Metaethics does not concern itself with which particular things are right and wrong, but instead with the nature of morality, asking questions such as the following:
· Where do moral values and principles come from?
· Are moral values subjective or objective?
· Are moral values based on the commandments of God?
· Are moral values products of culture?
· Are moral values based on Reason, as Kant believes?
· Are moral values products of evolution which have helped us to survive?
· Are moral values based on prudence as Hobbes argued?
· Are moral values just our personal feelings as David Hume believed?
· Why do we have to follow moral values or principles if we don’t wish to?
The Free-Rider Problem
This is related to the problem of Anti-Realism explained below. We expect for moral rules to be obligatory in some way, and that we ought to follow them no matter what, even if we can get away with not following them, but is this really the case?
Let’s suppose that we adopt a travel system whereby everyone gets on to the bus, but rather than having a conductor to collect the money, we instead have an honesty box. 50 people get on to the bus and all drop £2 in, as requested. Then I get on and put nothing in to the box. People may be angry at me and say that I ought to pay. They may argue in the following way “Look, if everybody acted like you did and refused to pay, there would be no bus service at all.” But surely I would reply, “I know, but that’s not the way it is, you guys paid, so there is a bus service, and that means I can get away with not paying.”
In this case I am ‘the free rider.’ Because everyone else is obeying the rules I can take advantage of the situation and break them. There are many free riders in life, for example, people who give no help to others but gladly take it; people who reap the advantages of the peace and security of society, but do not pay taxes. The problem is this: what can anyone possibly say to a free rider that will make him or her act in an honest way when they can get away with having their free ride?
The Ring of GygesThis is basically another version of the Free Rider problem. The story comes from Plato’s Republic and it is used by Glaucon as an argument to the effect that morals can just be cast aside if you don’t want to follow them and can benefit from breaking the rules.
A poor shepherd called Gyges discovers a magic ring in the tomb of an old king, and he finds that it turns him invisible. Using this ring he can steal and do as he pleases with no bad consequences. He uses the ring to get him in to the king’s court and gain himself power and influence. In the end he kills the king, then seduces the queen and becomes the new king himself. The story has two main points:
(1) that when it comes down to it human beings are all selfish at heart, as we would all act this way if we got the chance;(2) when there is so much to gain by being bad and you can get away with it, why be good?
The story suggests that the only reason we are good is out of fear of punishment, either from society or the gods. Is this really all morality is?
Moral Realism Vs Moral Anti-RealismMoral Realists take the view that there are moral truths about what is right and wrong, and that there are genuine moral obligations. There are specific ways that we should act, specific ways that we should not act, and these are facts. Either abortion is wrong or it is not, one of these views must be true. Kantian Ethics, Utilitarianism, Ethical Egoism, Christian Ethics, and Virtue Ethics all take a Realist stance, and depend on the idea that right and wrong exist.
Moral Anti-Realists reject the existence of moral truths altogether. It is a little bit like ‘moral atheism.’ Anti-Realists take the view that there is no specific way that we ought to act, there are no rules to follow or break, and there are no genuine moral obligations. An Anti-Realist will take the view that all moral ideas are just made up by human beings one way or another. There is nothing wrong with killing, and there is nothing right about saving lives. Some examples will help: we do not think that choosing what colour shirt to wear is a moral issue, there is no right or wrong course of action here, it simply doesn’t matter what you do. A Moral Anti-Realist would say the same about other issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and treatment of the environment also.
We tend to think that morality does not apply to animals, they just do what is instinctive to them. Male tigers will kill the children of other male tigers to prevent the risk of any future threats to themselves, and also to bring their mothers back in to heat again so they can mate with them. A human who did this would be seen as evil, but we do not judge tigers in the same way. Anti-Realists may argue that we are just animals too, and that moral rules do not apply to us either, we are just walking bags of chemicals who act as we wish.
Friedrich Nietzsche was a Moral Anti-Realist, stating the following:
There are no moral facts whatsoever. Moral judgement has this in common with religious judgement that it believes in realities which do not exist. Morality is only an interpretation of certain phenomena, more precisely a misinterpretation. Moral judgement belongs, as does religious judgement, to a level of ignorance at which even the concept of the real, the distinction between the real and the imaginary, is lacking.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of The Idols
In more recent times JL Mackie argued that there were two key problems with Moral Realism which show that it is an error:
1. There seems to be no epistemological way of proving which things are right and which are wrong, all we have is our own opinions, which vary massively.
