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Lecture 02/Prompt 02: What is Ethics? (Cont’d) | Environmental Ethics

Lecture 02/Prompt 02: What is Ethics? (Cont’d)

Take Away Points:

  • The meaning of metaethics
  • The difference between moral realism and moral relativism
  • The difference between objective, subjective, and intersubjective
  • The importance of the epistemic boundary
  • Why the process of ethics is intersubjective

The Moral Continuum

Yesterday we talked about descriptive and normative ethics.  There is a third area of ethics called metaethics.  Metaethics is concerned with what ethics is and how it should be practiced.  For our purposes, we can consider one metaethical question: Are moral claims like opinions or like physical objects?

What does this question mean?  Consider how we regard statements about opinion versus statements about physical objects.  If I claim, “Chocolate is the best flavor ice cream!” and you respond “No, vanilla is!” the conventional wisdom is that there is nothing important about the difference to resolve.  In other words, neither of us is wrong or, perhaps even better, we are both right.  This is because opinion–to which ice cream preference belongs–is something completely subjective.  When I claim that there is a gas station at the corner of Main St. and Beethoven St., you can check that claim against some fact external to me.  This means that whether the gas station exists or not is an objective fact.  When I make the claim, I reference something outside of me: namely the physical existence of the gas station.  And you, another person, can check my claim against that external physical fact.  In contrast, it is generally held that there is no external fact to check preference of ice cream flavor against–it is entirely based on the individual.  So, a subjective claim is based solely on the perspective of the individual making the claim and does not appeal to any further fact, while an objective claim appeals to something outside of the individual that can be checked by another individual.

So, when I ask “Are moral claims like opinions or like objects?”, I am really asking “Are moral claims subjective or objective?”

There are different answers to this question, which can be represented on a continuum.  On one side is moral realism, which holds that moral claims are objectively true–there is a fact in the world we can point to in order to support our moral claims.  On the other side is moral relativism, which holds that moral claims are subjectively true–the truth of morality is entirely tied to the human perspective.  Moral realists hold that morality is a fact about the universe that exists independent of humanity, while moral relativists hold that morality is entirely dependent on humanity.  In other words, according to moral realists if humanity ceased to exist, morality would go on, while according to moral relativists morality would vanish the moment humanity did.

 As you can see from the diagram above, moral realism and moral relativism are complicated by additional details.  Cultural and Extreme relativism are two variations on moral relativism, while moral realism is complicated by the concept of an epistemic boundary.  Let’s start with extreme realism and move our way to the right of the continuum.

Extreme realism is the view that not only does moral truth exist objectively in the world, this moral truth is easily accessible to humanity.  This is a rejection of what is called the epistemic boundary or limit.  The epistemic boundary holds that there are limits and complications in our access to any objective truth.  This boundary or limit can be pictured as a thin veil.  If an object is close to the veil, it can be easy to make out the form and figure out what it is.  On the other hand, the further away from the veil the object is (or, perhaps better, the further behind the veil the object is) the more difficult it is to make out the form of the object and so know what the object is.  In our analogy, physical objects are like objects close to the veil and so easy to know the truth about.  Moral truths, however, are objects further behind the veil and so harder to make out.  An Extreme realist denies the existence of the veil and so any significant difference between the truth of physical objects and the truth of moral claims.

However, the moment we move towards the right of the continuum, away from extreme realism, moral truth is subject to increasing degrees of obscurity–it is further behind the veil.  When we hit the center of the continuum–the point labeled epistemic boundary–we hit a point where the moral truths are so distant or the veil so opaque that it is literally impossible to grasp them.  A philosopher who held the exact center position might hold that there are objective moral truths, but that unfortunately we can never know them.  In between that position and the position of the extreme realist lies every subtle variation in our ability to know more truths.  What these positions share is the acceptance that there is objective moral truth.

Practically speaking, the center position–that there is objective moral truth, but it is unknowable–is indistinguishable from moral relativism.  If we can’t know the real, true moral standard, then we must rely on something else for moral guidance–namely, the subjective position of humanity.

