Moral Judgments of Foreign Cultures and Bygone Epochs

Eckhart Arnold

1 Exposition of the Problem
2 Preliminary: The meaning of moral reasoning and discussion in face of the impossibility of proving the truth of moral statements
3 Breaking up the Question: Judgments of Institutions and Judgments of People
4 Objections and Refinement

2 Preliminary: The meaning of moral reasoning and discussion in face of the impossibility of proving the truth of moral statements

Although this paper is intended to give an answer to a certain ethical questions, it is unavoidable to say a few words about meta-ethics, simply because there is no consensus at all among philosophers concerning the right method of ethical investigations. Therefore, I will briefly explain my own point of view concerning the right method of ethical investigation.

There exists, in moral philosophy, a problem that is apt to discourage any kind of ethical reasoning. This is the problem of finding an ultimate foundation (“Letztbegr”) for moral values or precepts. In spite of many attempts during the last 2500 years no philosopher has ever managed to solve the problem. It would lead too far to enter into the discussion of some of these attempts here. But the fact that most of them can very easily be disproven suggests the conclusion that no solution to the foundation problem of ethics exists, although a positive prove that the foundation problem cannot be solved does not exist either.[1]

Some people deny that we need to take this fact too seriously by pointing to seemingly similar foundation problems in the realm of logic and epistemology, most notably the problem of induction, which, despite the fact that it has not been solved, never leads to any controversy among scientists, who happily employ induction to justify their theories. But there exists an important difference. While there is the theoretical problem of justifying induction, nobody ever claims in practice that induction cannot be relied on. This is not the case for the ethical foundation problem, for, as the examples before have shown, here we are indeed confronted with a considerable dissent concerning even the most basic of our moral values.

If the meaning of an ethical discourse cannot be any more to find ultimate reasons why certain values are right and others are wrong, what then could be the meaning of an ethical discourse and how should it proceed? Without entering into too much detail here, the answer is that the meaning of ethical reasoning can primarily consist only in either the determination (“Festlegung”) of one's own moral will and, furthermore, in the attempt to influence the moral will of others. That is to say that moral reasoning is primarily of rethorical character. Only in a secondary sense, that is when a certain number of normative premises have already been accepted (without any reason as they must), can ethical reasoning gain the character of a rational inquiry concerning such questions as whether a certain action is good or bad according to the premises or what other imperatives follow from the premises etc. .

The range of premises that needs to be decided upon does not only encompass concrete values, but, more importantly, also the formal or logical principles of our ethical systems. These, as well, depend on a moral decision for their validity. There is no a priori normative necessity why the system of our morals should be in any way logically conclusive or why our morals should be systematized at all. Theoretically, also a system of morals that allows murder when it rains and forbids it when the sun shines is possible, absurd as it may seem. However, it must be admitted that at least a certain amount of systemacity and conclusiveness is a meta-ethical constant across all cultures and throughout all ages. How far reaching the meta-ethical consensus is, is up to empirical science to decide. (However, no matter what degree of consensus anthropologists might determine, if someday anybody seriously does not want to adhere to this consensus, he (or she) cannot be proven wrong by the fact that such a consensus had hitherto existed, and the consensus is broken from that time onward.)

Once it has been acknowledged that there exists no a priori necessity why our ethics should be strictly logical or systematic in a particular way, but that this too depends on our moral will to have it that way, this has a somewhat liberating effect on our moral reasoning. For example, we will not any more be compelled to force our moral intuitions under certain supposedly a priori principles of morals at any price. (This is what happened to Kant when he believed that he could decide any moral question by his formula of the categorical imperative.) The more formal and logical principles of our ethics can be weighted against material principles, and we will feel free to allow a certain amount of inconclusiveness in our moral opinions, if this is more akin to our moral intuition. We will see that it is hard to arrive at a sound moral solution to the problem of the judgments of bygone epochs and foreign cultures without accepting at least some tensions in our judgments.

If we exclude (by moral decision) completely absurd ethical systems, then the usual case will be that of an ethical system that is generated by (1) meta ethical decisions that set the logics and formal principles for the subsequent ethical reasoning, (2) ethical decisions that fill the system with material values and (3) conclusions and inferences drawn with the help of the acknowledged formal principles from (1). This raises the question, at what point do the ethical decisions, especially from (2) enter into our ethical system? Without discussing this question here, I will assume that ethical decisions may enter our system of morals at any level of abstraction. We may decide to adhere to certain more or less abstract values like honesty or love of man (“Menschenliebe”), but we may also decide to judge a singular case in a certain way and then adjust our more abstract precepts accordingly, if the judgment in the singular case does not match the judgment according to the precepts under which the case must be subsumed. This allows for the well known method of the “reflective equilibrium” to be employed in order to determine the values we want to adhere. The method works roughly as follows: One starts with an arbitrary set of values which deems the inquirer reasonable. Then one looks for example cases where these values come into play. If the judgment by our values does not match our moral intuition in the example case, we can either assume our intuition to be wrong or we can conclude that our values were mistaken and adjust them so that they match our intuition in the particular case.[2]

Therefore, in the following examination examples will be used as test cases in order to “check” the proposed scheme of forming such judgments. Also, as it should be clear by now that moral philosophy is all about postulating and cannot be anything else, certain moral values and insitutions like world responsibility (see below) will be postualted liberally in the following. It should be understood that these reflect my own moral oppinions. I would be a liar to claim any objectivity for them, although I hope they are suggestive enough to convince others to advocate the same values in the future.

[1] The logical distinction between is and ought does not imply the impossibility of founding ethics, because it does not exclude the possibility that what ought to be might be derived in some other way than from what is.

[2] The latter somewhat resembles the procedure of falsification of a theory in science, though there is no analog in science to the former. Regarding moral intuitions it can be assumed that we have moral intuitions in particular situations as well as intuitions of values. Our intuitions need not necessarily be clear cut and free from contradictions. However, if we decide on a contradiction free ethical system we will probably be forced to neglect some of our intuitions. Which of them is a matter of decision, just as it is a matter of decision to take into account moral intuitions at all.

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