If you’ve ever interacted with people or visited the internet you know people have different views and behaviors. If you’ve ever seen the news or heard gossip, then you know there are people who do really really heinous things. And, if you’ve ever sat down to think, you know a lot of the suffering in this world is because people are not good to each other.
And, you might now ask, what is good? Perhaps, so that you can do it, or teach others. But, then you will come to an unsettling realisation that most people are good in their own eyes even if other people have opposing views. And, if you travel to a faraway country with a different culture, you will realise that you have no clue what good is aside from what you had been taught (i.e. everything you believe is based on what you’ve been told back home). Then it will dawn on you that you only continued to do things that you thought were good because the people around you seem to encourage or accept it.
And, if you are unsatisfied with this and want to uncover what is objectively good, and applies to all people, at all places, and at all times, you will find yourself in the middle of the dilemma of moral grounding.
The Dilemma of Moral Grounding
The dilemma of moral grounding arises from the difficulty in justifying a moral belief or judgement. That is, it is the inability to objectively state what is the Good.
Some argue that the justification or grounding can be found in objective, universal principles such as the golden rule (“treat others as you would like to be treated”), or the categorical imperative (“act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”). Others argue that there are no such universal moral principles that can be objectively justified nor applied to everyone and that it (i.e. good) is ultimately a matter of individual or cultural preference.
The problem is, if it is a matter of personal views, then how can we judge the actions of others (how do you know they are right or wrong), or make moral progress as a society (since we can’t judge)? And, if it is objective, how do we find it, and how can we apply them in specific situations?
And, it is not difficult to see the issue with these views
Grounded on The Golden Rule:
The issue with the Golden rule is that it assumes that what one person likes or desires are what others would also like or desire. In fact, the likes and desires of some may be harmful to others.
“The Golden Rule has an inherent limitation: it assumes that everyone wants to be treated the same way. In reality, people have different needs, wants, and circumstances that must be taken into account.”– Adam Grant, organizational psychologist, and author
Grounded on a Categorical Imperative:
The issue with the Categorical Imperative is that it places conformity to a principle above the outcomes or consequences of the action. This leads to situations where trying to be good leads to a lot of harmful outcomes. For example, someone upholding the categorical imperative will be compelled to tell the truth if a murderer asks them for the location of their intended victims.
“The Categorical Imperative is a self-imposed moral law that can be too demanding and unrealistic. It may lead to moral absolutism and moral fanaticism.”– Robert Audi, philosopher, and professor
Grounded on Nothing:
The issue with arguing that the good is entirely subjective and based on personal or cultural preferences (which vary drastically across place and time) is that it becomes difficult to justify or criticise the moral beliefs or practices of others.
This also leads to cultural relativism since all views are equally valid, or ethical nihilism since all views can be considered equally baseless or meaningless. Views like this can allow harmful behaviours such as discrimination, rape, cannibalism, and so much worse as people may act solely in their own self-interest without regard for the impact on others.
Though Secular Humanism takes the stance that even though morality has no inherent justification, it should still be developed based on reason, science, experience, debate, and democracy.
“Is something inherently ethical or unethical, or is something ethical or unethical because a person or society says it is so?”
Grounded on the Objective Good:
If we try to ground good on the objective good, we face the issue of infinite regress. This means, we will need to resolve an infinite series of explanations or causes, which indicates an issue with the assumption that there is something objectively good.
In our dilemma, in an attempt to find what is objectively good, if we say “Honesty is good”. Then, we would be forced to ask, “Why is honesty good?”, and if we say “Because it builds trust”, then we would have to ask, “Why is trust good?”. If we respond “Because it brings peace” then we would have to ask, “Why is peace good?” and so on. This is besides the fact that our responses (whatever they may be) already indicate some bias – i.e. it is already us saying something is good without knowing if it is objectively good.
“Is objective morality correct because evolution discovered it or did evolution discover objective morality because it is correct?”– Alexander Rosenberg
Also Read: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?
The Euthyphro Dilemma
Ethical dilemmas like these are difficult to conceptualise, not to mention resolve. Hence, it is no surprise many don’t even bother addressing it. Most people relegate the quandary to their gods (i.e. relying on the dictates of their gods). However, this does not solve the issue.
In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asked Euthyphro,
“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
Although the question was originally posed to question unquestioned obedience to the ancient Greek Pantheon/religion, the question has also had huge implications for modern monotheistic religions (like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).
