Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues


‘’ Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues

Fourth Edition

Lewis Vaughn

BW. W. NORTON & COMPANY Independent and Employee-Owned New York . London

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W. W. Norton & Company has been independent since its founding in 1923, when William Warder Norton and Mary D. Herter Norton first published lectures delivered at the People’s Institute, the adult education division of New York City’s Cooper Union. The firm soon expanded its program beyond the Institute, publishing books by celebrated academics from America and abroad. By midcentury, the two major pillars of Norton’s publishing program—trade books and college texts—were firmly established. In the 1950s, the Norton family transferred control of the company to its employees, and today—with a staff of four hundred and a comparable number of trade, college, and professional titles published each year—W. W. Norton & Company stands as the largest and oldest publishing house owned wholly by its employees.

Copyright © 2016, 2013, 2010, 2008 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

All rights reserved Printed in the United States of America

Editor: Peter J. Simon Project Editor: Rachel Mayer Assistant Editor: Gerra Goff Manuscript Editor: Barbara Curialle Managing Editor, College: Marian Johnson Managing Editor, College Digital Media: Kim Yi Production Manager: Ben Reynolds Media Editor: Erica Wnek Assistant Media Editor: Cara Folkman Marketing Manager, Philosophy: Michael Moss Design Director: Rubina Yeh Permissions Manager: Megan Jackson Permissions Clearer: Elizabeth Trammell Composition: Jouve International—Brattleboro, VT Manufacturing: RR Donnelley Crawfordsville

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‘’ P R E F A C E xvi i


CHAPTER 1 Ethics and the Examined Life 3

The Ethical Landscape 5

The Elements of Ethics 6

The Preeminence of Reason 6


The Universal Perspective 7

The Principle of Impartiality 8

The Dominance of Moral Norms 8

Religion and Morality 8

Believers Need Moral Reasoning 9

When Conflicts Arise, Ethics Steps In 9


Moral Philosophy Enables Productive Discourse 10

Summary 12

Exercises: Review Questions / Discussion Questions 12


from What Is the Socratic Method? by Christopher Phillips 13

from The Euthyphro by Plato 16

CHAPTER 2 Subjectivism, Relativism, and Emotivism 20

Subjective Relativism 21



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Cultural Relativism 23


Emotivism 28

Summary 30

Exercises: Review Questions / Discussion Questions 31


from Anthropology and the Abnormal by Ruth Benedict 32

Trying Out One’s New Sword by Mary Midgley 35


CHAPTER 3 Evaluating Moral Arguments 41

Claims and Arguments 41

Arguments Good and Bad 43


Implied Premises 47


Deconstructing Arguments 48

Moral Statements and Arguments 51

Testing Moral Premises 53

Assessing Nonmoral Premises 55


Avoiding Bad Arguments 56

Begging the Question 56

Equivocation 56

Appeal to Authority 57

Slippery Slope 57


Faulty Analogy 58

Appeal to Ignorance 58


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Straw Man 59

Appeal to the Person 59

Hasty Generalization 59


Writing and Speaking about Moral Issues 60

Summary 62

Exercises: Review Questions / Discussion Questions / Argument Exercises 62


CHAPTER 4 The Power of Moral Theories 67

Theories of Right and Wrong 67


Major Theories 69

Consequentialist Theories 69

Nonconsequentialist Theories 70


Evaluating Theories 72

Criterion 1: Consistency with Considered Judgments 73


Criterion 2: Consistency with Our Moral Experiences 74


Criterion 3: Usefulness in Moral Problem Solving 75


Summary 76

Exercises: Review Questions / Discussion Questions 76


Ethical Egoism 78

Applying the Theory 79

Evaluating the Theory 80


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Utilitarianism 84

Applying the Theory 88



Evaluating the Theory 89

Learning from Utilitarianism 93


Summary 94

Exercises: Review Questions / Discussion Questions 95


from Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill 96

CHAPTER 6 Nonconsequentialist Theories: Do Your Duty 102

Kant’s Ethics 102


Applying the Theory 106

Evaluating the Theory 106


Learning from Kant’s Theory 109

Natural Law Theory 109

Applying the Theory 111



Evaluating the Theory 113

Learning from Natural Law 114

Summary 114

Exercises: Review Questions / Discussion Questions 115


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from Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals by Immanuel Kant 116

from Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas 125

CHAPTER 7 Virtue Ethics: Be a Good Person 136

The Ethics of Virtue 136


Virtue in Action 138

Evaluating Virtue Ethics 138


The Ethics of Care 141


Learning from Virtue Ethics 141


Summary 143

Exercises: Review Questions / Discussion Questions 144


from Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle 145

The Need for More Than Justice by Annette C. Baier 153


CHAPTER 8 Abortion 163

Issue File: Background 163



Moral Theories 166



Moral Arguments 169


Summary 174


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A Defense of Abortion by Judith Jarvis Thomson 175

On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion by Mary Anne Warren 185

Why Abortion Is Immoral by Don Marquis 194

Virtue Theory and Abortion by Rosalind Hursthouse 205

Cases for Analysis 211

CHAPTER 9 Altering Genes and Cloning Humans 213

Issue File: Background 213


Moral Theories 218


Moral Arguments 219


Summary 221


Genetic Enhancement by Walter Glannon 222

Is Gene Therapy a Form of Eugenics? by John Harris 226

The Wisdom of Repugnance by Leon R. Kass 232

Cloning Human Beings: An Assessment of the Ethical Issues Pro and Con by Dan W. Brock 249

Cases for Analysis 260

CHAPTER 10 Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide 263


Issue File: Background 264



Moral Theories 267


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Moral Arguments 269


Summary 273


Active and Passive Euthanasia by James Rachels 274

The Wrongfulness of Euthanasia by J. Gay-Williams 278

From Voluntary Active Euthanasia by Dan W. Brock 281

Euthanasia by Philippa Foot 289

Killing and Allowing to Die by Daniel Callahan 304

Cases for Analysis 306

CHAPTER 11 Capital Punishment 310

Issue File: Background 310

Moral Theories 312




Moral Arguments 318


Summary 320


The Ultimate Punishment: A Defense by Ernest van den Haag 321

from Justice, Civilization, and the Death Penalty: Answering van den Haag by Jeffrey H. Reiman 326

Against the Death Penalty: The Minimal Invasion Argument by Hugo Adam Bedau 332

In Defense of the Death Penalty by Louis P. Pojman 337

Cases for Analysis 347


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CHAPTER 12 Drug Use, Harm, and Personal Liberty 350

Issue File: Background 351


Moral Theories 353


Moral Arguments 354


Summary 357


The Ethics of Addiction by Thomas Szasz 357

The Fallacy of the “Hijacked Brain” by Peg O’Connor 366

Against the Legalization of Drugs by James Q. Wilson 368

Cases for Analysis 377

CHAPTER 13 Sexual Morality 380

Issue File: Background 380


Moral Theories 382

Moral Arguments 383



Summary 386


Plain Sex by Alan H. Goldman 386

Sexual Morality by Roger Scruton 395

Sexual Perversion by Thomas Nagel 402

Feminists against the First Amendment by Wendy Kaminer 409

“The Price We Pay?”: Pornography and Harm by Susan J. Brison 416

Cases for Analysis 426


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CHAPTER 14 Same-Sex Marriage 429

Issue File: Background 429

Moral Theories 430



Moral Arguments 432


Summary 433


On Gay Rights by Richard D. Mohr 434

What Marriage Is For: Children Need Mothers and Fathers by Maggie Gallagher 442

Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage by Andrew Sullivan 446

Cases for Analysis 449

CHAPTER 15 Environmental Ethics 451

Issue File: Background 451


Moral Theories 456



Moral Arguments 458

Summary 460


People or Penguins by William F. Baxter 461

The Ethics of Respect for Nature by Paul W. Taylor 465

Are All Species Equal? by David Schmidtz 480

The Land Ethic by Aldo Leopold 488

Cases for Analysis 492


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CHAPTER 16 Animal Rights 495

Issue File: Background 496


Moral Theories 499



Moral Arguments 502

Summary 504


All Animals Are Equal by Peter Singer 505

The Case for Animal Rights by Tom Regan 515

Difficulties with the Strong Animal Rights Position by Mary Anne Warren 522

Speciesism and the Idea of Equality by Bonnie Steinbock 528

Cases for Analysis 535

CHAPTER 17 Political Violence: War, Terrorism, and Torture 539

Issue File: Background 539



Moral Theories 550

Moral Arguments 552


Summary 557


Reconciling Pacifists and Just War Theorists by James P. Sterba 558

Against “Realism” by Michael Walzer 566

Can Terrorism Be Morally Justified? by Stephen Nathanson 577

The Case for Torturing the Ticking Bomb Terrorist by Alan M. Dershowitz 585

Cases for Analysis 594


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CHAPTER 18 Equality and Affirmative Action 597

Issue File: Background 597


Moral Theories 600



Moral Arguments 603

Summary 605


Reverse Discrimination as Unjustified by Lisa H. Newton 606

The Case against Affirmative Action by Louis P. Pojman 609

Affirmative Action and Quotas by Richard A. Wasserstrom 622

In Defense of Affirmative Action by Tom L. Beauchamp 625

Cases for Analysis 634

CHAPTER 19 Global Economic Justice 637

Issue File: Background 637

Moral Theories 639


Moral Arguments 641


Summary 643


On Justice by John Rawls 644

The Entitlement Theory of Justice by Robert Nozick 651

Famine, Affluence, and Morality by Peter Singer 660

Lifeboat Ethics by Garrett Hardin 665

Cases for Analysis 672


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G L O S S A R Y 674

F U R T H E R R E A D I N G 678

A N S W E R S T O A R G U M E N T E X E R C I S E S 684

I N D E X 685


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This fourth edition of Doing Ethics brings another set of substantial improvements to a text that had already been greatly expanded and improved. The aims that have shaped this text from the begin- ning have not changed: to help students (1) see why ethics matters to society and to themselves; (2) understand core concepts (theories, principles, values, virtues, and the like); (3) be familiar with the background (scientific, legal, and otherwise) of contemporary moral problems; and (4) know how to apply critical reasoning to those problems—to assess moral judgments and principles, construct and evaluate moral arguments, and apply and cri- tique moral theories. This book, then, tries hard to provide the strongest possible support to teachers of applied ethics who want students, above all, to think for themselves and competently do what is often required of morally mature persons—that is, to do ethics.

