A Progressive Moral Philosophy
An expanded version of this chapter, more
congruent with the title, is in progress).
In order to do what is right, one must
know what is right.
A strong and unbending moral will, while commendable, is not enough to
ensure a moral life. Equally important is moral intelligence. History
testifies that blind, misguided will and conviction can cause incalculable
damage – in the crusades, the inquisition, German Naziism, Soviet Communism.
And, unless we stop it, in an incipient American theocracy or
Fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist politics asks us to take the easy
road: put reflection aside and follow the simple and unbending rules that
God (through His self-appointed spokesmen, of course) has given us to
follow. The libertarian right, though secular, adheres to its dogmas with
quasi-religious fervor. Among these dogmas are the libertarians’ unqualified
endorsement of unregulated free markets and absolute property rights, and their
insistence that government has no legitimate functions except the protection
of the inalienable rights to life, liberty and property. (See my
Moral absolutism, whether religious or secular, is worse than undesirable,
it is incoherent and unworkable. Conversely, moral relativism, while widely
condemned by preachers and politicians, is more than defensible, it is
unavoidable. Or so I will argue in the first part of this chapter.
Following that, I will then present and defend a progressive ethic – an
ethic that affirms personal rights, guides moral conduct and promotes
justice and domestic tranquility. It is an ethic that is available both to
secularists and to all but the most dogmatic of religions; in short, I will
propose an ethic that is truly “a uniter and not a divider.”
This will be “a” progressive moral and political philosophy. That indefinite
article is crucial. There is no singular foundation of progressive ethics,
politics and economics. Progressivism (i.e., liberalism in the traditional
sense) is an alliance of individuals and groups that hold in common numerous
political and economic beliefs. However, they arrive at these shared policy
positions from disparate foundational convictions. For example, moderate and
liberal Christians, who find moral authority in the Bible without regarding
it as inerrant, might claim that liberal policies have Divine sanction and
exemplify the moral teachings of Jesus. Secular philosophical foundations of
liberalism might include utilitarianism, Kantian formalism, or pragmatism.
My moral, political and economic beliefs, which we will examine in the
latter half of this chapter, are founded upon contract theory and moral
IN DEFENSE OF MORAL RELATIVISM
A “Bad Rap” for Moral Relativism.
Shortly before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
gave a homily at mass, in which he warned against Marxism, liberalism,
atheism, agnosticism and relativism. “Having a clear faith, based on the
creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism “ he said,
“whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by
every wind of teachings, looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s
The Pope’s condemnation of relativism strikes a responsive note among the
conservative Protestants of the religious right. For example, Jerry Falwell
Our nation's schools have replaced God with moral relativism and
situational ethics.. [Our] children learn that there are no absolute
truths, no moral authorities, no governing principles to guide their
The anonymous author of the website
offers this account:
Moral relativism is the view that ethical standards, morality, and
positions of right or wrong are culturally based and therefore subject
to a person's individual choice. We can all decide what is right for
ourselves. You decide what's right for you, and I'll decide what's right
for me. Moral relativism says, "It's true for me, if I believe it."
... [M]ost people hold to the concept that right or wrong are not
absolutes, but can be determined by each individual. Morals and ethics
can be altered from one situation, person, or circumstance to the next.
Essentially, moral relativism says that anything goes, because life is
ultimately without meaning. Words like "ought" and "should" are rendered
meaningless. In this way, moral relativism makes the claim that it is
Ryan Dobson puts it much more directly. “Moral relativism,” he writes, is
“the notion that there’s no right or wrong.”
If you enter the words “moral relativism” and “religious right” in Google,
you will get almost 29 thousand hits. Having examine a few dozen articles so
listed, I can report that there is one sentiment that clearly unites all
religious right opinions of “moral relativism” that I encountered: They are
But while the religious right is quick to apply “moral relativism” as an
epithet to all kinds of evils of modernism, secularism, and liberalism, the
right is apparently reluctant to define it. Accordingly, the defender of
moral relativism faces an obstacle similar to that of the defender of
liberalism: one must begin by casting off the burden of slander that has
been attached to the concept, and then proceed to define it correctly.
