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Morality: Objective, Emotive or Relative? #introphil

We all live with some sense of what is good or bad, some feelings about which ways of conducting ourselves are better or worse. But what is the status of these moral beliefs, senses, or feelings? Should we think of them as reflecting hard, objective facts about our world, of the sort that scientists could uncover and study? Or should we think of moral judgements as mere expressions of personal or cultural preferences? This week we’ll survey some of the different options that are available when we’re thinking about these issues, and the problems and prospects for each.

Empirical judgements are based on scientific testing or practical experiences. They are derived from experiment and observation rather than theory.

Examples of empirical judgements:

  • The earth and other planets rotate around sun.
  • There are + and – electrical charges.
  • Some traits in plants are genetically inherited.
  • The so-called “God” particle is real.
  • The sky is blue.
  • The book is on the desk.

Moral judgments are evaluations or opinions formed as to whether some action or inaction, intention, motive, character trait, or a person as a whole is (more or less) Good or Bad as measured against some standard of Good. – http://www3.sympatico.ca/saburns/pg0402.htm

Moral judgements are an evaluation of someone or something as good, bad or right, wrong.

Examples of moral judgements:

  • Giving to charity is morally good.
  • Taking care of your children is morally required.
  • Protesting injustice is morally right.
  • Cain killing Abel out of jealousy was morally wrong.
  • Oedipus sleeping with his mother was morally bad.
  • Genocide is morally abhorrent.
  • Polygamy is morally dubious.

Status of Morality:

We make moral judgements in everyday life. Here, we won’t be discussing whether these moral judgements are correct or incorrect. Rather, we will be asking the status of these judgments. What are we doing when we make such judgements? Are we representing objective facts of matter? Or are we describing our personal or cultural practices? Are we depicting some element of the universe out there? Are we expressing our emotions toward things? These are the types of questions that we ask, when we ask about the status of morality. What exactly are we asking, when we ask about the status of morality?

Three questions about these judgments:

  • Are they the sorts of judgments that can be true or false – or are they mere opinion?
  • If they can be true/false, what makes them true/false?
  • If they are true, are they objectively true?

Three philosophical approaches to the status of morality:

Objectivism: our moral judgments are the sorts of things that can be true or false, and what makes them true or false are facts that are generally independent of who we are or what cultural groups we belong to – they are objective moral facts. It is the view that there are universal moral principles, valid for all people and all situations and times. It holds that moral principles have objective validity and that this validity is independent of cultural acceptance. Moral principles are universal but with some exceptions.

Relativism: our moral judgments are indeed true or false, but they’re only true or false relative to something that can vary between people.

Cultural Relativism: our moral judgments are indeed true or false, but they’re only true or false relative to the culture of the person who makes them.

Subjectivism: our moral judgments are indeed true or false, but they’re only true or false relative to the subjective feelings of the person who makes them. “X is bad” = “I dislike X”. Subjectivism is a form of relativism

Emotivism: moral judgments are neither objectively true/false nor relatively true/false.  They’re direct expressions of our emotive reactions. It is essentially the denial or moral truth.

So then is Morality Objective, Subjective or Emotive?

Objections to these approaches:

Objectivism: our moral judgements are the sorts of things that can be true or false, and what makes them true or false are facts that are generally independent of who we are or what cultural groups we belong to – they are objective moral facts.

Challenge to Objectivism: Important difference between

  • how we determine whether something’s morally right/wrong
  • how we determine whether an empirical claim is true/false

With a moral judgment, like, genocide is morally abhorrent, or polygamy is morally dubious, if somebody disagrees with you, it seems difficult to know what method we would use to settle the issue. How do we figure out who’s right about the issue? It doesn’t look like we can observe the world and find the moral facts in the same way that we can with the empirical facts. Can Objectivists explain this intuitive difference?

Relativism: our moral judgements are indeed true or false, but they’re only true or false relative to something that can vary between people.

Challenge to Relativism: It seems like there’s such a thing as moral progress. Can Relativists explain this possibility? For example, in the past people thought that slavery was perfectly fine but now we think of slavery as morally abhorrent. That seems like a piece of moral progress, we’ve gone from a bad view to a good view. But if the relativist view is right, somebody in the past said slavery is morally okay, that could be true relative to that culture. Whereas someone now says slavery is, slavery’s morally wrong, that could be true relative to our culture. So, there’s a sort of difference in opinion, but there’s no progress in opinion. So the basic challenge here for the relativists is to explain the possibility of moral progress.

Emotivism: moral judgements are neither objectively true/false nor relatively true/false.  They’re direct expressions of our emotive reactions.

Challenge to Emotivism: It seems like we can use reason to arrive at our moral judgments like we use reason to arrive at our empirical judgments. But how can Emotivists explain this intuitive similarity?

We sometimes reason our way to our moral views, our moral opinions. But if emotivism is right, then our moral opinions are just a mode of reactions, they are not reasoned responses to questions about morality. So think about the example of Oedipus is sleeping with his mother Jocasta, was morally bad. He might have initially thought, that’s right, but then reasoning, Oh well, Oedipus didn’t know it was his mother and so it wasn’t culpable what he did. Come to think, well, it wasn’t morally bad. So that kind of transition, changing your mind through reason, is really hard for the emotivist to explain because the emotivist thinks that the ultimate judgements that you make when you make moral judgements, they are emotive reactions, not reasoned responses to beliefs about the way things are, with morality. So, the basic challenge to emotivism is to explain how we can reason to our moral views.