These goals are reflected in the book’s extensive introductions to concepts, cases, and issues; its large collection of readings and exercises; and its chapter-by-chapter coverage of moral reasoning— perhaps the most thorough introduction to these skills available in an applied-ethics text. This latter theme gets systematic treatment in five chapters, threads prominently throughout all the others, and is reinforced everywhere by “Critical Thought” text boxes prompting students to apply critical thinking to real debates and cases. The point of all this is to help students not just to study ethics but to become fully involved in the ethical enterprise and the moral life.




• A new chapter on the morality of personal use of illicit drugs and the laws and policies that pertain to that use: Chapter 12, Drug Use, Harm, and Personal Liberty. It includes three new readings by major figures in the debates on illegal drugs.

• A new chapter on the moral permissibility of affirmative action: Chapter 18, Equality and Affirmative Action. It includes four readings by prominent commentators on the issue.

• A revamped chapter on sexual morality that includes two new readings on pornography: Chapter 13, Sexual Morality.

• Six new readings to supplement the already extensive collection of essays.


Part 1 (“Fundamentals”) prepares students for the tasks enumerated above. Chapter 1 explains why ethics is important and why thinking critically about ethical issues is essential to the examined life. It introduces the field of moral philosophy, defines and illustrates basic terminology, clarifies the connection between religion and morality, and explains why moral reasoning is crucial to moral maturity and personal freedom. Chapter 2 investigates a favorite doctrine of undergraduates—ethical relativism—and examines its distant cousin, emotivism.

Part 2 (“Moral Reasoning”) consists of Chapter 3, which starts by reassuring students that moral rea- soning is neither alien nor difficult but is simply

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ordinary critical reasoning applied to ethics. They’ve seen this kind of reasoning before and done it before. Thus, the chapter focuses on iden- tifying, devising, diagramming, and evaluating moral arguments and encourages practice and competence in finding implied premises, testing moral premises, assessing nonmoral premises, and dealing with common argument fallacies.

Part 3 (“Theories of Morality”) is about apply- ing critical reasoning to moral theories. Chapter 4 explains how moral theories work and how they are related to other important elements in moral experience: considered judgments, moral argu- ments, moral principles and rules, and cases and issues. It reviews major theories and shows how students can evaluate them by applying plausible criteria. The rest of Part 3 (Chapters 5 through 7) covers key theories in depth—utilitarianism, ethi- cal egoism, Kant’s theory, natural law theory, and the ethics of virtue. Students see how each theory is applied to moral issues and how those issues’ strengths and weaknesses are revealed by applying the criteria of evaluation.

In Part 4 (“Ethical Issues”), each of twelve chap- ters explores a timely moral issue through discussion and relevant readings: abortion, genetic manipula- tion and human cloning, euthanasia and physician- assisted suicide, drug use, capital punishment, sexual morality, same-sex marriage, environmental ethics, animal rights, affirmative action, political violence, and global economic justice. Every chapter supplies legal, scientific, and other background information on the issue; discusses how major theo- ries have been applied to the problem; examines arguments that have been used in the debate; and includes additional cases for analysis with questions. The readings are a mix of well-known essays and sur- prising new voices, both classic and contemporary.


In addition to the “Critical Thought” boxes and “Cases for Analysis,” there are other pedagogical devices:

• “Quick Review” boxes that reiterate key points or terms mentioned in previous pages

• Text boxes that discuss additional topics or issues related to main chapter material

• End-of-chapter review and discussion questions

• Chapter summaries

• Suggestions for further reading for each issues chapter

• Glossary


Many people have helped make this third edition a great deal better than its previous incarnations. Among these I think first of my editor at W. W. Norton, Pete Simon, who believed in the project from the outset and helped me shape and improve it. Others at Norton also gave their time and talent to this text: Marian Johnson, managing editor; Rachel Mayer, project editor; Barbara Curialle, copy editor; Benjamin Reynolds, production man- ager; Megan Jackson, permissions manager; and Gerra Goff, assistant editor.

The silent partners in this venture are the many reviewers who helped in countless ways to make the book better. They include Harry Adams (Prairie View A&M University), Alex Aguado (Uni- versity of North Alabama), Edwin Aiman (Univer- sity of Houston), Daniel Alvarez (Colorado State University), Peter Amato (Drexel University), Robert Bass (Coastal Carolina University), Ken Beals (Mary Baldwin College), Helen Becker (Shep- herd University), Paul Bloomfield (University of Connecticut), Robyn Bluhm (Old Dominion Uni- versity), Vanda Bozicevic (Bergen Community College), Brent Braga (Northland Community and Technical College), Mark Raymond Brown (Uni- versity of Ottawa), Matthew Burstein (Washington and Lee University), Gabriel R. Camacho (El Paso Community College), Jay Campbell (St. Louis Community College at Meramec), Jeffrey Carr (Illinois State University), Alan Clark (Del Mar College), Andrew J. Cohen (Georgia State Univer-


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sity), Elliot D. Cohen (Indian River State College), Robert Colter (Centre College), Timothy Conn (Sierra College), Guy Crain (University of Okla- homa), Sharon Crasnow (Norco College), Kelso Cratsley (University of Massachusetts, Boston), George Cronk (Bergen Community College), Kevin DeCoux (Minnesota West Community and Technical College), Lara Denis (Agnes Scott Col- lege), Steve Dickerson (South Puget Sound Com- munity College), Nicholas Diehl (Sacramento City College), Robin S. Dillon (Lehigh University), Peter Dlugos (Bergen Community College), Matt Drabek (University of Iowa), David Drebushenko (University of Southern Indiana), Clint Dunagan (Northwest Vista College), Paul Eckstein (Bergen Community College), Andrew Fiala (California State University, Fresno), Stephen Finlay (Univer- sity of Southern California), Matthew Fitzsim- mons (University of North Alabama), Tammie Foltz (Des Moines Area Community College), Tim Fout (University of Louisville), Dimitria Gatzia (University of Akron), Candace Gauthier (Univer- sity of North Carolina, Wilmington), Mark Greene (University of Delaware), Kevin Guilfoy (Carroll University), Katherine Guin (The College at Brock- port: SUNY), Don Habibi (University of North Car- olina, Wilmington), Barbara M. Hands (University of North Carolina, Greensboro), Craig Hanks (Texas State University), Jane Haproff (Sierra Col- lege), Ed Harris (Texas A&M University), Blake Heffner (Raritan Valley Community College), Marko Hilgersom (Lethbridge Community Col- lege), John Holder III (Pensacola Junior College), Mark Hollifield (Clayton College and State Univer- sity), Margaret Houck (University of South Carolina), Michael Howard (University of Maine, Orono), Frances Howard-Snyder (Western Wash- ington University), Kenneth Howarth (Mercer County Community College), Louis F. Howe, Jr. (Naugatuck Valley Community College), Kyle Hubbard (Saint Anselm College), Robert Hull (Western Virginia Wesleyan College), Amy Jeffers (Owens Community College), Timothy Jessen (Ivy Tech Community College, Bloomington), John

Johnston (College of the Redwoods), Marc Jolley (Mercer University), Frederik Kaufman (Ithaca College), Thomas D. Kennedy (Berry College), W. Glenn Kirkconnell (Santa Fe College), Donald Knudsen (Montgomery County Community Col- lege), Gilbert Kohler (Shawnee Community Col- lege), Thomas Larson (Saint Anselm College), Matt Lawrence (Long Beach City College), Clayton Lit- tlejohn (Southern Methodist University), Jessica Logue (University of Portland), Ian D. MacKinnon (The University of Akron), Tim Madigan (St. John Fisher College), Ernâni Magalhães (West Virginia University), Daniel Malotky (Greensboro College), Ron Martin (Lynchburg College), Michael McKeon (Barry University), Katherine Mendis (Hunter Col- lege, CUNY), Joshua Mills-Knutsen (Indiana Uni- versity Southeast), Michael Monge (Long Beach City College), Eric Moore (Longwood University), Jon S. Moran (Southwest Missouri State Univer- sity), Dale Murray (Virginia Commonwealth Uni- versity), Elizabeth Murray (Loyola Marymount University), Thomas Nadelhoffer (Dickinson Col- lege), Jay Newhard (East Carolina University), Charles L. North (Southern New Hampshire Uni- versity), Robert F. O’Connor (Texas State Univer- sity), Jeffrey P. Ogle (Metropolitan State University of Denver), Don Olive (Roane State Community College), Leonard Olson (California State Univer- sity, Fresno), Jessica Payson (Bryn Mawr College), Gregory E. Pence (University of Alabama), Donald Petkus (Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs), Trisha Philips (Mississippi State University), Thomas M. Powers (University of Delaware), Marjorie Price (University of Alabama), Netty Provost (Indiana University, Kokomo), Elisa Rapaport (Molloy College), Michael Redmond (Bergen Community College), Daniel Regan (Vil- lanova University), Joseph J. Rogers (University of Texas, San Antonio), John Returra (Lackawanna College), Robert M. Seltzer (Western Illinois Uni- versity), Edward Sherline (University of Wyoming), Aeon J. Skoble (Bridgewater Commu- nity College), Eric Snider (Lansing Community College), Eric Sotnak (University of Akron), Piers


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H.G. Stephens (University of Georgia), Grant Ster- ling (Eastern Illinois University), John Stilwell (University of Texas at Dallas), Tyler Suggs (Vir- ginia Tech), Michele Svatos (Eastfield College), David Svolba (Fitchburg State University), Allen Thompson (Virginia Commonwealth University), Peter B. Trumbull (Madison College), Donald Turner (Nashville State Community College), Julie C. Van Camp (California State University, Long Beach), Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda (Talla- hassee Community College), Kris Vigneron (Columbus State Community College), Christine Vitrano (Brooklyn College, CUNY), Mark Vopat

(Youngstown State University), Matt Waldschlagel (University of North Carolina, Wilmington), Steve Wall (Hillsborough Community College), Bill Warnken (Granite State College), Jamie Carlin Watson (Young Harris College), Rivka Weinberg (Scripps College), Cheryl Wertheimer (Butler Community College), Monique Whitaker (Hunter College, CUNY) Phillip Wiebe (Trinity Western University), Jonathan Wight (University of Rich- mond), John Yanovitch (Molloy College), Steven Zusman (Waubonsee Community College), and Matt Zwolinski (University of San Diego). Thank you all.


