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I just finished an introductory ethics course in college and we talked about different perspectives in metaethics.

We spent most time on realist vs anti-realist arguements and for my purposes here let's just define the sole differences between these two groups are their world-view on the existence objective moral facts.

On one hand, realists argue that objective moral facts must exist because otherwise any moral argument can simplify to emotional expressions (i.e your sports team is bad and mine is good).

On the other anti-realists argue that objective moral facts imply quite a bit about our universe. For example, we talked about (Crito I think?) a story in which Aristotle basically said that there are two scenarios for why a good is "good".

Either because God defined it that way, and therefore it is arbitrary, or that it is outside of the God's control and therefore our beliefs about God is wrong. We didn't go into too much depth, but I was wondering if there was more to either side of this argument. And generally what do different schools say about objective ethics?

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    Greetings, welcome to philosophy.se. While I see some text, I'm having some trouble seeing a question... Also, Crito is dialogue written by Plato purportedly about Socrates. (i.e., Aristotle is not connected with it). I'm also a bit at a loss as to how the last paragraph connects with the Crito or Aristotle's main ethical work, the Nicomachean Ethics. – virmaior Jan 14 '15 at 8:43
  • It's not clear what your question, but there is answer to some of the bad philosophical arguments about queerness and that sort of thing: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/14675/5759. – alanf Jan 14 '15 at 14:53
  • yeah i agree that real moral properties would be queer – user6917 Jan 15 '15 at 1:39
  • it may be worth noting btw that some moral realitys, weak onces, don't believe in objective moral facts, in facts that hold independent of what we say think and feel is the case – user6917 Jan 15 '15 at 1:45
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Short Answer: No.

Long Answer:

Think of a convincing argument. It would start from unobjectionable premises and then through unobjectionable chains of inferences proceed inexorably to an unobjectionable conclusion. Such a systematic treatment is so formalized, it could be checked (or even generated) by a machine.

In short, a rigorous argument that convinces all would be tantamount to a mathematical proof.

Now examine the structures of proofs. You either proceed from premises that all accept, or you make your proof hypothetical (i.e.: if these conditions hold, then such a conclusion must necessarily follow as shown by these steps).

Such proofs work because they demonstrate what "is".

Yet morality is about what "ought" to be. Can you even agree on an "ought"? What would your (unobjectionable) premises be?

This isn't to say there aren't arguments for morality or that these arguments may not convince some people. This is to say that such arguments would not have the force of a mathematical proof.

Now if you're willing to accept a weaker argument that proceeds on the hypothetical (assuming X holds, then Y must follow) then you could provide an argument that all would agree would hold in a world in which the premises are true, but this doesn't mean they'd agree they hold in our world.

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    This is a poor argument because it invites us to imagine that an entire class of things does not exist without doing more than throwing the question back to the reader: does it? One might very well say: Fermat's Last Theorem is impossible prove because it any proof would require knowledge of some complex structure of the natural numbers, but what is this structure? – Rex Kerr Jan 14 '15 at 23:24
  • @RexKerr First, you write of knowledge, whereas morality is basically opinion. Second, your objection actually supports the latter part of my answer as modern interpretations of axiomatic mathematics treats them as a hypothetical systems. In this case, one reads the proof as "if these axioms hold then this consequence follows". Thus, mathematical knowledge = understanding the hypotheticals. This is the sense in which one could present a moral argument as outlined in the latter part of my answer. – R. Barzell Jan 15 '15 at 13:23
  • Assuming that morality is basically opinion is begging the question. That it is mere opinion (rather than fact-based) is what you are supposed to show! This is why it is a poor answer. You get to the key point in the argument, then say: "Oh, I can't think of a way to do this, can you?" and then continue as if you'd demonstrated that it was impossible. – Rex Kerr Jan 15 '15 at 21:35
  • In the context of philosophy, this argument seems like it would quickly devolve into nihilism. – James Kingsbery Jan 27 '15 at 15:19
  • @JamesKingsbery and? :P – R. Barzell Jan 27 '15 at 23:19
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There are a number of positions that advocate for the existence of objective moral facts. This is typically called 'moral realism', and is a conjunction of a number of claims:

  1. Moral claims are truth-apt.
  2. Moral claims are objective.
  3. There are at least some true moral claims.
  4. We can know what these true moral claims are.

