Chapter 15: Grounding technological ethics

As a prelude to this discussion, the train of thought developed in the last two Chapters can be reiterated.  First, the question concerning technology has been seen as the question of values (Chapter 13), and the question of values has been seen to resolve into the question of finding a ‘foundation’ of a ‘measure’ for the conduct of technology, be that conduct overtly ethical or otherwise indirectly ethical in the application of technology toward valued ends.  After discussing Heideggerian “piety” and its relationship to the question of this foundation (one that would presumably apply to technology since both technology and ethics derive from Being), both God and Being as ‘foundations’ have been rejected—God because it can’t answer (or at least hasn’t yet answered) the kinds of questions that need to be answered in order to make the “foundation” viable, and Being for the same reason, but also because Being, as Heidegger understands it, undermines the very sense of agency required for any ethical measure, i.e. it denies the agency required to be an ethical actor in the first place, one compelled to evaluate and discriminate alternative goods towards which technology acts as the means to ends.  With the elimination of these two out of three possible groundings laid out, only one remains: some kind of immanent ‘foundation’ for an ethical measure—or better stated, some kind of immanent grounding for a measure for values (the difference will be addressed shortly).   What might such a grounding look like?  How can an ethics for behavior generally and for technology in particular be situated within the limits of human understanding and its capacity of giving and asking for reasons?  What promise might this grounding hold for a ‘salvation’ from yoke of modern technology, as Heidegger understands it, specifically as this ‘salvation’ relates to guidance for its present and future use?  These questions are taken up in this Chapter.

Traditional “foundations”

Traditionally, the question of a foundation for ethics has been finding the goods, the highest good, or minimal necessary logical anchoring point that “rationally subserves all virtues and duties,”[1] such that this highest or minimal good, in conjunction with a set of decision rules or deduced implications about how to act, becomes the standard against which conduct in all particular situations is determined “moral” or “immoral.”   For Kant, this highest good was a good will in obedience to clearly delineated moral duties, such that one could will an action to become a universal law.  For the utilitarians, the highest good was the greatest happiness or utility for the greatest number of people, with the caveat in mind that the right to happiness ended where infringement on another’s right began.  In contemporary approaches, the minimum necessary good or logical anchoring point deemed good is lessening the suffering of conscious creatures (Harris, Shermer and Pinker).  In all three cases, the highest or minimum necessary good leads to both an objective principle or decision rule and a method for applying them, thus insuring in advance the objectivity of moral claims, i.e. thus insuring their “universal” applicability across cultures and situations.  In fact, in no small sense the goal of these moral theories has been to provide a justification for the possibility of this moral objectivity; it has been to provide some sense of moral realism that cuts across the apparent relativity of moral claims.  In other words, rational subservience to the highest good or minimal good—the traditional province of moral and ethical theory—has been sought in order to preserve moral truth, and this preservation has been deemed essential to any theory of conduct that would profess to sort good conduct from bad, right from wrong, and so forth, whatever specifics the situation might hold.  This cross-situational specificity—this “objectivity” or “universality”—based on a decision rule , a set of decision rules, or deduced implications from the highest or minimal good has been one of the, if not the, overarching aim of a foundation for ethics and moral theory.[2]

No such foundation is implied here.  That is, the notion ofgrounding” ethics “immanently” implies no foundation, one where determining the highest good or the minimum necessary moral principle carries implications from which right and wrong about conduct can be deduced.  Instead of “foundation” in this traditional, strict sense of foundation, a much looser sense of “foundation” is intended, one that takes as given the various ends and goods toward which conduct strives, and then sets as its task a criticism of the conflicting attempts to achieve those goods—or alternatively, to avoid the bads.  “Grounding” in the sense intended here[3] means evaluating various acts, customs and norms against one another in so far as they represent the means to achieving presumptive or established goods, whatever the ultimate source of those goods might be—and indeed, for the most part the source of those goods in question is not a moral problem per se.  So instead of saying the task of ethics first is to establish a minimum moral principle or good, or the highest good under which all other are subsumed, then second either sorting out a hierarchy of competing goods or deducing implications necessary to evaluate conduct, “foundation” in the loose sense here—henceforth called a grounding[4]—means establishing a rational method for intelligently weighing the pursuit of competing goods in light of the means of obtaining them, even to the extent of re-assessing these ends as “good” or not in light of the very possibility of their attainment, i.e. even to the extent of questioning whether presumptive goods are in fact genuine goods in the strict sense.   In this sense of grounding, some sense of objectivity in ethical, normative, or moral judgement is retained, but instead of a decision rule, or set of decision rules, or deduced implications insuring the objectivity of moral standards, the “objectivity” of evaluative judgments amounts to determining the suitability of means for achieving ends, whatever those ends as established or presumptive goods might be.  In this looser sense of “foundation” as grounding, arbitrating among conflicting goods and determining the authenticity of those goods themselves takes the place of sorting goods into an apriori hierarchy, with the highest good or minimum moral principle determining the morality of immorality of various claims.  In other words, instead of creating a rule or set of rules for arbitrating whether or not a highest end or minimum condition is met, moral or ethical grounding as developed here means using moral principles (or “universals”, to be discussed shortly) to make intelligible the moral dimensions of situations where goods come into conflict, thereby determining which course of action best preserves those goods, particularly with respect to making rational choices based on the suitability and obtainability of the means for realizing them.  In this looser sense of “foundation,” grounding ethical claims in rational criticism confers “objectivity” in so far as obtaining various ends or goods via established or potential means is an objective, empirical affair, even as it retains individuality, meaning that the solution to the moral dilemma solves that dilemma, and no other.  In short, whether a good is obtained or attainable is a question of fact to be settled empirically, and grounding ethical theory amounts to making intelligible the process by which these empirical matters are settled and thus moral problems are solved, especially when this problem involves two recognized goods coming into conflict, such that one must take precedence over the other in some way.  In this way, grounding ethics captures everything that is desirable in a foundation—to wit, “objectivity” and “reality” to moral judgments—even as it avoids the perpetual stalemate over which good is in fact the highest, or which moral principle is in fact the minimum one necessary.   For this reason, grounding is pragmatically preferable to a foundation.

To illustrate this much looser sense of “foundation” as grounding, the example of the hydroelectric dam versus a water wheel already discussed in Chapter 12 is discussed again, this time in terms of the values implied in the decision to build one or the other.  Since the primary goal of this essay is to make intelligible the essential role of values in the “question concerning technology,” normative, evaluative claims with respect to technology and not moral conduct in general remain the theme.  Whether or not the argument presented here generalizes to any moral or ethical judgment remains an open question, though discussion takes place as though it does (and in fact, the two issues are for the most part treated as one and the same problem).  In any case, the example is used to suggest the pragmatic power of grounding over foundations, without arguing for the distinction as such.

Aside from the obvious material differences between building a hydroelectric dam instead of a water wheel, the choice also relies on, invokes, and challenges norms.  As indicated already, one sense in which the water wheel and hydroelectric dam differ is the “respect” or “disrespect” for nature implied in their construction.  This is not to say that, following Heidegger, the difference between the two technologies is essentially one of respect (folding, as he does “respect” as a norm into the essence, as though substantively and normatively essence as such is one and the same thing).  Instead, “respect for nature” should be seen as a governing norm; respect for nature is valued, and building a hydroelectric plant versus a water wheel invokes and challenges that value; therefore, when considering either technology, its impact on the natural setting can be—and almost invariably is—considered in some sense.   The question is: in what sense?  How is that sense determined?  In other words, what kind of judgment takes place when a technology is judged in terms of norms, i.e. the values it invokes, supports, and/or challenges?  Is it one where a norm is taken as objectively valid in and of itself because it reflects somehow or is otherwise derivable from the highest good or minimum good, and therefore the norm applies to the decision as “right” or “wrong” because it itself is objectively true?  Does this sense, in other words, depend on the traditional approach to value or ethical judgment in mainstream moral theory?  Or is the objectivity of the value judgment different in some way;  that is, does it depend on a different sense of “objectivity,” and if it does, in what way is that sense of different?   Or for that matter, is the judgment even objective at all, as the moral relativist maintains from the other side of the aisle?   These questions are addressed in what follows.

The first thing to note about “respect for nature” as a norm (a value) is that it can act as a principle for illuminating the normative dimensions of the decision to build, or it can act as a rule for determining which course of action should be taken in order for the course to be the right one.  In other words, “respect for nature” can be taken as a guide for adjusting means toward ends (in this case the good that is respecting nature, in conjunction with the goal of building a dam or a water wheel), or it can be taken in the sense that an incontrovertible good that is posited (respect for nature), after which an imperative for making moral choices is deduced from that position—an imperative, i.e. a rule, that must be applied in order for that decision to be the “objectively right” one.  These two alternative understandings of the norm—or more generally, the value or good—are examined separately.[5]

In the first sense, a rule is by its nature fixed prior to and external to the decision; it is, as it were, apriori, and as apriori and imperative, it is rather rigid and inflexible (in fact, this is precisely the appeal of most rules—the apriori rigidity and fixity).  Instead of being drawn from particular situations in order to be applied to others, it is rather drafted before any particular situation arises, or could ever arise.  As such, a rule rigidly fixes which decision follows among the real alternatives in a given, particular situation—in other words, the choices emerging from a situation must be made to fit the rule in order see how the rule leads to the correct decision; the rule is not made to fit the situation.  Furthermore, in the case of a rule, the objectivity of the decision (i.e. its “rightness” or “wrongness normatively speaking) is insured by the apriori objectivity of the rule itself, specifically by how well or not the decision fits the rule, and this insurance of objectivity in the rule raises an important issue, namely: just how is the general or universal rule applied to particular cases?  In other words, given the particulars of a situation, what says ‘apply this rule here’ as opposed to ‘don’t apply this rule here’?  Granted, it might be said, that a rule is rigid, fixed, and apriori objective; how then does one know whether or not a given rule, in its generality, applies to the particulars of the case at hand?  For traditional moral theory, this is the deciding issue, by implication if not intent: how does the objectivity of the rule insure the objectivity of a decision when the rule is general (i.e. universal) but the situation is particular?  In other words, if a decision conforms to the rule, it is objective; if not, it is not; but how, given the particulars of a case, do the lights come on, as it were, and show “Apply this rule here!”?  Just how this question is answered varies, but under traditional, rule governed moral theory, it must be answered.  In any case, however, it is only raised here and not answered in order to contrast it with the alternative of norms as principles, to be discussed now.

In contrast with fixed apriori rules, norms (meaning values or goods embodied in a proposition, like “respect for nature”) as principles are similarly intellectual constructions, ones created before particular situations arise, but despite this similarity to rules their role in moral decision making remains quite different.   For instance, while a principle may be drafted deductively from implications about a good or a value in general—meaning that the principle follows from the meaning or the definitions of the terms—instead of acting as an arbiter of right or wrong prior to and external to the decision (and thus determining in advance which course of action to take), a principle is brought internally ‘into’ a situation in order to help clarify which aspects are relevant to the good or value in question.  In this respect, a principle, far from leaving it vague how a rule might apply to a particular situation, instead is the means of clarifying which aspects of the situation call out the application of which “rule,” as it were.   In other words, no “genuine moral principle prescribes a course of action”[6] but all moral principles “supply standpoints and methods” enabling the individual “to make for himself an analysis of the elements of good and evil in the particular situation in which he find himself”[7], thus enabling, in effect, application of a “rule”—or better stated, thus enabling a course of action conforming to the most relevant ethical norm, one that preserves as much good and avoids as much evil as possible.   So a moral principle as opposed to a decision rule “gives the agent a basis for looking at and examining a particular question that comes up”, thereby affording analysis of the situation so that “right and wrong can be determined by the situation in its entirety,” not by simple conformity to a rules or rules as such.[8]  In effect, where moral decision rules leave vague precisely when, where and how a so-called “objective” decision rule is to be applied to a particular case (and thereby insuring the “objectivity” of a decision), objectivity in moral judgment as guided by moral principles comes from examining—using principles as an illuminating guide—all normative aspects involved in an individual situation, thereby affording a decision that maximizes the good and minimizes the evil in it.  This problem of maximization and minimizing admittedly raises its own set of questions—a set analogous to, but nonetheless different from, the issues surrounding application of general or universal rules to particular situations; and this issue will be addressed shortly.  But before that, the difference between moral norms as rules and propositions of “value” or “good” as principles can be examined in the concrete using the specific example already raised.

