Intro to Ethics: Reasoning about Ethics

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 2, 2009 in Ethics,Intro to Ethics

intro_to_ethics

Welcome to my course on ethics.

One worry about ethics is that there seem to be no proofs in ethics. We can prove that the Earth is round, that there are an infinite number of primes, and that Aristotle lived before Constantine. But can we prove that abortion is right or wrong?

“Proof” in ethics does not work the same as in science, math, or history. Arguments in applied ethics usually take the form of “giving reasons” for your view. But don’t we “give reasons” in science, math, and history? Yes, but our reasons may have stronger foundations in those fields. Or at least, those fields are defined by the foundations which are accepted by them. In science and history, the reasons given usually work their way back to “arguments to the best explanation” of some set of facts. The best explanation of the facts tells us what probably happened or how nature probably works. And in math, our reasons consist of deductive proofs from a set of axioms.

The problem with ethics is that there are no agreed-upon foundations. Some say the foundation of ethics is God’s will. So these people give reasons for their views in that context. One theist tries to show that X is against God’s will, and his opponent tries to show the opposite, perhaps by quoting Scripture.

But some say the foundation of ethics is utilitarianism – the greatest good for the greatest number. One utilitarian tries to argue that X produces the greatest happiness for the most people, and his opponent tries to show the opposite, perhaps quoting research on the effects of X.

Still others say the foundation of ethics is a hypothetical social contract we would all be rational to sign. One contractarian tries to show that X is good because rational people would agree to it, and his opponent tries to show the opposite, perhaps by arguing for a different position on human rationality.

Theists spend a lot of time arguing that God’s will implies that A, B, and C are right, while X, Y, and Z are wrong. But what if God’s will is not the foundation of morality? Then all their conclusions in applied ethics are unfounded.

Utilitarians spend a lot of time arguing that utilitarianism implies that A, Y, and Z are right, while B, C, and X are wrong. But what if utilitarianism is not the foundation of morality? Then all their conclusions in applied ethics are unfounded.

Contractarians spend a lot of time arguing that contractarianism implies that B and C are right, while A, X, Y, and Z are wrong. But what if contractarianism is not the foundation of morality? Then all their conclusions in applied ethics are unfounded.

That’s why it’s so important to get the questions of meta-ethics right. If we reason about ethics under the assumptions of the wrong moral theory, all our conclusions on the questions that really matter to us – war, politics, sexual ethics, lying, abortion, and so on – are unfounded.

Still, many philosophers and laymen reason about ethics outside the assumptions of a particular moral theory. One hope is that even if we can’t know which moral conclusion is correct, we can eliminate some of the wrong conclusions. For example, if all of the reasons to condemn homosexuality can be shown to fail, then we can at least say that the moral condemnation of homosexuality is unjustified.

Another hope is that we can persuade others by appealing to principles that may not be proven to the philosopher’s satisfaction, but are nevertheless commonly held by the people we wish to persuade. For example, most people agree that harm is bad and that health and happiness is good. So if we can give reasons to support X, and those reasons include proof that X avoids harm and promotes health and happiness, then perhaps we can persuade our neighbor that X is a morally good thing to be promoted.

One final hope is that once philosophers have found the answers to meta-ethical questions about the foundations of morality, the work already in done in applied ethics will come in handy.

In several posts to come, we will consider the reasons that are given for and against a particular ethical position – concerning homosexuality, abortion, racism, euthanasia, poverty, vegetarianism, etc. – as divorced from any particular meta-ethical or normative theory, but hopefully still illuminating.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Roman December 2, 2009 at 6:45 am

Cool, I’m looking forward to a bit of applied ethics.

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Mark December 2, 2009 at 9:48 am

Theists spend a lot of time arguing that God’s will implies that A, B, and C are right, while X, Y, and Z are wrong. But what if God’s will is not the foundation of morality? Then all their conclusions in applied ethics are unfounded.

What if God’s will is wrong? You’re kidding, right? If His will is WRONG, then America is an illusion. What do you think this country and its laws are pillared on? You know what they are pillared on. They are pillared on–as ABE LINCOLN said so beautifully when he designated Thanksgiving a holiday-”the providence of our beneficent Father.”

Furthermore, if God’s will is wrong (it’s not really his will, it’s his NATURE but we’ll keep it your way since it’s your blog), then you are a fraud, my friend. That’s right, every shred of presupposed sincerity and honesty that have helped make your blog popular and compelling are LIES.