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P A R T 1

‘’ Fundamentals

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C H A P T E R 1

‘’ Ethics and the Examined Life


Even if you try to remove yourself from the ethical realm by insisting that all ethical concepts are irrelevant or empty, you assume a particular view, a theory in the broadest sense, about morality and its place in your life. If at some point you are intel- lectually brave enough to wonder whether your moral beliefs rest on some coherent supporting considerations, you will see that you cannot even begin to sort out such considerations without— again—doing ethics. In any case, in your life you must deal with the rest of the world, which turns on moral conflict and resolution, moral decision and debate.

What is at stake when we do ethics? In an important sense, the answer is everything we hold dear. Ethics is concerned with values—specifically, moral values. Through the sifting and weighing of moral values we determine what the most impor- tant things are in our lives, what is worth living for and what is worth dying for. We decide what is the greatest good, what goals we should pursue in life, what virtues we should cultivate, what duties we should or should not fulfill, what value we should put on human life, and what pain and perils we should be willing to endure for notions such as the common good, justice, and rights.

Does it matter whether the state executes a criminal who has the mental capacity of a ten- year-old? Does it matter who actually writes the term paper you turn in and represent as your own? Does it matter whether we can easily save a drown- ing child but casually decide not to? Does it matter whether young girls in Africa undergo painful

Ethics, or moral philosophy, is the philosoph- ical study of morality. Morality refers to beliefs concerning right and wrong, good and bad— beliefs that can include judgments, values, rules, principles, and theories. They help guide our actions, define our values, and give us reasons for being the persons we are. (Ethical and moral, the adjective forms, are often used to mean simply “having to do with morality,” and ethics and morality are sometimes used to refer to the moral norms of a specific group or individual, as in “Greek ethics” or “Russell’s morality.”) Ethics, then, addresses the powerful question that Socrates for- mulated twenty-four hundred years ago: how ought we to live?

The scope and continued relevance of this query suggest something compelling about ethics: you cannot escape it. You cannot run away from all the choices, feelings, and actions that accom- pany ideas about right and wrong, good and bad— ideas that persist in your culture and in your mind. After all, for much of your life, you have been assimilating, modifying, or rejecting the eth- ical norms you inherited from your family, com- munity, and society. Unless you are very unusual, from time to time you deliberate about the right- ness or wrongness of actions, embrace or reject particular moral principles or codes, judge the goodness of your character or intentions (or some- one else’s), perhaps even question (and agonize over) the soundness of your own moral outlook when it conflicts with that of others. In other words, you are involved in ethics—you do ethics.

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1Paul W. Taylor, Principles of Ethics: An Introduction (Encino, CA: Dickenson, 1975), 9–10.


safe route. To not do ethics is to stay locked in a kind of intellectual limbo, where exploration in ethics and personal moral progress are barely possible.

The philosopher Paul Taylor suggests that there is yet another risk in taking the easy road. If some- one blindly embraces the morality bequeathed to him by his society, he may very well be a fine embodiment of the rules of his culture and accept them with certainty. But he also will lack the ability to defend his beliefs by rational argu- ment against criticism. What happens when he encounters others who also have very strong beliefs that contradict his? “He will feel lost and bewildered,” Taylor says, and his confusion might leave him disillusioned about morality. “Unable to give an objective, reasoned jus tification for his own convictions, he may turn from dogmatic certainty to total skepticism. And from total skepticism it is but a short step to an ‘amoral’ life. . . . Thus the person who begins by accepting moral beliefs blindly can end up denying all morality.”1

There are other easy roads—roads that also bypass critical and thoughtful scrutiny of moral- ity. We can describe most of them as various forms of subjectivism, a topic that we closely examine in the next chapter. You may decide, for example, that you can establish all your moral beliefs by simply consulting your feelings. In situations call- ing for moral judgments, you let your emotions be your guide. If it feels right, it is right. Alternatively, you may come to believe that moral realities are relative to each person, a view known as subjective relativism (also covered in the next chapter). That is, you think that what a person believes or approves of determines the rightness or wrongness of actions. If you believe that abortion is wrong,

genital mutilation for reasons of custom or reli- gion? Do these actions and a million others just as controversial matter at all? Most of us—regardless of our opinion on these issues—would say that they matter a great deal. If they matter, then ethics matters, because these are ethical concerns requir- ing careful reflection using concepts and reason- ing peculiar to ethics.

But even though in life ethics is inescapable and important, you are still free to take the easy way out, and many people do. You are free not to think too deeply or too systematically about ethi- cal concerns. You can simply embrace the moral beliefs and norms given to you by your family and your society. You can just accept them without question or serious examination. In other words, you can try not to do ethics. This approach can be simple and painless—at least for a while—but it has some drawbacks.

First, it undermines your personal freedom. If you accept and never question the moral beliefs handed to you by your culture, then those beliefs are not really yours—and they, not you, control the path you take in life. Only if you critically examine these beliefs yourself and decide for yourself whether they have merit will they be truly yours. Only then will you be in charge of your own choices and actions.

Second, the no-questions-asked approach increases the chances that your responses to moral dilemmas or contradictions will be incomplete, confused, or mistaken. Sometimes in real life, moral codes or rules do not fit the situations at hand, or moral principles conflict with one another, or entirely new circumstances are not covered by any moral policy at all. Solving these problems requires something that a hand- me- down morality does not include: the intellectual tools to critically evaluate (and reevaluate) exist- ing moral beliefs.

Third, if there is such a thing as intellectual moral growth, you are unlikely to find it on the

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Science also studies morality, but not in the way that moral philosophy does. Its approach is known as descriptive ethics—the scientific study of moral beliefs and practices. Its aim is to describe and explain how people actually behave and think when dealing with moral issues and concepts. This kind of empirical research is usually conducted by sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists. In contrast, the focus of moral phi- losophy is not what people actually believe and do, but what they should believe and do. The point of moral philosophy is to determine what actions are right (or wrong) and what things are good (or bad).

Philosophers distinguish three major divisions in ethics, each one representing a different way to approach the subject. The first is normative ethics—the study of the principles, rules, or theo- ries that guide our actions and judgments. (The word normative refers to norms, or standards, of judgment—in this case, norms for judging rightness and goodness.) The ultimate purpose of doing normative ethics is to try to establish the soundness of moral norms, especially the norms embodied in a comprehensive moral system, or theory. We do normative ethics when we use crit- ical reasoning to demonstrate that a moral princi- ple is justified, or that a professional code of conduct is contradictory, or that one proposed moral theory is better than another, or that a per- son’s motive is good. Should the rightness of actions be judged by their consequences? Is happi- ness the greatest good in life? Is utilitarianism a good moral theory? Such questions are the preoc- cupation of normative ethics.

Another major division is metaethics—the study of the meaning and logical structure of moral beliefs. It asks not whether an action is right or whether a person’s character is good. It takes a step back from these concerns and asks more fun- damental questions about them: What does it mean for an action to be right? Is good the same

then it is wrong. If you believe it is right, then it is right.

But these facile ways through ethical terrain are no better than blindly accepting existing norms. Even if you want to take the subjectivist route, you still need to critically examine it to see if there are good reasons for choosing it— otherwise your choice is arbitrary and therefore not really yours. And unless you thoughtfully consider the merits of moral beliefs (including subjectivist beliefs), your chances of being wrong about them are substantial.

Ethics does not give us a royal road to moral truth. Instead, it shows us how to ask critical ques- tions about morality and systematically seek answers supported by good reasons. This is a tall order because, as we have seen, many of the ques- tions in ethics are among the toughest we can ever ask—and among the most important in life.


The domain of ethics is large, divided into several areas of investigation and cordoned off from related subjects. So let us map the territory care- fully. As the term moral philosophy suggests, ethics is a branch of philosophy. A very rough character- ization of philosophy is the systematic use of criti- cal reasoning to answer the most fundamental questions in life. Moral philosophy, obviously, tries to answer the fundamental questions of morality. The other major philosophical divisions address other basic questions; these are logic (the study of correct reasoning), metaphysics (the study of the fundamental nature of reality), and epistemology (the study of knowledge). As a division of philoso- phy, ethics does its work primarily through critical reasoning. Critical reasoning is the careful, system- atic evaluation of statements, or claims—a process used in all fields of study, not just in ethics. Mainly this process includes both the evaluation of logical arguments and the careful analysis of concepts.

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things such as televisions, rockets, experiences, and artwork (things other than persons, inten- tions, etc.) are good, but we mean “good” only in a nonmoral way. It makes no sense to assert that in themselves televisions or rockets are morally good or bad. Perhaps a rocket could be used to per- form an action that is morally wrong. In that case, the action would be immoral, while the rocket itself would still have nonmoral value only.

Many things in life have value for us, but they are not necessarily valuable in the same way. Some things are valuable because they are a means to something else. We might say that gasoline is good because it is a means to make a gas-powered vehicle work, or that a pen is good because it can be used to write a letter. Such things are said to be instrumen- tally, or extrinsically, valuable—they are valu- able as a means to something else. Some things, however, are valuable in themselves or for their own sakes. They are valuable simply because they are what they are, without being a means to some- thing else. Things that have been regarded as valu- able in themselves include happiness, pleasure, virtue, and beauty. These are said to be intrinsically valuable—they are valuable in themselves.


