Morality Empirical Approach

.. e of the real world. Under this system individuals will choose moral rules for society which they believe will promote their happiness. These choices depend on innate factors-what makes human beings happy-and on conditions in the society in which the choices are made. In an “unfair” society, an oppressed minority/majority may subscribe to a different set of moral choices (which could be called a sub-group contract). As an example, the tale of Robin Hood comes immediately to mind.

An empirical approach to morality explicitly recognizes that moral rules should change with time as societies evolve. In section 3, for an imperfect democratic society such as our own, we will suggest how an empirical moralist would approach some of our present moral controversies. We are now in a position to respond to the three basic moral questions raised at the beginning of this essay: Can a system of morality be justified? In any logical argument in which conclusions are deduced, some propositions must be taken as premises. In science these are called axioms, and they are justified (but, as Hume showed, not proved) by induction from experience. Moral conclusions have been deduced from three major types of premises which can be abbreviated as the sacred text premise; the intuitive knowledge of right and wrong premise; and the dependence on consequences premise. We would argue that none of these premises can be “justified” by arguments from more basic principles, and should therefore be characterized as “beliefs” as we have done in proposing empirical morality as a consequences based theory.

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To recapitulate, the premises we propose as a basis for moral choices are: What is morally correct depends upon consequences; the desired consequences are those leading to happiness; moral rules should be choices made to promote happiness. It follows from the previous development that in a society that is functioning with an empirical system of morality, a typical person will be happier, in at least most situations, if he/she acts morally. Here a typical person is defined as a member of the predominate group in the society that agrees with the moral rules which have been chosen. In any society, however, there will be non-typical persons who do not agree with certain moral rules. Since, as has been stated, the empirical approach recognizes that moral rules evolve over time, it should be expected that such a minority of non-typical members will try to persuade the majority to modify those moral rules with which they disagree. In urging these changes, the minority would appeal to empirical evidence which (they would argue) shows that the majority would be happier if the modified rules were adopted.

Why should one act morally? In the philosophical literature the question has been put in the form, “Why should an individual act in accordance with moral rules when it conflicts with self-interest?” Here the concept of self-interest is of crucial importance in discussing real behavior, but it does not appear to have received much analysis. In analogy with the previous discussion of “rights”, we propose a distinction between prima facie self-interest and overall self-interest. An action is defined to be in an individual’s prima facie self-interest if its immediate consequences increase the individuals happiness. In order for an action to be in an individuals overall self-interest, its cumulative effects over the lifetime of the individual must result in a positive balance of happiness over unhappiness. In literature and in life there are numerous examples of people who commit murder because it is in their prima facie self-interest, but discover at later times that the action was not in their overall self-interest. As an opposite example, people who engage in civil disobedience are aware that such action is not in their prima facie self-interest, but may believe that it is in their overall self-interest because its long term beneficial effects on society will increase their personal happiness.

Civil disobedience is an (extreme) example of the ethically important observation that many people have developed a “conscience” that leads them to feel happiness when their actions increase the happiness of others (note 2). (It should be recalled from the beginning of this section that we and using a broad definition of happiness as “the only thing desirable as an end.”) A society which has adopted an empirical approach to morality has chosen moral rules which a large majority believe will promote the happiness of its members. It therefore follows that it will be in the overall self-interest of most of its members to act morally most of the time. In those situations when this is not the case, however, we must agree with other ethical writers that consequentialist morality does not support an argument that persons should act against their overall self-interest. This leads to the third question, “How can others be persuaded to act morally?” From the preceding discussion it is clear that the way to persuade others to act morally is to convince them that it is in their overall self-interest to do so.

What are some of the factors that affect an individuals overall self-interest? We consider the general problem of corruption as an example. An individual is offered a bribe to take an action which violates the moral, and possibly the legal, rules of his society. (For grammatical simplicity we assume it is a male.) He may feel that it is in his prima facie self-interest to accept, since spending the money could give him happiness. However, as a rational person he knows that other factors must be considered in determining whether acceptance of the bribe is in his overall self-interest. These factors are of both an internal and external nature.

The dominant internal factor is his conscience. How much unhappiness would the knowledge of such an immoral action cause him over an extended period of time? Clearly, future pangs of conscience are a rational consideration in contemplating moral actions. There is also an indirect, internal consideration. Participation in corrupt practices is likely to encourage corruption by others. Rational persons will include the negative effects of living in a more corrupt society on the happiness of themselves, their children and other loved ones in their evaluations of overall self-interest.

A number of external factors would affect a decision on accepting a bribe. These would include the probability of exposure, the degree of social condemnation which would result from exposure of the action, and potential punishment by fines or jail if the action was illegal. While acceptance of a bribe has been used as an example, the factors affecting overall self-interest in that case would apply to a variety of moral decisions, e.g., using public funds for personal purposes or disseminating false accusations about a political opponent. We have argued that in a society which has adopted an empirical approach to morality, most persons will act morally most of the time. The discussion of overall self-interest above suggests a number of moral positions an empirical society would adopt in order to persuade even more of its members to act morally more of the time: (a) It would emphasize an approach to education which results in children developing a conscience which causes them happiness when they act morally. (b) It would promote as a societal norm the condemnation of actions which violate the moral rules. (c) It would allocate appropriate resources to increase the probability of detection of immoral actions which affect the public welfare. (d) It would devise a system of penalties which tries to achieve a balance between deterrence and rehabilitation.

