Associate professor of theology Terrence Reynolds discussed the ambiguity of moral certainty in a world of diverse perceptions for the 40th anniversary lecture of the Liberal Studies Program in the Faculty Club on Friday evening.
Reynolds highlighted the difference in conclusions reached by profound thinkers, such as Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, who used reason to try to search for morality.
“With these three thinkers relying on reason alone, you end up with three very, very different ethical theories. So if you were to say, lets find the common ground in reason, the three finest thinkers of whom I’m aware wind up in different places,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said that religion, used as the basis for searching for morality, cannot unravel these differences.
“You could say instead, let’s not rely upon reason alone, let’s go into the source of real certainty and rely upon a god of some kind to get us to moral certainty. Of course, the problem with that would be on which god you want to rely,” Reynolds said.
He also spoke about the problem of relying on your conscience in order to make moral decisions because your conscience may not be reliable. He told a story of a childhood friend named Fred who would steal cars but rationalize it by saying that he “borrowed cars.” Later on in life, Fred’s conscience changed and he once again thought it was wrong.
“For a long time, Fred’s conscience thought that borrowing cars was wrong. He went through some discomfort changing that position. Once he moved to borrowing cars, his conscience rationalized, justified, he wasn’t really stealing cars he was borrowing, and it was not a big deal and he felt comfortable,” Reynolds said.
This malleability led Reynolds to question its reliability.
“So when you and I realize our conscience is the final judge, the final arbiter in what you and I will do in life, the question you ask is really how reliable is it? Can you really trust your conscience?” Reynolds said.
Reynolds claims these differing conceptual schemes have moral implications.
“So now we say, the moral life then becomes much more complicated because in a sense, when we realize that there are people who see the world in ways I don’t see them because they don’t interpret the world the way I interpret it,” Reynolds said. “In the midst of all that, if you and I have different theoretical bases for ethics, we have different practical responses to questions, if we have different conceptual schemes, how in the world can we talk about moral certainty?”
His solution to this uncertainty is to approach truth by experiencing and embracing the diversity of concepts and views of different people.
“I could take into my own understanding concepts more like the ones I’m listening to. I can take in new ideas,” Reynolds said. “I don’t want to say that you therefore find the moral truth, but I want to say you approximate more and more in that way something resembling authenticity. You’re not just a product of someone else’s thinking.”
Attendee Warren Wilson (SFS ’15) agreed with Reynolds’ critique of the idea that morality and ethics are clear-cut and final.
“I think professor Reynolds was right to criticize the very naive perceptions that things are simple,” Wilson said.
Wilson additionally questioned the political implications of this moral ambiguity.
“If we are all so very different, how do you make policy decisions and how do you adjudicate because we are not all pulled in one direction?” Wilson said.
Another attendee, Agree Ahmed (SFS ’15), enjoyed Reynolds’ discussion on conscience because he has not had the chance to discuss this subject in his classes.
“You are exposed to a lot of discussion centered around reason, but it hasn’t been, at least in my academic experience, brought back to the conscience and the fact that there is like that kind of inner dialogue and you think about your actions through that rather than through reason or like logic,” Ahmed said.