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Landon Hedrick December 2, 2009 at 9:57 am

Mark,

When you say that America is an illusion, do you mean that America appears to be X but is actually Y?

What do you mean when you say that this country’s laws are pillared on God’s providence?

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Jeff H December 2, 2009 at 10:22 am

Mark:
Furthermore, if God’s will is wrong (it’s not really his will, it’s his NATURE but we’ll keep it your way since it’s your blog), then you are a fraud, my friend. That’s right, every shred of presupposed sincerity and honesty that have helped make your blog popular and compelling are LIES.  

I will stay away from arguing about America’s constitution, since I am not an American, but what exactly do you mean by this? If God’s will is wrong, then Luke is a liar? I’m just not sure how that follows…

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Mark December 2, 2009 at 1:44 pm

What do you mean when you say that this country’s laws are pillared on God’s providence?

I mean providence exactly how it is defined: America is a manifestation of God’s care. You better believe he has blessed this country. Why? Because we put him first. How? Because we put freedom first and freedom is the essence of the Creator and thus his creatures.

No freedom>No free will>No God. Very simple.

This country is blessed by God because it allows people to seek Him and worship him.

what exactly do you mean by this? If God’s will is wrong, then Luke is a liar? I’m just not sure how that follows…

Sorry,shorthand. Bad habit. I just meant Luke’s character is rooted in Christian moral norms. If God doesn’t exist, then everything Luke ever learned that was “good” was not because without God there is no moral norms in Luke’s life. Hence Luke’s evidential sincerity on this web site is not really sincerity at all. It is something else.

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Alex December 2, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Luke – you might want to consider implementing something like this for the comments: http://xkcd.com/481/

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Penneyworth December 2, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Mark, I’m not sure if you’re a well-poisoning atheist or something, but you have truly progressed… indeed, ascended… into the most inimitable self-parody.

I’d like to thank you…

You see, today has been a dreary, tedious day. I have been sitting here at my desk, staring unfocused at this computer screen, daydreaming about skydiving directly into a volcano erupting with dairy free mac n’ cheese, while simultaneously making tragic, desperate love to the three-titted woman from Total Recall…

And then I saw it. Your comment about how america is an illusion if god is wrong. Your trump card? Abe Lincoln. You put it in all caps to emphasize this crushing point.

ABE LINCOLN

Oh man, every time it pops into my head, I laugh to tears!

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Michael Thackray December 2, 2009 at 2:50 pm

“What if God’s will is wrong?”

Did I miss something? I don’t think Luke ever said this. He said that some people think God’s will defines things as right or wrong…

Mark your so bitter. Anything you say reeks of scathing resentment. Your just pulling shit out of nowhere, taking things to places they were never meant to go and finding excuses to attack Luke’s character so you feel justified in ignoring his completely legitimate apostasy.

Your a self-righteous idiot. If you saw yourself from the outside you would agree with me. You define ‘hypocrite.’Your fuel for the fire of the idiotic Christian stereotype, and your doing your religion a s disfavour.

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Rhys Wilkins December 2, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Hahahahah,

Mark you have gotta be careful, you wouldn’t want to get yourself nominated for next year’s Golden Crockoduck Award would you now! That would be a treat though.

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John D December 2, 2009 at 4:37 pm

Mark: What if God’s will is wrong? You’re kidding, right? If His will is WRONG, then America is an illusion. What do you think this country and its laws are pillared on?

Well assuming the constitution is the foundational document of the American legal system, you’re in a bit of trouble there. God doesn’t even get an acknowledgment. (He does in the Declaration of Independence, but that’s not quite the same thing). Have a look for yourself:

http://www.house.gov/house/Constitution/Constitution.html

As for Christianity, do we need trot out the Treaty of Tripoli at this point? (Article 11 is the thorny one).

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fe/TreatyofTripoli.gif

You may also enjoy reading this:

http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050221/allen

I apologise if America is gone when you wake up in the morning.

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Jeff H December 2, 2009 at 6:33 pm

“I mean providence exactly how it is defined: America is a manifestation of God’s care. You better believe he has blessed this country. Why? Because we put him first. How? Because we put freedom first and freedom is the essence of the Creator and thus his creatures.”

Lol oh jeez. Come on, really…I’m trying to combat my stereotype of the typical arrogant American, and you’re making it difficult. But let me plug my nose to block out the stench of arrogance and ask you…how exactly are you measuring “blessing”? Because really…American Christians love to pull out the “America is blessed because we love God” when it suits them, but then they also pull out the “American society is in the depths of degradation because we kill babies” whenever that suits them as well. So how are you measuring this “blessing” you speak of?

