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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Just War Theory

Just War Theory

This theory dates back to St Augustine who had to persuade the pacifist Christian tradition in Roman times that war can sometimes be necessary. St Aquinas and other theologians later developed this theory. There are three parts to this ethical theory JUS AD BELLUM –rules set out for going to war, JUS IN BELLO – rules set out for being in war and JUS POST BELLO – the nature of how a war is ended.

So what are the Jus Ad Bellum Conditions?

  1. Just cause – in order for a war to be declared there must be a just cause. But who is to judge what is a just cause?
  2. Right intention – It is linked with the part of Natural Law that states that intention is really important. Ulterior motives such as acquiring land or protecting oneself should not be intended. But how can you test/measure intention?

Proportionality – The damage caused by the war should not exceed the good expected to come out. How are you supposed to predict this?

  1. Declaration by a legitimate authority – This principle is linked with this quote from the Bible “Obey the powers that be for they are ordained by God” Romans 13:1-2. Some like Wilcockson say that this principle has been overlooked so that terrorists now have rights of this nature.
  2. Last resort – Every other must have been used before going to war e.g. peaceful negotiations. If an authority has already decided this is what they want to do is there any point in negotiations?
  3. Formal declaration of war – Some countries do not recognise the UN rules for going to war and they may not recognise this principle. We have seen some of the most horrific example of when this rule has been violated e.g. Pearl Harbour
  4. Reason chance of success – There should be a relative chance of success but if one knows they don’t have a chance of success they may feel ashamed in declaring it.

Then what are the Jus In Bello conditions?

There are two conditions according to Just War Theory for how we should behave in war. Jus In Bello requires agents of war to be responsible for their actions.

  1. Principle of discrimination – innocent people or ‘non- combatants’ should not be directly or directly attacked according to the Geneva Convention. Is this really possible?
  2. Principle of proportionality – Minimum force should be used to achieve good and just like with proportionality before the damage caused should not outweigh the good. With nuclear weapons is this really possible?

And what about Jus Post Bello then?

This is a fairy new addition to the Just War Theory. This concerns the aftermath of war and restoring peace and fairness.

Restoring human rights – bringing back the equality and rights that everyone has.

  1. Distinguishing between innocent civilians and those who should be punished
  2. Bringing to trial war criminals and ensuring they receive justice
  3. Giving the defeated country the opportunity to reform.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism Bentham – Act Utilitarianism Mill – Rule Utilitarianism
Strengths (Bentham 2 – 5 taken from Wiki answers ) 1. Easy to use – clear criteria and offers a systematic approach to ethics.

2. Utilitarianism cannot be faulted on its morals as it clearly seeks the happiness and fairness for the largest number of people, which has always been an important consideration in the works of government and other major powers, as well as in everyone’s everyday life.

3. Designed for global politics unlike Kantian ethics.
Also, it considers the consequences of all actions, which is key in building a civilized society. If people were not aware of consequences then there would be no deterrent to commit crime.

4. Also, it encourages a democratic approach to decision making, and minorities are not allowed to dominate.

5. It does not rely on any controversial or unverifiable theological or metaphysical claims or principals, so it is accessible to everyone.

1. Mill considers emotions a form of higher pleasure which is a strength because it can make the theory a little less impartial and allow more room for emotions. In the house on fire example (Bentham Weakness 3) Mill could possibly allow you to save your mother arguing  your emotions are a higher pleasure and since he gives no explanation of what to do if pleasures clash we could justice the saving of the mother.

2. Mill’s idea of creating generalized rules makes the theory more objective and provides us a means to creating universal rules.

Weaknesses 1. Difficult to predict consequences e.g. if you plan to hit someone you might predict that they will be upset because 99.9% of the time this is the result however, what if the person turns out to enjoy it and get pleasure out of pain – all you consequences are wrong!

2.Utilitarianism is a demanding theory as something as simple as buying an ice-cream can be deemed immoral because you know that the money could be spent elsewhere in order to get the greatest good for the greatest number.

3. Some critics argue it is too impartial – if a house was on fire and you could only save your mother or the world’s best sergeant you would according to the PoU (principle of utility) have to save the sergeant. No room for emotions. John Rawls advocates this criticisms pointing out that it could support a more dictatorial society just because it produces the greatest amount of pleasure.

