How nonmoral beliefs impact our moral decisions

When people try to support a belief in cultural relativism they often point to the diversity of moral practices in different cultures. One of the ways to explain how that diversity can exist even if morality is really based on objective moral values that are universal is to show how two cultures with similar basic moral beliefs can have different moral practices due to differing nonmoral beliefs. The treatment of the elderly by Eskimos is a common example. However a recent discussion in my medical ethics class reminded me that differing nonmoral beliefs can lead to differences in the ethical judgments we make as individuals as well.

The class was discussing the case of a patient with ambiguous genitalia who sought care at age nineteen wanting to know why she had never menstruated. The physicians discovered that even though the patient had a generally female body type and had been raised as being female this person had no female genitalia and was genetically male. We were discussing whether it was permissible for the physicians to withhold the information that the patient was genetically male. The class was divided with some saying the whole truth needed to be revealed and others saying that to do what was in the best interest of the patient it was permissible to withhold that information.

As I reflected on how the students had supported their positions it became clear that there was a difference in the nonmoral beliefs between the two groups of students that led to their different moral positions, even though they all had very similar basic moral beliefs. Some of the students believed that gender was determined by genetics and this patient was truly male. They were the ones who said it was not permissible to withhold the information that the patient was genetically male. The other group of students believed that there were other things besides genetics that entered into the determination of gender (such as the influence of hormones on fetal development at certain critical times in development and socialization based on the assumed gender from body type). They were the ones who thought it was permissible to withhold the information.

I had intended for the case discussion to be focused on what it means to tell the truth and whether that always needs to include the whole truth. The students’ responses reminded me how important our nonmoral beliefs are in making moral decisions.

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