The far right of the continuum–extreme relativism–represents the most untenable version of relativism.  Extreme relativism holds that morality is exactly like opinion–it is entirely dependent on the perspective of the individual and there is no further fact which can be appealed to in the world to settle moral conflicts between individuals.  An individual who holds this position thinks that her morality holds for herself and no one else.  For example, it might be wrong for her to murder someone, but she could not justifiably claim that it is wrong for some else to murder her.  This position does not even have the benefits of libertariansim, which at least says that an individual’s freedom ends at the tip of another person’s nose.  Extreme relativism easily devolves into “might makes right.”  Moral realism can easily be read as a reaction against such an outcome: if there is an objective standard, then we have ways to justify pushing our morality on those who don’t hold it.

But most moral relativism is not extreme relativism, just as most moral realism is not extreme realism.  Most of moral relativism can be understood to belong to cultural relativism.  Cultural relativism is the view that, although morality is dependent on humanity for existence, there are moral facts external to the individual–namely in the society in which they live.   As a flat statement, this is problematic: society is nowhere near homogeneous.  Treating society as if it can be called on as one hegemonic whole is deeply wrongheaded.  However, just as the idea of an epistemic boundary comes in degrees, so too does cultural relativism.  At it’s strictest, cultural relativism treats society as a whole in just the problematic way stated above.  But at its loosest, cultural relativism can be between just two individuals.  Which, at first glance, reads as more than a little odd.  A culture of two?

Doing Ethics

The fundamental realization of cultural relativism is that doing ethics (did you think you’d get away without doing be italicized today?)–actually defending ethical actions and combating beliefs you take to be erroneous, misguided, or flat out wrong–is based on what is common between the people doing an action they consider right or arguing about what is right.  Without some kind of common ground there can be no discussion, so there can be no ethical discussion.  At the very least, both philosophy and ethics have to be grounded in the common goal of finding common ground.  Cultural relativism highlights this fact by making morality dependent on their being common ground.

What does it mean for there to be common ground in ethics?  In the actual exercise of ethical practices, what cultural relativism points out is that the degree to which you are supported or opposed in doing action, the degree to which you are rewarded or judged, or the degree to which the thought to even do a certain kind of action is relative to degree that the people immediately around you and society at large already accept what you are doing as moral.  While moral realism focuses on the discovery of moral truths, cultural relativism focuses on how we learn moral “truths.”

In this course, we will be rejecting both extreme positions–realism and relativism alike–and concentrating on the middle ground.  The interesting thing is that, despite the fundamental metaethical differences, the views ranging over the center of the continuum require surprisingly similar processes.  Once epistemic uncertainty is introduced through the epistemic boundary–in other words, once you can’t be certain you are right–you are left having to check your ethical conclusions against the conclusions of others.  Both loose moral realism and loose moral relativism are an intersubjective process.  It is simply that under moral realism the process of ethics is the discovery of independently existing truths, while under moral relativism ethics is the construction and deconstruction of instersubjective truths.

The process of ethics is an ongoing discussion between collaborators–some better skilled than others–that requires the adopting of common critical standards but also the potential that those critical standards will be changed or dissolved in light of new information or the adoption of other, non-complementary, standards.  Once we accept the possibility of the epistemic boundary, regardless of whether we accept moral relativism, we have to accept that we most likely “don’t know everything.”  As limited, fallible beings we are confined by the perspectives we have developed from how we were raised and the things we have experienced.  At best, these limits can bring surprising insights to other people.  At worst, these limits can blind us to realities of the world right around us.  Part of the process of both philosophy and ethics is to strive to overcome that blindness.

What distinguishes ethics from the rest of philosophy is that it is fundamentally about acting on those conclusions.  Many areas of philosophy do not have an explicit connection to acting in the world.  Thus, the problems that arise from different theoretical issues are simply ironed out over time (although you shouldn’t believe they’re ever really gone.  Remember, philosophy is the mess left over after you take away things we know for certain).  Ethics can’t take the time to iron out mistakes before acting on conclusions.  And this can be messy and error-ridden.