2. Descriptive Cultural Relativism suggests that morals are inventions, cultural opinions.
3. If moral truths were to exist they would be ‘queer’, by which he means ‘strange.’ This is called The Argument From Queerness.
Mackie is arguing that the idea that certain actions could have properties of ‘to-be-done-ness’ and ‘not-to-be-done-ness’ attached to them just doesn’t fit in to our scientific paradigm, and all the arguments for a source of moral truths (God, Plato’s Forms, Kant’s Reason) are laughable. Mackie suggested instead that morality is a purely human invention because societies need moral rules in order to get stability. Mackie therefore concluded that morality was largely down to prudence, emotion, and culture.
Moral Anti-Realism is viewed as a great threat by many thinkers, as it strongly indicates that people can just do whatever they want – there is nothing wrong with murder, theft, rape, cheating, lying, and torture.
Where Do Moral Values Originate?If we wish to understand morality, and if we wish to know whether morals are actually genuine real facts or whether they are just invented opinions it is important to think about where moral ideas might originate. As you read through the following options consider which you think is true; remember that morals could have multiple sources, not just one.
1) Morality & God: Divine Command EthicsThere is a difference between ‘God’ and ‘Religion.’ The first is a supernatural being who is said to have created our world, and who is presumed to watch human affairs, perhaps getting involved with them miraculously. Religion, on the other hand, is a human organisation which consists in the worship of God / gods and the following of a variety of cultural practices. Atheists believe there is no God, yet clearly religion still exists. This is an important distinction: it is certainly true that religions provide moral teachings, as do many human agencies. The big question here is not “does morality come from religion?” but “does morality come from God?”
Many religious people believe that moral laws are the commandments of God, and that if there is no God then there is no such thing as right and wrong: we can simply do as we choose. This view is called Divine Command Ethics and it is a Moral-Realist view.
Strengths / Arguments in favour:1) Moral teachings are found in religious texts, e.g. the Ten Commandments, which were given to Moses by God himself.
2) Morality consists of a set of commands, a list of ‘dos’ and ‘do nots.’ You cannot have a command without a commander. Therefore a personal source of morality is required. Only God can be this commander. “It is impossible to think of a command without also thinking of a commander.” (HP Owen, The Moral Argument For Christian Theism).
3) God is a father figure, he created us, and as such he has supreme authority to command us. Therefore we are obliged to do what he commands, whereas no such authority exists in other possible sources of morals, e.g. society, kings, etc. “God made us and all the world. Because of that He has an absolute claim on our obedience. We do not exist in our own right, but only as His creatures, who ought therefore to do and be what He desires.” (Bishop RC Mortimer, Christian Ethics)
4) God is all-seeing and all-knowing and only he has the ability to punish the wicked and reward the good. Without God there is little or no justice, and there is no reason to be good if you can get away with being bad instead.
5) God created everyone, and so his commandments apply to everyone. Therefore, if we wish to have a universal moral code rather than a culturally relative code, we must turn towards God, whose judgements are objective.
6) God is wiser than us and so he knows what is best for us a lot better than we do. Therefore, we ought to take his advice.
7) Morality comes from the conscience. The conscience is the voice of God offering us guidance. A bad conscience is the feeling we have let someone down. The person we have let down and disappointed is God. “If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear… the phenomena of conscience, as a dictate, avail to impress the imagination with the picture of a Supreme Governor, a Judge, holy, just, powerful, all-seeing, retributive” (Cardinal John-Henry Newman, A Grammar of Assent).
8) You can kill and eat animals, or own them like slaves. You cannot do this to human beings. This is because human beings are special: we have language, souls, freewill, morality, and great worth. Christians argue this is because we are blessed by God by being “made in God’s image” (Genesis 1:28).
Weaknesses / Arguments Against:1) Atheists argue that God does not exist, therefore God cannot be the source of morality. If morals are real they will have to be based elsewhere.
2) There are religious people who are bad, and there are non-religious people who are good, therefore morality has nothing to do with religion. Indeed, religion has been responsible for many atrocities throughout history.
3) God / Religion does not give practical answers to moral questions. Every religion has a different holy book, and teachings are often ambiguous, need to be interpreted, or contradict each other. God’s commandments are highly unclear, and the final judgement on what is good often seems to be down to the reader to make.
4) Divine Command Ethics rejects the idea of autonomy. Surely we should think about morality for ourselves and reach conclusions about what to do, but Divine Command Ethics states that being moral is simply a case of blind obedience to the will of God, doing whatever he orders. In the Bible God orders Abraham to kill his own son and is viewed as ‘good’ for being willing to do it. But surely blind obedience is morally bad? It is what allows soldiers to commit genocide. James Rachels takes this view.
