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