For example, "liberalism" is defined by Webster's dictionary, as "favoring
reform or progress, as in religion, education, etc.; specifically, favoring
political reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the
individual. Progressive." The exemplars of liberalism in this established
sense are Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson
and Jimmy Carter. Among Republicans, Theodore Roosevelt, Fiorello LaGuardia,
Jacob Javitts and Earl Warren. None of these individuals even remotely
resemble the caricature of "liberalism" offered up by right-wing hate
merchants such as Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter and Rush
Limbaugh. Their distortions put the liberal/progressive in a difficult
position: either to describe oneself as a
"liberal-in-the-original-sense-of-the-word" or as a "progressive." Because
the former is much too awkward, I choose the latter option.
As for "moral relativism," I will keep the term, but only after disabusing
it of the slander of its opponents. The moral relativism that I will present
affirms and defends ethical standards and moral conduct. It does not, as the
Pope accuses, "[let] oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of
teaching." And it most emphatically does not assert that "there's no right
or wrong." The relativism that I will defend denies that simple, inviolable
“absolute” rules of conduct are workable. The moral relativist is quite
prepared to recognize virtuous and wicked conduct. But the relativist
insists that living a moral life is not a simple matter. Such a life is
complicated, not by an absence of moral rules, but rather by the abundance
of such rules and the resulting conflict amongst them. A virtuous life is
distinguished by choices of good over evil, which display the individual’s
moral will. But it is also marked by preferable choices among conflicting
and mutually exclusive goods, or among necessary and unavoidable evils, and
to wisely resolve these conflicts, moral will does not suffice. In addition,
one must have moral intelligence. Simply put: in order to “do what is
right,” one must “know what is right.” (I will elaborate on these
points in the closing section).
"Ethics" and "morality" -- a clarification.
Perhaps you have
noticed, as I have, the habit of politicians and pundits to conjoin “ethics
and morality” (alternatively, “ethics and morals” and “ethical and moral”).
They do this so often, that they might as well hyphenate it
–“ethics-and-morality” – or even blend them, internet style – “ethicsandmorality.”
They presumably do this to be certain that they touch all semantic bases, or
perhaps because they simply have no clear idea of the distinction between
“ethics and morals.” Pop quiz: can you define these two words, separately
and distinctly? Here are the definitions that I use and teach: ethics is theory, morality is
practice. Ethics are the standards and
rules by which one proposes to guide one’s conduct. Morality is one’s
actual conduct. Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard (David McCallum) in the CBS
television series “NCIS,” put it perfectly: “The ethical man knows he
shouldn’t cheat on his wife, whereas the moral man actually wouldn’t cheat.” And
thus, when one’s morals fail to match up with one’s ethics, we have word for
that too: “hypocrisy.”
Cultural Relativism and Cultural Relativity:
Moral relativism is often incorrectly confused with these two concepts,
which an undergraduate is almost certain to encounter in an introductory
course in philosophy or ethics. One is indisputably true, and the other is
most probably false, and fortunately so.
“Cultural relativism,” a descriptive (factual) assertion, states that
different cultures have different norms. Some approve and others condemn
polygamy. Some approve and others condemn pre-marital sexual relations. Some
approve, and others condemn, human sacrifice. And so on, concerning dietary
customs, kinship systems, warfare, child rearing, etc. Anyone with even a
casual acquaintance with cultural anthropology, recognizes that cultural
relativism is a simple fact.
