Module 3: Threats to the Possibility of Ethics Philosophy 240: Introductory Ethics Online CCBC Author: Daniel G. Jenkins, MA
This module is meant to accompany Chapters 2 and 3 in Rachels’ Elements of Moral Philosophy, 5 th edition. Module Goals: After completing readings, presentations, discussions, and coursework for this module, you will 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
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.
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.
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.
Threats to the Possibility of Moral Facts Cultural Relativism Psychological Egoism Subjectivism/Emotivism Divine Command Theory
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.
Because different cultures cannot reach a consensus about right and wrong, argues Cultural Relativism, there must be no truth about right and wrong.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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