Is Ethics Objective? Discussed in Two Pages

Thrasymachus, a character in Plato’s Republic, denies that justice (morality) is real. He claims that ethical rules are made up by people, primarily the elite ruling class, and others who follow the rules “are just being dumb.” In short, ethics is subjective, relative or dependent upon cultures/people, instead of objective, absolute, or independent of cultures/people. What arguments might we advance for this position?

Moral Relativism Argument 1 – Different cultures/people have different moral codes. And this leads to tolerance of other cultures/people.

Reply – But should one tolerate slavery, the abuse of women, etc.? Should a woman be stoned to death for adultery as directed by the Koran and Old Testament? Respect is good, but this doesn’t mean other cultures/people can’t sometimes be wrong. In addition, the world is not “a collection of discrete, unified, cultures…” So who speaks for a given culture? The Baptists? The Socialists? The Irish? Finally, from the mere fact that different cultures/people have different moral codes it does NOT follow that relativism is true. Thus to have respect for cultures/people  doesn’t mean we can’t make judgments about them.

Moral Relativism Argument 2 – All standards of judgment are relative to culture/people. In other words, there are no cultural/personal neutral standards for ethics.

Reply – There is a neutral standard by which to judge human actions: “whether the social practice in question is beneficial or harmful to the people who are affected by it.”  This principle is universal because it deals with the very survival of a cultures/people.  We can respect cultures/people and still have reasons to condemn certain practices. We condemn them because those practices hurt people!

Moral Relativism Argument 3 – Scientists generally agree, ethicists rarely agree. Ethics is not objective like science, so it must be relative.

Reply – In ethics there is much agreement than it appears; most people think torture and murder are wrong. Also the areas of agreement—murder—are much more important than areas of disagreement—abortion—because society can function well with different policies on abortion, but cannot function well without a prohibition against murder. Finally, while all competent scientist agree on the basics—quantum, evolutionary, atomic, gravitational, and heliocentric theories are true beyond any doubt—they sometimes disagree about the details of their theories. So science and ethics are not completely different.

Moral Relativism Argument 4 – Scientists know how to resolve their disputes, but in ethics the arguments seem endless—no one can prove anything in ethics.

Reply– Ethical proofs are similar to scientific proofs, ethicists support conclusions with reasons and evidence. An ethicist makes the case that Smith is bad by offering evidence that she lies, cheats, kills, and steals. Why then does it seem there are no ethical proofs? Because: 1) we often discuss only the hardest ethical problems so truth is hard to discern; 2) there are often good reasons on both sides of moral disputes; and 3) people are stubborn; they often won’t budge despite the evidence or reasons offered them.

Moral Relativism Argument 5 – There are no “moral facts” that exist in the world like there are facts about stars, rocks, or people. Values exist only in people’s minds. But notice that scientific ideas are true or false if they match some truth or falsity in reality.

Reply– Moral reality is not like physical reality. Rather moral truths are truths because they are reasonable. Morality is like mathematics, an analytical discipline not an empirical one. Thus, ethics isn’t that different from science, and ethics can be objective like science.

(This entry relied heavily on James and Stuart Rachels’ book: Problems from Philosophy.)

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