A Meta-Ethical Digression: Moral Pluralism

Meta-ethics is a set of theories about doing ethics. Ethics, considered broadly, is a normative theory about the nature of the moral life or the moral realm, that is, the realm in which we talk about things like values, duties, rights, virtues, responsibility, blame, guilt, and a variety of other moral concepts. Normative ethics is that branch of ethics that attempts to explain morality, that is, roughly, to give an account of what it is moral agents owe to one another as members of a moral community. I say roughly, because as I will define the notion of a moral community, it will include as members moral patients who are not also moral agents to whom (or to which) moral agents owe moral responsibilities. Morality concerns what it is we should do, and normative ethical theory attempts to give a systematic answer to this question.

In meta-ethics there is a theoretical dispute between the partisans of a monistic approach, and those of a pluralistic approach. Monists hope to find a single, comprehensive ethical principle which is capable of explaining all of our considered moral judgments about moral matters.

The leading candidate for this status is the principle of utility, particularly that version championed by John Stuart Mill, known as the Greatest Happiness Principle. According to this theory, what is morally right for moral agents to do is to act so as to maximize that happiness (or well-being) of all of those (sentient) individuals who are affected by our actions in the long term counting each individuals interest in happiness as equal. This is sometimes referred to as the ethics of universal benevolence. The principle of utility has many variants and many defenders, so many, that I do not have time to review them here. I want to focus only on that group of utilitarians who join this principle of normative ethics to the assumption of theoretical monism, that is, the idea that there is only one fundamental principle of ethics. It is this idea that I want to reject.

In my view, the duty to maximize utility is an ordinary standing moral responsibility like the duty to prevent harm, to protect and care for the vulnerable, the duty to do justice, or the duty to respect another person's autonomy. The mistake that some utilitarians make is that they try to portray the maximization of utility as a kind of "master principle" that encapsulates all other moral considerations. But from a pluralistic, deontological point of view, like the one I prefer, utility maximization is only one normative principle among many others with which it may agree or conflict. While it would be theoretically "sweet" to have a "master principle" in ethics, just as it would be theoretically sweet to have a grand unified field theory in physics, I do not believe that any such theory is in the offing, at least as far as normative ethics is concerned.

Instead, on my view, there will be a plurality of fundamental principles of normative ethics that together describe and explain the moral intuitions that normal, morally sensitive individuals have over a wide range of cases and contexts. In some cases and in some contexts, utility provides a useful moral guide to what conscientious moral agents ought to do. But it is not the only guide to normative rightness and must give way in certain kinds of cases to moral considerations deriving from other fundamental moral principles.
One can appreciate the pluralism of normative ethical principles by focusing on the nature of the arguments that are commonly employed against utilitarianism when it is cast in the role of the master principle of ethics. One finds counter-intuitive examples in which considerations of utility conflict with those of justice, for instance, in the case of the drifter who can be framed for a crime he did not commit. Or arguments involving conflicts between the duty to maximize impartial utility and duties of care that arise because of special interpersonal relationships. Or cases in which the duty to respect personal autonomy runs up against a attempt to do what ones knows to be in another person's best interests. In all of these kinds of arguments the basic structure consists in noticing that the duty to maximize utility conflicts with some other kinds of moral obligations derived from some other moral principle.

But this problem is not unique to the theory of utility or other consequentialist theories in ethics. The same kind of argument can be used to draw attention to conflicts between justice and care or between justice and autonomy or between autonomy and care, and so on. The conclusion that one should draw then is that there is simply no master principle of morality that can be used to guide moral decision-making and evaluation in all cases. As Kwame Anthony Appiah has put it, "Anyone looking for decision procedures, a way of ranking values or a set of rules for choosing among them, such be warned that 'naturalized ethics' is never going to get us there. This isn't because of any crevasse between 'is' and 'ought'; it is because there's no there there. Normative theories, if they are sensible, do not offer algorithms for action." (Experiments in Ethics. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 193).

The meta-ethical stance known as moral pluralism supposes that rather than a single table of values and a single master principle of morality, what we have is a plurality of values and a plurality of fundamental ethical principles. The standard objection to this view is that it lacks theoretical simplicity and offers no means by which to decide which duties shall take precedence when duties derived from independent principles conflict with one another in practical cases. But while theoretical simplicity may be an important value in the empirical sciences, its value in the moral sciences is overrated.