4.Utilitarianism is subjective – what is moral for one person isn’t the same for another implying that no such universal law system can exist.

5. Utilitarianism implies that everyone has a moral faculty (awareness that gives us a sense of moral judgement) and not everyone has this young kids, disables persons etc. This alienates people from the theory.

6.Bentham and Mill both commit a naturalistic fallacy according to G.E.Moore, just because something is desirable and produces a lot of pleasure does not imply that we ought to pursue that action.

1. Difficult to predict consequences e.g. if you plan to hit someone you might predict that they will be upset because 99.9% of the time this is the result however, what if the person turns out to enjoy it and get pleasure out of pain – all you consequences are wrong!

2. Utilitarianism is a demanding theory as something as simple as buying an ice-cream can be deemed immoral because you know that the money could be spent elsewhere in order to get the greatest good for the greatest number.

3. Utilitarianism implies that everyone has a moral faculty (awareness that gives us a sense of moral judgement) and not everyone has this young kids, disables persons etc. This alienates people from the theory.

4. Mill makes several elitist claims e.g. for example it is better to a dis-satisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig (comparing not so intelligent people to pigs), claiming that the higher your moral faculty the more difficult to find pleasure (as not so intelligent people are satisfied with almost anything). Yet what Mill fails to acknowledge is if through utilitarian values a pig can be satisfied then this devalues the intellectual ability of all humans.

5. Mill uses non-utilitarian values such as justice (supreme moral good) and from this we can infer that there are more important things than happiness and this inference destroys the foundation of utilitarianism.

6. As mentioned previously, Mill does not discuss what happens if rules/higher pleasure conflict. Adding to the ambiguous nature of utilitarianism.

7. Furthermore, given that the rules are generalized and formulated through experience this means that they are not absolute and can be broken. But it is difficult to see how one would know when an exception could be added and if we keeping using exceptions and don’t make Mill’s utilitarianism rigid then this some scholars imply collapse it back to act utilitarianism. E.g. the rule tell the truth unless a lie produces more pleasure isn’t that essentially Bentham’s form.

8. No two moral situations are exactly the same so how can rules based on past different (Albeit similar) circumstances helps us with new situations?

9. Moreover, Mill argues that a competent judge would always pick higher pleasures over lower pleasures yet this is not true for all circumstances e.g. if Mill was somehow stranded in a desert he would not pursuit poetry or imagination he would pursue drinking water – which is a lower pleasure- doesn’t this mean he has an infirmity of the mind?

10. Bentham and Mill both commit a naturalistic fallacy according to G.E.Moore, just because something is desirable and produces a lot of pleasure does not imply that we ought to pursue that action.

The Status of the Embryo

AS Ethics 

The Status of the Embryo and Abortion

The status of the embryo is extremely important when exploring the morality behind abortion because it implies whether abortion is an act of murder or not. There are several suggestions of the status of an embryo:

  1. Personhood 
  2. Natural Law/Christianity
  3. Aboriginal People
  4. Ensoulment 
  5. Science (viability)
  6. Kant
  7. Judith Jarvis Thomson

Personhood – Life begins when develop into a person

Personhood essentially suggests that when a human being is a person acts such as abortion become murder otherwise they are acceptable. This is a secular approach to medical ethics and is a subjective one too (that is perhaps one of its problems). 

Mary Anne Warren was an American writer and philosopher who died last year (2010). She put forward a criteria and said to be a person you don’t have too meet all the criteria but at least a few and because a foetus does not meet any of it, abortion is not murder because the foetus is not a person.

Criteria

  1. Consciousness – foetuses are not aware of objects and events external or internal to the  being and are not capable to feel pain.
  2. Reasoning – Foetuses cannot solve new and complex problems
  3. Self-motivated activity – they are not capable of activity independent to genetic or direct external control 
  4. The capacity to communicate – the foetus does not communicate
  5. Self-awareness – babies are not aware of themselves.

