I wrote this paper in my ethic theory class last semester about morality. I was reviewing an article we read by a philosopher named George Sher about morality in general, and how one comes about one’s set of moral standards.
I am posting this because I think that morality is more subjective than people seem to commonly believe and, though it’s only one of two total philosophy papers that I have written in my college career, it is probably the paper that I am most proud of.
Since this is my first post to this website, I’m choosing a large topic to tackle. It is rather dense, but hopefully it will help you (the reader) to think about it. Or at least move to Beijing and find a new wife or husband.
I Should be Right.
In George Sher’s essay “I Could Be Wrong,” Sher explores the idea of absolute truth in the terms of moral judgment. In this essay, Sher states that contingency is a dominant factor in one’s moral judgments and that it is by mere chance that one has been born into a particular society and therefore, a particular set of moral beliefs. It is because of this fact that Sher argues there to be no way of knowing whether or not one’s moral judgments are in fact the correct moral beliefs or not. He acknowledges that one’s moral beliefs may be wrong, but denies the fact that this makes it irrational for one to act on these moral beliefs. However, I believe that Sher is mistaken in his response to act on these moral beliefs, despite the fact that he or she believes that they could very well be wrong. This is where his argument seems to become problematic. I think that one must believe that his or her moral beliefs are in fact somehow better than the alternatives in order for it to be rational to act upon them; and to do so, I believe that one must acknowledge that there are many different forms of a “correct” set of moral beliefs.
Sher first points out on page 95 that one’s own moral beliefs are developed through contingency as an “accident of history” and that this does not mean that anyone’s moral beliefs are actually better or worse than another’s; it only means that, even if it were better or worse, he or she would still have that set of moral beliefs. He makes the case that there is absolutely no way of knowing whether or not one’s own moral beliefs are, in fact, better than the alternatives; and it is, as he argues, because of contingency. He then says on page 99 that there are three options to respond to this fact; 1) to renew one’s quest for moral understanding; 2) to accept that there is irrationality behind acting on one’s own moral judgments; 3) to acknowledge that there is no reason to accept that acting on one’s own moral judgments is correct, but deny that it is irrational to continue to act on them. The problem with this argument is that it is all based on the belief that there is only one absolute, objective truth. But what if there are many forms of absolute truth?
My stance is that there are numerous forms of absolute truth, not just one as Sher claims. Why else would so many vastly different cultures, religions, and beliefs contain similar underlying values? I believe that it is because of this that one is clearly able to recognize if one’s own moral beliefs are better for him or herself than are the alternatives; because there are many different forms of an absolute, objective truth. One must then accept it to be rational to act on one’s own moral values, not because of contingency as Sher argues, but because of an underlying truth.
Take the act of marriage for example. If I were to fall in love with someone and then marry her, it would not be irrational, or morally impermissible to do so, on the grounds that we are compatible with each other and have some kind of mutual, romantic love for each other. However, it would be quite irrational to marry someone with whom I am not at all compatible with and with whom there is little to no mutual, romantic love. It is not because of the fact that it is wrong for either of us to ever get married to anyone at all that makes the marriage apt to fail, but because it is irrational for us two particular people to marry because of the aforementioned reasons. The woman with whom it is rational for me to marry is not the only woman in the world who fits these criteria, but just so happens to be the woman who I happen to fit and who I meet at the right time and place. Sher’s argument would state that the person I marry may be the right one, but she may also be the wrong one because there is only one woman out there for me who is right to marry, but there is no way of knowing if the woman that I did marry is that right one or not. For example, say I was born and raised in Beijing, China. I would most likely end up marrying a completely different person than I would if I was raised here in the United States. That doesn’t make either marriage wrong. The different cultural aspects of each upbringing instead merely cause me to have different needs and compatibilities with whom I decide to marry. In each case, I am able to decipher what kind of woman would be a good fit to marry, even though they are most likely vastly different between the two cases.
Now, George Sher might argue that I am going too far in the opposite direction of his argument. He might say that my response too drastic of a move in the other direction that and avoid the problem altogether. However, I think that my stance is necessary in response to his. Because there are so many different cultures that believe so many different things, it can be argued that all of them could be rational and morally permissible according to an objective truth. It is, therefore, a rational person’s responsibility to understand and develop his or her own moral beliefs so that he or she can truly believe that they are better than the alternatives, within his or her own culture and setting; much like dating before marrying. As a result, I believe that it is a cop out to just assume that your beliefs are wrong but to continue on with them anyway. One must have the ability to find the right beliefs for that person. There can’t be one true set of moral beliefs if each culture is so vastly different from the next. The fact that all cultures seem to have a few similar underlying beliefs proves that there is truth in all cultures despite their many differences. It is once the person gets into the different set of moralities between cultures, that one must act on and develop the right set of moral beliefs for that person and that culture. I am not, therefore, avoiding the problem in any way, but finding a solution to the problem by taking it in a different direction. So, just like I wouldn’t marry the first woman I meet, knowing that she is not compatible with me, but do so just because she is the first option; I would also not think it rational to accept that my moral beliefs could be wrong, but continue to act on them anyway. I have to acknowledge that there are other women out there who are better suited for me, just as I have to acknowledge that there are other sets of morality that are better suited for me as an individual.