5) Doing something purely to get rewards and avoid punishments (heaven and hell) is not morally good, it is selfish.
6) If God can work out what’s best for us, why can’t we work it out ourselves?
7) I need only follow the commands of person x if I have a pre-existing obligation to do whatever x says. Person x cannot create this obligation by just saying “do what I say.” Why do we have to do what God says in the first place? Where does the obligation to follow his commands come from, because logically it can’t come from him?
8) Morality based on the commands of God would be subjective to his will. This is the major point of the Euthyphro Dilemma from Plato.
Note: criticism 2, whilst regularly made, is not a good criticism at all because its target is religion rather than God. It is perfectly possible that God has made commandments and that this is the true genesis of morality, but that religious people have ignored or twisted these commandments.
The Euthyphro Dilemma.
This is the most important argument against Divine Command Ethics. Suppose that God says “charity is good.” We must ask, “Does God say charity is good because it actually objectively is good, and he is letting us know, or, is charity good just because God says so?”
If we take the second option “because God says so” then we realise that morality based on God would be subjective, he just makes it all up and could change it whenever he wanted. He could say “human sacrifice is good” and we would have to do it.
On the other hand, if things are good in themselves, such that human sacrifices are wrong and not even God could make them right, then surely morality has nothing to do with God, it is objective and independent of him, he is just a messenger passing the rules on. Plato uses this argument to state that morals are not based on God and instead suggest his Forms.
2) Plato’s FormsPlato wanted morality to be completely independent of subjective human factors such as people’s emotions, cultural practice, and the opinions of rulers, people who are often biased and self-interested. He wanted morality to come from a non-human source so that it could be objective and true for all people, like the rules of mathematics.
Plato rejected the possibility that morals could come from God or the gods because that would also leave them as subjective to God’s will, as he hoped to show in the Euthyphro Dilemma. Therefore he concluded that morality came from the Forms, which are non-physical ideas, perfect versions of what things should be.
The rules of mathematics seem to exist independently from human beings, they have always been around and been true, and we feel that we have merely discovered them. Also, they are universal and objective, true for all people and true regardless of what anyone happens to think. Yet these rules do not seem to have a physical existence; Pythagoras’ Theorem would continue to be true even if there were no physical triangles in existence. Plato argued that instead there was a Form of The Triangle, which is the concept of a triangle and exists in a non-physical manner in what some have dubbed ‘Platonic Heaven.’ The Form of The Triangle is what we try to grasp with our minds, just as we see physical ones with our eyes. Whereas things in the physical realm are always imperfect and never last forever, the Form of The Triangle is eternal and unchanging and perfect. It is our awareness of the Form of The Triangle which allows us to recognise different triangles in the world around us, and the more we contemplate The Triangle the more we come to understand about triangles.
Plato wished for moral rules to be objective and universal, just like the laws of mathematics and geometry. Plato postulated similar Forms for things like Beauty and Goodness which allow us to recognise these things in the world, allowing for true, universal, and objective judgements about moral and aesthetic matters.
Plato believed there was a Form of Man which dictated what the perfect person would be like. We can recognise human beings and distinguish them from other things because we are aware of this Form. We can also judge a good man from a bad man depending on how alike he is to the perfect Man that is the Form. For Plato the highest Form of all is the Form of The Good, a concept so abstract and mind boggling that only the greatest of philosophers would ever be able to comprehend it through their contemplation. This Form dictates what all good things are, from good people, to good art, to a good society.
Criticisms / Problems:1) The vast majority of modern philosophers view Plato’s Forms as simply made up ideas that do not exist. They are just products of Plato’s imagination. They say ideas exist in human minds, they are not imprinted perfectly on the fabric of reality. Immanuel Kant believed that human minds possess ‘concepts’ or ‘categorise’ which allow them to interpret the world around them. These are similar to Plato’s Forms, but they are parts of the human mind, not parts of the world itself. Whilst Kant believed that moral concepts were universal, later relativist philosophers argued that we all interpret the world in different ways – that we all have different moral concepts. Some modern philosophers argue that our understanding of these things is written in to our DNA (for example, we are born with ideas about language and mathematics); none the less, these ideas are within human beings, not set in stone in an abstract realm of truths and values.
2) Modern philosophers may argue that aesthetic matters are not objective facts, but personal opinions, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Many philosophers argue that morals are the same. This indicates Anti-Realism because it points to the idea that morals are subjective being nothing but human inventions and opinions.
