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We as humans have ethics, giving us the ability to know what's good and evil, what's ethical what's not, yet what I consider ethical, others don't, so in theory how can we prove anything is ethical when the word ethical has a meaning entitled to each individual?

My question is:

How can we prove that something is ethical, when ethical has a meaning to each human?

P.S Of course there are many things that are agreed upon by most (murder, cruelty, inhumanity etc), but I'm not discussing them, I'm discussing ethics in a social way.

  • I'm not sure there are any social norms which are universal. But otherwise we can use sociological methods to prove there are. – rus9384 Aug 17 '18 at 9:25
  • @rus9384 yes that's true, but when talking about each individual, it's a step into psychology, rather than sociology, what's acceptable in societies depends on many aspects, religion, groups, minorities. After all, in western societies I see more acceptance than eastern and southern societies, no offence to anyone, I'm personally from a small society which is closed, unwilling to change, but just to point out that, societies have many aspects which affect their ethics. – captindfru Aug 17 '18 at 9:39
  • Are you confusing ethical with moral? Ethics is a study, and the ethics of some people are anathema to others. Morality is essentially universal. It is based on the concept of 'do unto others'. A person's ethics may deem killing 500 to save 5000 acceptable, but we all know that killing anyone is immoral. – Richard Aug 17 '18 at 23:15
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There's a couple of facets that make this a complex question.

First, there's a question about how brain or mind works in categorizing things as good or bad (right or wrong, good or evil if you prefer). There's multiple theories about that works and how it relates to naturalism. Stated at the simplest level, the question is whether we are making judgments based on positive/negative outcomes or something else. Here, it seems to be a fact that we make moral judgments.

Second, there's a question of whether these judgments are objective or universal or merely private. Here, moral realists assert that our moral judgments (or some subset of them) do identify objectively true moral claims whereas moral anti-realists (whether relativists or nihilists or something else) believe they are just feelings. This ties back into the question of what is happening in moral judgments.

A second layer is if there are other ways of getting moral knowledge such as through relationships or divine commands or laws.

Unfortunately, the language we use to talk about morality often blurs whether we are looking at layer one or layer two.

Finally, there's a question of proof.

So when you write:

how can we prove anything is ethical when the word ethical has a meaning entitled to each individual?

This confuses the question on the first and second layer. Mapped out, it's saying:

How can we prove there are objective moral facts 
when there are subjective moral judgments?

There's not going to be a single answer to this question, but there are roughly speaking three possible answers people have in philosophy:

  1. Moral judgments are subjective and moral non-realism = no objective moral facts.
  2. Moral judgments are subjective and moral realism = some mechanism connects judgments to facts and goes wrong in some cases.
  3. Moral judgments are subjective and skeptical moral realism = moral facts but not able to connect our judgments to them.
  4. Moral judgments are not subjective and moral realism = natural law theory and other approaches that see the two as tightly integrated...
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My question is:

How can we prove that something is ethical, when ethical has a meaning to each human?

First, if you're looking for us to 'prove' things with absolute certainty (as in mathematics), it should be clear that that is not going to work in ethics. But note we can't get absolute certainty in science either: the core of scientific reasoning consists of generalizations and inferences to the best explanation, neither of which is deductive. So if you're looking for any kind of certainty, we can't even get that in science, let alone ethics.

This may seem like a small point, but I have seen far too many people hold a kind of false dilemma to the following effect:

"Either we can prove things with certainty, or else anyone's opinion is just as valid as anyone else's"

Well, I assume that you would consider science to be an area where it is not true that anyone's opinion is just as valid as anyone else's (or that any theory is just as plausible as any other), even though we also do not prove things with absolute certainty in science either. In other words, there is a wide area between absolute certainty and complete subjectivity; an area where we can certainly argue that certain ideas, viewpoints, or theories are better than others.

But yes, I sense that you don't recognize this wide area between absolute certainty and total subjectivity, and instead buy into the kind of false dilemma I expressed earlier. That is, you say things like:

"what I consider ethical, others don't"

"ethical has a meaning to each human"

which suggest that you see ethics as a matter of pure personal opinion; as if ethical questions are not any different from questions like: "which flavor ice cream do you prefer?"

I find especially telling your:

P.S Of course there are many things that are agreed upon by most (murder, cruelty, inhumanity etc), but I'm not discussing them, I'm discussing ethics in a social way.