For instance, in the case of deciding which to build, a hydroelectric dam or a simple water wheel, either norms as a decision rule insuring conformity to the highest or minimum good or norms as principles illuminating the normative dimensions of a situation can be invoked.  For norms as decision rules, this means the general (or the “universal,” as the case may be) rule “respect nature” would be evoked or challenged by the decision, obviously because the dam or wheel would be built in a natural setting, and this building would impact nature in some way.  But aside from the obvious occasion for applying the rule, the actual application of the rule—or better stated, its meaning in this situation—remains entirely vague.  What, for instance, does “respect” in this case mean?   Clearly, the rule prohibits doing anything that would disrespect nature; that much can be determined apriori; it follows from the implication of the terms, meaning it follows naturally from an understanding of the rule itself.  But this ease of interpretation is bought at the price of a complete ambiguity as to what respect for nature entails in the concrete.  Does it mean only a simple water wheel can be built because the water wheel leaves the flow of the river as it is, thus “respecting” it in that way?  Or does it mean that a hydroelectric dam could be built so long as provisions are taken that mitigate the adverse consequences of creating a reservoir and thus changing the natural flow of the river—thus “respecting” nature in a difference sense, perhaps one more related to an attitude toward nature, as opposed to not intervening in it all (as in the sense already alluded to, that one can “respect” the animal one hunts for food, as opposed to limiting respect only to allowing it to live unmolested in its natural habitat)?  In both cases, “respect for nature” means something, just two different things, and arguably each manner of “respect” remains respect for nature, so long as the appropriate qualifications and clarifications are made.  At the end of the day, the apparently simply rule—“respect nature”—does nothing in and of itself to decide the particular case; the rule, as a fixed and rigid external determinant, is both too specific in its formulation and too vague in its meaning to be dispositive without controversy over the details of its application.  In other words, norms as decision rules are too specific in the sense that they only prescribes one course of action for all situations, more or less by tautology, but they are equally too vague in that what this course is and means given a specific situation is entirely indeterminate.  So whilst the rule itself may not be controversial (“murder is wrong,” “respect for nature is a good,” etc.), its application in the particular case almost invariably is, and it is precisely in so far as the rule is apparently fixed and clear as a rule but actually vague to the point of complete agnosticism regarding its application that makes following rules so difficult in real life.  They are simply too indeterminate to be much use as a direct imperative for a specific course of action in variable but related situations, for devil, as it were, lies in the details of their application.[9]

“Respect for nature” as a guiding principle, not a fixed rule, mitigates the devil in these details, in that the inherent problems that come with treating “respect nature” as a universal rule governing the application of technology become precisely the merits of the principle.  That is, the role of a principle is precisely to make intelligible the very aspects of a situation that make the direct, straightforward application of a rule so difficult.  For instance, “respect for nature” as a guiding principle for illuminating the consequences of building a dam or a water wheel brings to the forefront for the very ambiguity of determining what “respect” means, even as it provides a tool for resolving this ambiguity by operationally specifying what “respect” can and therefore should mean in real terms.  Assume, for instance, the dam is built.  If so, then “respect” must include, if presumed followed, disrupting the flow of the river to such an extent that a reservoir is created, from which the interrupted natural flow resumes.  Can “respect” be made consistent with this state of affairs?  Is it so consistent?  Alternatively, assume the water wheel is built.  If so, then “respect” most likely means ‘don’t disrupt the natural flow at all’—in this case, it means something more material and direct than in the former case, even if the former case is such that the negative consequences to the ecosystem are offset (such as building a loch system for migrating fish).  In both cases, the relative costs and consequences of maintaining “respect” can be assessed; in the different situations, “respect for nature” as a guiding principle of analysis permits clarifying just what respect can mean under the circumstances, even as it keeps the builder mindful of “respect” in general as a good to be preserved, i.e. even as it keeps in play a determination what it should mean.  Whatever the final determination—dam or waterwheel—“respect for nature” will be fleshed out in some way (however controversial), and unlike a rule—which can only dictate that respect be followed—“respect for nature” as a guiding principle keeps the good “respect in play just long enough to be given proper office in the resolution.  In other words, “respect” as a principle makes it possible to determine how much of and in what way a good is enacted in a given case.  Or to sum the matter up: a principle guides action in an ambiguous situation by clarifying the relevant ways in which a good is enacted or affected by possible decisions, whereas a rule can only prescribes one specific course of action among others without determining in fact which course that should be.  The difference amounts to illuminating of what a good means or can mean versus the dogmatic fixation of a specific meaning, regardless of the specifics of a situation, thus prescribing only one course of action from this one dogmatic fixation—course in no way prescribed in advance by the fixed meaning itself.  In short, whereas a rule prescribes without clarifying the moral valences of the situations under which its application obtain, a principle guides precisely by this clarification, thus making the principle, not the rule, necessary for resolving decisions in ambiguous situations in a rational way.[10]  Looked at in another way, where for rules controversy ensues over what the rule means for a given case, as well as what principles govern its applicability to that case, for principles the controversy arises over whether a given case preserves the correct balance of the goods and evils in question, i.e. it preserves the good as best as able given the specifics of the situation.  That this is ultimately the same controversy just seen from another angle will also be addressed shortly, but first a slight detour into a recurring controversy must be taken, for this controversy, perhaps more than any other, muddies the waters of moral deliberation in most philosophical circles.

Moral relativism versus moral universalism

With the possibility of moral determination in sight—that is, with the idea that principles guide moral deliberations in particular cases without fixing a course of action apriori, yet nevertheless ‘objective moral truths’ can be obtained—the bugbear of moral philosophical discussion invariably rears its ugly head, namely, moral relativism versus moral absolutism.  That is, on side of the aisle, there are those who say that all moral values, and therefore judgments, are relative, while on the other side there are those who say who say they are not; they said instead they and moral judgments from them are objective, even universal (which usually means the same thing).  Even bringing up the controversy over rules versus principles in moral deliberation invokes this so-called problem, which again can be stated as a question: are moral principles (or rules) relative to the time, place and circumstances in which they arise and are then applied, or do they cut across time and place and particular societies and apply to situations “objectively” or “universally,” i.e. do they across the contingencies of time, place, and locality?  Or to put the matter another yet way, are moral principles (or rules) absolute or relative, meaning: do they validly apply to all situations, regardless of their particularity and the differences across societies or cultures, or are they themselves relative to those societies and cultures, and more specifically, relative to the time and place in which they are invoked and applied?  Recurring to the current example, absent an objective, universal meaning for “respect for nature”—i.e. what it means in all situations—as well as absent a fully determinate means for applying that that meaning—i.e. a subset of rules that makes the objective meaning applicable to the particular case—what basis, it can be asked, is there for asserting moral truth in the decision to build a dam or water wheel?  Or restated: absent objectivity of meanings and established rules for their applications, how can the application of norms—much less the norms themselves—be objectively valid, meaning “true across all situations”?  In the instant example, how can moral relativism be avoided in the application of technology in a natural setting if norms like “respect for nature” are not themselves fixed, objective, universal rules, such that anyone applying them can see whether or not they are applied appropriately, and therefore whether or not the use of a technology in this particular case is morally right or morally wrong?  In short, if norms are guiding principles and not objective rules, how can relativism be avoided?

Despite the persistent and recurring controversy over moral relativism versus moral universalism, it in fact is relatively easy to see that the very controversy is itself misspecified, in that it arises only when moral norms—in the instant example “respect for nature”—are mistakenly taken as fixed, unchanging universal rules and not as guiding principles in the first place, ones whose function is precisely clarifying the moral aspects of various situations, not dictating apriori right or wrong courses of action in them.  In other words, if propositions about goods and values are taken as guiding principles, not as rigid, universal rules, the bugbear of relativism as stated thus far simply vanishes, and in its place the real underlying issue becomes clear, namely, “how can moral judgment be both individual and objective?” For as Dewey noted long ago, “it is the insistence on a uniform and unchanging code of morals, the same at all times and places, which brings about the extreme revolt which says that they are all conventional and of no validity.”[11]  Since the bugbear of “relativism” versus “universalism” is such a prominent aspect of moral debate, the false dichotomy bears some examination, for this examination reveals as a common root the genuine problem that the dichotomy only obscures—again, the individuality yet objectivity of moral judgments.

Consider first the point argued by moral universalism—or alternatively, by the so-called “moral absolutists.”  Moral norms, it implies, are relatively fixed and rigid rules derivable in some fashion from an anchoring point in some highest or minimum good, such that they subsume particular decisions across all kinds of situations, meaning they apply in all conditions at all times, thus the “objectivity” of the moral judgment is assured by this objectively valid rule.[12]  What’s more, these rules are usually apprehended in some form of rational intuition, or through some kind of rational deliberation guided by moral intuition—but in any case, they are apprehended in some way that can only be regarded, in important respects, as (despite the oxymoron) relatively infallible—or avoiding the religious overtones of “infallibility” (which are often invoked in any case), as incontrovertible.  Whatever the postulated means of apprehension (faith, rational intuition, logical derivation, etc.), the truth of moral rules lies ‘out there to be found,’ in some kind of real moral order, and so long as they represent this moral order—i.e. so long as the rules are derived from a representatively universal good in some apriori sense—their application, i.e. their objectivity, in moral judgement is assured across either the particulars of different societies or the various times and places within one.  In other words, by the subsuming the particulars under the umbrella of the applicability of or conformity to the “universal” rule—the logical anchoring point, as it were—variation in moral judgment across different situations can be adjudicated; that is, there is a right and wrong way to act because of the application of the rule (for the traditional moral universalist or realist, the right way simply means the right kind of application).  As noted above, however, how to apply a fixed moral rule to a given situation with all its details is precisely where the controversy arises, not in the validity of the rule itself; but regardless of how it is ultimately settled, for the moral universalist or realist right or wrong answers to moral questions are in the final analysis assured by the making the situation conform to the rule, for the apriori rightness or wrongness of the decision rests in the apriori rightness or wrongness of the rule.   So long as the universal rules are true, it’s simply[sic] a matter of applying them to particular cases, much like applying the definitions of types of triangles can be used to sort particular kinds of triangles into their appropriate groups once various triangular shapes are found.  In any case, however one conceives this relationship between universality and particularity, the objectivity of a moral decision is determinable through it.  Conformity to an objective rule—however the objectivity of that rule itself is known—insures the objectivity, i.e. the universality, of a decision.[13]  So long as the rule is universal and objective, the decision following from it will be as well, regardless of how the details are mulled over and the meaning of the rule determined.   The moral decision remains objectively valid so long as the facts fit the rule.

Now at first blush, this assurance of the objectivity of moral judgment through conformity to a rationally apprehended universal moral rule—one found ‘out there somehow’ either in intuition of the highest good or derived through reasoning from the minimum one—seems rather absurd, for such strict senses of “rational apprehension,” “universality and “conformity,” when taken together, don’t  make much sense even in rational forms of inquiry like mathematics, logic, and natural science, even for the so called “inviolable” and “universal” laws like the laws of non-contradiction, identity, and excluded middle (much less the more empirically established universal ‘laws of nature’).[14]  In the first place, in logic, math, and science, universality, such as it is, is always prescribed, not found in some kind of apriori intuition, and in its prescription it contains its own limiting conditions, conditions alone in which the prescribed universality obtains.[15]  Why then, it can be asked, even seek such a unique sense of rational, apriori universality for moral judgments, namely, one that is found or derived apriori, as opposed to made—i.e. why find one that is ‘written into the fabric of things,’ as it were, as opposed to derived from some context of human intervention?  In the example at hand, why look for some sense of “respect for nature” that is universal to all possible situations within which nature is acted upon, or interacted with, regardless of the actual contingencies of time, place and situation?  Why look to an antecedently existing moral order of which universal moral rules can be apprehended and then applied to all particular cases of moral decision making if no such apriori universality obtains in science, logic, or mathematics—all three of which are reassuringly secure and successful?  Why look in moral reasoning for “universality” in the sense of ‘applicable to all real situations regardless of circumscribing conditions,’ when such universality isn’t found anywhere else?  In other words, why look for a an apriori universal rule to which the facts must be made to fit, when in logic, mathematics and natural science the ‘fit’ of a universal is always to prescribed idealized conditions, not the real conditions to which the universal is applied?  Why should the quest for absolutes or universals in the unique sense sought by the moral universalist succeed in moral theory, when no such apriori absolutes are to be found in natural science, logic, or mathematics—or anywhere else, for that matter?  Why search for found universals when “universals,” such as they are, are in the main made, not simply found waiting there to be followed?  And related to this question, why should the failure of such search or controversy over it say anything about the nature of moral reasoning?  These rhetorical questions bear closer examination.

On closer examination, the absurdity of moral universalism in the sense just laid out becomes even more clear, not less, for a closer look at the way in which “universals” are used in, say, natural science belays any sense of non-prescribed universals in moral theory as well—and with it, “moral absolutism” in the usual sense of the term.  In other words, once their proper use is understood, universals in science act more like guiding principles illuminating aspects of particular situations of a given kind from which problems are solved than they do as universal rules invariably applicable to all particular situations and problems of a certain kind, thus giving those particulars their meaning.  This guiding role for universals, as opposed to subsumption of particulars under them, can be shown in principle using a single famous example.

As an example, consider as a universal rule, as it were, Newton’s “universal law” of gravitation, .  For centuries, Newton’s law was considered a universal law of nature, in the sense that it applied to all particular cases of massive bodies that might ever be encountered because it apriori reflected and mirrored nature as such.  Leaving aside entirely any question how such a mirroring identification can be determined, as a law of nature it was nevertheless thought to describe nature in its universality ‘in its nature’, as it were; as such it was discovered in the sense of found.  In any case, in whatever sense it laid out there to be found, it was not seen as prescribed, i.e. it was not seen as guiding principle created for solving particular problems involving moving bodies; it was seen as reflective of the ‘way things are’ apriori.  But as we now know, the latter case is a false understanding of what science does, while the former is not.  That is, based on what we now know about how science actually works,this sense of apriori universality as a reflection of the “universality” of nature is not strictly true.  In the first place, we now know that the “universality” of this law is limited in the sense that Einstein’s theory of gravitation 1) subsumes it (it accounts for all Newtonian results), even as it 2) replaces a key notion the former deploys (curved space-time around a massive body for a gravitational “force” acting in fixed space and time between them), even as it 3) solves old problems which the old “universal” could not (the perihelion of Mercury, just to name one).   In the second place, however, even within the now understood limited range of situations to which the Newtonian ‘universal law of gravity’ applies (slowly, relatively massive moving bodies), the so-called “universality” of the law is still more prescriptive than descriptive, for nowhere in nature do the precise conditions obtain for which the law is specifically formulated.  That is, nowhere in the universe are there only two point masses acting on one another at a distance, for the real universe is composed innumerable massive objects, not two idealized constructs like “point masses.”   In other words, however applicable to real bodies—and they are certainly applicable!—“point masses” remain an idealized construction—or better stated,  they remain a prescription—and as a prescription the “universal rule” can, by its very statement, only both perfectly apply and yield perfect predictions to a kind of situation which never in fact occurs (i.e. to two point masses acting at a distance).  Instead, the idealized situation can only, in real terms, be approximately found,[16] and what’s more,  the so-called “universal law’s” suitability for solving particular problems (read ‘universal applicability’ in the traditional language) will depend solely on the precision required in the solution of those problems—a practical consideration, in any case, not one for theoretical subsumption.  For instance, for setting up the orbit of a communications satellite, Newton’s law of gravity and its deductively obtained equations for orbital trajectories is more than adequate, in that the earth can be treated as a rotating point mass with a satellite as a point mass in orbit around it (with the centers of gravity at the center of the earth and the satellite).  But for actually using the something like the signals from a GPS satellite system once it’s in place, Einstein’s relativistic conception of space-time must be deployed, for Newton’s conception, while useful for the satellite’s orbital trajectories, are not applicable (again, read ‘universal’ in the traditional language) enough to yield useful predictions for positions on Earth.[17]  In fact, the Newtonian concepts of space and time are of such limited applicability that the necessary kinds of predictions cannot even be drawn.   In this way, then, one “universal” law of space and time and gravity is more universal than the other, in that the conditions under which one obtains are more generic and encompassing than the other, even as in both cases those laws are prescribed for idealized conditions that never quite occur in nature, meaning that their “universality” as such is not, strictly speaking, the universality of nature.[18]   While the power of these idealized constructions cannot be overstated, it is only through successful application to actual situations that prescriptions like the laws of Newtonian or relativistic gravity become descriptions of nature in the sense in which “description” is traditionally intended.  In any case, it is simply a fallacy of scientific reasoning to say that the “universality” of the laws as prescribed for idealized conditions reflectively mirrors an apriori and concordant “universality” in nature.  Instead, as the actual application of scientific principles to solving particular problems makes clear, the so-called “universality” of its ‘laws’ is limited to illuminating the generic aspects of individual situations, ones that more and more approximate the idealized conditions stated in its laws, thereby enabling real problems to be solved and testable outcomes to be obtained (especially in the form of recreations and predictions).  Only in so far as these situations approximate the idealized conditions prescribed in the universal laws—conditions that never quite occur—is the so-called “universality” of them true.  In short, the universality of the laws of nature in science is ideal and prescribed, thus lending them extraordinarily explanatory power for solving problems when the generic conditions of the problem more and more closely approximate these idealized, pre-defined conditions. [19]

