I couldn’t see the dog as clearly as my Huskies could since the location was poorly lit and the dog’s coat was dark, but I did see that it darted dangerously across from my side of the road towards what turned out to be its home. I immediately felt an emotional response, in part because it reminded me of an earlier incident, a few weeks earlier, when another dog had crossed the same road in the opposite direction, at about the same time of night, to challenge my dogs and was struck by a car. That dog was fortunate in that the car that struck it was not travelling as fast as most cars do on this section of road, the dog was more easily visible and the car was able to brake sufficiently to prevent any major injury. There was no guarantee that this dog was going to be as fortunate.
As I approached the property which was apparently the dog’s home, I noted that a neighbour was standing in her yard looking mildly distressed. During a brief exchange, yelling across the road, it became clear that the neighbour and her husband were both afraid of dogs, but worried that the loose dog would get struck by a car if nothing was done. While the neighbour didn’t specifically ask anything of me, it was obvious that I had a decision to make. Clearly I was not afraid of dogs, having two relatively muscular examples straining at their leashes, so could and should I help?
I want to use this real scenario to investigate the nature of the moral issues involved, how I might have identified the issues as moral issues and the mechanisms by which I came to a decision with regard to the moral issues. From there, I will investigate whether an absolute morality is achievable.
The first issue that comes to mind is involvement, should I have got involved at all? When first recounting the tale of my little moral adventure to someone who considers herself quite moral, I was awarded with a little approval but was also told that a lot of people would have just kept on walking. This is true, for a number of reasons, one of which is an implied neighbourhood rule along the lines of don’t get involved in other people’s business. The dog on the loose was not mine, nor was it my neighbour’s since I was still half a kilometre or more from home. Add to that the fact that I was already dealing with two dogs of my own and I would have had a good case to not be involved.
However, there was an element of immediacy meaning that I was aware that the dog was on the loose and I was aware of the distress of the woman standing in her yard across the road from me. I had been tacitly invited to get involved by means of our brief interchange and an expectation had been generated. Effectively, I had missed my moment to walk on with minimal moral consequence, which I could have done if I had not engaged the woman in conversation. However, even if I had not talked with anyone, I would still have been aware of the straits in which the dog found itself and would have felt some moral obligation to assist. A primary concern to me was that I did not want another dog to get struck by a car – if there was something I could do to prevent it.
So, I found myself crossing the road and handing control of my dogs to a woman who had only just finished telling me that she is afraid of them. Should I have done that? It was a strange decision in retrospect, I was putting my own two dogs at risk, since if they had a mind to they could easily have overpowered a woman who had no experience with handling dogs, it was dark, the road was poorly lit and my dogs could as easily be struck by cars as anyone else’s. It would have been safer to have tied them to a tree, but the woman did ask whether I wanted her to hold them. If I were to have said no and that I’d prefer to tie them to something, it would have taken me more time, time in which the other dog could have bolted across the road and been struck.
More importantly, however, the woman clearly wanted to help even if she was not confident to enough to deal with the situation on her own. By tying my dogs to a tree rather than letting her hold them, I would have been denying her an opportunity to do something useful. While I know that my dogs are strong, I also know their personalities well enough to gauge that the risk of them either hurting the woman or breaking free from her and running off at that time was rather low (mostly because it is rare that they are handled by complete strangers in this way and they were fascinated enough by what I was doing to prevent them running off).
So, now someone else was holding my dogs and I was seeing what I could do get to the escaped dog back into its yard. I could see that the dog had managed to peel back a section of aluminium plating on the gate in such a way that it was acting like a one-way, dog-sized valve – getting out was easy, getting back in just wasn’t going to happen.
At first I was struck by a couple of purely technical and administrative issues. Could I grab the dog, hold it with one hand and hold back the aluminium plating sufficiently far with the other hand so that I could then stuff the dog back where it should be? That was a definite no on the first count, since the dog was skittish and a probable no on the second count. Could I reach over the gate and open it from the outside? Apparently I could not.
