Moral Intuition #2: Everyone is morally fallible

One of the things that I like most about Christianity is that it is forgiveness-centered rather than justice-centered. Even if you aren’t a Christian, though, I think a forgiveness-centered ethical framework makes sense. However, I’m not completely sure what a forgiveness-centered ethical view should look like.

Some ethical systems are justice-centered. They focus on the idea that for every action there is a fit consequence. If right is rewarded and wrong is punished, that is a good thing in itself. Promises should be kept, even if it is inconvenient to do so, because commitments in the past change responsibilities in the present. If I can do something for someone that will make their life better, but they don’t deserve it, then I don’t necessarily have to do it.

Other ethical systems are benevolence-centered. Utilitarianism, for example, assumes that the important thing is whether our actions makes people happier. Even if you deserve punishment, it would be wrong for me to give it unless I can show how it will make you or someone else happier in the long run. If promise-keeping is important, then it’s because of what it means going forward. If you freely break promises today, then no one will ever be able to trust what you say again, which will make you and others unhappier. Promise-keeping has value because it is pragmatically more likely to make people happier than to live in a world where people don’t keep promises. If I can do something for someone that they don’t deserve, but that will make their life better, then I have an obligation to do it.

A forgiveness-centered view would share the idea of just desserts with the justice-centered perspectives. It doesn’t make sense to talk of forgiving someone if they don’t deserve punishment in some sense. At the same time, forgiveness shares with the benevolence-centered views the idea that it is a morally good thing to let someone off the hook for their past mistakes.

One of the big problems with a forgiveness ethic is that it is hard to figure out whether forgiveness is a moral duty or not. It seems somehow like forgiveness is in its very essence something that is undeserved. Otherwise it wouldn’t be forgiveness. On the other hand, it seems wrong to say that we aren’t obligated to forgive. I wonder if I can say that you have an obligation to God to forgive me, but you have no obligation to me to forgive me. Will that work? I’m not sure.

An important concept in ethical philosophy is that of supererogation, which refers to things that are morally good to do, but not absolutely obligatory. We admire Mother Teresa for what she did, but don’t condemn other people for not doing the same things. I am certain that any ethical system needs to leave room for supererogation, but I’m not sure how that can be done with most systems. Is forgiveness supererogatory? I’m not sure. Does forgiveness of others’ moral failures somehow make room for supererogation? Again, I’m not sure.

Moral intuition #1: Law, tradition, and morality

(Our textbook, The Fundamentals of Ethics, by Shafer-Landau, lists several basic moral intuitions that we should keep in mind as we work out an ethical framework. I’m going through the list and considering them one by one.)

Moral intuition #1: Neither the law nor tradition is immune from moral criticism.

We have all heard of the Nazis in World War II who committed atrocities because they were “just following orders”. The usual conclusion is that they were still wrong, that when an order is ethically wrong we should disobey it. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were famous for teaching civil disobedience, that is, that we should be willing to disobey the laws when doing so is necessary to promote a greater good.

Cultural relativists would say that all ethical truths are relative to the culture in which people were brought up. If that’s completely true, though, then we have an obligation to obey the ethical dictates of our culture. Not only were the Nazis permitted to commit atrocities, it would actually have been wicked of them not to!

I don’t think cultural relativism makes sense, because I think we can ask whether one cultural mindset is morally better than another. Today a lot of people believe in being tolerant of other cultures, but they also believe that it is a good thing to be tolerant. They are glad we live in a society which practices tolerance for other people’s views. They are glad we uphold individual liberties. I agree; it is a good thing. I think it is nobler for us to value people’s rights than not to. I think if two cultures are exactly identical in every way except that one lets people be free and the other does not, then the society that promotes freedom is morally superior to the other one.

On the other hand, is there some moral value to obeying laws and traditions? There are good practical reasons to obey the laws: you might get into trouble if you don’t. That doesn’t mean that you have a moral obligation to obey them. I think perhaps we do, though; I think it’s a good thing to be willing to submit to the laws of the land.

How about traditions? If there is no actual rule that we do things a certain way, it’s just traditional, do we have some small moral obligation to follow tradition just because it is tradition? Once again, there may be practical reasons to do so: you will get along with everyone better if you follow tradition than if you don’t. Is there a moral reason though? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m biased by my own culture, though; the U.S. really emphasizes individualism.

(For those who are interested, the related post on my personal blog explores this idea from an explicitly Christian perspective.)