Morality and moralities

Fabricio asked:

What’s the difference between moral subjectivism and moral pluralism? How do I know which one I follow? I do agree that Stalin was both evil and not evil… but utterly, there is no truth.

Answer by Paul Fagan

I will concentrate on the spirit of your question, in an attempt to describe the two branches of moral classification that you have highlighted; I hope this gives you enough pointers to pursue your own research.

A good place to start in this area is provided by James Rachels in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy, where one chapter is entitled ‘Subjectivism in Ethics’. Basically, if you found an action such as abortion to be reprehensible or you found homosexuality to be disgusting, and you rested your dislike only upon your intuitions, then you would be enacting a form of ‘moral subjectivism’.

However, most of us, when given a choice, change our minds about many important aspects of our lives: our religion; our politics; our diet; and our conduct towards others. The very fact that there are other opinions that we may adopt, should give us a strong hint that being morally subjective is often not the most rational way of living our lives, and we may query whether there are other more cogent moral approaches.

Often such questioning of one’s own opinions is a precursor of accepting, what may be termed, ‘moral pluralism’ (and one definition may be found in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/moral-pluralism/v-1). Moral pluralism generally acknowledges that there is a variety of viewpoints, but moreover, one may be encouraged to apply a selection of these viewpoints to problems to find a solution.

The example of the twentieth century soviet leader, Josef Stalin, provides a focus where both moral viewpoints may be demonstrated. Firstly, if you think that Stalin was a ruthless, political ideologue who would stop at nothing in order to introduce his politics to the world, and nothing will shift your opinion from this, then you are possibly prone to moral subjectivism. However, if you accept this first stance as only one opinion, but at the same time, would also consider that Stalin liberated oppressed peasants by industrialising the Soviet Union and provided the dynamism for the creation of a world superpower, then you are possibly a follower of moral pluralism.

To conclude, if you are set in your ways and have a dogmatic opinion on the most important aspects that affect people’s lives then you may consider yourself to be a moral subjectivist: but if you are likely to change your mind about such things, after due deliberation, then you may be a follower of moral pluralism.

Is having lots of money wrong?

Nigel asked:

What’s so wrong about having lots of money?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Depending upon which philosopher you ask, having ‘lots’ of money may not necessarily be a bad thing. That said, it is argued here that current liberal societies should be wary of too few people having enormous amounts of money.

For libertarians, one should ideally be able to own all of ones produce without interference from anybody, and if this includes lots of money, then being wealthy represents a natural state for some (and for more detail, the reader may like to visit my recent article on this site, entitled Nozick’s libertarianism and self-ownership).

The libertarian position may expect to be opposed by various factions, and this would include communitarians. They may argue that a person is not an entity that can be separated from their surrounding society, and for this reason, an individual cannot expect sole control over wealth, which is in fact society’s wealth. They may further elaborate this argument by noting that individuals learn their skills from society and owe society a debt for their enrichment; additionally persons are dependent upon society in which to exercise and benefit from their skills (and for more discussion, the reader may like to visit one of my older articles on this site, entitled Man is semi-autonomous). Hence, the individual may be considered to be enmeshed within society.

That said, most societies in practice, such as liberal and socialist ones, occupy a position in between these two extremes. In order to prevent suffering within their populaces, or because they feel society would benefit if money was redistributed, most societies value some form of redistribution between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.

However, the modern age may have brought a new phenomenon. It would appear that with the advent of globalisation and the free movement of capital, greater and greater amounts of money are being concentrated in the hands of fewer people. In 2017, the following statement came to light:

‘…the world’s richest one per cent […] own more than the other 99 per cent combined’

This was published by Oxfam (Oxfam. 2017. ‘Press Releases’. https://www.oxfam.org.uk/media-centre/press-releases/2017/01/eight-people-own-same-wealth-as-half-the-world), and admittedly, there have been those who query its accuracy. Nevertheless, if we accept for the purposes of argument, that it is roughly correct, then it may contain the seeds of problems for some societies.

