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Reflective and Customary Morality

Updated on January 18, 2016

Reflective and Customary Morality

Reflective morality is the type of morality that exhibits doubts about the basic moral judgments that are evident in our society. It challenges the correctness of the whole moral system by seeking proof for every statement the system poses. Reflective morality, from its name, requires reflection about the things that we take for granted while busy with our non-introspective lives. There is a need to search or to observe adequate bases or principles for our judgments in particular and our whole moral system in general. On the other hand, customary morality is the more traditional take on morality. It uses the conventional knowledge and judgment of the society to assess the rightness or wrongness of an act.

The Concept of Freedom

One way that the conflict between customary morality and reflective morality can be seen is by going through the concept of freedom. “When is a person really free? What circumstances must be met before we can say that an act was borne out of free will?” these are some questions that may arise. Customary morality holds that traditional and conventional views in the moral system are correct and should be maintained. In the question of freedom, customary moralists may see free will as not contradictory to determinism and God. This is because they have been used to this line of thinking for so long that they will have a hard time accepting any criticism about their views. In a contradictory manner, reflective moralists may question the validity of free will if our fates are determined or if our fates are really determined by a higher being when it is clear we have free will.

The divide between reflective morality and customary morality can also be manifested in the Euthypro Dilemma, which asks “Is something good because it is loved by the Gods or is something loved by the gods because it is holy?” If one were to use customary morality, it will simply point out that what makes something good is that it is loved by the Gods since the Gods represent an important pillar in the construction of society, especially in the time of Euthypro and Socrates. Customary morality will look at the basic social norms and prevailing constructs of a particular society at a particular time in order to evaluate the correct answer to a moral question or to give out its moral judgment for a specific situation. Since the concept of Gods and religion were important fixtures in their society at the time, customary moralists back then would not find it difficult to conclude that something is good because it is loved by the Gods because Gods were the most powerful figures for them. It can be argued that, for customary moralists, good has no intrinsic value but rather it is the will of the Gods that make them such. As for advocates of reflective morality, it can be supposed that they will delve into the question of what qualities do Gods have that make them justified for assessing such a quality as the “goodness” of an act. In other words, reflective moralists will want to find out “what sufficient bases do we have for us to encourage the veneration of Gods?” They may even go so far as to question the existence of Gods themselves which, at the time, is sure to make them social outcasts.

To widen the discussion, the concept of Relativism and its link with both customary morality and reflective morality should be tackled. For customary moralists, relativism is an odd subject since it can be considered as deviant to the status quo. They see things as absolute and believe that not all things warrant an explanation, and that something may be right because most people (or the most powerful ones) think it so. Similarly, something is wrong because it is seen as wrong by people, which is apparent in their customs and traditions. In contradiction, reflective moralists may see relativism as insightful and a key topic since it attempts to question the very validity of the concept of right and wrong by assuming that it varies for each person.

Zen is a practice that has roots in Eastern philosophy, which arguably has been influenced by reflective morality. It belongs to reflective morality because the peace and quiet one gains from practicing it will give time for people to think and reflect about the judgments that seem common to them. It challenges people to prove their moral system is right by coming up with situations that remove certainty from their moral presumptions.

The most helpful in the quest to establishing a reflective approach to ethics is the discussion on freedom. It allows us to assess our own freedom and that of other people, especially in a hypothetical case of the prisoner who was locked up in a room by himself with the books that show him his whole life was determined even before he was born. I suppose if we all think like that we might rebel against society’s standards for us but of course it can be argued that even our rebellion was determined. For me, what the prisoner did was the only logical choice that could be made for his situation. Instead of choosing to reflect over the fact that he is not a “free” person because the scientists in the prison were able to determine his actions and being sad, he still chose to do what he thinks will make him happy, which was to finish the book he started reading. It is a representation of what we should all do ourselves. That is, instead of trying to question and answer everything we should just accept the fact it is physically impossible, first because we are all going to die and second because things are constantly changing and evolving and it would be stupid to keep track of every single thing on this world as it will probably just transform sooner or later.


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