9: Are There Moral Truths?


The Capitol: where Congress makes laws
Washington DC

Key Terms

Cultural Relativism
Ethical Subjectivism
Ethical Absolutism
Ethical Egoism
Psychological Egoism

  • Read and analyze a description of philosophical thought
  • Articulate key conceptual distinctions between relativism and subjectivism.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the arguments in favor of and opposing Ethical Egoism.
  • Demonstrate an ability to discuss and reflect upon the application of the course material to various aspects of life.
  • Evaluate the personal and social responsibilities of living in a diverse world.

I. What are ethics?

  • A. Defining Ethics
    • Morals vs. Ethics
    • Value - what we esteem, based on standards, subjective
    • Evaluating the justification and logic of moral beliefs
  • B. How we determine our values
    • General Principles
      • Bumper Sticker Philosophy
      • Too general to be an ethical theory
    • Practical Conclusions
      • Concern with the consequence
      • Inadequate for many ethical dilemmas be an ethical theory
    • Emotional Pronouncements
      • I think it's wrong because it makes me feel bad
      • Emotions are inconsistent

II. Cultural Relativism

  • It's wrong because my culture says so!
  • There is no universal truth
  • To call a custom correct or incorrect would be impossible
  • A. Argument for Cultural Relativism
    • Premise: Different cultures have different moral codes
    • Conclusion: Therefore there is no objective truth in morality. Right and wrong are matters of opinion
    • Is this sound?
    • No, because the conclusion does not follow from the premise.
    • It is possible that something is objectively wrong and the culture is simply mistaken in their belief that it is right.
  • B. Consequences of Cultural Relativism
    • We cannot say the customs of other societies are inferior
    • We cannot criticize our own society
    • Moral progress is called into doubt
    • If we assert a belief in relativism, then there is no such thing as "human rights"

III. Difference between Belief and Value

  • Culture 1 believes cows may hold the souls of humans and do not eat them
  • Culture 2 esteems human life, but eats steaks and hamburgers
  • Both cultures hold the same value that it is wrong to eat people
  • Some values do seem to be universal (i.e. human rights)

IV. Ethical Subjectivism

  • It's wrong because I say so!
  • People have different opinions
  • There are no “facts” in morality
  • No “right” or “wrong”
  • Moral opinions are based on feelings and opinions
  • What's the difference? In relativism, "good" is defined by the culture. In subjectivism, "good" is defined by the individual.

V. Ethical Absolutism

  • It's wrong for everybody. You don't get a vote!
  • Some moral values are absolute
  • They apply  universally to all individuals
  • Culture and personal opinion are not a factor in determining morality

VI. Ethical Egoism

  • It's good to be selfish!
  • Differences between Ethical and Psychological Egoism
    • Psychological: it is this way
    • Ethical: it ought to be this way
    • Ethical Egoism claims people ought to exclusively pursue their own self interests
    • Psychological Egoism says people do pursue their own interests
    • Difference between our nature and what we ought to do
  • Helping yourself is the primary goal
  • Ethical Egoism isn’t the uninhibited pursuit of our desires, long term goals are critical
  • Arguments for Ethical Egoism
    • Altruism is self-defeating
    • Altruism doesn’t value the individual
    • Ethical Egoism is compatible with common sense
  • Arguments against Ethical Egoism
    • Endorses wickedness
    • Arbitrary

Logic Week 9: Special Pleading and Slippery Slope