This class is about getting messy.  You might make a statement in the next post that, when you go to revise in the last week, you consider a complete contradiction to what you now believe.  You might have two statements in one post that contradict one another!  And if another student points that out that is good.   If truth at the very least has to be discovered intersubjectively, then we need to be constantly helping one another see what we might have missed.  That is the truth of ethics.  We often treat ethics, right and wrong, as something that is simply there–old and worn, made comfortable by the handling of ages.  The truth is that the edges aren’t worn off because we’re constantly negotiating just what is ethical.  We’re constantly making things anew or slamming new pieces into out preexisting beliefs.

Let’s see what mistakes we can make.

Pause to Consider:

  • What is metaethics?
  • What is moral realism? moral relativism?
  • What is the epistemic boundary?
  • Why is extreme relativism problematic?
  • What makes cultural relativism better than extreme relativism?
  • Why is ethics intersubjective?

Writing Prompt

Purpose: One way to reveal our moral beliefs and values is by testing our intuitions–our gut “feels”–about certain moral problems.  What are our automatic reactions to certain moral situations and what explanations do we give for those reactions?  In this assignment, you will test the consistency of your moral judgments and how testing for consistency can help you test the different moral positions you hold.

Word Count: The best posts will be around 500-700 words long, although (as noted before) the point is to answer the question well, not to hit or stay within a certain number of words.

Before Writing

You are going to leave this site and take a quiz titled “Would You Eat Your Cat?” at the site Philosophy Experiments.  This quiz is made up of scenarios called “thought experiments.”  These are fairly popular in philosophy for testing intuitions given certain details.  The purpose of this particular quiz is to

tell you something about how you view the morality of behaviour that many people would consider to be “disgusting” or “repellent” or “obviously wrong”, but where it is difficult to explain exactly why the behaviour should be seen this way.

Be as honest as possible with this quiz (how much of the results you report are up to you and the results on the site are anonymous).

Take the quiz by clicking here.

When you are finished, think about your experience:

  • As you were taking the quiz, did you react to the scenarios and then come up with an explanation for the reaction?  If so, what do you think this says about moral reasoning and perhaps reasoning in general?
  • On the other hand, were your reactions the result of prior reasoning?  If so, what was that prior reasoning?
  • As you took the quiz, were you surprised by the percentage of other people who agreed or disagreed with your answers?  Do you think those percentages reveal anything important?
  • Did the explanations the quiz provided for your answers and the problems those explanations pointed out make sense?  Or did you think they were wrong.
  • If you could change your answers to any scenario, which would it be and why?
  • Which scenario did you have the hardest time with?  In other words, which scenario did you find the most repellent?


Using the questions above as a guide (but not an absolute constraint–sky’s the limit!), explore your reaction to the quiz, your answers, the particular scenarios, and what this quiz might show about moral reasoning.  What did you learn from the quiz and how does it relate to the account of morality in today’s lecture?

A Tip: Do not try to do everything in this post.  It is easy to try and cover everything mentioned here superficially.  Instead, try and think about how different pieces of this prompt fit together and whether you can draw any major conclusion from your different answers to the questions above.

[Remember to link back to this page in your post and submit your post url through the main site, as per the Prompt Instructions.]

To Do

  1. Catch Up On: Any assignments from Jan 9th and 10th
  2. Post: Prompt 02 | Due 1:00 PM EST
  3. Respond: To any Comments on your post from Jan 10th
  4. Comment: On at least 5 posts by other students | 1st Due 8:00 PM EST | All Due Jan 12, 8:00 AM EST
  5. Comment: On Lecture 02 | Due Noon EST
  6. Consider: Doing Extra Credit

40 Responses to Lecture 02/Prompt 02: What is Ethics? (Cont’d)

  1. avatar Allie says:

    Do moral relativists therefore believe that other species cannot subscribe to any form of morality? Even those species that have been demonstrated themselves to be capable of reasoning?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      This comes down to what can be recognized taking part in a “moral community.” Some moral relativists might argue that there are some animals that have right and wrong behavior that constitutes morality. The basic view would be: if there can be a moral relationship between humans and animals, then there can be morality. The real problem comes in when we think about challenging and changing morality. Since animals do not have a voice for humans, this kind of ethical interaction can’t take place.

