Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Conscience of a Progressive

Ernest Partridge

Chapter Fifteen:

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 avoid it, in an incipient American theocracy or secular libertarianism.

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 “The State Religion”).

Moral absolutism, whether religious or secular, is not simply 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 psychology.



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 standards.”

The Pope’s condemnation of relativism strikes a responsive note among the conservative Protestants of the religious right. For example, Jerry Falwell writes:

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 behavior.2

The anonymous author of the website www.moral-relativism.com 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 morally neutral.

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 against it.
3  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 who can respond wisely and appropriately 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.

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, Chapter 20.

How is the devout individual to know if he is in full compliance with these Divine Commandments?

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 reasonable.  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 volumes.

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 philosophy.

  • 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 circumstances.

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 marriage.”

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 non-abortion abortion.

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 relativism.

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 Gestapo raid.

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, competitive 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 “relative.”

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.




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 metaethical 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 writes:

"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 "Through a Glass Darkly," 

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, pp. 115-6.

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 Investigations, 1953).

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.



Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .