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Where ethics comes from and what to do about it.

The practical difficulty with applying ethical theories to particular problems is that ordinarily people pay little attention to theories when they make moral decisions. Instead, we are guided by our ethical beliefs, which are primarily the result of cultural factors beyond our reach - factors subject to rational scrutiny and to change, but largely out of our control.

One of the most alarming aspects of describing an ethical problem, and of hearing it described by others, is discovering just how many ways it can be done. How a moral problem is described will turn on an array of variables: the role and degree of involvement in the case of the person who is describing it, the person's particular profession or discipline, her religious and cultural inheritance - indeed, with all of the intangibles that have contributed to her character. What is more, the description any person offers will also vary - notoriously - according to whether an ethical decision has been made or is still to come, whether that decision is now judged to be a sound one or a poor one, whether the consequences were intended or unforeseen.

Consider a relatively common case: a middle-aged man with multisystem organ failure, poor but not hopeless prognosis, now incompetent, experiencing what seems to be considerable pain, whose family is faced with the decision about whether to continue his medical treatment. Think of the possible alternatives to the brief and inadequate description I have offered here. A clinician will describe the patient's medical problems, his hospital course, his treatment, his laboratory work, and so on. A moral philosopher will be less interested in the medical details of the case than she will the moral ones, and her description will be constructed from a vocabulary of terms such as autonomy, justice, and beneficence, and the patient's goals, values, and wishes. The patient's wife will describe not a "case," but a continuing chapter in her life. A chaplain, social worker, nurse, or hospital administrator will offer still another description, as will the patient's daughter, his minister, his friends, his colleagues, and his enemies. The perceptions of each of these will change as the patient's story unfolds: what seemed to be minor decisions at one time now appear disastrous; incidents that might have been overlooked now seem to be portents. And any description offered will reflect whether the patient is in a Tel Aviv teaching hospital, a Heidelberg Krankenhaus, or a Chicago V.A- facility.

Perhaps the most frustrating feature of describing a moral problem is the gulf between moral description and moral experience. No description, it seems, can do justice to the realities of our moral problems.[1] It is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to capture the countless subtleties that go into the perceptions and judgments of each person involved: the hopes, fears, prayers, guilt, pride, and remorse; the conflicting emotions that accompany irrevocable decisions; the self-imposed pressure to carry through with an action once a decision has been made. Much of what goes into actual moral choices remains unarticulated. To express these things, even to perceive them consciously, requires a talent possessed by few of us other than novelists and poets.

A second problem comes from the realization that in describing a given case, one has done much of the ethical work already. A person's moral judgment is reflected in what he chooses to include in a description: whether he mentions that the patient's wife has visited her critically ill husband only twice over the past three weeks, whether he reports a bed shortage in the ICU, if he notes that the patient's children stand to inherit the dying man's estate, how he describes the patient's prognosis, whether he brings up the option of palliative care, if he notes that the nursing staff feels strongly that treatment should be stopped, whether he mentions that the patient was an IV drug abuser. One of the most interesting and disturbing discoveries to be made in a medical ethics case conference is how one's moral intuitions change as each player in the drama says his piece, as another perspective is added to one's own. One begins to suspect that it is self-deception to think any description free of ideology, to believe that any viewpoint can approximate that of an impartial spectator.

A third problem is that to make sense of a particular case, one must have some sort of conceptual framework in which to place it. This conceptual framework structures one's perception of the case. Medical students know this as well as ethicists; it is only with time, as more patients are encountered and filed within certain conceptual categories, that one begins to understand how to think about particular cases - what to ask, what to examine, what is relevant and what is not. But concepts of necessity involve generalities, not particulars, types of cases, not individual ones. We swap precision for simplicity. As Nigel Barley says, "Generalizations always tell a little lie in the service of a greater truth."[2] But if general, conceptual frameworks are psychologically essential in ethics, they also make it easy to overlook those aspects of our moral experience that are not easily generalized. Let me mention only a few examples: in theory, it is often said that moral concerns override other concerns, but in practice, one can often readily understand their being overridden themselves, perhaps by practical considerations. In theory, it seems that moral dilemmas can be solved, but in practice they often cannot. In theory, we speak of beings who rationally choose what they believe to be the best action, but in practice, we find ourselves making irrational decisions, under the sway of seemingly inscrutable desires. In theory, guilt is an emotion that we feel (or rationally should feel) when we have acted wrongly, but in practice, we sometimes feel guilty when we have done nothing at all. Indeed, a caricature history of ethics could be written merely by cataloguing various attempts to make our moral experience more intelligible by describing it in terms of something else: moral goodness can be defined in terms of happiness; our moral sense is like our physical senses; moral judgments are like expressions of approval or disapproval. All this is not to imply, I hasten to say, that all theories are caricatures. Such an implication would itself be a caricature. I only point out that moral theories trade in generalities and simplifications which make it easy to forget how particular and complicated our moral experience is.

