Is ethical theory useful in day to day life? Do I use ethical theory to make a choice? I will use three philosophers, Alasdair MacIntyre, Jonathan Bennett, and Mary Midgley to assist me in answering these questions.
In her work “Trying Out One’s New Sword” Midgley argues against moral isolationism. The notion that one can only fully understand our culture and that we should not attempt to judge other cultures because we simply don’t understand them. She uses the example of a Japanese samurai trying out his new sword on someone of a lower caste than him to make sure that the sword will work in battle. In order to bring honor to his ancestors, emperor, and himself his sword has to bisect a person from the shoulder to the flank in one blow. The “guinea pig” used in this experiment has to suffer from one or more undoubtedly painful blows. According to Midgley, us Westerners should not be horrified by this custom, if we were to follow the moral isolationism perspective.To do something for the sheer sake of honor is so foreign to us that we can not judge this action by the ancient Japanese.
Midgley quickly rejects the notion of moral isolationism on several grounds. First, if we are unable to judge other cultures then we are incapable of either praising them or criticizing them. Second, if we can not judge other cultures then they should not be able to criticize our culture. Third, and most importantly, if we can not judge other cultures then we can not judge our own culture either. This is because we learn from other cultures, they give us a range of different actions that can be taken. Also our own “American” culture has so much variation that it can not be considered one single entity. Midgley writes:
“In short, moral isolationism would lay down a ban on moral reasoning…The power of moral judgment is, in fact, not a luxury, not a perverse indulgence of the self-righteous. It is a necessity…Without opinions of this sort judgments, we would have no framework of comparison for our own policy, no chance of profiting by other people’s insights or mistakes” (Arthur, Pg.86-87)
What Midgley is saying is that moral reasoning is not something that we can do without. Whether we think it is useful or not, we still use it in order to know what to avoid and what to go for. Our ability to judge other cultures has helped ours evolve and it is what will keep us evolving. Moral reasoning is what keeps our criminal justice system going, without it we would then live in a state of anarchy and disorder.
Alasdair MacIntyre, wrote in his lecture “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” about where does our morality come from. He argues that morality comes from the community we live in. Without our sense of morality we would be unable to live within a community. It is our morality that keeps the community together, if we were to have conflicting views in the most basic levels then our community would fall apart. He writes “I need those around me to reinforce my moral strengths and assist me in remedying my moral weaknesses” (Arthur Pg.56). This quote ties in very well with Midgley ‘s argument that without morality there would be chaos because if morality comes from our community, and if it is our common morality that holds a community together, then without morality our inability to judge what is good or evil will also keep us from forming groups. What both Midgley and MacIntyre did not argue about was the possibility that their own morality might be bad. I will refer the term bad morality to any set of morals that would restrict a person’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Jonathan Bennett considers bad morality when he explains the conscience of Huckleberry Finn. When Huck Finn runs away from home he befriends an escaped slave called Jim, and then against his own morality Huck helps Jim escape towards freedom. For us it would not only be our morality but also our sympathy that would lead us to help Jim escape his owners, for