“Cultural relativity” is a prescriptive (normative) assertion:4
“Good” and “Right” are what the culture says that they are. For example, to
the Aztecs, giving your first-born son over to the priests to have his heart
cut out on the altar of the Sun God, was the right and proper church-going
Aztec thing to do. Even the unfortunate son believed this. But was it
morally right? Cultural relativity affirms that it was, “because that’s what
the culture dictates.” Many college undergraduates pass through a
cultural-relativity phase. Thus, as I can personally testify, the philosophy
professor is too often bedeviled with such sophomoric buzz-offs as “well,
its good for them” or “who’s to say they’re wrong?” At moments like these,
the professor fully earns his or her salary.5
The implications of cultural relativity are truly horrendous. By this
account, there are no “extra-cultural” grounds for judging a cultural norm
good or bad, or better or worse. Nor are there
grounds for judging a cultural change to be a moral improvement or a
moral setback. The Nazi policy of extermination of the Jews? “It was
good for them!” Was the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves a
moral advancement? “Who’s to say?”
As noted above, “cultural relativity” is a phase that infects some
undergraduates. But fortunately, it is a phase that almost all of them “get
over.” Because almost nobody accepts cultural relativity, I will not offer a
detailed refutation – a major digression that we can all do without. Let
this much suffice: When one says, “the good and the right are merely what
the culture dictates,” just what is this “culture” thing? In fact, in
advanced civilized societies, “the culture” is not a simple, coherent and
singular entity, it is complex, plural, and internally inconsistent. The
“culture” (i.e. “shared beliefs”) of the Nazi officials that approved the
holocaust at the Wansee Conference, was not “the German culture.” Not the
culture of Goethe and of Kant, not the culture of the victim German Jews,
not the culture of such Germans martyrs at that time as the students of “The
White Rose Society,” or of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or of Colonel
Klaus von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators in the failed coup against
Adolf Hitler. And not the culture of any Germans today, except for a
minuscule minority. The holocaust is universally condemned today according
to ethical standards which, like scientific discoveries, transcend
particular cultures and are validated independently of cultural norms and
beliefs. ‘Nuff said.6
Having identified and discarded these false and indefensible conceptions of
moral relativism, we turn next to three valid, and I will argue inescapable,
aspects of moral relativism.
Relativism of Application.
Morality (i.e. actual conduct, “practice”) is by definition particular. It
is manifested in specific acts and circumstances. To use a term detested by
the fundamentalists, morality is “situational.” As Garrett Hardin puts it,
“the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time
it is performed.”7
In contrast, moral commandments, said by the fundamentalists to be
“absolute,” are by nature abstract. Thus, by the fundamentalists’ account,
the moral life consists of absolute obedience (with no exceptions) to divine
commandments in the day to day conduct of one’s personal life. The paradigm
example of these absolute rules are The Ten Commandments, found in Exodus,
How is the devout individual to know if he is in full compliance with these
In some cases, obedience to a commandment is simple and straightforward. For
example, grabbing someone’s car keys and driving off with his vehicle is a
clear violation of the eighth commandment. (“Thou shalt not steal”). But
other cases may or may not fall under this commandment – a consideration to
which we will return.
I was about to cite a false alibi as a clear case of a violation of the
ninth commandment, “thou shalt not bear false witness” which most interpret
more generally (on what authority?) to mean “don’t tell lies.” But then I
read the entire commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy
neighbor.” Does this mean that I am entitled to lie to those who are not my
neighbors? Most preachers tell us to ignore that qualification about
“neighbors,” that the Commandment forbids “bearing false witness” (i.e.,
lying), to anybody. That seems quite reassonable. But again, on whose extra-biblical authority do they
make this “correction”?
Consider next the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it
holy.” This commandment takes up four verses, though the relevant
elaboration is: “... in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son,
nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor
thy stranger that is within thy gates.” Reading this, how is the believer,
with the purest of motives, to know if he is obedient to this commandment
during each and every Sabbath day? Attempts to answer this question take up
several volumes of the Talmud, and in the Christian literature, still more
Does the commandment forbid driving a car to Sabbath services, as the
Orthodox Jews proclaim? (Exodus is silent about the permitted use of
automobiles). If an orthodox doctor, while walking to the synagogue,
encounters an accident, is he allowed to come to the aid of the injured
(i.e. “work”). Should those who adhere to this commandment enforce it upon
others, through (if they have the power) the enactment and enforcement of
laws? And by the way, who decreed that the “holy day” is to be Sunday (the
first day), and not Saturday (the seventh, or “Sabbath”). The Bible
says "The Sabbath."
