For a long time, I've wanted to make a series of posts articulating my philosophical views (to the extent that I can pin them down). It's an intimidating task, but I think it's important to make a constructive statement of things I believe to be true. It's comparatively easy -- lazy even -- to express a mere list of rejections, of all the things I think are not
. But at the other end of every rejection there is a person who's made the effort to understand the world and their role in it.
I'd like to start with moral philosophy: how do I decide what's right and what's wrong? First off, I am an ethical pluralist
: I think there is not (and can't be) a single moral theory that correctly, completely and consistently captures every moral consideration. This is not the same as moral relativism, since I believe some moral beliefs are better than others. Wikipedia describes the concept under the name "value pluralism"
In ethics, value pluralism (also known as ethical pluralism or moral pluralism) is the idea that there are several values which may be equally correct and fundamental, and yet in conflict with each other. In addition, value-pluralism postulates that in many cases, such incompatible values may be incommensurable, in the sense that there is no objective ordering of them in terms of importance.
For me, ethical pluralism means that there is some validity
in most ethical theories, and there is something
to resolve in every moral grievance. At the bottom, moral theories are built on our social intuitions. A moral theory provides a mental framework to resolve inconsistencies or contradictions in those intuitions. Up to now, there is no theory that satisfactorily resolves every inconsistency. So for a given moral dilemma, the problem is not just to apply my favorite moral calculus to decide what's right; the real problem is to prioritize among a variety of applicable theories to find the best way of understanding the situation.
Most of the time, I favor Kant's moral theory (or some version of it). Kant's thinking was centered on universal laws. Here's a loose way of putting it: if I can act this way, then everybody
can act this way. If it's not possible for everybody
to act this way, then I shouldn't act this way. The theory is elegant, but it breaks down all over the place and has been interpreted in very different ways. In political contexts, Kant argued for an essentially negative rights
interpretation of this theory: people should be free to do what they want, as long as it doesn't interfere with the equal freedom of anyone else.
While I favor the Kantian view as a way to organize moral thinking, in practice the theory doesn't conclusively resolve very many dilemmas. To really understand a moral problem, we need to churn through a variety of approaches: utilitarian, social-contract, virtue theory, whatever has bearing on the problem. None of these theories gives the complete picture, all of them have their shortcomings, but all of them cast light from a different angle.
Taking a pluralistic stance may sound waffly, but I think even ethical monists (who try to stick to a single theory) are effectively pluralists too, since practitioners of the same moral theory often apply it differently and arrive at opposite judgments. What I want from a moral theory is to be non-accidentally good, and that will take sustained effort. I can't just pick a theory and stick with it to the bitter end, I have to keep rotating through perspectives because that process itself is more important than the individual theories.