A moral universalist argues that a single morality should prevail at all times and all places. A moral absolutist goes further, maintaining that one moral position, with a single set of principles, holds under all circumstances. A proponent of a traditional moral view such as Utilitarianism or of a deontological position, like Kant’s, is both a moral universalist and a moral absolutist. She will maintain that her position provides that one set of universal and absolute principles. In contrast to moral universalism and moral absolutism is moral pluralism. A moral pluralist maintains that there is no singly correct moral theory, but that various dominant moral theories emphasize one or the other general moral values that humans acknowledge. While a moral pluralist acknowledges that there is much ambiguity in our moral lives, a moral pluralist is not committed to the view that, morally, anything goes. There are limits on what we will work as a moral theory.
Historically important moral pluralists include Machiavelli and Isaiah Berlin. There is some dispute among such pluralists about what a full list of basic human moral values should include, but Thomas Nagel provides one basic set that many moral pluralists acknowledge. These include:
- special relationships to people or institutions (also nations or ethnic groups)
- general rights for everyone, such as are embodied in the US. Bill of Rights
- the general utility of actions — that is, their affect on general welfare.
- certain “perfectionist” ends, such as the value of achievements in science or the arts
- a dedication to one’s own development or one’s own projects
The classical moral absolutist positions will argue that one of these values is ultimate and other values have to be rooted in that basic value or defended in relationship to that most basic value. A utilitarian, for example, argues for the primacy of the general utility of actions. A utilitarian will then go on to argue that other values might defended in relationship to that. Joseph Raz, for example, has argued that there is a value in special relationships to one’s parents or children; but this value isn’t basic. Rather, it is derived from the one basic value — utility. A society will simply create greater general welfare if individuals build on the natural affinities of family or give a kind of moral priority to individuals of their own nation, with whom they share a set of legal institutions and cultural traditions. A Kantian will tend to emphasize the second value noted above, the general rights. Other values, like that of cultivating perfectionist ends or the dedication to one’s own projects will defended in relationship to that more basic value. A moral pluralist, by contrast, will view this list, or some similar list, of values as basic. And she will be aware of potential conflicts between these basic values that can be difficult to overcome.* Again, though, this does not mean that anything goes.
David B. Wong is one of the current strongest proponents of moral pluralism.** He highlights in particular how Confucian systems have tended to emphasize the special relationship to family. Filial piety has a role in that ethical system that has received no equivalent emphasis in western ethical systems. But ethical and legal systems in the West do recognize special relationships. We all have a special obligation to feed our own children that we do not have to feed the neighbor’s children. If a neighbor child comes to us in need, we will typically generously help within limits. But at some point we view the neighbor family as having responsibility for its child’s well being. We certainly are not held accountable in front of the courts if we do not provide for the neighbor child. That child’s parents, however, are held to a different level of accountability.
Situational ethicists, like virtue ethicists, tend to be most amenable to ethical pluralism. They highlight that an individual needs to cultivate a skill at reading situations and a habit or character so that they spontaneously bring good judgment to bear. That might mean reading which of these values is most important in any particular context. Something troubling for many, however, is how vague this criteria is and how the assessment will likely differ from culture to culture; for after all, different societies understand virtue differently.
It is important to think about which virtues one’s own culture highlights and whether these are adequate. Maybe this belongs to a contemporary virtue ethics, informed by history that shows the inadequacy of many historical views of virtue, that is, their inadequacy in reflecting everyone’s rights or their inadequacy in creating general utility. While arguments may be made that one society fails to emphasize one or the other of these values enough and that there is a right and wrong way to prioritize them, it proves difficult to argue for any clear criteria for ordering these. Inevitably, though, in considering this question we will consider other values on the list noted that make sense to us morally.
While ethical pluralism doesn’t give everyone the kind of certainty they might desire in ethical reasoning, it may well be right that such certainty in the field of ethics unfortunately evades us. When it comes to thick moral concerns perhaps the best we hope for is to examine our own consciences and create our legal and value systems, reasoning together with others in a way that is sensitive to these basic values.***
* While some ethical disputes occur because of these values conflicts, check this blog on moral arguments and the facts for the role that factual disputes play in moral arguments.
** Many of the ideas developed here are from reflections on Wong’s book, Natural Moralities. A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism (Oxford UP, 2006). Note that Wang uses the term relativism different than many in mainstream culture. He does not identify ethical relativism with ultimate skepticism about ethics, or ethical skepticism.
***Some ethicists, such as discourse ethicists, maintain that when it comes to “thick” conceptions of morality, such pluralism is appropriate, but that for narrower set of questions of justice, we should be able to come to universal agreement. For these positions of justice, then, it argues for the priority of considerations of justice (the second value highlighted on the list above). To ensure that our legal and moral conclusions are reflective of the views of the largest cross-section of individuals affected or are most rational, discourse ethicists argue for certain ways of organizing social discourse and social decision making. This is meant to ensure that the social laws and ultimately the value frameworks perpetuated in a society that are affected by those legal frameworks are fairly reached and do not become conduits for certain elite groups of individuals in society to chanel values that meet their own interests at the expense of those of others. This position is taken up elsewhere.