We all do ethics, and we all have a general sense of what is involved. But we can still ask, What are the elements of ethics that make it the peculiar enterprise that it is? We can include at least the following factors:

The Preeminence of Reason Doing ethics typically involves grappling with our feelings, taking into account the facts of the situation (including our own observations and relevant knowledge), and trying to understand the ideas that bear on the case. But above all, it involves, even requires, critical reasoning—the consideration of reasons for whatever statements

thing as desirable? How can a moral principle be justified? Is there such a thing as moral truth? To do normative ethics, we must assume certain things about the meaning of moral terms and the logical relations among them. But the job of metaethics is to question all these assumptions, to see if they really make sense.

Finally, there is applied ethics—the applica- tion of moral norms to specific moral issues or cases, particularly those in a profession such as medicine or law. Applied ethics in these fields goes under names such as medical ethics, journalistic ethics, and business ethics. In applied ethics we study the results derived from applying a moral principle or theory to specific circumstances. The purpose of the exercise is to learn something important about either the moral characteristics of the situation or the adequacy of the moral norms. Did the doctor do right in performing that abortion? Is it morally permissible for scientists to perform experiments on people without their con- sent? Was it right for the journalist to distort her reporting to aid a particular side in the war? Ques- tions like these drive the search for answers in applied ethics.

In every division of ethics, we must be careful to distinguish between values and obligations. Sometimes we may be interested in concepts or judgments of value—that is, about what is morally good, bad, blameworthy, or praiseworthy. We prop- erly use these kinds of terms to refer mostly to per- sons, character traits, motives, and intentions. We may say “She is a good person” or “He is to blame for that tragedy.” Other times, we may be inter- ested in concepts or judgments of obligation—that is, about what is obligatory or a duty or what we should or ought to do. We use these terms to refer to actions. We may say “She has a duty to tell the truth” or “What he did was wrong.”

When we talk about value in the sense just described, we mean moral value. If she is a good person, she is good in the moral sense. But we can also talk about nonmoral value. We can say that

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’ QUICK REVIEW ethics (or moral philosophy)—The philosophical

study of morality.

morality—Beliefs concerning right and wrong, good and bad; they can include judgments, rules, principles, and theories.

descriptive ethics—The scientific study of moral beliefs and practices.

normative ethics—The study of the principles, rules, or theories that guide our actions and judgments.

metaethics—The study of the meaning and logi- cal structure of moral beliefs.

applied ethics—The application of moral norms to specific moral issues or cases, particularly those in a profession such as medicine or law.

instrumentally (or extrinsically) valuable— Valuable as a means to something else.

intrinsically valuable—Valuable in itself, for its own sake.


moral judgment is or is not justified, that a moral principle is or is not sound, that an action is or is not morally permissible, or that a moral theory is or is not plausible.

Our use of critical reasoning and argument helps us keep our feelings about moral issues in perspective. Feelings are an important part of our moral experience. They make empathy possible, which gives us a deeper understanding of the human impact of moral norms. They also can serve as internal alarm bells, warning us of the possibility of injustice, suffering, and wrongdoing. But they are unreliable guides to moral truth. They may simply reflect our own emotional needs, prej- udices, upbringing, culture, and self-interests. Careful reasoning, however, can inform our feel- ings and help us decide moral questions on their merits.

The Universal Perspective Logic requires that moral norms and judgments follow the principle of universalizability—the idea that a moral statement (a principle, rule, or judg- ment) that applies in one situation must apply in all other situations that are relevantly similar. If you say, for example, that lying is wrong in a par- ticular situation, then you implicitly agree that lying is wrong for anyone in relevantly similar sit- uations. If you say that killing in self-defense is morally permissible, then you say in effect that killing in self-defense is permissible for everyone in relevantly similar situations. It cannot be the case that an action performed by A is wrong while the same action performed by B in relevantly sim- ilar circumstances is right. It cannot be the case that the moral judgments formed in these two sit- uations must differ just because two different peo- ple are involved.

This point about universalizability also applies to reasons used to support moral judgments. If rea- sons apply in a specific case, then those reasons also apply in all relevantly similar cases. It cannot be true that reasons that apply in a specific case do

(moral or otherwise) are in question. What- ever our view on moral issues and whatever moral outlook we subscribe to, our commonsense moral experience suggests that if a moral judg- ment is to be worthy of acceptance, it must be supported by good reasons, and our delibera- tions on the issue must include a consideration of those reasons.

The backbone of critical reasoning generally and moral reasoning in particular is logical argu- ment. This kind of argument—not the angry- exchange type—consists of a statement to be supported (the assertion to be proved, the conclu- sion) and the statements that do the supporting (the reasons for believing the statement, the prem- ises). With such arguments, we try to show that a

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sophisticated care than other patients receive. The situation is a matter of life and death—a good rea- son for not treating everyone the same and for pro- viding the heart attack patient with special consideration. This instance of discrimination is justified.

The Dominance of Moral Norms Not all norms are moral norms. There are legal norms (laws, statutes), aesthetic norms (for judg- ing artistic creations), prudential norms (practical considerations of self-interest), and others. Moral norms seem to stand out from all these in an inter- esting way: they dominate. Whenever moral princi- ples or values conflict in some way with nonmoral principles or values, the moral considerations usu- ally override the others. Moral considerations seem more important, more critical, or more weighty. A principle of prudence such as “Never help a stranger” may be well justified, but it must yield to any moral principle that contradicts it, such as “Help a stranger in an emergency if you can do so without endangering yourself.” An aesthetic norm that somehow involved violating a moral princi- ple would have to take a backseat to the moral considerations. A law that conflicted with a moral principle would be suspect, and the latter would have to prevail over the former. Ultimately the jus- tification for civil disobedience is that specific laws conflict with moral norms and are therefore invalid. If we judge a law to be bad, we usually do so on moral grounds.


Many people believe that morality and religion are inseparable—that religion is the source or basis of morality and that moral precepts are simply what God says should be done. This view is not at all surprising, since all religions imply or assert a per- spective on morality. The three great religions in the Western tradition—Christianity, Judaism, and

not apply to other cases that are similar in all rele- vant respects.

The Principle of Impartiality From the moral point of view, all persons are con- sidered equal and should be treated accordingly. This sense of impartiality is implied in all moral statements. It means that the welfare and interests of each individual should be given the same weight as the welfare and interests of all others. Unless there is a morally relevant difference between peo- ple, we should treat them the same: we must treat equals equally. We would think it outrageous for a moral rule to say something like “Everyone must refrain from stealing food in grocery stores—except for Mr. X, who may steal all he wants.” Imagine that there is no morally relevant reason for making this exception to food stealing; Mr. X is exempted merely because, say, he is a celebrity known for outrageous behavior. We not only would object to this rule, we might even begin to wonder if it was a genuine moral rule at all since it lacks impartiality. Similarly, we would reject a moral rule that says something like “Everyone is entitled to basic human rights—except Native Americans.” Such a rule would be a prime example of unfair discrimi- nation based on race. We can see this blatant par- tiality best if we ask what morally relevant difference there is between Native Americans and everyone else. Differences in income, social status, skin color, ancestry, and the like are not morally relevant. Apparently there are no morally relevant differences. Because there are none, we must con- clude that the rule sanctions unfair discrimination.

We must keep in mind, however, that some- times there are good reasons for treating someone differently. Imagine a hospital that generally gives equal care to patients, treating equals equally. But suppose a patient comes to the hospital in an ambulance because she has had a heart attack and will die without immediate care. The hospital staff responds quickly, giving her faster and more

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ments) and other major religious rules of conduct are usually vague, laying out general principles that may be difficult to apply to specific cases. (Sec- ular moral codes have the same disadvantage.) For example, we may be commanded to love our neigh- bor, but what neighbors are included— people of a different religion? people who denounce our reli- gion? the gay or lesbian couple? those who steal from us? the convicted child molester next door? the drug dealers on the corner? the woman who got an abortion? Also, what does loving our neigh- bor demand of us? How does love require us to behave toward the drug dealers, the gay couple, or the person who denounces our religion? If our ter- minally ill neighbor asks us in the name of love to help him kill himself, what should we do? Does love require us to kill him—or to refrain from killing him? And, of course, commandments can conflict—as when, for example, the only way to avoid killing an innocent person is to tell a lie, or the only way to save the life of one person is to kill another. All these situations force the believer to interpret religious directives, to try to apply gen- eral rules to specific cases, to draw out the implica- tions of particular views—in other words, to do ethics.

When Conflicts Arise, Ethics Steps In Very often moral contradictions or inconsistencies confront the religious believer, and only moral reasoning can help resolve them. Believers some- times disagree with their religious leaders on moral issues. Adherents of one religious tradition may disagree with those from another tradition on whether an act is right or wrong. Sincere devotees in a religious tradition may wonder if its moral teachings make sense. In all such cases, intelligent resolution of the conflict of moral claims can be achieved only by applying a neutral standard that helps sort out the competing viewpoints. Moral philosophy supplies the neutral standard in the form of critical thinking, well-made arguments,

Islam—provide to their believers commandments or principles of conduct that are thought to con- stitute the moral law, the essence of morality. For millions of these adherents, the moral law is the will of God, and the will of God is the moral law. In the West at least, the powerful imprint of reli- gion is evident in secular laws and in the private morality of believers and unbelievers alike. Secular systems of morality—for example, those of the ancient Greek philosophers, Immanuel Kant, the utilitarians, and others—have of course left their mark on Western ethics. But they have not moved the millions who think that morality is a product exclusively of religion.