  2. avatar Asa says:

    Does this mean that those people that believe in extreme realism cannot perform philosophy? In the previous lecture you claimed doing philosophy was the “act of interrogating our set beliefs and the beliefs of others, sometimes rejecting them, sometimes accepting them, and sometimes creating entirely new beliefs.” However, extreme realists believe that morals are factual so there is no real way to reject these morals if they are in fact true.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Yes, this is a logical conclusion to draw. This is why almost no philosophers are extreme realists. There are many that are near that end of the continuum, but you have to allow some degree of epistemic uncertainty for you to have a reason to interrogate your beliefs.

      As an objection to this conclusion, an extreme realist might object that they do interrogate their beliefs, but they have always found them to be true!

    • avatar Preet says:

      I came to the same conclusion. A large part of the ethics and philosophy field are concerned with doing. A moral realist does not really have much to . . .”do?” Also, in the first lecture we learned that philosophy is somewhat, the leftover of other fields which have accepted set premises as foundations. Philosophy studies things which do not really have a solid foundation. ( I may be completely off here BUT) If we’re looking at things from the realism perspective, in which we believe everything can be seen objectively, assuming that everything can be supported by fact, are we also not assuming that there is a set foundation for ethics and philosophy?

      • avatar Brandon says:

        Yes, moral realist think there is a set foundation, but this still leaves room for doing philosophy (depending on the exact position). If you are an extreme realist, then no, you’re not really going to do philosophy, but if there is any uncertainty then the job of philosophy would be to discover the fixed foundation.

  3. avatar Emily says:

    So is it true that under moral realism they simply try to figure out what the moral truth actually is, while under cultural relativism its more or less learning what is already established as a culture’s (even if it’s only two people) moral “truth”?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Almost. You have moral realism right, but relativism is a bit more complicated.

      One aspect of cultural relativism is learning what is established. And if this is strict cultural relativism than that is all. However, the most important part (in my humble opinion) is the weaker form of cultural relativism which involves critiquing some positions within a cultural tradition from other cultural traditions. For example, Anglican women argue for women being ordained as minsters by citing interpretations of the christian scriptures. The interpretations are accepted, but ordination is not. So you can have critique from inside a culture that still causes change.

  4. avatar Anonymous says:

    In regards to cultural relativism, not only is society far from homogeneous, but it is also entirely transient. This would imply that being a cultural relativist would mean your morals are always changing, thus making them pretty insignificant in my mind.

    How can societal morals exist between two people considering how most morals are made in regards to how actions affect populations. Actions between two people would have very polar outcomes, very different than if actions were taken against populations.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      The key to this is understanding that (1) change takes place of an extended period of time and (2) not all things in a culture change at once. Thus, although there may be slow shifts over time, there will always be a relatively stable foundation in some respect, even if the entire ethical system is not stable (and actually that instability is one part of there being a critique of ethical understandings).

  5. avatar Thomas M. says:

    I think that one of the problems with the Epistemic Boundary is that it leaves one open to the influence of others opinion. Without knowing what is right and what is wrong, people are more likely to be influenced by the opinions around them then forming their own independent ones. This is why in a society of cultural relativism, ideas like men should have more/less rights than women are allowed to take hold.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      This is why it’s important to be critical of claims of others, but also claims that you have been raised to or accepted simply by being in a society. While it isn’t possible to reject everything whole cloth (that ways lies nihilism), you can reject bits and pieces, replacing them, and end up with a complete change over time.

  6. avatar Wilma Chen says:

    I found the moral continuum a little bit complicated for me to comprehend but then again morals and truths are not something that could be understood from the start. As it was stated in this lecture and the previous one, people hold different types of philosophies and it may take quite some time to understand a value that is completely opposite from one’s own. The lecture talks about extreme relativism and how “it is entirely dependent on the perfective of the individual.” Does this mean that extreme relativists have no ethics? I would think that these types of people would only have a set of ethics that apply to themselves because they feel that their values on how one “ought to behave” are their own position and thus have no right to place it on others.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Your last sentence is completely right. Extreme relativists define ethics as completely subjective. Thus, their ethics hold only for themselves. However, because there is not necessarily any restriction on forcing other people from conforming to what one individual thinks (through force, for example) there is nothing to stop an extreme relativist enforcing their personal morality. To have a restriction like that as absolute would be to claim that the restrictive is universal and objective. An individual extreme relativist may restrict themselves because that is what they believe is right, but it is not a necessary part of extreme relativism.