3) As stated above, JL Mackie regarded things like Plato’s Forms as ‘queer’ or ‘strange.’ He thinks they do not fit in to our modern scientific view of the world, and that even if they do exist we have no certain way of getting knowledge of them.
3) Reason – Immanuel KantKant wished for morality to be objective and universal, factual and the same for all people, however, he rejected God and the Forms as sources for morality. Instead Kant appealed to Reason, so his morality is based on a priori reasoning, like mathematics.
During the Enlightenment period it was thought that the defining quality of human beings that separated them from animals was their ability to reason about things, for example, to perform mathematics, to weigh up options and select the best, and to make justifications for their actions rather than acting on inclination, bias, or emotion. Mathematical knowledge is based on Reason and is universal for all people; Kant hoped to establish that morality could be the same: he believed that if each person thought about moral matters from a neutral and rational perspective then they would all come to the same conclusions.
Kant also believed in autonomy, which means ‘self-governance.’ He took the view that no one had the right to control a rational adult and tell him what to do but himself. His view reject the view that we should just do whatever authority figures tell us. This is another reason why he thought it was important to base morality on Reason, which he saw as universal.
Kant argued that since all people were the same in terms of Reason, and since what can be justified by one person can also be justified by another, it follows that all people have to act the same way: if I can do x then so can everyone. Thus, we must universalise our actions through the Categorical Imperative by asking “would I be happy to allow everyone and anyone to act this way?” If the answer is “no” then I cannot justify performing the action myself. This leads to a universal form of morality that is objective and the same for all.
Criticisms / Problems:1) David Hume (below) argued that Reason cannot govern our actions at all, only our emotions and desires can control how we act.
2) It seems that different people are willing to universalise different things, for example, a pacifist would not universalise violence in self-defence, but most of us would. This shows that Reasoning alone is not enough to get around subjectivism.
4) Emotivism – David HumeHume was an Empiricist, which means he thought that every idea a human being can have must be based on experience – we are not born with any innate ideas about God or morality, or anything else, literally every thought in our head is based on or abstracted from observations by the sense. Thus Hume had to ask where our moral ideas came from.
Hume argued that all proven facts fell in to one of two categories: Matters of Fact (based on sense experience) and Relations of Ideas (based on reasoning). This is an epistemological thesis about how we gain knowledge.
Reasoning uses imagination, language and logic to come to new conclusions based on old information, for example, we can use reasoning to prove mathematical and geometrical assertions such as “5+7=12” and we can use reasoning about definitions to recognise that “all bachelors are unmarried” is a true statement. However, reason alone cannot tell us anything about the way the world is, for example, how many bachelors exist, whether there is a God, and so on. Reason does not tell us what is right and wrong.
Similarly, experience doesn’t tell us anything about morality either: if we take the body of a murder victim and examine it in every possible scientific way then we will never find any property of ‘wrongness’ the way we can find colours, weights, atoms, and so on.
Hume concludes that morals cannot be facts as they do not come from reason or experience (Perception, as we call it in ToK), so where do we get these ideas from? Hume concluded that moral views come from our emotions:
“Examine it [the body of a murder victim] in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice... The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object.”
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
This means that moral judgements are merely likes and dislikes. When we say “murder is wrong” what we really mean is “I don’t like murder, I wish people didn’t do it.” When we see the body of a murder victim it is our feelings that tell us what we see is wrong, not any sense data or reasoning, and of course, different people have different reactions, just as they do with works of art.
This has often been called “boo! hooray! theory” because essentially “charity is good” means “charity, hooray!” and “murder is wrong” means “murder, boo!” None the less, there are patterns to our moral sentiments: Hume argued that morality in general was based on sympathy as most of us do not like to see suffering as we can imagine it happening to ourselves or our loved ones, hence why most of us dislike murder.
Hume (although he predated Kant) would have utterly rejected Kant’s view that Reason can tell us how to live. Hume stated that “Reason is the slave of the passions.” Hume believed that it was down to our emotions and likes and dislikes to tell us what to do, these are what control our actions, all that reason can do is tell us how to get what we want. Here Hume is referring to means-end reasoning. This is where we take lessons from experience and utilise our thinking skills to work out how to achieve our goals, for example, knowing that the best way to do well in a test is to revise, or that the best way to dig a hole is with a shovel rather than a spoon. Kant would have said that murder was wrong because it was irrational, but Hume would have said that if you had a goal to achieve (e.g. getting power) and the only way to achieve that end was through murder, then surely murder would be the rational action to achieve that goal. Additionally, Hume argued that facts cannot tell us how to act, for example, the fact that smoking causes cancer will not stop people smoking, it depends on their desires.
