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Module #2 Meta-Ethics: Threats to the Possibility of Ethics

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1 Module #2 Meta-Ethics: Threats to the Possibility of Ethics
Course: PL 180 – Morality and the Law Online Author: Daniel G. Jenkins, MA Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Montgomery College Takoma Park/Silver Spring Updated: 1/3/ Contact: Cell:

2 ATTENTION: Click the speaker icon on each slide to hear audio.

3 Module Readings This module is meant to accompany readings from Chapters 1 and 2 in Arthur and Scalet’s Morality and Moral Controversies, eighth edition: “Morality, Religion, and Conscience” by John Arthur, pp “Trying Out One’s New Sword” by Mary Midgley, pp “Relativism in Ethics” by William H. Shaw, pp “Morality is Based on Sentiment” by David Hume, pp “Ethics” by Thomas Nagel, pp You may complete the readings and the PowerPoint in any order. Once you have completed the PowerPoint and the assigned text readings, proceed to answer the Module Review Questions.

4 Module Goals After completing this module, which, in addition to this PowerPoint presentation includes readings in one course text and participation in an online discussion, students should be able to: Identify and explain fundamental threats to the possibility of ethics Analyze the usefulness and critique features of relevant ideologies Synthesize critiques with other core features of the academic study of ethics

5 Throughout the presentation you will see yellow or blue boxes
Throughout the presentation you will see yellow or blue boxes. These boxes contain questions and activities designed to get you thinking about the material.

6 PowerPoint Outline Introduction Meta-Ethics Cultural Relativism
Subjectivism Divine Command Theory Psychological Egoism

7 Introduction Now that we’ve discussed critical thinking and logical reasoning in the context of ethics, it’s time to explore meta-ethics in greater depth. In module 1 we distinguished between 1) meta-ethics 2) morals and 3) ethics. To review, morality refers to what we in fact believe to be right and wrong, and ethics refers to a system of decision-making designed to help us achieve ends that are congruent with our concept of morality.

8 Meta-Ethics Meta-ethical issues are concerned with determining where values come from, where they should come from, what values are good values to have, and if such a thing as morality is possible. In this module we will examine four philosophical positions that, if true, make it impossible to talk about moral facts. These positions dismiss morality and ethics as fabrications of individual minds or cultural forces, or say that right and wrong can only be determined by religious authority, or say that even if such a thing as moral facts exist, we cannot help but behave badly.

9 Is morality really “out there” somewhere in the world?
We want to take that position that is backed by better reasons than competing alternatives, we want to be persuaded by logos arguments that make verifiable claims and that relate premises and conclusions logically to one another.

10 Moral facts are facts of reason.

11 Threats to the Possibility of Moral Facts
Cultural Relativism Psychological Egoism Subjectivism/Emotivism Divine Command Theory

12 Cultural Relativism All ethical standards are merely a product of culture. For example, in some conservative Muslim countries, it is considered morally wrong for a woman to work or to leave the house without a male chaperone, or to expose more than her face in public; sometimes not even the face is permitted. In the Eskimo, or Inuit, cultures 100 years ago, it was considered morally permissible in times of famine to abandon newborn children and the elderly to the elements.


14 Because different cultures cannot reach a consensus about right and wrong, argues Cultural Relativism, there must be no truth about right and wrong.

15 If Cultural Relativism is correct, then we cannot (while maintaining intellectual honesty) justify social change, or intervening in the affairs of other cultures, on moral grounds.

16 We want to be able to say more than we merely don’t like something, we want the power to say that it is wrong. In doing so, we enable ourselves to stop many atrocities.

17 Arguing Against Cultural Relativism
Is lack of agreement indicative of the impossibility of a right answer? As an exercise, try the following. Assuming you know your height and/or weight, ask 5 people who do not know your height and weight to guess your height and/or weight. Try this before advancing to the next slide.

18 Did you get 5 different answers. Were any of them correct
Did you get 5 different answers? Were any of them correct? Was anyone confident in their response, even if they were wrong? What does this mean for Cultural Relativism?