So again, reiterating the rhetorical question at hand, if “universals” in science act as guiding principles for solving individual problems when certain objectively specifiable conditions obtain—conditions that only approximate those in the idealized prescriptions of its laws—why not seek a similar role in moral or ethicaluniversals” in the use of technology?  In other words, in so far as the reassurance of objectivity exists in science and its use of ‘universals’—as it does, given its extraordinary explanatory power and empirical success—why not rest assured that an analogous “objectivity” obtains in moral or value judgments through the use of similar “guiding principles,” without fortifying that assurance in a mistaken conception of “universals” as reflective of an antecedent reality, thus thereby insuring their role in adjudicating moral claims?  So long as the role of “universals” as guiding principles can be demonstrated as similar in moral reasoning to their use in science, why look for a unique role for universals in morals at all, and why find in the failure to establish this unique role a relativism that is as unwarranted in moral theory as it is both unwarranted and empirically rebuttable in science?  Rhetorically at least, moral universalism as absolutism is suspect because it attempts to achieve something has not been achieved—and is not even achievable—anywhere else, and this calls into question why one would even propose the prospect in the first place.  In short, in so far as moral relativism is a revolt against the failure of moral universalism, why even take it any more seriously than absolutism should be taken—which is to say, not at all?  Moral universalism was bound to fail, so why assume its opposite is true?

As a means to addressing these question and the grain of truth relativism contains, it remains to be seen how the foil to the moral universalist, the moral relativist, occupies the other horn of the false dichotomy, namely that either moral norms are universal in the strict sense of rationally apprehended apriori rules applicable to any and all particular situations, or they are merely conventional norms specific to a given cultural setting, with no biting power to judge any situation in another setting as more or less “morally right” than another.  In other words, it remains to be seen how the relativistic bugbear follows from the misconstrual that is moral universalism, such that both options are simply two misspecified formulations of a genuine underlying dilemma—the individuality yet objectivity of moral judgements.  Although the application of the issue here still recurs to the problem of moral norms in the application of technology—in this case, the maxim “respect for nature” with respect to building a hydroelectric dam or simple water wheel—the arguments and distinctions at work in this example should apply to any moral norm one choses, and to moral theory generally.   But setting that general applicability aside, for now moral relativism is examined in some detail as a means to understanding what is actually at stake in the debate between it and moral universalism.

As is well known, for the moral relativist there are no moral universals in the strict sense just described—that is, in the strict sense of apriori, rationally apprehensible rules under which actions in all particular kinds of situation are dictated, with “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “bad” insured by conformity of the facts to the rule.  In other words, there are, as the moral relativist claims, “no interesting moral universals”; there are only “tautological ones, such as ‘murder is wrong,’ where ‘murder’ means wrongful killing, or ‘bribery is wrong,’ where bribery means wrongful paying.”[20]  For the relativist, morality—far from of being elevated into and sanctioned by binding universals with any bite in particular cases—is always contingent, particular, and “local,” meaning that customs and norms taken as moral are in essence functional and adaptational.  That is, instead of being judged as reflections of some pre-existing real moral order that can be intuited or otherwise rationally described, a given morality—and there are as many given moralities as there are cultures and societies—can be judged only “by its contribution to the survival, or other ultimate goals of a society or some group within it.”[21]  As a result, the relativist asserts that “the criteria for pronouncing a moral claim valid is given by the culture in which the claim is advanced rather than by some transcultural (‘universal’) source of moral values,” meaning that one “cannot, except for polemical effect, call another culture immoral unless” one “adds ‘by our lights.’”[22]  In short, one can only decide the moral worth of a custom or norm in the same way one would decide the relative worth of a hammer, to wit, not in and of itself as worthy or not but rather as well-adapted or not to its function of driving nails.[23]  In any meaningful, adjudicating sense, moral universals are out for the moral relativist, and lacking any such universals as a template against which to assess conflicting moral claims either across cultures or among groups within a culture, the moral relativist asserts that “all moral principles are so relative to a particular state of society that they have no binding force in any [different] social condition.”[24]  For the relativist, since there is no absolute moral theory based in rationally apprehended universals, there is no objectivity in moral theory at all, only functional accounts of how norms are adapted to the needs or ends of particular groups.

Now, it can be observed initially that in so far as moral theory is seen as the moral universalist sees it, moral relativism is largely persuasive, for clearly the brand of moral universalism just described fails to clarify even the way “universals” are prescribed and used in any other form of inquiry, so on that ground alone their unique use in moral theory is deeply suspect. This makes the alternative tempting.  In other words, based on what is known about both what “universals” actually are and how they actually function, moral universalism is unintelligible in its own terms, and therefore moral relativism as the alternative seems more persuasive.  What’s more, as an empirical statement, moral relativism also has bite.   As a statement of fact most non-tautological moral norms are relative to different societies, in that their scope and application varies widely, and it may even be that the only observably reliable feature of moral codes is their variability.  Finally, related to this last point, as a statement of fact moral relativism is also persuasive in a deeper sense because competing and mutually exclusive conceptions of the universal moral code exist—that is, in most societies, the local moral code is viewed as the right one, taken at the exclusion of all the others.  But as obvious as this difference is, given their professed mutual exclusivity, all of these alternatives cannot be right, and therefore as a matter of practical principle, so far as we know now, moral “universals” are in fact relative (for how else are mutually exclusive competing alternatives over the same thing to be understood, absent convincing demonstration that one is right?)  In any case, the relativity of claims to moral universality is a fact so long as the controversy over them exists, which epistemologically speaking should leave any honest advocate of one system among them agnostic as to the truth of all the others—“should” being the operative word here.  So for multiple reasons, moral relativism is initially persuasive, and on pragmatic grounds—perhaps the only ones that matter when real controversy must be solved by real means—it is almost certainly true.  To date no non-tautological and non-controversial moral universals exists, and since controversy is in fact the problem when applying moral rules, pragmatically speaking moral rules may as well be relative because in fact competing claims to them are. So moral relativism is more or less persuasive, both on its own and as an alternative to the failure of moral absolutism; but is it convincing?  In other words, does it capture the heart of the matter—the individuality yet objectivity of moral judgment?

On a closer examination, no: moral relativism, whatever its merits as in indicator of the underlying problem, does not capture that problem itself.  That is, as an alternative horn on a false dichotomy—either moral rules are universal and applicable to all particular decisions, or they are relative and adjudicative of none—moral relativism, while more persuasive than moral universalism, draws an invalid conclusion from the wrong premises, even as it indicates an important aspect of moral judgments that is completely obscured by moral universalism, to wit, the probability of moral judgments, as opposed to their certainty.   In effect, moral relativism, like moral universalism, misstates the nature and office of moral norms in general and moral “universals” in particular, then, by expecting the wrong result from them, it ends up claiming a “relativity” to moral judgement as unwarranted as the moral universalist’s claim to moral certainty.  Exactly how this occurs and how it can be avoided can be shown only by examining the individuality of moral judgment in such a way that preserves an objectivity to them, even as it asserts the final judgment is only probable, meaning that its final resolution depends on a factor that can never be assured in advance, namely, consensus.

The individuality and objectivity of moral judgment

 Like all final judgment that settles a problematic situation, moral judgement is individual, meaning it represents a unique solution to the moral dilemma which gave rise to the search for a resolution, and to that specific dilemma only.  To be sure, in so far as moral dilemmas fall into classes and kinds moral decisions will be similar to one another across situations, and it may even be that in similar situations the same moral judgment obtains.  But nevertheless each moral decision must be taken on a case by case basis, for for each dilemma, a unique solution exists, regardless of whether or not the same judgment, formally speaking, is applicable elsewhere as well.  Whatever their formal similarity, materially moral judgments always differ because they are specific to the problematic situation out of which they arise, and which they resolve.  In this way, moral judgement, like all judgment that settles inquiry, is individual.  It solves a problem in the time and place in which it occurs, using the moral norms available (including moral “universals”) to solve the problem.

Now this individuality to moral judgment—its uniqueness specific to the moral dilemma it purports to solve—is the grain of truth to moral relativism.  That is, whatever function a moral norms play in reaching a final decision (a role to be detailed shortly), that final decision is “relative” to the situation it settles, and not another.  In other words, moral judgment, as the solution to a specific problem, solves that problem alone and not necessarily any other, and this makes the judgment relative to that situation—and more generally, to situations generally.  As a solution, it applies to the circumstances which call for moral inquiry in the first place, and its applicability, however like in kind to other decisions in other situations, is limited to those circumstances.  Clearly this circumstantiality bears some resemblance to moral relativism, in that the validity of moral decisions are fixed for the situational time and place for which they occur, but note: this circumstantiality, this relativity, as it were, applies to moral judgment itself and not to the tools through which judgment is made, or to the method used in reaching judgement through those tools.  In other words, the relativity of moral judgment says nothing about the relativity or not of moral norms; it only says that the final resolution reached applying those norms is “relative” to the problem solved.  So far from applying to the truth or not of moral norms—that is, far from saying that the truth of moral norms only applies to specific cultures in specific times to specific groups—the grain of truth to moral relativism refers to the application of those norms, not their validity in and of themselves.  In short, application leads to a “relative” moral judgment—i.e. to a moral judgment that is “relative” only in the sense that is solves the problem it purports to solve, and no other.

So “relativity” of moral judgment is rooted in its individuality, not its method or the norms it uses, but what of that judgment itself?  How is it reached?  And with respect to how it is reached, what office do moral norms play, including and especially moral “universals”?  Does that office render them “relative” as well, meaning that their validity as such depends on the adaptive function they play in the society in which they arise, a validity that doesn’t cut across other cultures in a way that would apply to other societies as well?  In other words, how does the office of moral norms relate to their validity—to their use, as it were—in moral inquiry?

As stated by the moral relativist, the very role of moral norms in inquiry is misspecified, and this misspecification leads to a profound misunderstanding about the role of moral norms in establishing both moral judgments in general and objective moral judgment in particular.

Specifically, for the moral relativist, the objectivity of a moral judgment is assumed to reside in the objectivity of the moral norms themselves, not to the circumstantiality of the decisions made through them, and as such, in so far as those norms vary across cultures, so too will the validity of moral judgment—so, it is said, in this way moral judgments fail to be objective.  Recurring to the running example of whether to build a hydroelectric dam or a water wheel, the moral relativist would point out that since the norm “respect for nature” is different in different cultures, i.e. since it is applied differently in some and maybe even absent altogether in others, that norm itself is relative; therefore the applicability of that norm to any given situation is relative as well.  In other words, for the relativist, since the basis for the judgment is not objective, neither is the decision in which it is used; that decision remains as relative as the norm itself, for an objective judgment true for all times and places cannot, it is said, be derived from a relative norm true only for the time and place in which it occurs.   For the moral relativist, then, the objectivity of moral judgment is thought to reside in the objectivity of the norms themselves prior to their application to particular problems, and in so far as those norms are not objective, i.e. universal across the particulars of time and place, so moral judgment itself cannot be objective.