Let’s analyze the implication of the two premises (or horns) of the dilemma below.
1st Premise: “God Commands It Because It Is Good”
If someone says that God commands what is Good because it is Good, then the following issues arise
- If there are moral standards (i.e. Good) independent of God’s will, then God is not entirely sovereign and needs to follow these standards.
- These moral standards could limit God’s power by not allowing God to command what is considered bad or evil.
- These moral standards could also restrict God’s freedom of choice, making God only able to command what is in line with these standards.
- If moral standards are independent of God, then it means we don’t need God to be good, and God’s role would be to simply tell us about these standards rather than create them.
2nd Premise: “It Is Good Because God Commands It”
If someone says that it is good because God commands it, then the following issues arise
- If there is no moral standard other than what God says, then what is considered good or bad is only based on God’s whim.
- This means that morality would not be based on any reason, which could make God appear irrational.
- Also, anything could be good or bad just because God says so.
- If morality depends entirely on God’s free will, then it wouldn’t be necessary because God could change minds at any moment.
- For God’s commands to be considered authoritative, God must derive that authority from something other than his/her/its own will.
- If all goodness is only what God wants it to be, then what does it mean to say that God is good?
However, many theists (i.e. people who believe in God or gods) dismiss the Euthyphro dilemma, saying it is a false dilemma because there is a third option. Which is that, God is Good.
Refutation: “God Is Good”
As a response to the Euthyphro dilemma, many theists argue that “God is Good”. This means, the nature of God is good, and so the commands of God are only a reflection of that Good nature. That is to say, the Good comes from God, and whatever thing that is found to be Good is the expression of the nature of God (i.e. God is love, truth, etc). And any Good (whatever it is, in any specific time or circumstance) is God (or at least, God’s will).
Although this resolves the dilemma and avoids the infinite regress, it requires enormous belief because faith is substituted for reason.
And, since nothing has been proven to be objectively Good or bad (like we’ve discussed earlier) commands such as genocide can be believed to be Good because God (who is inherently Good) commands it out of Goodness. This is the reason the God who drowned the Egyptians and ordered the slaughter of the Amalekites is still believed to be Good.
Of course, this idea still has its drawbacks. For a start, different religions have different gods who give different commands (or more correctly, have different ideas of what God is and what God commands). And, if two gods give contradictory commands (usually announced by a religious leader), one of the commands must be “not Good”. Now consider that the Hindu religion alone arguably has over 33 million gods. And, Hinduism is one among thousands of Polytheistic religions.
The idea that God is Good is only sufficient if everyone believes in the same God. And since humanity is vast and divergent, upholding one God as the ultimate is not possible unless with violence or intimidation.
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Plato’s Conclusion On The Ethical Dilemma
Plato concluded that the Good exists independently of the gods, even though many theists have interpreted it (whether right or wrong) to mean that the Good is God.
According to Plato, Good is the highest and most fundamental Form (i.e. idea or essence), which illuminates and gives meaning to all other Forms – which are all abstract, eternal, and unchanging. It is the standard by which all things are measured and evaluated and it is not created or defined by the gods.
How Do People Make Ethical Decisions? [Types of Ethical Theories]
When people are not being selfish or shifting responsibility to their version of God (or more correctly, what they have been told and believe to be God’s command), they make ethical decisions using a variety of methods, depending on their personal beliefs and values. Some of the most common approaches to ethical decision-making include:
- Consequentialism: This approach focuses on the consequences or outcomes of a particular action or decision. Utilitarianism, for example, is a consequentialist theory that suggests that the best action is the one that produces the greatest overall good for the greatest number of people.
- Deontology: This approach is based on rules or duties that should be followed, regardless of the consequences. The philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, argued that ethical decisions should be made based on a set of universal principles that apply to all people.
- Virtue ethics: This approach emphasizes the importance of developing good character traits, such as honesty, courage, and compassion, as a way to guide ethical decision-making.
- Care ethics: This approach emphasizes the importance of relationships and caring for others, particularly those who are vulnerable or in need.
- Pragmatism: This approach emphasizes practical solutions to ethical problems and focuses on what will work in a particular situation.
People may combine different ethical approaches, rely on their personal beliefs and experiences, or call for a vote to make ethical decisions. Whatever approach is used, empathy, critical thinking, and humility are ideally required.
