We face moral decisions as embodied and finite beings, but that does not imply that we are trapped in moral relativism. There are no perfect instructions as to how we should act, because we could never be sure that we had correctly interpreted such instructions even if we had them. Neither an appeal to God, nor an appeal to reason, nor an appeal to “natural” facts, gives us a reliable source for moral instructions. We are dependent on our own objectivity, but this objectivity can nevertheless provide justification for moral judgements in which one judgement is better than another. A_man_and_toddler_take_a_leisurely_walk_on_a_boardwalk

In Western normative ethics there are three major types of moral theory. Each of these points to a different kind of objectivity:

  • Consequentialism: we should act so as to bring about the best consequences
  • Deontology: we should act consistently according to particular rules or principles of conduct
  • Virtue Ethics: it is character that is good, and a good character will spontaneously make the right decisions

Beyond these moral approaches identified in philosophy, there are also other kinds of moral approach identified by moral psychologists, such as those that most value loyalty or sacredness. Any of these approaches can lead us to face up to things we have not faced up to before. The remainder of this page focuses on the three philosophical approaches, but the basic approach to moral objectivity can be the same whatever type of approach you are dealing with.

Consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics can all have a positive role in helping us face up to conditions

  • If we have been following a habitual principle, or complacently relying on our perceived character, consequentialism can make us face up to the consequences of our actions. For example, people who are “good” within the normal standards of their communities may need to face up to the environmental consequences of their actions, or the way in which they encourage structural repression of people in other countries through the goods they buy.
  • If we have been over-reliant on the rational weighing-up of consequences, and have become complacent that we are doing the best thing in the circumstances despite the trade-offs we need to make, deontology can make us face up to the lack of rational consistency in our treatment of others, and the ways in which utilitarian thinking may conceal rather narrow motives. For example, if we regularly do a small action that contributes to environmental destruction, like driving or eating meat, we may feel that the consequences of this action by itself are insignificant and that it is justified by the personal pleasure or convenience it results in. However, applying a deontological ethic such as Kant’s, which asks us to be rationally consistent in the principles we apply, makes it clear that we are making exceptions of ourselves and doing things we would not like others to do. This makes us face up to another kind of objectivity.
  • If we have been focusing entirely on making the right decisions, then we may well have neglected the ways in which character determines a good deal of those decisions. Much of what we do is in any case a matter of habit rather than decision-making, and even the most aware amongst us need the support of good habits. This is where virtue ethics makes us face up to conditions and develop an objectivity that consequentialism and deontology do not make us face up to.

The application of the Middle Way here involves avoiding a metaphysical commitment to the sole rightness of one of these three theories, which would lead to following that theory narrowly over the others. Instead, we need to appreciate that all three theories can offer insights into different ways in which we can develop moral objectivity within our experience. Moral practice requires us to focus on whichever challenge is most relevant to our current experience.

At first sight the Middle Way may seem more closely allied to virtue ethics than to the other two theories. What most virtue ethics lacks, however, is an explanation of virtue which does not simply appeal to what is conventionally accepted in a particular society, or to some metaphysical absolute. A link needs to be made between the concept of virtue and adequacy to conditions, so that a more objective person is one who is more habitually able to overcome limiting illusions when they make judgements. Clearly, however, decision-making criteria are also needed, and the assumption that a good person will intuitively come up with the right decision may work against objectivity.

Such decision-making criteria are useful, but they need to be provisional, and based on an awareness of the Middle Way. We might adopt provisional criteria which involve acting consistently in a certain way, bearing in mind a certain kind of consequence, cultivating a certain quality in ourselves, following the example of a trusted figure, or focusing on a particular social or political change which could bring more objectivity to society. Moral rules have their place and they can be tools for objectivity, but they are much more effective when adopted voluntarily and provisionally, in awareness of their limitations, by those who follow them.

For more details see Ethics audio page and ‘A New Buddhist Ethics’.

Photo: man and toddler on boardwalk, (Wikimedia Commons)

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