THE POWER OF CONTEXT IN SHAPING MORAL CHOICES
Schmidle Jr., Robert Edward
ABSTRACTIn this thesis I intend to argue that that the nature of all moral states fundamentally involves a contextualized element that is historical and situational. I will propose that any moral viewpoint that functions as an objective principle, i.e. one that appeals to principles and values that are trans-historical and to authority that is outside the context of some human culture, is misconceived. My position, however, does not lead to a naïve relativism, but rather it is one that seeks to mediate what I contend is a false dichotomy between objectivism and relativism.I believe that all moral principles are situational and historically contextualized and therefore that the power of context in shaping moral choices is fundamental to how we live in the world. Throughout this thesis I develop the distinction between the possibilities for universal moral principles, those applicable in all cases, and the effect of context in limiting the universality of a given principle in a particular situation.The dominant theme of this study is based on Ludwig Wittgenstein's concept of hinges, as the non-experiential, non-epistemic beliefs manifested in our everyday practices. I chose moral hinges as the basis of my study because, like the material hinges on a door that allow it to open and close, moral hinges are what enable the possible choices that are open (or closed) to a person in a particular, localized moral order. The case study in which I examine the concept of moral hinges is focused on supererogatory acts; those actions that are considered to be `above and beyond' a person's expected duty. These are acts that are not required or expected and because of that they offer unique insights into the role of moral hinges.In order to explain the basis of my argument regarding the role of hinges I first present Aristotle's concept of phronesis and Kant's concept of the categorical imperative as examples of meta-theories of human behavior. Their moral philosophies provide a foundation from which to understand the relationship between objectivism and relativism and the place of moral hinges in the mediation between the two. I argue against Kant's categorical imperative as a non-contingent universal principle, applicable in all cases of human behavior regardless of different circumstances and cultures. Instead I advocate for a model of a contingent universal moral principle, which is applicable and practiced in all cases, but only in a particular culture.In support of my argument for the fundamental role of historical and situational context I will introduce Positioning Theory, an innovation in social psychology, focusing on the works of Rom Harre' and Fathali Moghaddam. Positioning Theory explores the way a person's rights and duties are accrued to and dependent upon the context of the local situations we create in going about our daily lives. The case study I present is the dialogic exchange on the Internet between a potential terrorist and his recruiter.Throughout this thesis I advocate for the point of view that all moral acts, which are intentional behaviors that affects persons, are grounded in moral hinges. To that end I will take into account the writings of philosophers Rush Rhees, James Edwards and Nigel Pleasants. I will also incorporate research by the cultural psychologists Richard Shweder and David Wong in arguing against a singular universal rationality, which is a presupposition for the existence of non-contingent universal moral principles.In keeping with the central theme of the power of context, I propose an approach to understanding moral choice that is based on the historical and situational context in which people make ethical decisions. The actions and practices that stem from those decisions manifest the moral hinges that individuals have implicitly or explicitly accepted. Those moral hinges also reflect the relative nature of rationality in a philosophical context that rejects essentialism in favor of ethical normativity.
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