The Logical Positivists: These 20th Century philosophers, including AJ Ayer, essentially copied Hume’s theory. We will learn about them in more detail in year 13 when we do philosophy of religion. According to Ayer moral statements are practically meaningless because they do not make statements of fact about the world, they simply express our emotions and attitudes towards actions.
Criticisms / Problems:1) Emotivism says that morals are expressions of emotion, so “murder is wrong” and “I don’t like murder” essentially mean the same thing. But this is not the way people actually think of moral statements, we treat them like facts, just as if we are saying things like “there definitely is a God” or “my brother is innocent of this crime.” If I say “I like tea” and my friend says “I don’t like tea” then I will more than likely just accept her different tastes. Meanwhile, if I say “I think abortion is wrong” and she disagrees we are likely to end up in an argument.
2) Emotions are generally random, but with morality we seem to see patterns. There are certain things that almost everyone has similar views on, and it is possible to give reasons for these views which can be persuasive to others, just as we can give evidence and argumentation in more straight forward factual areas like science and history. Does this not indicate that there is more to morality than emotion?
5) Prudence – Thomas HobbesThomas Hobbes was a psychological egoist, which means he believed that all human beings were programmed to be selfish and only to care about their own interests. It is in our nature to want to survive and all of our actions are geared towards this. In order to survive we seek to gain pleasure and avoid pain. We also seek property and resources, and are willing to harm others to take these for ourselves. Hobbes places no limit on our greed and argues that if there were no laws or government then we would be in a constant state of competition and war. We also seek safety and tend to pursue this through the elimination of enemies and threats.
Hobbes argues that without any law or government we would live in a ‘State of Nature’ where we could act as we naturally chose, however, it would be a place of constant warfare, where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In a state of nature the only virtues are “force and fraud” (violence and deception) and there is no such thing as morality, for all forms of violence are allowed for survival.
Since we seek safety and a good quality of life we therefore seek a truce with other people. We agree to give up some measure of our natural freedom in return for safety. Thus a social contract is formed whereby we agree not to kill others in return for them not killing us, not to steal from others in return for the security of our own property, and so on. This is the beginning of society, and it is the foundation of morality as we know it: law and order. Hobbes argued that it is very important to have a higher authority in place (a king with a strong army / police force) to enforce these rules, otherwise men will return to their selfish old habits and start to attack one another for gain. Thus morality as we know it is born out of prudence: cautious and wise pursuit of one’s own long term interests.
Hobbes suggests the following as some of his ‘laws of nature’ which would be part of the Social Contract:
· People cannot kill or steal.
· People should keep promises, tell the truth, and return favours.
· No one should be a slave.
· People should help others in order that they will be helped in return.
· People should obey the commands of their rulers.
Criticisms / Problems:1) There are numerous criticisms of Hobbes’ view that we are all utterly selfish (see Core Module). Hobbes seems to exaggerate the individuality and selfishness of human beings, even to the extent of saying that we don’t like others, even our friends, we just have friends for our own benefit. People like Mother Teresa seem to stand as counter arguments to the notion that we are all totally selfish at heart. Also, not every person would use violence to get what they want.
2) Hobbes’ view seems to indicate that human beings have created morality through mutual agreement, the social contract. However, this generates a logical problem: in the state of nature I can lie all I want and have no obligation to keep my word. If I then signed a social contract, surely I would have no obligation to keep it? Moreover, since the contract is hypothetical and no one has actually signed it, this seems to suggest that none of us have any obligation to follow it.
3) Hobbes has been praised for being realistic about morality rather than idealistic, but his perspective seems to indicate that if you can get away with a crime and benefit from it then you can do so. People only follow the rules because they are afraid of legal punishment, or because it might destabilise society, something which keeps them safe and so have negative consequences for them. Is this a good reason to be good?
6) Evolution – DarwinismThe suggestion here is that morality has developed over time because it helps us to survive. Those who were moral survived and passed on their moral genes and memes to their children (a meme is a ‘social gene’, a form of behaviour passed on through upbringing rather than via DNA).