Implicit in these problems is a tension between, on the one hand, the ethics of description (and consequently of theory), and on the other, the experience of making ethical judgments in concrete cases. The ethics of description and theory seems necessary to make sense of such a wide range of cases, but as with narrative fiction and reality, moral description differs from our actual moral experience. To make sense of ethical problems we must impose some sort of artificial order on the story we tell, whether we do it in terms of a narrative, or ethical principles, or a medical case history. The order imposed on it affects how we respond to it; thus we treat differently the cases we have heard described and those we have actually experienced. In fact, not even those cases we experience at first hand are innocent of theory; our moral judgments change with how we describe the case to ourselves. Joan Didion puts this well:

We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.[3]

For those who make a living by talking and writing about ethics, it is often easy to forget that ethics never came in flavors of deontology and consequentialism; the principles of justice and autonomy and utility are not intrinsic properties of ethical problems. When we speak of ethical principles - or more fashionably, of a communitarian or a narrative ethics - we do so because we find these useful ways of thinking about ethics; they are self-standing conceptual systems by which we can impose some sort of order upon ethical problems. But in reality, ethics does not stand apart. It is one thread in the fabric of a society, and it is intertwined with others. Ethical concepts are tied to a society's customs, manners, traditions, institutions - all of the concepts that structure and inform the ways in which a member of that society deals with the world. When we forget this, we are in danger of leaving the world of genuine moral experience for the world of moral fiction - a simplified, hypothetical creation suited less for practical difficulties than for intellectual convenience.

Theory and Practice

It is sometimes thought that the job of applied ethics is to apply normative ethical theories to particular practical problems. Recent years have seen growing dissatisfaction with such an approach, and the reason is simple: it does not work. The problems are becoming increasingly well rehearsed.[4] In the first place, as there is no shortage of ethical theories, one must be able to adjudicate among rival theories, to decide which to apply to any given ethical problem. This can be difficult, especially when intuition does not incline us in a particular direction. When we do have strong moral intuitions, they are usually concerned with a particular case, and not with a theory.

Moreover, theories are tested not only against moral intuitions; they are also tested against other theories. As moral theories present problems arising out of their own internal tensions - how to mediate between conflicting moral principles; how to account for exceptions to principles - adjudicating between rival theories is usually done by appeal to tests such as clarity, economy, comprehensiveness, and coherence. But while it is obviously easier to understand and apply theories that are clear, economical, comprehensive, and coherent, it is not at all plain why we should expect a moral theory to measure up to such tests, when our own moral beliefs are often genuinely unclear, uneconomical, noncomprehensive, and incoherent. To put it rather bluntly, the conflict here is one between tidiness and truth; we want our theories to be simple and elegant, but also true, and the only measure of the "moral truth" of a theory seems to be our own inconsistent, untidy moral intuitions.

But the most trying problem for ethical theorists is how we should understand the equilibrium in a particular case between our moral intuitions and the mandate of an ethical system. On the one hand, ethical theories are supposed to corroborate and justify our moral judgments, but on the other, particular judgments are also supposed to count against theories. That is, theorists expect particular moral judgments to be backed up by principles and theories, but it may also be considered a failing for a theory if that theory yields an especially counterintuitive judgment. Most of us would consider it sufficient to dismiss a given ethical theory, for example, if it told us that betraying one's friends and torturing the innocent were morally obligatory. Yet why do ethical theories justify some moral judgments and not others? How are we to decide if the theory counts against the judgment, or the judgment against the theory? Our problem is understanding this practical check on ethical theory. For clearly, if a given problem does in fact yield moral disagreement, then any theory that does its job will be counterintuitive for someone, in generating a judgment that runs squarely against that person's sincerely held moral beliefs.