19 Disagreement is not evidence that a correct answer is impossible
Disagreement is not evidence that a correct answer is impossible. Just because people disagree does not mean no one is correct; and even if no one is correct, that does not mean there is no right answer. Cultural Relativism takes as evidence for it’s claim the fact that different cultures disagree about right and wrong. We can see that this is insufficient evidence for its claim. Additionally, Cultural Relativism commits what is called an “is/ought” fallacy. This logical fallacy is committed whenever we say that something should be a certain way merely because it is that way.

20 Cultural Relativism Summary
Claim: Cultural Relativism claims there is no truth about morality, merely different opinions put forth by different cultures about what is right and wrong. Evidence: As evidence in support of its claim, Cultural Relativism cites the fact that different cultures disagree about what is right and wrong. Why we want it to be incorrect: If Cultural Relativism is correct, we cannot undertake social change, or international intervention, from a moral standpoint. Criticism: We can criticize Cultural Relativism on the grounds that disagreement is not, in and of itself, compelling evidence that a right answer is impossible. Moreover, Cultural Relativism commits an is/ought fallacy. We can see that Cultural Relativism does not meet the burden of proof. Its premises do not support its conclusion, and we have better reasons for disbelieving it than believing it. We can reject the meta-ethical threat to the possibility of morality known as Cultural Relativism.

21 Subjectivism According to the meta-ethical threat to the possibility of morality known as subjectivism, all moral statements are mere statements of opinion or preference. When you say that something is morally right or morally wrong, all you are saying, according to the subjectivist, is that you have an opinion on it.

22 Subjectivism is closely related to the relativist epistemological position in philosophy.
Nietzsche, for example, claimed that there is no truth, merely different perspectives on reality, none of which are correct or incorrect.

23 Friedrich Nietzsche

24 The subjectivist maintains that moral judgments are mere statements of opinion. So, when you say something like “murder is morally wrong” you are merely saying “I don’t like murder” in the same way that you might say “I don’t like Pepsi” or “I do like Coke.” Subjectivism maintains that the moral rightness or wrongness of an act is not a property of an act; it is merely the product of our opinion.

25 Traditional understanding of morality maintains that moral judgments do reflect actual properties of acts. That is, that when we say something like “murder is morally wrong” we are not simply stating our opinion, but reporting what we believe we have detected about murder. When we say something like “murder is morally wrong” and someone else says “murder can be a morally legitimate act” we don’t just throw up our hands and say “well, I guess that is their opinion.” We try to argue with them, show them the moral wrongness of murder, show them what they have overlooked, and investigate how they are looking at the act.

26 To illustrate the positions put forth by subjectivism and traditional moral theory, look at the following diagrams. Everything inside the circle is the act of murder. Any property or event or action that murder is or has is in the circle. In the first diagram, representing the traditional understanding of morality, we, the observer, are examining the act of murder. Its moral property is just as much a part of it as anything else. It is a discoverable property, not open to interpretation, that we can correctly or incorrectly identify.


28 In this diagram, representing subjectivism, the act of murder has no moral property. We assign moral properties based on our own interpretation, rather than correctly or incorrectly identifying the properties of an act.

29 Consequences of Subjectivism
We can never be wrong as long as we always accurately represent our own opinion. We do not want subjectivism to be true, because it does not offer an adequate or accurate account of the way we understand moral issues. We have disagreements about what we believe to be moral, and we do not believe we are merely disagreeing about opinions. Secondly, if subjectivism is true, there is no such thing as morality.

30 Criticism Subjectivism, like Cultural Relativism, cites lack of universal consensus about morality as evidence that there are no moral properties of acts. That this evidence does not sufficiently support the claim of subjectivism should be evident. Furthermore, Subjectivism claims that moral judgments are indistinguishable from other statements of opinion, and concludes from this similarity that moral judgments are merely opinions. But it is clear that there is a significant distinction between moral judgments and other statements of opinion.

31 Opinion vs. Truth Claim When you say “Pepsi is better than Coke,” although I might think you’re tastes are odd I certainly don’t think that deliciousness is an inherent property of either Pepsi or Coke. I understand that this is a issue of preference and that there is no fact of the matter. But if you say “murder is morally permissible,” I do not believe this is a matter of preference.

