Morality – Motive, Relativism and definitions
In discussing morality, many different definitions of the same word seem to be bandied around. So in this post I want to explore the definitions of morality, and the various types of morality that people hold to.
In understanding morality, it is important to note that a particular action in and of itself is insufficient to decide whether an action was moral. This is the case for almost all strains of moral frameworks. To properly understand this point you need to divorce the action from all other considerations. As an example if I was to pick up a newspaper, you cannot rationally judge that action without any additional contextual information. If we get more information about the subject (in this case the paper), for instance that the paper belonged to a guy named Steve we get closer to being able to decide about the morality of my action. One final piece of the puzzle is required however, and that is motive. I could be picking up the paper for any number of reasons. It could be that Steve asked me to get it for him, I could think it was my paper, I could just want a paper to read. Clearly motive is important for deciding the morality of any action. Motive itself seems to contain two components, that of knowledge and intended outcome. Clearly, if I thought the paper was mine (with good reason to believe it was) then it would not be immoral to take it. (note that if this knowledge was corrected at some future point, then how I respond to the new knowledge could be judged immoral or moral).
Clearly, morality is not as simple as it first seemed. The same action can have a range of moral judgements placed against it depending on its context. A man shooting a gun would not be immoral if he was aiming at an unliving target on a firing range would probably not be immoral, yet the same man shooting at a human subject intending to kill him might by moral or immoral, depending on his motive. For instance he could be trying to stop the man from setting off an explosive that will kill a bus load of children or he could be trying to kill him so he can easily steal his belongings.
The waters get even muddier however when we start using words that already have moral judgements attached to them, or words that imply more than just a simple action. When people use the word ‘murder’ they are defining not just an action, but a subject and a motive (i.e knowledge and an intended outcome). If someone is ‘lying’ they are doing an action (speaking a phrase) with knowledge that it is untrue to communicate that untruth to a person.
It is here, where we use these words that are already morally loaded, that the confusion between absolute and objective morality lies. Absolute morality is not saying that a particular ‘action’ is always wrong, it is saying that a particular action on a particular subject for a particular motive is always wrong. Objective morality is saying that morality exist separate from the views and beliefs of conscious beings.
Whilst morality can be absolute without being objective (For instance, if morality was decided by an all powerful being whose views did not change NOTE: This is not the Christian position), I would suggest that objective morality would have to be absolute (as objective morality would have to be sourced from an absolute being – Which is a topic for another post).
So where does that leave us with respect to other types of morality, such as subjective, relative and consequentialist morality?
Clearly if morality was subjective (In the proper sense of the word, subjective morals are actually what is referred to in much philosophical literature as relative morals), then morality would depend on the views of an individual or culture (Or essentially whoever can force everyone to agree with their concept of morality). As there is no objective standard to judge against, there is no rational method to judge between different peoples or cultures morals (I.e. there are no wrong (or right) morals.) Morality essentially becomes a preference, much like a favourite ice-cream. As such, attempting to tell someone else that their morality is wrong is as logically absurd as saying that someone liking cookies and cream ice-cream instead of rum and raisin ice-cream is wrong.
A final type of morality I want to define is consequentialist morality, which includes utilitarianism. In this view, the consequences of an action determine its moral status (The ends justify the means). What this means is that it is less immoral to lie to a ice-cream vendor than to a grand jury and less immoral to steal from a rich man than from a poor. Indeed, it can even be considered moral to steal from the rich to give to the poor (Socialism anyone) or to kill 10,000 innocents so that 1 million people may have better lives (Communism anyone?). One important thing to remember is that consequentialist ethics changes what needs to be known about an action in order to determine its moral status; It is simply what the results of the action were. Considering this definition of consequentialist morality, it is logically possible for it to be absolute, objective, or even subjective (But as previously noted, subjective morality is essentially irrational because there are no standards to differentiate between moral principles)
So, in summary
- Objective morality means that morals are based not dependent on the views and opinions of conscious beings or culture.
- Absolute morality means that morals are dependent on action, subject and motive but do not change.
- Subjective morality (‘Relativism’) means that morals are based on personal preference or cultural preference.
- Consequentialist morality is that the morality of an action is based on the consequences of that action.
For further reading on the different types of morality you can visit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
I don't think your use of 'absolute' lines up with how ethicists generally use it. Shelly Kagan's Normative Ethics, for instance, distinguishes between moderate and absolute deontologists. He considers consequentialists absolutists because they have one principle that always holds. Absolutists deontologists like Kant hold that lying is wrong no matter what. Moderate deontologists have a threshold based on how much good is at stake. If it's so great that it's worth overcoming the constraint against lying (and this might require a lot at stake), it's ok to lie. This is indeed not absolute, but it's pretty clearly objective. There are perspective-independent facts about which such cases would be ok to lie. So the way people normally define 'absolutism' it doesn't follow that denying absolutism makes one a subjectivist or relativist.Post a Comment