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If it is true that an objective morality exists, then we need a method for determining what this objective morality is. For example, how can we determine when, if ever, it is permissible to kill another person? Let us suppose that we have already agreed that it is objectively immoral to kill another person just for entertainment. That is, suppose that by understanding what the desire to continue living "feels like" by experiencing it, a person concludes that it is objectively wrong for others to kill him for entertainment. Then, by realizing that he is not that much different from anyone else, he concludes that it is wrong to kill others for entertainment also. How can he determine if there are circumstances under which it is permissible to kill and what these circumstances are? Suppose, for instance, that a gunman enters a store and begins to shoot people. Suppose also that the only way to stop this gunman is by shooting and killing him. Is killing the gunman the correct thing to do?
The first question we have to answer is this. Does the existence of a universal moral law imply that an action which is immoral in one situation must be immoral in all situations? We can answer this by looking at another "universal law", the law of gravity. If you are standing on the Earth and let go of a ball, you will see the ball fall down. If you let go of a ball when you are in a spaceship out in deep space, however, you will see the ball remain where it is. The fact that there exists a universal law of gravity does not imply that if a ball falls down in one situation, it must fall down in all situations. Similarly, just because an action is immoral in one situation, it does not necessarily mean that it is wrong in all situations. The fact that it is immoral to kill another person for entertainment does not automatically imply that it is wrong to kill this gunman in the store.
Let us suppose that we knew absolutely nothing about the laws of physics. Let us also suppose that we were told that when you let go of a ball in a spaceship located in deep space, that a very different result occurs than when you let go of a ball on Earth. Believing that physical laws do not change and are the same everywhere, we would at first be very puzzled. We would attempt to discover what the distinguishing characteristic is between the ball on Earth and the ball in the spaceship. Our confusion would go away, though, the moment that we realized that there is an extremely massive object next to the ball on Earth, namely the Earth itself, while there is no such massive object next to the ball in the spaceship. Even if we knew nothing about physics, we would for the moment be content because we have pointed out a distinguishing characteristic between the two situations which could cause the results of letting go of a ball to be very different.
Similarly, we can believe that one action, such as killing another person for entertainment, is immoral, while simultaneously believing that another similar action, such as killing this gunman in the store, is not immoral. However, in order to do so, we should be able to point out the characteristic which distinguishes the two actions, as we did in the case of letting go of a ball. In this case, the distinguishing characteristic is that killing the gunman is the only way to prevent the gunman from deliberately killing many other people.
Often, however, it can be pointed out to us that the distinguishing characteristic we have picked is flawed. In this case, we will not be able to use this characteristic to differentiate the two actions. For example, let us suppose that when we were told the story of letting go of the two balls, we were also told that the ball in the spaceship was yellow while the ball on Earth was purple. If we genuinely knew nothing about physics, we might at first guess that it is the color of the ball which is the distinguishing characteristic. That is, perhaps the ball in the spaceship stays where it is because it is yellow, while the ball on Earth falls to the ground because it is purple. The problem with this is that someone could point out to us that yellow balls here on Earth fall to the ground as well. If the color of the ball was really the distinguishing characteristic, yellow balls on Earth should not fall to the ground either. However, since they do, color can not be the distinguishing characteristic.
Let us return to the case of the gunman in the store. Let us suppose that we claimed that the distinguishing characteristic between killing this individual and killing a person for entertainment is that killing the gunman will save more lives in the long run. That is, although we killed one person, we saved more. A person can point out the flaw in such reasoning by pointing out a hypothetical situation. Suppose that there are two people who need an organ transplant. One of them needs a heart and the other needs a liver. We know that we will not receive these organs from any organ donor in time to save the lives of these two individuals. We are also guaranteed, with 100% certainty, that these operations will be a success provided we had the organs. So, to save more lives in the long run, we decide to kill an innocent bystander and give his organs to them. In doing so, we have taken one life but saved two. So if saving more lives in the long run is really the distinguishing characteristic, then this must be the appropriate course of action. We are now left with two choices. Either we have to conclude that choosing involuntary organ donors in this manner is acceptable in this hypothetical situation, or we have to conclude that "saving more lives in the long run" is not an appropriate distinguishing characteristic. Let us suppose that, for some other reasons, we believe that this process of choosing involuntary organ donors is not acceptable. Lets say that, by imagining how we would feel if we or one of our family members were chosen to be this involuntary organ donor, we conclude that it is immoral to kill a person for his organs in this manner. In this case, we have to conclude that the distinguishing characteristic which we initially thought of is not valid.
