ebrown p wrote:
Since a moral system is an integral part of functioning societies-- looking at examples of individuals is not useful. These are cases of deviance (an interesting topic in itself). Morality should be viewed as values that are accepted by the vast majority of members of a cultural group.
I disagree. Let me suggest a counterexample to you.
In 1780, when Jeremy Bentham developed the theory we now call Utilitarianism, and published it in a book called Principles of Morals and Legislation
, he didn't just state the theory in the abstract. Instead, applying his theory, he identified at least two significant issues where it strongly disagreed with values accepted by the vast majority of Englishmen -- and confidently sided with
the theory against
the norms of his society.
Reasonable people like you and I can disagree what that means for the standing of moral relativists vs. believers in moral facts. But before we get there, I would like to establish a weaker claim: Although Bentham's statements were completely at odds with the values accepted in his society, he is nevertheless asserting principles of morality here. Let me describe what Bentham wrote, and then ask you a question.
First, in the Principles
themselves, Bentham stated that the welfare of animals deserved greater ethical consideration that the common mores of the time would grant it. In a passage that has since become famous, he proclaimed this:
Jeremy Bentham wrote:
The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor.* It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
Bentham's second issue may have been even more at odds with what the values most Englishmen accepted at the time he wrote. In a 1785 article titled Offenses against one's self
, he argued that punishing gay sex was morally indefensible. (It was a capital crime then.) The article is too long to quote here, but basically he is saying that gay sex, no matter how offensive one may find it, doesn't harm anyone except those who participate in it. And it evidently doesn't harm the participants either, as judged by their voluntary choice to participate in it. Therefore, gay sex (aka buggery) should be legalized, on the Utilitarian principle that humans ought to strive for the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
So my question to you, ebrown p, is this: How is Bentham not
laying down moral judgments here? Alternatively, how is the content of Bentham's moral judgments not completely at odds with the values almost universally accepted in his society?