“Sorry,shorthand. Bad habit. I just meant Luke’s character is rooted in Christian moral norms. If God doesn’t exist, then everything Luke ever learned that was “good” was not because without God there is no moral norms in Luke’s life. Hence Luke’s evidential sincerity on this web site is not really sincerity at all. It is something else.”

Well isn’t that just a completely mess of illogical argumentation…
a) I’ve already mentioned that morality can exist without God. You may dispute this, but at any rate, this is what Luke believes, and so his sincerity cannot be called into question about this issue.

b) If morality does not exist, then the word “good” is essentially meaningless. But that doesn’t make the statement “Sharing is good” wrong – it merely makes it incoherent. Like saying “Sharing is fleevis.” How can you evaluate the truth value of that?

c) Regardless of what the truth is about morality, Luke believes that morality exists, and so the claims on this site are not insincere. I may believe that Islam is false and that Muslims are wrong, but I don’t have any reason to doubt their sincerity on the matter. I believe that they actually believe what they say – I just think they’re wrong.

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lukeprog December 2, 2009 at 6:34 pm

Alex,

Too late. See my page on How to Comment. :)

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drj December 2, 2009 at 6:54 pm

Mark: “I mean providence exactly how it is defined: America is a manifestation of God’s care. You better believe he has blessed this country. Why? Because we put him first. How? Because we put freedom first and freedom is the essence of the Creator and thus his creatures.”

This conjures up imaginings of some old Auger of ancient Rome, proclaiming to his great city, that its blessings are because of its strict piety. Of course, the warnings follow. Should the great city’s pious stance diminish, so will its blessings, as the gods will be displeased. But the Augur tells the people to fear not, for he has the right little fuzzy creature on the chopping block, and its about to have its entrails sliced and diced in the correct fasion.. a way that’s pleasing to the gods, and so blessings will follow. Bambi is about to die, disaster will be averted, and enjoy the bountiful fruits to come!

At least most of our modern friends have been tempered by Western ideals, and now believe their God is pleased by human rights. That’s progress… I guess.

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Mark December 2, 2009 at 10:01 pm

Oh man you guys are a riot. I’m like a mosquito at a nude beach.. I don’t even know where to start. :D

Penneyworth (Lukeprog II) I’d like to thank you… You see, today has been a dreary, tedious day. I have been sitting here at my desk, staring unfocused at this computer screen, daydreaming about skydiving directly into a volcano erupting with dairy free mac n’ cheese, while simultaneously making tragic, desperate love to the three-titted woman from Total Recall…

Whoa there hyperbole boy. Put down the gluestick and step away from from the meth. And get a girlfriend. Try here: http://www.hotrussianbrides.com/?ppc=g&gclid=CLGx0arDuZ4CFRQpawod3GVYmw

And then I saw it. Your comment about how america is an illusion if god is wrong. Your trump card? Abe Lincoln. You put it in all caps to emphasize this crushing point. ABE LINCOLN. Oh man, every time it pops into my head, I laugh to tears!

Awesome. Glad I could brighten your day !

Thackaray (another Luke pseudonym me thinks) said: “Did I miss something? I don’t think Luke ever said this. He said that some people think God’s will defines things as right or wrong…

Yes you missed something. You said “But what if God’s will is not the foundation of morality?” In other words, what if God’s will is wrong?

Mark your so bitter. Anything you say reeks of scathing resentment. Your just pulling shit out of nowhere, taking things to places they were never meant to go and finding excuses to attack Luke’s character so you feel justified in ignoring his completely legitimate apostasy.

Bitter? Scathing resentment? Talk about pulling stuff out of nowhere. Show me how I have been bitter. Give me one example. I challenge you.

Luke put up this site and invited people to comment. I took him up on his offer and have shared my legitimate and NON scathing points of view about his sometimes conflicting, sometimes irrational, and sometimes spiteful posts. If ANYONE is bitter it is Luke, not me. HE has devoted a whole site to ridiculing Christianity. All I did was respond.

Your a self-righteous idiot. If you saw yourself from the outside you would agree with me. You define ‘hypocrite.’Your fuel for the fire of the idiotic Christian stereotype, and your doing your religion a s disfavour.

Yes I may be all the things you say I am, but at least I don’t need to call people names to get my point across. Talk about doing a disservice to one’s cause. Talk about bitter. Talk about hypocrisy.

