Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Column on A Fruitful Idea about Morality

Tibor R. Machan

As someone who often teaches the topic of ethics or morality in colleges and universities, I have noticed that most of my beginning students entertain conflicting positions 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 all people the same way since they differ in significant ways from one another. That suggests subjectivism.

How can both of these valid insights be satisfied?

One possibility is that a sound, correct ethics offers perhaps just one set of very basic principles that are broad enough to apply to everyone simply in virtue of us all being human. But this morality would also recognize that different individuals need different guidelines, given their special situations, including their unique individuality, culture, even the climate in which they live.

We have this, for example, in medicine and nutrition. There are basic principles in these areas but when they are applied to different 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 onto others as you have would have them do onto you,” or “Pursue excellence in life.” (I leave aside now which might actually be those 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 absolute or invariant about how we ought to act; yet this wouldn’t amount to an artificially 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 market place 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 artistically excellent while others lack this quality; yet we also realize that different people, with various special attributes, backgrounds, and so forth, will appreciate different excellent works of art. Instead of thinking that everyone is artistically blind who fails to respond to some work favorably that one admires, a great variety of works will be seen as having artistic merit 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 artists’ 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 established. Very formidable thinkers throughout human history have grappled with these matters and studying their reflections would be a prerequisite for making headway. What I’ve tried here is no more than sketch out some promising initial ideas.
The struggle--the long arc of advances in human liberty

Tibor R. Machan

Here is some good news: The march of liberty has so far proven to be generally unstoppable. Over the span of human history there have been periods during which hardly any sign of respect for human liberty had been in evidence. In other eras the globe has seen advances toward human liberty by leaps and bounds. That is to say, in some periods clear evidence can be pointed to showing that some men and women--such as kings, queens, czars, Pharaohs, Caesars, dictators, tyrants, politburos, political bodies of all types and uncivil majorities--have began to recede in their efforts to suppress other men and women, to treat them as their tools, instruments, subjects, and such. In other periods the opposite trend has been in evidence.

Still, overall the trend has been toward the spread of liberty. More and more of us have become masters of our own lives, fewer and fewer are in the position of ruling others. Even when in some areas, such as national economic policy, liberty has taken a beating, there are others where fewer impositions and restrictions are made into public policy--for example, the basic rights of members of minorities, women, gays, natives, the press, etc., are being recognized and provided legal protection alongside onerous economic policies. And globally, while the former beacon of human liberty, the United States of America--itself, sadly, never fully committed--is now rather halting in its defense of human freedom, other communities--for instance, the former Soviet and other colonies--are slowly but surely shedding the idea and practice that would have some people run roughshod over others, especially as a matter of official public policy.

Now this is not all that surprising. In any area of their lives people can do better or worse or just linger in some kind of mediocre limbo. And this is so when it comes to political matters. Sometimes, in fact, there can be improvement in one sphere of human life and a decline in others--for instance, while economic liberty can widen, it is possible for personal or cultural fulfilment to be on hold for many. Not everything is moving in the same direction at once and with the same speed. (One can easily confirm this by just checking one’s own life and noticing that there can be advances in one area while another can be faltering--one’s career can even soar while one’s health might not improve.)

All this is enhanced by the sheer fact that the surrounding natural world in which men and women may struggle to strive, to flourish, isn’t uniformly supportive--storms, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, diseases and other adversities not of our making are often complicit in making life not so triumphant for us all. Fortunately, here, if men and women are substantially free to live their lives without being oppressed by others, they tend to do better at figuring out how to deal with these non-human adversities--the sciences, philosophy, technology, education, and other features of life tend to get improved treatment when we are free, less time needs to be spent on fending off the intrusive ones among us.

So, as one contemplates developments in one’s immediate or the broader human sphere, it is a good idea to keep in mind how even without a inevitable trend toward a better and better existence, in the long run human beings are experiencing a better and better life (just as the late Julian Simon and his students (e.g., Matt Ridley) have been stressing in the midst of the endless doom-sayings of the likes of Paul Ehrlich and Paul Krugman).

Quite often predictions of doom come from politically disgruntled folks, those who still believe that they should be in charge of others and not respect the rights of everyone to sovereignty, self-government. Also, as one gets older and senses that ones own life is slowly declining, one may be tempted to project this on to the rest of the world and declare it all going to hell in a hand basket.

No, there isn’t a guarantee of a steady march toward liberty--it is truly a matter of eternal vigilance. But fortunately there are many, many people who exhibit this vigilance in various parts of their lives, throughout human history and around the globe, and thus help keep afoot the advances toward greater and greater freedom and, alongside, a better chance of overall improvement in human affairs.