Could I reach far enough to open the gate if I stood on the bonnet of the car left parked in the driveway? While this was for the most part a technical issue, there was a moral aspect to it as well. My standing on the car’s bonnet could have damaged it. The owners might have been pleased to have their dog rescued, but not particularly happy if I damaged the car in the process. Did I have the right to risk damaging someone’s property, even if I was taking that risk to save their dog? As it was, the decision was taken out of my hands, since my reach was not going to be sufficient even if I did stand on the bonnet. Instead, I was forced to climb over the gate.
I was aware, as I pondered how best to scale the gate, that it was possibly not legal to do so. The fencing of a private property, as I understand it, conveys an enforceable assertion of exclusivity. If I entered the property without an invitation, it was possible that I would be trespassing. I was, however, also aware that (or rather felt that) my intent justified my action.
I was also acutely aware – when I was half way over the gate – that I was not as lithe as I used to be. This little act of mercy on my part was actually putting me at risk of damaging myself. Fortunately, I managed to land nimbly enough to prevent injury. Once the gate was open, the dog immediately ran back to the relative safety of its yard and the adventure was as good as over for both of us.
To be able to use this as an example of moral decision making, I need to establish that there was no single logical and obviously correct course of action available to me. The correct method is contextually dependent on intent and in this case my intention was to save the dog from injury and, to a lesser extent, prevent harm to any driver who might be involved in an incident involving the dog. Was this an obviously correct intent?
It felt like a good intent to me. One could even say it was intuitively right. It’s not difficult, however, to imagine someone saying it was a stupid thing to do and, consequently, not right or good (or obviously correct) at all. For example, the dog wasn’t mine, I was busy, I had no obligation to sort out other people’s problems and to attempt to do so was mere interference on my part, people have an obligation to take care when driving so even if the dog did get hit, it would be their fault not mine, so on and so forth. All these smack of excuse making to me, things I might say if challenged later if I were not to have helped out.
A question that then arises is why did it feel like a sufficiently good intent to me as to justify my actions, where it might not have to others? Perhaps I am better at discerning some moral absolute, or maybe I was just mistaken about moral obligations that I am subject to. This leads us to another question, are there any absolute moral principles, or obligations, or perhaps even moral virtues which were applicable?
Before I proceed, it is worth considering what “absolute” means in relation to principles, obligations and virtues. Absolute in this sense means that the principle, obligation or virtue in question applies irrespective of context or intent. We will return to this once we have extracted some examples of principles, obligations and virtues from the scenario.
Moral principles and moral obligations are quite similar and can, in some cases, vary in no more than form. In a sense, one could consider that moral principles are guidelines whereas moral obligations are rules, one of which may be to abide by moral principles. A moral principle which I could be said to have been using to guide my behaviour is minimising harm is good. This could also be expressed as a moral obligation: if you are aware of the potential for harm and are able act so as to minimise harm without undue cost, then you are morally obliged to minimise harm. Due to the similarity between moral principles and moral obligations in practice and because it is a assumption that if one has moral principles one has an ipso facto obligation to act in accordance with those moral principles, I shall use the term “moral imperative” to cover both.
Virtues are positive qualities which morally good by definition and which, if one possesses them, make one morally superior to those who lack them. Virtues are traditionally arrived at either dogmatically or empirically. Dogmatically derived virtues are those which are held to be positive qualities, in and of themselves. If I were a virtue ethicist, for example, I could hold that courage – the willingness to put oneself at risk – and altruism – the willingness to devote time and effort with no expectation of reward – are positive qualities. Empirically derived virtues are those discerned by observation, by either the observation of or conception of an admirable person. If I were to compare two people, a great leader who was courageous and altruistic and a lesser being who was craven and selfish, then I could determine that courage and altruism were virtues. A virtuously moral person would act with virtues in mind, either by attempting to maximise the virtue content of their actions or by emulating exemplars of virtue.