We'll focus on 1 and 2. 1 amounts to the claim that non-cognitivism is false: whatever moral claims are, they aren't merely expressions of emotion. Rather, moral claims are on a par with scientific or mathematical claims insofar as they purport to describe some feature of the world - specifically, the moral features. Moral claims are true when they accurately represent the moral facts, and they are false when they don't. The important bit is that they can be true or false at all. So, for instance, the claim that 'sufferring is bad' is not an expression of my or anyone else's emotions or feelings - it is an expression of a fact.

On to 2. Something is true objectively if it is true independent of anyone's thoughts, feelings, beliefs or ideas about that thing. Something is true subjectively if it is not true objectively, i.e. if its truth depends on what people think, feel, believe etc. about it. So 2 says that the truth-values of moral claims do not depend on what anyone thinks, or feels, or believes about them. So, for instance, if it is true that suffering is bad, then it is not because people believe that suffering is bad, or think that it is bad, or feel that it is bad. (More carefully: is that it is not merely because they think, feel, or believe that suffering is bad that it is bad).

3 entails the falsity of error theories, and 4 ensures that moral agents aren't isolated from the moral facts - they're not outside of the domain of things that we can know at all.

So, that is the core of moral realism. It can be fleshed out in other ways as well. If moral realism is true we might ask what kind of facts are moral facts. Are they natural facts, or non-natural facts?

Now, what cogent arguments there are for moral realism will depend on the kind of moral realism you accept. If you're a moral non-naturalist, then Moore and Huemer give compelling cases for their view. Their arguments will typically take the following form: (i) they'll offer up a prima facie plausible example of a moral fact, for instance, 'torturing innocent babies just for fun is wrong'. (ii) they'll claim that any argument which implies the falsity of 'torturing innocent babies just for fun is wrong' will be less prima facie plausible than the truth of the fact that torturing babies just for fun is wrong. (iii) from (i) and (ii) they'll argue that moral realism is correct.

Different arguments exist for the different flavours of realism (see below). The point, however, is that there are cogent arguments for moral realism, and they do deserve to be taken seriously.

Here are some links that can get you started:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-realism/ http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-anti-realism/ http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-non-naturalism/ http://www.owl232.net/5.htm (this is a chapter from Huemer's book)

  • I had upvoted this, but I should have read it slightly more carefully. When you state "Something is true subjectively if it is not true objectively, i.e. if its truth depends on what people think, feel, believe etc. about it," this claim is confused or in error. Subjectively true and objectively true are different - not opposites. As normally defined, something is subjectively true when a subject takes it to be true for them. This is an important notion for Hegel (and not completely coincidentally Searle). Some social facts are subjectively true regardless of whether they are objectively true. – virmaior Mar 1 '15 at 6:55
  • But they can be both objectively true and subjectively true. To give an easy example, it is objectively true that the earth orbits the sun. It is subjectively true for those individuals who accept that. (O: T / S:T). It is subjectively true but objectively false for some tribe that believes the sun orbits the earth. // Social facts are different. For instance, are any two people who say they are married married? There may be no "objective" as in beneath the social analysis for that. – virmaior Mar 1 '15 at 6:58
  • I agree with you that the notion 'being true for oneself' is cogent, but I'm not sure that that is the conception of subjectivity that it is best to work with (I could be convinced, however!). Here's my thinking in the OP: there seem to be at least two ways in which moral claims can be true (if they are the sorts of things that can be true): they can depend on human beliefs, thoughts, interests etc., or the cannot. All I'm using 'subjective' for is to mark out the latter view - that moral claims depend for their truth on human thoughts, beliefs, desires, interests, or whatever. – possibleWorld Mar 2 '15 at 3:28
  • I'd suggest adding a "merely" in that case. Similarly, you could add a "merely" to objectively true moral claims that are not enforced in some place. For instance, people regardless of race or age deserve full moral consideration may be objectively true but not effectively so in many societies. – virmaior Mar 2 '15 at 3:41
  • If ALL moral 'facts' or principles were subjective in some non-trivial way then the relativism of morality would be an absolute truth.... – 201044 Jan 18 '16 at 18:35
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The first few chapters of CS Lewis's work Mere Christianity start by discussing why there is such a thing as an objective morality. I'm sure many would disagree with it, but it's a serious, thoughtful argument to be taken seriously by those who would disagree with its conclusions.

