Ethics as Beliefs about Morality: A Defense of Relativism

Kenneth Cauthen

Copyright © 1999 by Kenneth Cauthen. All rights reserved. A much expanded and revised version of this essay will be published in THE ETHICS OF BELIEF: A BIO-HISTORICAL APPROACH. 2 VOLUMES (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., 2002).
Ethics as a form of intellectual inquiry does not provide answers to moral questions. People with beliefs about right and wrong do. Philosophers and theologians engaging in the formal discipline of ethics can develop principles of moral obligation, take positions regarding the grounding and justification of moral belief. They can express their convictions about specific moral questions. They can analyze, systematize, and classify theories of ethics into types and schools of thought, and write histories of ethical thought. What they cannot do is tell us the truth of the matter. They can only report the conclusions they reach when doing ethics. Ethics as such as such has no rules, methods, sources, ways to ground and justify ethical belief. Ethics as such draws no conclusions about right and wrong about abortion, homosexuality, war, or virtue. Ethics tell us only what the philosophers and theologians who engage in ethical inquiry think and believe about morality. People have moral beliefs and sometimes live in accordance with them, and sometimes they do not. They do some things because they believe they are right with out necessary reference to consequences and do other things because they believe they will accomplish more good than alternative courses of action. In other words, they act for deontological and teleological reasons, but most have never heard of those words and have little sophistication about ethical theory as it is practiced by the specialists. People act on the beliefs they have acquired over a lifetime. Philosophers and theologians become technical experts in the history, language, and methods of ethics as a formal discipline with its many schools of thought. But they are still people who, equipped with the tools of the trade, work out their own systems of thought and make pronouncements about right and wrong. They incarnate their own thought into the formal schemes they adopt. Ethics, however, does not tell them what is virtuous, just, and good. They specify that in the formal theories they appropriate or create as experts who know how to give precision and systematic expression to their judgments.

That people, whether trained philosophers and theologians or not, are the creators of moral beliefs seems obvious. The grand tradition in Western thought has held something different from what I mean to imply by this statement. Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and contemporaries like Rawls, Nozick, Gewirth, and Gamwell are not of the opinion that they are stating their beliefs only but are setting forth moral principles alleged to be universally and objectively true. They see themselves as setting forth truths of reason potentially open to all rational agents who are free from bias and fully informed. It seems obvious to me, however, that what they offer us is their personal convictions about all the issues they take up. I have made that observation the fundamental orienting insight to the approach to ethics taken in this book. I have developed the ethics of belief. Simply put, communities and their members have beliefs about right and wrong. Practically in the real world this is what we deal with. How are we to relate to those whose convictions differs from ours? To debate about whose beliefs are right, true, correct, or reflect some objective moral order is futile and a waste of time. It gets us nowhere. The argument should be abandoned so that we may concentrate of what is beneficial in a practical sense.

Pragmatically, two kinds are activities are worthwhile. An internal and an external aspect may be defined. Internal relates to what communities and individuals do for and among themselves, while external has to with their relations to other communities and individuals.

Internally:Communities and their members take positions on particular moral issues. They declare some practices right, others wrong, some complex and ambiguous, and so on. They can elaborate the foundations of their belief systems, decide how their principles are to be tested and justified, trace their history, and do whatever else they want to with them in terms of analysis, assessment, and so on. It adds nothing to what they think should be done or not done in a moral sense to claim that their convictions are true, i. e., in harmony with the ultimate nature of things, correspond with reality, embody the will of God, emulate the law of nature, or whatever. Most, however, in one way or the other will do just that or at least imply it. It is certainly appropriate for interpreters to indicate by using these or other terms how they deem their beliefs to be grounded or validated. Each community and individual can witness to their own moral faith in the public arena and state what they believe ought to be adopted by all as the standard of right and wrong.

In the last analysis each community or individual will carry on internal criticism by its own methods in any way it chooses. Nevertheless, my own suggestion for this activity would be three-fold: a. tests of consistency and accuracy in deriving special moral judgments from professed norms and underlying foundations of moral knowledge, b. measuring the outlook by its actual consequences in experience for people and animals, and, finally, c. revision of the entire outlook encompassing both norms and their implication as a result of a. or b. above or as the outcome of rethinking the whole perspective on the basis of acquired new insights or further reflection, especially when weaknesses come to light or anomalies emerge.

Externally: Since all societies and individuals live in a world in which others have moral convictions contrary to their own or derive them from different sources, we need some realistic way to deal with them. I propose that two ways of relating are fitting. A. The first is conversation. We and others can present our own views in the most favorable light, elucidate the reasons for holding them, narrate the history out of which they come, and whatever else the listener desires to hear. This should be done as a confession of convictions honestly held to be worthy of belief. Vigorous debate about the merit of competing outlooks is by no means ruled out as long as each is presenting the content of belief and the basis for believing some thing and rejecting others. Wherever possible dialogue should be conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect, even when the views that are presented are regarded by the hearer as abhorrent. However some moral positions may be so loathsome that this is impossible. No one should be expected to hear with appreciation what is regarded as contemptible. In these unfortunate circumstances the best course may be simply to break off conversation in favor of whatever forms of opposition in practice may be appropriate or unavoidable.