So what is the relationship between religion and morality? For our purposes, we should break this question into two parts: (1) what is the rela- tionship between religion and ethics (the philo- sophical study of morality), and (2) what is the relationship between religion and morality (beliefs about right and wrong)? The first question asks about how religion relates to the kind of investi- gation we conduct in this book—the use of expe- rience and critical reasoning to study morality. The key point about the relationship is that whatever your views on religion and morality, an open-minded expedition into ethics is more use- ful and empowering than you may realize, espe- cially now at the beginning of your journey into moral philosophy. You may believe, for exam- ple, that God determines what is right and wrong, so there is no need to apply critical rea- soning to morality—you just need to know what God says. But this judgment—and similar dis- missals of ethics—would be premature. Consider the following:

Believers Need Moral Reasoning It is difficult—perhaps impossible—for most peo- ple to avoid using moral reasoning. Religious people are no exception. One reason is that reli- gious moral codes (such as the Ten Command-

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’ How can we hope to grapple with complex moral issues that have emerged only in recent years? Can religion alone handle the job? Consider the follow- ing case:

According to a report by CNN, Jack and Lisa Nash made history when they used genetic testing to save the life of their six-year-old daughter, Molly, by having another child. Molly had a rare genetic disorder known as Fanconi anemia, which pre- vents the generation of bone marrow and pro- duces a fatal leukemia. Molly’s best chance to live was to get a transplant of stem cells from the umbilical cord of a sibling, and Molly’s parents were determined to give her that sibling, brother Adam. Through genetic testing (and in vitro fertil- ization), Jack and Lisa were able to select a child who would not only be born without a particular disease (Fanconi anemia, in this case) but also would help a sibling combat the disease by being

the optimal tissue match for a transplant—a historic combination. As Lisa Nash said, “I was going to save Molly no matter what, and I wanted Molly to have siblings.”*

Is it right to produce a child to save the life or health of someone else? More to the point, do the scriptures of the three major Western religions provide any guidance on this question? Do any of these traditions offer useful methods for pro – ductively discussing or debating such issues with people of different faiths? How might ethics help with these challenges? Is it possible to formulate a reasonable opinion on this case without doing ethics? Why or why not?

*“Genetic Selection Gives Girl a Brother and a Second Chance,”, 3 October 2000, http://archives.cnn .com/2000/HEALTH/10/03/ (8 Decem ber 2005).

CRITICAL THOUGHT: Ethics, Religion, and Tough Moral Issues


will talk past each other, appealing only to their own religious views. Furthermore, in a pluralistic society, most of the public discussions about important moral issues take place in a context of shared values such as justice, fairness, equality, and tolerance. Just as important, they also occur according to an unwritten understanding that (1) moral positions should be explained, (2) claims should be supported by reasons, and (3) reasoning should be judged by common rational standards. These skills, of course, are at the heart of ethics.

Now consider the second question from above: What is the relationship between religion and morality? For many people, the most interesting query about the relationship between religion and morality is this: Is God the maker of morality? That is, is God the author of the moral law? Those who answer yes are endorsing a theory of morality

and careful analysis. No wonder then that many great religious minds—Aquinas, Leibniz, Descartes, Kant, Maimonides, Averroës, and others—have relied on reason to examine the nature of moral- ity. In fact, countless theists have regarded reason as a gift from God that enables human beings to grasp the truths of science, life, and morality.

Moral Philosophy Enables Productive Discourse Any fruitful discussions about morality under- taken between people from different religious tra- ditions or between believers and nonbelievers will require a common set of ethical concepts and a shared procedure for deciding issues and making judgments. Ethics provides these tools. Without them, conversations will resolve nothing, and par- ticipants will learn little. Without them, people

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2G. W. von Leibniz, “Discourse on Metaphysics,” in Selections, ed. Philip P. Wiener (New York: Scribner, 1951), 292.


hand, if God wills an action because it is morally right (if moral norms are independent of God), then the divine command theory must be false. God does not create rightness; he simply knows what is right and wrong and is subject to the moral law just as humans are.

For some theists, this charge of arbitrariness is especially worrisome. Leibniz, for example, rejects the divine command theory, declaring that it implies that God is unworthy of worship:

In saying, therefore, that things are not good accord- ing to any standard of goodness, but simply by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, with- out realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory; for why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the contrary? Where will be his justice and his wisdom if he has only a certain despotic power, if arbitrary will takes the place of reasonableness, and if in accord with the definition of tyrants, justice consists in that which is pleasing to the most powerful?2

Defenders of the divine command theory may reply to the arbitrariness argument by contending that God would never command us to commit heinous acts, because God is all-good. Because of his supreme goodness, he would will only what is good. Some thinkers, however, believe that such reasoning renders the very idea of God’s goodness meaningless. As one philosopher says,

[O]n this view, the doctrine of the goodness of God is reduced to nonsense. It is important to religious believers that God is not only all-powerful and all- knowing, but that he is also good; yet if we accept the idea that good and bad are defined by reference to God’s will, this notion is deprived of any mean- ing. What could it mean to say that God’s com- mands are good? If “X is good” means “X is commanded by God,” then “God’s commands are

known as the divine command theory. It says that right actions are those that are willed by God, that God literally defines right and wrong. Something is right or good only because God makes it so. In the simplest version of the theory, God can deter- mine right and wrong because he is omnipotent. He is all-powerful—powerful enough even to cre- ate moral norms. On this view, God is a divine lawgiver, and his laws constitute morality.

In general, believers are divided on whether the divine command theory gives an accurate account of the source of morality. Notable among the theory’s detractors are the great theistic philosophers Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–74). And conversely, as odd as it may sound, some nonbelievers have sub- scribed to it. In The Brothers Karamazov (1879–80), the character Ivan Karamazov declares, “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permissible.” This very sentiment was espoused by, among others, the famous atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Both religious and secular critics of the divine command theory believe that it poses a serious dilemma, one first articulated by Socrates two and one-half millennia ago. In the dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asks, Is an action morally right because God wills it to be so, or does God will it to be so because it is morally right? Critics say that if an action is right only because God wills it (that is, if right and wrong are dependent on God), then many heinous crimes and evil actions would be right if God willed them. If God willed murder, theft, or torture, these deeds would be morally right. If God has unlimited power, he could easily will such actions. If the rightness of an action depended on God’s will alone, he could not have reasons for willing what he wills. No reasons would be available and none required. Therefore, if God commanded an action, the command would be without reason, completely arbitrary. Neither the believer nor the nonbeliever would think this state of affairs plausible. On the other

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3James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 4th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 51. 4Jonathan Berg, “How Could Ethics Depend on Reli- gion?” in A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer, corr. ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 525–33.


You can decide to forgo any ethical deliberations and simply embrace the moral beliefs and norms you inherited from your family and culture. But this approach undermines your freedom, for if you accept without question whatever moral beliefs come your way, they are not really yours. Only if you critically examine them for yourself are they truly yours.

The three main divisions of ethics proper are nor- mative ethics (the study of the moral norms that guide our actions and judgments), metaethics (the study of the meaning and logical structure of moral beliefs), and applied ethics (the application of moral norms to specific moral issues or cases).

Ethics involves a distinctive set of elements. These include the preeminence of reason, the univer- sal perspective, the principle of impartiality, and the dominance of moral norms.

Some people claim that morality depends on God, a view known as the divine command theory. Both theists and nontheists have raised doubts about this doctrine. The larger point is that doing ethics— using critical reasoning to examine the moral life— can be a useful and productive enterprise for believer and nonbeliever alike.

EXERCISES Review Questions

1. When can it be said that your moral beliefs are not really yours? (p. 3)

2. In what ways are we forced to do ethics? What is at stake in these deliberations? (pp. 3–4)

3. What is the unfortunate result of accepting moral beliefs without questioning them? (pp. 4–5)

4. Can our feelings be our sole guide to morality? Why or why not? (pp. 4–5)

5. What are some questions asked in normative ethics? (p. 5)

6. What is the difference between normative ethics and metaethics? (pp. 5–6)

7. What is the dilemma about God and morality that Socrates posed in Euthyphro? (p. 11)

8. What kinds of moral contradictions or incon – sistencies confront religious believers? (p. 9)

good” would mean only “God’s commands are com- manded by God,” an empty truism.3

In any case, it seems that through critical rea- soning we can indeed learn much about morality and the moral life. After all, there are complete moral systems (some of which are examined in this book) that are not based on religion, that con- tain genuine moral norms indistinguishable from those embraced by religion, and that are justified not by reference to religious precepts but by care- ful thinking and moral arguments. As the philoso- pher Jonathan Berg says, “Those who would refuse to recognize as adequately justified any moral beliefs not derived from knowledge of or about God, would have to refute the whole vast range of arguments put by Kant and all others who ever proposed a rational basis for ethics!”4 Moreover, if we can do ethics—if we can use critical reasoning to discern moral norms certified by the best rea- sons and evidence—then critical reasoning is suf – ficient to guide us to moral standards and values. Since we obviously can do ethics (as the follow- ing chapters demonstrate), morality is both acces- sible and meaningful to us whether we are religious or not.


Ethics is the philosophical study of morality, and morality consists of beliefs concerning right and wrong, good and bad. These beliefs can include judg- ments, principles, and theories. Participating in the exploration of morality—that is, doing ethics—is inescapable. We all must make moral judgments, assess moral norms, judge people’s character, and question the soundness of our moral outlooks. A great deal is at stake when we do ethics, including countless decisions that determine the quality of our lives.

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From What Is the Socratic Method? CHRISTOPHER PHILLIPS

The Socratic method is a way to seek truths by your own lights.

It is a system, a spirit, a method, a type of philo- sophical inquiry, an intellectual technique, all rolled into one.

Socrates himself never spelled out a “method.” However, the Socratic method is named after him

because Socrates, more than any other before or since, models for us philosophy practiced—philosophy as deed, as way of living, as something that any of us can do. It is an open system of philosophical inquiry that allows one to interrogate from many vantage points.

Gregory Vlastos, a Socrates scholar and professor of philosophy at Princeton, described Socrates’

Although not specifically concerned with ethics, this short piece by Christopher Phillips makes a persuasive case for using the “Socratic method” to think through difficult philosophical issues. To see the Socratic method applied to ethics, read the excerpt from Plato’s Euthyphro that follows on p. 16.

