In discussions on morality, one will come across three dominant schools of thought: realism (objectivism), relativism and nihilism. There are sub-schools within them (i.e. ethical subjectivism (see the objectivism hyperlink), emotivism, error theory), but these are the general schools of thought. However, after much time debating the issue, morality still puzzles us. Thus, I find it necessary to introduce a fourth school of thought: moral agnosticism. In religion, pure agnosticism is rare, but possible; on the issue of morality, pure agnosticism isn’t possible; in other words, one either lives as though morality exists or one lives as though it doesn’t exist. Therefore, moral agnosticism is divided into two schools: agnostic moralism and agnostic amoralism.
An agnostic moralist is one who does not claim with certainty that morality exists, but behaves as though morality exists. An agnostic amoralist is one who does not claim with certainty that morality does not exist, but behaves as though morality does not exist. Also, the agnostic moralist will not make any claims regarding relativism or realism though he/she may subscribe to ideas within the schools. In like manner, the agnostic amoralist will not make claims regarding nihilism though he/she behaves as such. Given their uncertainty, they are both likely to see the merit in each school of thought. I’ll use myself as an example:
As an agnostic moralist, I can see the merit in nihilistic arguments. However, I find that there isn’t sufficient information to draw a nihilistic conclusion. Likewise, an agnostic amoralist may see the merit in relativism or realism, but will find that there isn’t enough information to draw a conclusion based on either or. That brings me to the greatest strength moral agnosticism provides: flexibility when dealing with ethical dilemmas.
This past semester, we discussed ethical dilemmas in my Management class. Our midterm essay presented an ethical dilemma involving a women who had earned seniority; however, she continued to become a liability and thus the question was: to fire or not fire her? We were asked to solve this issue according to one of the views in ethics (i.e. utilitarianism, moral rights, justice, individualism). I wrote the essay from the point of view of an agnostic moralist, albeit unknowingly. I outlined the merit for using each view. I stated what the solution could or should be according to each view and then I stated what my decision would be.* As you might have imagined, the essay received no deductions. The professor considered it one of the more interesting approaches he had seen in his years as a professor, and I don’t say that to boast. I say this because it attests to the flexibility achieved through moral agnosticism. A moral agnostic is flexible during ethical dilemmas and flexible in discussions on morality.
While it is true that a relativist might have approached the question in a similar manner, a relativist would do so with certitude—self-labeled as a relativist. I cannot conclude that if morality exists, relativism also exists. Morality may be a reality whilst relativism may be illusory. It may be that morality exists and that objectivism is illusory. It may be that morality is illusory altogether. There isn’t sufficient information to know for certain. This is still a developing idea, but I feel it can provide a temporary solution without degrading the respective schools by attempting to reconcile them though reconciliations are sometimes plausible (i.e. morality is relative, but some cases (e.g. genocide, infanticide) are objective). While we await the information necessary to draw a conclusion, moral agnosticism should be the default position.
*I decided to fire the woman based on a utilitarian point of view. A utilitarian is interested in the greater good and thus, a utilitarian would fire the woman in the interest of the employees, the company as a whole and the company’s clients. I considered that the most plausible decision; however, my decision could have been different depending on the case. For instance, what if I had to make a decision concerning a public school teacher whose hip was replaced. Unlike the above example, this teacher doesn’t work on a team and isn’t a liability in the workplace. She simply cannot stand for long periods of time. However, her disability hasn’t slowed the curriculum and it has not distracted the students. In this case, I would go with the individualism view and act in her best interests; therefore, I would not fire her.