Without puporting to have any panacea solutions, this paper briefly explores the intersection of two related questions that seem to appear as subtext throughout the ethics literature for our class: to what extent can individuals holding differing ethical conceptions maintain a fruitful dialogue; and under what circumstances, if any, may an individual claim that a given ethical system embraced by another person is wrong? I will first outline the proposed problems individually and then compare them to one another in order to highlight their relationship. My intention is to show that an informed understanding of both questions will help expose an unproductive line of reasoning that initially held sway over this author.
To begin with our first question, "To what extent can individuals holding differing ethical conceptions maintain a fruitful dialogue?", let us first clearly explain what this asks. If two individuals disagree over a fundamental tenent of ethics (such as the choice between consequentialism and nonconsequentialism), whether or not this is obvious at the outset, extended discussion involving justification for their respective ideologies will eventually make this point clear. One participant will claim that an action under a specified set of circumstances has a particular moral value and the other participant will disagree; conference ensues. The discussion usually ends when one participant claims that s/he disagrees on a certain point and that nothing more can be said about the matter. Does this constitiute fruitful dialogue?
As this story has been told, no. It leaves the members of the discussion in the negative position of affirming their ethics at the cost of declaring the other member's ethics false. This, in my opinion, promotes intolerance and contempt for others, and nurtures a sense of moral superiority which hampers interpersonal relationships with people not of identical thinking. It appears to leave the participants with the feeling that discussion is over, cooperation is impossible, and that progress is doomed since we have no ally in the ethically dissenting. To end an ethical conversation with a declaration of incontestible incompatibility fosters an "Us versus Them" mentality in which the only way to acheive any sort of goal is at the expense of those who oppose us; and we naturally oppose any actions taken by the opposite side which we consider immoral. Life becomes an ethical zero-sum game in which there can only be one winner: the ethically correct.
The second question is now visible in this dicussion: under what circumstances, if any, may an individual claim that a given ethical system embraced by another person is wrong? Does this not commit the sin of intolerance and absolutism? But then where is the line between ethical imperialism and refusing to tacitly condone a moral atrocity with silence? Clearly, the difference between consequentialism and nonconsequentialism is bound up in...