Nevertheless, because these questions are fundamental to any practical application of moral theory, it is worthwhile to continue to reflect upon them. For Jewish, Christian and Muslim societies, the justification of morality is the Word of God as expressed in the Bible and Koran. Given an authoritative text containing basic moral premises, the appropriate method for obtaining rules of conduct is a process of logical deduction from those premises to conclusions.
However, if we focus our inquiry on European and American societies in the present century, the decline of belief in religious authority has undermined his approach to moral theory for many people. This monumental change-for morality-may be attributed to many factors. An increase in multicultural studies has emphasized the wide variety of beliefs that human beings hold, which may have led more people to doubt that any one of them is authoritative.
A number of writers over the years have commented on the correspondence of specific religious beliefs with one’s society of birth, again leading thoughtful individuals to question the authority of their childhood religious beliefs. As a general sociological observation, one can point to a positive correlation etween increasing educational level and a diminished belief in the authority of religious texts. When thoughtful persons reject religious authority as the basis of morality, it becomes necessary to find another basis for moral beliefs.
One of the few statements about contemporary moral philosophy which is unlikely to encounter opposition is that no moral theory enjoys wide acceptance. At present the most widely discussed theories of morality in the British-American literature are utilitarianism, deontology and social contract theory. The well known utilitarian approach to ethical (note 1) decision making was proposed by Jeremy Bentham in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) and elaborated by John Stuart Mill in several books, e. . , Utilitarianism (1863).
In Chapter 1, Bentham defines utility as that which “tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case comes to the same thing)”. Utilitarianism is then based on two premises (which are not always sufficiently separated in discussions of the theory). The first premise is the belief in consequentialism. Specifically, that morality is concerned with the effects of actions on the happiness of ndividuals.
The second premise is a belief in a maximization principle. Specifically, the right action is the one which has as its consequence the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It is not easy to realize in today’s society what a radical departure the first premise was from the conventional wisdom of its time. The second premise is a foundation of todays ubiquitous use of cost-benefit analysis. Deontological theories of morality take as their premise the belief that human beings have an intuitive knowledge of right and wrong.
Associated with this approach is the belief that human beings have ertain rights, and that actions which adversely affect such rights are morally wrong. Historically, one immediately thinks of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; currently, one is aware of the demands for woman’s rights, gay rights, and a variety of economic rights. Since most of us do have strong feelings of right and wrong, there surely is a psychological basis for the deontological approach to morality.
Social contract theory as developed by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau takes as its premise that there is an agreement between an individual and society in which the individual agrees to submit to he authority of the government and its laws in return for the government’s protection of the individual’s life and property. These theories were primarily concerned with the moral obligations of citizens and governments. An influential, modern variant of the social contract approach to morality is given in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.
Rawls (1971, p. 2) considers a hypothetical initial situation in which “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like… thus] the principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance”. He then deduces what principles of justice would be agreed to by rational individuals in such an initial situation. Rawls notes that his book is not a complete contract theory, but that the contractarian idea can be extended to an entire ethical system.
What are some of the major objections which have been raised against each of these theories? The maximization principle of utilitarianism gives a clear theoretical basis for moral decision making. However, it takes little reflection to conclude that its practical mplementation presents grave difficulties. Before deciding upon a course of action, the utilitarian is asked to consider its effects on the entire population and-although this is not explicitly mentioned-over an indefinite period of time. It is doubtful that many pure utilitarians exist.
Practical difficulty aside, the basic objection to utilitarianism is the refusal of most people to agree with the premise that maximization of happiness for the entire population should be the basis for all moral decision making. The hypothetical situation created by John Harris in “The Survival Lottery” (1975) rovides an extreme example of the conflict between happiness maximization and individual rights. Two patients, Y and Z, are dying. Y needs a heart transplant and Z needs a lung transplant to survive, but their doctors tell them that since no organs are available they will die of natural causes.
Y and Z then insist that the proper moral decision is to kill one healthy man, X, to save the two of them. However, observation suggests that most members of our society would disagree. Why? Because most would agree with the deontological view that X has a “right” to life which must not be abrogated to increase total appiness. Thus while it is conceivable that a society of humans (or post-humans) might someday exist whose moral sense was in innate agreement with utilitarianism, that is not the case at present. A number of objections have been raised to the version of social contract theory developed by Rawls.
By a series of arguments Rawls (1971, pp. 60, 302) deduces that rational persons operating under a “veil of ignorance” would choose two principles. (First) Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive system of basic liberties compatible with similar liberty for all. (Second) Economic nequalities are to be arranged to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. While there is little argument over the first principle, the second principle (which is Rawls’ contribution to the theory of distributive justice) is controversial.
The argument for the second principle uses a maximin rule for choice under uncertainty (Rawls, 1971, pp. 150-158). It assumes that rational persons will agree to a system for distributing economic goods whose worst outcome (for any person) is better than the worst outcome of any alternate system. While many persons (particularly those of mature years and conservative nstincts) would choose the economic distribution system Rawls suggests, it can be objected that many others (particularly the young and daring) would not.
Unless one defines a rational person as one who follows the maximin rule, the question of whether real persons would agree with Rawls could only be decided by a sociological survey. A more general objection to Rawls, and to any social contract theory based upon a hypothetical or historical agreement, is: Why should such an agreement be morally binding on contemporary individuals who are not choosing a moral system under conditions of ignorance?
A basic moral question debated in the philosophical literature is illustrated in an extreme form by Judith J. Thomson in “Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem” (1976). In this paper the author constructs a series of cases in which an agent (the driver of a runaway trolley) must choose between either killing/letting die an innocent person or saving five other innocent persons. This problem, of which there are many variations, highlights the conflict between the deontological and consequentialist approaches to morality.
The deontologist believes that individuals have certain moral rights which cannot be acrificed for the benefit of others; the consequentialist believes that morally correct action depends on its effects. The primary objection to the deontological view is that, in the absence of religious authority, its adherents provide no alternative basis for their choice of moral rights. Their final appeal, as expressed in many papers, is to “moral intuition” or “what we know is right”. In the next section we discuss the sources of our moral intuition and suggest an alternative approach to morality using elements of systems described above.