Why Is Objective Morality So Hard to Pin Down?

ethics and morality
ethics and morality

By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

Why is it we can all agree that the sky is blue, the Sun is hot and water is wet, but we can’t reach a perfect consensus on almost any moral claims? What is it about morality and ethics that make them so subjective in a way that factual observations are not?

“Ethics” are defined in the dictionary as rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad. However, to truly understand what it is that we’re talking about, we need to probe deeper and ask the next logical question: What does it mean to be “morally good” or “morally bad?”

The dictionary defines “morality” as beliefs about right versus wrong behavior. The word “right” is defined as that which is morally or socially correct or acceptable. “Correct” is defined as that which is in conformance with standard, fact or a set figure.

As you can see, this approach to understanding ethics and morality leads us nowhere productive. We’ve arrived at a nebulous conclusion that ethics are essentially a codification of conduct which conforms with either a) that which is factually accurate or b) that which aligns with social standards. Ethical means moral. Moral means right. And right just means whatever is socially tenable.

Is It Possible to Have an Objectively Factual Concept of Morality?

So how do we reconcile this dichotomy? It would appear that facts and social norms belong to two different spheres of knowledge and understanding. But then is it possible to have an objectively factual concept of morality? And if so, would such a morality be compatible with what we know about current ethical underpinnings? These are difficult questions which philosophers have wrestled with since the earliest times. By no means do we have all of the answers today.

However, we have come a long way in understanding the nature of human morality. We know a great deal about what makes for a good person. Despite this, in almost every facet of human affairs leaders have debased their own ethical standards and succumbed to the temptations of greed, corruption, and selfishness. For aspiring leaders today, it’s critical to have a working knowledge of ethical precepts, as well as the dynamics that commonly lead to a departure from ethical norms.

Turning to a dictionary to explain what “ethics” really means may not do us much good. But instead of relying on the words themselves, we might learn more by looking into the spirit of the distinction between moral and immoral behavior.

All Moral Behaviors Have in Common a Desire to Improve Well-Being

What do all behaviors that might be considered “moral” have in common? The answer is an improvement in well-being. Keep in mind that the answer to the question does not depend on whether such behaviors are objectively moral. All that is necessary is that the actor genuinely believes the act is morally right.

For example, if a person believes that killing someone else will result in a better situation for — either for himself, for the victim, or for some third party — then such a belief conforms with our claim about the spirit of morality. Well-being is what is at stake here. And while a killer might in fact be tragically mistaken as to the actual effects of taking a life on the well-being of those involved, the act was predicated on the sincere belief that it would bring more good than harm.

To be fair, it is possible that serious mental illness might provoke someone to commit an act with either awareness of its immoral character or total disregard as to morality in general. We know that such psychopathies exist, and that at the extreme they can elicit incomprehensibly horrific behavior. However, absent such conditions it is generally agreed among sane and competent people that killing is an immoral act. Analyzing rationally, we recognize that it lowers the well-being of the victim; being dead is about as low as it gets. And absent other information, there are no other obvious benefits to offset the harm done.

However, that missing “other information” can dramatically alter such an analysis. Take, for example, the case of a soldier at war. Although most people might agree that killing is unfortunate and undesirable, history has taught us that we must sometimes march into battle and spill blood on the basis that, in certain contexts, killing is necessary to serve some greater good.

For example, it is estimated that more than five million German soldiers were killed in World War II. Any compassionate person should find the idea of five million human murders to be atrociously immoral. But few would argue that defeating the Nazi movement was not the right thing to do, even accounting for the necessary killing involved. Self-defense, defense of allies and the liberation of the remaining Jewish survivors were among the biggest legitimate reasons for defeating the Nazi movement.

Even the Least Moral Actions May Sometimes Be Justified by Extenuating Circumstances

Even the least moral actions may sometimes be justified by extenuating circumstances. There will always be exceptions to the rules of morality. Although a variety of reasons may be offered in an effort to defend apparently immoral behavior, not all will be as justifiable as those described in this article.

For example, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used what it called “enhanced interrogation techniques” — essentially torture — on Al Qaeda detainees. The CIA’s justification for this practice was that it desperately needed to extract information to thwart future attacks. However, given that such practices have been shown to be ineffective at eliciting valid intelligence, the Senate Intelligence Committee largely rejected this excuse. These incidents ultimately resulted in Congress passing the McCain-Feinstein Anti-Torture Amendment of 2015.

There’s no denying that morality is messy and complicated. But it is nonetheless important that we remember the overarching aim of moral behavior — to improve well-being. If we keep this in mind, we stand to make better moral judgments in our own personal and professional lives.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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