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Philosophy and the Problem of Morality

Prof Frederick V. Rael has been teaching for almost 18 years in various local colleges and universities in the Philippines.

Our two characters continue their conversation while wandering in an unknown land.


Pedro: You know Juan, I was earning almost 18,000 pesos per month as a teacher in the Philippines.


Juan: Good for you. I was earning on a project basis as an online writer. My income depended on the number of projects that I submitted to my clients.


Pedro: Computing our income is easier than solving a more difficult problem in this life. How do we know that our action is good or bad?


Juan: What? That’s easy. If you earn some money out of it, then it is good and if not, it is bad.


Pedro: That’s a very simplistic approach Juan. What are your criteria for considering whether an act is good or bad? For instance, corrupt politicians in the Philippines are spending the taxpayers’ money for their agenda. They could even smile in front of the camera and upload photos on their social media accounts pretending that they care for the people. In reality, they are robbing people’s money through their corrupt practices. What can you say to such people?


Juan: Hmmm..you are getting deeper and deeper every day. Our stay in this unknown land has made you a philosopher.

Introduction

Pedro and Juan have touched another philosophical problem, which is the problem of morality. Solving moral dilemmas is certainly a philosophical one since there are no absolute answers. Our parents, priests, and other moral persuaders are quite busy in the area of morality since they are the only ones who have mastered its premises. Dealing with moral problems is not the same as solving even the most difficult equations in mathematics and physics. The idea of a right and wrong, good or evil action, is a constant struggle that we humans have to bear as we try to make our lives more meaningful. It is a huge burden for us that we are urged to be good since we would have to comply with certain standards to measure our goodness or badness as a person.

What Philosophers would have to say?

Nietzsche reminds us that “Morality is just a fiction used by the herd of inferior human beings to hold back the few superior men.” Nietzsche simply wants to raise our awareness of our enormous capability of deciphering good and bad since moral standards are merely created by Übermensch (superman) or superior men (Nietzsche, 1974). Only a few men exist who have the power to create or recreate culture, values, or moral standards. Nietzsche believes that moral standards are designed to limit the actions of the few who can generate new standards. He has become very controversial for such pronouncements about the Ubermensch and its duty to produce moral standards. Nietzsche may be correct that intellectually gifted people are duty-bound to set standards on morality but it should be done for the greater good.

Greek Ethics

In dealing with moral dilemmas, I always go back to the Greek philosophers who devoted much of their time in formulating guidelines for determining good and bad. The Greeks were very much concerned about how to become a good person. One of the wisest, if not, the greatest Greek moral philosophers, is Socrates. While his predecessors or the pre-socratic philosophers (Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Democritus, others) tried to unravel the mysteries of the natural world, Socrates roamed in Athens to search for the true meaning of life. He devoted his life philosophizing about life and morality. He told Athenians,” The unexamined life is not worth living.”

For Socrates, doing good is the most important thing in life. Morality is what makes a human being different from other forms of animals. Man has the natural ability to examine his/her life and to ensure that it is worthy of living it. If one wants to become virtuous, he/she should acquire knowledge and learn from life. Ignorance leads to evil acts, he said. Socrates did not recommend any religious tenets because he believed that morality can be known if one tries to search for it rationally. Socrates advises us that life is not founded on wealth alone but on our capacity to do good. Socrates despises corrupt politicians since he lived a simple but fulfilling life as a philosopher.

Plato elaborated on the teachings of Socrates and said that feeding the soul is more important than the gratification of the body. Plato believes that the soul resides in the body that energizes it. Without the soul, the body would not exist. The soul should only be fed by virtue, not material possessions. Then, Aristotle, a student of Plato, also taught his moral teaching, which he called the law of moderation or the golden mean. Anything excessive is bad and anything defective or lacking is bad as well (Prior, 2016). We must ensure that what we do is always in moderation. In our country, it goes with the saying, “drink moderately.”

Teleological Theory

One of the major approaches in dealing with moral dilemmas is the Teleological theory. The said ethical theory is focused on the outcome of the act, not on the motive. There are no actions that are naturally good or bad. It came from the theory formulated by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and later refined by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), which is called Utilitarianism (Lazari-Radek and Singer, 2017).

Utilitarianism advocates that an act is good if it gives pleasure to the doer while bad if it is painful. It adheres to the notion that pleasure and pain can be calculated or quantified. It is important to avoid pain and pursue pleasure in life. Pleasure makes life happier while pain provides hurt, therefore, we must avoid it. Utility resides in pleasure and the absence of pleasure is not utility. Thus, the famous dictum “the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people,” has become famous.

For many of us, utilitarianism is very appealing since the basis of our decision would be the consequences of our actions. If we benefit from an act, then it is good. Although it may be as simple as it seems, Utilitarianism warns us to decide based on the number of people who would benefit from the said act. In other words, it is not only you who should be happy with the results of our actions but also others who are affected or involved in the situation. Thus, the indicators of goodness and badness of an act are the self and others.