This position, however, is simply confused.  For as already stated, moral relativism fails in that it fails to account for how moral norms are used in moral deliberation, regardless of their independent status as objective—read “universal”— norms or not.  In the first place, even moral norms relative to specific societies are objective in the strict sense of the term, meaning that for a given society they cut across the particulars of situations within it and apply to its members equally .  Absent this status as objective, moral norms wouldn’t even be norms, and that this objectivity doesn’t cut across all societies and cultures equally is neither here nor there for their office in making decisions within the group to which they apply.  In the second place, moral norms can vary across societies and still play an essential role in objective moral judgments, otherwise final, binding judgment wouldn’t even be possible in the societies in which they occur.  For how else can final decisions be arbitrated except with the tools at hand in a given society, and absent the binding objectivity within that society, how would they even apply to its members?  Furthermore, if binding moral judgment within a society is possible using relative norms, i.e. using norms that fail to cut ‘universally’ across all cultures, why is objectivity excluded in principle when someone from one society judges a situation in another through their application?  In both cases, “relative” norms are used; the decisions should be equally objective, regardless of the context in which they apply (i.e to one’s own society, or another).  Finally, in the third place, the objectivity of moral judgment does not hinge on the objectivity or not of a moral norm (which in any case is objective in the sense necessary for its use).  Instead, the objectivity of moral judgment rests on the method for attaining it, and it rests specifically on the role moral norms play in illuminating the “goods” and the “bads” [25] in particular situations—an illumination leading to a decision that of itself both resolves the situation and changes its moral nuances.  In other words, the objectivity of moral judgment is insured by its method, and the same method permits both objective moral judgment within a culture and objective moral judgments across them.  For in both cases, “relative” norms are equally deployed, and they are deployed in the same way.  The moral relativist simply confuses this deployment and the objectivity it obtains with the descriptive “relativity” of the tools used within it—a confusion best cleared up by showing how in fact moral judgment occurs.

As indicated above, moral deliberation begins with a problematic situation, one requiring a course of action that both accommodates the “goods” and “bads” within it and changes their balance.  In short, in moral deliberation one seeks a course of action that accommodates more good and avoids more bad, and changes the situation to reflect this change, thereby insuring the reality of the moral over the immoral.   Recurring to the running example, say the people living near a river need power to run their appliances and heat their homes.  For the time being, leave it vague how many people, just that some people need this power.  Say as well the river is essential for the life cycle of several fish and animal species, and it is widely known for its beautiful natural settings.  The locals deeply respect nature; they may even for the most part be environmentalists, as attached as they are to the natural wonders of their setting.  Yet they still need more electricity; without it, they simply cannot get by.  They are thus faced with a moral dilemma: either generate power and disrupt the natural setting, compromising one value, or not generate power and preserve the natural setting, thus compromising another value.  Both values are goods in the situation (to wit, maintaining lifestyle and respecting nature), and these good have come into conflict.  Such conflicts are ripe for moral theory; they are what moral deliberation is.  Moral reflection enters into this situation, illuminating the costs and consequences of maintaining certain values over or consistent with others, thereby enabling a rational decision that balances the good and bad in the situation, even as it changes the situation so that the greater good is realized (something is build, power needs are reduced, etc.).

The question at hand is: what office to moral norms play in this decision?  Are they rules for making decisions, in the sense that the circumstances encountered in the morally problematic situation are made to fit the dictates of the rule, or are they principles to illuminate the good and bad present in the situation, in the sense that the circumstances encountered in the situation are examined in terms of the cost and consequences of maintaining or supplanting the given values within them, and in this way making clear the balance of good and bad in the situation?

Now, it has been maintained already that in the case of the application of a moral rule, the second role for norms is always presupposed.  That is, in the application of any rule, how the rule applies to a particular situation must be fleshed out, for the rule by itself is completely agnostic regarding the details of its application, even as—and in fact the more so—its meaning is rigid and fixed. Thus applying any rule as such requires guiding principles to illuminate its application.  In the instant example, what “respect for nature” means is inherently ambiguous.  Does it mean leaving the natural flow alone and minimizing the visual impact of the power generating capacity, or can it mean creating a reservoir and mitigating the impact on the affected species, even as  the natural setting is detrimentally changed in one area (the dam) and perhaps positively changed in another (a new  beautiful lake, for instance)?  However the rule is applied, one of these meanings (or perhaps some other one) must prevail; the question is, which one, and on what basis is one over the other decided?  Is the norm respect for nature the template, as it were, for arbitrating the decision, or is the very meaning of the norm precisely what is questioned in moral inquiry, using its various meanings as guides for illuminating the moral dimensions of the situation.  What role, reiterating the pressing question, do moral norms (including so-called “universals”) play in the deliberation that comes with moral reflection?

By now it should be clear that the office of moral norms in moral deliberation is functional in the sense of guiding reflection in an adjustment of means to circumstance; it is not fixed in the sense of dictating in advance how circumstances must be adjusted to insure conformity with the norm.  Or to put the matter another way, moral deliberation uses norms (including “universals”) to illuminate the process of adjusting the meaning of the norm to accommodate changing circumstances, not to fitting circumstances into a pre-ordained, customary meaning of the norm.  For custom, the meaning of a norm is relatively fixed; all that is required in order to be moral under fixed customs or rules is to adapt the circumstances of a decision to insure obedience to the norm.  In this kind of non-reflective or quasi-rational deliberation, the norm acts as a decision rule—a template, as it were—for navigating morally ambiguous situations; it enforces conformity by changing the circumstances to fit the norm.   For moral norms as guiding principles, it is precisely the meaning of the norm in the given circumstances that must be fixed; prior to this fixation through deliberation, there is only suggestive meanings, meanings that prospectively either could apply to the circumstances or require the circumstances to change to conform to it.  Recurring again to the running example, as already mentioned the meaning of “respect” in “respect for nature” is exactly what must be fleshed out using customary meanings of “respect” as guides.  Does the customary meaning, it is asked, accommodate the current needs of the community, or must that customary meaning change, taking on in this way a new binding force that accommodate the changed circumstances?  Prior to this problematic situation, the power needs of the community were met; now they are not.  Previously, custom has deemed that “respect for nature” means leaving well enough alone in its entirety, at least with respect to its natural scenery.  Yet, it can be pointed out, that “respect” isn’t fixed or absolute—or better stated, pragmatically speaking, it can’t or shouldn’t be.  Specifically, fish are already taken for food, water is used for drinking, bathing and washing; the natural scene has already been disrupted to some extent by the presence of the community itself.  And so on and so forth.  However one parses the deliberation that occurs—and clearly there are many, many avenues to consider—deliberation does take place.  Reflection on the situation ensues, and in it the meaning of the moral norm “respect nature” is up for grabs, as it were, waiting for its determination.  What, deliberation asks, does the norm mean in the new circumstances?  Can its meaning in these circumstances be made consistent with its customary meaning?  If so, what about the current circumstances must change to accommodate that meaning, and if not, what about that meaning must change to accommodate the circumstances in the pursuit of another good (in this case, the lifestyle of the inhabitants)?  No final decision is offered here for this moral dilemma; only the process by which it is obtained is highlighted.  But before that process can be discussed any further, a competing objection must be addressed.  Specifically, it must be asked: absent the fixed objectivity of a moral norm, i.e. absent the objectivity or a moral universal, how can the process of moral deliberation be non-arbitrary?  That is, absent the objectivity of the moral norm to serve as a template for fitting the decision to the rule, how can the decision reached through the process of moral reflection be objective, i.e. non-arbitrary?  The answer to this question is composed of several parts.

As obliquely noted already, moral norms are “objective” in the strict sense of the term; they apply publically to all members of a given society, otherwise they would not even be norms.  It has also been noted that the truth to moral relativism is that moral decisions are individual; they are bound to the circumstances of the situation the judgment purports to solve.  So the question recurs: if the meaning of this objectivity is precisely what is called into question, and if the final judgment is individual for the circumstances, how can the final decision be objective in any sense?  How, absent an objective starting place (a “universal” norm) and an objective application (one fixed for variation across circumstances) can the end result be objective at all?

As indicated above, the very question is misspecified, for the objectivity of final moral judgment rests in the methods by which it is obtained, not in the objectivity (or not) of the norms used in obtaining it, or to the invariance of the judgment across circumstances.   On the one hand, the principles used in moral judgment are “objective” in the main sense that matters, but that objectivity does not transfer to the final judgment because moral judgment is not like the subsumption of particulars under universals.  And on the other hand, moral judgment is always specific to the situation it purports to solve, meaning that moral judgment is individual, so even asking for invariance across different circumstance is to misstate what moral judgments are supposed to accomplish.  But with both hands considered, the issue is even more forced to the forefront: what is this method that insures objectivity despite individuality?  What about the method of moral deliberation insures the objectivity of moral judgement, if it’s not the objectivity of the moral norms in judgment that is by design individual?

Directly put, the objectivity of moral judgement is insured by the method used to examine the conditions and consequences of apparent goods, not with a mind to establishing an apriori hierarchy among them but rather to transform them into real, deliberate goods made actual in rationally directed action, specifically with respect to the placement of that action in a continuum of ends and means.   While admittedly unclear in its bare statement, each aspect of this method is best illustrated by examining its application to the running example, i.e. of whether to build a hydroelectric dam or a water wheel to supply the power needs of the community.   To that end, how this method would be used to resolve this question pragmatically is illustrated by actually examining it practically.  For the sake of argument it is supposed that the power needs of the community are such that a dam small enough and a wheel or set of wheels large enough are in output comparable, so as not to make simply the choice one of “necessary evils,” where one is clearly preferable over the other in terms of meeting the needs.  It is also supposed that a history of technical knowledge evolved quite differently than what actually has evolved, meaning that how to generate electricity through either means was quite well established before the need for electricity was as great as it is today.

To open the deliberation, when faced with the decision to build a hydroelectric dam or a water wheel to supply the power needs of their community, the planners are in a problematic situation characterized by some kind of lack or disturbance.  Simply put, they lack power, and without this power their way of life is disturbed.  Toward rectify this end, they have at hand two technically comparable means: a dam or a water wheel (or set of wheels).   Now in effect these two means are mutually exclusive (to build one is not to build the other), and their mutual exclusivity brings into conflict two competing goods: respect for nature and meeting the community’s needs.  The question before the planners, then, is this:  what course of action best reconciles these two competing goods?  What course of action balances the maxim “respect for nature,” even as it meets the “the needs of the community”?  There can be little doubt that both are goods because in fact the community acts as though they are.  Both nature and the community lifestyle are valued.  Instead of calling into question whether these values exist, the question arises: in what sense are they goods, and in what sense can they be maintained as such—in other words, in what sense should they exist?  That ‘respect for nature’ and ‘needs of the community’ are apparent goods is granted; that admission forms the starting place of their moral inquiry into what to build.  What is questioned in the inquiry is in what sense are those apparent goods real goods—“real” here indicating examined goods with respect to their causal conditions and consequences, thereby giving them broader meaning within the context of an intelligently directed course of action?  The morally problematic situation the community planners find themselves in is, existentially speaking, precisely this question—meaning the question is not academic or philosophical.  Instead, it is forced upon them by the actual collision of two goods taken as goods in and of themselves, hitherto largely without question (at least let us assume).  So now the question is: in what sense can they remain goods in the future?  How are the goods to be understood?

Clearly at this point the city planners have a choice.  On the one hand they can rely on the customary meaning of the goods in question (“respect for nature” and “needs of the community”), or they can examine that customary meaning in terms of its causal conditions and consequences, thereby reflectively establishing new, broader meaning for those goods appropriate to the new circumstances in which they arise.  So the question in both alternatives is one of adjustment: either adjust the circumstances strictly according to a customary interpretation of what the goods are, or adjust the meaning of the goods to accommodate the changing circumstances.  In either case, some change must occur, for if the customary meaning of the goods is taken, the circumstances will be changed to meet them, and if a new meaning for the goods is established, then the new circumstances will take on that new meaning, in effect adjusting the goods to meet the circumstance, and not vice versa.   For the purpose of this example, assume that in the former case the power needs of the community are adjusted to meet the limited power supplied by a fixed water wheel in the river; in this way, traditional notions of “respect” like ‘leave well enough alone’ are preserved, and the needs of the community are adjusted to accommodate it.   In the latter case, assume that a new meaning of “respect” in ‘respect for nature’ is established such that a dam, with its variable and expandable capacity, is built, in effect meeting the existing and expanding power needs of the community by adjusting traditional meanings of “respect” to them.  The point here is not to decide which decision is the right one per se.  Rather the point in this example is to see how either decision is objective through the use of a method, not through the “objectivity” of an applied rule.  How, in this case, would the method be used?  How is objectivity obtained?

In the first place, the causal conditions and consequences of the two competing goods is established.   For instance, in the first place it would be asked: under what conditions has “respect for nature” as ‘leave well enough alone’ arisen?  How, it is asked, did this value come to be in the first place, and what, given the circumstances of its emergence, consequently follow from a given interpretation?  As a relevant fact one could observe, say, that “respect” as ‘leave well enough alone’ emerged primarily in the context of meeting the community’s basic needs for food and water; that these needs only placed on nature a ‘demand’ that in effect ‘leaves well enough alone’; that at its formation the value ‘leave well enough alone’ was functionally adapted as a means to the end of sustenance, in that, say, not disrupting the natural patterns of animals best afforded predicting when  and how to hunt and capture them—and so on and so forth.  The details are of course variable; just let it be assumed that during the formative era in which the value “respect for nature” was formed, in effect nature was best understood as the provider of the community needs by ‘leaving well enough alone,’ by not modifying those natural patterns because the causes and conditions of those patterns were not well understood (or at least not well understood beyond the ability to rule-of-thumb determine them).  In any case, since “respect for nature” is one competing good in the decision to build a dam or a water wheel, the meaning inherited would need to be examined in terms of the causal conditions under which it arose, and in terms of the consequences of maintain that traditional meaning under the new set of circumstances.  What, it can be asked, are now the consequences of saying “respect for nature” means ‘leave well enough alone’?  What power can a water wheel generate, and how does that generated power meet the needs of the community?  If that capacity if not great enough, or just enough for now, what must those needs remain if the wheel is to meet them and the traditional meaning of “respect for nature” to be preserved?  And so on and so forth…all these questions would arise under examining the causal conditions and consequences of the traditional good, here taken as granted as a value, even as its ultimate meaning is questioned?