3. Applications In section 2 we gave premises and arguments for the adoption of an empirical approach to morality. We concluded that moral rules should be choices made by society (note 3) to promote happiness, and that these choices will depend upon both innate factors and conditions in the society in which the choices are made. While it is not the aim of this paper to determine the content of the moral rules which would be chosen, we shall conclude by illustrating how an empirical moralist would approach some contemporary social problems. For this purpose we consider the issues of sexual relations, abortion, and distributive justice.

It is useful to divide a discussion of sexual relations into premarital and postmarital phases. With exceptions for peculiar circumstances, consensual sex is a pleasurable activity. Thus it is in the prima facie self-interest of the persons involved. Is it in their overall self-interest? How does such activity affect other members of the society? In a society in which premarital sex is strongly condemned, the adverse effects of discovery would lead some individuals to conclude that such activity was not in their overall self-interest. This appears to have been a majority opinion in the United States before World War II. In recent decades there has been both an increase in premarital sex and a decrease in its moral condemnation suggesting an interplay between such activity and society’s attitude towards it.

In the absence of moral condemnation what is the long term effect of premarital sex on happiness? Here our empirical knowledge is inadequate. Literature about the Victorian period in England suggests that their negative attitude toward sex caused considerable unhappiness. Current literature presents a mixed picture of the results of sexual freedom on individual happiness. Other members of society are affected when premarital sex leads to pregnancy. It is especially clear at present that the quality of care which children receive has a major effect on them and on their relations with other members of society.

There is strong evidence that children conceived in premarital relationships receive poorer care on the average than those produced after marriage. Thus it is in the self-interest of society to adopt policies to reduce the incidence of premarital sex leading to childbirth. Two divergent approaches can be proposed. One approach would attempt to strengthen the moral condemnation of premarital sex in order to reduce its frequency and associated accidental pregnancies. The other approach would concentrate on preventing accidental pregnancy by improving sex education and access to contraceptives.

The moral rule in a society taking the latter approach would condemn the production of children who would not be well cared for. After marriage, fidelity to one’s spouse is an important moral issue. The orthodox moral view in Western societies has always strongly condemned adultery. However, the degree to which many members of a society have subscribed to this view has varied in different societies at different times. The degree of condemnation has also differed with gender.

As in the case of premarital sex, adulterous relations have flourished because they give intense short term gratification. What are the long term consequences? The current evidence is that infidelity is frequently discovered leading to adverse effects on overall self-interest. Because it exposes a serious violation of marital trust, discovery generally causes the betrayed partner severe unhappiness. The degree of unhappiness may be sufficient to lead to divorce; even if it does not, there are strong negative effects on the marriage relationship. When there are children, they too are frequently adversely affected.

What approaches could society take to promote the overall self-interest of its members? One approach is to attempt to strengthen the moral condemnation of extramarital sexual relations with the aim of reducing the incidence of infidelity and the resulting stresses on marriage. As a hypothetical alternative, a society might choose not to condemn extramarital relations while urging marriage partners to consider the long term effects of such activity. (As with premarital relations, accidental pregnancies would continue to be condemned.) Could marriage stability be separated from sexual fidelity, and would this be in the overall self-interest of the members of such a society? Since that approach to sexual morality has not been used, no empirical answer to these questions can be given. The historical record shows that independent of a society’s moral system unwanted pregnancies occur. A rational society will adopt policies to minimize their number.

The use of abortion to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is the subject of intense moral debate. The central arguments of the opposing views are well known. The opponents of abortion cite the moral rule against killing innocent persons, i.e., the right to life. Those who would permit abortion cite a woman’s right to choose. A consistent application of the right to life argument does not allow exceptions for rape or incest, and applies as soon as an egg is fertilized.

The broadest application of the choice argument permits abortion up to the time of birth. Neither argument satisfies most members of our society. When moral condemnation has been unsuccessful in preventing an undesired pregnancy, how would an advocate of empirical morality approach the issue of abortion? Such an advocate would consider the effects of abortion on the self-interest of pregnant women, their partners and members of society in general. One would first determine whether there is evidence that most women who choose to have an abortion to terminate an unwanted pregnancy find that their decision resulted in an overall increase in happiness. If that is true (as it appears to be), consideration should be given to the long term effects of abortion on the woman’s partner. The main issue of contention, however, is the morality of terminating the life of an embryo or fetus.

Although almost all human beings agree that there is a basic moral prohibition against killing, they differ in their approval of exceptions to this general rule. Killing of animals for food is generally accepted, while killing animals for sport or for medical research has some opponents. Killing human beings in time of war is generally accepted, while the killing of human beings as a punishment is a current topic of vigorous debate. Individuals have an obvious self-interest in living in a society which agrees upon a basic prohibition against killing human beings. In those cases where killing is accepted, an individual must believe that a special consideration makes it in their overall self-interest to approve an exception to the general prohibition.

For the case of abortion this special consideration is the increase in happiness resulting from the termination of an unwanted pregnancy. A critical factor in balancing the happiness of those desiring an abortion against the basic prohibition against killing (except for those holding extreme opinions) is the time at which the abortion occurs.