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Thread: Ethics and Meta-Ethics

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    Ethics and Meta-Ethics



    There are three branches of Ethics:

    - Applied Ethics = addresses specific ethical questions and problems

    - Normative Ethics = examines the rules and principles that guide our behaviour, develops general moral theories: virtue ethics, utilitarianism, consequentialism, etc.

    - Meta-Ethics =
    what is the meaning of moral statements. Can moral statements be true or false. Are there objective moral facts? Is morality universal or relative? Meta-Ethics does not address specific moral questions and problems, but rather deals conceptual analysis of moral theories.

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    Cognitivism vs. Non-Cognitivism

    Cognitivism
    is the view that moral statements are truth-apt. "Abortion is wrong" is equivalent to "Abortion has the property of 'wrongness' ".

    Non-Cognitivism
    denies that moral statements are truth-apt. "Abortion is wrong" is equivalent to merely expressing emotional disapproval of abortion, or it expresses a command not to abort (i.e. "don't abort!").

    Cognitivism:
    Moral statements express propositions.
    Non-Cognitivism
    denies this.

    Are you a moral cognitivist or non-cognitivist?

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    Are any moral statements true?

    If the answer is yes, then what makes them true? Are moral properties objective independent of people's opinions?
    If the answer is no, then nothing has the property of being right/wrong or good/bad. This is called "Error Theory". Under Error Theory, all ethical claims are false.

    The Error Theorist has to defend two claims:

    1) Moral statements should be taken at face value
    2) We have good reason to believe that there are no objective moral values

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    Subjectivism (Individualist Subjectivism) - a form of relativism
    Moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes of the individuals who utter them. The truth of falsity or moral statements is relative to the individual.

    Cultural Subjectivism (Cultural Relativism)
    Moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes of the culture as a whole.
    Something is right or wrong only relative to a particular culture.

    Both of the above are versions of relativism. Relativism asserts the rightness or wrongness of moral claims are only evaluable with respect to a point of view or frame of reference.

    Are you moral relativist?
    There are two ways to be relativist, individualist relativism and cultural relativism.
    If you are relativist, which of these describes you better?

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    If however one holds that moral properties are objective and independent of people's opinions, then the following positions apply:

    Moral Realism says:
    some moral statements are true, and they are true in virtue of mind-independent features of the world. It asserts that "wrongness" is a mind-independent property of certain actions.

    Are moral properties natural properties? What's the distinction between natural and non-natural properties?

    Moral Naturalism vs. Non-Naturalism

    What is a natural property? A first approximation: natural properties are those that feature in a scientific description of the world, those we come to know about through empirical study. We use our senses to come to recognize natural properties (a posteriori, part of the fabric of the natural world).

    Moral Nauralism states that moral properties are natural (like pleasure and pain are natural).
    Moral Non-Naturalism denies this, and moral properties don't figure into a scientific picture of the world.

    Are you a moral realist? Are you a moral naturalist or non-naturalist?

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    Non-Cognitivism - moral statements express emotional attitudes.

    According to Emotivism, moral statements don't report anything. They're simply expressions of emotion.

    Prescriptivism: Moral statements are imperative and express commands, i.e. "Abortion is wrong" = "Don't abort!".

    Quasi-realism begins with the observation that we often tend to act as though moral statements are true or false. People seem to treat moral statements as if true or false whether they can be true or false. Quasi-realism says that even though moral statements have no truth-value, it's perfectly reasonable to act as though they do.

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    The is-ought problem states that we cannot derive normative statements which are about how the world ought to be from descriptive statements, which are about how the world is. We cannot derive values from facts. The only way to derive our normative conclusion is to add a normative statement to descriptive premises.

    The fact-value distinction states there is a fundamental metaphysical gap between facts and values.

    Moral Realism

    1) Moral statements express propositions. So it is a form of congnitivism.
    2) Some moral statements are true
    3) Moral statements are true and false in virtue of mind-independent properties of the world. Moral values are out there in the world. They are not just human constitutions.

    Why be a moral realist?

    1) Moral realism accords best with common sense. Moral statements seem to work like factual statements.
    2) Moral realism accounts for the special force of moral judgments. Rationally compelling force to the claim that slavery is wrong.
    3) I might be wrong about some of the moral views that I hold. We can make moral statements because there are moral facts.
    4) Societies seem to exhibit progress, particularly in the convergence of values. There is convergence on empirical claims such as the story of the origin of life (accepted by every educated person). The moral realist suggests that the best explanation for moral convergence is that people are recognizing moral facts.