Here, you seem to try and make a clear-cut distinction between two types of ethics: ethics where there is a lot of agreement (i.e. some 'objectivity') ... and ethics where it's all just a subjective, social, relativist crap-shoot

But, ask yourself this: on what ethical issue is there really no agreement at all? I mean, even with ice cream flavors we find agreement ... I doubt many people would find Frozen RoadKill to be the best flavor. And when it comes to any of the typical ethical debates (abortion, euthanasia, etc.) where it looks like there is a lot of agreement, please realize that there is actually a lot of agreement if you look a little closer. E.g. if we look at abortion from the standpoint of the mother who wants the abortion, we all understand that the abortion would be a good thing. But, from the standpoint of the fetus, not so. So, what we really disagree on, is how to resolve these conflicting values. But on the specific values themselves, we actually find a ton of agreement: we all value freedom, happiness, health, etc. etc.

So, when it comes to ethical issues, we can take those commonly shared values, and use those as a basis to argue for ('prove' in the non-mathematical sense) things.

Also, the fact that not everybody will agree to certain values (i.e. it is not 100% universal) should not stop us: the strength of the argument can be judged relative to the level of agreement to the premises. And again, the case here in ethics is not any different than in science: if scientists make an argument on the basis of the theories of evolution or climate change, well, even among scientists not everyone agrees to those theories. Hell, even some mathematicians question the use of the reductio ad absurdum.

In sum, I urge you to move away from the false dilemma, black-and-white worldview that you apparently share with (unfortunately!) many other people. We can make arguments in ethics, and argue that certain ethical positions are better than others, even if 'proof' (in the strong sense of the word) is unavailable.

  • Well, the only thing between aesthetics and ethics is that ethical views can be inconsistent. In asthetics it's impossible, either you find something tasty/beautful/etc. or not. You can't prove someone is wrong it his/her taste because tastes are consistent. In ethics the only clue is to press on the inconstency in ethical theories. – rus9384 Aug 17 '18 at 16:56
  • @rus9384 Hmm, I think something analogous can happen in aesthetics though: I can find something beautiful in one respect, yet find the same thing rather ugly in another. – Bram28 Aug 17 '18 at 16:58
  • It's not inconsistency. It just means it's not universally true that given thing is beaultiful. Not all propositions must be universally quantified. That's true for both ethics and aesthetics, as well, as mathematics and science. – rus9384 Aug 17 '18 at 17:04
  • @rus9384 Ah. Well, we're in agreement there. – Bram28 Aug 17 '18 at 17:06
  • By the way, "from the standpoint of the fetus" is something meaningless, as we can't even imagine if a fetus has standpoint. And it's more plausible to say it doesn't. But even otherwise it's something we can't understand. But there are other disagreements, like views on LGBT. Personally, I find them being based on aesthetical feelings therefore being invalid in ethics. And well, not all people can be convinced through reason or reward. Unfortunately. – rus9384 Aug 17 '18 at 17:10
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How can we prove something is ethical?

If I understand your question correctly then you're asking a question of Moral Epistemology. That is, assuming that some sort of morality exists then we can ask:
1) How can we know or find out a specific moral judgment?

We as humans have ethics, giving us the ability to know what's good and evil, what's ethical what's not, yet what I consider ethical, others don't, so in theory how can we prove anything is ethical when the word ethical has a meaning entitled to each individual?

This part goes more into the metaethical area. It's a different question we can also pose, something like:
2) Are there moral facts and, if so, is their truth value objective/universal or not?

Then we can also apply the methodological question on the metaethical issue, namely:

3) How can we prove/find out the answer to question 2?

And so on. So, depending on which question we ask we will need to look at different areas of philosophy.

How can we prove that something is ethical, when ethical has a meaning to each human?

Because of this part I believe you mainly go into the direction of asking question 1, and, because of its strong connection, also partly question 2.

So we can split this up:

How can we prove that something is ethical ...

This is a question about moral epistemology

when ethical has a meaning to each human?

This is also about moral epistemology because different people may have different moral intuitions. But it connects to metaethics because depending on our metaethical stance we deal with moral disagreement differently.

For the metaethical quetion, I'll just mention this. A Moral Realist would simply argue that someone is mistaken and that there is at least one moral fact. Whereas a Moral Relativist would say that moral facts are different for different groups. And a Moral Error Theorist would argue that there are no moral facts, so all moral intuitions are wrong. (The answer of virmaior also goes into the connection between judgment and metaethics.)

So, what about question 1? In ethics, there are some methodologies on how we should deal with our ethical intuitions. Our choice depends on our epistemological stances, that is, how we look and knowledge and at justification. So, the question

How can we know or find out a specific moral judgment?

becomes

How can we know/justify anything at all?

and then we go back to ask what that means in the case of moral intutions and moral judgment. The IEP has a handy article on this question of Moral Epistemology.

In contemporary ethics, there's also a subfield that deals with choice under moral uncertainty which is also quite interesting. So if we aren't sure which moral theories are correct or which moral judgments are correct then how ought we behave? Here's a very short bit that mentions some positions on the former issue of moral uncertainty.

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