I have identified an imperative in accordance with which I was acting (minimise harm) as well as virtues which are favourably aligned with my behaviour (courage and altruism). However, these do not address the full range of potential imperatives or virtues (or indeed vices, where a vice is a negative quality and hence the opposite of a virtue). A detractor, on hearing my tale, might point to a number of alternative imperatives and virtues or vices, for example obey the law as an imperative and wisdom as a virtue which would have been demonstrated by letting other people deal with their problems and not putting myself or my dogs at risk unnecessarily or meddling as a vice, as demonstrated by a person who interferes in the business of others.
Returning to the question of absolutes, is the imperative I identified or that of my possible detractor absolute? It certainly feels instinctively correct, in the first instance, to consider minimise harm as an absolute right. The opposite, maximise harm, feels like an absolute wrong. Obey the law is more questionable, not just because it is my detractor’s position but also because “the law” is indistinct. Not all laws are equal, some laws are counterintuitive (if not actually contradictory) and legislation is subject to change. Additionally, laws are not necessarily moral themselves, for example the laws governing the keeping of slaves in South Carolina mandated the flogging of escaped slaves on their recapture. As stated, obey the law cannot be an absolute moral imperative if it is possible that the law which one is being exhorted to obey is itself immoral. The fact that a proposed moral imperative is not absolute is, however, not proof that there are no absolute moral imperatives.
Virtues do feel more absolute as a class, so long as one agrees with their individual derivation. That is to say, once I agree that courage, altruism and wisdom are virtues and meddling is a vice, they remain so irrespective of context. However, when one looks closer problems are exposed. When does courage become recklessness, or altruism fecklessness? What exactly constitutes meddling, since meddling is unwarranted interference – how much interference is warranted? Who decides what is wise? Surely these are all based on prudent judgements which must be made in context, thus making it impossible to consider these virtues as truly absolute. Prudence itself is considered a virtue, but is more accurately described as a meta-virtue since prudence is an ability which is applied in order to determine what actions contain the right blend of virtues under the prevailing circumstances rather than being a virtue itself. The associated moral virtue is making prudent decisions (or acting prudently) and even this virtue is balanced against a negative quality which could be characterised as timidity.
On retrospect, it should come as no surprise that virtues should be poor candidates for absolutes. Dogmatically derived virtues are considered to be virtues because they are held to be good qualities, begging the question of what constitutes a good quality. The determination of a good quality could be entirely arbitrary, as could the “correct” balance of opposed virtues and vices. Empirically derived virtues are subjective, based on the nature of people one takes to be admirable.
I still have one moral imperative which seems like it might be an absolute, the injunction to minimise harm. There is a question which remains open, that being whether one is obliged to obey a moral imperative. This may sound nonsensical given that a moral imperative is effectively a moral obligation, but the question does not revolve around the implication that a moral imperative is obligatory if one wishes to be moral, but rather the assumption that there is an obligation to be moral. In a sense there is a moral obligation to be moral, but this is circular in the extreme, it is an obligation which locks you into morality once you have been convinced that you should be moral – and returns you to morality after you have strayed. One must first, however, be bootstrapped into that commitment to morality.
Another implication of the question regarding the obligation to be moral is whether there can be absolute morals if there is no absolute obligation to be moral, and whether that is logically consistent. I can illustrate the latter conundrum by comparing it to an imaginary list of by-laws, which could possibly be posted on signs along the pathways through the park along which I was walking my dogs the evening that I saved the dog:
· Rule 1 – All dogs must be on the leash at all times and under all circumstances
· Rule 2 – Without exception, all droppings must be collected and placed in the bins provided
· Rule 3 – Dogs are never permitted to leave the paths
· Rule 4 – None of these rules need to be obeyed
There is completely no power vested in the first three rules, which can be compared with absolute imperatives, because the fourth indicates that there is no obligation to follow them. Rule 4 could be reworded to “These rules can sometimes be disobeyed”, but this has the effect of making the apparently absolute imperatives arbitrary. With “These rules can be disobeyed in dire circumstances” the rules are, by extension, conditional on context and no longer absolute.
