Atheism, Christianity, ethics, meta-ethics., morality, philosophy, religion
I have started talking about morality and I will continue to talk about morality so I should probably explain a bit about what I mean. By morals I mean what we should do, and what is right and wrong, good and evil. I generally don’t distinguish between these different terms. I am a moral realist so I will usually mean the first category, I describe below.
There are several different notions that people have about what morals are and what we mean when we say something is “wrong” immoral etc. I think the explanations I give match pretty well with how philosophers generally understand these terms. Here are what I consider the big 4 general ideas of meta-ethics. That is if we step really far back from any ethical debate I think these 4 concepts can help us understand what we mean when we call something right or wrong:
Objective Moral Realism: People in this group believe that when we say something is wrong we are making a positive claim about reality that is true or false regardless of what anyone believes about it.
There are several types of realists but one distinction is between, Non naturalists and naturalists. Moral non-naturalists believe that rightness or wrongness is a property of reality that attaches to certain morally relevant occurrences.
Moral Naturalists think that that the rightness and wrongness simply is the set of facts that make up certain occurrences. For the moral naturalist there is no additional property of wrongness. But the naturalist still believes certain events are wrong. Just like they believe some things are water. Water happens to be those things that are h2o. They are not, H2O plus another “water property.” Our understanding of water supervenes on anything that has the chemical composition H2O. Likewise wrongness supervenes on certain occurrences.
Both are realists. Moral realists include Russ Schaefer Landau (moral realist of the non-naturalist variety) and Nicholas Sturgeon (moral realist and naturalist) The best introduction to meta-ethics I have found is Russ Schaefer landau’s “whatever happened to good and evil?”
I am a moral realist. I don’t really have a strong view on moral naturalism versus moral non naturalism.
Error theorists, Nihilists: This group believes there is no such thing as morality. So arguing about whether something is right or wrong is like arguing about whether male unicorns have 38 or 42 teeth. It’s all based on an erroneous understanding of the world. JL Mackie’s excellent book “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong” is a great book that sets forth this understanding. He is a very good writer and should be read on his own. Among the points he makes is that if ethical properties were to exist in reality they would be queer things. And even if they did exist how would we know what they are?
Another error theorist is Richard Joyce. He argues that even if moral properties did exist what we know about evolution makes it extremely unlikely that we would know what they are. He wrote an excellent book covering this theory called “The Evolution of Morality.” He has also written several papers many of which can be accessed on his website. Both are good writers Mackie’s book might be a bit easier for someone new to the meta-ethics to digest.
Note that although Richard Joyce argues that evolution makes our moral beliefs (if they were to exist) unreliable that in itself does not really make him a nihilist. Richard Joyce, Sharon Street, and Mark Linville are 3 philosophers who have published papers explaining how our understanding of evolution debunks the notion that we can have reliable moral beliefs. That is if we assume naturalism is true it debunks them. Here btw “naturalism” just means not believing in anything supernatural. So no God(s) or spirits or anything of the sort. “Naturalism” is related to “moral naturalism” but not the same term. It’s pretty clear that Richard Joyce and Sharon Street are naturalists and Mark Linville is a Christian. I think Sharon Street is a relativist, Mark Linville is a realist and Richard Joyce is a nihilist. So Mark Linville is making the argument based on the assumption that naturalism is true, where as the other two really think naturalism is true.
Relativism/constructivism/subjectivism: Generally speaking this group thinks that moral claims can be true or false by comparing it with reality but it’s not independent of what people believe. Subjectivists might think what is right and wrong is up to each individual. Here morals are like tastes in food. Asking if giving to the poor is good is like asking if chocolate is good. Most will agree it is but it’s up to each individual.
More commonly relativists tend to base morals on a relevant community. They believe that there is some relevant community (sometimes a hypothetical community which to some extent can make it like realism) that decides what is right or wrong. Currency is a common analogy. A $10 bill is a piece of paper. But it is worth $10. It would be false to hold a $10 bill up and say “this is worth $14 dollars.” But that statement is true or false due to the beliefs of the relevant community. Gilbert Harman is a well-known relativist.
My own view on relativism: Ok this is where we get the problems along the lines of what if the Nazis killed everyone who disagreed with them so all that was left were Nazis who thought Jews should be killed. Would it then be right to kill Jews? That seems a problem with this position. Russ Shaefer Landau asks if the same event can take place in several different societies. For example a member of the mafia might kill a victim who is also in the mafia’s cultural community and it is not wrong in that set of circumstances according to that community. But it also occurred in New York and according to that society it is wrong. If it can occur in 2 societies, then the same exact event might be wrong and not wrong at the same time.