Is morality found only in humans, or in other species too? Studies of other species, especially primates, reveals that some animals have basic moral codes. Chimpanzees have demonstrated altruistic traits by helping each other. In one experiment whenever a chimp took food another chimp received an electric shock; the chimp refused to take the food until it was virtually starving, which shows a reluctance to hurt others. Although violence and murder are found amongst primates there is evidence that most of the time cooperation rules interactions, and that violence has to be justified and limited. Some primates also seem to have conceptions of fairness, e.g. in experiments where two chimps worked together on a task and one was given more treats than the other, the one given least refused to work properly again, and the other chimpanzee often will share. If morality is found in other species too then it is a good indication that it has evolved.
Darwinism suggests that morality could have developed as a means of ensuring survival. Human beings are social animals who cannot survive independently and must work together as groups. Altruistic traits which emphasise group work or making sacrifices for your tribe are therefore to be expected in human beings. Those who are violent and selfish will often find themselves ostracised from groups, or that they die young. Those with altruistic traits are more likely to survive and have children, thus passing their altruistic genes on; they will also pass on their altruistic ways of acting through raising their children.
At the same time, individuals in a tribe will employ devices to get to the top of that tribe, so selfishness is also present. Additionally, tribes must compete against other tribes on occasion, meaning that traits such as bravery, violent behaviour, and xenophobia might also be naturally occurring moral values.
Scientists believe they have discovered moral centres in our brains. There are parts of our brains which control how we think and feel and interact with others, and in particular, one part of the brain allows us to feel empathy and sympathy towards others. In some people this part of the brain is inactive, which results in selfish and psychopathic behaviour – this brain anomaly is often found in murderers and businessmen. Scientists even believe they have identified areas of the brain connected to utilitarian thinking – the needs of the group. This must be a product of evolution.
Criticisms / Problems:1) Some people reject evolution, despite the strong evidence for it.
2) Human physiology and brain structure is universal, whilst morality is not. This indicates morality is not in our genes. However, we are built to adapt to our environment and copy other human beings, perhaps explaining variation.
3) Evolution says it is natural to have moral rules, e.g. do not kill. But it also says that greed, anger, violence etc. are also natural.
7) Nature and Natural LawSome moral philosophers believe that nature itself suggests certain moral principles to us. It is common for people to distinguish between what is natural and what is not, for example, it is often argued that IVF is ‘unnatural’ and therefore wrong.
To a large degree we can see Thomas Hobbes, Aristotle, and Jeremy Bentham as taking this approach because they all link their theories to conceptions of human nature. For Hobbes it is natural for us to be selfish, and his ethics is based around this. Bentham thinks that it is natural to be hedonistic, stating “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pleasure and pain.” Meanwhile Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia is centred on the idea that we have four key functions: health and survival, pleasure seeking, being members of society, and using our intellects.
St Thomas Aquinas is a key thinker when it comes to natural law. Aquinas was a Christian and his views on human nature were influenced by his faith, but he was also influenced by Aristotle. He saw God as the author of human nature, and that human nature was filled with purposes which indicated certain moral principles.
Aquinas argued that it is in our nature to breed, therefore he thought that relationships should be heterosexual and that the sexual organs should only be used for reproduction, with other uses such as masturbation and contraception being unnatural abuses. Abortion is wrong on similar grounds. The view that homosexuality is unnatural and therefore wrong was expressed by St Paul in the Bible and many people do indeed hold this view.
Aquinas argued that it is natural for creatures to want to survive, therefore, anything conducive to survival must be good, such as eating and staying healthy, and discovering medical technologies, and on similar grounds he concluded that suicide is always wrong.
Aquinas argued that it is natural for human beings to live in communities, and also that this helps us to survive, and therefore that we should do our duties to society, help other people around us, and obey our rulers. We must also avoid anything which disrupts the peaceful and harmonious running of society, such as murder and theft. He argued that the natural purpose of speech was to communicate facts about the world so that we can live together effectively, and therefore lying is wrong. He further argued that it was in our nature to seek knowledge, and that this helps us to survive, so education is a natural good.
Criticisms / Problems:1) Natural Law theories have a tendency to pick and choose what they like in human nature, emphasising the need for cooperation, peace, and so on; can we not say that greed and anger are also natural? Does this mean they are also good?
2) There is no clear distinction between what is natural and what is not: why is it when a beaver builds a dam it is natural but when a human builds a house it is not? Many people say that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’ but this seems untrue since it is also found in over other 400 animal species. Why is it unnatural to use medical technology to perform abortions or IVF, but not unnatural to save lives?