Three aims of conversation may be noted. 1.The primary aim of conversation is to locate agreement and disagreement.This relates both to particular moral issues and to questions of basic ethical theory: sources, norms, assessment, and so on. 2.The second is mutual critique. This involves three steps. a. Each can make an internal criticism of the opponent's outlook. This involves judgments about whether it is consistent or accurate in deriving specific moral views from its own professed norms and foundational principles. b. Each can make an external criticism of the other. This refers to an evaluation from the speaker's own point of view. A general critique of the theoretical structure and foundations can be elaborated, if it is acknowledged that it is made not from a God's-eye vantage point but from the standpoint of ones own patterns of beliefs. It also involves judgments about the weaknesses of a competing outlook in terms of its consequences in real life for people and other living beings. Has the actual practice of this moral outlook when tried been helpful or hurtful to people, or would it likely be if the proposals were actually enacted in real life? c. Each can make a comparative analysis of the opposing belief systems in the effort to show that ones own is superior both in terms of its theoretical formulations and practical consequences in experience for living beings. 3.The third purpose of conversation is conversion. We are usually open to change when we are persuaded that our own outlook is beset with fatal weaknesses in the presence of a more inviting alternative. Hence, each party will want to demonstrate the weaknesses in the other and the superior merits of ones own. The effort to bring another around to ones own point of view will involve the effort to show that the competing outlook is inferior involves all three of the activities listed under critique: internal criticism, external criticism, and comparative evaluation. Here, however, the aim is to change the other not merely to point out inadequacies.

Of course, people will engage each other as they choose and not according to any formula laid down in advance by me or anyone else. Here Richard Rorty is surely right that no limits exist except conversational ones. This means that all parties can say anything they please or argue on any basis or for anything they want to as long as others will let them. There are no rules for dialogue other than the ones we make and can get others to agree to. The "ideal speech" laid down by Jürgen Habermas are nice but not always realistic. They may be honored more in the breach than in the observance. The problem is getting parties in conversation to agree to try to live up to them and then have them actually do it in practice.

B. The second form of interaction with others is to form alliances. We will want to join with others who agree with us on particular matters to promote them and to fight against those who hold contrary positions. In so doing we will employ every suitable resource and engage in every legitimate practice that is effective. This might include forming organizations, seeking legislation, and a variety of other efforts to explain, defend, enact, and otherwise foster adoption and practice of moral views believed to be essential to human well-being. In extreme cases this may include the use of force to combat beliefs and ways of living that are some destructive that no other form of opposition would be fitting or effective.

What is not profitably done is to argue about which outlook best represents the objective moral order or corresponds to reality. This is nearly always useless, a waste of time. Each community or individual can deal with what is believed to be the objective moral order only in terms of its own internal standards for acquiring and testing moral truth. Interperspectival debate about truth and reality usually gets us nowhere and can without loss of anything important be abandoned. In short, to put it bluntly, I am suggesting that in conversation with each other we forget about truth and reality. They can be discussed only in terms of our differing beliefs about them. We have no way to determine whose views are true to reality except by using our own measuring devices. We have no way to be sure they are accurate. Uninterpreted truth and reality are not available so that we can test our interpretations by them. We should instead concentrate on getting agreement with others where possible and opposing them when necessary. The same procedures I would use to get someone to agree with me are the same ones I would use to prove that I have the truth that corresponds with reality. Hence, there is no point in polluting and complicating dialogue with irrelevant considerations.

So where does this leave us? In most respects we are where we have always been. We live in a world filled with many moral perspectives. They differ in their fundamental assumptions, the foundations of belief, the norms of right and wrong, ways of testing and revising positions, and so on. Arguments take place when controversy arises. The contending parties lay out the reasons why they think they are right and why they believe the opposing parties are wrong. Usually no one is convinced by the arguments against them or for the views they reject. Sometimes people do change their minds either by confronting arguments they cannot answer, coming to see things in a different light, discovering they had been wrong in their facts or in their interpretation of a situation, and the like. Disputants may even convert others to their point of view by the power of their reasoning or interpretation. Frequently change occurs when they discover in experience that their theory has destructive consequences for people in real life. The closer to home it comes, the more effective the transformation. Alliances are made by groups and individuals who share a common outlook on a particular issue, and sometimes they seek legislation to give the force of law to their moral claims. All this has been going on and will continue to go on.

All of the above are justified by the ethics of belief. The only thing that is different on the premises I have laid out is that we will quite claiming that our views of right and wrong correspond with reality, reflect the objective moral order, incorporate the will of God, represent correctly what the Bible requires, what Jesus would do or have us do, or whatever other designation one would care to add to the list. We can say that we believe our views are objectively true. On the basis of the ethics of belief we will give witness to what we cannot deny, affirm what we are compelled to in the light of the best we know from all sources and based on what experience teaches us about what happens in real life when certain theories and practices prevail. When we have done all we can to give the best reasons for believing as we do and rejecting the alternatives, we will leave it at that. We will not argue about whose views are really true, right, and good as judged by the objective moral order. We cannot say what the objective moral order requires. We can only say what we believe it requires. No way exists to bridge the gap between belief and knowledge in matters of morality. But beyond this theoretical claim is the fact that in fact and life, it is a waste of time, a vain, ineffectual, fruitless, worthless enterprise. It gets us nowhere. We should just stop it. Except for that reservation, all else remains as before.

I invite comments, refutation, and suggestions.
My E-Mail Address

This is one of a series of essays on this site. For the rationale behind them and for a complete list of topics, see:
Theological Essays
Presently, the following essays are available:

About the Author
A List of my Books
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
Natural Law and Moral Relativism
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
A Doctrine of God (Short Version)
A Doctrine of God (Long Version)
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
The Many Faces of Evil
Christ and Christians
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
Christian Ethics
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Bioethical Decision-Making
Drug Policy
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch

For fun I have rewritten some Mother Goose Rhymes for an electronic age.

Mother Goose Goes Electronic

Updated: Tuesday, February 20, 2001, 10:10 AM