But beyond that I think I have another deeper problem. This is taking the position that when it comes to morals we make it all up. Do we want to believe in make believe? It is essentially adopting the position that we are staring at the shadows on the cave and we are fine with structuring our lives around that. For me, I can’t really get behind it. If that is all we mean by truth when it comes to morals then moral truths lose too much significance. I don’t really care if I live my life wrongly if all that means is I lived my life wrong according to some group or other.
Noncognitivists: This group denies that moral claims are the sorts of claims that can be considered true or false. Thus if I were to say “it’s wrong to stick babies with bayonets” they think this is only my expressing disapproval. In essence they think I am saying “boo to sticking babies with bayonets!” Now is “boo to sticking babies with bayonets” true or false? What about “yay! 49ers” or “Boo! seahawks”? These utterances are really neither true or false. They are not making a claim about reality but instead are just expressions of approval or disapproval. According to noncognitivists moral statements are really just these sorts of utterances and should not be interpreted as propositions that can be either true or false.
These are what I consider 4 corners of what people people mean by morals. There are many different theories and terminology involved, and these theories are not always exclusive of each other. But I think just getting an understanding of these 4 basic ideas is helpful to navigate.
Like I said I am an objective moral realist. So when I refer to morals that is typically the brand I am referring to.
Olivia Casey said:
Thanks! This is such a helpful summary for someone like me just getting into ethics. I am going to try to read those books/essays/thinkers you mentioned in the different realms as soon as I can.
Great I hope you enjoy the topics as much as I do.
Whatever happened to good and evil is definitely a good starter.
But if you read any of them and you are not sure what they are talking about, feel free to post here. I will do my best to explain what they are getting at.
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This is an amazing post! I have never heard morals broken down this way before so I commend you on your knowledge and your ability to make it understandable. As an Atheist I am often asked “If you do not believe in God, where do you get your morals from?” These types of questions make me laugh because most Theist cannot wrap their minds around having morals without God. I am a very proud Atheist and I am happy to say that my morals stem from my ability to have empathy and my love of humanity. I don’t feel that I need God for me to see a starving child and through compassion and love feed the child. I do not adhere to the Golden Rule because chances are most people do not want to be treated the same as me. Instead, I firmly believe in treating others the way THEY want to be treated which is usually with love, respect, compassion and understanding. I have found that when I strive to treat others this way, they are often shocked to find out that I’m an Atheist. Most Atheists also consider themselves Humanist and I am no different.
With your permission of course, I would like to borrow some your wisdom in this post to make a point in some of my upcoming post on my blog.
Thank you for letting me know. I am very glad to hear this was helpful. This topic is one that I have come to really enjoy reading and thinking about and I think it is an important one.
I think all of the authors I refer to are atheists, except, Linville, who is a Christian. So these sorts of concerns are not just concerns for religious people at all.
“If you do not believe in God, where do you get your morals from?” These types of questions make me laugh because most Theist cannot wrap their minds around having morals without God.”
I think there are allot of interesting issues that arise when you consider metaethical concepts. But there is no reason to just think morals can not exist in a real sense if there is no God. I think the Euthyphro dilemma:
Helps make it clear that it is at least logically possible for real morality to exist without God. So you can’t just think because there is no God that in itself proves no real morals can exist. However I do think some problems in this regard can arise if we add some other assumptions.
“I am a very proud Atheist and I am happy to say that my morals stem from my ability to have empathy and my love of humanity. I don’t feel that I need God for me to see a starving child and through compassion and love feed the child.”
What you say here reminds me of the parable of the sheep and the goats.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
I find that parable interesting because the sheep seem to not even know Jesus.
” I do not adhere to the Golden Rule because chances are most people do not want to be treated the same as me. Instead, I firmly believe in treating others the way THEY want to be treated which is usually with love, respect, compassion and understanding. ”
Jesus said a few things along the lines of the golden rule and often it was a command to love each other:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
(from John, Chp.13; v.34)
Its given in a variation in Luke 10:25 where he talks of the parable of the good Samaritan:
Jesus then went on to give the parable of the good Samaritan. Samaritans were not “mainstream” Jews like Jesus was.
“With your permission of course, I would like to borrow some your wisdom in this post to make a point in some of my upcoming post on my blog.”
Yes of course spread the word about metaethics. I think it is a very important topic.
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Nostradamus, mirar http://www.caesaremnostradamus.com/Nostradamus.html
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tras haber visitado diferentes artiulos la verdad es que este es el mas practico.
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