Moral skepticism is the view that we cannot know moral truths whether or not they actually exist. Commonly, it’s the view that morality is either subjectively determined (therefore arbitrary) or that morality is just determined by societies (a form of cultural relativism that does not accept that morality should be determined by societies). Common arguments for moral skepticism generally fall under three forms:
1. The argument from disagreement-People disagree all the time on what morality is, and the disagreement is a sign that people just determine what they believe to be moral.
2. The demand for morality to be justly established- Who has the right to determine what “morality” is? Why should anyone accept another person’s view of morality?
3. The “ought from an is” argument- this argument basically says that even if moral rules were agreed upon, you couldn’t make the jump to “everyone ought to act this way”. (I go into a bit of detail in my last post, hopefully refuting it)
The first argument is the most common I’ve seen. To refute it, just think: is widespread disagreement always mean that there is no real answer? Young Earth Creationists believe the earth is roughly 6000-7000 years old. However, those beliefs obviously don’t nullify the scientific data about the earth’s age, and definitely do not make the earth’s age unknowable or non-existent. So, it is possible that moral truths are disagreed upon, yet could still be knowable and exist.
To respond to the second argument, I’d establish a “goal” of morality. Imagine that morality, as a social system, is ultimately aimed toward a certain goal. This could be promoting a certain positive value, protecting certain rights, etc. If this goal for morality is established, then morality could be determined and judged by its effectiveness in working toward that goal. It wouldn’t matter whose opinion differed, or who established the best methods/rules so long as the system of morality ultimately worked.
The obvious question from here is what the goal of morality would be. Utilitarianism is the only well-known moral theory with a clear goal: aggregate happiness. I don’t entirely agree, but I feel its close. A key note is that utilitarians, notably John Stuart Mill, saw happiness as a deeper wellness than just physical sensations.
The main problem I have with focusing solely on happiness is that it values the rights of happier people more so than unhappy people. My solution, and what I base a lot of my ethical views on, is to value opportunities for happiness and protection from harm. Basically, morality should be set up to promote the opportunity for people to do the things that make them happy, and protect them from things that could harm them. The way to do this is through establishing basic human rights. Since killing is a harm to people, everyone should have a right to life. If people are universally happier when they are able to choose their own spouse, then everyone should have the right to choose their own spouse.
I’ll go into greater detail once I figure out my ethics entirely, but it’s been a bit difficult so far. I have a few kinks to go through before I feel satisfied enough to outline it as a complete ethical theory.
Most of ethics involves determining which action in any given situation is morally correct. My theory, for example, chooses an action based on its impact on human rights.
Each ethical theory will at some point run in to the problem of inferring an “ought from an is”. The “is” part is the supposed morally correct option. For example, not killing someone out of boredom is morally better than killing someone out of boredom. The “ought” part is obligation to do a certain action, such as “you ought not to kill someone out of boredom”. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a valid jump from “this is morally better” to “I should act morally”.
Generally, this problem has been approached from one of these angles:
1. You should act morally because ____ commands it (God, law, etc.)
-Problem: Morality seems arbitrarily decided, what motive is there to follow God/law?
2. You should act morally because you will be punished if you don’t (by God or jail)
-Problem: Morality becomes egoistic (self-centered), as you only act morally when it is in your best interest to do so, such as avoiding punishment. If you can get away with acting immorally and not get punished, no reason for you not to do so.
3. You should act morally because you will ultimately be better off by treating people morally (what goes around comes around, some utilitarians).
-Problem: Also egoistic, if you know you won’t be rewarded more for acting morally in a given case, no reason for you to do so.
4. You should act morally because pure reason compels you to do so (Kant).
Problem: You have to accept Kant’s ideas to accept this, and most people won’t. Basically, you’d have to accept that morality works in absolutes (if something is immoral, it is immoral regardless of the harm it could prevent) and that reason compels you not to see yourself as an exception to any rule. The latter is a bit easier to accept, but it doesn’t disprove the egoist idea that “I want to only benefit myself, so I will”.
5. The jump from an “ought” to an “is” can be made by seeing morality as a goal for people. For example, if you have a goal to be moral, you should act in a way that works toward that goal. (This logic basically says that if you want to eat your sandwich, you should eat your sandwich. Want=is, and should=ought in this case).
Problem: For this to work, you need to already have the goal to be moral. If you don’t want to be moral, and you don’t value the benefits to others that morality brings, then this doesn’t compel you from egoism.
My take: I accept the problem for the 5th solution. I think it is logically impossible to compel an egoist to act morally; if you want to only benefit yourself, I can’t logically convince you to benefit others for their own sake.
This makes morality an alternative option to egoism. Basically, each person can decide whether or not they want to act morally or purely egotistically. If you choose the former, then you have the goal of acting morally and therefore should act morally. If you choose the latter, then you cannot genuinely act morally, as you are only acting to benefit yourself.
Dehumanizing basically means making your enemy seem inferior, so you could feel justified in doing things to them that you wouldn’t normally do to your own people.
Examples in propaganda:
Nazi Germany against blacks in America (http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l29psqztut1qzpt5vo1_400.jpg)
North Korea against America (http://calitreview.com/images/ess_north_korean_129.jpg)
In each case the propaganda makes the enemy look sub-human, so harmful actions like war, killing, etc aren’t seen as crimes against “regular” people.
It’s surprisingly effective. In WWII, we saw massive amounts of anti-asian racism, even against those who had nothing to do with the Japanese war effort. In North Korea, citizens talk of killing Americans like its an honorable service to humanity.
Sadly, there’s still a modern relevance: modern “propaganda” uses similar tactics, and even if unintentional has similar results. Look at the modern threat of Al-Qaeda. We started two wars over 9/11 in the name of fighting terrorism. We had to kill the “terrorists” and the word terror/terrorist was thrown around constantly. Even though there were real dangers in Al-Qaeda, national resentment included Muslims and other middle eastern countries. This is just an informed guess, but I believe a lot of the nation’s initial acceptance of the Iraq invasion had to do with demonizing arab nations as “terrorists”. If as many European civilians were killed as Iraqi, I think we would have had much greater public outrage.
In simple terms, the key to avoiding this problem is empathy. “Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes” and such.
Here’s the reason I bring this up: current debates about providing emergency care to illegal aliens. Basically, the debate is over whether or not hospitals should provide life-saving treatment to illegal aliens through tax-funded subsidies.
The initial argument for providing the treatment is simple: we shouldn’t value money over human life.
The arguments against this policy can take a couple forms:
1. We shouldn’t provide life saving treatment to anyone who can’t afford it, regardless of nationality (this can either be an ethical argument about taxes or an argument about the economic sustainability of certain types of healthcare)
2. We shouldn’t, as Americans, pay for illegal aliens to have healthcare.
#1 is a different ballpark, so I’ll pass it by for now. The debate about healthcare is long and complex and isn’t my current focus.
#2 is what bothers me. Basically, the argument is that it is okay to pay for healthcare for Americans (so not argument #1), but we shouldn’t for anyone who isn’t an American.
Think about that argument carefully (and it is a very common argument). When you break it down, the argument is distinguishing between the value of two things: an American life, and a foreigner’s life. From this, the argument values the American life enough to pay for its healthcare, but not for a foreigners. Is this right?
I want to go into this into greater detail in a future post, so I’ll leave it at that note.
-This post was delayed a week because I could not get my internet activated in my apartment for a week. I’m still planning on updating this blog roughly once a week though.