In summary, it goes something like this:

  1. You get on a bus.
  2. Right before you sit down, someone pushes you out of the way and takes your seat.
  3. You react, "That's not fair!"
  4. Your reaction appealing to fairness assumes there's a measure of fairness. If there isn't then, the person who stole your seat might not share the same as you, and appealing to a notion of fairness would be non-sense.
  5. Therefore, there exists some notion of an objective moral right and wrong.
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Yes, there is an objective basis for moral values but I believe such basis is spiritual not material or this-worldly. Here's my thesis:

Moral values stem from the higher domain of existence where all virtues and goodness are united in a non-composite whole. All acts or expressions of goodness and morality in the material domain emanate from their perfect form in this higher domain. However the essentially pluralistic, divisive nature of the material domain and its time-space restrictions both manifests and at the same times degrades, dissipates and obscures this transcendental perfect goodness. Mistaking this perfect transcendental goodness for its imperfect this-worldly manifestations is considered to be the cause of all moral vice/evil. Because such an illusion leads one to pursue goodness/virtue in sources other than the real transcendental source and through means other than the spiritual.

To better makes sense of the above philosophy, here's a concrete example: a poor person desires wealth for s/he sees many benefits in material possessions, e.g. physical comfort, better chance of marrying a beautiful/handsome partner, public respect etc. However such identification of goodness is an illusion. The illusion is in that physical comfort is only a degraded manifestation of spiritual peace; likewise human beauty is a only descended form of angelic spiritual beauty and public respect is only a this-worldly manifestation of God's majesty; and thus all the former sets of perceived goodness are subject to the limitations I mentioned in the first paragraph of my thesis.

While the pursuit of these lower this-worldly forms via this worldly means usually involve immoral sentiments (e.g. greed, selfishness and pride) – that in turn lead to such immoral practices as hoarding wealth, being stingy, stealing, fraud, demagogy, etc – leading to inflicting harm on others, pursuit of goodness by going to its real transcendental source, on the contrary, generates both personal and general good; for finding spiritual peace requires letting go off stressful preoccupation with material pursuits, attaining real original beauty (which would be similar to its transcendental source spiritual rather than material) requires establishing communion with the higher source via prayer and meditation which would on the contrary lead to humility, benevolence and charity rather than pride and selfishness etc. Thus the person not only acquires the real original goodness whose illusion the former had only tasted, but the society will also benefit from the external 'spill-over' of his/her internally realized goodness! Such is the objective root of goodness and morality!

The above thesis draws upon Plato's idea of Perfect Forms, Neo-platonic theory of Goodness and Intellectual Forms, and theistic view of goodness and morality.

  • This may be a poor observation but if we are all sensory and behavioural automatons or 'puppets' that 'follow' pre-determinate paths of action then any 'objective facts about anyones behaviour could certainly be called 'moral' if the 'pre-determinate' actions are in line with some 'after-the-fact' interpretation that is 'called' morality. – 201044 Jan 4 '16 at 4:12
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    @201044, Yes, but that's also why with naturalism (and its different formulations, i.e. mechanism, physicalism etc) there can be no real morality. We tend to associate greed and arrogance and savageness with immorality but those are just "natural" behaviors if we are purely natural or mechanistic beings. – infatuated Jan 4 '16 at 7:22
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    Could an accused person of some crime just claim that because of naturalism we are all puppets with no more responsibility than an accidental fire has if it destroys priceless works of art. – 201044 Jan 14 '16 at 8:14
  • Could certain people or writers promote the idea we are all behavioral and sensory automatons or puppets so much other people listening or reading this might believe moral responsibilities and behavior are just illusions. Actions carried out by 'pre-programmed instinctual activity 'hard-wired' into the brain and any sense having a personal 'mental' intention to cause some actions is phony. Therefore people might think morals do not exist. Of course the academics promoting this could say since there are no morals and we are all puppets they are just doing what we are 'programmed to do. – 201044 Jan 25 '16 at 15:31

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