Christopher Phillips, from Socrates Café. Copyright © 2001 by Christopher Phillips. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. and Felicia Eth Literary Representation.


6. Name two things (persons, objects, experiences, etc.) in your life that you consider intrinsically valuable. Name three that are instrumentally valuable.

7. How do your feelings affect the moral judgments you make? Do they determine your judgments? Do they inform them? If so, how?

8. What is the logic behind the principle of universalizability? Cite an example of how the principle has entered into your moral deliberations.

9. How does racial discrimination violate the principle of impartiality?

10. What is the “dominance of moral norms”? Does it strike you as reasonable? Or do you believe that sometimes nonmoral norms can outweigh moral ones? If the latter, provide an example.

9. What are the premises in the arbitrariness argument against the divine command theory? (p. 11)

10. Does the principle of impartiality imply that we must always treat equals equally? Why or why not? (p. 8)

Discussion Questions

1. Do you think that morality ultimately depends on God (that God is the author of the moral law)? Why or why not?

2. Do you believe that you have absorbed or adopted without question most of your moral beliefs? Why or why not?

3. Formulate an argument against the divine command theory, then formulate one for it.

4. Give an example of how you or someone you know has used reasons to support a moral judgment.

5. Identify at least two normative ethical questions that you have wondered about in the past year.

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the case that some of the most so-called abstract con- cepts are intimately related to the most profoundly relevant human experiences. In fact, it’s been my expe- rience that virtually any question can be plumbed Socratically. Sometimes you don’t know what question will have the most lasting and significant impact until you take a risk and delve into it for a while.

What distinguishes the Socratic method from mere nonsystematic inquiry is the sustained attempt to explore the ramifications of certain opinions and then offer compelling objections and alternatives. This scrupulous and exhaustive form of inquiry in many ways resembles the scientific method. But unlike Socratic inquiry, scientific inquiry would often lead us to believe that whatever is not measurable cannot be investigated. This “belief” fails to address such paramount human concerns as sorrow and joy and suffering and love.

Instead of focusing on the outer cosmos, Socrates focused primarily on human beings and their cos mos within, utilizing his method to open up new realms of self-knowledge while at the same time exposing a great deal of error, superstition, and dogmatic non- sense. The Spanish-born American philosopher and poet George Santayana said that Socrates knew that “the foreground of human life is necessarily moral and practical” and that “it is so even so for artists”— and even for scientists, try as some might to divorce their work from these dimensions of human existence.

Scholars call Socrates’ method the elenchus, which is Hellenistic Greek for inquiry or cross-examination. But it is not just any type of inquiry or examination. It is a type that reveals people to themselves, that makes them see what their opinions really amount to. C. D. C. Reeve, professor of philosophy at Reed College, gives the standard explanation of an elenchus in saying that its aim “is not simply to reach adequate definitions” of such things as virtues; rather, it also has a “moral refor- matory purpose, for Socrates believes that regular elenctic philosophizing makes people happier and more virtuous than anything else. . . . Indeed philoso- phizing is so important for human welfare, on his view, that he is willing to accept execution rather than give it up.”

method of inquiry as “among the greatest achieve- ments of humanity.” Why? Because, he says, it makes philosophical inquiry “a common human enterprise, open to every man.” Instead of requiring allegiance to a specific philosophical viewpoint or analytic tech- nique or specialized vocabulary, the Socratic method “calls for common sense and common speech.” And this, he says, “is as it should be, for how many should live is every man’s business.”

I think, however, that the Socratic method goes beyond Vlastos’ description. It does not merely call for common sense but examines what common sense is. The Socratic method asks: Does the common sense of our day offer us the greatest potential for self- understanding and human excellence? Or is the pre- vailing common sense in fact a roadblock to realizing this potential?

Vlastos goes on to say that Socratic inquiry is by no means simple, and “calls not only for the highest degree of mental alertness of which anyone is capa- ble” but also for “moral qualities of a high order: sin- cerity, humility, courage.” Such qualities “protect against the possibility” that Socratic dialogue, no matter how rigorous, “would merely grind out . . . wild conclusions with irresponsible premises.” I agree, though I would replace the quality of sincerity with honesty, since one can hold a conviction sin- cerely without examining it, while honesty would require that one subject one’s convictions to frequent scrutiny.

A Socratic dialogue reveals how different our out- looks can be on concepts we use every day. It reveals how different our philosophies are, and often how tenable—or untenable, as the case may be—a range of philosophies can be. Moreover, even the most univer- sally recognized and used concept, when subjected to Socratic scrutiny, might reveal not only that there is not universal agreement, after all, on the meaning of any given concept, but that every single person has a somewhat different take on each and every concept under the sun.

What’s more, there seems to be no such thing as a concept so abstract, or question so off base, that it can’t be fruitfully explored [using the Socratic method]. In the course of Socratizing, it often turns out to be

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write and add conflicting and even contradictory pas- sages in the same work. And like Socrates, he believed the search for truth was worth dying for.

The Socratic method forces people “to confront their own dogmatism,” according to Leonard Nelson, a German philosopher who wrote on such subjects as ethics and theory of knowledge until he was forced by the rise of Nazism to quit. By doing so, participants in Socratic dialogue are, in effect, “forcing themselves to be free,” Nelson maintains. But they’re not just confronted with their own dogmatism. In the course of a [Socratic dialogue], they may be confronted with an array of hypotheses, convictions, conjectures and theories offered by the other participants, and themselves—all of which subscribe to some sort of dogma. The Soc ratic method requires that—honestly and openly, rationally and imaginatively—they con- front the dogma by asking such questions as: What does this mean? What speaks for and against it? Are there alternative ways of considering it that are even more plausible and tenable?

At certain junctures of a Socratic dialogue, the “forcing” that this confrontation entails—the insis- tence that each participant carefully articulate her singular philosophical perspective—can be upsetting. But that is all to the good. If it never touches any nerves, if it doesn’t upset, if it doesn’t mentally and spiritually challenge and perplex, in a wonderful and exhilarating way, it is not Socratic dialogue. This “forcing” opens us up to the varieties of experiences of others—whether through direct dialogue, or through other means, like drama or books, or through a work of art or a dance. It compels us to explore alterna- tive perspectives, asking what might be said for or against each.

* * *

Socrates’ method of examination can indeed be a vital part of existence, but I would not go so far as to say that it should be. And I do not think that Socrates felt that habitual use of this method “makes people happier.” The fulfillment that comes from Socratiz- ing comes only at a price—it could well make us unhappier, more uncertain, more troubled, as well as more fulfilled. It can leave us with a sense that we don’t know the answers after all, that we are much further from knowing the answers than we’d ever realized before engaging in Socratic discourse. And this is fulfilling—and exhilarating and humbling and perplexing.

* * *

There is no neat divide between one’s views of philos- ophy and of life. They are overlapping and kindred views. It is virtually impossible in many instances to know what we believe in daily life until we engage oth- ers in dialogue. Likewise, to discover our philosophi- cal views, we must engage with ourselves, with the lives we already lead. Our views form, change, evolve, as we participate in this dialogue. It is the only way truly to discover what philosophical colors we sail under. Everyone at some point preaches to himself and others what he does not yet practice; everyone acts in or on the world in ways that are in some way contradictory or inconsistent with the views he or she confesses or professes to hold. For instance, the Dan- ish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the influential founder of existentialism, put Socratic principles to use in writing his dissertation on the concept of irony in Socrates, often using pseudonyms so he could argue his own positions with himself. In addition, the sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne, who was called “the French Socrates” and was known as the father of skepticism in modern Europe, would

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From The Euthyphro PLATO

Plato, The Euthyphro, translated by Benjamin Jowett.


Euthyphro. To be sure.

Socrates. But what differences are there which can- not be thus decided, and which therefore make us angry and set us at enmity with one another? I dare say the answer does not occur to you at the moment, and therefore I will suggest that these enmities arise when the matters of difference are the just and unjust, good and evil, honourable and dishon- ourable. Are not these the points about which men differ, and about which when we are unable satisfac- torily to decide our differences, you and I and all of us quarrel, when we do quarrel?

Euthyphro. Yes, Socrates, the nature of the differ- ences about which we quarrel is such as you describe.

Socrates. And the quarrels of the gods, noble Euthy- phro, when they occur, are of a like nature?

Euthyphro. Certainly they are.

Socrates. They have differences of opinion, as you say, about good and evil, just and unjust, hon- ourable and dishonourable: there would have been no quarrels among them, if there had been no such differences—would there now?

Euthyphro. You are quite right.

Socrates. Does not every man love that which he deems noble and good, and hate the opposite of them?

Euthyphro. Very true.

Socrates. But, as you say, people regard the same things, some as just and others as unjust,—about these they dispute; and so there arise wars and fight- ings among them.

Euthyphro. Very true.

Socrates. Then the same things are hated by the gods and loved by the gods, and are both hateful and dear to them?

Euthyphro. True.

Socrates. And upon this view the same things, Euthyphro, will be pious and also impious?

* * *

Euthyphro. Piety . . . is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.

Socrates. Very good, Euthyphro; you have now given me the sort of answer which I wanted. But whether what you say is true or not I cannot as yet tell, although I make no doubt that you will prove the truth of your words.

Euthyphro. Of course.

Socrates. Come, then, and let us examine what we are saying. That thing or person which is dear to the gods is pious, and that thing or person which is hate- ful to the gods is impious, these two being the extreme opposites of one another. Was not that said?

Euthyphro. It was.

Socrates. And well said?

Euthyphro. Yes, Socrates, I thought so; it was cer- tainly said.

Socrates. And further, Euthyphro, the gods were admit- ted to have enmities and hatreds and differences?

Euthyphro. Yes, that was also said.

Socrates. And what sort of difference creates enmity and anger? Suppose for example that you and I, my good friend, differ about a number; do differences of this sort make us enemies and set us at variance with one another? Do we not go at once to arithmetic, and put an end to them by a sum?

Euthyphro. True.

Socrates. Or suppose that we differ about magni- tudes, do we not quickly end the differences by mea – suring?