32 We have better reasons for believing the traditional understanding of morality than we do for believing subjectivism, because the traditional model provides a more accurate and adequate account of how we debate moral issues.

33 Summary of Subjectivism
Claim: There are no moral facts. Moral judgments are merely opinions or preferences. Saying “murder is morally wrong” is simply another way of saying “I don’t like murder.” Moral judgments do not involve detecting and reporting moral properties of acts; acts do not have moral properties. Evidence in support of the claim: 1) There is a lack of consensus on moral issues, and 2) moral judgments are indistinguishable from other statements of preference. Consequences: If true, subjectivism denies us the ability to justify any action on a moral basis.

34 Criticism: Lack of agreement on an issue is not evidence that there is no right answer or that a right answer is impossible. Also, subjectivism’s claim that moral judgments are indistinguishable from other statements of preference can be rejected. We do disagree and argue about moral issues in a manner distinct from our response to mere statements of preference. In this way, subjectivism fails to give an accurate or adequate account of the way we understand morality and the possibility of moral facts.

35 Emotivism There are some philosophers who defend the idea of subjectivism, and who have attempted to alter it to overcome its limitations. Emotivism is one such attempt.

36 Language serves many purposes.
Emotivism argues that moral judgments are expressions of attitude, not statements of opinion. The statement “murder is morally wrong” is equivalent to saying “boo murder!” While there can be something true or false about the statement “I don’t like murder” there is nothing true or false about the statement “boo murder!” If moral statements are expressions of attitude, we can deny that moral judgments reflect properties of acts and still disagree.

37 While Emotivism solves the chief problem of subjectivism – its failure to accurately or adequately account for how we disagree on moral issues – it does so at the expense of accepting an untested and unproven assumption about language functions in ethics.

38 Emotivism Summary Claim: There are no moral facts. Moral judgments are merely expressions of attitude. Saying “Murder is morally wrong” is equivalent to saying “boo murder!” Emotivism lets us disagree in attitude, rather than about attitude, without positing the existence of moral properties of acts. Evidence: There is scant evidence to support this position. If we conceive of moral statements as expressions of attitude, it works, but there is no evidence to suggest that moral statements are expressions of attitude. Criticism: If we meant to say “boo murder!” when we say “murder is morally wrong” we would do so. We do not deny that language serves different purposes, but because all these different ways of using language are available to us, we must assume that we use fact- stating language when we talk about morality because we are, indeed, talking about facts.

39 Divine Command Theory The meta-ethical threat to the possibility of moral facts known as Divine Command Theory maintains that whatever is morally right is what God commands us to do, and that what is morally wrong is what God forbids us to do. Hence, you need never engage in moral deliberation on your own. Instead, you need simply consult your religious text or official to discover what you ought do in any given situation.

40 Divine Command theory meshes well with many people’s religious sense.
Divine Command theory is comforting. It removes the complex obligation of engaging in moral deliberation on our own.

41 A Problem for Ethics It is neither my job nor my desire to turn anyone away from religion. It is my job to facilitate an academic study of ethics. Divine Command Theory is problematic for ethics because it leaves no room for moral agency.

42 Problems with Divine Command Theory
One very obvious problem with Divine Command Theory is this – which religion is correct? Another problem with Divine Command Theory is that every religion is officiated by human beings with their own goals, drives, desires, motives, and weaknesses. Religion has been perverted throughout history by self-seeking pundits that have used faith for political ends.

43 Even if you are a devout follower of a given religion, you probably do not believe in Divine Command Theory. Imagine now that God commands you to kill everyone with blue eyes. Would you think that murdering people with blue eyes is a moral act just because God commanded it? Take a moment to consider this before moving on.

44 A Barometer of Morality
In most religions, God is considered to be omnipotent, which is to say, all-powerful. As an all-powerful being, God has the power to choose evil. If it is possible to imagine God commanding something we would consider to be morally wrong, and if we accept that God is powerful enough to choose to be good or evil, then we must accept that there is a barometer of morality that exists outside of God.