This may be particularly true of liberal societies, which generally exalt the freedom of the individual and encourage personal aggrandisement (and a definition of liberalism may be found here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/liberalism). To explain, if a few people own enough money to control manufacturing, then they may limit the goods a person may buy, and if a few people own the media, then they may attempt to dictate how people should think. Hence, a paradoxical situation may be arising: although liberalism extols individualism, there may actually be less individualism in practice where a mere handful of individuals dominate the resources.  Liberal societies may be inadvertently limiting liberalism, and when this is realised, they may decide to take remedying action. Hence, from a liberal viewpoint, if too few persons have so much money that they confine liberalism, then it may be considered ‘wrong’ for these individuals to have too much money.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Mary asked:

When is it ethically acceptable to rob Peter to pay Paul?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Often, this saying is used where distributions of wealth are considered to be a zero-sum game: nobody really benefits from an act of ‘robbery’ as resources are merely moved around. However, if one or more parties could benefit from an act of redistribution then this becomes an easier question to answer: under certain circumstance, some political philosophies would not hesitate in redistributing Peter’s property in order to make Paul’s life, or the lives of both parties, better. Some simple examples are provided to demonstrate this.

For instance, imagine Peter and Paul live quite happily on a desert island. Peter is the island’s landlord, and using his own efforts produces two bushels of corn with the land, and this provides enough for both parties to subsist.

However, if all of the land were given to Paul, he would be able to produce four bushels of corn. This would enable the island to subsist, produce some surplus grain and allow the island to trade with nearby islands to acquire other goods. Now, if Paul could not come to an arrangement with the landlord, whereby he could lend or lease the land, then some utilitarians, seeing how this second scenario benefits the island materially, would wish to see Peter’s landholdings given over to Paul.

A third scenario may be favoured by egalitarians who would wish to see equal holdings of land. They may favour a situation where Peter’s property in land is distributed equally between the two islanders. This would be likely to yield 3 bushels of corn and although more productive that the initial arrangement, would not be as productive as the second. However, if you value the equal distribution of land over everything else you would be content with this this arrangement.

So there you have it, some political philosophers would be quite ready to ‘rob’ Peter to pay Paul. That said, one should be warned that other political philosophies would vehemently oppose the enforced distribution of any goods held by an individual, and some libertarians may even consider a redistribution of a person’s goods to be akin to an assault upon the person (and the reader may like to visit my recent article on this site, entitled Nozick’s libertarianism and self-ownership). The libertarian Robert Nozick was adamant that only voluntary donations should ever be redistributed: in his Anarchy, State and Utopia Nozick felt that the vast majority of persons would voluntarily contribute to schemes to rid society of an ‘evil’ such as poverty for example, as people desire to be part of the solution to such problems (Nozick 1974: 265-7).

Although this may seem to be a very simplistic question to ask, it actually opens up a hornet’s nest for political philosophers and yields a variety of answers (and should the reader have time to spare, then a visit to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on ‘Distributive Justice’ may prove to be enlightening: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-distributive/). However, in concluding, as most societies continue with some form of redistribution between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, then it may be a deeply held ethical view amongst human beings that acts of redistribution, similar to those demonstrated, hold great value.

Kant on organ donation

Elisabeth asked:

What would Kant say if keeping a promise or fulfilling a duty, and using oneself as an end, conflicted? For example, someone selling their kidney in order to use the money to buy life-saving surgery for their child?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Here we are faced with a conundrum that pushes us into the world of contemporary medical ethics. However, by just concentrating upon Kant’s opinion, the fact that Kant was never faced with such a situation would mean that we would be foolish in assuming that we would know what he would ‘say’ with complete certainty.

Nevertheless, by applying a very reduced version of deontology, we may say that we should never be using others as a ‘means’ to an ‘end’. And in the example provided, voluntarily using oneself as a ‘means’, by selling a kidney would seem to be acceptable. Moreover its status as a dutiful and moral act would seem to be reinforced as it allows two others, the child and the recipient of a kidney, to be treated as ‘ends’. Hence, I cannot see any conflict here: of course, all of this rests on there being no risk in any surgery involved, the kidney’s donor retaining a working kidney, and the kidney’s recipient being easily able to afford her purchase.

That said, there may be other reasons why this situation would fall foul of Kantian reasoning, and this may be unveiled by focussing upon a famous line from Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

Following this, we may ask, could the aforementioned organ-swapping scenario ever become a universal law by which we could all live? I am not sure that it could. Furthermore, I am immediately reminded of a thought experiment, referred to by some as ‘The Eyeball Lottery’, that may provide strong intuitive arguments against instituting such a law.