Next, the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven
image, or any likeness of any thing...” The Moslems take this very
seriously. Visit a mosque and you will never find a statue or an image of a
person or object. You will find instead exquisite geometrical patterns. The
Catholic church chooses to disregard this commandment. I was personally very
gratified that they did, the day I visited Vatican City in Rome, where saw
the ceiling and altar of the Sistine Chapel and where I gazed upon
Michelangelo’s “Pieta” in St. Peters Basilica.
And so on, with the other Commandments. (I could go on, but it is not my
intention to write another Talmud). The variety of particular morally
significant circumstances that all believers might encounter in the course
of their lives is virtually infinite, while each of these Ten Commandment is
brief, singular and abstract. When do these Commandments “command,” and when
are they inapplicable? “It depends.” In other words, morality – the
particular application of abstract rules -- is “situational,” “contextual,”
“a function of the state of the system.” Which is to say, relative.
[Similarly with secular ethical rules and the law. Which is
why we have appellate courts]/
Relativism of Meaning.
As promised, we return now to the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not
steal.” And again, some cases clearly and unequivocally fall under this
commandment: e.g., car-jacking, burglary, embezzlement. Unfortunately,
meaning of the verb “to steal” is not entirely clear and unambiguous. Even
less so, when one considers the huge problem of the translation of the
original ancient Hebrew word.8
Consider two interpretations of “stealing” from opposite poles of political
To the Marxist, capitalism is evil because the capitalist “steals”
the product of the worker’s labor – in Marxist jargon, the “surplus
value” – from the creator of that product.
To the Libertarian, taxation for any purpose other than the securing
of the inalienable rights to life, liberty and property, is an
illegitimate seizing of personal property – in other words, stealing.
Which of these applications fall under the prohibition against stealing?
The Marxist’s? The Libertarian’s? Both? Neither? “It depends” – it
depends on what one means by “stealing.” In other words, “it’s relative.”
Relativism of meaning is conspicuous in the Roman Catholic faith, wherein
there are many absolute prohibitions which, while easy enough to articulate,
can appear to be morally repugnant when applied to extreme particular
Consider the absolute prohibition against divorce: “What God hath joined,
let no man put asunder.” But what if an abusive and deranged husband is a
threat to the life of the wife and children? Permanent separation is one
solution. But this will deprive the wife of the support and the children of
a stable home that may result from a new marriage. Too bad: no divorce
allowed. So why not decide, instead, that a valid marriage never happened in
the first place? This may require a meticulous review and examination of the
circumstances of the putative “marriage,” along with an extension of the
list of conditions that would invalidate the marriage. Voila! Annulment
– the non-divorce divorce. Accomplished through a re-definition of “valid
Next: the absolute prohibition against abortion. But what to do with ectopic
pregnancies – the implantation of the fertilized egg (conceptus) in the
woman’s fallopian tube. The fetus can not survive, and the woman’s life is
seriously threatened. Abortion? Absolutely not! It’s “murder!” “The
doctrine of double-effect to the rescue!” It is “licit” to remove
the ectopic fetus in order to save the life of the woman. But this is not
abortion, since the primary intent is to preserve the life of the mother.
“Terminating” the life of the fetus is not the intention of the operation,
it was a regrettable, albeit inevitable, side-effect. Thus we have a
The same type of argument might be applied to other “problem pregnancies,”
but somehow the “right to life” advocates choose not to do so.
In short, if an absolute commandment proves, in its applications, to be
intolerable, don’t abandon the commandment, just redefine its component
terms so as to exclude the problematic applications. Thus it turns out that
some absolute commandments are more absolute than others.
“Dr Orwell, call your office!”
Finally, moral absolutism rests upon an assumption of perfect semantic
clarity: what Whitehead called “the fallacy of the perfect dictionary.”
