The content of morality

Talk of ‘shared values’ may look implausible when we think about the extent of moral diversity and disagreement. Some of the greatest civilizations of the past have taken it for granted that slavery was morally acceptable. Throughout much of history men have been valued more highly than women, and still are in some cultures. Partly as a result of the influence of certain religious doctrines, there are still radically divergent moral attitudes towards homosexuality. Even within societies where it might seem plausible to talk about a common stock of values, people strongly disagree about controversial issues such as abortion and euthanasia, war and peace, and social justice. How, then, can we maintain that there are ‘shared human values’?

We need to distinguish between what we might call ‘core values’ and moral beliefs about particular issues. People are able to engage in meaningful disagreement and rational debate about controversial moral topics because, at a more fundamental level, they appeal to the same values and disagree about how to apply them. What, then, are these ‘core values’ and how can we identify them? In the following article, Richard Norman offers one answer.

If our values are rooted in our capacity for empathy, our responsiveness to one another, and our nature as social beings, then it might initially seem plausible to suppose that these values all ultimately come down to a single value – that of promoting human happiness. Here we can see the appeal of an ethical theory often referred to as ‘utilitarianism’. It is the theory which says that in any situation the right thing to do is what will lead to the ‘greatest happiness’. To decide what we ought to do, we should estimate the amounts of happiness which would be promoted by the various possible actions open to us, subtract whatever amounts of unhappiness or suffering they might lead to, and perform that action which seems likely to produce the greatest net quantity of happiness overall. It is an ethical theory which can be traced back to classical antiquity; it was given a powerful defence by the humanist philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and it continues to appeal to many humanists today.

The attraction of utilitarianism lies in its simplicity, but that is also, in my view, its weakness. It simplifies unduly the range of moral significant relationships in which we stand to one another. It focuses too narrowly on the relationship of benefactor and beneficiary, and hence reduces all moral values to the single value of benevolence – consideration and concern for people’s welfare. Our social interactions, however, are more complex than that. Not only do we have the potential to benefit or harm one another. We enter into commitments to one another, we stand to one another in relationships of trust and reliance, when we communicate and make promises to one another, and these relationships involve values of honesty and fidelity. We are members of particular groups and communities; such membership constitutes an important part of our identity, our sense of who we are, and it brings with it the value of loyalty. We enter into shared projects, cooperative activity for mutual benefit, and here an essential role is played by the values of fairness and justice in assigning the benefits and responsibilities of such cooperation.

Perhaps most importantly, our concern for other human beings is not simply a matter of benefiting them. We also recognise that they need to make their own choices and decisions about how their lives should go. How we should relate to them involves also, therefore, respect for their autonomy. This can sometimes come into conflict with our concern to promote their happiness. The conflict is perhaps most clearly apparent in our relationships with our children. We want them to be happy. We do what we can for them. But as they grow and develop a will of their own, we increasingly recognise that at a certain point we have to let go. We owe it to them to let them live their own lives, rather than try to live their lives for them, however much we may feel that they are making choices which are detrimental to their own happiness. The values of respect and autonomy are reflected in the moral vocabulary of rights, and the idea that the most fundamental human right is the right to live your own life in your own way provided, you respect the rights of others to do the same.

If there is indeed, as I think, a plurality of distinct fundamental values, these values will sometimes come into conflict with one another and give rise to difficult moral dilemmas. We can agree that at some level our values all contribute to human wellbeing and flourishing, but they do so in diverse ways.

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK