Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ethics 101

‘There are no objective values’ says J L Mackie. So how do we know what is right and what is wrong? How do we decide on ethical values?

Most people believe that some ethical statements are simply true – that they correspond with reality; for example, they believe that the torture of babies is morally wrong. But what does it mean to say that this statement is true? Does it mean that there is some moral reality, some objective value, to which it corresponds? Or does the statement ‘the torture of babies is wrong’ not describe a state of affairs at all, but rather simply expresses our emotions, our non-cognitive attitudes, and thus is merely an emotional reaction which is neither true nor false?

In Mackie’s view, there is no objective moral reality - he is an ‘anti-realist’. But he believes that people use moral statements to do more than express emotions; they do intend to describe some actual objective moral reality. In Mackie’s view, statements such as ‘the torture of babies is wrong’ are therefore false, as are all moral statements (it’s called ‘error theory’).

Mackie argues that there are no objective moral standards on two grounds:
v   That there are in fact very large differences in moral beliefs between different societies and cultures; that the best explanation of this is that people adopt moral positions to justify their prior forms of life - e.g. someone approves of  monogamy because he or she lives monogamously, not the other way around [‘the argument from relativity’].
v  That objective moral values are just weird [‘the argument from queerness’, ontological part].
vThat objective values, if they did exist, could only be known by some kind of strange mental faculty, which we don’t have [‘the argument from queerness’, epistemic part].

But what about other values similar to moral values, such as essence, number, identity, diversity, solidity, inertia, substance, time and space, necessity, possibility, power, causation? Are they not also objective values?  Mackie says all these can be satisfactorily explained in empirical terms.

Mackie has not proven that objective moral values do not exist, but has argued that there is no good reason to accept that they exist. There is no positive need to have them. There is no need to posit objective moral values. Sociological evolution explains why we hold the values that we do.

We do seem to have a strong internal sense of right and wrong, but how would this internal sense ‘connect’ with objective moral values if they existed? Evolutionary/sociological explanations are more likely.

Where does an error theory lead us? Isn't there a risk that we are left with moral nihilism?
‘The denial of objective values can carry with it an extreme emotional reaction, a feeling that nothing matters at all, that life has lost its purpose. Of course this does not follow; the lack of objective values is not a good reason for abandoning subjective concerns or for ceasing to want anything. But the abandonment of a belief in objective values can cause, at least temporarily, a decay of subjective concern and sense of purpose’ - Mackie

Mackie is saying here that an error theorist at the ‘second order’ of meta-ethics can nevertheless continue with ‘first order’ moral debates – in so-called normative ethics - or applied ethics. The separation of first and second order in this way is analogous with colour perception: we ‘know’ that ‘blue’ is just a play of light on a surface; but knowing this does not prevent us seeing and speaking of blueness – though such statements are strictly ‘in error’.

Here’s my reaction: if there are no objective moral values, what is to prevent people from legitimately concocting their own moral values – as they frequently seem to do?  I am thinking here of maltreatment of others, making war, criminal activities, cruelty and assault: many perpetrators can and do justify such actions, at least to themselves, as perfectly moral in certain circumstances (e.g. the others maltreated are the enemy, self-defence, survival of the fittest, discipline, etc. etc. The ways of the world seem to indicate that there are no objective moral values. The undoubted fact that moral values differ in different societies and eras I also find a convincing point in favour of subjectivity.

That’s the meta-ethical argument (or a small part of it). Next: consider how best to survive in a world with or without objective moral values – the normative ethics and applied ethics discussions.

Image of J L Mackie is from this site:

Interestingly, he was an Australian philosopher, and according to http://www.otago.ac.nz/philosophy/history.html was once rejected for a post at the University of Tasmania: " partly because of his first article ‘A Refutation of Morals’ (1946), in which he advocated the view for which he subsequently became famous, that moral judgments are cognitive (true-or-false) but false. (This is now known as the ‘error theory’.) Sir Frederick Eggleston, who had some influence with the Tasmanian Vice-Chancellor, was appalled: ‘Have you read Mackie’s paper on the refutation of morality? It is a typical example of the superficial way in which present-day students dispose of questions of such importance.’"

But for any really big questions, you could try this site: http://www.philosophypathways.com/questions/

Or you could, as I did today, continue your thinking over a nice traditional English tea.

'Tea & Tattle', Bloomsbury


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