Is Morality an Open and Closed Matter?


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Is Morality an Open and Closed Matter?

I suspect most of us would agree that principles of morality can and do legitimately vary from one nation to another.

Within a nation would we also agree that principles of morality can and do legitimately vary from one political party to another? Would we also agree that such variation is legitimate from one state to another; or perhaps from one city to another or from one family to another?

Is there a universal morality that overrides all community boundaries?

In his essay Open and Closed Morality as published in the book of essays The Morality of Politics W. H. Walsh has written about the difficult and elusive concept of an ‘open and closed morality’.

“You have a right to remain silent.” I guess all Americans who have reached the age of seven have heard this expression many times on TV. I also expect that all adult Americans agree that our nation was founded on the principle that all citizens have rights. Human rights are written into our constitution.

‘Right’ and ‘good’ are important moral concepts. Those who believe that all humans have certain rights are convinced that these rights supersede any consideration of the good. In other words, it is believed by some that humans, qua human, have certain inalienable rights that cannot be denied even in the interest of the good. These rights are considered to be universal and thus applicable to all humans wither they are members of my community or not.

Those who hold the existence of such universal moral principles are considered to have an “open morality” while those who believe that such universal rights do not exist and only the good determines the moral are considered to have a “closed morality”.

Walsh contends that those with the conviction of a closed morality “For them morality is, first and foremost, an affair internal to a particular community rather than a phenomenon covering the whole of mankind…[this individual] wants to make his own society as good as he can, rather than to construct some finally valuable Utopia.” The individual with a closed morality insist that the virtues on which they “insist are in the first instance communal virtues, and the vices they seek to avoid are modes of conduct which would disrupt socials life as such”.

Those with an open morality hold that moral law “holds without distinction of persons…privilege and preferential treatment have no place in morality, which is a sphere of pure principle…that the moral law commands for its own sake and not for the sake of any good its observance produces or might be expected to produce, whether private or public…man’s only overriding loyalty is to the moral law itself.”

Those with a closed morality are convinced that there are no rights, there is only the good. Any act that is beneficial to the community, i.e. is a common good, can be judged as moral or immoral based upon the consequences of the action.

I consider myself to have an open morality; what do you consider yourself to be, are you open or closed?
You seem to be approaching the issue from a legalistic point of view, which is good, (and refreshing). It will probably allow for a much more interesting (and practical) discussion. So should a society focus on upholding "morality" itself or its institutions?

That is basically how this issue translates into the practical world. If morality is "open" then the laws of a nation will be focused on upholding universal virtues. On the other hand, if we say that morality is "closed" then the legal system and the institutions will be built around whatever parameters were defined by the state. In simple terms of jurisprudence, it would mean that law = morality, as opposed to the alternative approach which holds that morality = law.

The first approach (law=morality) is known as the Positivist position in legal theory. This has been the standard model of the modern world, based on an objective scientific reasoning, which strictly separates any ideas of any universal "morality" from being mixed with the operations of the state. The positivists have a very good argument on their side: that even if universal morality exists and you allow it to be fused with the state, not only will it corrupt those very moral concepts which you are trying to uphold, it would also turn the state into a tyrannical monster, which will justify its tyranny by appealing to such transcendent concepts. This view came to the forefront with the enlightenment, when nationalism took over the reigns from the Church/Monarchy of the dark ages. The Church/Monarchy claimed divine authority and appealed to a transcendent (universal/open) morality to justify their rule.

So, we know that the Positivist have a very reasonable argument. But there is a problem, and the naturalist/interpretive theorists (especially Fuller and Dworkin) have brought up the objection that positivism has clearly not solved the problem of tyranny. The most obvious example being Hitler's Germany. In which all concepts of any "universal" morality were abandoned in favor of a state defined moral code. The judiciary was handicapped by being forced to carry out laws of the state which were clearly against universal/open ideas of morality. Other examples can be Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, and many other such contemporary dictatorships. This opposition argues that the law should always conform to an open morality which, they claim (and I agree) is indeed universal. And whenever the law and morality clash, it should be morality which should be given the right of way.

Its pretty obvious that both sides have a good case. And just like most decisions, ultimately it comes down to your own "faith".

Personally, I could care less about this debate because at the end of the day the judge will always land on the verdict he thinks would be most acceptable to the society (i.e. he would not really care if his decision conforms to positivists or naturalistic standards). This is why legal conventions change, one century gay marriage is illegal, the next it isn't. This is because morality (open or closed) does not control man. Society defines its own morality. Even if transcendent morality exists, (and I know it does) it doesn't matter in practical terms, it never did.

It seems clear to me that we are at a critical point in history, when the last of the opposition to Positivism is on its way out. In the very near future, the idea of morality as an "open" system will be completely replaced by the "closed" model. The examples raised by the opposition (Hitler, Stalin etc.) are not accepted as valid. They are dismissed by saying "now way!! those crazy idiots don't count!... they were crazy!!".... Well, fine then... If society is swayed by such wishful thinking, so easily, then it deserves to repeat its own mistakes (and it will do exactly that, because that is what it has always done). No point in raising alarm bells at this point, if they wan't to follow the pied pipper, let 'em.

