ross rejects is in not counting consequences at all. There might be cases where lying is all right, according to Geisler, if a more important moral principle is at stake. But that principle won't be framed in terms of consequences, and how serious the consequences are plays no role in the moral status of the action. (On this point, I side clearly with Ross. Of course consequences can play a role in determining how good or bad an action is, even if they are not always decisive.)

Second, Ross thinks which principle is more important will vary from situation to situation. Geisler doesn't like that. He wants a rigid hierarchy that is the same in every case. The only thing that determines which moral principle applies is which ones are relevant, and then you go with the highest one in the list that's relevant. This is in fact why Geisler misleadingly calls his view absolutist and why he would not think Ross's views is absolutist. What is absolute is the structure of the moral hierarchy. That never has exceptions and doesn't vary from situation to situation. But only the very top moral principle is absolute, strictly speaking, because the others all allow for exceptions. So it's not absolutist about most moral principles, like Kant's view, just about the top one and about the relative positions of all the moral principles in the hierarchy. Most ethicists who speak of absolutism are thinking in terms of whether moral principles in general are absolute, and Geisler's view would say no to that. But if absolutism is the view that at least one moral principle is absolute, then Geisler would agree with that. The top moral principle in the hierarchy is absolute.

I want to distinguish both of these moderating positions from a number of views that they get confused with fairly easily. First, there's situational ethics. Situational ethics is itself often confused with relativism. Situational ethics in reality is a consequentialist position that takes love to be the only important consequence. It is not relativism, and neither is consequentialism in general or utilitarianism in particular, despite all these views sometimes being called relativism.

The views most commonly called moral relativism are meta-ethical views about the nature of moral language. They find ways to account for moral language without there being objective moral truths. Subjectivism says what's right is just whatever the individual person considers right. Cultural relativism says what's right is whatever your culture says is right. Emotivism says there are no truths or falsehoods about right and wrong, and attempts to say something is right or wrong are more like expressing your approval (they mean, roughly, things like "Hooray for helping people out!" and "Boo! Abortion!" but don't express any content that can be true or false). There are other variations, but what all these views have in common is that there is no truth or falsity of moral statements except, possibly, to express truths about the person making the statement or about that person's culture.

Sometimes an incoherent view common among college students is called relativism. This view is basically an inconsistent combination of one of the above meta-ethical views (usually subjectivism or cultural relativism or an inconsistent adoption of both) with the moral absolute that we ought not to criticize other people's moral views or other culture's moral views. I don't consider that a genuine view, just a confusion and an attempt to combine incompatible claims.

But the views I'm talking about here are very different from what's usually called relativism. They are not situational ethics, because they are not consequentialist, and situational ethics is a consequentialist theory involving love as the only important consequence. They are not meta-ethical relativism. The meta-ethical position they endorse is objectivism. The moral principles for Ross and Geisler are objectively true. It's just that sometimes one principle is more important than another (for Ross) or some principles are always more important than certain others (for Geisler).In both cases, the facts that determine which principles are relevant in a case are objective. For Geisler, the hierarchy of principles remains constant across situations. For Ross, it doesn't. But even for Ross there are objective facts about the situation that make certain principles more appropriate for that situation than other principles. Contrast the view that your psychological makeup, moral views, or cultural background is what determines which principles are important. These views are not relativism but genuinely objectivist moral theories.

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