A semi-paradox ensues if Rule 4 reads “None of these rules are ever to be obeyed” since if you disobey the first three rules, then you are obeying Rule 4, which means you are disobeying Rule 4. It’s a semi-paradox because you can escape by simply ignoring Rule 4. However, if you ignore one rule, why not ignore them all? You can ignore the first three rules and act according to your own will without a need to worry about obeying/disobeying the paradoxical Rule 4 since you are ignoring it along with the others.
The only logically consistent rewrite of Rule 4 is “All of these rules must be obeyed at all times”. The problem is that, while making them a satisfying set of rules, the rewording of Rule 4 does not make it any more binding than the previous three. You only are obliged to obey Rule 4 if there is an inherent absolute obligation to obey rules in general, in which case an “obey the rules” rule is redundant. If there is no absolute obligation to obey any rules, that obligation will extend to rules about obeying rules, making such a Rule 4 redundant.
Unless there is an absolute obligation to be moral, there is no real power in moral imperatives, even if they are absolute. If the search for absolute moral imperatives is going to be of value two options present themselves: identify an absolute obligation to be moral or assume that there is a yet to be identified absolute obligation to be moral. For the purposes of this discussion, let us temporarily assume that there is an absolute obligation to be moral so long as there appear to be possible absolute moral imperatives.
The moral imperative to minimise harm, as previously discussed appears to be absolute. However, even if this were factually true, then I would still only be obliged to prevent as much harm as I was able to predict. This would present me with a problem because, being human, I have only limited predictive powers. Whose harm should I minimise? That of the escaped dog, that of my dogs, my own, that of the woman who was afraid of dogs or perhaps that of drivers in the area? Quite possibly the escaped dog, if I didn’t intervene, was going to curl up in the front yard of its home and await the return of its owners. Therefore, my actions would have done nothing but increase the likelihood of harm: by potentially damaging myself, the mildly cynophobic woman, my dogs and any driver who had to contend with two Huskies running amok. Even if the moral imperative were absolute, its application would be relative – relative to my ability to gauge the situation and act accordingly.
So far, we’ve only considered a single moral imperative.
If I were to consider obey the law to be another valid absolute moral imperative, then I would be presented with a choice between moral imperatives. Is it correct to: obey the law unless to do so is inconsistent with minimising harm; or act so as to minimise harm unless to do so is inconsistent with obeying the law?
Simple moral imperatives, it seems, do not appear to be absolute.
It may, theoretically, be possible that the construction of a single, complex moral imperative from a number of simple moral imperatives would result in one absolute moral imperative, but attempts to frame such a composite moral imperative quickly dissolve into confusion. How does one reconcile differing forms of harm across a range of different subjects in concert with various forms of law? Perhaps obey criminal law unless to do so is inconsistent with a high likelihood of minimising harm to many humans in the long term or a smaller number of humans in the short term or with minimising harm to a very large number of animals which humans generally hold to be more important than others, unless the act necessary to minimise harm to those animals, as well as being contrary to criminal law will have more than a moderate likelihood of causing harm to humans … but of course, this wording is already relative, I’ve not even managed to move beyond criminal law or distinguish between physical and emotional harm – and I’ve only considered two moral imperatives. As we start adding more moral imperatives, it soon becomes impossible to clearly determine the morally correct course of action in even the most simple of situations.
So, virtues don’t lend themselves to absolute morality and there’s no obvious method by which one might derive an absolute morality from simple moral imperatives, even if those imperatives are absolute in and of themselves.
In my dog saving scenario, there was no feasible absolute morality that I could appeal to in order to guide my actions. The only moral imperative that appears to be applicable and has even the remotest possibility of being absolute, minimise harm, can’t be applied absolutely because it’s subject to my interpretation of what constitutes minimum harm.
It seems to me that moral absolutism is inherently irrational, because there is no viable foundation on which an absolute morality could be constructed. The only type of scenario in which moral absolutism would not be irrational is one in which there is a clearly expressed set of binding moral imperatives which must be obeyed by everyone at all times without exception. Unfortunately, such a set of rules does not exist.