“Is pious pious ’cause God loves pious? Socrates asked whose bias do y’all seek.”– Jay Z (No Church In The Wild)
Also Read: How To Be A Better Person [And Be Happy]
How To Become a More Ethical Person
There are many ways to become more ethical (or Good). Here are some tips that can help you develop a more ethical approach to decision-making and behaviour:
- Consume educational content: Read books, articles, and online resources on ethics. Learn the principles, applications, and consequences.
- Reflect on your values: Take some time to reflect on your own values and beliefs, and consider how they influence your behaviour and decision-making. Paying attention to what others think of you is a good place to start.
- Practice empathy: Put yourself in other people’s shoes and try to understand their feelings and perspectives. Also, consider how your behavior or actions affect them.
- Seek out diverse perspectives: Engage with people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to gain a deeper understanding of ethical issues and how they affect different people. Listen to other people’s perspectives and try to understand their points of view, even if you don’t agree with them.
- Act with integrity: Be honest and transparent in your actions and decisions, and hold yourself accountable for your behavior.
- Speak up: If you see unethical behavior or practices, speak up and take action. Report any unethical behavior to the appropriate authorities and work to promote ethical practices around you.
- Continuously learn and improve: Ethics is a lifelong learning process, and there is always room for change or improvement.
- Surround yourself with like-minded people: Find people and surround yourself with people who are interested in becoming less awful humans and more ethical creatures. Doing this turns peer pressure into an advantage.
Keep in mind dogmatism and rigidity are dangerous even when upholding a seemingly good moral principle. For example, if a murderer should ask you for the location of their intended victim, telling the truth becomes contrary to Goodness (or the moral principle of respecting human life). In ethics, this practice of violating a moral principle (in this case, telling the truth) to uphold a higher moral principle (in this case, respecting human life) is called Graded Absolutism.
In all these, stay humble, stay vigilant, and good luck.
The Ring of Gyges: Why You Should Do Good Even When No One Is Watching or Can Hold You Accountable.
Glaucon challenged Socrates on the topic of ethics using a fictional illustration. He asked Socrates to imagine a certain shepherd called Gyges who found a ring that granted him the power of invisibility. Then he asked Socrates whether Gyges had any reason to refrain from committing crimes that served his self-interest since he would suffer no consequences.
Of course, most people would commit crimes if they were sure they wouldn’t be caught (or can’t be touched). But, is there any rational reason why someone shouldn’t?
To this, Socrates insisted that we should still do the moral or good thing. This is because the benefits you gain for being immoral are only fleeting and will ultimately have a consequence on your conscience. Therefore, it is only an illusion that doing a morally bad thing will serve your interests because morally bad actions will later deprive you of inner harmony.
But, of course, there are many people (like corrupt politicians, psychopaths, serial rapists, and so on) who still feel inner harmony accompanied by a sense of deep satisfaction and fulfillment before, during, and after doing something evil, sick, and twisted. So, inner harmony alone does not suffice as a reason not to do something morally bad given the opportunity (do you still remember the criticism against the Golden Rule?).
So, another reason not to do something morally bad given the opportunity is that our actions do not occur in a vacuum. What you do ends up affecting what the next person does. And, if enough morally bad things are being done, soon society degenerates and hell – fear, violence, destruction, death, and worse – gets unleashed on everyone, destroying every good thing (physical, emotional, and otherwise).
If you live in a country (like my country, Nigeria) where a lot of morally bad people are in powerful positions (hence invisible), it is not hard to see the effect. Medical services, transportation, security, education, and so much more are all on their knees and about to give up any minute (if they haven’t already).
A recent story surfaced about a certain (poor) mechanic named Timothy who returned 10.8 million Naira which was ‘mistakenly’ sent to his account. Many people (including Nigerian celebrities) praised him for his goodness, though some people thought he shouldn’t have returned the money.
But consider this, his good would not only inspire others to be good but may probably save the business of the (rich) Contractor which is providing a source of income for dozens if not hundreds of other Nigerians. And, who knows what contract, what facility, he just rescued for all of Nigeria rather than seeking his selfish interests.
“Ethics is not a mystic fantasy – nor a social convention – nor a dispensable, subjective luxury. Ethics is an objective necessity of man’s survival – not by the grace of the supernatural nor of your neighbors nor of your whims, but by the grace of reality and the nature of life.”– Ayn Rand
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