|Dr Brian Lewis is one of Australia’s
most eminent moral theologians.
He is a graduate of the Angelicum and the Alphonsian Academy in Rome
and formerly lectured in moral theology in Ballarat and Melbourne.
Prior to retirement he taught scripture, theology and ethics on campuses of the present Australian Catholic University.
He has contributed articles to many journals and reviews.
Perspectives - The articles at
this link are part of an ongoing series written by Dr Brian Lewis which
explores understandings of conscience and morality in the Christian
tradition. Deeper insights into the Scriptures and church traditions open
up new possibilities in ecumenical and philosophical thinking in the
search for a more comprehensive moral worldview.
Brian's previous articles
July 2, 2012 Brian Lewis, Ballarat, Australia
JUDGMENTS OF MORALITY MERELY SUBJECTIVE?
question of the objectivity of judgments of morality gets many answers. The
problem can perhaps be illustrated by examining an incident for the World War II
film The Cruel Sea. A British
destroyer captain is stalking a German submarine. He is faced with the decision
whether to drop another depth charge on the spot in the sea where he thinks his
quarry may be hiding directly underneath several hundred torpedoed British
sailors who are waiting to be picked up. Caught in the anguishing dilemma of
knocking out the submarine even if it means killing the survivors of the
abandoned ship, he mutters to the first mate that 'one must do what one must do
and say one's prayers'.
with such a dilemma, some would say that the captain should not torment himself
but do what he thinks to be right in the situation. Moral truth is relative to
the person acting, the subject. There are no morally right or wrong decisions in
any objective sense and no right- or wrong- making characteristics of actions as
such. In other words, there are no objective moral truths at all, apart from the
one moral truth, namely, that the individual should do what he or she is
comfortable with. Other considerations such as accepted moral standards and
rules or the effect of one's actions on others are irrelevant. Everyone should
'do their own thing'.
today possess no basic philosophical system and find difficulty in understanding
philosophical argumentation. As a result they tend to over-emphasise individual
freedom as 'the power to do what I want' rather than the 'power to do what I
ought', to put more emphasis on what they feel than on what they think, to rely
too much on appearances rather than on principles, and to see everything as
our permissive society this individualism is a very real temptation. But it is a
very subjective and unreflective statement of position, typical of the morally
immature. It fails to respond to the experience of evil in the world such as the
physical and sexual abuse of children and can give no rational account of how
people arrive at purely subjective decisions like this. Pope John Paul II took
issue with such an individualistic ethic, 'wherein each individual is faced with
his own truth, different from the truth of others' and went on to state that in
this way human freedom is made an absolute and a 'radically subjectivist
conception of moral judgment' is adopted.
reaction to the captain's dilemma might be to condemn his action outright on the
grounds that it is at odds with one of the most important moral rules of western
society, namely, the obligation not to inflict harm, in this case death,
particularly on one's family, colleagues or fellow citizens. This was the
spontaneous reaction of most of the crew of the destroyer, who shouted their
horror at what the captain did. This may have been a knee-jerk reaction, but
perhaps the underlying reason may have been the conviction that one should not
contravene the accepted standards of one's culture and society, in this case the
obligation not to inflict injury on others. Such a conclusion accords with what
is called social relativism, which holds that moral truth is relative, not to an
individual, but to the specific group or culture to which the individual
belongs. An act is morally right if it accords with the mores of a person's peer
group or society, wrong if it does not. Morality in this view is synonymous with
what is customary.
there is no doubt, as anthropologists attest, that cross-cultural disagreements
about moral practices exist, it does not follow from this description that
morality is relative to one's group or society. There is no necessary connection
between what people actually do and what they ought to do. Nor does it follow
that in acting against the mores of one's group one is doing wrong. The crew of
the destroyer could not think deeply enough to be able to grasp this, and so
they simply condemned the captain as a 'bloody murderer'.
we reject both kinds of ethical relativism, the obvious conclusion is that
judgments of moralty must have a certain objectivity if they are to have any
sort of truth. They must harmonise with what actually is. If this were not the
case we could not claim that any action either ought or ought not be done. The
result of this would be that it would be impossible to enter into any discussion
about differing moral opinions, because every moral judgment would simply be a
matter of personal satisfaction or feeling, or just custom. And this would be
the end of the matter.
response to the captain's dilemma in the situation might be that any statements
or rules of morality are so general or so abstract as to be irrelevant to
practical decision making. The very important injunction against killing
innocent persons would then have to be ignored or overlooked. On reflecting more
deeply we surely cannot accept such a conclusion. The decision to drop the depth
charge was clearly not taken in order to kill the survivors in the water, but to
destroy the submarine thought to be lurking underneath them which posed a real
threat to many more lives, both in the destroyer and on board Allied shipping in
general. The captain's action can in this context be argued to be a justifiable
act of self-defence in circumstances in which protecting life entailed taking
life. If moral rules relating to the killing of human beings were irrelevant to
this situation, there would have been no reason for the captain to agonise over
the decision nor to talk about saying one's prayers.
of morality then are neither irrelevant nor unimportant. In fact we commonly
refer to obligatory moral statements such as 'Human life should be respected' or
'You must not take the property of another' or 'Treat others as you want them to
treat you' as moral truths. They are true, not because some authority, human or divine,
laid them down, but because the long experience of humanity has seen them to be
valid in themselves. They encapsulate for us in varying degrees how human life
in community should be lived. Recognising and accepting
these kinds of truths are vital both for ethics and for actual decision
there is an even more important insight shown in the foregoing response to the
captain's dilemma. It is that in the last analysis moral truth in the strict
sense has properly to be found in concrete situations. The actual situation is
the ultimate reality which has to be confronted and judged on its merits. It is
necessarily richer than the reality that is envisaged and judged abstractly in
judgments of moralty or rules, as it may involve dimensions of reality that are
not yet or not sufficiently taken into account in such preformulated moral
moral truth in this sense is not laid out for us in advance. It has to be sought
and discovered by each individual person facing the complex reality of daily
living, helped of course by the more general judgments of morality or moral
rules. As Fuchs says, the insights contained in given moral truths and the
individual searching for moral truth in a particular situation 'encounter one
another'. So moral rules enlighten and inform the searcher after moral truth,
who will normally be more or less conscious of them, but the quest is ultimately
not just a question of the application of something already given. It is a
search for, a discovery of moral truth, in the light of what is given in the
actual situation with its attendant circumstances. We return here to what we
have said about conscience.