    Are you a moral realist? Which reasons (of the above four) do you give for your realism?

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    What distinguishes Natural from non-Natural properties?

    1) Natural properties are those that figure in a mature scientific description of the world.
    Problem: What is science? Which sciences? It's difficult to characterize exactly what science or a scientific description is.

    2) Natural properties are those directly or indirectly observable by the senses.

    3) Natural propositions are those that exist in space and time.

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    Moral Non-Naturalism

    Moral properties are not reducible to natural properties, they are something 'over and beyond' natural properties. Moral properties supervene on natural properties. Property A supervenes on property B just in case there can be no change in the property A without changing property B. If two events differ in their moral properties, they must also differ in their natural properties.

    If we allow that moral properties may differ without change in natural properties, then moral properties float free in a domain of their own. Moral properties have a strong dependence on natural properties, but are not one and the same.

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    I am a moral non-naturalist, realist, and cognitivist.

    non-naturalist
    = moral properties are dependent on natural properties but supervene on them rather than being identical to them. Implication is that science alone cannot be sufficient for morality.

    realist = there are such things as moral truths, not just opinions, but moral facts.

    cognitivist = moral statements express moral propositions, rather than being emotional attitudes or dispositions. Moral statements can be true or false. Like facts can exist and not exist, like state of affairs that can obtain or fail to obtain.

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    The Naturalistic Fallacy or Appeal to Nature is a logical fallacy that is committed whenever an argument attempts to derive what is good from what is natural. Originally it was considered a type of equivocation, wherein the word "good" was used in the sense of "pleasant" or "effective" in the premises, and in the sense of "moral" or "ethical" in the conclusion. Now it refers to any case in which someone refers to something as morally necessary simply because it is more natural.

    The converse argument, where one assumes that whatever is good must be part of the natural order, is known as the "moralistic fallacy".
    A trivial example:

    P1. Apples are good to eat (meaning they are delicious or have nutritional value).
    C. Therefore people who eat apples are better people (meaning more ethical).

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    Moralistic fallacy

    The moralistic fallacy is a type of argument wherein one assumes that one's own moral values are reflected in the natural world, or, alternatively, that because some course of action is good, reality must be such that that course of action is the simplest or most obvious. This fallacy is closely related to the "naturalistic fallacy".

    The moralistic fallacy often appears to be the same as an appeal to consequences. The difference is that the appeal to consequences suggests that if it would be beneficial for something to be true, it must be true, whereas the moralistic fallacy starts with a value and asserts that because holding that value is good, it must be supported by a natural phenomenon.

    An infamous example:
    1. War, prejudice, and senseless violence are bad.
    2. Therefore, war, prejudice, and senseless violence are artificial human inventions, not present in other species.

    Theist example 1:
    1. Faith in God is a virtue.
    2. Therefore all human beings naturally believe in God (there are no atheists).

    Theist example 2:
    1. Belief in a divine plan gives more purpose and meaning to people's lives.
    2. Evolution is either false or was orchestrated directly by God.
    3. Prayer and meditation can have some psychological benefit, such as by reducing anxiety.
    4. Therefore, prayer and meditation have whatever natural or supernatural effects the practitioners think they have.

    Regarding evolution:
    1. Complex organisms, especially intelligent ones such as humans, are more (ethically) valuable than other types of organism.
    2. Therefore the "goal" of evolution is to produce more "highly evolved" creatures like humans out of "lower" organisms like bacteria.

    Note: evolution, of course, has no "goal". Natural selection simply says that organisms and genes which are not good enough at producing copies of themselves will die out and/or be displaced by competitors. It is indifferent to human judgments regarding which organisms are "more complex" or ethically better.

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    As David Hume pointed out, knowing about the physical world never, by itself, tells you how to behave ethically. To behave ethically, you must not only know what is out there, but also have a value system that tells you what ought to be out there and what your place ought to be in making that happen. Knowing about the natural world is not enough to build a moral system.

    The is-ought problem is a meta-ethical philosophical concept articulated by David Hume. Hume's argument states that prescriptive statements, also known as moral statements or "ought" statements, cannot be derived from purely descriptive ("is") statements. The implication of the concept: there is no way to justify morality based solely on observational evidence. This type of argument is a form of non sequitur in that the conclusion does not follow from the premises.

    In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume states:

    "In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason."

    The is-ought problem is commonly interpreted to mean: we cannot infer what we morally ought to do from purely factual premises. We can't derive an "ought" from an "is." Further reading of Hume gives a different emphasis. Regarding willful murder, he says:

    "The vice entirely escapes you as long as you consider the object. You will never find it until you turn your reflection into your own breast and find a sentiment of disapprobation that derives from you towards this action."

