Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Natural Moralities, by David B. Wong - Book Preview

Philosophical discussions of moral relativism typically function to dismiss relativism as a naïve and unserious position, reducing it to conventionalism (right and wrong is determined by what a group accepts as right and wrong). Yet one might reject universalism about morality without accepting conventionalism. (Universalism says that anyone with the right methods of reasoning, given all the relevant facts (or true beliefs), no matter her (or his) social-cultural location, would arrive at the same answer if faced with the same moral question).[1] In Natural Moralities (2006) Wong develops the thesis that universalism is false: “There is a plurality of true moralities,” he says, “but that plurality does not include all moralities”.[2] There is such a thing as a universally wrong answer to a moral question, but there are also moral questions with multiple right answers, which answers are significantly different from one another.[3]

Wong interprets moral judgments (“A ought to do X in circumstances C”) as judging what an agent is rationally obliged to do, given the interaction of all relevant moral reasons for action. Persons located in different social-cultural contexts may have different conceptions of the moral norms that determine how an agent ought to act—especially, they may conceive conflicting moral reasons to take priority over each other in different ways, which may result in significant differences in the moral obligation of the agent. While there are, according to Wong, some universal limits on what systems of prioritized norms may be moral systems, these limits are insufficient (in many if not all cases) to determine how an agent ought to act in a given situation. For a set of norms for morally correct behavior to be complete enough to determine right action (or to determine the truth or correctness of a moral judgment), it must be filled out by norms and priorities that vary from one society’s or culture’s morality to another’s.[4]
In the introduction, Wong lists five new developments in his thought since his 1984 book Moral Relativity.[5] In Natural Moralities (published twenty-two years later), Wong presents (1) a robust account of the universal limits on adequate moralities and (2) a theory of reasons to be moral, which addresses the worry that our confidence in our moral commitments is undermined by our acceptance of their relativity. (3) Wong has also learned much about the interaction of different moralities through his work in comparative philosophy, specifically Chinese and Western ethics. I therefore anticipate his argument for pluralistic relativism will not be merely abstract, but will be fleshed out in interesting and meaningful ways. (4) Wong also cares more about naturalism, characterized as “a commitment to integrate the understanding of morality with the most relevant empirical theories about human beings and society”.[6]
The fifth development is Wong’s “keener appreciation for the ways in which different types of moralities share important values and are typically distinguished by their differing priorities and emphases on these shared values.”[7] Awareness of how the values of different moralities overlap with those of one’s own morality contributes to the key phenomenon of “moral ambivalence”: “the recognition of severe conflicts between important values and of the possibility that reasonable people could take different paths in the face of these conflicts.”[8]  

As I begin to read this book, I am personally most fascinated by Wong’s discussion of moral ambivalence, especially the significant role the feeling of moral ambivalence plays in our understanding and appreciating difference across cultural or deep-seated ideological boundaries. I find myself in a world where these boundaries are rarely crossed by understanding, a world in which differences in ideology polarize fellow citizens (both locally and globally), and in which cross-cultural interactions are typically avoided or strained, because of lack of understanding and failure of sympathetic imagination. The proverb advises us to “walk a mile in the other’s shoes” in order to understand her. This is something I would seek to do. A “major theme” in Natural Moralities, Wong says, is “that admitting moral relativity must affect the way we must act toward those with whom we are in serious moral disagreement. It must also affect the way we must seek confidence in our moral commitments.”[9]
It is my opinionated observation that far too many of us are too sure of ourselves and our moral judgments. Consciousness of one’s own fallibility–an appropriate degree of epistemic humility in moral judgment–seems to me an important virtue. I have been (and continue to be) suspicious of relativism in part because I have suspected that fallibilism about moral judgments is more compatible with universalism. But I am eager to see if Wong will be able to persuade me otherwise.

Author Bio
David B. Wong (Ph.D., Princeton, 1977) is a scholar of moral/ethical theory and of Chinese philosophy, currently teaching at Duke University. Much of his research concerns conflicts in moral deliberation, differences and similarities between the morals of different societies, and comparative (Chinese-Western) philosophy (especially in relation to moral philosophy). He is a contemporary authority on, and sophisticated advocate of, moral relativism.[10]

[1] Wong Natural Moralities, xi-xii.
[2] Wong, Natural Moralities, xii.
[3] Wong says that no adequate morality allows one person, on that one’s whim, to torture another person (xii). But I believe he would say that one adequate morality will allow one person to torture another in one set of justifying conditions, while other adequate moralities allow torture under a broader or narrower set of justifying conditions, or under absolutely no conditions.
[4] Wong, Natural Moralities, xii-xiv.
[5] Wong gives these five developments in a different order than I list them here.
[6] Wong, Natural Moralities, xiv.
[7] Wong, Natural Moralities, xiv.
[8] Wong, Natural Moralities, xiv.
[9] Wong, Natural Moralities, xv.

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