Natural languages are not like that. Instead, they are inherently vague and
ambiguous. First of all, definitions contain words, which require
definition, which contain more words, etc. forever. Second, the world
contains an infinitude of separately nameable entities, while languages have
finite vocabularies (still less, individual speakers of the language).
Third, words acquire separate meanings in various contexts, leading some
analytic philosophers to claim that the fundamental unit of language is not
the word, it is the sentence.10
Fourth, natural languages, and their component meanings, are constantly
changing. (There’s more, but let this much suffice). It follows that moral
absolutism is impossible, simply because it is impossible to articulate
moral commandments with absolute clarity. Moral commandments are inexorably
tied to the imperfect languages that express them. Hence, moral relativism.
Relativism of Conflict.
Once one accepts a plurality of ethical principles, moral absolutism is done
for. Exodus Chapter 20 lists Ten Commandments. And there are numerous
additional commandments throughout the Bible, as well as the body of
criminal and civil law. With a plurality of ethical rules, it is certain
that some will come in conflict with others, and then one must choose one in
favor of another. Which one? It depends upon the particular situation, and
the moral judgment of the individual. And that, dear friends, means moral
It won’t do to live according to one single principle, disregarding all the
rest. Such an individual is not a moralist, that person is a fanatic.
Moliere’s play, The Misanthrope, portrays an individual who obeys
absolutely just one commandment: never to tell a lie. The consequences, as
one might imagine, are disastrous.
The relativism of conflict was vividly displayed several years ago during
one of Phil Donahue’s TV show. A lawyer associated with a fundamentalist “right
to life” group, emphatically proclaimed that God absolutely forbids lying.
“You mean,” Donahue asked,” that there is no conceivable instance in which
lying is permitted?”
He replied, “I can’t think of one, can you?”
“Of course! It’s 1944 and I am in Amsterdam, standing in front of the house
that is hiding Anne Frank and her family. A Gestapo officer asks me if there
are any Jews hiding in that house. Surely I should lie to him.”
The lawyer pondered for a moment, then said, “I’d refuse to answer.”
Of course, that evasion can be easily blocked by stipulating that the
confronted individual knows full well that his silence would result in a
The example I use in class is that of an aggressive District Attorney
ducking behind a dumpster, followed soon thereafter by a Mafia hit man, gun
in hand. “Did you see someone go into that alley, or did he run ahead up the
street.” Tell the truth, and you will be guilty of the crime of Accessory to
Murder. Of course you lie. It is morally imperative. Hence “do not lie” is
not an absolute commandment.
I was recently visited by two Mormon missionaries, who read to me the
Twelfth Article of Faith of their religion: “We believe in being subject to
kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and
sustaining the law.”
I asked, “what do you do if the President that you are subject to violates
the law, or still worse orders you to violate the law? Which do you obey,
the President or the Law?”
He replied: “I’d pray on it, and ask the Lord for guidance.” Touching, but
not very helpful.
And so on, with the other commandments. You can readily imagine conflicts in
which violation of one or another rule is unavoidable. Here’s another
challenge: state an ethical rule for which it is impossible to imagine some
particular emergency that would morally require you violate it. If you can
not, then you are a moral relativist.
Are there, then, no Moral Absolutes?
As a steadfast skeptic and relativist, I am inclined to never say “never”!
So let’s look for some allegedly exceptionless moral commandments.
The Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” won’t do, since the Bible
itself specifies exceptions such as self-defense, just war, and just
punishment. In fact, the Bible prescribes capital punishment for such
offenses as working on the Sabbath, a child’s disobedience, and premarital
sex (by women only, of course). For those who do not accept the Bible as a
moral authority, self-defense and just war remain as reasonable exceptions.
The death penalty, however, is a highly controversial issue.
Then how about “Thou shalt not
murder,” which, I am told, is the
correct translation of the original Hebrew word, “ratsach.”
To be sure, there is no morally acceptable exception to this commandment.
But that is because it is not, logically speaking, an authentic commandment.
It is a tautology – a “truth by definition.”