Euthyphro. Very true.

Socrates. And we end a controversy about heavy and light by resorting to a weighing machine?

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Euthyphro. That is true, Socrates, in the main.

Socrates. But they join issue about the particulars— gods and men alike; and, if they dispute at all, they dispute about some act which is called in question, and which by some is affirmed to be just, by others to be unjust. Is not that true?

Euthyphro. Quite true.

Socrates. Well then, my dear friend Euthyphro, do tell me, for my better instruction and information, what proof have you that in the opinion of all the gods a servant who is guilty of murder, and is put in chains by the master of the dead man, and dies because he is put in chains before he who bound him can learn from the interpreters of the gods what he ought to do with him, dies unjustly; and that on behalf of such an one a son ought to proceed against his father and accuse him of murder. How would you show that all the gods absolutely agree in approving of his act? Prove to me that they do, and I will applaud your wisdom as long as I live.

Euthyphro. It will be a difficult task; but I could make the matter very dear indeed to you.

Socrates. I understand; you mean to say that I am not so quick of apprehension as the judges: for to them you will be sure to prove that the act is unjust, and hateful to the gods.

Euthyphro. Yes indeed, Socrates; at least if they will listen to me.

Socrates. But they will be sure to listen if they find that you are a good speaker. There was a notion that came into my mind while you were speaking; I said to myself: “Well, and what if Euthyphro does prove to me that all the gods regarded the death of the serf as unjust, how do I know anything more of the nature of piety and impiety? for granting that this action may be hateful to the gods, still piety and impiety are not adequately defined by these distinctions, for that which is hateful to the gods has been shown to be also pleasing and dear to them.” And therefore, Euthyphro, I do not ask you to prove this; I will sup- pose, if you like, that all the gods condemn and abominate such an action. But I will amend the defi- nition so far as to say that what all the gods hate is

Euthyphro. So I should suppose.

Socrates. Then, my friend, I remark with surprise that you have not answered the question which I asked. For I certainly did not ask you to tell me what action is both pious and impious: but now it would seem that what is loved by the gods is also hated by them. And therefore, Euthyphro, in thus chastising your father you may very likely be doing what is agreeable to Zeus but disagreeable to Cronos or Uranus, and what is acceptable to Hephaestus but unacceptable to Hera, and there may be other gods who have similar differences of opinion.

Euthyphro. But I believe, Socrates, that all the gods would be agreed as to the propriety of punishing a murderer: there would be no difference of opinion about that.

Socrates. Well, but speaking of men, Euthyphro, did you ever hear any one arguing that a murderer or any sort of evil-doer ought to be let off?

Euthyphro. I should rather say that these are the questions which they are always arguing, especially in courts of law: they commit all sorts of crimes, and there is nothing which they will not do or say in their own defence.

Socrates. But do they admit their guilt, Euthyphro, and yet say that they ought not to be punished?

Euthyphro. No; they do not.

Socrates. Then there are some things which they do not venture to say and do: for they do not venture to argue that the guilty are to be unpunished, but they deny their guilt, do they not?

Euthyphro. Yes.

Socrates. Then they do not argue that the evil-doer should not be punished, but they argue about the fact of who the evil-doer is, and what he did and when?

Euthyphro. True.

Socrates. And the gods are in the same case, if as you assert they quarrel about just and unjust, and some of them say while others deny that injustice is done among them. For surely neither God nor man will ever venture to say that the doer of injustice is not to be punished?

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Socrates. And a thing is not seen because it is visible, but conversely, visible because it is seen; nor is a thing led because it is in the state of being led, or car- ried because it is in the state of being carried, but the converse of this. And now I think, Euthyphro, that my meaning will be intelligible; and my meaning is, that any state of action or passion implies previous action or passion. It does not become because it is becoming, but it is in a state of becoming because it becomes; neither does it suffer because it is in a state of suffering, but it is in a state of suffering because it suffers. Do you not agree?

Euthyphro. Yes.

Socrates. Is not that which is loved in some state either of becoming or suffering?

Euthyphro. Yes.

Socrates. And the same holds as in the previous instances; the state of being loved follows the act of being loved, and not the act the state.

Euthyphro. Certainly.

Socrates. And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro; is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?

Euthyphro. Yes.

Socrates. Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?

Euthyphro. No, that is the reason.

Socrates. It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?

Euthyphro. Yes.

Socrates. And that which is dear to the gods is loved by them, and is in a state to be loved of them because it is loved of them?

Euthyphro. Certainly.

Socrates. Then that which is dear to the gods, Euthy- phro, is not holy, nor is that which is holy loved of God, as you affirm; but they are two different things.

Euthyphro. How do you mean, Socrates?

Socrates. I mean to say that the holy has been acknowledged by us to be loved of God because it is holy, not to be holy because it is loved.

impious, and what they love pious or holy; and what some of them love and others hate is both or neither. Shall this be our definition of piety and impiety?

Euthyphro. Why not, Socrates?

Socrates. Why not! Certainly, as far as I am con- cerned, Euthyphro, there is no reason why not. But whether this admission will greatly assist you in the task of instructing me as you promised, is a matter for you to consider.

Euthyphro. Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious.

Socrates. Ought we to enquire into the truth of this, Euthyphro, or simply to accept the mere statement on our own authority and that of others? What do you say?

Euthyphro. We should enquire; and I believe that the statement will stand the test of enquiry.

Socrates. We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

Euthyphro. I do not understand your meaning, Socrates.

Socrates. I will endeavour to explain: we speak of carrying and we speak of being carried, of leading and being led, seeing and being seen. You know that in all such cases there is a difference, and you know also in what the difference lies?

Euthyphro. I think that I understand.

Socrates. And is not that which is beloved distinct from that which loves?

Euthyphro. Certainly.

Socrates. Well; and now tell me, is that which is car- ried in this state of carrying because it is carried, or for some other reason?

Euthyphro. No; that is the reason.

Socrates. And the same is true of what is led and of what is seen?

Euthyphro. True.

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loved because it is of a kind to be loved. Thus you appear to me, Euthyphro, when I ask you what is the essence of holiness, to offer an attribute only, and not the essence—the attribute of being loved by all the gods. But you still refuse to explain to me the nature of holiness. And therefore, if you please, I will ask you not to hide your treasure, but to tell me once more what holiness or piety really is, whether dear to the gods or not (for that is a matter about which we will not quarrel) and what is impiety?

Euthyphro. I really do not know, Socrates, how to express what I mean. For somehow or other our argu- ments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn around and walk away from us.

* * *

Euthyphro. Yes.

Socrates. But that which is dear to the gods is dear to them because it is loved by them, not loved by them because it is dear to them.

Euthyphro. True.

Socrates. But, friend Euthyphro, if that which is holy is the same with that which is dear to God, and is loved because it is holy, then that which is dear to God would have been loved as being dear to God; but if that which dear to God is dear to him because loved by him, then that which is holy would have been holy because loved by him. But now you see that the reverse is the case, and that they are quite different from one another. For one (�������̀s) is of a kind to be loved because it is loved, and the other (�´����) is

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Consider the following: Abdulla Yones killed his sixteen-year-old daughter Heshu in their apart- ment in west London. The murder was yet another example of an “honor killing,” an ancient tradi- tion still practiced in many parts of the world. Using a kitchen knife, Yones stabbed Heshu eleven times and slit her throat. He later declared that he had to kill her to expunge a stain from his family, a stain that Heshu had caused by her outrageous behavior. What was outrageous behavior to Yones, however, would seem to many Westerners to be typical teenage antics, annoying but benign. Heshu’s precise offense against her family’s honor is unclear, but the possibilities include wearing makeup, having a boyfriend, and showing an independent streak that would be thought per- fectly normal throughout the West. In some coun- tries, honor killings are sometimes endorsed by the local community or even given the tacit bless- ing of the state.

What do you think of this time-honored way of dealing with family conflicts? Specifically, what is your opinion regarding the morality of honor killing? Your response to this question is likely to reveal not only your view of honor killing but your overall approach to morality as well. Suppose your response is something like this: “Honor killing is morally wrong—wrong no matter where it’s done or who does it.” With this statement, you implicitly embrace moral objectivism, the doc- trine that some moral norms or principles are valid for everyone—universal, in other words— regardless of how cultures may differ in their moral outlooks. However, you need not hold that

the objective principles are rigid rules that have no exceptions (a view known as absolutism) or that they must be applied in exactly the same way in every situation and culture.

On the other hand, let us say that you assess the case like this: “In societies that approve of honor killing, the practice is morally right; in those that do not approve, it is morally wrong. My society approves of honor killing, so it is morally right.” If you believe what you say, then you are a cultural relativist. Cultural relativism is the view that an action is morally right if one’s culture approves of it. Moral rightness and wrongness are therefore relative to cultures. So in one culture, an action may be morally right; in another culture, it may be morally wrong.

Perhaps you prefer an even narrower view of morality, and so you say, “Honor killing may be right for you, but it is most certainly not right for me.” If you mean this literally, then you are com- mitted to another kind of relativism called subjec- tive relativism—the view that an action is morally right if one approves of it. Moral rightness and wrongness are relative not to cultures but to individuals. An action then can be right for you but wrong for someone else. Your approving of an action makes it right. There is therefore no objec- tive morality, and cultural norms do not make right or wrong—individuals make right or wrong.

Finally, imagine that you wish to take a differ- ent tack regarding the subject of honor killing. You say, “I abhor the practice of honor killing”— but you believe that in uttering these words you are saying nothing that is true or false. You believe

C H A P T E R 2

‘’ Subjectivism, Relativism, and Emotivism


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that despite what your statement seems to mean, you are simply expressing your emotions. You therefore hold to emotivism—the view that moral utterances are neither true nor false but are instead expressions of emotions or attitudes. So in your sentence about honor killing, you are not stating a fact—you are merely emoting and possibly trying to influence someone’s behavior. Even when emo- tivists express a more specific preference regarding other people’s behavior—by saying, for instance, “No one should commit an honor killing”—they are still not making a factual claim. They are simply expressing a preference, and perhaps hoping to persuade other people to see things their way.

