Objectivism and Religious Morals in Murder and Violent Crimes
Before answering the presented question, it is essential to first establish what is meant by the term ‘morality’ and evaluate the various approaches to moral claims. In order to do so, distinctions will be clarified between various meta-ethical positions, and a candidate for the most rational of these will be selected. Radically different ethical views can be found throughout history and across the globe. While the majority have concurred with regards to some aspects of morality, there is a multitude of aspects where disagreements can be found. This has led to the theory of cultural relativism, which describes morality as varying between cultures, and effectively the result of the general moral consensuses of those within each culture. While this approach can explain differences in morality in different places and time periods, it does have some significant flaws. Firstly, it prevents the progression of ethics, since any promotion of morals outside of the cultural norm would be immoral, according to cultural relativism. Furthermore, it requires the acceptance of all ethical systems as equally valid, preventing criticism, while encountering issues when faced with situations in which an individual is associated with multiple cultures since the morality they must follow becomes unclear.
Many of these issues are avoided by an alternative variant of relativism: subjectivism. This system proposes that morality is separate for each person, allowing for individuals to have varying opinions surrounding morality, and for ethical developments within a society. However, subjectivism shares cultural relativism’s failure to facilitate criticism of ethics in other cultures and extends this to the moralities of individuals. If person A was to claim ‘murder is wrong’, and person B was to disagree, claiming that ‘murder is right’, moral subjectivism wouldn’t view these statements as incompatible, and no argument would exist. Additionally, assuming neither A nor B is lying, both statements are true, making the claims ‘murder is wrong’ and ‘murder is right’ simultaneously correct.
This appears to be a significant issue with any form of relativism, although it may be countered by considering moral claims as merely an expression of one’s preferences, rather than a personal assignment of morality to an action. The words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ could then be considered as being “used to express feeling about certain objects, but not to make any assertion about them” (Ayer, 1936, p. 67). Ayer (ibid. ) provides the following example: “If I say to someone, ‘You acted wrongly in stealing that money, ’ I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, ‘You stole that money. ’ In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it”.
If this alternative to subjectivism is to be accepted, moral claims lose any potential to be either true or false. This position has been termed ‘emotivism’, and is exhibited in a hypothetical discussion presented by Yudkowsky (2008), in which it is stated “there is no reason to talk about a ‘morality’ distinct from what people want”. This approach is able to account for the variety of moral attitudes (i. e. moral diversity), while still allowing for disagreements, since individuals in moral contest can be seen as attempting to persuade each other to adopt their view, rather than stating a subjective moral truth.
Emotivism is evidenced by morality’s evolutionary origins, with moral views arising from a requirement among humans for cooperation, and developing in children through a combination of nature and social interactions (Tomasello and Vaish, 2013). Humans who attributed negative emotions to actions which disadvantaged the survival of their tribe would avoid such actions, and so were more likely to survive and reproduce, passing this ‘morality’ to their descendants. This insinuates that opinions regarding morality are a reflection of one’s emotions when considering actions and moral claims; therefore, morality is an expression of these emotions, as argued by emotivism. It should be noted that as a result of its aforementioned origin, morality inspires individuals to propagate their moral views among others (since this promotes their chances of survival). A. J. Ayer’s description of emotivism takes this into consideration, with him stating: “It is worth mentioning that ethical terms do not serve only to express feeling. They are calculated also to arouse feeling, and so to stimulate action. ” (1936, p. 68).
There are, however, some criticisms of emotivism. Firstly, it could be argued that there are instances in which people assert a moral claim without feeling a related emotion. This would insinuate that not all moral claims are expressions of emotions. Second is an argument presented by Brandt (1959, p. 226), which notes that an adult who has discovered a liking for food which they had previously disliked would consider this a mere change in preferences, while believing themselves to have been earlier mistaken if they were to undergo a shift in moral views. This implies that there is a distinction between the two.
The first of these arguments can be addressed by highlighting that such a moral claim could exist as an individual’s extrapolation of moral claims for which emotion is attached (in which case the resulting moral claim is in fact also an expression of emotion, if indirectly). Meanwhile, Brandt’s criticism can be refuted by the fact that the semantics used by an individual don’t necessarily reflect reality. Just as the phrase ‘‘murder is wrong’ purports to apply an attribute to murder, where it in fact simply reflects an opinion of the speaker, the differentiation made between a change in preferences and a shift in morality can considered to be made in error. One could retort that this response is flawed, since moral beliefs tend to be held with much stronger conviction than preferences, but this can be explained by morality’s aforementioned evolutionary origin. This has resulted in great similarity, particularly within cultures, among the moralities of individuals, leading these morals to be reinforced in people from infancy. It should come as no surprise then that preferences attached to morality are often elevated above other opinions.
It therefore seems that there is a strong case for emotivism as a description of the nature of morality. As a result of this the claim ‘murder is wrong’ appears to be neither true nor false; just an expression of disapproval and discouragement based on emotions. However, so far this essay has failed to address one of the most notable approaches to morality, objectivism, which contends that there exist objective moral truths, presiding over the universe regardless of human belief. Objectivism and emotivism don’t necessarily have to be entirely mutually exclusive, in that while moral claims in common usage may represent expressions of personal taste, there may still exist an objective morality designating certain actions as right or wrong. A moral statement such as ‘it is wrong to steal’ may both express an individual’s disapproval of stealing, while simultaneously being objectively either true or false. However, if an objective morality exists, emotivism would prevail only as an explanation for the common presentation of various moral claims, rather than as a stance on morality. Regardless, as a result of this, emotivism doesn’t need to be demonstrated as being flawed for an objective morality to exist.
A key issue objectivism must circumvent is that of the origin of objective morals, if they were to exist. Divine command theory attributes their conception to the instructions of God, but this would leave no references with which to assess the morality of any commands given, and by extension, no evidence to indicate that God is a benevolent entity. This argument can be extended beyond the Judeo-Christian God to apply to any deity or transcendental entity: there appears to be no reason to accept that any divine instruction should supersede an individual’s subjective morality, since the providing entity could be evil, or merely expressing personal preferences.
Alternatively, objective morals can be considered as having arisen separately from God, or without the existence of God (or any other divine being) at all. Weilenberg (2009) argues “To ask of such facts, ‘where do they come from?’ or ‘on what foundation do they rest?’ is misguided in much the way that, according to many theists, it is misguided to ask of God, ‘where does He come from?’ or ‘on what foundation does He rest?’. The answer is the same in both cases: They come from nowhere, and nothing external to themselves grounds their existence; rather, they are fundamental features of the universe that ground other truths”. Unfortunately, this position seems impossible to either prove or disprove, since there is no way of knowing that there aren’t objective moral facts in existence beyond the knowledge of humanity, nor anyway to prove that they couldn’t have simply arisen from nowhere. What results from this analysis is an epistemological quandary: since human knowledge is incomplete, and Weilenberg’s argument contains no logical fallacies, the possibility of an objective morality cannot be dismissed. Based on this conclusion, the answer to the question “is ‘murder is wrong’ false?” cannot be known, despite the merits of emotivism.
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