The thought experiment goes as follows. Imagine that a completely, safe operation is developed to transfer eyes from the sighted to the blind allowing the latter to see. A society that wished to give all of its blind citizens some sight may then institute a lottery whereby all two-eyed citizens donate an eye when their number comes up. Although, some persons would willingly donate eyes, others may recoil at being forced to donate an eye, and would consider any forced ‘donation’ to an assault (and at  least two interesting websites are available for further reading concerning this matter: https://www.theadvocates.org/2014/12/eyeball-lottery-powerful-argument-self-ownership/ and https://mises.org/library/self-ownership-freedom-and-equality-ga-cohen).

Hence, although benefitting two persons by a personal sacrifice may seem laudable, many may feel that attempting to engender widespread acceptance of such a sacrifice is distorting any duty we have to others. Even where medical procedures are totally safe, any theorising promoting the normalisation of organ transfers from living donors would have its detractors and could not possibly expect to gain unanimous agreement. At present, the provided scenario is one area where medical ethicists may hope to make progress and set tentative norms.

Nozick’s libertarianism and self-ownership

Joshua Asked:

How does self-ownership relate to Nozick’s libertarianism?

Answer by Paul Fagan

In order to answer this question a reading of Robert Nozick’s work from his Anarchy, State and Utopia of 1974 is presented here. It will be ventured that self-ownership is an integral part of Nozick’s libertarianism and that his theorising is also very dependent upon accepting his notion of individuals’ rights.

To understand Nozick’s self-ownership, one must first accept that individuals own their talents absolutely; and such talents must never be considered to be a ‘collective asset’ held by society (p. 228). After this, one may accept that persons are ‘entitled to’ the products of those exercised talents and all of the holdings that subsequently arise (pp. 225-6). Following this, one may consider one’s produce as an extension of oneself, over which one has the full rights of disposal.

With regard to individuals’ rights, Nozick believed that persons should be recognised as ‘ends’ rather than ‘means’ (p. 31), and that individuals may never be used by others (pp. 31-2).    By applying these tenets to the extended self, as described above, then it is akin to a violation of one’s rights to have any of one’s produce expropriated. This recognition of the rights of others should ideally ‘constrain’ one’s own behaviour in one’s daily life (Nozick 1974: 29), as not to violate others’ property, and by doing, respect others’ extended selves. Hence, Nozick’s notion of rights may be interpreted as being a protecting guard for the concept of self-ownership.

At first glance, all of the above may seem both logical and intuitively sensible: people should be allowed to accumulate holdings, and naturally they should enjoy rights that protect their property. However, Nozick’s arrangement has been subjected to some very deep-seated criticisms and examples of arguments that attempt to undermine his theorising will now be provided.

Firstly, communitarians may maintain that before a talented individual may exercise her talents, a supporting society must exist in the first place. It is therefore, illogical to view a talented individual and her produce in isolation. Individuals and their produce are best considered to be an integral part of a community. Although, libertarians may claim that individuals constantly test their surroundings and therefore should not be considered to be cogs in a machine, it is apparent that the continued existence of varying, identifiable cultures would indicate that peoples’ values are strongly influenced by the greater society enveloping them (similar arguments may be found in Will Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy (2002, Oxford: OUP), pp. 225-6; although a wider discussion is provided in a section entitled ‘The Unencumbered Self’, pp. 221-8).

Secondly, some may argue that the untalented do not really have rights under Nozick’s arrangement as it effectively licenses starvation for the least talented who do not have enough ability to produce goods or sell their labour (Kymlicka, p. 119). Although Nozick would expect charity to prevail (p. 267), within a stringent regimen of self-ownership, it is a transparent fact that no one could ever be compelled to assist the least talented.

As presented here, self-ownership is at the heart of Nozick’s libertarianism and it is also protected by his notion of individuals’ rights. That said, it should be noted that convincing arguments, which weaken the perceived importance of either self-ownership or individuals’ rights, can threaten to discredit Nozick’s libertarianism.

Acting dutifully and acting well

Dzmeb asked:

To act out of duty, is it necessarily to act well?

Answer by Paul Fagan

In order to answer this, I would hold that some philosophers are of the opinion that one may do one’s duty without necessarily acting well. I will attempt to demonstrate this by using an example inspired by the philosophical creed of deontology.