The practical difficulty with applying ethical theories is that ordinary people pay little attention to theories when they make their moral decisions. Moral decisions are, of course, often influenced by theories of one sort or another, but this influence is usually indirect rather than explicit. (I myself refer to no systematic moral theories or doctrines in making moral judgments, but I have no illusions that these judgments are independent of the fact that I grew up as a Presbyterian in South Carolina.) What is more, the rules for moral argument in the ethics of theory seem to differ from the rules that carry weight in the ethics of ordinary life. In theory, one is likely to be criticized for making illogical jumps and deriving illegitimate conclusions. In ordinary life one persuades, cajoles, jokes, threatens, coerces, reminds, harasses, begs, and forgives. One tells stories, makes analogies, sermonizes, moralizes, holds grudges, and gets righteously indignant. This is not to say that one never behaves this way in academic ethics, of course - or that all forms of moral argument are equally valid. But one need only compare the discussion of an ethical issue in a medical journal, a theology journal, and a philosophy journal to see that even in the circumscribed world of American academe, and even in the subculture there of that has devoted itself to discussing ethics, there are strikingly different methods of ethical argument. And the differences between the conduct of moral argumentation in ordinary experience and in academic ethics presents certain barriers to the academic who is concerned with influencing practical decisions. It is difficult to say how a theory can be applied, or even whether it should be applied, if it is alien not only in content but in structure to the way that people are accustomed to making their moral choices.

What, then, accounts for the attractiveness of moral theories? For clearly, a notion so deeply entrenched in moral philosophy cannot be entirely useless. One obvious answer is the theories' psychological appeal. This is not just to say that most of us seem to have some sort of ground-level preference for simple explanations, though there is probably some truth to that. It is also that we need to impose some degree of order on our moral judgments, and theory gives us that order. We do not need order to the degree conventionally required of a moral theory, but it would be psychologically impossible to have a completely random, unrelated, orderless set of moral judgments. We speak and think in terms of concepts, and concepts impose at least a minimal degree of order on our moral experience.[5]

But another reason for the appeal of moral theories, one that moral antifoundationalists tend to overlook, is the extent to which moral theories are genuinely helpful. Simplifying a complicated case to "autonomy versus beneficence" does tell a little lie (many little lies, in fact), but we should not ignore the truth in that simplification - or its usefulness. I can still recall the startling clarity that emerged out of the seeming chaos of numberless cases when I learned to classify them in certain ways: autonomy and beneficence, beneficence and truth-telling, acting and refraining. The simplifications eventually crumble, but it is only because the cases have first been simplified that a critique of simplification is possible. What is more, the truths carried by these simplified ways of seeing often help to sort out the problems in these cases; they capture and summarize the kinds of intuitions that we (at least we in the West) often come to when we think about such problems. It may not help a doctor "solve" an ethical problem to know that it exemplifies a conflict between beneficence and autonomy, but it does often help her to clarify her own thoughts about the matter - not least because it orders and focuses a wide range of disparate intuitions.

And finally, we should not forget theory's rhetorical power. Even if a moral theory is not the sort of thing that can be rigidly "applied," it is one of the tools of rational persuasion, and thus powerful fuel for moral argument. The consistency of a moral theory may point out inconsistencies in conventional moral thinking, which may in turn result in real changes in moral values. (Think of natural rights theory and the French and American Revolutions, or, to take a more recent example, Peter Singer's application of utilitarianism to animals.) Where we go wrong, on the other hand, is in beginning to expect more from a moral theory than it can provide.

Choosing Ethics

When we analyze ethical problems, we are able to choose the ethical principles, values, and beliefs that we think should apply to that problem and govern its resolution. Thus we sometimes tend to see ethics not as an intrinsic part of a society, but as some sort of abstract system to be imposed upon, chosen by, or rejected by a society. The temptation to think of ethics in this way can be especially strong in the United States, where one is likely to encounter individuals with moral beliefs varying over a wide range. Ethics becomes a microcosm of politics, and the question, What shall I do? becomes instead, What is the best moral system for us to have?