Deontological Theory

If you believe that there are actions that are naturally good or bad, then you adhere to a Deontological approach. This theory emphasizes the intrinsic value of an action, not the consequences. In other words, some actions are naturally good or bad. Moral standards are absolute and rule-based. Man has no authority to defy the existing moral standards just for his/her benefit. If the rule says it is good, then it is good. One should not calculate the consequences of an act but the primary concern should be complying with moral standards, which are god-given or universal law.

On the spiritual side, Christian Ethics and other religious groups are supreme in advocating the principles of the Deontological approach. If the Quran, Old Testament, New Testament, and other Sacred Books say that an action is good, then it is good. No bending of rules or even justification of one’s action. The moral standards written in said Sacred Books are viewed as commandments, not a suggestion. The teachings of known prophets such as Christ, Mohammed, and others have become very influential throughout the world since many believed that they are messengers of God and that their wisdom emanates from God or Allah Himself. They are also appealing because these books can be an immediate reference material for doing good. No rationalization or whatsoever, just read and comply with commandments written in these books. As they say, the prophets who wrote said commandments have the divine right to spread the good news, that is, God wants us to live a life of righteousness and to be worthy of His Kingdom from above.

In the philosophical arena, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is a major proponent of this ethical approach. He formulated the Categorical Imperative, which proposes a universal moral law (Paton, 1971). As the term suggests, it is imperative or a must to follow the universal law. If one uses his/her pure reason, he/she would come up with the fundamental law that governs morality regardless of the action’s consequences and circumstances. In simple terms, if all of us would become rational about morality, then we would be able to generate one absolute solution for the same moral dilemma.

For instance, killing is irrational regardless of the consequences since our reason dictates that we should respect life. If killing would be permitted, then what kind of society are we trying to build? A society of killers? The fundamental law dictates that we should not kill for the preservation of life and society in general. In short, the Categorical Imperative wants us to think critically and logically to accurately determine the goodness or badness of an act. It advises that making a moral decision can not be done immediately, haste makes waste, as they say.

Incidentally, Buddhist’s “Don’t do to others what you don’t want to do unto to you.” If you don’t want to be harmed by others, you should not also do the same. Killing, stealing, and much worse corruption are viewed as immoral acts from a deontological approach since such acts could harm others.

Conclusion

To resolve the problem of Pedro, Nietzsche wants us to be an Übermensch and follow our morality and impose it on others. But, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle claim that a wise man is a virtuous man. Wisdom should not be used for one’s own sake but the benefit of others. However, utilitarianism proposes that we must calculate the benefit of our actions to ourselves and others. Religious tenets command that we must strictly comply with the Scriptures since they are god-given wisdom. Kant’s theory influences us to think rationally to know what the universal law dictates. Out of the said premises, it should be concluded that corruption is immoral because of the following moral guidelines:

  1. It is against the law of God. The Jewish Torah wrote,” Thou shalt not steal" as one of the Ten Commandments of God. Corruption is the worse kind of stealing.
  2. It is harmful to the majority of the population since funds that are supposed to be allocated for social services such as health, education, food, and others are being spent by one corrupt politician.
  3. It is illogical to rob tax payer’s money for one’s political agenda. If you want to serve the public, spend your own money. Corrupt politicians are spending people’s money to buy their cars, large mansions, and fund their political agenda, which are seriously unreasonable.

I would like to end this issue by quoting Socrates,” The corruption of the best things are the worst things or, the best, when corrupted become the worst.” As we despise corrupt politicians, we should ensure that we would not become one.

References

Nietzsche, F. (1974). Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Retrieved from,

https://books.google.com.ph/books?id=a9VxKgui0mEC&printsec=frontcover&dq=FRIEDRICH+NIETZSCHE+THUS+SPAKE+ZARATHUSTRA+A+BOOK+FOR+ALL+AND+NONE+TRANSLATED+BY+THOMAS+COMMON&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjhqoP59efrAhULHaYKHdKrC4IQ6AEwBnoECAgQAg#v=onepage&q&f=false

Prior, W. (2016). Virtue and Knowledge: An Introduction to Ancient Greek Ethics. Retrieved from,

https://books.google.com.ph/books?id=M5XgDAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Greek+Ethics&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjFmf7x9ufrAhVCyYsBHUM-CAwQ6AEwA3oECAYQAg#v=onepage&q=Greek%20Ethics&f=false

Lazari-Radek, K., and P.Singer (2017). Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction. Retrieved from,

https://books.google.com.ph/books?id=HjsqDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Utilitarianism.&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiRi9yN-OfrAhUpGKYKHfr7DG84ChDoATACegQIAxAC#v=onepage&q=Utilitarianism.&f=false

Paton, H. (1971).The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant's Moral Philosophy. Retrieved from,

https://books.google.com.ph/books?id=8Y7RS1cM9KUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=categorical+imperative&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwihy5bF-OfrAhUOiZQKHZQ_Ah0Q6AEwAnoECAIQAg#v=onepage&q=categorical%20imperative&f=false

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Frederick V Rael