Now, imagine you are in Calais and have just bought some lovely croissants from a boulangerie. Then, you come across a starving refugee in the street. You give a croissant to the refugee and thereby save her life. Here, I would think that most people would agree that saving another’s life is acting out of duty.

On the face of it, you have acted well. But the question remains, have you actually acted well? To explain, if you gave a croissant to the refugee because you felt sorry for the refugee and it makes you personally feel better, then you have really used the refugee as a ‘means to an end’: you have used the refugee in a process that gratifies your own needs.  In essence, you have acted well but only because your self-interest accidently coincided with acting well.

For some philosophers, it would be better if you intended to consistently treat others as ‘ends’ in their own right: in the scenario described, this would occur if you appreciated refugees as persons, wished for them to flourish, and donated a croissant to contribute to this. Therefore, for some, treating people as ‘ends’ and acting accordingly would constitute living ‘well’. That said, it should be noted that this reasoning has its detractors as those adhering to this sort of reasoning are often criticised for being impractically rigid, not providing a theory sophisticated enough to prioritise between differing situations, and also attempting to distance persons from their intuitions and emotions.

Overall, an enormous amount of literature has been written on this type of thinking and the most perfunctory surf of the internet will uncover many situations of this ilk with accompanying discussions. However, if this has whetted your appetite for such philosophising, then the reader may like to visit the entry for ‘Deontological Ethics’ in Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/#AgeCenDeoThe).

In concluding, I would hope that a point has been made quite clearly: that according to some philosophers, one may act dutifully whilst not necessarily acting well.

Morality and one’s own desires

Sasha asked:

To act morally is it necessary to fight against one’s desires?

Answer by Paul Fagan

This all depends upon what desires one has and what moral background we are comparing them with; but in general, I would say that one does not necessarily have to wrestle with one’s own desires to act morally. About a month ago I answered the question ‘What is a Moral Society?’ and I would reassert part of my answer: that it is a society or at a lower level a community, that sets a shared code of conduct, that is agreed by the majority of its inhabitants, that we may term ‘morality’. As most of the inhabitants of a society would agree upon its values and live their lives by them, then it follows that the seemingly presupposed notion that persons have to restrain themselves to live morally would be fallacious.

I suspect that the majority of persons do not need to restrain themselves in society as they have a desire to be part of a community, or in other words a sense of belonging, which outweighs any other desires to better oneself through antisocial acts that harm others. Additionally, one’s conscience would ensure that one’s behaviour aligns itself with the prevailing morality. Either reason may be enough to ensure that most individuals behave themselves but the combination of both ensures all but the most errant individuals cannot be considered to be moral actors.

With regard to persons needing a sense of belonging, this may be a facet that has evolved as living in social groups has been beneficial to humanity’s survival; and without it society would undoubtedly crumble. I would think that there is a deep-seated, innate desire to belong to groups and this entails absorbing one’s community’s standards. Hence, most persons’ desires would coincide with others’.

Accompanying this, most persons also have a conscience and this facet is often called into play when persons are tempted to commit antisocial acts. In fact society exercises so much disapproval over persons who do not believe or adhere to its standards that this phenomenon alone may guide persons’ actions and ensure compliant behaviour; although disincentives are also provided by punishment established through criminal justice systems. Hence, persons with antisocial desires often align their behaviour with moral standards; and the more they align their behaviour the easier this process seemingly becomes.

The commonest schools of philosophy have realised that persons wish to live lives attuned to their society’s standards. Virtue ethicists wish to channel this phenomenon by educating persons from a young age to behave compliantly and rely upon heightening a person’s sense of belonging to ensure this; whilst deontologists or utilitarians may set boundaries by which persons actions may be judged and therefore seemingly place more reliance upon invoking a person’s conscience.

Hence, I would conclude that for the majority of persons, for the majority of the time, they do not have to restrain their desires as they either coincide with society or become aligned. Furthermore, in general, all persons in a society are judged by the same standards although there are times when the logic fails: for instance, those with prestige, talent or even illness may be offered more latitude when they are judged by others.

As a coda, I would add that there are always those who cannot comply with society’s morality and often must be punished. Hence, since the times of early Greek philosophy, much debate has occurred as to why persons intentionally refrain from acting morally and for further reading, one may seek entries in philosophical dictionaries concerning the conundrum of akrasia.