In some cases this approach is fine - if, for instance, the question to be addressed is what sort of policy we want in general for our society, and if this is a question about which we are genuinely undecided. And it would be foolish to think that the ethical decisions of individuals in particular cases do not influence the moral values of other individuals, and thus of society in general. The question of how a particular moral judgment mill affect the course of moral thinking in a society is always a legitimate one to consider. This is why, in the previously mentioned case, it is appropriate not only to consider what would be the morally best course of action, but also whether that course of action reflects the sort of policy one would like to see influencing similar decisions elsewhere. The objections of some writers to active euthanasia reflect these sorts of concerns: they recognize that euthanasia may well be the best course of action in some few, individual cases, but fear that disastrous consequences would result if active euthanasia were a widely endorsed policy.

But in other situations the notion that ethics can be chosen might be quite misleading. We do not - we cannot - choose our moral beliefs at will, and consequently a society has only very limited and indirect control over the moral values it embraces. Here the contrast between morality and politics is helpful, because political structures, when they are not tyrannical, are to some extent the product of willful control. In a democratic society we can change our laws, policies, and (less easily) our political institutions. Our moral values, on the other hand, are primarily the result of cultural factors beyond our reach. They are subject to rational scrutiny, to be sure, and also subject to change, but, like the broader aspects of character of which moral values are a part, they are largely out of our control.

The point here is that although they are often concerned with the same problems, questions about personal moral values differ fundamentally from questions about political and institutional policy. And while ethical theories are often genuinely helpful in addressing political and institutional questions, they are much less helpful in particular cases. The reason, of course, is that while we make policy, we do not make our values. We can quite easily choose the sort of principles we think should guide general policy about, say, the allocation of scarce medical resources, or about abortion, but we cannot choose, at least not in the same way, to change people's values, nor can we simply choose the values upon which our own decisions about policy are made. Values are rooted much deeper than that.

Thus it is at least in some sense misguided, even futile, to call for a new "ethics," as seems to be increasingly common nowadays - be it a communitarian ethics, a return to premodern virtue, a narrative ethics, a family or a citizen ethics - if what is intended by such calls is an actual change in our society's moral values.[6] To be sure, sometimes this is not what is intended; what is meant by a new ethics is sometimes a new ethical theory, a call for writers and consultants in ethics to pay attention to forgotten or overlooked values. But often, it seems, the point of a call for a new ethics is to promote in moral agents some new value or new way of thinking about values - to effect real change in the values of a society. And while one small step toward changing moral values is to criticize them and call attention to new ones, we cannot simply return to an Aristotelian world view, or adopt a communitarian ethics. Such sweeping changes in a society's moral values come about only with broader changes in a society's way of life - its traditions, political institutions, family structures, and so on - changes that occur, to a disturbing degree, as a consequence of events that are rarely planned, and often undesired.

Calling for society to adopt new moral values is one way of responding to moral pluralism, as a diversity of values might be the barrier to agreement. A similar and more common way of responding is to construct moral theories that treat individuals as abstractly as possible, appealing to the broadest and most general values that they share, and then constructing a theory on the foundations of these shared values. People are replaced by rational deliberators, bundles of pure will. The solution to moral disagreement is to construct a theory based on principles to which all rational persons can agree, and which will in turn yield conclusions to which they must also agree, if they are rational and consistent.

However, while this may well be an adequate approach to political (policy, institutional, legal) differences, where the aim is a minimal degree of cooperation necessary for peaceful coexistence, moral agreement requires more than a theory, and it requires more than peaceful coexistence. Contemporary moral debate often seems to overlook the fact that ethics can be a very intimate affair; it involves not only respecting rights, but also such things as gratitude, hurt feelings, embarrassment, and love. These things are deeply intertwined with culture and individual character. Policy and law set boundaries for human behavior, but because morality is bound up so tightly with family ties and cultural inheritance, with character, communication, and self-perception, moral agreement requires shared values above a basic minimum. It also requires shared institutions, cultures, and traditions. Moral differences are usually settled not by simply blunting individual differences, but by becoming individuals more like each other. (For all of the hostility United States nationalism understandably arouses abroad, it at least serves this effect: it provides shared ideals that individuals of wildly divergent cultural backgrounds can embrace.)

