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Challenges to Ethics

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Tyler Zimmer

on 10 April 2017

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Transcript of Challenges to Ethics

The Challenge of Relativism
Ethics and God
What ethics is
Ethics & Human Nature
Why Be Moral?
A word about terminology...
In this class we will use the words "ethics" and "morality" interchangeably.
We will take both to refer to our subject matter: what we owe to one another, what (if anything) we
to do, etc.
Relativism, Religion and Ethics
Are ethical requirements universal?
Relationship between ethics and religion, morality and God.
Ethics, human nature, self-interest.
Normative vs. Descriptive Statements
Describe the world. State what

the case.
Prescribe, evaluate. Say how things
to be, what we
Frederick Douglass
What is Douglass
in this quote?
What's his
is he speaking? What does he hope to
by saying what he says here?
The Challenge of Relativism
Relativism about ethics...
Relativism is the idea that ethical requirements do not hold universally.
Relativists believe that ethical duties are
(to one's culture, or to one's preferences, etc.)
"Slavery is wrong"
Why be a relativist?
Douglass vs. Relativism
Douglass isn't saying "I personally disapprove of slavery but it isn't really wrong."
Neither is he saying "slavery is wrong in my personal opinion, but the opinions of slave owners are just as authoritative and true."
He seems to be saying: "Slavery is wrong,
." It's wrong whether or not everyone recognizes that it's wrong.
Those who would defend slavery are mistaken. They have false beliefs about ethics.
Egregious Moral Wrongs
What about cases of egregious moral wrongs, such as genocide, mass killing, rape, and so on?
Should we say these
aren't really wrong
, that it's just opinion?
Should we deny that the destruction of slavery was
This would be implausible.
Ethics doesn't seem to be like our preferences for flavors of ice cream. Nor is it like etiquette.
More is at stake.
We need correct ethical norms in order to know how we ought to relate to one another, what we owe to each other, etc.
Which ethical norms are the correct ones?
This is a hard question. There are no easy answers.
But it doesn't follow that there are no correct answers at all.
Ethics vs. Law
Can you think of cases where something is
morally wrong
, but
legally permissible
What about cases where something is
morally justified
, but
legally prohibited
What about a case where something is
legally required
morally wrong
What about a case where something is
morally required
, but
legally prohibited
Although ethics and law are not
, they sometimes overlap.
Etiquette vs. Ethics
What is a case where something is contrary to etiquette norms, but morally permissible?
Whenever you break etiquette do you thereby do something
ethically wrong
Etiquette can sometimes be ethically wrong.
Jim Crow etiquette: Whites did not use courtesy titles of respect when speaking or referring to black people, for example, Mr., Mrs., Miss., Sir, or Ma'am. Instead, black people were always spoken to or referred to by their first names. Yet, black people were expected to use courtesy titles when referring to whites, and were not allowed to call them by their first names.
Traditionally, it was considered bad form for women to ask men on dates, to call men, to initiate intimacy, etc.
Robert stole the television.
What Robert did was
Carson tripped Tyler.
What Carson did was wrong.
Carson shouldn't have done that.
Carson was justified.
Carson's action was morally right.
Is there a God?
Interesting philosophical question, but not one we're going to address now.
But, regardless of whether one is a theist or an atheist (or agnostic), there is a still a question here:
If God exists
, what is the relationship between God and ethics?
If God does not exist
, what ethical implications follow?
If God exists...
What is ethically right is simply a matter of God's will.
"Right" means "God commands it"
"Wrong" means "God prohibits it"
Story of Abraham and Isaac
(Important in Christianity, Judaism, Islam)
Divine Command Theory
If God had willed that Abraham follow through and kill his son, it would have been right.
"Right" simply means "whatever God commands."
Any action, in principle, could be morally right if God commanded it.
"The Euthyphro Problem"
"The Euthyphro
(1) Are certain actions morally right simply because God commands them?