The reason for this is that in normative ethics what we are aiming for, in part, is a social consensus about what kinds of actions and policies ought to be generally accepted as morally right. In order to justify any particular proposed normative policy to a lot of moral agents one needs to find what John Rawls called a overlapping consensus, that is, everyone may not agree to endorse a particular course of action or policy for the same reason, but if there is enough convergence among everybody's own reasons, then we can say that the policy has strong support, even though everybody's back story about why they endorse the policy may be a different one. Most favored policies and practices are those that are supported by the convergence of a variety of independent reasons deriving from various sorts of moral and non-moral considerations. They have what in science is termed "consilience", that is, support from a number of independent lines of evidence or argument. Having a plurality of fundamental moral principles and values is what makes such multiple, independent but sometimes intersecting kinds of justifications possible, and thus it is what allows us to achieve a broad-based social consensus.

The current global consensus on human rights is a good example of this kind of "many-legged" justificatory strategy. Human rights norms and values are justified by a variety of different sorts of moral and practical considerations deriving from considerations of justice, utility, nonmalefiecence, vulnerability, dignity, equality, convention, as well as by religious or metaphysical and metaphysical beliefs. There is no such thing as the justification for human rights. Rather there are a set of partially adequate overlapping justifications for various particular rights as well as a general set of philosophical and political rationales for holding that certain rights should be regarded as belonging to persons as such, irrespective of their particular identities. (See Morton Winston, "Human Rights as Moral Rebellion and Social Construction." Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 6, No. 3 2007: 279-305. for a fuller account).

A plurality of principles also enables us to achieve a better fit between our principles and our moral intuitions over a wide variety of kinds of situations and issues calling for moral reflection and decision. No single moral principle can do the job of describing our actual patterns of moral judgment as well as a set of multiple moral principles. It is not just that normative ethics is just a "messy" field of inquiry that has not yet achieved its true paradigm -- the moral life is just too complex to be reduced to a single over-arching theory of what makes actions morally right, what makes some things morally valuable, and what the good life for human beings consists of.

To borrow some terms from linguistic theory, ethical theories must strive to attain both descriptive and explanatory adequacy. To attain descriptive adequacy they must provide a plausible account of why people's moral intuitions about cases or situations calling for moral judgment or evaluation are as they are. In order to achieve this, it is often necessary to hypothesize the existence of a variety of moral rules and higher-level ethical principles, a moral grammar, that correctly predicts how ordinary competent moral observers will respond to cases calling for moral evaluation. However, there are likely to be many descriptively adequate ethical theories in this sense. Theory choice in ethics, as in other sciences, is underdetermined by the empirical evidence. So one needs to find other considerations to motivate the choice among competing normative theories. One then resorts to looking as theoretical parsimony, explanatory power, fruitfulness, coherence with theories in related domains of inquiry, and so forth, in order to find additional factors that can be used to help determine the choice of theories. But theoretical parsimony or simplicity should not be traded off against descriptive adequacy, in general, but especially in ethics. Because normative rules and principles are developed in order to guide the ordinary moral decision-making of typical moral agents, it is better that they be practical and accurate.

So, then, by advancing the Vulnerability-Care Principle as a fundamental principle of normative ethics I am not suggesting it is a "master principle" that supplants other fundamental principles of ethics. Nor should my narrative about vulnerability, dependence, care, and responsibility be construed taking the place of a much richer moral vocabulary that also talks about rights, justice, virtue, utility, and other matters relevant to the moral life. As in the case of other fundamental moral principles found in normative ethics, the VCP must compete with and often conflict with the demands of other moral principles, and when it does so, its victory is not assured in advance.
But because the VCP is a relatively under-studied principle of ethics, one whose theoretical value and importance is not widely understood or appreciated, I think it worth emphasizing it in order to reveal its potential. In my view the VCP is not just as a normative principle that can be used in the private sphere of the family, where it finds it most natural home, but also in the public sphere whether it is often considered not to apply at all or to apply in only limited ways.

The burden of my argument will be to make a plausible case that the VCP is indeed a fundamental principle of normative ethics, not to claim that it is the only or the most important one. But I do wish to claim that the VCP and the associated concept of social responsibility derived from it do helps to account for a wide range of moral intuitions we have about our moral responsibilities, and that looking at some problems in normative ethics from the perspective of vulnerability and responsibility reveals some interesting insights about the relationship of the VCP to other moral concepts, in particular, the concept of human rights.

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