There is, of course, another way to point out that a particular "distinguishing characteristic" is flawed. In the case of the two balls, even if we only knew a little bit about physics, we could easily point out that the color of a ball can not account for such drastically different behavior. Similarly, let us suppose that someone claimed that killing this gunman is acceptable because he has green eyes. Let us even suppose that this person was consistent in that he believed that it is OK to kill all people with green eyes. Even if we did not know much about this "moral law", we could point out that the color of a persons eyes can not account for such drastically different results. That is, the immorality of shooting another person probably has something to do with that persons desire to live or ability to experience suffering. Even if we did not know what this moral law is, we could point out that the immorality of shooting another person does not arise from that persons eye color.
The way, then, to determine if a particular action is immoral or not is the following. One person can claim that a certain action is objectively immoral by comparing it to another action which we have already agreed is objectively immoral. Another person can object to this claim in two ways. The first way is by pointing out a distinguishing characteristic between the two actions. This type of objection can be refuted by pointing out a flaw in this distinguishing characteristic. The second way to object to the claim is by comparing this particular action to another action which we have agreed is not immoral. In this case, the tables would be turned. The way to refute this second type of objection is to point out a distinguishing characteristic between the action which we have agreed is not immoral and the action in question. In this case it would be up to the person making the objection to point out the flaw in the distinction.
The scenarios which people come up with in order to make or refute an objection need not be realistic ones. They only have to be hypothetical situations which help illustrate a moral principle. The same principle holds in physics. Scenarios involving spaceships moving at half the speed of light are not very realistic. These scenarios, however, are often used to illustrate concepts in the Theory of Relativity.
I believe that it is important for me to emphasize the fact that, just like the scientific method, this method is not guaranteed to give exactly the correct answer the first time. It is fairly common for new scientific theories to overthrow and replace previous theories. There are not many scientists who actually believe that all our current theories describe reality exactly. What they do believe is that the theories closely approximate reality. The longer the scientific method is applied, the better an approximation our theories will be to reality. The same is true for this method of determining morality. Our reasoning will give us a belief which is an approximation to the true morality. However, this belief can later be overthrown and replaced by a new one. Perhaps someone in the future will, for example, think of a flaw in one of our "distinguishing characteristics" which we did not think of. Using this method, our moral beliefs, as time goes by, will closer approximate the true morality.
This method can perhaps be can be called "moral reasoning by analogy". I will give examples how this method can be applied to various controversial moral issues. However, I would first like to point out examples of what are not valid objections to a statement like "this action is immoral". Perhaps the most common one is, "This action is not immoral because the vast majority of society believes that it is not immoral". Truth is not democratic. The world does not become flat just because the majority of the people think that it is. I am writing this in 1996. Fifty years ago, segregation was considered acceptable by the vast majority of the population in the United States. Two hundred years ago, slavery was considered acceptable by the majority of the world. Two thousand years ago, it was considered acceptable in Europe to feed prisoners to lions for public entertainment. If you look further back, it was not considered immoral to have servants buried alive with their recently deceased master. In each case, morality progressed because some people looked at the morality of the majority of the population and concluded that it needed to be improved. Now is no better a time to think that we have it all figured out than were any of these other points in history.
We should also never attempt to justify our actions by pointing out that others behave similarly or worst. We have an obligation to act morally regardless of how other people are behaving. This holds true for nations as well as individuals. Nations often attempt to justify their questionable actions by pointing out that their adversaries behave even worst. This is not a valid justification.
Another objection which is not valid is saying something similar to, "This action is not immoral because my religion says it is OK". I will discuss what is wrong with this objection in part four. For now I will just point out that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all seem to explicitly state that slavery is not immoral. Nevertheless, the majority of the people who currently believe in those religions also believe that slavery, in fact, is immoral. In part four, I will explain how such beliefs can be reconciled. For now, I would just like to state that it is possible for a person to believe that an action is immoral even though it is permitted by his religion. Otherwise, the people who believe in the three religions I mentioned would have to conclude that there is nothing wrong with slavery.
The truth of a moral statement should also not be evaluated by how difficult it is to implement it. Attempting to get rid of slavery several hundred years ago would have involved enormous practical difficulties, since many economies depended on it. Nevertheless, slavery was just as immoral then as it is now. Just as smoking does not become less dangerous due to the fact that it is difficult to quit, an action does not become less immoral due to the fact that it is difficult to stop doing it.