The present question regarding the nature and morality of torture offers us an excellent opportunity to advance the level of sophistication of our understanding of morality. We learn best when we are questioning a matter that is meaningful to us.

I was eleven years old when Germany and Japan surrendered and WWII was finally over. One searing memory of this war were the stories I read and the movies I watched during and after the war regarding the torture and general brutality that the German Gestapo inflicted upon the people they conquered. I do not know why this left such a strong impression on me but it certainly did.

Coincidentally I have been studying “Moral Imagination” by Mark Johnson. This is the same Johnson who coauthored the book “Philosophy in the Flesh” with George Lakoff. I have decided to apply the theories Johnson presents in his book as a means to illuminate this matter regarding the morality of water torture used by my country in our struggle with Islamic extremists.

Moral understanding is like any other kind of experience; when we examine a domain of experience that relates to human relationships we must focus our attention on human understanding it self. If we do so we discover that human understanding is fundamentally imaginative in character.

“Many of our most basic concepts have considerable internal structure that cannot be accounted for by the classical theory of concepts as defined by necessary and sufficient features…The primary forms of moral imagination are concepts with prototype structure, semantic frames, conceptual metaphors, and narratives.”

To become morally insightful we must become knowledgeable of these imaginative structures. First, we must give up our illusions about absolute moral codes and also our radical moral subjectivism. Second we must refine our “perception of character traits and situations and of developing empathetic imagination to take up the part of others.”

Empathy is a character trait that can be cultivated by habit and will. Sympathy is somewhat of an automatic response.

When we see a mother weeping over the death of her child caused by a suicide bomber we feel immediate sympathy. Often we will come to tears. But we do not feel anything like that for the mother who may be weeping over the death of her child who was the bomber.

To understand the bomber we must use empathy. We attempt through imagination and reason to create a situation that will allow us to understand why this was done. This is a rational means to understand someone who acts different than we would.

“Empathy is the idea that the vital properties which we experience in or attribute to any person or object outside ourselves are the projections of our own feelings and thoughts.”

The subject viewing an object of art experiences emotional attitudes leading to feelings that are attributes of qualities in the art object thus aesthetic pleasure may be considered as “objectified self-enjoyment in which the subject and object are fused.”

The social sciences adopt a similar concept called ‘empathic understanding’, which refers to the deliberate attempt to identify with another person and accounting for that persons actions by “our own immediate experience of our motivations and attitudes in similar circumstances as we remember or imagine them”. This idea refers to a personal resonance between two people.

“What is crucial is that our moral reasoning can be constrained by the metaphoric and other imaginative structures shared within our culture and moral tradition, yet it can also be creative in transforming our moral understanding, our identity, and the course of our lives. Without this kind of imaginative reasoning we would lead dreadfully impoverished lives. We would be reduced to repeating habitual actions, driven by forces and contingencies beyond our control.”

Can you imagine an individual who is a hard headed realist and very accomplished at empathy sanctioning the use of water torture on anyone, friend or enemy?
What is your objection?

You mean other then the fact that you are reproducing information as if it were a product manufactured on an assembly line in some factory? It gives the impression that you are more interested in a simple dissemination of your own ideas, rather then engage in an actual discussion.
Can you imagine an individual who is a hard headed realist and very accomplished at empathy sanctioning the use of water torture on anyone, friend or enemy?

Hey. That sounds just like me.

And No... I can not.
You mean other then the fact that you are reproducing information as if it were a product manufactured on an assembly line in some factory? It gives the impression that you are more interested in a simple dissemination of your own ideas, rather then engage in an actual discussion.

I am interested in speaking as well informed about a subject as I can be. Opinions are a dime-a-dozen. Considered opinions are to be valued and judgments are a rare jewel indeed. I try to speak my judgments about a matter not merely an opinion.
Opinions are a dime-a-dozen.

More even...

I try to speak my judgments about a matter not merely an opinion.
And you have every right to. But that has nothing to do with my objection. I hope you realize that I am not trying to pick a fight with you for pointless reasons. I have noticed others raised the same objection as me and I just wanted to know if you thought there was some validity in the idea that a person's valued judgments/opinions should not be treated as mass-produced factory products.

At the end of the day, isn't that the exact same as the preachers who show up at your door, with the same prepared speeches, almost like salesmen?

Isn't the point of a discussion forum more then that?

Good question, what is the purpose of an Internet discussion forum?
Now is your chance to answer.

It's just people talkin'.

What I'd like to know, is what are you trying to make of it beyond that?

Perhaps this is a matter of you having more realistic expectations.
I'll second CZ's answer above. Its people talking (i.e. having a dynamic conversation). As opposed to one person making speeches or preaching.