Inevitably, at some point during my Ethics courses, a student will raise the question, "So, who decides what is right and what is wrong?" Having grown up in the modern world, they're all-too aware that there are many different and opposing views about every ethical issue under sun. They also know that philosophers throughout history have disagreed. So when they hear me defend the objectivity of moral truth, they naturally wonder "Whose truth? Who gets to decide what is objectively true?"
A first answer
My first answer to this question is generally to point out that it is badly formulated. It is a loaded question, because it assumes the point at issue. It takes for granted that moral norms are the result of a decision. In reality, no one decides what is right and wrong. Rather, we discover it. We find it in experience. (In a similar way, no one decided that the earth was round. The fact was gradually discovered and confirmed by various observations.)
But that answer by itself doesn't fully satisfy, because it doesn't really get at the underlying question these students have, which I think has at least two aspects.
- Given that even people who are much smarter than I, and who have studied the matter for years, can't come to a consensus on the question, how am I supposed to know who is right?
- Even if I was able to find the true answer to an ethical issue, what to do about all the people who disagree with me? I can't very well impose my views on them. So who then, practically speaking, decides what answer is going to be enforced?
A second answer
To the first of these questions there is no easy answer. The fact is that, in the end, after thinking things through and taking various opinions into account, each of us must make up his own mind—not, of course, by deciding which answer we like best, but by judging which is true and right, and then freely conforming ourselves to it.
This is not easy, first, because truth is sometimes hard to find. But, more importantly, because it means taking responsibility, which is typically something we don't like to do. It's "safer" and more comfortable to go with what others decide, or to rely on what most people (in my circle) think. Making my own judgments requires not only intelligent inquiry, but also moral maturity and moral strength.
In light of this, we can see that the question "Who decides?" can be motivated by a kind of laziness masquerading as sophistication. It functions, at least partially, and perhaps unconsciously, as an excuse for evading responsibilty. For analogous reasons, skepticism has sometimes been called an infirmity of the mind. It is not so much an intellectual position, as a failure to hold on to what one knows (or should know) is true.
A third answer
What about the problem of "imposing morality" on others? This aspect of the question is essentially a political one. Because "no man is an island," even in a pluralist society like our own, there must be some agreed upon moral standards. Who decides, then, and how, what those standards are going to be?
I don't have a well-thought out or thorough answer to that question. One hope I have in writing this, is that readers will offer their own thoughts. But one thing seem pretty clear to me. Ideally, every society would have a broad consensus about the moral standards to be upheld by law and custom. And such a consensus can be real and sustainable only if it is based on persuasion and on deeply held, shared values, rather than on force, coercion, manipulation, mere majority rule, or other things of that nature. A vigorous, serious, honest, and ongoing public debate on fundamental questions is therefore indispensible.
Secondly, I more and more think that America has gone overboard in celebrating the "right" (which, so interpreted, is not a real right) of everyone to live the lifestyle he or she chooses, regardless of social consequences. The question "Who decides?" has been answered by saying "Everybody decides for himself," with too little regard for the fact that we can't live absent general norms and values that must be decided by the community as a whole. Without those, there can be no real community, only a collection of individuals continually at odds with one another.
Here, too, we have to do with a shirking of responsibility. But it in this case it is a communal responsibility. A political community owes it to itself, and to its members, especially the more vulnerable ones, to formulate and nourish some kind of shared and true vision of a common good. Can we not agree, for instance, to rein in the spread of pornography? Or of extremely violent computer games? Not to do so out of respect for freedom of speech, or because it would be an imposition of our values on others who don't share them, seems to me a very lame excuse.
Anyway. Do you, dear reader, have any thoughts? Have I left out something important? Are there better or other good answers to that frequently repeated question: "Who decides?" If so, let's hear them.