I will now give examples of how the method I have described can be used on various issues while continuing to explain the method. I would like to point out again that the conclusions I reach are not the final say on the matter. I am not giving these examples in order to convert people to my position on these issues, but just to illustrate how this method can be applied. Many of my positions are going to be extremely unpopular, and will seem to go against much of what we have been taught. But then, if someone in the Roman Empire had claimed that it was immoral to feed prisoners to lions for entertainment, he would have gotten the same reaction. The first example I give is determining if it is immoral to eat meat. I spend more time on the first example than I do most of the others. This is because I use the first example to illustrate common types of flaws in objections people may have to a moral claim.
The way a person can claim that it is wrong to eat meat is by comparing it to cannibalism. That is, since it is immoral to eat human beings, it is in the same manner immoral to eat other animals. This, of course, rests on the assumption that it is immoral to kill human beings for the purpose of eating them. Let us suppose that we have already agreed that it is immoral to eat other human beings. Perhaps we came to this conclusion by imagining how we would like it if we were killed for food. The question which we have to answer is if we can come up with a valid objection to the comparison between eating human beings and eating other animals.
The first distinguishing characteristic which we can come up with is the fact that in one case you are eating human beings, while in the other case you are eating animals. This, someone can claim, is the distinguishing characteristic between the two actions. This type of objection, though, can easily be refuted by pointing out that human beings are animals. There are some people, of course, who do not believe in the theory of evolution and who do not believe that human beings are animals. Regardless of if the person making the objection believes that humans are animals, he can easily rephrase his objection to avoid this difficulty. He could claim that that the distinguishing characteristic between the two actions is that in one, you are eating human beings, while in the other, you are eating animals which are not human beings. This, however, is not really a valid objection either.
Let us recall the example of letting go of a ball in a spaceship and letting go of a ball on Earth. We knew that the balls behave differently and we were asked what the distinguishing characteristic was between the two cases. What if we had answered that the distinguishing characteristic was that one was the ball which we let go in the spaceship, while the other was the ball which we let go of on Earth? In this case, we would not really be answering the question. The question which we were faced with was what specific feature made the two cases different. Similarly, simply saying that in one case you are eating humans while in the other case you are eating animals other than humans is not really answering the question either. The question with which we are faced with is if there is a feature which is possessed only by humans, which could make it immoral to eat humans but not immoral to eat other animals. Just saying "the feature of being human" is no more of an answer than saying "the feature of being the ball in the spaceship".
Since "eating meat" is my first example, I think that it is necessary to further point out why attempting to come up with such simple distinctions is not valid. If such a simple distinction was valid, a racist could claim that it is immoral to eat people of European background, while it is permissible to eat people with African background. The distinction between the two cases, this person could claim, is that in one case you are eating a person from European background, while in the other you are eating a person with African background. Clearly, this is not really answering the question of if there exists a distinguishing feature between people of European background and people of African background which would make it OK to eat one but not the other.
So in order to come up with a valid distinguishing characteristic between eating a pig and eating a human, we have to point out a feature which is possessed by humans but not by pigs. Also, since we are operating under the assumption that it is immoral to eat human beings, this feature must be possessed by all human beings. The first such feature most people initially think of is a superior intelligence and a superior brain. The problem with this is that, although it is true that humans are smarter than pigs on average, this is not true for all humans. Newborn infants, the severely mentally retarded, certain people with brain damage, and some elderly people whos minds have deteriorated all have levels of intelligence which are not superior to that of pigs. Although intelligence is not something which can be measured the way in which we can measure the mass of a ball or the volume of a liquid, any test attempting to measure intelligence which we apply equally to both pigs and to these humans will not show these types of humans scoring higher than the pigs.
The objection can be modified to say that the distinguishing characteristic is that human beings have a potential for a high level of intelligence. This feature may be shared by the infants, but it is not shared by the other humans which I have mentioned. But a person can point out that it is not impossible that some medical treatment will be developed some time in the future to treat these humans. However, this can be refuted by saying that, in a similar manner, it is not impossible that a procedure can be developed in the future which can increase the intelligence of the animals we eat. The only reason I am bringing this up is to illustrate that the various scenarios people come up with in order to make or refute an objection do not necessarily have to be realistic ones. It is not very likely that a person with brain damage who has certain parts of his brain missing is going to have his condition reversed in his lifetime. Nevertheless, someone can claim that this is not impossible, and that this is what distinguishes him from a pig. However, if it is not physically impossible that artificial brain components will be constructed for this person, it is also not physically impossible that someone will create extra brain components for a pig. This does not mean that anyone is ever even going to attempt to create such a "treatment", it just says that it is not physically impossible. This objection and response to the objection are, of course, extremely bizarre. As I said, I bring it up primarily to show that these scenarios need not be realistic. Earlier, when I gave the scenario of the involuntary organ donor, I claimed that we were guaranteed that the operation would be a success. This too was an unrealistic scenario. However, it helped illustrate a moral concept.