(2) Does God command us to do certain actions because they really are morally right?
Certain things are ethically good/right
only because God likes them
. What
them good/right is the
mere fact that God likes them
God likes certain things
those things really are the good/right things. God commands those things because He
that they truly are good/right.
First "horn" of the dilemma
The mere fact that God commands certain things
makes, constitutes
those things as good/right.
This is
Divine Command Theory
Possible Problems?
Second "horn" of the dilemma
God, being all-knowing,
that certain things truly
good/right and commands those things
for that reason
God commands certain things
because they really are morally right
Second "horn" of the dilemma
Saying that God likes certain things and not others because those
really are the good/right things
avoids the problems of Divine Command Theory.
This makes moral rightness independent of God's commands.
But in this case ethics would depend first of all on the
best reasons
, not on God's commands.
However, God may still be an authority on morality because she alone, being all-knowing, can see
of the best reasons, moral truths, etc.
Summary of Euthyphro Dilemma
certain things are good/right because God likes them, or
God likes certain things because they are good/right.
If (1) is true...
The basis of morality seems arbitrary?
We can no longer think critically about ethics?
Can no longer explain why "God is good."
Difficult to know what God commands.
If (2) is true...
Ethical problems cannot be decisively answered by reference to what God commands. We need to know why he commands it.
What matters is the reasons for/against actions.
If there is a God, then...
The Naturalistic Fallacy
"What's natural is good"
"What's unnatural is bad, immoral"
suppose someone argued: "homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural"
What does "natural" mean?
Lots of things that are "natural" are clearly
Diseases, viruses, infections, deadly venom, tooth decay, etc.
Hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, etc.
What happens in "nature shows", etc.
Lots of things that are not "natural" clearly
Soap, modern plumbing, toilet paper, anti-biotics, music, culture, art, fried food, etc.
Film, universities, heat, umbrellas, etc.
Human Nature and Self-Interest
Is there such a thing as "human nature"?
Is it fixed? Does it change over time?
Are we 100% self-interested beings who
do things if they benefit us?
Human Nature and Egoism
"Descriptive egoism"
"Normative egoism"
Psychologically, the only thing that actually motivates human beings is self-interest.
Agents should or ought only do those things that promote their self-interest.
What would a
egoist have to be like?
Can she/he resent others? Feel shame/guilt?
See others' interests as reasons for action?
Think of her/himself as courageous, brave?
To what extent are classic "mobster" characters from movies consistent egoists? Are they 100% egoistic?
In the end, what is a consistent egoist like?
The Consistent Egoist: A Sociopath
pure egoism
pure altruism
God's commands certain things isn't what makes them good/right. They are good/right independently of God's commands.
that they are good/right, that
the best reasons weigh in favor of those things
This suggests goodness/rightness doesn't depend on God's
"What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham... There is not a nation on earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States at this very hour."
-Fredrick Douglass, July 5th 1852
Two Potential Problems for Divine Command Theory
What if there is no God? If that were true, wouldn't rape and torture still be wrong?
If rightness is simply defined as "whatever God commands," doesn't this make ethics
? Doesn't that mean
action could be morally right, even rape, torture, or treachery?
p.68, Shafer-Landau
"Imagine the point at which God is choosing morality for us. God contemplates the nature of rape torture and treachery. What does He see?If DCT is true, he (at this point) could see nothing wrong with them... But God
at some point make a decision. He forbade these acts. If DCT is correct, then He didn't forbid them because they were immoral. So why
God forbid them? Did God have
for his decision or not? ...if God lacks reasons for His commands, then his decisions are arbitrary. It would be as if God were creating morality by coin toss..."
More Problems?
Does this mean rape or genocide could become morally right if God commanded it? Is it plausible to say that
could be right if God gives it the OK?
Most religions hold that God is supremely good and righteous. But if "good" or "righteous" simply means "what God commands" we can no longer have any non-circular basis for affirming that "God is good."
How can we
what God wills? Which religion is correct? Interpretative problems?
There is persistent disagreement over ethical questions.
People at different times and in different places have often given different, conflicting answers to ethical questions.
So maybe there just are no "correct" answers to ethical questions. Maybe ethics is just about personal preferences.
It would be arrogant to think one is correct about an ethical problem whereas someone else is not.
Are relativists more tolerant of other cultures?
Imperial powers often branded non-European cultures as "uncivilized" and assumed that their social norms and cultural practices were inferior.
Relativists think that in order to avoid that mistake today, we should reject the idea that ethical norms hold universally, and say "to each their own" or "who am I to pass judgment?"
Is this correct?
How would a relativist analyze this statement? What might their interpretation of it be like?
Can relativists give a convincing analysis of Douglass's statement? If so, relativism seems untenable.
When God commands something,
does He (or She) command it?
"Imagine the point at which God is choosing morality for us. God contemplates the nature of rape, torture and treachery. What does He see?"
God, being all-knowing, sees these actions for what they are and recognizes that they're wrong. Thus he prohibits them. Their wrongness is independent of his will.
Before God prohibits them, there is nothing inherently wrong with them. He does not forbid them because they're immoral,
they're immoral because he forbids them.
Custom, Etiquette, and Preferences.
Compare with natural science,
social science, mathematics,

Dr. Tyler J. Zimmer
Full transcript