3) The Is-Ought Problem: David Hume stated that you cannot base an argument for what ought to be the case on facts about what is the case. For example, some people might make the following claim: “it is the case that people need food to survive, and it is the case that some people don’t have food, therefore, we ought to feed them.” Hume pointed out that there is actually a leap in logic here that cannot be explained. Just because something is factually natural, doesn’t mean we ought to do it, for example, it may be natural that most of us are altruistic, it doesn’t follow that we all ought to be if we don’t feel like it. It may be natural that we can have children, it mean we ought to.
8) Society – Cultural Relativism
The argument here is that morality comes from society, essentially from the way we are raised. Each society needs to have rules in order for it to exist harmoniously, but each society has formed a different moral code. Partly this is due to different conditions, for example, some societies allowed polygamy because there were more women than men, and Jews would not eat pork because it often led to illnesses. Whilst there may be similarities across the world’s moral systems (such as the Golden Rule) there are also great differences. As Gilbert Harman put it: “My thesis is that morality arises when a group of people reach an implicit agreement or come to a tacit understanding about their relations with one another.” (Gilbert Harman, Moral Relativism Defended)
In modern Britain women are generally regarded as free to live their lives as they wish and equal with men, but in some communities, e.g. parts of the Middle-East and South Asia, women are essentially viewed as property; first they belong to their fathers, then they belong to their husbands. They exist to serve male needs and must do whatever their husbands tell them. Sometimes women can be killed simply for flirting with other men, or for getting pregnant outside of marriage, or refusing to marry whom their parents tell them to; these are called ‘honour killings.’
Euthanasia is allowed in Switzerland, but not in Britain. Catholics teach that abortion is wrong and should never be allowed and it is illegal in many Catholic countries, whilst Protestants accept it in extreme circumstances and generally it is legal in Protestant countries. Meanwhile, in China many women abort foetuses simply on grounds of gender, and in some parts of China the government has forced women to have abortions they did want not on grounds of population control. Some societies practice ritual scarification of young men as a test of manhood and a mark of the tribe, whilst Britons would view this as a deeply immoral mutilation. The Mayans practiced human sacrifices, whilst Christians see this as revolting and immoral, hence why the Spanish stopped it when they invaded South America.
The issue here goes deeper than just the fact that there are different rules, because rules are a product of a person’s paradigm, their way of looking at the world. We would look at the facial scarification of people in various tribes as an ugly mutilation of what is natural, but to those tribes it is beautiful and may well indicate that the person is a dedicated member of their tribe, or a real man who can endure physical pain. If one culture has values relating to the Sanctity of Life then they are likely to have moral rules against murder, euthanasia, abortion, and suicide. Meanwhile, if another culture has values relating to the Quality of Life then they are likely to allow abortion and euthanasia.
FH Bradley agreed with cultural relativism, pointing out that it is our culture which stamps its worldview in to us as we grow up: “The Child is born in to a living world… he grows with his world, his mind fills and orders itself… He learns to speak, and here he appropriates the common heritage of his race… and it carries in to his mind the ideas and sentiments of the race… and stamps them in indelibly” (FH Bradley, My Station and Its Duties).
Every society has rules limiting who may be killed, no society would ever survive if violence and killing were always permitted, but different societies draw the line in different places. A society that has strong ideals about justice may allow the death penalty, whilst another with strong ideals about mercy and forgiveness may not allow it. A society which places great value on the idea of honour may allow people to be killed for honour, for example, to get revenge for insults, or to remove those who have stained the family’s honour through sexual immorality. In traditional Japan many people would commit suicide rather than be dishonoured in some way, so to them honour was worth more than their lives.
Criticisms / Problems:1) Some people believe that morals are not simply a product of culture; yes there are cultural differences, which indicates that culture plays a role, but there are also lots of similarities between cultures such as The Golden Rule, the principle which states that we should treat others in the manner in which we expect to be treated. This is an example of a ‘transcultural’ moral principle and it needs explaining in terms of something outside of culture.
2) It may be descriptively true that moral values come from our culture and vary depending on where we are brought up, but many philosophers try to turn this in to a normative theory saying (1) that you ought to do what your society has raised you to do, and (2) that people in one culture should not judge the actions of those in another culture. This raised numerous issues, and falls foul of the Is-Ought Problem.
9) Intuitionism - GE MooreMany moral philosophers have argued quite powerfully that there are no valid means of attaining moral truths, we cannot learn them from Reason or Experience. This seems to make morality appear made up, as if there are no moral truths to discover, it is all just a matter of opinion and emotion.
However, philosophers like GE Moore have argued that we gain moral knowledge by intuition. We have an inexplicable ability to perceive moral facts and tell right from wrong. We are able to recognise good and evil when we see them. Hence we can maintain our belief in the existence of genuine moral rules, and get around problems about having to prove what they are. We do not need proof that murder is wrong, practically everyone can see that it is wrong without needing the evidence because they have intuition.