Another distinguishing characteristic which a person can think
of is that these mentally deficient humans have other humans,
with high intelligence, who care about them. However, it is not
that difficult to imagine a case of a severely mentally retarded
human who has no friends or relatives, and whos death would
not be noticed much by anyone. Another distinguishing
characteristic which someone could come up with is that the
animals we eat are raised in captivity specifically for the
purpose of eating them. However, we could imagine a hypothetical
society which raised a certain race of humans in captivity
specifically for the purpose of eating them.
So far, we have been unable to find a feature possessed by all humans which is not also possessed by the animals humans eat. A person, though, can object in another way to the statement that eating meat is immoral. He can try to compare it to another action which we have agreed is not immoral. For example, he can compare it to eating plants. Let us suppose that we agree that eating plants is not immoral. It is now up to the person claiming that eating meat is immoral to point out a distinguishing characteristic between eating plants and eating meat. This, though, is fairly easily done. The animals which humans eat are conscious beings who are capable of feeling joy, suffering, and a desire to live. Plants, on the other hand, are not conscious and can not feel anything whatsoever. This is a reasonable objection to the comparison. There are some people, though, who will argue in perfect seriousness that perhaps plants feel pain and suffering or that perhaps other animals are not capable of feeling pain or suffering. I will address this issue later in the section titled "Determining if another being possesses consciousness" which is after the section on abortion. For now, under the assumption that plants, just like rocks, do not feel anything whatsoever, this is a valid objection to the comparison between eating meat and eating plants.
A person can also compare humans eating meat to the way in which other animals eat each other. The argument could go that lions eat zebras, but lions do not eat other lions. Since animals in general eat members of other species, the argument can continue, but do not eat members of their own species, why shouldnt we emulate the practice? There are problems with this argument even if such a statement were true. I think it is important to point out, though, that this statement is not true. Cannibalism is quite common among animals. Lions eat other lions, bears eat other bears, and chimpanzees eat other chimpanzees. This is not necessarily the result of a food shortage. Such incidents occur even when there is a plentiful supply of food from other sources. In the case of lions, for example, a male lion sometimes eats the cubs of a female lion without a partner to protect her. The male lion does this because the female lion will not mate as long as she has cubs, but she will mate after the cubs are dead. For some species, cannibalism is extremely common. Approximately one fifth of the diet of a tiger salamander, for example, consists of other tiger salamanders.
But fundamentally, the problem with this argument is that it assumes that we should be basing our morality on the behavior of other animals. Other animals often engage in many activities, such as stealing food from members of their own species, which it would not be a good idea for humans to emulate. I bring this point up to illustrate that we should never attempt to justify an action by saying that other animals engage in it also.
But let us return to the issue of eating meat. A person can ask why we have an obligation to act better towards other animals than they do towards each other. The answer is that we have an obligation to act morally regardless of how others are behaving. Even if a small child, for example, does not behave morally towards others, we still have an obligation to act morally towards him. But a more serious objection can be raised. If a small child acts immorally, for example by unknowingly playing with a loaded gun, even though we still have an obligation to act morally towards him, we also attempt to stop him from engaging in such an activity. Should we, then, attempt to prevent lions from eating zebras?
Let us suppose that we have agreed that it is not immoral for a lion to eat a zebra. The question we are faced with is if there are any distinguishing characteristics between a lion eating meat and a human eating meat. One distinguishing characteristic is that the lion must eat meat or die. A lion can not decide to live on grain and vegetables. On the other hand, a vegetarian diet for humans is just as healthy, if not more, than a diet including meat. Lions eat meat to survive. Humans eat meat for the pleasure of tasting meat. This appears to be a valid distinction between humans eating meat and lions eating meat.
Another distinction is that other animals hunt their prey while humans, for the most part, raise there prey in captivity. This is important for several reasons. One is that it is essential for lions to hunt prey in order for an ecological balance to be maintained. If all lions suddenly stopped hunting, it would be extremely detrimental to many of the animals in the region, including the prey species itself. Most humans, however, do not have this excuse. This distinction is also important for other reasons. One, for example, is that it can be argued that raising prey in captivity often causes far more suffering to the prey than does hunting.
