Moral skepticism, subjectivism, relativism & objectivism
Moral skepticism: The view that there are no valid moral principles at all, or that we cannot know whether there are any.
Moral subjectivism: Morality is not dependent on society but only on the individual.
Ethical Relativism: The theory that there are no universally valid moral principles binding on all people at all times, but rather all are valid relative to culture (or individual choice = subjectivism).
- Anything is okay as long as one lives by own principles (hypocrisy, inconsistency can be embraced).
- Makes concept of morality useless - one person's principle vs another's, no argument possible.
- Reduces social coordination to power struggle.
- Incoherent. Ethics must be grounded in culture.
- Rests on 2 premises:
- Cultural relativism: Empirical observation of that diversity exists among cultures in moral principle and practice. (A response to ethnocentrism: Customs of all others seen through lenses of own culture's beliefs and values.)
- Dependency thesis: All moral principles derive their validity from cultural acceptance.
- It follows there are no universal principles valid for all cultures and peoples.
- There is no independent basis for criticizing the morality (n.b.: including intolerance!) of any culture but one's own.
- Any actual morality is as valid as every other, and more valid that ideal moralities (since they have no adherents).
- Reformers are wrong since they oppose cultural standards.
- Civil disobedience is morally wrong so long as the society agrees on the relevant law.
- Laws have no basis - particular subcultures may not agree with certain laws.
- Conflicting prescriptions - which of the ethics of the groups to which one belongs should one follow? How do you choose? How many people make up a 'culture'?
- The degree of cultural relativism evident in our species is enormous, but nonetheless, some argue there are moral universals (concept of murder, incest, restitution, reciprocity, mutual obligations between parents and children). But if the dependency thesis is true none of these could be thus shown to have any objective basis.
- The dependency thesis:
- In a weak sense, it must at least be true that the application of principles depends on the setting, the particular cultural situation.
- In strong sense, all principles must be held to be cultural inventions. But just because we find them in place doesn't mean they must be accepted as true, the best, or morally correct.
- Also, there can be no impartial standard from which to judge. But while we cannot know one culture's beliefs are closer to the truth than another's, we may be justified in believing they are. We can reason and think of possible situations to make a case for one system over the other. It's possible a culture might be wrong, less moral, confused, or ignorant in its moral perceptions.
- Holds that moral principles are valid rules of action that should generally be adhered to, but may be overridden by other moral principles in cases of conflict.
- Not the same as moral absolutism, the idea that there exists just one moral principle and it must never be violated.
- Proposes that there exist at least one, or a set, of minimal moral principles that are binding on all rational beings. It it can show this, it can refute ethical relativism. Candidate principles include:
- It is morally wrong to torture people for fun.
- Do not kill innocent people.
- Do not cause unnecessary pain or suffering.
- Do not cheat or steal.
- Keep your promises and contracts.
- Do not deprive another person of his or her freedom.
- Do justice to others, treating like cases similarly, and different ones differently.
- Tell the truth
- Help other people, at least when the cost to oneself is minimal.
- Do good wherever feasible, at least when the cost to oneself is minimal.
- In cases where these principles are violated it makes more sense to look for an explanation (ignorance, perversion, irrationality) than to suppose that the exception should make us question the principle.
- These principles are not arbitrary as the relativist holds, because we can give reasons why they are necessary to social cohesion and human flourishing, in the face of diverse human goods.
- These may (but need not be) based on a common human nature - a set of needs and interests.
- Those principles that meet essential needs and promote the most significant interests of humans in optimal ways can be said to be objectively valid moral principles.