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Fifty years ago it was widely believed in Europe that homosexuality was an awful perversion that should be cured or, failing that, punished.

A hundred years ago it was widely believed in Europe that women were good for nothing except housekeeping and bearing children.

Four-hundred odd years ago it was widely believed in Europe that any deviance from Catholic orthodoxy was a criminal heresy that demanded retribution.

The majority of people in Europe no longer believe these things. However, in the world at large some or all of the above - plus many more things we now consider morally repugnant - are still understood as being correct.

Obviously the people of Europe in ages past believed in their moral positions as fervently as we believe ours. Are there any philosohpical tools that can help approach the question of whether any given set of ethics is more "moral" than any other?

  • i won't put this as an answer, but the metric is, in my opinion, empathy. what theists might point to as The Golden Rule and what atheists might might call "the ethic of reciprocity". (and the latter requires some semblance of mental health. if you're too wacko to not mind being shot to death, that doesn't mean it's okay for you to shoot others to death.) – robert bristow-johnson Mar 11 '16 at 1:58
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The name of the field that compares moral systems and asks question about the nature of ethics in this way is metaethics (SEP entry).

There's three related meta-ethical questions that affect the answer to your question:

  1. Is there moral realism or not?
  2. Assuming it exists, can we have access to this moral reality?
  3. Assuming it exists and that we have epistemic access to it, is it the sort of thing that is comparable in kind?

None of these are clearly resolved in some sort of absolute way for philosophy.

Is there moral realism or not?

The question here is whether we believe there are facts about morality, i.e. claims that are genuinely true or false about our moral actions. Are certain things good or bad in fact or are they merely good or bad as a matter of perspective?

The vast majority of moral philosophers historically are moral realists -- Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, Wolff, Kant, Hegel (see below), Mill. This is not without exception -- I read Hume as not being a moral realist or at least a moral skeptic [next issue].

The contemporary picture is cloudier. Several philosophers have mounted arguments against moral realism -- Richard Rorty (at times), Jacques Derrida (at times), David Wong , J. David Velleman, Gil Harman, etc.

Assuming moral realism, can we access this moral reality?

Just because something is real does not mean we can know it. This is an argument which goes back at least to Socrates (and is part of the difference between Plato and Socrates). Hume is definitely a moral skeptic. A moral skeptic can but need not deny there is a moral reality. Instead, they stake their claim on our inability to know these things.

Assuming it exists and that we have epistemic access to it, is it the sort of thing that is comparable in kind?

Here, the thing is that even if moral reality exists and we can know it, it may be the case that it's not the sort of thing that can be subject to comparison. The idea that it's comparable is most compatible with consequentialist views where there is something quantitative that we are minimising or maximising (e.g. Utilitarianism).


Quote from Hegel in support of moral realism:

for to describe evil as hypocrisy implies that certain actions are in and for themselves misdemeanours, vices, and crimes, and that the perpetrator is necessarily aware of them as such insofar as he knows and acknowledges the principles and outward acts of piety and integrity [Rechtlichkeit] even within the pretence in whose interest he abuses them (Philosophy of Right, Section 140(e))

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Given a consistent moral standard, or more generally a consistent set of values, it is certainly possible to show that actions are right or wrong despite what some people may believe. For example, if the people of Salem, a couple of centuries ago, valued human life and believed it was wrong to kill people without good reason, and you could demonstrate to them the people they were burning were not actually witches, they would come to understand that those actions were wrong.

However, the question you seem to be asking implies that there is a "standard of standards" (I'll refer to this as a meta-standard) upon which we can judge if a certain moral standard is better than another. Even if we have such a thing, we immediately are hit with the question "what makes that meta-standard morally superior to a different meta-standard?" If we appeal to a meta-meta-standard upon which we can evaluate meta-standards we again run into the same problem.

To be able to determine if one moral standard is superior to another without running into this infinite regress, you must be able to show there is a set of values that is objectively superior to all others.

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Technically correct answer: yes.

The answer you're really seeking: no.

Can you measure rightness? Sure, you can come up with a system that tries to objectively quantify morality. An examples includes the rating systems for movies (MPAA) and AAMA for video game arcades.

However, the reason I say "no" is because people have different standards. For instance, I value personal sacrifice and peacemaking, while my father values working hard. Which of us has a more moral view? All of these can be good things, but coming up with a single score would mean determining which of these is more valuable than others. That is not something you're likely to get universal agreement on.

For instance, one of the driving reasons I value personal sacrifice so much is the similarity to Jesus. This value absolutely seems to be religiously motivated. I should not expect that different people will have the exact same values, particularly if they have different religious views.

Another rating system I can think of is RSACi, which allowed a publisher (e.g., a video game maker) to rate things in different categories, such as violence and language. That helps to avoid the problem of trying to come up with a single unified category. If Americans don't seem to mind fictional violence (as much as the Europeans seem to mind it) and Europeans don't seem to mind showing more skin (as much as the Americans seem to mind it), then each can see the ratings themselves. Still, there is subjectivity: how is the "language" rating measured? Is one loud screaming of an undesirable word worse than 4 utterances of a word that is a bit less undesirable? Sure, you can create some specific guidelines that can be followed when rating something, but any quantification method is likely to be just as disputable.

One claim I've heard of God is that he is supercultural; above any one specific culture. That was actually quite pleasing to me, because it was humbling; it indicated that our current culture's values aren't perfect either. Philosophy won't be able to provide a universally accepted answer about which values are the best, for the same sorts of reasons why philosophy hasn't been able to provide a universally accepted answer about which religion is right (based purely on objective observation). By the time we get that a-third-of-the-way figured out, our next generation will happily undo much of our current way of thinking, creating their own points of view which will mix in some superior ideas and some inferior ideas.

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