45 Rather than thinking that something is right merely because God says it is right, we can conclude that God will, if God is good, say it is right because it is right. If this is the case, then we once again have the responsibility to engage in moral deliberation for ourselves.

46 Summary of Divine Command Theory
Claim: You do not need to engage in moral deliberation. Merely consult your religious text or official to find out what is moral and immoral. Criticism of Divine Command Theory: 1) We cannot use reason to demonstrate which moral code, imparted by which religion, is the correct code to follow. 2) Abuse of religious authority for personal and political ends emphasizes the need for individual moral deliberation. 3) If it is possible that God can do bad things, we must admit there is a barometer of morality external to God. In rejecting the Divine Command Theory, we emphasize the moral agency of each individual; each of us has moral responsibility.

47 Psychological Egoism Now let’s discuss the meta-ethical threat to ethics known as Psychological Egoism. Imagine that it is Valentine’s Day, and you want to do something special for your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife. Let’s say you go all out – spend a lot of money on roses, chocolates, gifts, and plan to spend even more on dinner at an upscale restaurant. You take great pains to make sure everything will go smoothly. You wear your finest, you memorize a love poem, and you saved for months just to afford these extravagant gestures of love.

48 Now imagine that you show up at the house of your sweetheart, knock on the door, roses and chocolates in hand, and he or she opens the door with a look of disgust on their face and says: “You selfish pig. Just like you to think only of yourself on Valentine’s Day!” They slam the door in your bewildered face. What is happening here?

49 What’s happening is that your sweetheart is buying into the claim made by Psychological Egoism – the idea that everything we do, even seemingly charitable acts, really have ourselves as the primary beneficiary. We do things for others because it makes us feel good, and for no other reason.

50 Some of you will believe the claim made by Psychological Egoism is true.
What the consequences are of this position? Think about this for a moment before advancing to the next slide – do you want to live in a world in which everyone is selfish, and can’t help but be selfish?

51 Consequences of Psychological Egoism
If Psychological Egoism is correct, then every act of love you have ever received has not really been for you. If Psychological Egoism is correct, it is impossible to ever genuinely care for anyone in any of your actions.

52 If Psychological Egoism is correct, how might we perceive the actions of someone like Mother Teresa?
Mother Teresa was a Roman Catholic nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India in For over forty years she ministered to the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying, while guiding the Missionaries of Charity's expansion, first throughout India and then in other countries. If Psychological Egoism is correct, Mother Teresa did all of this out of utter selfishness.

53 Mother Teresa

54 Is it that Mother Teresa foreclosed on the possibility of a life of traditional happiness involving marital love, children, a career and a family because she would prefer the good feeling derived from helping others? Or is it that, for whatever reason, Mother Teresa felt a duty and obligation to devote her life to helping others, even if it made her unhappy? Or is it possible that, even if she derived happiness from helping others, she was not selfish, or that her own happiness was incidental to her true goals?

55 It becomes clear that Psychological Egoism does not seem to offer an adequate or accurate account of human behavior There is something about acts of extreme altruism that do not seem to fit our definition of the word “selfish.”

56 If Psychological Egoism is true, it makes no sense to talk about ethics, because regardless of whether or not we can determine what is right and wrong we would be unable to behave in any way other than that which benefitted ourselves the most. In other words, even if there are moral facts, Psychological Egoism maintains that we would be unable to abide by them.

57 Criticism of Psychological Egoism
Psychological Egoism correctly notes that we often feel good as a consequence of doing things for others. But is feeling good evidence that we are selfish? If selfishness is one motivating factor, is it necessarily the only motivating factor? Is it possible that our own good feeling is not our ultimate goal? Is it possible to commit selfless acts?

58 Defining Selfishness Psychological egoism forces us to consider what we mean by “selfish.” Anytime I feel good, have I behaved selfishly? Whenever I benefit in some way from a behavior, is the behavior selfish by default? Does selfishness have exclusively to do with outcome, or does it also have to do with intent? Take a moment before advancing to the next slide to consider your own understanding of selfishness, and to answer the above questions. What makes an act selfish?