In the second place, it should be noted that the entire examination of the causal conditions and consequences of the goods in question is empirical.  In other words, causal conditions and consequences are question of facts and ideas, and the proven methods of examining causes and consequences in terms of facts and ideas are objective in any meaningful sense of the term (in any case, it is assumed here without argument that the methods of the empirical sciences are objective).   In the case of examining “respect for nature” as ‘leave well enough alone’, the historical circumstances under which it emerged are questions of fact.  What where those conditions?  In what way was the belief adaptive to those conditions?  How did that belief survive changing conditions over time? What are the current needs of the community, i.e. what are the conditions now?—all these questions entail empirical, objective answers using proven methods of scientific inquiry, and as such this aspect of the examination of the goods in question is equally objective.   When examining the causes and conditions of a good in an attempt to establish its current meaning, not only are the objective methods of science appropriate; they are the only option available, at least if one wants this examination to be rational and intelligent, as opposed to dogmatic and authoritarian.  In any case, the first step in resolving the problematic situation of what to build and why is entirely objective; it simply states ‘what is the case’ about the goods in question in both the present and the past, a case that essentially boils down to causal conditions for and existential consequences of the goods in question.

The so-called “naturalistic fallacy”

Now, this objectivity regarding ‘what is the case’ with respect to the competing goods (or values) in moral deliberation is well enough as it stands, it could be pointed out; but what, it might be asked, about the critical question, namely, what ought to be the case?  For again, as it can be pointed out, rightly, moral deliberation attempts to answer what ought to be the case, not just what is the case, and this characteristic trait is exemplified here by the very question asked in the example: what ought to be built, a dam or a water wheel?  What of this ought, then; how is it derived from or related to examining of the causes and conditions of the goods in question?  How are the two cases—‘what is the case’ and ‘what ought to be the case’—even related?  In short, how can an ought—the true goal of moral inquiry—be derived from or related to an is—the empirical pre-conditions asserted here?

It is widely stipulated—wrongly—that an ought cannot be derived from an is; that a moral imperative, or what ought to be the case, does not follow from a statement of what is the case, much less that what is the case should be seen as what ought to be the case—perhaps the most egregious form of the so-called naturalistic fallacy.  In fact, however, naturalistic fallacy is precisely wrong; its opposite is true.  Not only is it possible to derive an ought from an is; the only sensible place to derive ‘what ought to be the case’ is from an assessment of ‘what is the case’.  In other words, the only sensible way to derive a moral imperative is from a statement of the way the world is; the only sensible source for an ought is from an is.  This correction of the naturalistic fallacy has direct and wide ranging implications for moral inquiry—or more broadly put, for inquiry into values in general (the main theme of this essay), and these implications are best introduced through a simple example, one even less controversial than the one relied on so far. By extension the lessons of this example will be applied to the one running.

Imagine a driver who wants to get from his house to a friend’s, and the only route is a steep, winding road through a mountain area.  He might ask himself—in fact, he will almost certainly ask himself:  how fast ought I drive?  Clearly, there are no moral valences to this question; the matter is entirely practical, and it will depend in no small part on the driver’s goals.  Does he want to arrive quickly? Is he in no rush, thus maybe he wants to go slowly in a relaxed way and take in the view—that sort of thing.  How fast to drive is in this respect dependends on the end-in-view, and on the value assigned to arriving.  If valued urgently, greater speed on the way; if not, then slower.  Whatever the value assigned to arriving, the answer to the question ‘how fast ought I drive’ depends in large part on how that end result of driving—here a proxy for any activity—is valued.

But that is not all it depends on.  That is, how fast ought one drive is materially related as much to the nature of the means of driving—the road and the car and the conditions—as on the value of the end-in-view of arriving.  For instance, almost certainly an implied value in driving to the friend’s house will be to arrive there safely—for if not valued, what point is there to arriving at all, as an accident will prevent it.  In any case, in any activity, it follows tautologically from doing it that the end-in-view is valued, and that the adequate means to that activity is therefore valued as well (again, why else do the activity, but for this being the case).  With this implicit evaluation of the means in mind—in this case, safely arriving at the destination—an “ought” is always implied in an activity.  To accomplish the goal of a task—and by extension to accomplish the purpose of an action—one ought to use means of doing so, for the means to an end is valued in the same proportion as the end itself is valued.  In the current example, driving safely is the means for arriving at the destination, therefore it ought to be valued, and since “safety” relies on properties related to the nature of the car, the skill of the driver, and the road and the road conditions—generally, to what is the case—ought, such as it is, and is, such as it is, are inseparable.  If one wants to arrive at the destination safely, one ought to drive in a safe manner; this follows tautologically.  But what driving in a safe manner means is solely determined by the nature of the car, the nature of the road, and the conditions one is driving, in, etc.; how one ought to drive—again, if arriving safely is the end-in-view—is nothing but a function of what driving is, just with a norm added to it to govern the carrying out of the task as the means to the end-in-view.  Simply put, rhetorically, where else but in the properties of the car, the skill of the driver, the nature of the road, and the conditions of both could one derive how one ought to drive?  If the car is new, reliable, handles well, etc., and the road is windy but well-marked, dry and on a clear day, etc., then one ought or another is implied in the matters of fact governing the driving.  If the road is snow covered, in white out conditions, and the car is only two-wheel drive, not four, a different ought follows.  Whatever the actual conditions of the hypothetical case, the question of what ought be done is inextricably linked to questions of ‘what is the case’ in an activity with a value implied in the end-in-view—and tautologically, all ends-in-view minimally imply that the end is valued, valued at least as a means to offset the lack or disturbance initiating the activity in the first place, thus insuring that some ought follows from any execution, if only the ought is to use the means available.  In this respect, i.e. in terms of adjusting appropriately means toward valued ends, what one ought to do to achieve that end is implied in the existential conditions and causes that are the means to the end.  So long as achieving ends-in-view requires adjusting means to ends, then the only sensible place “oughts” governing the exercise of the means (i.e. norms) can be derived from is from the empirical matters governing the “is” of this adjustment.[26]

It is maintained here that so for this simple example, so for means and ends generally in all moral deliberation.  So long as moral deliberation involves questions of adjusting means toward ends in order to accomplish ends-in-view (i.e. to realize values and goods), statements about what ought to be done respecting the realization of those goods naturally follow from statements about what is the case governing the means of their obtainment.  In short, oughts do follow from is, and they follow to such an extent that empirical matters about the suitability of means toward ends is the sole place for their derivation.  Absent this source, it might be asked, how could any imperative on how to conduct an activity ever be rationally derived—leaving open, of course, irrational imperatives that have no bearing on accomplishing a goal, imported as they are from irrelevant and extraneous concerns.  This rhetorical point can be substantively argued by applying it to the running example, whether one ought to build a hydroelectric damn or a water wheel, that being a true moral dilemma between competing, acknowledged goods.

Recall that in the example, the end-in-view for the community planners is meeting the power needs of the community, and in the choice over how to meet these needs, two acknowledged goods have come into conflict, “respect for nature” on the one hand and “meeting the needs of the community” on the other.  In any other context, both goods are valued, and as goods, their independent value is not questioned; it simply is what it is—a value as valued.  But now, in the choice over whether to build a hydroelectric damn that challenges a traditional view of “respect” for nature or a water wheel that preserves that tradition but doesn’t as readily suit the long-term needs of the community, given its current trajectory, these two acknowledged goods are in conflict.  What ought to be done, the community planners have asked: build the hydroelectric dam or the water wheel?  What course of action best preserves the acknowledged goods, and more specifically, what do the acknowledged goods mean in these new circumstances, i.e. how to the govern the choices within it?

As indicated already, almost certainly as a precursor to answering the question facing the community planners the causes and conditions of the acknowledged goods must be investigated.  That is, the causal conditions under which the goods arise as goods are examined, as is the consequences of pursuing and maintaining those goods in both present and future actions.   On the side of “respect for nature,” what “respect” has traditionally met is examined in light of the conditions under which that conception was formed.  This meaning is then contrasted with the two options before the planners: build a dam or build a water wheel.  How do either, it is asked, conform or disrupt the traditional meaning of ‘leave well enough alone’, and if preserving that meaning is the paramount goal of the community, what conditions must be changed in the existing circumstances driving the need (i.e. the lack of power the community needs) in order to accommodate that meaning.  In the alternative, on the side of meeting “the needs of the community,” in what sense would that require modifying the traditional meaning of “respect” to include, for instance, a new maxim, ‘minimize the disruption to the ecosystem’, or perhaps even ‘offset the disruption to the ecosystem’.  In both cases, questions of fact not only play a role in but predominate the discussion.  For establishing the causal conditions of the traditional meaning of the good and then deciding how that traditional interpretation of the good applies to the present circumstances are all matters of ‘what is the case’; scientific questions are asked and answered in investigations that can only be called empirical.  Likewise, with the question of the community’s current power needs and the impact statement meeting those needs would have on the environment; these issue are all questions of fact.  Scientific investigations are the only known means of examining them.  Finally, in both cases, how to execute the means of realizing the two goods in a course of action is an empirical matter—again, questions of fact.  Both the wheel and the dam must be built; there are right and wrong ways of doing this, and it is precisely these right and wrong ways that impact the natural setting and govern the most efficient means for adjusting that impact.  At every turn, questions of fact govern the decision to build a hydroelectric damn or a water wheel, and collectively, as it were, these questions of fact as the sole means to the valued end—meeting the power needs of the community—entail a norm: if one wants to meet those needs, then one ought to meet them using the best means available.  But the question “which means is the best means” is always a question of fact.  Science, not ethics, determines the causes and conditions that is the adjustment of means toward ends, meaning that science in the broadest sense offers the sole source for the derivation of ethical norms, once the pursuit of goods, i.e. valued ends, is acknowledged.

Now, it could be pointed out that in an important respect, the underlying ethical question of the city planners has not been answered in this highlighting of the predominate role of fact and idea (i.e. knowledge of ‘what is’) in determining the realization of either good, namely, which one should be built, the dam or the water wheel.   In other words, although how to maximize one good at the compromise of the other turns on questions of fact, the question which good to maximize as opposed to the other does not; therefore, it might be asserted, questions of value ultimately govern the normative decision to build, not questions of fact.  In this respect, it would be said, the “ought” that truly matters is not governed by an “is,” standing independently as it does from any question of how to achieve an end-in-view.  Rather, the question remains: which end-in-view should be chosen—preserving the traditional meaning of “respect” in “respect for nature” or modifying that meaning in order to accommodate the good of meeting “the needs of the community”.  This choice is not entailed in the adjustment of a means toward an end because the choice itself is ultimately the entailment of which end to choose in the first place.  In this respect, the question is ultimately ethical in a paramount sense—which good should be pursued, what balance between goods and bads should be struck, and so forth.  These remain, it could be pointed out, the truly ethical questions city planners face, and these question cannot be derived from knowledge of states of the world, i.e. these oughts cannot be derived from what is the case.

And indeed, they cannot.  Which good to purse at the expense of another when two controlling goods come into conflict is not entailed by the questions of fact governing the adjustment of means toward realizing either because the question of “which one should be chosen” is tautologically prior to any adjustment toward, belonging as it does to the pursuit of goods in the first place, not their realization once pursed.   But far from showing that what one ought to do is not derivable from what is the case in the course of doing it, it only stresses the point.  For even in this case of choosing between which competing goods to maximize or adjust, how to do either is dependent solely on questions of fact (again, “fact” here being a proxy for knowledge, which is actually a concordance of fact and idea); absent knowledge of how either good is realized in what way, no intelligent decision between the competing goods can be made.  In other words, while in the strict sense what one ought to choose from among competing goods cannot be derived from what is the case in the same sense in which how one ought to drive can be derived from the factual conditions of the car, driver, and road, nevertheless how one would realize either choice, taken independently as choices, is governed by ‘states of the world’, knowledge of which is paramount in any decision between them.  The point of noting that “oughts” can be derived from an “is” is not that ethics can be reduced to science; far from it.  It is only that ethics cannot be done without it.  Scientifically undecidable questions such as which good to maximize and which good to adjust remain in ethical reasoning, even as the only rational basis for those decisions is scientific knowledge of the causal conditions and consequences of the goods in question.

Returning to the example of the community planners and applying this retention of ethical questions governing scientific answers, even as scientific answers inform the ethical governing, the community planners may not be able to derive what ought to be chosen—i.e. maximizing the traditional meaning of respect while adjusting the needs of the community or adjusting the meaning of respect and maximizing the needs of the community—from what is the case in the same sense in which they can derive what ought to be done in realizing either alternative.  But nevertheless absent that derivation their only recourse for rational deliberation is recognition of what is the case in either option.  That is, how either option will be implemented is an issue of knowledge, and that question can only be answered scientifically.  Furthermore, the relative costs and benefits of both choices is also a question of knowledge; science in the broad sense can determine it as well.  With both sources of knowledge in hand, rational deliberation can begin and the paramount ethical question can be addressed: build a dam or build a water wheel.  Only by recourse to ‘what is the case’ in realizing either alternative and ‘what is the case’ in terms of consequences for both can the decision between them be intelligent.   As fleshed out in this deliberation, the choice comes down to whether or not the community wants to stress the traditional meaning of respect for nature or does it want to stress meeting the needs of the community, but as intelligently applied, the ethical decision occurs with the best probable knowledge of the consequences of either decision.  And when it comes to ethical decision making, what more can be asked beyond this venture into hoping to do the right thing, once the best information is at hand?  Even if only time will tell if which decision was right, this probable venture must still first be made.

