By Danielle,

Can Commonsense Morality be Trusted?

6/23/2012 DK 0 Comments

Like a lot of people, I like thinking and talking about moral norms and what we ought to accept as our own norms, especially those norms which put us in serious moral dilemmas. Over the years in deciding my own moral rules, I have been a fan of moral objectivism, relativism, utilitarianism and basically every normative ethics principle I have ever come across. However, in the end, I continually return to commonsense morality, which without a doubt puts me in yet another dilemma: Do I favour commonsense morality merely for the reason that it is less demanding? To answer myself, I have thought of ways to not only explain why commonsense morality is trustworthy and acceptable, but to justify the employing of it.

This essay will first present the significance of commonsense morality or any other normative ethics theory for that matter, and why it is important for us to talk about it. Then, it will explore the different approaches to morality taken by commonsense morality and utilitarianism (or consequentialism). Lastly, it will provide reasons why commonsense moral intuitions can be trusted and why they do not lead us to morally objectionable decisions.

Moral norms are inescapable features of our everyday lives, as we are often caught choosing between actions defined by what we take to be moral or immoral. For example, if we were to be given a larger amount of change than we ought to receive after dining at a restaurant, we are given two options: to either take the change without informing the waiter or the manager, or to inform them and return the amount which does not belong to us. In this case, commonsense morality would say the right/moral thing to do is to return the change, regardless of whether people actually do so or not.
This is precisely what normative ethics seek to do: to specify what types of actions are morally right and wrong. Many decisions we make in our lives are decided by these normative ethics and it is only obvious that we ought to know which ones we employ as our own.

However, when these small everyday life morally conflicting situations (as the above case) become more complex and when more significant costs (such as human lives) are at stake, the moral norms become more difficult to define and we are forced to examine our commonsense morality. Can we always rely on commonsense morality to moderate our behaviour or are we obligated to take a different approach to morality? In order to answer this question, I decided to examine the characteristics of and the differences between commonsense morality and another ethics theory - in this essay, utilitarianism.

Commonsense morality urges agent-relative obligations in regards to morality. That is, moral obligations apply to particular individuals in particular circumstances. On the other hand, utilitarianism (or consequentialism) asserts agent-neutral obligations which refer to obligations that apply to anybody who is in the position to do what may e required of them in order to maximise utility.
To comprehend the differences between the two, consider the following cases:
Case one: you are a passerby who witnesses a drowning child. Saving the child would not put your life at risk but would ruin your new pair of two-hundred-dollar shoes. 
Case two: You receive a mail from a trusted charity asking you to donate two hundred dollars which would save a child in poverty from preventable diseases.
Both commonsense morality and utilitarianism assert that in the first case, the moral thing to do is to save the child. In the second case, however, commonsense morality does not demand the individuals to donate whereas utilitarianism demands everybody to do so.

The difference between the two cases is little: it is the degree of the individual's direct involvement in the situation. The case of the drowning child is urgent and needs immediate help, whereas the two-hundred-dollar donation can be made by others if not by me. However, does this difference justify the different judgments made in the two cases?

Apart from the urgency of the situation, the drowning child case engages the individual's attention to the child directly, and in the case where there is only one person who can help the child, they know immediately that the child's life has become their moral obligation and responsibility. In other words, there is no excuse and room to diffuse responsibility: an action is needed right now and I am the one and only person who can do the required action. In a case where there is more than one person witnessing the drowning child, an individual can look to see if his action is needed in that situation, or who is the most suitable person to help - for example, a healthy young man would be more suitable than an elderly or a physically disabled person. In other words, it becomes all the bystanders' moral obligation to save the child, and they quickly figure out the best and most plausible way to do so.

On the contrary, in the second case, the individual receiving the mail know that there are other people who can donate. While they do not necessarily know if there are other people willing to donate, it is natural human instinct to diffuse responsibility when they know that they are not the only person available or able to help, and are unable to analyse the situation by directly observing who is donating. Furthermore, they believe with good faith that someone is going to donate. In this case, then, the child's life does not become their moral obligation or responsibility as far as they are concerned.

Following this, the individual who fails to save the drowning child after directly witnessing him and knowing that he was able to help him, is going to feel guilty because he has failed to achieve his moral obligations. In the second case, the individual who fails to donate is unlikely to know the negative result (i.e., the death of the child) of his (lack of) actions, and therefore is unlikely to feel guilty for that one child.

In other words, in a case where an individual acts with his commonsensical morality to do or not to do something, he has decided whether the problem in question becomes his moral obligation or not. The problem becomes his moral obligation when he is able to assess the situation and has become involved either voluntarily or involuntarily, and knows that something is required of him in order to resolve the problem. It is acceptable to diffuse responsibility when he does not become directly involved in the situation and therefore unable to internalise the problem at hand, and knows that he is not the only person who can resolve it. Furthermore, natural human instinct to unequally distribute our moral considerations to those we are emotionally or physically close to - such as families, friends, neighbours or a child drowning by us - over those we are far away from, ought to be respected. Moral rules should require plausible and possible actions by us, which we can relate to and agree with, in order to be followed and obeyed.
Utilitarianism demands something psychologically too strong for anyone to achieve - that is, to accept something seemingly so irrelevant to us to be our moral obligations, and therefore will not be agreed with by the majority and not practiced in reality. Even if we were to accept that every problem in the world is our moral obligation to fix, we are still caught between conflicts shown in the second case: why me? why can't someone else do it? Moreover, in situations such as choosing between saving one family member or two strangers, we would be stuck between our utilitarian moral intuition and natural psychological abilities. The conflict itself, which cannot be avoided by our nature, will bring onto us guilt and shame and therefore unhappiness. Then, as long as there is a problem in the world, everyone will constantly feel guilty and ashamed, and so, in the end, maximum utility will not be achieved.

So far, it may sound as if I am merely excusing our choice to favour commonsense morality over utilitarianism as commonsense morality lets us get away with less moral obligations. However, as I have mentioned above, moral rules ought to be practicable - plausible and able to be employed by us according to our natural instincts. Just as we would not pass a legislation which requires us to suddenly acquire some supernatural power, moral obligations ought not to require absurd and naturally impossible psychological abilities.

Therefore, commonsense morality is to be trusted and relied upon, and is unlikely to lead us to morally objectionable decisions. Something cannot be a morally objectionable decision if it was never a moral obligation. Furthermore, being somewhat oblivious to our possible moral obligations put onto us by utilitarianism may in the end maximise utility or at least remain indifferent to the level of utility possibly achieved by following the utilitarian morality.

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