This is why: We are asked to take the “Thou Shalt Nots” of the Ten
Commandments to be statements of (allegedly) God’s commandments as to what
conduct is, or is not, morally justifiable in The Lord’s eyes. Thus “Thou
Shalt Not...” means “it is forbidden” or “it is not justifiable.”
Now “murder” is surely defined as “unjustified killing” – i.e., not in
self-defense, or in a just war, or by God’s command.
Hence “Thou Shalt Not Murder” parses out as: “Unjustified Killing is
Unjustified” – an empty tautology. Begin to spell out the meaning of
“justification,” and you are returning to the realm of moral guidance. And
as noted above, explication of such guidance has a way of filling up volumes
of legal and theological text, all of which face the aforementioned
difficulties of application, meaning and conflict.
Similarly with an absolute prohibition against cruelty, if we define
“cruelty” as the unjustified infliction of pain. (“Unjustified pain is
unjustified”). But it won’t do to drop the qualifier “unjustified” so that
we are left with a simple prohibition against the infliction of pain, for
that would be the end of dentistry and surgery, or for that matter,
competetive sports (“no gain without pain”).
If there are universal (“absolute”) ethical precepts, they are
more likely to be found, not in commandments of the form, “thou
shalt” and “thou shalt not,” but rather in the psychological and
logical foundations of ethics – what moral philosophers call
“meta-ethics.” An ethic of love might come close to absolutism,
though it leaves up the question of “what is a loving act?” (Does it
include so-called “tough-love”?)
To sum up: The Good Lord has not given us clear, simple, unambiguous
and absolute rules to live by. Instead, we are called upon to develop both
the moral stamina to choose good over evil, and the moral intelligence to
apply and interpret moral rules wisely, and to choose wisely when confronted
with competing goods, or with competing unavoidable evils. This is an
enterprise that requires virtues that are more ennobling than simple, blind
obedience. It also requires courage, wisdom, and benevolence. Following the
teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth, and in our time, of Mohandas
Gandhi and Martin Luther King, this concept of morality supplants the
ancient legalisms of the Old Testament with an ethic of love, available and
appealing to men and women of good will everywhere, of whatever religious
tradition or of no religious tradition.
Moral absolutism, on the other hand, in its naiveté, simplicity, and
abstraction, separates us from the complexities, ambiguities and conflicts
of authentic life experience -- from, in short, our humanity. And such a
separation can lead to morally horrendous consequences, such as inquisitions
and holy wars.
In his BBC television series, "The Ascent of Man," Jacob Bronowski stood at
the site of the crematorium at Auschwitz and reflected:
Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people.
And that was done not by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by
dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have
absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.11
The Genesis of Moral Intelligence
[A fragment of work in progress]
Fundamental to the moral life is a disposition to think and act morally.
This disposition issues from what David Hume and Adam Smith called “the
moral sentiments” of empathy and benevolence. By empathy is meant the
ability to recognize in others, the felt experience of pleasures and pains
of which one is familiar in one’s own life. By benevolence is meant a
personal desire for the well-being of others, and a motivation to mitigate
the misfortune of others. (See Chapter 11).
Empathy and benevolence give rise to an acknowledgment that others have
rights and duties equal to one’s own, and thus are entitled to equal
respect. This acknowledgment provides the basis of “the Golden Rule” – a
moral precept found in all the great world religions. When we see ourselves
as equals in a community of equals, with basic rights no greater or less
than those of the others, we are able to assume the perspective of a
benevolent but unbiased observer of that community – what philosophers call
“the moral point of view.” From this perspective, moral quandaries may be
readily resolved – the same quandaries that are insoluble from the
egocentric point of view preferred by regressives and celebrated by Ayn Rand
and her disciples. (For an extended argument in support of these dogmatic
assertions, see Chapters 5 and 6).