    In other words, evil isn't a feature of willful murder but in a judgment arising in sentiment. However Hume criticizes those who mistake their own feelings about things like murder for intrinsic qualities like murder.

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    Implications of the is-ought problem

    This objection is a significant obstacle in using logical argument to demonstrate any ethic system based purely on evidence or science. Given the facts "Alice has food", "Bob is starving", "Alice could give the food to Bob", these statements do no in themselves imply "Alice should give food to Bob". Moral systems cannot be based entirely on evidence and reason. They must be abandoned or justified on other grounds such as axiomatic assumptions or non-rational means.

    "If God does not exist, and evolution is true, then is would be immoral to help the weak, because this stunts the natural course of evolution by allowing the genes of the weak to continue in the gene pool."

    If evolution is true, it does not follow we ought to follow any particular course of action.

    Is-ought argument against divine obedience
    Theists often assume the Bible is the word of God and that thinking implies God should be obeyed:

    Holy books contain ethical standards. (descriptive)
    Let us assume the holy book is God's true opinion on ethics. (descriptive)

    However, from just these premises, we cannot automatically conclude we ought to obey God, because this is a prescriptive statement.

    Once the Bible is established as God's word, it is normal for a believer to assume absolute morality exists. However, absolute morality needs to be established separately because God could claim that absolute morality exists without this actually being the case. In other words, God inspiring the Bible does not automatically imply the Bible is true or should be obeyed.

    Criticism of Secular Morality
    Secular morality refers to moral systems that are not based on God or the Bible. Christian apologetics have attacked secular ideas of absolute morality based on reason and evidence alone. Unless the is-ought problem is addressed, absolute morality cannot be justified with only reason and evidence. However, atheists may use an alternative ethical basis, such as intuition, acceptance of cultural norms or dogmatism.

    False dichotomy between descriptive and prescriptive statements
    Separating statements into descriptive and prescriptive groups is arguably a false dichotomy

    "Natural" can mean many things, and none of them are the same as "moral"
    "Natural" as opposed to "artificial" is not the same as moral, or else we would be obliged to give up sanitation, penicillin, airplanes, modern agriculture, and other life-saving inventions as "immoral".

    "Natural" as opposed to "supernatural" is not the same as moral. For one, many theists believe in both evil supernatural beings like demons or malevolent spirits and in good supernatural beings like gods or angels. For another, many people who believe in no supernatural phenomena at all have detailed moral codes.

    "Natural" meaning "biological" as opposed to "cultural" is not the same as moral. Both altruism and psychopathy seem to have roots in human physiology. Similarly, cultural influences can be either good or bad.

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    Objective morality is the idea that a certain system of ethics or set of moral judgments is not just true according to a person's subjective opinion, but factually true. Proponents of this theory would argue that a statement like "Murder is wrong" can be as objectively true as "1 + 1 = 2." Most of the time, the alleged source is God, or the Kantian categorical imperative; arguably, no objective source of morality has ever been confirmed, nor have any a priori proofs been offered to the effect that morality is anything other than subjective.

    The moral principles that people claim to be "objective" usually coincide very well with what they feel subjectively to be true. When pressed to provide justification, the person in question will usually just fail to understand that morality might not be objective, and might consequently grow increasingly doubtful or hysterical as the subjective bases of their arguments are progressively revealed, as has been observed in recent times.

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    Absolute morality postulates that what is moral and what is immoral is independent of circumstances and unchanging. It is very popular with religion believers because it fits their use of holy texts to determine morality. The opposite view is moral relativism.
    Assuming absolute morality is the only form of morality is a popular assumption by apologists:
    "But how do they define immoral? Well, the only way to do that is to appeal to moral absolutes—which are found in God’s Word."

    Moral relativism
    on the other hand postulates that morals can be somewhat flexible, dependent on circumstances, and develops as education and understanding progresses. This acknowledges that cultural differences across different times and different regions may mean that what people consider moral can change. This change, particularly over time, is sometimes known as the moral zeitgeist, from the German "spirit of the times". Hence once slavery was accepted in parts of the western world, it now is not - or at least it has been outsourced to poorer countries and prisons. Moral relativism isn't without criticism as it is viewed as lending justification to clearly immoral acts by effectively saying "well, they do things differently over there".

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    Questions for users:

    1. Are you moral absolutist?
    2. Are you moral relativist?
    3. Do you believe in objective moral values and duties?
    4. Are you cognitivist or non-cognitivist?

