Wednesday, May 21, 2003

A fruitful idea about morality?

Freedom News Service

As someone who teaches about ethics and morality in colleges and universities, I have noticed that most of my students entertain a conflicting position about the subject. They see it either as a one-size-fits-all system of guidelines, wherein everyone has to act the same way or they are bad people, or as purely subjective, wherein nothing is either right or wrong and it’s all a matter of one’s opinion.
And this is understandable. If there are right answers to questions about how we should conduct ourselves, it seems to many those answers must apply to us all, equally. Otherwise how could they be right? So they are pulled toward what is often called moral absolutism. But it also seems quite reasonable that certain answers as to how one ought to act do not apply to other, very different people.
How can both of these valid insights be satisfied.
One possibility is that a sound, correct morality offers perhaps just one or two very basic principles, ones that are broad enough to apply to everyone, simply in virtue of being human. But this morality would also recognize that different individuals need different guiding principles, given their special situations, including their unique individuality.
We have this, for example, in medicine or nutrition. There are basic principles or guidelines in these areas, but when they are applied to people, accommodations must be made to the individuals in question -- are they men or women, young or old, tall or short, of a certain metabolism or another, allergic to this or that? So, while the basics of medicine and nutrition are taught pretty much the same everywhere, when they are applied things begin to vary quite a bit.
In morality or ethics, also, we may well have certain very basic principles that we all need to heed and practice -- such as "Think things through before you act," or "Be honest with yourself" or "Don’t deceive anyone," "Do unto others as you have would have them do unto you," or "Pursue excellence in life." (I leave aside now which might actually be the one or few sound and universal guiding principles -- that takes a lot of figuring out.) But as applied to particular, individual persons, what specific guidance would emerge from such basic principles will not be the same from one person to the next.
Yet something very important about both the concerns expressed by my students and many others would be satisfied in so understanding morality: There would indeed be something quite absolute or invariable about how we ought to act, yet this wouldn’t amount to an artificial detailed one-size-fits-all code.
Indeed, the idea would help with many things that concern us all: a just legal system would not have many general laws, only a few, because citizens are quite different from one another and have just a few things in common as citizens. The marketplace would make sense, what with all its highly varied goods and services aiming to fit different customers and using the varied talents of producers. Even art might benefit from this outlook: We all tend to think, I believe, that some things really are artistic while others lack this quality; yet we also realize that different people, with various special attributes, backgrounds, and so forth, will appreciate different works of art. Instead of thinking that everyone who responds to something other than what inspires oneself is artistically blind, varied works will be seen as have artistic value to different sorts of people, varied talents will produce varied yet still artistically excellent works. Yet, there will still remain plenty of room for concluding that some creations do not cut it at all.
Anyway, there isn’t much hope of settling big issues like this in a brief discussion, but perhaps some hints toward a sound approach could at least be suggested. Very formidable thinkers throughout human history have grappled with these matters and studying their reflections would be a prerequisite for making headway. What I was trying to do here, however, is no more than sketching out some promising ideas.

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., author of "A Primer on Ethics" and co-author of "A Primer on Business Ethics." E-mail him at

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