Moral thinking in a global context: Making room for diverse conceptions of moral reasoning
Many contemporary moral philosophers share the goal of developing a universal method of moral reasoning where ‘universal’ means applicable in all circumstances by any moral agent, despite social or cultural location, to yield determinant action-guiding moral judgments. The challenge is to develop a method that remains impartial so as not to unfairly exclude various conceptions of the good, while at the same time being substantive enough to generate warranted moral judgments. Attempts to develop a universal method of moral reasoning result in a dilemma that has yet to be resolved: available proposals are either so vague that they fail to be action-guiding or they rest on substantive premises and assumptions that theorists claim are impartial, but which turn out to incorporate certain cultural or social values (contextual values) of particular communities. In most cases the values that get incorporated are those of liberal or democratically structured communities. The former is a problem if we think a moral method should be action-guiding; the latter is a problem because the presence of these values compromises the impartiality of proposed methods by unfairly privileging ways of reasoning that attach to liberal or democratic ways of life.
I argue that this dilemma is rooted in the mistaken methodological assumption that it is possible to develop a method that is both substantive enough to do the work we want it to do and impartial. In order to resolve the dilemma we need a moral methodology that allows us to start from the fact that contextual values will inevitably shape methods of moral reasoning and that we cannot know beforehand which values will facilitate good moral thinking in which contexts. Accordingly, I construct and defend a naturalized methodology whereby we determine empirically which values facilitate good moral reasoning in which contexts. I conclude by defending a position of pluralism with respect to conceptions of moral reasoning. Instead of searching for one universally method of moral reasoning, in world as diverse as ours is there are likely to be many ways of reasoning about moral matters, all of which are capable of producing reliable moral knowledge.