So for these reasons, it appears that believing that it is permissible for lions to eat meat does not necessarily imply that it is permissible for humans to eat meat. That is, it appears according to the reasoning so far, that it is permissible for a human to eat meat only provided that it is both necessary for his survival and that he kills his prey in a way which helps keep an ecological balance. Both of these conditions have been met in certain geographic areas in certain times of history. However, they are not met today for an extremely large portion of the human race. So, it appears that the flaw in the comparison between lions and humans holds for an extremely large portion of human beings living in our time period. As far as these people are concerned, the claim that it is immoral for them to eat meat has not been refuted by any of the preceding arguments.
Often, people incorrectly claim that humans need meat to
sustain our large population. Refuting this claim does not
involve a moral argument, just a factual one. Only a small
fraction of the food an animal eats is converted into meat for
human consumption. The rest is used up during the course of the
animals life for various functions. If our only goal was to
sustain a large human population, land which currently grows food
for livestock would be used to grow crops consumed directly by
As in all of the examples I will give, I only cover a small minority of all the possible objections a person might have to a moral claim. In this particular case, there are many other objections which can be brought up. I believe that they can all be refuted as in the cases I have discussed. The way to convince another person is to have him attempt to come up with a valid objection to a moral claim. If he is successful, the person making the claim should concede, for the moment, that he is wrong. If no one is able to find a valid objection, though, then others should eventually start to believe the claim. Convincing another person, though, might be a long and slow process. It may perhaps be only after he has attempted an extremely large number of objections, which turned out to have flaws, that he may begin to accept that the claim is correct. Also, no answer is ever final. A person in the future may think of an objection or a flaw in an objection which no one has yet thought of.
There are many similarities of this process to the scientific method. The acceptance of a scientific theory can also be a long and slow process. It is only after the theory has been tested many times that people really begin to accept it. Also, no scientific theory is ever final. There is always a chance that someone in the future will find a situation where the theory breaks down.
This example, the morality of eating meat, was long due to the fact that I wanted to illustrate certain concepts. Most of the other examples will be considerably shorter.
In the introduction, I defined morality in terms of how a persons actions affect others. Is it possible that there exists an "internal morality" within this framework? In other words, is it possible for something to be immoral even though it does not harm anyone else? I believe that the answer is yes. My purpose here is not to come up with a complete list of all the cases where this occurs. Here, I will simply show how this is possible even under my definition.
Suppose that you deliberately fire a gun at another person. However, due to your poor aim, you miss and do no harm to anyone. Is your action immoral? Clearly, I would say yes. The only reason you missed is because you are a poor marksman. Had you been better, the person would be dead now. Attempting to kill this person in this way, but failing, is just as immoral as if you had attempted and actually succeeded.
Now, let us imagine a second scenario. Let us suppose that you wanted to kill this person. However, due to the circumstances, you were prevented from doing so. Perhaps, for example, you did not own a gun and didnt know how to buy one. Perhaps this person lived too far away or was too well protected. Perhaps you were physically able to kill him, but you were prevented from doing so only because you knew you would be caught and sent to jail. Are there any distinguishing characteristics between this scenario and the previous one. I do not think that there are. In both of these cases, no one else has been injured. However, if these restraints had not been there, this person would be dead. It would appear, then, that desiring to kill another person is just as immoral as actually killing them.
This is still, though, in accordance with my definition of morality. I defined morality in terms of actions. However, desiring to kill another person can be considered an action. I defined morality in terms of behavior intending to benefit others. The key word in that sentence is "intending".
I would like to point out what I do not mean by this claim. I do not mean that it is immoral to believe that killing another person is permissible. Desiring to kill a person is different from simply believing that it is not immoral to do so. Simply having an incorrect belief can be compared to believing that the Earth is flat. This only makes you a possessor of an incorrect belief. It does not make you immoral. I also do not mean that it is necessarily immoral to be in a state of mind where you would enjoy killing another person, while at the same time knowing that you would not do it even if you had the opportunity to do so without being caught. A person, for example, can say that he would enjoy killing his boss, but that he would never do it because it is wrong. This is not necessarily immoral. I inserted the word "necessarily" because I can think of at least one situation in which it would be immoral. It would be immoral if the only thing preventing this person from actually killing his boss is the fear of being punished in an afterlife. In this scenario, it is just like the case of the poor marksman.
I, of course, do not propose that we make it illegal to think certain thoughts or to have certain desires. I believe that everyone should have the legal right to wish for whatever they want.
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