  7. avatar Smalls says:

    I’m having trouble grasping the concept of “moral realism” or specifically how can it be objective? Could you give an example? It sounds similar to the arguments put forth by hardcore religious individuals when they justify their argument with “Because God said so” or am I completely missing the point?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      No, you are not missing the point. Religious dogma is an example of moral realism. If God creates moral order, then there is an objective fact about moral truths. However, this can also apply to something like evolutionary science (to go to the other end of the world view spectrum): if we discover that there are innate moral rules built into our behavior because of the force of evolution, then this would also mean that there is an objective source of morality.

  8. avatar Sbranch says:

    I found the idea of the moral continuum to be very interesting. Especially because I have never put a significant amount of time into determining where my belief in morals comes from. I think I initially believed myself to be of the extreme realism belief in morals however, I am realizing now that really our perceptions of morality come from our upbringing and are changing especially during our formative years.

  9. I understand that the epistemic boundary introduces uncertainty into our ethical claims which causes us to contently check our conclusion but the idea that your moral conclusions are correct or incorrect based on what others think are moral seems odd if you have a culture of two. If one person has one belief and the other person in that culture has another belief, whose moral claim becomes intersubjective truth? Would the correct moral claim then be based on the objective truth or would this be a situation that there is not common ground (even though in the same culture), thus there is no ethical discussion?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      It’s probably better to think about the two individuals as embedded in a larger culture. You will never really have a culture of two. The point of giving that example was to demonstrate that what is important is that others agree or disagree with your moral claims. You put your finger right on the nose when you point out that if it is simply two people there will be no way to resolve any disagreement–the larger group is required for this (of course, this just pushes the problem up another level–what happens when there is a conflict between two cultural groups?).

  10. avatar Kellyn says:

    I’m not fully grasping what makes ethics inter-subjective. Maybe my definition of inter-subjectivity is wrong, but this is what I would write to the the last point to consider from the lecture:
    o Ethics is a process of having ethics and doing them—just like philosophy. This means that each person discusses their ethics with others and uses a common ground to debate them (learning something or rejecting something in the process). By doing so, each person has their own subjective set of ethics which they bring together to form inter-subjective ethics as they discuss them with others. Without common ground though, the conversation cannot occur. This makes ethics inter-subjective, because each person has their own set of ethics (influenced by the society they live in etc.) but ethics as a whole brings these dependent ethics together using a common foundation to discuss them.

    Is this close to what inter-subjective ethics means?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      I think you generally grasp it. Perhaps this will help clarify:

      We are taught ethics by other people. That is our starting point. Even if ethical claims are objectively true, we need to discover if the claims we start with are those objectively true claims. To do this we need to see where our moral beliefs conflict with the beliefs of others.

      Where we are surrounded by people who believe many of the same moral things as us, there is very little “friction” between beliefs, so we have little reason to examine our beliefs (although, of course, we can examine our beliefs for reasons other than we think they might be wrong–suppose we want to be extra sure they’re right!?). It is when we run into people with conflicting beliefs that we are presented with opportunities to examine both of those beliefs (ours’ and their’s).

      So ethics is intersubjective in two ways: we learn it from other people and we challenge (and so change or confirm some or all of our moral beliefs) by engaging with other people.

  11. avatar Kirsten T says:

    Cultural relativism seems to have a very strong influence on the morals that an individual or even a group or people can develop. Some cultures are very extreme in their beliefs and hold very strict values, so anyone who disagreed with what was the general line of thought would most likely not voice an opposing opinion for fear of rejection. I think that religious backgrounds have a lot to do with how a person distinguishes right from wrong. A person’s upbringing is also important because it is the parents that shape a childs view of the world. So can an isolated individual, with no form of influence, actually have morals?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      It’s an interesting question. A moral realist may or may not say yes. An extreme realist would definitely say yes because morality is something we are born with or can figure out just by thinking in the right way. The rest of the spectrum of realism would depend on whether they think the epistemic boundary can be overcome just through thinking about something.

      On the other side of the continuum, an extreme relativist would definitely think an isolated individual could have morals (because morals really just comes down to “I like this; I dislike this” in extreme relativism at its most basic.