I will refrain from commenting further because a cursory handwriting analysis shows Luke appears to be posting under multiple names. I’ve known many bloggers to do this, but I would have thought Luke would be different.

Oh well. I will stop posting here now. As soon as it sinks to personal attack and name calling, it’s time for me to move on. And Luke if you’re NOT posting under different nyms, your discourse has sure drawn an angry, bitter, foul-mouthed, narrow-minded crowd. Sure you’re on the right team?

Email me if you ever change your mind, Luke. I will fly out to Minnesota on my own dime to meet with you anytime if you want to talk about the real God of LOVE you have rejected.

Peace and love

mark

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Charles December 2, 2009 at 11:10 pm

Mark, I don’t even know where to begin. I made an effort to help by pointing you toward the relevant resources. However, you do not seem to be making a genuine effort to understand them.

I wish you well in your continued unreason.

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John D December 3, 2009 at 2:18 am

In fairness guys, Mark displays classic conspiratorial thinking. I believe this is a prerequisite for religious belief.

Mark: I will refrain from commenting further because a cursory handwriting analysis shows Luke appears to be posting under multiple names. I’ve known many bloggers to do this, but I would have thought Luke would be different.

I’d love to know how this handwriting analysis works.

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lukeprog December 3, 2009 at 7:34 am

Mark,

You are too funny. Where do you have a sample of my handwriting? How would you possibly tell from my handwriting that I am posting under multiple names? What other names do you think I am posting under?

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Josh December 3, 2009 at 11:07 am

I’m convinced Mark is a joke. The handwriting comment is just too fucking bizarre.

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Omgredxface December 3, 2009 at 11:27 am

Great article I’ll be thinkin about it all day.

But I have to point out:
The first four comments are great but after that…are you guys in middle school? Flaming poor Mark like your actually going to change his point of view?
Or maybe I just have a soft spot for Christians (they are so cuddly)?

Mark, although I probably disagree, 100%, with anything in your head I sincerely appreciate your post and hope you continue give us your input on the articles. If it wasn’t for christians…this website would not exist in the first place :-)

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Jeff H December 3, 2009 at 11:33 am

Omgredxface: Great article I’ll be thinkin about it all day.But I have to point out:
The first four comments are great but after that…are you guys in middle school?Flaming poor Mark like your actually going to change his point of view?
Or maybe I just have a soft spot for Christians (they are so cuddly)?Mark, although I probably disagree, 100%, with anything in your head I sincerely appreciate your post and hope you continue give us your input on the articles.  

Lol I’ll bet someone ten bucks that this is actually Mark posting under another name :P haha alright alright, I’m just kidding….

Seriously, though…I don’t normally get into flame wars, but this guy is just annoying. He showed up maybe a week ago and just immediately acted like he knew everything about everyone. He apparently mastered desirism in 32.6 seconds, and having been here for months, I’m still not sure that I even get it yet. I’m starting to side with the others on this one…he might be a Poe. But well, hey….without handwriting analysis, maybe we’ll never know lol

EDIT: Oh and btw, as a psychology major, I find it fascinating how people can inspire anger and hatred and name-calling simply by being fucking arrogant…and then use that to bolster their own worldview. It’s very interesting…I might have to write a paper on that lol.

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Omgredxface December 3, 2009 at 2:49 pm

I find it fascinating how people can inspire anger and hatred and name-calling simply by being fucking arrogant…

Truth sir, and this might be why I LOVE open forums so much. Watching people with different views try to…bash each other with retoric.

Now that I think about, I changed my mind, flame wars can be pretty damn entertaining. Carry on. :-)

and apologies for going so far off topic.

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John D December 3, 2009 at 5:07 pm

Omgredxface: Truth sir, and this might be why I LOVE open forums so much. Watching people with different views try to…bash each other with retoric.

Reminds me of one of my favourite poems. It’s by an Irish poet called Derek Mahon (who is one of my favourite poets). It’s called Glengormley. I think it’s partly humanistic in theme. And the following section seems to be about transcending superstition:

“Now we are safe from monsters, and the giants
Who tore up sods twelve miles by six
And hurled them out to sea to become islands
Can worry us no more. The sticks
And stones that once broke bones will not now harm
A generation of such sense and charm.

Only words hurt us now.”

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Adolfo Willging June 1, 2011 at 1:24 pm

It’s a great time to make some plans for the future like meeting and marrying a Russian bride and it is time to be happy. I have read your post above about Russian women and if I could I want to suggest to you a few interesting things or ideas. Perhaps you could write an articles referring to online dating in Russia. I wish to read more about it!

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