The ultimate scientific un-decidability of basic ethical questions, i.e. their ultimate probably venture and the leap of faith they require, should come as no surprise, nor should it be a cause for concern, much less an argument against the validity of rational ethics in the first place.  For even within scientific endeavors, the decision between alternatives often hinges on extra-scientific criteria, even when the ‘how to’ and ‘what of’ these alternative is driven entirely by scientific principles. Consider, for instance, the two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.  In both different methods of landing on Mars were used, each equally well grounded in the best scientific and engineering knowledge available.  In both cases, what ought to be done in landing the rover on Mars was equally entailed by the physics governing moving bodies, but each alternatives differed: one used an encapsulating system of bubbles attached to a parachute, while the other used a thruster assembly to set the rover down safely.  The project managers in this respect perhaps faced a decision similar to the ones the community planners face in the running example: which out of two scientifically grounded alternatives should one choose, and by which criteria should they be chosen?  Now since the project managers at NASA were landing two rovers, so they could have their cake and eat it too; they could try both and see which alternative in the final result was the ‘better’ alternative, if any.  But the community planners have no such option; building a dam excludes building a water wheel, and vice versa, and therefore they must choose one ultimately ignorant of the final consequences of that decision.  The significance of this ignorance in ethical decision making, i.e. the significance that like scientific knowledge ethical knowledge is only probable, will be addressed shortly.  For now it is only pointed out that like within science itself, extra-scientific means are sometimes used to decide between alternatives under restrictions of ignorance regarding ultimate outcomes, even as these outcomes themselves can be determined scientifically in the end, once they eventually obtain.  Like with the Mars rover planners, the community planners in the running example are faced with a choice that is deliberated with the best available information, but in the end which choice is best—best in the “ultimate” sense, as it were—is undecidable until the trial is made.  In any case, looking for an apriori security governing such decisions is pointless.  In rational ethics, science, as the best available knowledge of ‘what is,’ can and must determine the causal conditions and consequences of goods and values; it can and must determine which means are best adjusted to achieving these ends; but nevertheless it cannot decide on the same grounds which ends to choose over another in the first place.   Only prospective knowledge of consequences can govern that choice, supplemented by faith that the choice is ultimately the right one.

Moral objectivity grounded in a method for solving moral problems

It was stated above that the objectivity of ethical decision making is insured by the method used, not by the objectivity of the rules guiding ethical judgment; that objectivity of ethical decisions is insured by the objective examination of the conditions and consequences of apparent goods, not with a mind to establishing an apriori hierarchy among them but rather with a mind to transforming them into real, deliberate goods realized in rationally directed action, specifically with respect to the placement of that action in a continuum of ends and means.  The full meaning of this statement can now be fleshed out in terms of what has been developed in the interim.

First and foremost, moral judgment is objective in the sense that it has as an end-in-view publically (however local) “validated” goods pre-established in the moral community.  These goods include but are not limited to ideas like those proposed in moral foundations theory (care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity)[27], as well as to specific norms like those considered in the running example (respect for nature, meeting the needs of the community, etc).  However the distinction between real and apparent goods is fleshed out—and it most certainly is an issue to flesh out—moral judgment starts with the goods taken as goods within a society as the end-in-view for moral decision making, and these goods are “objective” in the strict sense of publically held and publically negotiable, not to mention presumed applicable to all concerned.  They are objective in the literal sense that laws or customs are objective—known and held more or less by all, with variation of course preventing what one might call “universal” consent and acknowledge.  Even absent universal acknowledgement, goods and values directing moral judgment to a specified end are nevertheless “objective” in the sense of publically validated and established within either a society, or its subset.  So long as moral judgement has as these goods and values an end-in-view, moral judgment is methodologically objective (just as science is methodologically objective for having as its end –in-view publically observed natural phenomena).  It is neither here nor there for their objectivity that these goods and values emerge from “subjective” sources, i.e. a creative and apprehending social subjectivity, for that subjectivity, such as it is, is in fact always inter-subjectivity, which is properly speaking another name of “objective”.  So the objectivity of the method of moral deliberation is insured in no small part by the objective nature of its tools and subject matter.

Second, when in moral judgment the distinction between real and apparent goods is established in appraisal as opposed to mere liking and acceptance,[28] “objectivity” is preserved once again by the method used, in so far as that method deploys established means to determine the causal conditions and consequences of the good or value being appraised as real or enduring.  In moral judgement, goods and values are taken as given; they are appreciated as they are, for what they are.  But despite this sense of immediacy and its irreducibility in fact, goods and values can be questioned.  Do they in a more encompassing view have the value they in fact have now, under these conditions? Is that value a holdover from previous circumstances that no longer apply now, or is it still consistent under current knowledge?  In inquiry like this into the status of goods and values, relative worth as such is examined in terms of the causal conditions under which that worth emerges, and in terms of the consequences of valuing the good in the sense in which it is currently valued.  In this re-evaluation, the good is appraised, as it were: it is assessed in terms of its suitability as means or ends in general situations and circumstances, and perhaps new norms and rules governing those circumstances are established.  In any case, this appraisal rests upon “scientifically warranted empirical propositions and are themselves capable of being tested by observation of results actually obtained compared with those intended.”[29] The scientific nature of the judgements of appraisal in evaluating valued goods and establishing them as “real,” enduring goods (as opposed to naively accepted ones simply rectifying some or another disturbance or lack) also insures the objectivity of moral judgment.

Third and finally, moral judgment is objective in so far as it involves judgment about adjusting means toward ends—an objective task in every respect, since it rests solely on empirical observation of intended versus actual results.  In other words, so long as moral judgment is judgment as to which means ought to be pursued to achieve a given end-in-view (a proxy for a good or value), moral judgment is objective because the means of achieving that end—be it any means or the best means—is always an objective affair.  There is simply no other way to judge whether a means is suited to an end than by observing the contrast or concordance between intended and actual results with respect to observing the method for obtaining them, and this observation is always public (at least in principle) and empirical—in a word, it is always “objective.”

So in three respects, moral judgment is objective: with respect to the status of the goods in question, with respect to the nature of appraising or evaluating those goods in terms of causal conditions and consequences, and with respect to adjusting means toward appraised goods or values as ends.   With these three respects in mind, it remains to be seen in which sense moral judgment is not “objective,” at least with respect to any truth remaining in moral relativism.  That is, it remains to be seen how the lack objectivity posited in moral relativism compares with the objectivity asserted here in moral judgment.  Note will also be made of how this sense of objectivity differs from that posited in moral universalism.

So far it has been demonstrated that moral judgment is both individual and objective.  It is individual in the sense in which it applies as a solution to the problematic situation in which it arose, and only to that specific situation, and it is objective in the sense of the methods used to solve that moral problem.  The grain of truth to moral relativism has also been asserted as recognition of this individuality of judgment; moral judgement is “relative” in that it applies to a singular problem and not universally to all similar problems—that is, it obtains only in so far as problems are similar in kind, with provision that some difference, however small, may lead to a different moral judgment.  This locality of judgment, as it were, speaks to the intent of the moral relativist, but what of the objectivity asserted in moral judgment, which speaks in opposition to the relativist?  How does that speak to the relativist’s assertion that moral judgment is not universal, and by conceptual morphology, not therefore “objective” either?

As noted, the very manner in which moral relativism diametrically opposes universal (and “objective”) rules with particular (and “subjective”) applications is misspecified, mistaking as it does moral judgment with denominating a particular set of circumstances under a universal rule, thereby arbitrating a course of action applicable to all circumstances, instead of using moral ‘rules’ (in general, principles) to guide judgment of the good and bad in an individual situation, according to its circumstances, thus prescribing  a course of action to maximize the good and minimize the bad in that individual situation alone.   In other words, moral relativism seeks objectivity in a source in which objectivity never obtains: in some apriori, antecedent assurance prior to the judgment made—in this case the universal objectivity of the rule itself insured in some kind of real moral order (or ordainment by god, etc.).   Simply put, there is no apriori assurance that a moral judgment is the right one outside of the objectivity of the methods used to make it, and outside—to be discussed shortly—the fixity of common ends.   In other words, the relativist in essence bemoans the lot of missing something that shouldn’t even be expected in the first place: some apriori assurance that final judgment is anything but probable.  Even an objective moral judgment can turn out to be wrong; it is no less objective for that, just as the best objective scientific judgment or engineering project can turn out to be wrong but remain in every meaningful sense of the term “objective,” despite the error.  In its most basic roots, moral relativism places in one hand elements of truth about moral judgment—that it is individual, specific to circumstances, and in the end only probable, not certain—even as it pokes with the other hand a hornet’s nest of objections that simply don’t make any sense—the objection that moral judgment is not apriori certain because it’s not grounded in apriori universals, and therefore it is non-objective and not binding on any non-local group who doesn’t hold it (or god forbid, on anyone at all who doesn’t).  As noted already, the objectivity of moral judgment does not hinge on the universality of moral rules or principles but on instead a method, so moral relativism’s chief complaint—the non-binding nature of moral objectivity—on that level fails.  But does this means that the circumstantiality asserted in moral relativism fails altogether?

No, it does not, and it does not because absent the fixity of common ends, even the objectivity of moral judgment—the one insured by its methods—is, as it were, as non-binding as the relativist asserts; or at least, it is questionably binding, with “questionably” here meaning in the sense that however binding the judgment is taken to be, the same problem arises as though it were not binding at all, namely, the dilemma of consensus versus coercion.   This deeper truth to moral relativism, and its resolution, requires several steps.

First, moral judgment has been described in part as the process of adjusting means for obtaining a given good or value to the end of attaining it.  In this sense, and only in this sense, an objective ought follows from an is.  In other words, in so far as the question of achieving an end hinges in the means for doing so, and in so far as the means for doing so depends on empirical conditions and causes that are the means itself, how one ought to obtain an end is entailed by what is the case of the means for obtaining it (recurring to the car and destination example, how one ought to drive is entailed by the empirical conditions and causes of the car, the driver, the road and the conditions, etc.).    So objective norms—moral or not—are entailed in activities where means are adjusted to ends, and in so far as the ends are in common, different activities in the same circumstances will lead to the same “ought.”  In moral terms, then, virtually by tautology the same “ought” is entailed by an “is” when the ends-in-view and the circumstance under which it is obtained are the same.

Second, as not only the moral relativist observes (to wit, any honest observer must join them), the circumstances in which moral deliberation  takes place and the ends-in-view for which moral judgment is resolved are often not the same, and in this way, consistent with both the relativist and the stipulation here, the moral ought entailed is not the same either.  This too follows almost by tautology, but its implication has a significance for moral objectivity and relativism that has not been widely observed.  Specifically, if moral judgment is objective for the individual case, the ‘binding quality’, as it were, of the judgment in other cases will depend on two factors: the similarity of the circumstances prompting moral deliberation in the first place, and the similarity of the ends-in-view involved in its resolution.  Recurring to the running example used thus far, while the final judgment to build a dam or not will only apply to the individual case of this river, this community, etc., in so far as the community and the other extenuating circumstances are the same in other situation, the same moral judgment obtains.  In this respect, the objectivity of moral judgment is the same as the objectivity obtained in science, in that the maximization of good in moral judgment as a solution to a particular problem will bear the same relationship to other problems as the calculations in a solution to a physics or engineering problem bear to other problems of a similar kind.  The question of this objectivity will always be: how similar in kind and detail are the problems.  If highly similar, the same or similar solution may apply; if highly dissimilar, then not, and so forth.   In essence, the “binding quality” of one judgment in one situation on other situations will hinge on the similarity and differences between these situations, and the situations will differ in two areas: the circumstances under which the problematic situation arises, and the end-in-view as its potential resolution.

Third, with circumstances and ends-in-view as dispositive for the objectivity of moral judgment across situations (read, if you will, societies, etc.) established, resolution of moral differences takes on a new light.  Specifically, what is judged moral in one situation will be judged moral in another based on both the method followed and the governing circumstances concomitant with the ends-in-view.  Recurring to the instant example, say one community choses to maximize the good by stressing the traditional meaning of “respect” in “respect for nature” by adjusting the power needs of the community to accommodate “leave well enough alone’; so they build a water wheel.  Assume as well that a different community with almost identical power needs, in the same state of development along an almost identical river decide to maximize good by modifying “respect” to mean ‘mitigate ecological impact’ in order to meet current power needs of the community and permit expansion of them in growth.  Now, both moral outcomes are objective; they obtain from a common method—they use the same method, in fact—but this common method places the conceptual stress, as it were, in a different area.  In this permutation of the example, it is entirely possible to have two different outcomes, both of which are objective resolutions of the same situation.  The question arises: how does one arbitrate among them?  That is, what if for some reason these two communities came into contact and realized they had become, morally speaking, quite different.  One values traditional respect for nature, the other does not, yet each can claim to have objectively obtained an objective moral judgment.  If these two communities came to conflict somehow, who would, as it were, be right?  If it became a matter of either build the dam in both communities or build the wheel in both, what “objective” grounds would there be for arbitration?  Are these decisions not both “objective” and “relative”?  Is not, then, the moral relativist ultimately right, that moral claims across situations (read communities, societies, etc.) cannot be objectively arbitrated?

In order to answer these questions, the problem needs to be examined more closely.  First, it can be observed superficially but reassuringly that the problem as it arises between these two communities is virtually identical to the problem faced by the engineers who wanted to land two rovers on Mars.  In that case, the circumstances were virtually identical (the trip there, the conditions on Mars, more or less the rovers, etc.), as were the ends in view (landing the rover on Mars); yet two different solutions, both equally objective, obtained.  One used a sheltering set of bubbles to protect the lander as it touched down by parachute; the other used a thruster assembly to land the rover softy.  Both worked, both were “objective” in the sense of established using the best available knowledge and techniques, but prior to the trial there was no  certainty which one would work, or if either as executed would.  These two conflicting communities are in a similar ethical situation.  For both, the end in view is the same: they need to meet the power needs of the community.  For both, the moral principles guiding the deliberation are the same (just as the scientific principles guiding the two rover landings were the same).  And for both, the circumstances under which deliberation occurs are the same.  Yet like the rover teams, two different solutions were reached.  What if the rover teams were forced by NASA administrators to choose one landing method, just as the hypothetical communities here are forced to choose one way of meeting the community’s power needs.  What recourse would they have as to which method was “objectively” the right one?  What ground of arbitration outside the methods used to reach the respective decisions exist to apriori and antecedently decide for certain which option is right—“right” here taken in the sense of ultimate assurance (what essentially the moral relativists bemoans the lack of)?  Clearly none.  In both cases, the prospective solutions are, for all their objectivity—and in both examples they are objective—only prospective and probable; absent some ultimate common apriori arbitrating ground, only consensus can decide between them.  In other words, like in science when competing solutions equally objective for a specific problem obtain, so in moral theory: consensus provides the only resolution.  For both the rover teams and the communities forced to decide between two equally objective and creditable solutions, they have only consent among each other as an the final court of appeal, if the issue hinges on an either/or option between them.