      But any form of cultural relativism would reject an isolated individual being able to have morals.

      If you take the concept of feral children seriously (and there are reasons not to), then it seems that empirically that morality is something developed through socialization, so an isolated individual could not have morality.

  12. Focusing on the middle ground between realism and relativism will require us to intricately know the difference between the two and how they relate to each other!

  13. avatar Andrea says:

    The statement: “Ethics can’t take the time to iron out mistakes before acting on conclusions”, I find confusing and somewhat alarming. I thought a major goal for ethics is to act within the best interest of humanity. Scientists who act on impulse without complete ethical consideration of possible outcomes are dangerous.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Most certainly and that is why there are set guidelines for scientific research. Now, that doesn’t mean that those guidelines are quite right (there is quite a bit of debate about whether all medical research must have therapeutic results for the test subjects for instance), but there need to be codes in place. And there are codes in place.

      What is at issue in that sentence (which looking at it would read better if ethics was replaced with people) is that we need to act on uncertainty a lot of the time. At the same time, this doesn’t excuse from attempting to act on the best information possible at the time.

  14. avatar Cherieyw says:

    For moral relativism, it always hold claims are subjectively true, is that saying there is no way to prove them are wrong? Also i am just curious is there any condition can make a claim be both subjective and objective?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      You can prove a claim wrong be reference to other claims (which could also be wrong). This is called immanent critique: you critique one claim by another claim that you take(or the person you are talking to takes) to be true. In an intersubjective ethics, the goal is to increase the level of certainty in our conclusions, even if we can never be absolutely certain–to come to the best understanding we are currently capable of.

      The short answer for your second question is no. For sake of clarity I think it’s best to leave it at that.

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  16. avatar Cindy says:

    I feel like there is never really a “truth” behind ethics or morals. I feel like the truth is a fabrication of society and cultures that create a sort of tacit agreement on how people should behave, which people accept or reject. I also think that the idea of our morals and how we act them out leads us all to be hypocrites. After all, many of us bend our beliefs depending on the scenario at hand.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Then you are very solidly a cultural relativist.

      Your second point, however, brings up an important question: if we break the rules or beliefs that we take to be right, does this mean that those rules or beliefs are not important?

  17. avatar N.Marshall says:

    When I first looked at the moral continuum I wondered where I fell on the diagram. I think most people fall somewhere in the middle. The extremists hold such stringent views and do not seem to be open to the opposing views. A black and white belief system seems to set up barriers to learning and understanding another’s point of view. The epistemic boundary signifying limits and complications to objectionable truths demonstrates how puzzling the study of ethics really is. Does anyone ever master the study of ethics?

  18. avatar Dom says:

    This moral continuum intuitively makes sense to me but what doesn’t make sense is how it os applied to reality. For instance, is something morally wrong because it is illegal or is something illegal because it is morally wrong? How would this inquiry fit into the moral continuum, and if it doesn’t, then what model or paradigm are we supposed to consider in order to include the issue of legality.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      The relationship between law and morality is actually an issue entirely separate from the continuum above. For instance, is something a law even if it is immoral? A moral relativist and a moral realist could potentially agree in their answer.

      Generally, it is thought that something will not be morally wrong simply because it is illegal, but something might be made illegal because it is immoral.

      Perhaps the best way to understand the distinction is that law must involve a political structure with enforcement and so on, while a moral structure can be informal. So, a legal system can be based on the idea that all laws are extensions of morality, but it doesn’t need to be.

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  20. avatar Leah says:

    I feel as if this lecture/prompt taught me that it is better if not more appropriate to look at scenarios under moral realism because there is less personal emotion put into an opinion versus cultural relativism…is this true?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Perhaps . . . The main appeal of moral realism is, of course, that you can point to some solid, unchanging standard.

      The problem with this is if moral realism is wrong then what is actually going on when an objective moral claim is made is that actually situated, relative claim are being made to look like objective truth. In other words, if moral realism is wrong, then acting as if a claim is objective actual prevents us from easily examining the support for the claim.

  21. I have to say I find myself in agreement with moral relativism rather then moral realism. I believe morality is entirely dependent on human perception, it is not something universal independent of humanity.

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