Recently I had an interesting three-part correspondence with a philosopher (call him “John”) who argues that morality, as developed by Kantian ethics, is an objective reality. Here I present the first set of correspondence. Parts 2 and 3 are titled “Space Aliens and Moral Truth – 2″ and “Space Aliens and Moral Truth – 3.”
John started things rolling by posing three questions, which I tried to answer as well as I could.
John – 1: his request:
A few questions for our group to consider, as we ponder if there is a correct point of view about ethical matters. The answers given may help us understand each other.
(1) Is genocide morally wrong?
(2) If so, why?
(3) What makes you think so?
My first reply:
John, I’m not sure what type of answers you seek. “A correct point of view” about ethical matters is somewhat vague. Are you suggesting that we have moral knowledge? Are you suggesting that there’s a correct theory of ethics? Or are you merely suggesting that we hold certain moral beliefs and apply certain moral values which we hold unconditionally? Depending on what we understand by “correct point of view,” my pondering would adjust accordingly.
(1) Is genocide morally wrong? –
Yes, of course. If genocide were not morally wrong, what would be morally wrong?
(2) If so, why? –
What are my reasons? Well, try these: the Golden Rule: Don’t do to others (or other groups) what you would not want done to you (or to your group). In addition, try this one: As a conscientious human being I recognize that others are human much like me, with similar needs, interests, desires, and right to live. Given this working ‘principle,’ I find the mass killing of other humans to be not just morally wrong, but a criminally monstrous thing to do.
(3) What makes you think so?
Do you mean, what causes me to take such a position? What sources and path led me to this type of thinking? – Obviously, for most of us it would be our training and education. Parents, family, teachers, friends, our church, synagogue or mosque, our experiences etc. etc. brought us to have such believes and behave accordingly. In some very rare cases, reading or study of philosophy. In less rare cases, reading and study of literature, history, and maybe even works in the sciences.
Your answers give me the impression that you do at present think that genocide is morally wrong, but the reasons for your belief indicate that if your training had been different you can imagine not holding that view. This position might be supported by the evidence that many Germans were willing to practice genocide during WW II. Do you believe that their view was just as correct as your present view about this issue, or is there no correct point of view? Let me put this in a different form: Is genocide REALLY wrong, or is that just the opinion you presently hold because of your training? If it is not just the result of conditioning, then what other source can you find to support the notion that genocide is
My second reply:
John, what are the limits when we start playing the game of imagining what one would think or how one would behave had he been raised in a completely different environment and with completely different training-conditioning? You asked how I came to believe that genocide is immoral and I tried to give an honest answer. When we discuss the road we took to where we are, are we also discussing the reasons for an against our being there? I don’t think so. My answer to your second question should have indicated that if anything is morally wrong without qualification, it is genocide. I think the same about torture and abuse of children. Can I imagine being raised in a culture in which ‘I’ would think otherwise? Well, I suppose we can imagine many things. But I don’t know what the implications for ethics are. I’m not even sure you can say that the individual raised in a completely different culture and under completely different conditions would be the same individual. What are the limits of our imagination?
I’m not sure how much you’re pinning on the proposition: Genocide is really wrong. I surely think that genocide is wrong without qualification. The rule against genocide would seem to be one of those moral absolutes that philosophers talk about.
No, I don’t believe that those Germans (mostly Nazi) who believed that genocide was acceptable, even commendable, were correct. Simply stated, they denied that the victims of genocide (mainly the Jews) had a right to life. Their actions were a complete rejection of moral values and principles that I try to uphold. One could also build Utilitarian arguments for the claim that they were wrong. The fact that their training and conditioning led them to think as they did, different from the way my training and conditioning led me, does not imply that we must become extreme relativists and admit that —- under certain circumstances —- genocide would be morally acceptable. At least this is true if we’re still talking about “human circumstances.” But I don’t know the rules of the game which asks that we imagine how the world would have differed under a completely different set of conditions.
You also suggest a false dichotomy when you ask ” Is genocide REALLY wrong, or is that just the opinion you presently hold because of your training?” If you’re suggesting that the meaning of “really wrong” requires something like Kant’s categorical imperative or one of Plato’s forms and the philosophical idea that there are points of moral reality (independent of what any human society might hold) and unquestionable moral knowledge, then I would reject your notion of something being “really wrong in moral terms.” But this would not imply that I hold to a subjectivist, extreme relativism that one’s rejection of genocide as morally acceptable is just the opinion I happen to hold because of my training.
My history, conditioning, and training may explain how I came to my moral beliefs. There are no alternative “sources.” But the issue of justification of those beliefs turns our attention to the moral values and the principles (e.g. The Golden Rule) I try to apply. Here we talk about ethics, moral philosophy and the reasoning (arguments) that one can bring to bear.
I see absolutely no problem with the judgment that genocide is really wrong and the naturalist view that our morality is human-based in every respect; i.e., with the view that one can hold to some unconditional moral imperatives (e.g. contra genocide, contra child torture) and yet hold that our moral values emerge from our nature as evolved beings who invented culture, including moral culture. But saying more on this would take us into another story.