Review - Who Holds the Moral High Ground?
by Colin Beckley & Elspeth Waters
By putting forward this pertinent question, Colin Beckley and Elspeth Waters express what occupies many a mind in this age of moral pluralism. Confronted with our daily need to make moral judgments, the challenge to arrive at the right ones is hard to meet indeed. With so many clashing moral view-points, traditions, and theories, the right answer to the above question seems close to unattainable. Yet, in this book, the authors bravely take on the challenge, resulting in a brief but interesting read, accessible to a broad audience.
Reviewing the history of moral thought from the major religious traditions, through the emergence of secular morality, to recent moral theories, the authors come to the conclusion that no single doctrine or theory is without profound difficulties and therefore susceptible to substantial criticism. However, almost every one of them holds some important positive principles or ideas that link up with widely shared moral experience and rational insight. The problem is that most often these principles and ideas seem to be conflicting with one another. How then should these principles and ideas be weighed off against each other? Which 'mysterious criteria' should be used to arrive at a balanced or wise moral judgment?
Considering their brief review of the history of moral thought, Beckley and Waters are fully aware of the tentative nature of all possible answers to these questions. Cautiously, they propose a set of "suggestions, pointers or provisional ideas that can be tested on an individual basis." (101) The proposed criteria are:
These 'key essentials' are metaphorically compared to the ingredients of an 'ethical stew'. According to the authors, "ethics resembles a stew in the respect that there are several ingredients, but without strictly defined quantities." (102) This should preclude the uncritical acceptance of an absolute truth in moral affairs, thereby creating a critical but unbiased space for different people weighing criteria and variables differently, producing diverse opinions.
Throughout the book, Beckley and Waters, maintain a critical stance towards tradition, pointing to the dangers of what they call 'obedience ethics', often supported by nationalist and religious leaders and their followers. In this respect, special attention is paid to the role of gender issues in today's society. Indeed, the authors admit that one of the purposes of the book is to provide a moral theory at the individual level, which is free from gender bias.
This sensitivity to the suffering and discrimination of women is part of a broader one, namely the suffering of all humans (and even animals). If there would be one salient fact that should above all count in our moral considerations, it should be that "moral decisions must relate to the reduction of suffering, since this is central to the human condition." (112)
This being said, we may summarize that this book offers a brief introductory read to all who may be critically interested in ethical theory and practice. However, for those seeking a more thorough discussion of the issues touched upon, further reading is advised. The most important lesson that the reader should learn from this book is that there are no unproblematic answers to the question of who holds the moral high ground. It might even be said that realizing this already is a first step towards it.
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