Some disciplines have a ‘blind spot’, assumptions that go largely unquestioned because they justify the existence of the discipline. For philosophical ethics, that blind spot is the assumption of moral ignorance, that there are circumstances in which we do not know the right thing to do. Moral ignorance is not ignorance of relevant facts, such as not knowing that a piano is falling as you walk under it. That kind of factual ignorance is not the mainstay of ethics, which is concerned with which decision is the right one if all relevant facts are known.
So the question arises, is there moral ignorance? Barring insanity, immaturity, or factual ignorance of the sort that would render the actor less culpable, is there some kind of theoretical ignorance that justifies the task of philosophical ethics? It turns out that the existence of moral ignorance is far from obvious.
Some would reply that if there is no moral ignorance, in what sense can we improve on someone else’s moral beliefs, or for that matter, our own? If I believe that eating meat is unethical for everyone, do I therefore believe that meat-eaters are ignorant of something that I know? If I don’t believe they are ignorant, then in what sense are they in error?
Some may argue that meat-eaters are ignorant of the conditions of animal slaughter. In other words, meat-eaters lack the experiential knowledge that might cause them to go vegan after visiting a slaughterhouse, for instance. This is a dangerous argument, because experience goes both ways. For example, slaughterhouse workers can become desensitized to the routine violence of their workplace, and many have no qualms eating meat. Taking drugs or joining a cult could impair our ability to objectively judge the merits of either activity.
An alternative, though unpopular, proposal is that barring the usual exceptions such as lack of mental capacity, we all know right from wrong, and it is the same rights and wrongs for all of us. This view is not as outlandish as it seems. One oft-mentioned objection is that differences between cultures makes it unlikely that we all share the same morality. However, if we believe an act is wrong but want to do it anyway, we often make excuses to make it seem right to us. If one person can make excuses, so can a group, or an entire culture. After all, it is easier to make a wrong seem right if everyone else agrees it is right.
If moral principles are innate and universal, then culture plays no part in inventing them, only in reinforcing, ignoring or subverting them in ways that can vary between cultures, as between persons. Some may object to this kind of universalism on the grounds that it does not offer a recipe for resolving moral disputes. Well, neither does moral philosophy.
In reality, such disputes are resolved (if at all) pragmatically, either through formal mechanisms such as legislatures and committees, or if all else fails, through violence. More attention is usually paid to the facts surrounding the dispute, or to the preponderance of power, than to abstract ethical theories. So in terms of dispute-resolving capacity, the assumption of either moral ignorance or cultural relativism has no advantage over assuming that the moral code is the same for, and known to, everyone despite rationalizations to the contrary.
One advantage of the idea that moral principles are universal and innate is that it allows us to make moral claims across cultures. Otherwise, there’s always the excuse of cultural difference, and why should those differences be marked by national boundaries? There are cultural differences within nation-states, between neighborhoods in the same city, even between families. Unless we can make a distinction between morality and culture, then both are reduced to the art of ‘getting along’, and historically that usually ends up favoring those who know how to exploit the dark side of the art.
About the author
Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of Publishing, Publishing Research Quarterly, The Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.