This underlying problem of consent as the problem underlying moral theory despite its objectivity can be illustrated by a simple thought experiment, this time from the moral universalist’s side, as it were.  That is, imagine there is an objective, apriori , universal moral order; a right and wrong answer to all moral questions (not two right answers, mind you, a right and wrong answer).   Never mind the foundational source for this moral order; it can be natural selection, divine revelation, or rational intuition of some kind of antecedent natural moral right.  Just assume it exists, and that it is knowable by some standard means.   This thought experiment thus combines the thrust or moral realism with moral universalism; in this case, they are one in the same, in that moral universal are deemed real, however that reality is known and whatever its ultimate nature is. Now the question arises: what would be gained by its existence?   That is, how would moral deliberation in the real world be resolved given this bona fide, real, objective, antecedently universal moral order?

As a first approximation, assume every society on Earth apprehends this order, and that the ability to apprehend it is universal among individuals: everyone is presumed to know it.  In this case, the only problems—the only moral deliberation anyone would face—would be simply adjudicating in a particular case whether the moral order was obeyed.  If it was, so much the good; if not, then compulsory compliance and/or punishment is presumably justified.  In this hypothetical universe, all moral deliberation would be more or less as simple as adjudicating traffic tickets, with a clear rule in place, clear circumstance of a violation, and clear, justified punishments in place for lack of compliance (of course some case would involve more complicated laws and situation, but the principle would be the same).  Moral universals would be applied to existentially particular cases as easily and clearly as sorting fruit into various bins for sale.

Now as a second approximation, imagine a universe where this apriori and real universal moral order exists, but it is only known by one society or a few among all the societies on Earth.  How would this closer approximation to how the world really is in fact change the dynamics of knowing, applying, and presumably enforcing the moral order?  For consider, only one society (or a few) knows the moral order, so the first problem would be to educate and persuade everyone else that this is the true moral order.   Since the true moral order exists, the primary problem is steering people to it, navigating them, as it were, to the true path.  So assume something that occurs; assume that, in some accord with the moral order today, this one society manages to persuade most of the other societies to the truth of this universal moral order, and everyone in these societies lives under it as in the first approximation of this thought experiment.  But assume as well there are some hold outs; these hold outs believe they have a universal moral order of their own, one ordained by God or whatever, so now a conflict arises.  On the one hand, by stipulation most advanced societies on Earth have the true moral order.  On the other hand, these hold out don’t; they are convinced they have their own moral order.  So assume these societies come into contact, even conflict: what is done on one is thought immoral in the other, so each seeks to judge according to its own moral order? Query: in practical terms, does it make one iota of difference for the nature of the underlying problem between these two cultures that one societies is wrong and the other is right (remember, we are not even assuming, as with the river communities and the rover teams that both could be equally right)?  In practical terms, is not the problem the same as if they are both right, namely: persuasion toward consensus or compulsion through violence?  For recall, the society in the dark about moral truth acts as though it has moral truth, even as the society in the light or moral truth acts, rightly, that it has that truth.  But in practical terms, the problem between the two is the same as if both had a moral truth and still came into conflict over one solution to a common problem—consensus must be forged one way or another, either through persuasion or force of some kind.

It is maintained here that the only difference between the thought experiment just carried out and the hypothetical river communities and the real Mars rover teams with respect to resolving their conflicts shouldn’t in fact make a difference, to wit, it shouldn’t make a difference whether justification for moral objectivity—and therefore “right”—is grounded in alleged conformity to an apriori, antecedently real moral reality.  In other words, the societies with and without the ‘moral truth’ conflicting over how to arbitrate moral disagreements are in the same predicament as the two Mars rover teams arguing over how to land the rover on Mars, as are the two river front community arguing over whether to build a dam or a water wheel.  In practical terms a consensus must be reached in all these cases, but in one—the thought experiment, one group feels—and by the stipulation of the experiment is—justified, while the other is not, whereas in the others both are equally justified by recourse to a common method—and in fact both can creditably be deemed “right.”  Now, of course, in the real world, no such knowledge of an apriori moral order exists, at least one that is consented to among everyone concerned, or even a small fraction of those concerned, for even among the so-called experts, no meaningful consensus exists.  But as this thought experiment indicates: what of it?  If in practical terms the problem of consensus is the same whether we have this knowledge of an antecedent universal moral order or not, then why even seek one, but to be or rather to feel justified?  And with respect to being justified, what is, as James would ask, the “cash value” in that?  In other words, if in fact all parties are going to act as though they are justified even if in reality only one is or a few are, what does in practical terms being justified gain?  Justification or not, the underlying problem of moral theory is the same—how to reach consensus, and that two competing resolutions can be objectively valid only magnifies the significance of this problem.  For if two parties can be equally justified—and they can—then the only basis for resolution, absent unjustified compulsion, is consensus.  As this hypothetical thought experiment from the moral universalist’s point of view indicates, this consensus problem is the same in all possible moral universes, and thus understood, the problem of moral justification simply becomes irrelevant, and the problem of consensus becomes dispositive.[30]  There is simply no practical basis even in hypothetical worlds for seeking moral justification beyond that contained in correctly applying a reliable method in individual moral judgment, and in the world that actually exists (where two moral judgments can be equally justified), there is no principled basis either.

Much could be said on the role of consensus[31] in reaching final moral judgment when competing and conflicting moral resolutions arise, particularly on the four areas where consensus can be sought (on the ends-in-view, the meaning of moral principles, the relevant empirical facts, and on the balance of the good weighed).  But that discussion would take this essay too far afield.  Instead, it is only asserted that absent some meta-framework for arbitrating equally justified moral claims, consensus on these four elements is the only way to resolve moral disagreement when two valid goods collide under a given set of circumstances, and equally valid moral alternatives can be reached.  As the running example, the Mar rover team, and common sense extending them suggests, this will happen often.  Once consensus is reached on all four points, it will follow as almost a matter of course on the final resolution, and to the degree it is reached on some aspects but not others, consensus will be easier.  But in any case, consensus is the overriding practical problem in all true moral deliberation, and where it is more than simply a matter of correcting misapprehensions of what is good and what is bad, it is the principle problem as well.

Moral progress and moral error

Before concluding this long diversion into the grounding of objective yet individual moral judgment in a method of moral deliberation, not a foundation in the traditional sense, it might be helpful to mention one final problem in moral deliberation: the idea of moral progress and the problem of moral error.  That is, even though many, if not most, genuine conflicts over acknowledged goods constitutes the heart of moral disagreements, intuitively something like moral progress and moral error seems possible.  What is the nature of that progress and error?  How can they be conceptualized, if they to be valid concepts at all?  In order to flesh out this issue out, the running example is reconsidered, this time with some added dimensions that highlight what that progress and error are.

Consider, for instance, that the river community decides on one of two equally valid moral claims—or better yet, say they reach a consensus on one alternative when factions within the community proposed both.  The dam or the water wheel is built, the needs of the community (a valued good) are met and nature remains respected (another valued good).  In this respect, a moral resolution has been reached.  But what if in the deliberations a third party proposed a third alternative: a wood-burning power plant that generates electricity at a far greater capacity than either a water wheel or a dam, but that requires massive amounts of wood to fuel it and emits massive amounts of smoke pollution into the community.  How would this third alternative be assessed in terms of the debate that takes place, i.e. in terms of the same goods and principles that come into competition under the other two alternatives?

To see how it would be assessed, one would simply apply the same method of assessment to this third alternative as was applied to the other two.  The end-in-view would be meeting the needs of the community (a valued good, and this end-in-view would be met in light of a guiding principle derived from another good, “respect of nature.”  Regarding the wood-fueled power plant as a means to the end-in-view, it would achieve it, but the question arises: ought one build it?  Ought one build a wood-fueled power plant instead a dam or a water wheel when those alternative also fit as means toward the end?  Materially, the adjustments of means to ends are more or less equal, so the decision to build becomes moral: ought one build, not can one in order to meet the needs.  So more assessment is required: what ought would apply here?  Empirical analysis could reveal approximately how much wood for a given time would be needed to meet the power needs of the community, and this amount could be converted to the rate at which the forests surrounding the community would disappear.  Furthermore, the smoke pollution could be estimated and so forth—and the obvious empirical result would be obtained.  There is virtually no way to reconcile the means and consequent pollution and deforestation with the existing moral principle of “respect nature.”  The guiding moral principle, itself an essential element to the end-in-view, would have to be discarded; therefore one could conclude one ought not build it because it, as a means, does not meet the end-in-view will its moral dimensions intact (respect nature being a principled component of the end of meeting the needs of the community, hence the conflict between the competing goods in the end in question).  Clearly, one could discard the good “respect for nature” and build the power plant, but to the community, that would be a moral error (as it would be for any community who valued both goods).  As a final moral judgment, it would resolve the problem of balancing the goods and the bads in the decision to build by simply discarding a good altogether, essentially “resolving” the moral conflict by asserting it doesn’t exist in the first place.  As a community that has two acknowledged goods—respect for nature and meeting the needs of the community—building the power plant would represent a moral error, and this moral error would be established on the same objective grounds, using the same objective criteria, as the morally appropriate choices of building a dam or a water wheel.

The idea of moral progress follows quite naturally from this extension of the example.  Say, for instance, that the community acknowledges that both ‘respect for nature’ and ‘meeting the needs of the community’ are valued goods.  Assume as well that priori to developing the technology for a hydroelectric damn or a water wheel, the community used small woods stoves to meet their power needs at a far greater rate than under the previous set of assumptions.  As a result, they both deforest local woods and pollute the air to a greater extent than before.  Under these assumptions, the community would be respecting nature, as before, and they would be meeting the needs of the community, but in so doing they would be compromising both values in a different balance, one less satisfying than they would like (assume they have a movement bemoaning the increasing loss of forestland, etc.).   In the previous version of the example, “respect” in respect for nature meant ‘leave well enough alone’, but out of necessity, they harvested more wood than they’d like to, causing more damage than they like; similarly, they had trouble meeting the expanding needs of the expanding community.  Now assume they face a decision: build a hydroelectric dam or a water wheel, thereby enabling them to slow down the rate of deforestation and the emission of pollution.  They deliberate as before, then they build one or the other.  Under this new scenario, it can be said that the community made real moral progress with that decision on the grounds that the same method used to reach it was also used before the reach the decision to allow the expansion of stoves.  That is, objectively speaking, “respect” for nature is fleshed out in a way more broadly consistent with what respect means; “respect” as ‘leave well enough alone’ under the new technology means leaving more alone—a material improvement.  Likewise, meeting the needs would also be improved upon, since a water wheel would (under the stipulations) alleviate the excess stoves and produce the same usable power—and so forth.  In so far as the means to attaining valued goods are better adjusted to those ends, moral progress has been made.  Nature is respected more broadly than before (in all the ways as before, plus new ways) even as the needs are met as well as before (and with a dam, better than before).  Therefore under this new scenario the decision to build a dam or a water wheel to replace the excess stove use would represent moral progress.  The valued goods would be realized better than before; a more encompassing flourishing with those goods would entail; what else can this be but “progress”?  In any case, this sense of moral progress would apply just as well if the example involved the generation of new goods added to the old, with the old preserved as before.  In that case, there would also be moral progress because new valued goods as added to the olds, thus expanding the reach of goods realized in the community, and so forth.  Just as with moral error, moral progress is real.

Now it might be point out that with this new example, all that has been shown is that new technologies lead to the capacity to value old things in new ways; that far from exemplifying moral knowledge, moral error, and moral progress, all it shows is that technology causes a shift in values, and that this shift wouldn’t be possible without technology; therefore technology is what progresses, not morality.  Moral knowledge, moral error, and moral progress, it might be said turn not on a change in morals per se but hinge solely on a change in technology.  So instead of moral error and progress there is really only technological ignorance and technological progress.

But for the unwarranted qualifiers like “soley” and “nothing but,” the point is granted with both hands.  In fact, it that the question concerning technology is a more a question concerning values than the question of Being has been the principle conclusion of this essay.  For it has already been argued, technology can’t but evoke, create and challenge human values, and as a corollary to that idea—one brought out by the development of the running example—values cannot but follow upon technological innovation.  In a very deep sense, technological innovation is precisely what allows for moral innovation.  Because of the capacities for meeting human wants and needs and for promoting human flourishing, technology can’t but lead to moral progress, and the lack of it to moral regress.  So far from denying that values hinge in an important sense on technology, and that technology operations under the governance of values, the main conclusion of this essay is that it does—and that this is no objection to either.  In fact, technology development as the increasing ability to meet human wants and needs has probably done more to move the needle of moral development than all the philosophical argument in history, as a single example—one multipliable almost indefinitely—shows.

Consider the problem of infanticide—or better stated, the “problem” as seen from a modern, Western democratic point of view.  It has been suggested by a confessed moral relativist[32] that “infanticide is abjured in our society but routine in ones that cannot feed all the children that are born.”  He also notes that killing some infants, presumably the weaker and less healthy ones, belongs to a code “shade by the exigencies of life in that society or subculture, rather than by a glimpse of some overarching source of moral obligations.”  Furthermore, it would be parochial for outsiders to criticize that code “to the extent that it is adaptive to those exigencies,” for what basis outside their own exigencies would offer a stance for criticism?  In response to outside criticism arguing from within its own presumptive goods—goods that exclude infanticide—“the inhabitants of infanticidal […] society would say with equal plausibility that infanticide […] was presumptively good” in their society, and absent consensus on what presumptive goods are across societies, there is no common basis for condemning the practice.  In the end, “they might allow that the presumption could be rebutted in peaceable, wealthy, technologically complex societies,” but, they might equally argue, with their level of advancement, under their set of circumstances, it is not.  According to the presumptive goods in their society (some of which modern Western democracies share), infanticide is not only not immoral; it is the only moral balance of goods and bads consistent with their presumptive survival.

