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The failure of morality

By Peter Bowden - posted Wednesday, 11 August 2021

The world is seeing multiple moral issues at the moment. The military coup in Myanmar, conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Nagorno Karabakh and others. And it has also seen a multiplicity of conflicting opinions: abortion, the death penalty, the near worldwide refusal by some to vaccinate or lockdown against Covid 19, voluntary euthanasia, human induced global warming, our responses to refugees, designer babies, gay marriage, children from such marriages, collateral damage in warfare, along with Donald Trump's "election".

But the conflicts of this time are only the present-day versions of a timeless problem: the inability of the human race to reach a universal agreement of what is the moral, the ethical path to take. Why should that be so? The opinion of this writer is that a major contributor has been the failure, over the centuries, of moral philosophers to decide on what is ethical or moral behaviour, and then to support that theory in practice.

There have been seven components to this failure:


(1) The multitude of moral theories – theories which provide different, even conflicting answers to moral concerns. There are possibly more than twenty moral theories. They often give contrasting answers. Immanuel Kant, for instance, promotes a categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it (your action) should become a universal law". Kant, in other words, gives an imprimatur to the multitude of false news that we see. Another reason for rejecting the multitude of theories is that they are all western in origin. As we shall see, the Asian philosophies give us a significant rethink on morality

(2) Uncertainty, even differences, on the role of philosophy, resulting in a failure to agree on what constitutes moral philosophy; There are many different responses to the question, what task or role is philosophy to accomplish? The Philosophy Foundation states: A definition of philosophy is notoriously difficult. "The theories are plentiful,the convolutions byzantine, the in-fighting bitter, the spilt ink copious, and the progress astoundingly unimpressive" (Richard Joyce, 2005, 2011 ).

Greg Pence describes as "internecine" the fight between deontologyand utilitarianism, Pence advocates another of the major theories, virtue ethics.

John Stuart Mill, one of the originators of the moral theory Utilitarianismstates, in the opening page of his book with this title, that the main problem in morality is "the little progress which has been made in the decision of the controversy respecting the criterion of right and wrong ."

(3)  The need for technical input into the decision-making process in the disciplines that constitute the structures of our societies - ethical issues in medicine, for instance, are very different to those facing a journalist, or a policeman on the beat. Or a tow truck operator. We need to accommodate those differences. Even the major moral theories, Utilitarianism, deontology, virtue, do not take into consideration the work environment for which an ethical decision is to be made.

(4) The use of argument in philosophyas a decision-making process. Just about every school of philosophy throughout the world will tout its advocacy of argument, despite the fact almost no other discipline uses argument as a method of reaching toward a conclusion. Adoption of this method of thinking in resolving moral guidelines is near incomprehensible.


(5) Rejection of whistleblowing practices. One business ethics book, written by two teachers of philosophy, describes whistleblowing as "akin to the worst excesses of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia." Blowing the whistle or speaking out against wrongdoing is possibly the most powerful tool we have to bring about a more ethical society, so the rejection, or at best, qualified acceptance, of speaking out against wrongdoing by moral philosophers is not conducive to strengthening ethical behaviour.

(6) The near incomprehensible language of philosophyappears to be the requirement for any philosophy paper. Examples are provided in the abstracts of the papers at most philosophy conferences.

(7) Codes of Ethics are rarely taught in philosophy classesor covered in philosophy textbooks. Yet they are the method by which the professional and workplace associations across many disciplines manage their ethical issues. They are a necessary component of ensuring ethical behaviour in the occupations that make up our societies.

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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