We kicked off the morality parade in the last post, promising to deal with ontology and epistemology in this one. Let it be so.
Morality, we said, is a system of beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. Elementary, no? Yet, for our purposes, we must make some hay out of this simple assertion.
What, after all, does it mean for an action to be “right”? And “wrong”? Right or wrong with respect to what?
A few examples will make the point:
I walk down the street at 4.5 miles per hour. Is this right or wrong, morally?
My child had her lunch money stolen. I give her money for lunch, but no consolation. Is this right or wrong, morally? Relative to what standard?
I declare that cold-blooded murder is morally good. Am I correct, or incorrect?
On the one hand, these are not challenging questions. I suppose very few people would have any difficulty answering them, and that there would be a wide consensus on those answers. More on this next time.
On the other hand, as any sophomore philosophy student will tell you, they are not as straight-forward as they seem. The second question in the second example (Relative to what standard?) points to this, and the fact that I’ve asked questions about seemingly obvious situations is also suggestive.
The sophomore will want to contextualize the first example: Are you walking toward something? Away from something? Are you shirking your duties, or avoiding a conflict? (Note that I meant merely the act of walking, apart from any context).
The example about praising cold-blooded murder as morally good is probably easiest to answer – but why? How do we know that cold-blooded murder is wrong? Are you sure? (Freshman ethics courses are fraught with such questions).
To some extent, all we have done here is obfuscate the issues with hypothetical information. The sophomore is just being difficult.
Yet, not merely difficult. After all, it’s exactly when the context changes that our moral judgments are challenged. But if the choice is easy in the first case, and difficult when the context changes, how are we to resolve this difficulty?
We require the moral standard itself. What is “the good” against which we compare all moral actions? When we have two choices, against what are they weighed in order to decide which is a morally better decision?
This is moral ontology, to investigate the nature of the good.
And how is it that we come to know the good? When we are caught in a moral dilemma, how is it that we decide which action to take? How can we be confident we know the good?
This is moral epistemology, the study of our knowledge of the good.
Many discussions of morality seem to bounce back and forth between moral epistemology and ontology, often without the speaker seeming to realize it. I dare to say it’s a more subtle distinction that we’re used to. We’ll get into this more in the next post.