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How Can I Know What Is Right?

Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.


For untold thousands of years, humans lived off the land as hunter-gatherers. They moved as the seasons changed, they followed animals, and they had little or no contact with other groups. So few people were there, that a member of a tribe might spend her whole life without seeing anyone who did not belong to her group.

The number of people in such groups would rarely exceed 150, and most would have considerably fewer members than that.

These groups were small enough that everyone knew everyone else and how members were related to each other. It was not too difficult to establish a code that governed how members should behave and what their responsibilities were. The goal was clear - the survival of the group. Everything else would be secondary, the notion of individual rights would be completely alien because it was simply irrelevant.

In such societies, there was no need for sophisticated religion. A group might have idols that brought luck and fertility, totems that ensured success in hunting, and, perhaps, means of foretelling the future. But these groups would not need an overarching, divine moral lawgiver because morality was a survival function.

Then, about 7,500 years ago, things changed and changed drastically. The spread of agriculture led to settled societies and settled societies led to the establishment of cities. Right up until the present day, there have been constant clashes between sedentary and nomadic peoples.

But the city dwellers were faced with a fundamental problem. How could a society function when the members did not know each other and might not have a clearly defined stake in the survival of the whole group? In a tribe of hunter-gatherers, everyone would know her function in the group. In a more complex city society, that would not necessarily be the case. A citizen might make ceramic pots, but there are others who can do the same.

And who runs a city? A powerful ruler might suffice, but better to have a clearly-defined code of conduct. Better still if that code was endorsed and enforced by a powerful deity.


The Ties That Bind

These edicts, handed down from on high, were a "one size fits all" set of rules. There were no exceptions. These were rules and laws, not guidelines. The problem with this approach lies in trying to apply these imperatives in a wider context. For example, in Exodus (22:18) we are told "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.". This is just one of a series of rules that God handed down bt it is hardly relevant to a modern society that does not recognize witchcraft. It was also too general at the time. Who was a witch? Who decided? A priestly caste was necessary to interpret the divine word and decide on its application.

But men are fallible. Women could be, and were, denounced as witches for various reasons - fear of difference, greed, or jealousy.

Interpreters of divine intentions, no matter which religion they subscribed to, came in all shapes and sizes. Many, most perhaps, honestly tried to understand what the deity wanted from them and the rest of society. Others were simply venal. Notice too that these interpretations and rulings often only applied to members of that society. They often allowed for "holy" war against the other.

This type of ethical system is deontological. That is to say that it is a normative system that lays down rules for all.

Portrait of Immanuel Kant by Johann Gottlieb Becker.

Portrait of Immanuel Kant by Johann Gottlieb Becker.

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Immanuel Kant's Big Mistake

Imagine a society in which lying is perfectly acceptable behavior. This would be a completely unworkable society. A contract would mean nothing, trust would be non-existent. What people tell you and what you read in your newspaper would be meaningless because you could never be sure that it is true. A society in which nothing and nobody can be trusted is no society at all.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) would say that if you agree that such a society is unacceptable - that institutionalized lying is no basis for civil life - then you should not lie. You should not act in any way unless you are willing to accept that such an action could be followed by everybody else. In other words, if you lie, you must allow everyone else the same freedom.

This means that you shouldn't tell your host that dinner was superb if, in fact, it was almost inedible. That is lying and you wouldn't want your accountant to lie to you.

A popular thought experiment reveals a disturbing problem with normative ethics.

Imagine that you live in an autocratic society that has decided that it is going to eliminate all Ruritanians who live within its borders. Your best friend is a Ruritanian and you hide him in your basement. He is safe enough there, you think. But, one day, the police conduct a house-to-house search for any remaining Ruritanians. A polite officer comes to your door and asks if you know where any Ruritanians might be hiding.

What on earth do you do? For Kant, the answer would be obvious enough. You should tell the officer that there is a Ruritanian in your basement.

Would you really do this?


The Utilitarian View

The Utilitarian slant on ethics is based on what is best for the best possible number of people. In our example of the poor Ruritanian, a Utilitarian would say that you would be justified in saying that you had no idea where a Ruritanian might be found. This is because no harm comes to anyone if you lie and the Ruritanian will benefit.

For many, this might seem a more realistic, and more humane stance. However, there is still a potential problem.

Let's do another thought experiment.

Imagine that in your society 3% of the population are unemployable. These people make no practical contribution to the general well-being. Instead, they consume valuable resources that could be used by the more productive. The government decides that these people will have to be eliminated. A Utilitarian might have to say that this was acceptable because it would benefit the greater number.

But it is not right.


I have deliberately over-simplified the positions of the deontologists and the Utilitarians but the conflicts are real enough.

My view is that we have to treat morality as relative. There are general rules that everyone should follow. But this needs qualification. We should not follow a moral code unconditionally. There may be circumstances when we have to break the code. The next question must be when is this permissible?

Your view

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