Concepts and Disagreement

It is often taken for granted that the moral concepts of a society should reflect some underlying standards of order. If they do not, it is up to those who work in ethics to point out the disorder (incoherence, inconsistency) and perhaps to work at correcting it, for this lack of order is at the root of moral disagreement. For instance, when in After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre argues that moral language is in a "state of grave disorder"(p. 2), he cites the existence of widespread, apparently irresolvable moral disagreement as evidence. "The most striking feature of contemporary moral utterance is that so much of it is used to express disagreements; and the most striking feature of debates in which these disagreements are expressed is their interminable character"(p. 6). MacIntyre goes on to suggest that the reason for the disordered state of moral discourse is that we have inherited the conceptual fragments of a multitude of moral traditions, concepts which have been severed from those traditions that grounded them.[7]

Part of the appeal of Maclntyre's account of moral language stems from the extent to which it is obviously true: moral disagreement grows as traditions change and as individuals of divergent cultural traditions come to live together. But part of its appeal also comes from the way it plays upon the tacit assumption, widely shared among writers in ethics, that moral beliefs and values in a society should reflect standards of order of the sort we expect in a moral theory - consistency, coherence, simplicity, and so on - with the result being that disorder becomes a phenomenon that needs explanation.

But what sort of order should we expect in our moral language? Or perhaps even more importantly, what is it for a moral language to be in a state of disorder? Surely it does not mean that individuals in a society have moral beliefs that are inconsistent with each other, or that conflict with the moral beliefs of others; in the West, anyway, this seems historically to have been a fairly constant feature of moral discourse. MacIntyre compares the state of contemporary moral discourse to that of a society which, through some catastrophe, has lost all knowledge of the content and methods of science, and whose scientific discourse must therefore struggle along with the remnants of scientific knowledge and methods left from the old society. The image of a disordered language of morality called up by Maclntyre's scenario resembles that described by Paul Auster in his novella, The City of Glass, where the world, once in the state of Eden, has collapsed into confusion, leaving in disarray the language that describes it:

Nature became detached from things; words devolved

into a collection of arbitrary signs; language

became severed from God....

For our words no longer correspond to the world.

When things were whole, we felt confident that our

words could express them. But little by little things

have broken apart, shattered, collapsed into chaos.

And yet our words have remained the same. They

have not adapted themselves to the new reality.

Hence, every time we try to speak of what we see,

we speak falsely, distorting the very thing we are

trying to represent.[8]

But surely this state of affairs, in which language has somehow remained static while the world has changed and in which human beings can barely understand each other, is not the state of contemporary moral language. Whatever moral disagreement we find in society, contemporary moral discourse allows for communication among individuals with minimal confusion as to what is meant when a moral judgment is expressed. When I say that active euthanasia is wrong, you may disagree, but you understand what I mean. In fact, disagreement of this sort, far from being evidence of a disordered language of morality, presupposes understanding between speaker and hearer about what is meant when a moral judgment is expressed. Before I can disagree with your judgment that active euthanasia is wrong, I must know what you mean when you say it.

Yet the point at which Maclntyre's account goes awry contains an important clue to the extent to which we should expect order in our moral language. We should not expect our moral language to reflect the underlying standards of order we might expect of a moral theory - the standard that insists all of our moral beliefs be consistent with each other and with those of others, formulable in principles for behavior upon which all rational persons would agree. Rather, we should expect our language to meet the minimal standards of order that would allow communication and understanding among those who use it.

How much order will this be? Quite a lot, as it turns out - and this will place limits on the extent of our moral disagreement. For a moral term such as humane, cruel wrong, or perverse to gain currency in our language, speakers must understand what the term means. That is, they must understand that using the word to describe actions or persons reflects a certain attitude on the part of the speaker. Not "just" an attitude, of course, but an attitude of a certain sort, carrying all of the baggage we normally attach to moral terms, such as extreme importance, certain characteristics related to universalizability and objectivity, and so on.

Agreement as to what moral words mean places some constraints on the things to which they can be applied. My understanding of what is meant by kind or cruel is determined by the sorts of things to which these words are applied by the broader community of speakers. If there were not at least some minimal overlap as to the sorts of things to which this community of speakers applies the words cruel and kind, I would be unable to learn what these words meant. Mutual understanding of the word cruel would be impossible if one person applied it to the practice of causing needless pain, another used it to designate the practice of punishing and rewarding only people who deserve it, and a third used it to describe self-sacrifice in the service of one's fellows. Of course, because moral words do reflect attitudes that differ from one person to the next, we will not always have complete agreement about what actions of persons the words should be applied to. But we must have some minimal amount of agreement about certain paradigm examples of cruelty or kindness or perversity, or else moral words would cease to be tools of communication.[9]

