- Is it ethical for me to put another person in a cage and keep them there by force for the rest of their life?
- Is it ethical for me to put another person in a cage and keep them there by force for the rest of their life if that person was a sadistic murderer and rapist?
- Is it ethical for a group of people to put another person in a cage and keep them there by force for the rest of their life if that person was a sadistic murderer and rapist?
- Is it ethical for a group of people to follow a predetermined set of widely agreed upon principles to determine whether a person deserves to be put in a cage and kept there by force for the rest of their life if that person was a sadistic murderer and rapist?
Everyone would answer "no" to the first question and "yes" to the last question. Depending on peoples' taste for vigilante justice, there will be a mix of responses to the second and third question. The action is fundamentally identical in each of these cases, but context matters tremendously for ethical claims. But what sort of context matters?
1. Who is doing the action.
2. Who the action is being done to.
3. Precipitating events.
5. Whether multiple people engage in the action or not.
6. Whether the group of people is simply acting, or deliberating.
7. Whether the groups' deliberation itself is ethically conducted (I'm sure there was substantial deliberation in the Nazi high command, but deliberation alone means little).
Notice especially how point 3. and 7. introduce some recursivity as well, which further complicates the identification of what is a "moral" course of action in a particular case. This is really where intuition and tradition come in. Neither are perfect guides, but their point is to guide action when naive objectivism poses real risks. It is easy to be an unalloyed objectivist when the moral question is "torturing babies", which Cowen offers. It's much harder for the sorts of questions we deal with every day.
A lot of moral questions also revolve around "rights". If you are a moral objectivist (like me) and have a natural rights philosophy (unlike me), you find yourself in a relatively convenient circumstance. The raw materials of arbitrating many moral claims - peoples' rights - are ethically unambiguous to you, so deriving conclusions from them is also unambiguous. Clearly, if rights are socially constructed and mutliple constellations of rights can all be morally valid, determining the ethics of a given question becomes - not subjective - but harder.
The points that Cowen ends on are especially good:
"I find that my combination of views is fairly rare. People who believe that ethics is objective and intuitive are often quite keen to make a lot of detailed pronouncements about the content of those ethics. The agnostics tend to be relativists or subjectivists. It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood. I call this the “fallacy of mood affiliation,” and it is one of the most underreported fallacies in human reasoning. (In the context of economic growth debates, the underlying mood is often “optimism” or “pessimism” per se and then a bunch of ought-to-be-independent views fall out from the chosen mood.)
...We somehow need to come to terms with two propositions at the same time:
1. We need to think more rather than less ethically.
2. The content of ethical philosophy tells us less, in reliable terms, than most people would like to believe."