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  • Round-Robin Commentary
  • Joe Oppenheimer, C. Fred Alford, and Karol Edward Sołtan

Comments on Alford's "Young People, Relativism and Natural Law"
Joe Oppenheimer

What precisely is the relationship of 'is' to 'ought'? With the development of modern behavioral research and experimental methods, we have found that certain patterns of moral judgment are nigh everywhere. Does this impact the almost universally held belief that is does not imply an ought? But it is also widely believed that if there is no can, there is no ought: you need not help if you cannot. But in a world of rapidly changing abilities, this latter boundary of what one can do is fuzzy and malleable: anyone can send money to fund medical care to a remote section of the world with the touch of a button and our country can ship tons of aid within hours of a disaster to anywhere in the world with but a nod of our President.

What precisely is to become to the status of these touchstones of moral theory? And what is the epistemic value of universally found moral judgments? And what are we to make of the omnipresent opportunities to micro-help the needy and the oppressed by marginally supporting worthy causes and so on? Must the world's needs yield moral imperatives that would drain the average Joe's resources? How do we answer these questions? [End Page 319]

These would seem to be the core concerns of Alford. As such, he and I are in the same corner. We would both seem to conclude:

Universally held moral notions have some value or standing in moral epistemology and ontology. They are a (very) strong indicator of the existence of universal moral laws. But . . .

The continually changing borderline between can and cannot does have implications for the old adage: if there is no can there is no ought. But . . .

And yes, empirical methods will help us answer these questions, but . . .

It is these "buts" that I will address.

Do almost universally held moral notions give empirical evidence of universal moral values? Not necessarily. For example, it is almost universally held that one feels more moral obligation to those with whom one is more affiliated. But we don't necessarily have a stronger obligation to such close others than to those more distant. How should we determine the status of such moral feelings? I would argue that they are to be justified in the most traditional fashion: they must be logical consequences of more basic moral principles.1 Otherwise their universal observation may be a psychological generality, but hardly one that speaks to what we ought to do. So, yes, observations of universal moral reasoning may be an indicator of natural law but, then again, why presume this? I would prefer one's needed moral axioms to be properly justified and then they can be used to justify the moral character of the universal finding.

Second, there is a need for moral theory to deal with the ever-changing frontier of the possible. So for example, we need to develop ethical theories regarding human obligations to distant strangers. Note, such theories are being developed—as in the theories in the new school of international political philosophy known as global cosmopolitanism.2 But even if these theories give us a sense of the obligations of states to the populations of other, distant, states, they say [End Page 320] little regarding the implications of their normative arguments for the personal obligations of the Joe-six-pack citizen in the obligated states. And this raises the central question of how our obligations shift as a function of changes in the probability of making a difference.3 In many of these situations the likelihood of our making a difference is not quite zero, but is very close thereto. This being the case one must develop some template, such as doing one's fair share,4 for understanding moral obligations under such circumstances. But until this problem is solved it is not surprising that the average Joe doesn't have a good grip on their obligations to distant strangers. Perhaps the interesting and optimistic empirical bit is how, in the...


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