Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Distinction Between Morality and Ethics (Part 2)

The widespread disagreement between different cultures on ethical matters and the fact that moral norms change over time even within the one community indicates that moral judgements are conventional rather than objective judgements. However, we can argue all we want about moral questions but finally when we are faced with moral choices we are guided by our feelings. Does this provide a good reason for us to accept individual subjectivism as the nature of moral judgements? It seems now that it is only pertinent that we discuss metaethics in greater detail, so I will invest some time towards the cause of elaborating on the theories of the nature of moral judgements.

In daily discussions about moral issues, we say things like "I think public lynching is a bad thing", or "the honour killing of women is a terrible evil", or "There is nothing morally wrong with homosexuality"; making these statements sound similar to factual judgements like "Water is composed of H2O", or "Karachi is the largest city in Pakistan", or "The Baadshahi Masjid is in Lahore", or "Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist". However, factual statements are always universally true- true for everyone and anyone regardless of their cultural background or what their feelings about that matter are, but obviously we cannot test the truth of moral judgements in a similar manner. So what is the nature of moral judgements? Are they in any sense factual? Can they be universally true or false? or are they simply social conventions or perhaps expressions of subjective feelings or desires or preferences?

The Socratic view that moral benefit and harm can be distinguished from natural benefit and harm does not help us with these questions. For even if we accept the Socratic view, we still have to ask whether there are any universal standards of moral right and wrong- any moral truths or facts. There are three basic views about this issue- Ethical Relativism, Ethical Subjectivism and Ethical Objectivism. Relativism and Subjectivism (at least in its most common form) both say that moral beliefs and judgements are nothing like factual judgements and so there can be no moral truths and no universal standards of right and wrong. Objectivism says that moral beliefs and judgements are like factual judgements in important ways and so there can be moral truths and universal standards.

Metaethical theories of Ethics:

A) Relativism: moral beliefs and judgements are social conventions and the product of a particular community's history: what makes a belief or judgement morally right or wrong, good or evil, is the approval or disapproval of the community- what is right for us or wrong for us.

The initial plausibility of Relativism arrives from two realizations:
Firstly, the widespread differences between the moral beliefs and practices of particular societies and secondly, the changes in moral beliefs in the same society over time- the rejection of slavery in America for example.

Problems with Relativism:

1) There are no grounds for arguing against the perceived evils of other societies such as, South African Apartheid, tribal female circumcision, or against the perceived evils of our own community- how can a convention be mistaken? Does relativism take account of moral argument?

2) Morality according to relativism seems to be reduced to a majority view- the majority might is right; alternatively, at least in modern societies, morality is splintered into the conflicting beliefs of the many sub-groups that compose our community (how widespread does a belief have to be before it is a convention?)

3) If a relativist says that we should tolerate the moral conventions of other societies or groups, there is the danger of self-contradiction- is tolerance a universal moral principle or irself only a convention of the Relativist community? Also, what of the view that Relativism is incorrect, should we tolerate that view or not?

4) If the Relativist goes on to claim that all forms of judgement and belief, factual and scientific as well as moral, are merely social conventions, then we can ask whether this judgement- that all judgements are conventional- is itself only a social convention. And if it is, why should we accept it as true?

...more later


  1. As always a great piece of writing. Really impressed by the distinctions drawn between conventions and morals.