Various philosophers have come up with complicated systems which aim to dictate what is good and what is not (e.g. Utilitarianism and Kantian Ethics), but Intuitionists argue that these complex systems are not necessary because we should be able to instantly see which things are good and which things are not, through intuition.
Criticisms / Problems:1) Many philosophers would say that intuitions or ‘gut reactions’ are not a reliable means of providing us with moral knowledge because the point is that people do not know or understand the reasons behind their intuitions. Surely intuitions are simply emotional reactions, not facts?
2) People have differing intuitions. One person has an intuition that life is intrinsically valuable and therefore he is against euthanasia, another has the exact opposite intuition and concludes that it is wrong to allow a person to suffer. How can there be genuine moral truths accessible via ‘intuition’ if we all have different intuitions?
3) Intuitionism gives us no means to decide between different moral points of view since there is no rational grounds for debate, we simply end up with people saying “I think it’s obvious that euthanasia is wrong” and “I think it’s obvious that euthanasia is acceptable.” Where is the possibility of argumentation here?
10) ConscienceMany people regard the conscience as an important source of moral teachings. Some people believe that human beings have a moral law written within them by nature, perhaps placed there by God, or perhaps created through evolution. The Bible speaks of the law being “written on the hearts of all men” and evolution suggests that there are natural tendencies towards cooperation and sympathy in us, although there are anomalous people who lack these. Some religious believers will go so far as to say that conscience is the voice of God.
Criticisms / Problems:1) Just as with intuition, people’s consciences lead them to different conclusions and we are not able to give full explanations of our views. One person will feel he cannot euthanize someone as he would feel awful, whilst another would feel awful if he allowed the person to continue suffering and didn’t end their life. How can we know whose conscience is correct here? How can you tell the difference between your conscience and your personal feelings?
2) Psychologists such as Sigmund Freud would say that our conscience is formed by our upbringing; as children we are made to feel good about certain actions and bad about others, as adults we continue to have these feelings. This generates the false feeling of being watched by some kind of almighty parent figure, when really it is just the inculcated voice of society and our parents making us feel guilty about things.
3) It is often said that only bad men have clear consciences. Good people worry about their actions, bad people often feel no remorse about their deeds. Many of us will be good because we would feel bad after committing a crime, even if no one else found out, but large numbers of people have no such feelings.
4) Conscience is relative to upbringing, for example, a person raised in Britain where drinking alcohol is normal will not feel guilty about having a drink, but a person who was raised in Saudi Arabia where it is illegal may feel very guilty if he drinks. Therefore, conscience is related to our upbringing and is not a reliable guide to what actually is or is not right.
11) Karl Marx and EconomicsMarx argued that that morality was a social invention, in particular, he said that the ruling moral ideology of any era is always an invention of the ruling classes in society, the rich people who control and own the economy. Their views on morality will always seek to justify their own rule and control of the system, and their own right to be rich. Their views will also seek to control the workers and make them accept their low wages and exploitation as if these things were perfectly normal and natural.
For Marx morality, as well as history and just about everything else, is driven by economic concerns. In Feudal times control of the land was most important, and the rich land owners (the lords and gentry) indoctrinated the poor with the ideal that God had given each person a place in society, whether high or low, and they had to do their duties to their rulers or suffer in the afterlife. Today in Capitalist society the moral paradigm has shifted so that we are raised to believe in liberty and the pursuit of personal happiness, something which encourages materialism and helps to keep businessmen rich, and allows for both extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Marx wished to eventually see a system of morals and economics whereby everyone would benefit equally from society, and where there was no exploitation.
Criticisms / Problems:1) Although it is clear that a person’s level of wealth can have an effect on their perception of what is fair and right, Marx can be accused of over simplifying matters by saying that it all comes down to economics.
Summary and ConclusionIt cannot be doubted that people have moral beliefs about what is right and wrong. It can, however, be doubted whether any of these moral beliefs are true. Moral Anti-Realists argue that there are no moral truths, moral values are all just inventions and opinions. Investigating the origins of our moral beliefs helps to shed light on whether these moral principles are real and true or not. Be aware that it is possible for a phenomenon to have multiple causes which each have an influence, for example, religious people may say that true morality comes from God, but that often people listen to their emotions instead of God. Which views on the origins of morality do you agree with and why? What does your view indicate about whether morals are objective and true, or just subjective and opinion based?