Furthermore, she rejects the idea  of the foetus as a potential person, a being which would develop these characteristics. She said predicting the potential person a foetus would develop is difficult and there remains a chance it would still not meet these criteria and hence using this argument does not work, she said following a criteria is better

Conclusion: Abortion is acceptable as a foetus is not a person

Evaluation

Problems:

  1. Even young babies are not self-aware.
  2. Later foetuses have the ability to feel pain and communicate by kicking.

Responses:

  1. But they have the ability to communicate and engage in reasoning.
  2. There is no evidence for this and it is arguably just a perception of the mind.
  3. Sperm has the potential to be a person yet no-one sees it as a human its the same with a foetus.

Natural law /Christianity

The tradition Roman Catholic view is the life begins at conception so abortion is absolutely always wrong. Furthermore, the Sanctity of Life argument is used to demonstrate this.

One of the primary precepts in Natural Law is life hence we have a duty to protect and abortion goes against this and again is deemed incorrect.

Natural Law only permits the act of abortion (although it is not discussed as abortion) when we have to use the principle of double affect. When two actions conflict a second criteria is used in Natural Law and that is (i) the action must not be immoral and (ii) the intentions must be good. So if a pregnant women discovers she has cervical cancer the doctor may terminate the pregnancy by performing a hysterectomy because performing a hysterectomy to protect the women’s life is not immoral and the doctors intention is not to kill the foetus but rather save the mother. This would be fine for those who subscribe to Natural Law.

Evaluation

Strengths

-By using the Sol principle and clearly saying life begins at conception, ethic is straightforward and clear.

-Allows flexibility as well as a clear cut approach.

Weaknesses 

  • If a pregnancy will lead to unhappiness on the mother’s part and there is a threat of depression etc as this is an unwanted baby then sure the principle of double affect would kick in and suggest that abortion is fine with the intention of protecting the mother.
  • If you do not accept that life begins and conception and Christian teachings then this theory is not one worth abiding by.
  • Again we can argue against this using GE Moore’s naturalistic fallacy just because abortion is wrong or life begins at conception it doesn’t mean we ought to not do it or abortion is wrong.

Aboriginal people

Aboriginal people believe life only begins once a person is named. A name is what distinguishes a person from a bunch of cells so unless the foetus is named abortion is arguable acceptable.

Ensoulment

This links to the Christian belief that ensoulemt happens at conception so life begins at conception and any form termination is immoral as it is killing. 

St Augustine, another theologican offers another way to approach this matter. He suggests that when the embryo ‘quicks’ i.e. starts to move, the embryo has been ensouled so any point after this (after 16/17 weeks) makes abortion murder but before that it is fine.

Science – Viability

The embryo isn’t even viable till 24-weeks so the mother has greater rights than the embryo and should be able to grant an abortion before this point. The human fertilisation and embryology act, suggests that after 14 days when the primitive streak begins to appear the foetus is now a human in its own right.

Kant

Kant has no clear opinion on the this matter but supporters of Kantian Ethics argue that the embryo is a potential human and hence the same ethical reasoning should be applied when looking at humans so abortion is wrong.

Judith Jarvis Thomson

Thomson puts forward an analogy

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. … To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.’  – taken from Wikipedia

But you still have the choice whether you want to do this or not, not to give a choice would be violate your human rights – so the same way not to offer abortion would be to violate your human rights.

Some points:

  • The foetus is not a separate individual like the violinist it is a part of the women’s body.
  • Isn’t the choice with contraception not abortion?
  • Would unplugging the violinist be the same as killing him? Is an abortion the same as killing?

Deontological and Teleological Ethics

Deontology and Teleology are two specialist terms used to separate ethical theories. They difference between deontology and teleology, is in essence, the same as the difference between absolutist and relativist theories.

Deontology: This means the same as absolute. The ethical systems are based on some form of a rule system. Following a deontological system such as Kant, Natural Law or some forms of Christian ethics means that the moral thing to do is one that does not change from situation to situation. For example, according to Kantian ethics it will always be wrong to lie even if it saves someone’s life. This is because consequences are not taken into account and the universal law does not change.

Teleology: Teleological theories are the same as relativist theories. They state that the moral thing to do is one which will change from situation to situation because the consequence of an action is sovereign. Ethical systems like Utilitarianism and Situation ethics voice this belief. They suggest that lying can only be moral if it results in the most pleasure for the most people (Act Utilitarianism) or the most love towards the most people (Situation Ethics).

Below is a video outlining this and some key strengths and weaknesses: