Absolute and Relative morality  

 

 

What do we mean by absolute and relativist morality? 

Absolutist morality

It is when moral decisions are made with the conviction that there is an absolute principle that can be applied to every situation. From this a moral law can be derived. For example, an absolute principle may be do not kill and from this a moral law like do not abort because it is murder can be formed. These theories are objective because a person or the context holds no value to the absolutist. For the purposes of this module the absolutist theories are Kantian ethics (lying) , Natural Law (contraception) and some forms of Christian ethics like following the Decalogue

Relativist morality

This is where decisions are made with the influence of cultural and sociological factors. Relativists depend on individual situations like absolutist depend on absolute principles.These relativist systems are subject because the rely on the person or context to make a moral decision. Again for the purposes of this module the relativist theories are utilitarianism (pleasure) and some forms of Christian Ethics like Situation Ethics. 

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Root of Natural Law

Roots of Natural Law

  • The roots of Natural Law can be dated back to the Greek (8th – 6th C BC) and Roman era (27th BC to 476 AD).
  • However, the two man roots of Aquinas’ Natural Law lie in Aristotelian work and the Stoics. 

Stoics

The Stoics existed in the 3rd C and they emphasized the importance of ‘logos’ (rationality that governs the world and sees human nature as part of one natural order). They believed that Natural Law is the Law formed by right reason. Right reason only serves its own ends and is not corrupted into serving special interests. This right reason helps humans to judge whether or not they want to follow a divine spark which existed in them. Being Pantheist they said humans have a divine spark within them which right reason helps them to follow.

Aristotle 

Aristotle believed that we can judge the extent to which an action is good by seeing if it helps us to attain our ultimate good. It is difficult to see what our ultimate good is, it is not like maths. Higher social activities which other animals cannot do are ones which should be fulfilled in order to live a well functioning life. He also believed reason was key in working out ethics, this he called practical ethics. In ethics, Aristotle claimed, we go from ‘true but obscure judgements’ to general ethical principles (see parallel with primary and secondary principles). We can work out these principles by comparing to what extent they help us to achieve our ultimate good. 

In summary: Everything has a purpose and by fulfilling it we can reach our supreme good – eudaimonia.

Aquinas came along and identified three crucial things from Aristotle and the Stoics which he married with ideas of Christian Theology to create Natural Law theory. Those three points were:

  1. Human beings have an essential rational nature given by God in order for us to live and flourish.
  2. Even without knowledge of God, reason can discover the laws that lead to human flourishing.
  3. The Natural Laws are universal and unchangeable and should be used to judge the laws of particular societies.

Aquinas believed our telos isn’t eudaimonia buy rather perfection. We should strive for this because we are made in the image and likeness of God. Furthermore, for Aquinas this isn’t something which can be achieved in this life but rather starting in this life and continuing through to  the next.

Natural Law helps us to fulfil our telos of perfection and this in itself will help to live a fulfilled life and flourish.

Aquinas said that humans have a natural inclination to do good and avoid evil. Hence, he distinguished between real and apparent good. As no human would for this reason knowingly commit an evil action, he said people are evil unknowingly. They are following “apparent good” (something which seems to be good or the right thing to do but does not fit with the perfect human ideal). A “real good” on the other hand is the right thing to do, it fits the human ideal. 

Natural Law: Strengths & Weaknesses

In the table below are the strengths and weaknesses of Natural Law. Please find underneath it a show video on the same topic. 

Strengths

Weaknesses

1. There is emphasis on innate human reason which is a positive because unlike emotions reason does not change. It also means the theory is universal and can attract a large number of supporters.

1. Natural Law finds it difficult to relate to complex decision to basic principles in practice e.g. should more money be spent on hospitals or schools?

2. Clear-cut approach to morality and establishes common rules.

2. It commits a Naturalistic Fallacy according to G.E.Moore. One cannot derive an ought from an is i.e. is we assume God created a moral law is a fact or that we have a natural inclination to care for others as a fact- this does not we ought to follow the moral law or care for others.

3. The basic principles of preserving human life, reproduction, learning and living in a society are common in all cultures hence Natural Law is a reasonable theory.

3. Natural Law is based on five assumptions, the primary one being that humans and the world in general has a purpose, however, modern science can be used to show why this isn’t the case.

4. Natural Law does not just dictate what should be done it goes beyond that, like Virtue Ethics, it concentrates on human character and virtues.

4. Neilsen uses cultural relativism to question Natural Law and the belief in one common law.

5. Natural Law relies on practical wisdom as well as reason including the body, some emotions and passions sometimes.

5. Baron says that relying too much on reason is bad because this leads to corruption as human nature is corrupt. He believers it is better to follow scripture and revelation. 

6. All things required for happiness e.g. health, friendship etc are morally good and can be achieved through Natural Law.

6. It is difficult to work out the primary purpose of everything e.g. is the primary purpose of sex to procreate or enhance a relationship – the clitoris provides evidence that the sole purpose of sex is not just to have children.

7. It is useful for the issues where the Bible is silent e.g. IVF

7. Some Catholic Scholars believe Natural Law is not enough on its own to be a true Catholic- Church teaching and revelation are of utmost interest too!

8. One cannot rely on predicting consequences because often we are wrong so Natural Law provides a good alternative to consequentialist theories

8. Vardy and Grosh criticize the way Aquinas works from general principles to lesser purposes and sees his view of human nature as unholistic and simplistic. 

9. It puts a high premium on life and protects the vulnerable.

9. It is self-contradictory you cannot say that clear-cut rules are provided and then uses casuistry to allow room fro flexibility.

10. It upholds human rights and has been included in the UN declaration of human rights.

10. What is more important actions or consequences? e.g. if a man with an axe asked you where your friend was surely it is more moral to lie and save the life of your friend?

11. Casuistry allow it benefit from flexibility as well as adhering to benefits from being absolutist.

Ethical Responses to Euthanasia

Utilitarianism

Act: Bentham would use the hedonic calculus to work out what the right thing to do is. Often in cases of euthanasia the pain is so great that Bentham would be for it as euthanasia is produces the greatest good for the greatest number.

Rule: Mill would agree with euthanasia because he held firm beliefs in the sovereignty of individual. He would however, look at each situation individually, e.g. Thomas Hyde who has the same condition as Steven Hawking ALS  would say that even though the body is dead the brain isn’t which is a higher pleasure and so the act of euthanasia would not be acting on the GHP.

 Singer – Singer was very much in favor of the QoL argument saying we should replace the outdate SoL principle with 5 new commandments:

  1. All humans do not possess equal worth
  2. We should take responsibility for out actions
  3. By saying humans are greater than animals we are committing specism 
  4. Bring children only in this world if they are wanted
  5. Respect a persons wishes to live or die

The last commandment particularly forces us to accept euthanasia as a morally permissible act.

Kant

In order to work out Kant’s response to the ethics concerning euthanasia we must explore how they would fit in with the three formulations of the Categorical Imperative.

1. Universalization

It would be absurd to say it is logical to universalize a law such as ‘I should help X die’ as that would imply that everyone is being helped to die. A claim like ‘ I should help X die if they are in  terrible pain and request to do so’ makes more sense if you are a Kantian and wish to embrace euthanasia. The problem is euthanasia is essentially form of suicide [assisted] and Kant gives the example of suicide being a perfect duty – something we should in no circumstances do.

2. Means to an end

By committing euthanasia we may be using the ill patient as a means to an end so we may be using it to cut costs, use the medical equipment etc for someone else, to be free of constantly visiting the hospital etc and Kant would say this is wrong. Some scholars however argue that euthanasia uses a person as an end in themselves because one is respecting their wishes. However, the problem is Kant clearly states that suicide is an immoral act and lists it as a perfect duty.

3. Kingdom of ends.

Here Kant says we should as though we were making the maxims into laws of nature and obviously euthanasia could not be a law of nature because it is unnatural and hence immoral.

Natural Law

Natural Law follows similar principles to the SoL principle. One of the primary precepts is to live – life the supreme good. This implies that secondary precepts which are absolute can be formed such as do not kill or commit suicide. As euthanasia is clearly a form of killing or suicide then Natural Law ethicists would be against it. However, it isn’t as absolute as Kant because the principle of double effect exists. If you overdose a patient with morphine with an intention to reduce pain and suffering but the by product is death – this can still justify euthanasia.

Situation ethics

A Christian God is personal one hence each situation should be looked at personally bar an legal rules and regulations. In many of these situations the most loving thing to do is to commit euthanasia and hence euthanasia can be accepted as a situation ethicist.

Religious Ethics

Bible

    • Job “God gives and God takes away”
  • Countless passages on SoL 
  • The body is the temple of the Holy Sprit 

All these hint towards a case against euthanasia

Catholicism

They see abortion and euthanasia as murder and hence it is immoral.

They believe in the strong SoL principle.

Church of England

    • Weak SoL
  • Recognises that in some situations it is necessary

Salvation army 

Direct challenge to Mill because they believe in the sovereignty of God.

 

Aristotle’s Idea of Purpose & Eudaemonia

This is a quick note on Aristotle’s ideas on purpose:
  • He believed that something is good if it fulfils its purpose. For example, a plate is ‘good’ if it fulfils its purpose to serve food.
  • This is based on Aristotle’s ideas of causality.
  • As everything has a Final Cause, it is possible to determine what is ‘good’ by examining the organism’s apparent purpose.
  • The basis of the Roman Catholic morality is Natural Law which was put forward by Aquinas. Aquinas married that ideas of Aristotle to Christian Theology.
  • Aristotle spoke of eudaemonia, ‘greatest good’ or spiritual satisfaction. This good comes about through self-realisation and fulfilment of human potential.
  • The eudaemonia is achieved through exercising the virtues, which would not only seek pleasure but knowledge and spiritual satisfaction.
 
Personally, I think that these are good values to base an ethical theory on because they are logically. However, in the gist of mixing it with Christian theology I believe Aquinas lost the logical sense it made. This is because with Natural Law, there can be a lot of ‘hypocrisy’ e.g. it was OK for Mother Teresa to devote her life to the poor and not get married and have kids and people like her are exempt from the law but for an average person they must fulfil the law of getting married and having kids.