Lesson 1, Section 4: Judging Moral Theories

Judging Moral Theories

Theories of morality are like theories in science. Scientific theories try to explain the causes of events, such as a chemical reaction, the orbit of a planet, or the growth of a tumor. A plausible scientific theory is one that’s consistent with all the relevant data. Moral theories try to explain what makes an action right or what makes a person good. A plausible moral theory must also be consistent with all the relevant data.

The data that moral theories must explain are what philosophers call our “considered moral judgments” — moral judgments that we accept after thinking critically about them. Any worthy moral theory will be consistent with those judgments. If it is not — if, for example, it approves of obviously immoral acts — the theory is flawed and must be discarded. If our moral theory sanctions, say, the inflicting of undeserved and unnecessary suffering on innocent children, we must conclude that something is very wrong with our theory.

Plausible scientific theories must also be consistent with all relevant background information. A theory about the explosion of a star, for example, must not only be consistent with data regarding the explosion itself, but with facts we already know about gravity, space, heat, light, and scientific measuring instruments. Likewise, plausible moral theories must be consistent with the relevant background information — that is, with our experience of the moral life. Whatever else our moral experience entails, it certainly involves

  1. making moral judgments

  2. occasionally getting into moral disagreements

  3. sometimes acting immorally

Any theory that suggests that we do not have these fundamental experiences must be deemed suspect.

It is logically possible that our experience of the moral life is a delusion, only seeming to involve moral judgments, disputes, and mistakes. It is also possible that our considered moral judgments do not have the objective character that we normally attribute to them. But unless we have good reason to dismiss our experience as delusion, we are justified in accepting it at face value. Many, if not most, thinkers in ethics tend to give our considered moral judgments, or moral intuitions, a considerable amount of weight as evidence for or against proposed theories. Any moral theory, if it is to be at all plausible, must explain how it relates to our moral intuitions.

The point of having a moral theory is that it gives guidance in choosing the right actions. And the most important guidance is the kind that helps us resolve moral dilemmas-situations when moral principles or judgments are in conflict. Any moral theory that gives us no help with these problems is said to be unworkable, and any unworkable theory is a poor theory.

So all good moral theories must…

  • be consistent with our considered moral judgments

  • be consistent with our experience of the moral life

  • be workable

These criteria enable us to undertake a fair assessment of all types of moral theories-religious, secular, and humanist

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