59 It seems that we reserve the term “selfish” for occasions on which one feels good at the expense of the good feeling of others, or when good feeling causes harm to others, or when we intend to deceive others to benefit ourselves. Also, we cannot be certain that any action benefitting us is a selfish action.

60 Let’s revisit the example of Valentine’s Day
Let’s revisit the example of Valentine’s Day. You might be thinking that you do, indeed, benefit from lavishing attention on your special someone. This suggests that it is in your self-interest to commit romantic gestures on Valentine’s Day, not necessarily that it is selfish to do so.

61 Selfishness vs. Self-Interest
You brush your teeth. It is certainly in your self-interest to do so (and your friends and family thank you, too). But is tooth-brushing a selfish act? Not as it is ordinarily understood, no. It seems that feeling good or otherwise benefitting from a behavior does not necessarily make that behavior selfish, but may make a behavior one that is in your self-interest.

62 Consequence vs. Goal We can admit that we often feel good when doing things for others – but was our own good feeling necessarily our intent? We often intend to do things for others, and though we later feel good as a result, our own good feeling was not our goal.

63 To further explain what I mean by confusing consequence with goal, consider car accidents.
Have you ever been in a car accident? If you have, did you get in the car that day and say “I am wrecking this piece of crap!”? Probably not. Nevertheless, you had the accident.


65 Our actual goal when we get in the car is to drive to work, or school, or out for fun.
Traffic accidents are an unintended consequence of our behavior, but they are not the goal of our behavior. Likewise, our own good feeling may often be a consequence of our behavior, but it is not necessarily, and certainly not always, the goal of our behavior.

66 Selfless Acts are Possible
Lastly, we can criticize Psychological Egoism on the grounds that, simply put, people can commit selfless acts. We have already discussed Mother Teresa. Let’s look at another example -- – Albert Schweitzer.

67 Albert Schweitzer

68 Schweitzer held a Philosophy PhD and was pastor at a church in Germany in the early 20th century. Schweitzer was an accomplished writer, with many accolades and a family, but when he learned of the suffering of post-colonial African people, he decided at the age of 30 to go to medical school and devote the rest of his life to providing medical care to impoverished Africans in Gabon, where he founded a hospital.

69 According to Psychological Egoism, Schweitzer only went to all that trouble because he is a selfish person! He wanted to feel good! Clearly, Psychological Egoism overlooks the fact that we can commit selfless acts.

70 In summary, we can break down the meta-ethical threat to the possibility of moral facts known as Psychological Egoism in the following way: Claim: We always behave selfishly. Everything we do, including seemingly charitable acts, is really for ourselves. Evidence in support of the claim: We feel good as a result of doing things for others. Consequences if true: The existence of morality is irrelevant. Even if there are moral facts, we cannot behave in any way other than a selfish way. Additional reasons why we want to argue against it: We cannot receive or give genuine acts of love or kindness. All human relationships are selfish relationships.

71 Criticism: Psychological egoism fails to distinguish between selfishness and self-interest. Psychological egoism fails to draw a distinction between the consequence and the goal of an act. Psychological egoism overlooks the fact that we can commit selfless acts. We can see that Psychological Egoism tries to draw a conclusion that is not supported by the evidence. It fails to meet the burden of proof, and we can reject it. We have better reasons for not believing it than believing it.

72 Now that we have addressed the four major meta-ethical threats to the possibility of morality, we can move on to discuss classical ethical theory. In what ways, if any, have your views on ethics been changed by what you’ve learned in this module? What specifically has influenced your thinking on the subject? Which ethical threat seems to merit the most consideration and why? Which seems the most dangerous? Which the most easily dismissed, if any?

73 Congratulations! You’ve just completed the presentation for Module 2. Once you have also completed the assigned reading from the textbook, please proceed to the “Assignments” and “Discussion” tabs in WebCT to complete relevant coursework for this module. Now that we have addressed the four major threats to the possibility of moral facts, we can move on to discuss classical ethical theory. If you have any questions please contact me.

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