I hasten to add that moral intelligence is not confined to moral
philosophers. One need not “know what and why” in order to “know how.” While
I believe that I have chosen, in philosophy, a profession comprised of
individuals who are generally of outstanding moral quality, I have
regrettably encountered therein a few scoundrels. Conversely, great moral
wisdom and exceptional virtue can be found within individuals who have never
heard of, much less read, Aristotle, Kant or Mill. Just as someone can
acquire a correct “grammatical sense” by using one’s native language without
being able to cite a single grammatical rule, one can have a finely-tuned
“moral sense” without being able to produce the kind of elaborately
structured argument that delights philosophy professors. This “naive
wisdom,” as I call it, is acquired by individuals who are endowed with the
requisite moral sentiments of empathy, benevolence and respect, who adopt a
moral point of view, and who encounter, in a varied and abundant life, a
myriad of moral puzzles and conflicts. As they face and deal with these
issues, their moral intelligence increases in scope, coherence, subtlety and
sophistication. They improve their ability to deal with and to solve moral
problems – they improve their “cognitive adequacy,” to borrow a term from
the late moral psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg.12
And as they do so, they learn that morality is systemic and that the virtues
are inter-related – impoverished in isolation and separated from the context
of practical application. In other words, morality and virtue are
And so, my answer to Socrates’ enduring question, “can virtue be taught,” is
a qualified “yes.” Provided that fortunate individual enjoys the advantages
of a culture, a family upbringing, and an immediate community that is
conducive to a moral life. Thus moral education must be approached at both
an individual and a community level. “It takes a village to raise a child.”
The chapter is approximately half completed. In the final half, I
will address the ancient question, “Why be Moral?,” with a contemporary
answer: Because morality is an extension of rationality.
The closing section of the chapter is tentatively titled: “Principles of
Progressive Morality,” wherein I will gather from the preceding
chapters, a list of my conclusions.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. William J. Kole, “Germany’s
Cardinal Ratzinger Elected Pope,” Associated Press, April 19, 2005
2. Jerry Falwell,
“Defending Prayer in School,”
WorldNetDaily, October 27, 2001.
3. Upon returning from Sunday
Services, President “Silent Cal” Coolidge reportedly was asked by his wife:
“What did the Reverend talk about today, dear?” “Sin.” “And what
did he say about it?” “He was against it.”
4. More precisely, a
concept: not a first-order “presciption” of “correct” conduct (ethics)
but a second-order assertion about ethics. However, since I
promised not to get intolerably scholarly in this book, I will not make the
distinction, but will conflate “ethics” and “metaethics.”
5. Philosopher Robert Fullenwider
"Who's to say?" the student asks, deflating your carefully crafted
argument... "That's just your opinion," responds another, reducing
argument to autobiography and making you wish you had a loaded gun... "If
it's right for him, it's right," offers [a third], unlimbering the concept
philosophers dread most: right-for-him. . .
"Our relativist students threaten only the peace of mind of their
teachers. They were put on earth to torment us and to keep us humble."
"The Menace of Moral Relativism,"
Report from the Center for
Philosophy and Public Policy, 7:2/3,(Sp/Su.), 1987, p. 12.
6. But if not, see my
“Who's to Say?”
7. The Tragedy of the Commons,
Science, December 13, 1968, p. 1245.
8. See my
9. The doctrine of double effect
specifies “that an action having two effects one good and the other evil,
[is] morally permitted if (1) the action [is] good in itself or not evil,
(2) if the good followed as immediately from the cause as the evil effect,
(3) only the good effect was intended, and (4) there was a proportionately
grave cause for performing the action as for allowing the evil effect.”
Gregory E. Pence, Classic Cases in Medical Ethics, McGraw-Hill, 1990,
10. “A sentence is the smallest
linguistic unit that can be used to perform a complete action that is
distinctively linguistic.” William P. Alston, Philosophy of Language, Prentice-Hall, 1964, p. 33. Alston elaborates on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s
highly influential idea that meaning is a function of use. (Philosophical
Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of
Man, (Text Edition), Little Brown, 1973, p. 374.
12. Kohlberg has done the definitive work
in moral development. See his “The Claim to Moral Adequacy of a Highest
State of Moral Judgment,” The Journal of Philosophy,
October 25, 1973, p 630. Kohlberg left behind an extensive legacy of
publications explicating and defending his theories.