By the logic of what has been proposed in this chapter, Posner’s point is as valid as it is incomplete, for it correctly states the truth to the relativists position, even as it suggests the very grounds for objective (read “non-relativistic”) assessment of a problem like infanticide.  For consider, it has been argued here that in an important respect, the relativist is right: moral judgment is individually contingent on the circumstances of the problematic situation from which it arises; that is, it is individual in the sense that it solves that problem, and no other.  Furthermore, in line with the relativistic position Posner stakes out on infanticide, it has also been argued that absent consensus on presumptive goods, equally valid moral solutions for uniquely circumstantial situations are not only possible but inevitable.  In other words, absent ends-in-view in common, and absent common circumstances, moral decisions are largely non-comparable; one is not more right or wrong than another, even as both are objective for the problem they purport to solve.  In these respects, then, Posner’s point is not only consistent with what has been argued here; it anticipates it in important ways.  Both arguments assert the relativist is right in an important sense—that moral judgments can be equally valid for different contexts, even as they can be “objectively” right for the context in which they are drawn.  But for all Posner’s argument has in common with the position developed here, it fails to capture an important development—the possibility of moral objectivity in a non-relativistic sense.

Moral judgement, it has been argued, is not only “relative” in the sense of being individual; it is also “objective” in the sense of representing empirically verifiable propositions about adjusting means to the ends of presumptive goods.  In other words, for all its acknowledged relativity, moral judgement across different circumstance with differing presumptive goods are possible when certain conditions are met. Consensus on presumptive goods is one condition; consensus on similar application of guiding principle is another ; consensus on the proper balance between competing goods is a third.  But the forth condition is the most salient for this example: the similarity or not of circumstances.  As Posner’s qualification suggests, practitioners of infanticide in cultures where not all children born can be fed might acknowledge that the presumptive good of infanticide is rebuttable in societies where all children born can be fed, and this qualification, present with a likely converge of the others, suggests then possibility of non-relativistic moral judgment about infanticide, even as it indicates the role of technology in moral progress.

To see how both moral progress and objective moral knowledge are possible in Posner’s infanticide example, consider that a less developed society with scarce resources both acknowledges as presumptive goods the value of children and the value of the needs of the community.  As such, presume they have developed a moral code that preserves, as best as possible within their given set of circumstances, a balance between these two competing goods.  In other words, assume that if all children born are left alive, especially those weaker or disabled ones who would consume disproportionately more resources, but that doing so materially threatens the existence of the community, including and especially all the children themselves.  This situation presents a problem: how to balance the good of rearing children with the good of the prosperity of the community, even as it uses as guiding principles something like an equal distribution of resources among families, including and especially among children.  Remember, resources are such that inevitably, not all children can be fed; that feeding all children equally—as well as the weaker ones the disproportionately more that they would need—would risk the survival of even more children than  lost to infanticide.  Materially, such circumstances are possible; they have certainly occurred.  And what’s more: the problem is entirely empirical.  That is, scientific knowledge would determine just how many resources there are, just the rate at which children can be born and sustained with them, and so forth.  In this case, given the best available knowledge, an ought naturally follows from the facts on the ground: if the needs of children and the needs of the community are to be balanced, then some children must dies to balance out the birth rate to sustainable resources, otherwise all presumptive goods are lost.  In short, the moral code permitting infanticide objectively follows from the exigencies of the community when those exigencies are coupled with presumptive good they presumably share with modern, Western democracies.  In this respect, infanticide is moral; in fact, letting all children live, especially the ones who draw unequal resources from other children, would be, on the balance of goods and bads following from the situation, immoral.   Objectively speaking, infanticide as an ought follows from the is of this community on the basis of the same presumptive goods in play, just the circumstances governing adjusting the means to the ends of those goods differ.

At this point, it out to be evident how even across cultures and situations and circumstance, infanticide could be judged moral or immoral; how, given the stipulations of this very real hypothetical community, objective, non-relativistic moral judgment is possible, even as technological improvement allows for moral progress.

First, consider the possibility that the village scientists are wrong about the scarcity of resources; that is, they are wrong, as an issue of fact: more resources are available, just that these resources are tied up other ways, say offerings to priests who hoard them and then offer them to the gods.  Under this stipulation, room emerges for judging the morality of infanticide from “outside” the culture that practices it, for empirically speaking there are no gods, offering them sacrifices makes no difference for any desired outcomes, and empirically speaking thinking it does amounts to wasting precious resources out of ignorance.  Under these stipulations, it doesn’t matter if the members of the community think it makes a difference, for they are in error; they are simply ignorant; and this empirical ignorance with material consequences for the availability of resources translates into a moral error as well.  For note: it can be observed in fact that resources are available for all children, that a mistaken priority creates the appearance that there are not; therefore the ought that follows from the is of the circumstances changes accordingly: all children ought to be fed as the means for achieving the valued good of caring for children, ignorance of these means notwithstanding, because in fact these resources do exist.  Even on the logic of their own objectivity, infanticide under these conditions of wasting resources on offerings to the gods suggests that objectively speaking, infanticide is immoral, and it is immoral precisely because of moral ignorance, not intent per se.  Simply put, these villagers do not know how to best allocate the resources they have in balancing the presumptive goods of their own community, and in this empirical ignorance commits them to a concomitant moral error out of moral ignorance as well.  In this limited way, outsiders can objectively criticize from the outside the moral practices of any given culture, and they can do so on the very same grounds the objectivity of moral codes within that culture can be asserted.

Second, consider that the added stipulation of priestly offerings is the case—or for that matter, consider that it is not.  In either case the prospective role of technology in moral progress comes to the forefront, for consider that this community, as much as it values its children, would itself consider it progress in a very definite sense if technology allowed extraction of resources adequate to feed them all.  Say, then, an outside not bent of judging but on helping comes to the village.  Say she shows them new methods of agriculture, or new methods of hunting, or new methods of food preservation—whatever it takes to make it possible that all children can be fed, presumably even a possibility that permits wasting all the resources they want on priests.  In this case, per the logic applied to the running example above, moral progress would be made possible by technological progress, for even the members of the community would presumably acknowledge that feeding more children is better than killing some of them because you can’t feed them all (if they might acknowledge that their presumptive good of infanticide could be rebutted in recourse-rich societies, surely they would acknowledge this if their own society became resource rich).  In any case, the very necessity that moral oughts follow from empirical is-es means that changing the states of the world changes the oughts that follow, and nothing changes the states of the world more than technology—itself the human vocation of changing the states of the world to make good human want and need.  As making good these material lacks—as making good, literally, the is that is the commerce with the world—technology makes goods possible.  As such, more technology makes more goods possible, and as with this village given the resources to fed all children as much as they need, so technology makes possible new ranges of good, even as it challenged the presumption that what is currently taken as good is in fact the good its taken to be.  In short, as Dewey might say, technology makes possible new appraisal of goods presumptive liked and prized,[33] and as such technology makes possible new balances of goods and bads both consumatory and more encompassing that current appraisal.  In other words, technology makes moral progress possible.  One could even postulate, however tentatively, that technology more than anything else moves the moral frontier.[34]


[1] Dewey, Experience and Nature, p. 349.

[2] Applying this sense of “foundation” to the current example may make its sense more clear.

[3] This “grounding” is essentially a development of the idea of “criticism” as first suggested in Dewey’s Experience and Nature, Chapter 10.

[4] The verbal distinction here is admittedly rather arbitrary, and so long as the underlying point is appreciated, “grounding” and “foundation” can be used interchangeably.  It seems germane, however, to use two terms in light of what traditional attempts to secure then objectivity of normative judgments has meant.

[5] The discussion that follows maps quite intentionally on Dewey’s discussion in Ethics, Chapter 14, section 5, particularly pages 275-281.


[6] Ethics 280

[7] Ethics 280

[8] Ethics 280.

[9] The devastating effect this agnosticism, ambiguity, and indeterminacy has on confidence in the rules themselves will be discussed shortly.


[10] It is asserted here without argument that simply applying a rule ‘mindlessly’ to any given situation because that situation seems to require the rule is not rational, as it requires no searching, no deliberation, or insight.  Put another way, without an end-in-view requiring appropriate application of a rule, there is no rationality in rules to speak of.  Put yet another way, it is not enough to prescribe rules as algorithms to be followed by rote to be rational.


[11] Dewey, Ethics, p. 283.

[12] Though a moral realist, not necessarily an absolutist, Harris derivation is still instructive.  For as Harris notes, once the minimum criterion of good is granted, morality becomes a navigation problem of insuring that this good is met.  The objectivity of the good insures the objectivity of the decisions in so far as the outcome can be said to conform to this good—in his case, reducing the suffering and thus enhancing the flourishing of conscious creatures.

[13] And with regard to that determination, there are many, such a natural law, rational intuition into a moral reality akin to the scientific reality of nature, and so forth.  The exact means of apprehending, and the exact nature of the apprehended, is not relevant here, only that moral objectivity and universality is asserted in some way.

[14] The basic unit of quantum computing, the qubit, violates the laws of contradiction and excluded middle—in fact, it is based on this violation—thus putting to rest the universality of the laws as a inviolable laws of nature, for sure, and in so far as computing represents simulated reasoning, the laws of reasoning as well.

[15] To be sure, this prescription takes into account nature, number, or language as found in some respect, meaning the prescriptions are not willy-nilly or arbitrary, created out of nothing, as it were.  But for all that ‘taking into account’, the universality is still prescribed.  How this prescription occurs while ‘taking into account’ is a difficult problem—perhaps the problem when it comes to understanding ideality and universals.  But it simply won’t do to obscure this problem with a traditional, dogmatic notion of finding universality somehow apriori when (as is show shortly) in actual operation universals do not work as though they were found apriori.  For an indication of the nature and reach of this problem, see Dewey, xxx, p. x.

[16] For instance, for all intents and purposes, actual bodies can be treated as point masses if the distance between them is large relative to their size, like the earth and the moon.  But for closer objects, like an apple falling to the surface of the earth, auxiliary theorems are required in order for the law to be applicable.  But strictly speaking, although the earth and the moon can be treated as point masses, they are not, and neither is nothing else in nature.

[17] While true the corrections used in GPS satellite belong to special relativity, not general, the same notion of space-time unified the two theories, and in this limited sense they represent one and the same achievement over Newtonian dynamics.

[18] Einstein captures this basic point in his essay “Geometry and Experience” with the following: “as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”  All that need be added here to make this statement consistent with the above is that the certainty obtains or not whether one applies mathematical physical laws to the idealized constructs, as opposed to real things.  In this way, mathematics, as a “product of human thought which is independent of experience” is so “admirably appropriate to the objects of reality.”

[19] It should go without saying that this conception of scientific laws, one entirely consistent with the one already discussed under Eddington in Chapter X, takes nothing away from the objectivity of scientific principles or results, only that it forestalls a misinterpretation of what that objectivity means—a misinterpretation that really only baggage from philosophy, not a tool of science.  It should also go without saying that these prescriptions cannot be made willy-nilly and must take the way nature actually works into account.  In any case, despite the difficultly of accounting for the ‘taking into account,’ nothing about the extraordinary explanatory power of scientific laws is touched by pointing out that those laws act more like guiding principles for solving problems than universal laws apriori reflecting universality in nature.  In fact, only under the former conception can scientific progress both make sense and be objective—a theme that could be taken up another time, as it parallels in Kuhn a misunderstanding of individuality and objectivity of judgments in science similar to the misunderstanding of morals judgment taken up here.  In other words, only under the mistaken idea that the laws of science are universals in the philosophical sense does it even seen tempting to reduce scientific practice to the operation of incommensurable paradigms that are in their nature relatively, not objectively true.

[20] Posner, The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory, p. 6.

[21] Ibid


[22] Posner, 8

[23] Posner, 6

[24] Dewey, Ethics, p. 283

[25] “Bads” here is used in place of “evil” because in most moral deliberation, “evil” is probably to strong a work. In any case, for the running example it is.

[26] It could be argued that true moral imperatives govern not the means of achieving a good, but the question: why achieve the good in the first place?.  So applying this reasoning to the example, one might say ethics governs the question “why drive to the friend’s house?”, not “how ought I drive there, once committed to going?”  Under this view, ethics amounts to answering why pursue goods at all, not how ought one to pursue a good.  But this argument is silly; ethics is concerned with no such thing.  Goods exist; they are acknowledged facts, whatever their ultimate nature, and regardless of the legitimate issue of sorting apparent from real ones.  Their pursuit should be non-controversial as belonging to the very idea of a good.  The question, as asked, in fact belongs not to ethics, but to meta-ethics, and meta-ethics is as useful to ethics as metaphysics is to physics.  One is best off not even engaging its such pointless sputtering and rumination.


[28] For the distinction between and relation among liking and appraisal, see Dewey Theory of Valuation, pp. 202-220.

[29] Theory of Valuation, p.212.

[30] The irrelevancy of the quest for justification in moral theory has an exact parallel in the ditch of the quest for justification in science.  On the futility of the quest for justification in science, see Deutsch, The Fabric or Reality, Chapter 7.

[31] Specifically, it could be added that freedom to postulate alternative moral solutions and obtaining consensus on them is the only way to insure pre-established bias against experimental outcomes never occurs.  Just as in scientific inquiry one needs to be free to experiment, so in moral theory as well, and in both cases demanding consensus institutionally insures this freedom.

[32] See Richard Posner, Problematic of Moral and Legal Theory, pp. 19-20.

[33] Again, for the distinction between appraisal as situating goods in the context of their appreciation as real, valuable goods as opposed to simply immediately liked and prized goods, see Theory of Valuation, pp. 202-220.