It is not always easy, however, to see just how moral concepts are tied to a way of life, especially when that way of life is one's own. Clifford Geertz offers an instructive example from Balinese life with the concept of lek, which is occasionally translated as "shame," but which Geertz says is probably closer to "stage fright." However, to understand what the Balinese mean by lek, one must also have some understanding of the Balinese concept of the self. The Western notion of the self (or at least what is sometimes called, somewhat disparagingly these days, the Enlightenment concept of the self) is roughly circumscribed, independent, free, self-governing, and (more or less) rational. The Balinese notion of the self, says Geertz, is quite different; in contrast to the independent individualism of the Western self, in Bali "anything idiosyncratic, anything characteristic of the individual merely because he is who he is physically, psychologically, or biographically, is muted in favor of his assigned place in the continuing, and, so it is thought, never-changing pattern that is Balinese life." A person is identified by various labels: birth order, caste titles, kinship markers, sex indicators. These identify him as "a determinate point in a fixed pattern, as the temporary occupant of a particular, untemporary, cultural locus." In Bali, says Geertz, life is theater. As such, "it is dramatis personae, not actors, that endure; indeed it is dramatis personae, not actors, that in the proper sense, really exist."o

Lek, then, is not just shame; it is the fear of exposure, that fear that "the public performance to which one's cultural location commits one will be botched and that the personality - as we would call it but the Balinese, of course, not believing in such a thing, would not - of the individual will break through to dissolve his standardized public identity." Geertz says: "When this occurs, as it sometimes does, the immediacy of the moment is felt with excruciating intensity and men become suddenly and unwillingly creatural, locked in mutual embarrassment, as though they had happened upon each other's nakedness.[11]

The point here, of course, is that a moral concept such as lek cannot be understood apart from the Balinese concept of selfhood, which cannot be understood apart from Balinese ritual life, which cannot be understood apart from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Polynesian religions of Bali, and so on. Moral concepts are interwoven into the tapestry of a life. Oddly enough, this is easier to see by looking at another culture than by looking at one's own. We look at Bali through American eyes, with American values; but to look at American life requires that we do it with equipment made from the very stuff we are trying to judge.

I once heard it said (I cannot recall where) that if you want to understand America, you must first understand baseball. There is some truth to that remark - some truth about baseball, to be sure, but also some truth about how American concepts and American problems are inseparable from their broader cultural context. For instance, I have found that non-Americans occasionally find it difficult to understand all the fuss over the "right to die" debate in America, and the vehemence with which it is sometimes argued. Why would anyone want to continue treating a patient in a persistent vegetative state with virtually no chance for recovery? Ah, well, I usually explain, you must also understand how the right to die is related to the right to life, and to the debate over abortion, and to American churches, and to the role of the church in small-town life; you must also understand something about American hospitals and feminism and libertarianism and fundamentalism and natural rights and John Locke and Thomas Jefferson and so on and so on, ad infinitum. To understand America, I explain, you must first understand baseball.

Pluralism and Practical Action

The difficulty with moral concepts, of course, is that when we look at them in this way, as part of a society's form of life, they start to seem "merely" one sort of concept among many, as "only" relative to the way in which a people live. Hence relativism, hence the subjectivity of morals, and hence all the myriad debates in which moral philosophy has mired itself over the years. I believe that the constraints placed on morality by language and concepts prevent such a slide into relativism, but this is not the place to rehearse that debate. More important for our purposes is the relationship of moral pluralism to practical action. It is all very well to say that morality is embedded in a form of life, but how should we respond?

For one thing, it is important to realize that the bare fact of moral pluralism does not minimize the importance of moral conviction. Whatever else a moral judgment is, it is something we take seriously; it is no accident that we speak of moral values, with all the weight that word carries. And moral conviction need not be diminished by the recognition that others have moral convictions they take equally seriously. My recognition that others have differing moral beliefs about a given problem does not require me to sit back in respectful silence. One important mechanism for dealing with moral pluralism in the West is argument and rational persuasion. After all, communal living does require a certain amount of moral agreement.