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    Morality refers to the concept of human ethics which pertains to matters of good and evil — also referred to as "right or wrong". Morality is generally discussed within three contexts:

    1. matters of individual conscience;
    2. systems of principles and judgments — sometimes called moral values — shared within a cultural, religious, secular, humanist, or philosophical community; and
    3. codes of behavior or conduct.

    Philosophers, social commentators and theists have been arguing about morality for thousands of years. There are many different moral systems and ways of categorising them.

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    Deontological morality

    When William Lane Craig says that we have "absolute moral duties" is to say we have certain moral obligations regardless whether or not we think we do. This is a concept with similar empirical in-conceptual problems. If absolutely no one is aware of a duty to do X, the idea of having such a duty gets us no purchase. Again, there is no problem in saying given better information, justifications based on falsehoods get to be eliminated while new justifications emerge. If the members of society X are genuinely protective of others from a state of mental disorder for demon possession they see as a threat, they may feel a moral duty consistent with these attitudes, may be a duty to destroy their perceived threat. If they outgrow their belief in possession and learn about brain dis-function, they may feel a new duty to care for those with mental disorders. It is not that they discovered a hither or two unknown absolute duty to help than rather harm these people, it is given their initially protective attitude, their sense of duty changes in response to change in information. As before, much of the sense of what we ought to do may come initially from instinct rather than conscious reasoning. Again, empathic instincts influence much of our behavior, and it is easy to see how much this instinct would evolve, how natural selection would favor groups of humans whose instinct was to protect each other over individuals who were trying to survive on a hostile planet with no one to protect them. But as before, having advantageous instincts that motivate us to behave or stop behaving in a certain way, isn't evidence of absolute duties.

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    Intuitive morality

    Some defend moral absolutism by claiming 'moral values' are a property we detect with a special faculty of moral perception. But notice this is no longer supporting divine existence as the moral argument is claimed to. And only proposing new phenomenon in need of their own independent support, and each has problems. For example, how can it be shown that Q is morally good, they have detected a value of goodness that is part of Q itself rather than making a subjective evaluation that Q is good. We can't appeal to consensus. Agreement of Q still doesn't tell us the goodness is part of Q rather than something we are ascribing. Besides, this particular moral argument is Premise 2 deems agreement irrelevant. Nor can we appeal to innate tendencies even if it can shown to have predisposition to find Q good. That wouldn't show Q has absolute goodness, it would only indicate that we predisposed to value Q subjectively. We may value life, but from sliding from "I value to life" to "life has subjective value" makes the same mistake as sliding from "I find slugs revolting" to "slugs are intrinsically revolting." It is falsely projecting our own attitude onto the object of our attitude.

    As Mackie notes, wants and demands give rise to the notion of something being absolutely good or having intrinsic value by reversing the direction of dependence. So instead of saying our evaluation of a things goodness depend on our desire, our desire for a thing seem to depend on the thing's goodness.

    Saying "intuition lets us KNOW what's morally good or bad" also needs to be challenged. The weaker claim that moral intuition is a kind of instinctive judgment can be granted. It is true that instinctive feelings can lead us judge actions immoral without conscious reasoning. For example, empathy leads us quickly to apprehend that the distress of a child being attacked, a moral judgment may arrive in our awareness almost instantly. Our brains process information rapidly, and its easy to see how having protective instincts came to give us an advantage while trying to survive together on a hostile planet. But having useful advantageous instincts isn't evidence that we are accessing absolute moral knowledge. We do well to treat our intuition with more caution, they frequently mislead us.

    Contrary to appearance, these squares are not moving, but we seem hardwired to make a false interpretation. Much of what we discover about ourselves and about the world is counter-intuitive. For example, we tend to care and donate more when charities show us cases of a single rater than a mass suffering. A fascinating article looking into this 'identifiable victim' effect (Slovic, P. 2007. Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 2, no. 2), Paul Slovic notes how we are generally less effected as the number of victims presented to us increases and discusses the unsettling implications it stands on our moral tendencies. Sometimes what one intuitive thinks X to be self-evidently morally bad, another intuitive states X is self-evidently morally neutral. If they both appeal to intuition, this only tells us that they they each 'know' they're right. To make a valid case, they need to do more. This subjective experience of believing a thing to be so obvious is to require no explanation, no self-guaranteeing. This is especially true with morality when people are prone to mistaken feelings for moral knowledge. While intuition may be a source of useful questions, our brains are too error-prone to regard in as a reliable source of objective answers.

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