Another more obvious but less often discussed consequence of recognizing pluralism is a redirection of one's intellectual energy. If moral concepts, and thus moral problems, are dependent on a culture's institutions, then clearly one important way to deal with those problems is to deal with the institutions. Cultural institutions are highly resistant to change, and it is not always clear what changes will solve problems and what changes will create them. But can anyone doubt that a great number of the problems in medical ethics are the result, for instance, of the way American doctors and medical students are trained? Or that many of these problems are fueled by the threat of malpractice lawsuits? Or that the abortion debate could ever be resolved without some broader changes in the circumstances that make abortion seem a necessary choice to so many women? Yet if moral concepts are bound up with a society's way of life, then unless we expect all of the institutions, customs, and traditions of that society to be ordered and systematic, we should not expect moral concepts to meet the standards we would require of a systematic theory. Like other institutions, morality evolves in haphazard fashion, and moral disagreement inevitably emerges in response to broader societal changes. In fact, disagreement is so much a part of our notion of morality that we should reflect for a moment on what else we would lose if moral disagreement were to disappear. The result would bear little resemblance to what, at least in the West, we call morality. The concept of conscientious objection would vanish; we would have no moral reformers and no civil disobedience. We would lose the notion of one's moral ideals being self-chosen, of making up one's own mind about a matter of moral discretion. Also gone would be the idea of moral maturity, which would be replaced by conformity to the moral consensus. Moral reasoning would become like mathematical reasoning; all competent adults would agree which actions were right and wrong, and moral maturity would simply be a matter of acquiring the mental skills to reason correctly.

Moral disagreement will be with us as long as there is disagreement about what way of life is best for human beings. It is not at all obvious that this is a question that is answerable, even in principle.[12] There may be no best life, only better and worse lives. And if morality is tied to a form of life, then it is a mistake to think that we can eliminate moral differences without eliminating the differences in cultures, and in individuals, to which morality is tied. Though the biological characteristics humans share will mean that some lives, and some features of lives, are necessarily good or bad for human beings, there is no compelling reason, universally applicable, for adopting any one particular sort of life over all others - even if we had the choice, which we do not. For this reason, we should expect diversity in the sort of lives that people live, as well as the moral differences that inevitably follow.


[1.] See Grant Gillett, "Women and Children First," forthcoming in Medicine and Moral Reasoning, ed. B. Fulford, G. Gillett, and J. Soskice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press); also his "Euthanasia, Letting Die and the Pause," Journal of Medical Ethics 14, no. 2 (1988): 61-67. [2.] Nigel Barley, Not a Hazardous Sport (New York: Henry Holt, 1988),p.205. [3.] Joan Didion, "The White Album," in the The White Album (New York: Penguin, 1981), p. 11. [4.] See, for example, Annette Baier, "Theory and Reflective Practices," in Postures of the Mind (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 207-27; Robert L. Holmes, "The Limited Relevance of Analytical Ethics to the Problems of Bioethics," Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 15, no. 2 (1990): 143-59; and especially Stuart Hampshire, Morality and Conflict (London: Basil Blackwell, 1983). [5.] Carl Elliott, "Everything Is What It Is," Inquiry 34 (1992): 525-38; Grant Gillett, Reasonable Care (Bristol: Bristol Press, 1989). [6.] For instance, see Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981); John Hardwig, "What About the Family? Hastings Center Report 20, no. 2 (1990): 5-10; Marion Danis and Larry Churchill, "Autonomy and the Common Weal," Hastings Center Report 21, no. 1 (1991): 25-31; Steven H. Miles and Kathryn Montgomery Hunter, "The Case: A Story Lost and Found," Commentary and Overview, Second Opinion 15 (November 1990): 55-57. [7.] See also the excellent criticism of Maclntyre's account of moral language in Paul Johnston, Wittgenstein and Moral Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 87-89. [8.] Paul Auster, New York Trilogy: City of Glass, Ghosts, the Locked Room (New York: Viking Penguin, 1990). [9.] For a more extended discussion of this broadly Wittgensteinian account of moral language, see Paul Johnston, Wittgenstein and Moral Philosophy; Grant Gillett, Representation, Meaning and Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming) and Grant Gillett, "An Anti-Sceptical Fugue," Philosophical Investigations 13, no. 4 (1990): 304-21. [10.] Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge (New York: Basic Books, 1983), pp. 62, 63. [11]. Geertz, Local Knowledge, p. 64. [12.] The best essay that I have read on this subject, and one I have drawn on here, is Stuart Hampshire's superb "Morality and Conflict," in Morality and Conflict (London: Basil Blackwell, 1983).
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Author:Elliott, Carl
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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