These four replies represent four distinctive per- spectives (though certainly not the only perspectives) on the meaning and import of moral judgments. Moreover, they are not purely theoretical but real and relevant. People actually live their lives (or try to) as moral objectivists, or relativists, or emotivists, or some strange and inconsistent mixture of these. (There is an excellent chance, for example, that you were raised as an objectivist but now accept some form of relativism—or even try to hold to objec- tivism in some instances and relativism in others.)

In any case, the question that you should ask (and that ethics can help you answer) is not whether you in fact accept any of these views, but whether you are justified in doing so. Let us see then where an examination of reasons for and against them will lead.


What view of morality could be more tempting (and convenient) than the notion that an action is right if someone approves of it? Subjective rela- tivism says that action X is right for Ann if she approves of it yet wrong for Greg if he disapproves of it. Thus action X can be both right and wrong— right for Ann but wrong for Greg. A person’s approval of an action makes it right for that person. Action X is not objectively right (or wrong). It is

right (or wrong) relative to individuals. In this way, moral rightness becomes a matter of personal taste. If to Ann strawberry ice cream tastes good, then it is good (for her). If to Greg strawberry ice cream tastes bad, then it is bad (for him). There is no such thing as strawberry ice cream tasting good objectively or generally. Likewise, the morality of an action depends on Ann and Greg’s moral tastes.

Many people claim they are subjective relativists—until they realize the implications of the doctrine, implications that are at odds with


’ QUICK REVIEW objectivism—The view that some moral principles

are valid for everyone.

cultural relativism—The view that an action is morally right if one’s culture approves of it. Implications: that cultures are morally infalli- ble, that social reformers can never be morally right, that moral disagreements between indi- viduals in the same culture amount to argu- ments over whether someone disagrees with her culture, that other cultures cannot be legit- imately criticized, and that moral progress is impossible.

subjective relativism—The view that an action is morally right if one approves of it. Implications: that individuals are morally infallible and that genuine moral disagreement between individ- uals is nearly impossible.

emotivism—The view that moral utterances are neither true nor false but are expressions of emotions or attitudes. Implications: that peo- ple cannot disagree over the moral facts because there are no moral facts, that present- ing reasons in support of a moral utterance is a matter of offering nonmoral facts that can influence someone’s attitude, and that nothing is actually good or bad.

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our commonsense moral experience. First, subjec- tive relativism implies that in the rendering of any moral opinion, each person is incapable of being in error. Each of us is morally infallible. If we approve of an action—and we are sincere in our approval—then that action is morally right. We literally cannot be mistaken about this, because our approval makes the action right. If we say that inflicting pain on an innocent child for no reason is right (that is, we approve of such an action), then the action is right. Our moral judgment is correct, and it cannot be otherwise. Yet if anything is obvi- ous about our moral experience, it is that we are not infallible. We sometimes are mistaken in our moral judgments. We are, after all, not gods.

By all accounts, Adolf Hitler approved of (and ordered) the extermination of vast numbers of inno- cent people, including six million Jews. If so, by the lights of subjective relativism, his facilitating those deaths was morally right. It seems that the totalitar-

ian leader Pol Pot approved of his murdering more than a million innocent people in Cambodia. If so, it was right for him to murder those people. But it seems obvious that what these men did was wrong, and their approving of their actions did not make the actions right. Because subjective relativism sug- gests otherwise, it is a dubious doctrine.

Another obvious feature of our commonsense moral experience is that from time to time we have moral disagreements. Maria says that capital punishment is right, but Carlos says that it is wrong. This seems like a perfectly clear case of two people disagreeing about the morality of capital punishment. Subjective relativism, however, implies that such disagreements cannot happen. Subjec- tive relativism says that when Maria states that capital punishment is right, she is just saying that she approves of it. And when Carlos states that capital punishment is wrong, he is just saying that he disapproves of it. But they are not really


’ Jesus said “Judge not that ye be not judged.” Some have taken this to mean that we should not make moral judgments about others, and many who have never heard those words are convinced that to judge others is to be insensitive, intolerant, or abso- lutist. Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain examines this attitude and finds it both mistaken and harmful.

I have also found helpful the discussion of the lively British philosopher, Mary Midgley. In her book Can’t We Make Moral Judgments? Midgley notes our contemporary search for a nonjudgmental pol- itics and quotes all those people who cry, in effect, “But surely it’s always wrong to make moral judg- ments.” We are not permitted to make anyone uncomfortable, to be “insensitive.” Yet moral judg- ment of “some kind,” says Midgley, “is a necessary element to our thinking.” Judging involves our whole nature—it isn’t just icing on the cake of self- identity. Judging makes it possible for us to “find our way through a whole forest of possibilities.”

Midgley argues that Jesus was taking aim at sweeping condemnations and vindictiveness: he was not trashing the “whole faculty of judgment.” Indeed, Jesus is making the “subtle point that while we cannot possibly avoid judging, we can see to it that we judge fairly, as we would expect oth- ers to do to us.” This is part and parcel, then, of jus- tice as fairness, as a discernment about a particular case and person and deed. Subjectivism in such matters—of the “I’m okay, you’re okay,” variety— is a cop-out, a way to stop forming and expressing moral judgments altogether. This strange suspen- sion of specific moments of judgment goes hand- in-glove, of course, with an often violent rhetoric of condemnation of whole categories of persons, past and present—that all-purpose villain, the Dead White European Male, comes to mind.*

*Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Judge Not?” First Things, No. 46, pp. 36–40, October 1994. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Judge Not?

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color, and allow children to die by refusing to give them available medical treatment. (These latter acts have all been practiced in subcultures within the United States, so not all such cultural differences happen far from home.) It is only a small step from acknowledging this moral diversity among cultures to the conclusion that cultures determine moral rightness and that objective morality is a myth.

The philosopher Walter T. Stace (1886–1967) illustrates how easily this conclusion has come to many in Western societies:

It was easy enough to believe in a single absolute morality in older times when there was no anthro- pology, when all humanity was divided clearly into two groups, Christian peoples and the “heathen.” Christian peoples knew and possessed the one true morality. The rest were savages whose moral ideas could be ignored. But all this changed. Greater knowledge has brought greater tolerance. We can no longer exalt our own moralities as alone true, while dismissing all other moralities as false or inferior. The investigations of anthropologists have shown that there exist side by side in the world a bewilder- ing variety of moral codes. On this topic endless vol- umes have been written, masses of evidence piled up. Anthropologists have ransacked the Melanesian Islands, the jungles of New Guinea, the steppes of Siberia, the deserts of Australia, the forests of central Africa, and have brought back with them countless examples of weird, extravagant, and fantastic “moral” customs with which to confound us. We learn that all kinds of horrible practices are, in this, that, or the other place, regarded as essential to virtue. We find that there is nothing, or next to nothing, which has always and everywhere been regarded as morally good by all men. Where then is our universal moral- ity? Can we, in face of all this evidence, deny that it is nothing but an empty dream?1

Here, Stace spells out in rough form the most common argument for cultural relativism, an inference from differences in the moral beliefs of cultures to the conclusion that cultures make morality. Before we conclude that objectivism is in


disagreeing, because they are merely describing their attitudes toward capital punishment. In effect, Maria is saying “This is my attitude on the subject,” and Carlos is saying “Here is my attitude on the subject.” But these two claims are not opposed to one another. They are about different subjects, so both statements could be true. Maria and Carlos might as well be discussing how straw- berry ice cream tastes to each of them, for nothing that Maria says could contradict what Carlos says. Because genuine disagreement is a fact of our moral life, and subjective relativism is inconsistent with this fact, the doctrine is implausible.

In practice, subjective relativism is a difficult view to hold consistently. At times, of course, you can insist that an action is right for you but wrong for someone else. But you may also find your- self saying something like “Pol Pot committed absolutely heinous acts; he was evil” or “What Hitler did was wrong”—and what you mean is that what Pol Pot and Hitler did was objectively wrong, not just wrong relative to you. Such slides from subjective relativism to objectivism suggest a con- flict between these two perspectives and the need to resolve it through critical reasoning.


To many people, the idea that morality is relative to culture is obvious. It seems obvious primarily because modern sociology has left no doubt that people’s moral judgments differ from culture to cul- ture. The moral judgments of people in other cultures are often shockingly different from our own. In some societies, it is morally permissible to kill infants at birth, burn widows alive with the bodies of their husbands, steal and commit acts of treachery, surgically remove the clitorises of young girls for no medical reason, kill one’s elderly par- ents, have multiple husbands or wives, and make up for someone’s death by murdering others. Among some people, it has been considered morally acceptable to kill those of a different sexual orientation, lynch persons with a different skin

1Walter T. Stace, The Concept of Morals (1937; reprint, New York: Macmillan, 1965), 8–58.

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fact an empty dream, we should state the argument more precisely and examine it closely. We can lay out the argument like this:

1. People’s judgments about right and wrong differ from culture to culture.

2. If people’s judgments about right and wrong differ from culture to culture, then right and wrong are relative to culture, and there are no objective moral principles.

3. Therefore, right and wrong are relative to culture, and there are no objective moral principles.

A good argument gives us good reason to accept its conclusion, and an argument is good if its logic is solid (the conclusion follows logically from the premises) and the premises are true. So is the foregoing argument a good one? We can see

right away that the logic is in fact solid. That is, the argument is valid: the conclusion does indeed follow from the premises. The question then becomes whether the premises are true. As we have seen, Premise 1 is most certainly true. People’s judg- ments about right and wrong do vary from culture to culture. But what of Premise 2? Does the diver- sity of views about right and wrong among cultures show that right and wrong are determined by cul- ture, that there are no universal moral truths? There are good reasons to think this premise false.

Premise 2 says that because there are disagree- ments among cultures about right and wrong, there must not be any universal standards of right and wrong. But even if the moral judgments of people in various cultures do differ, such differ- ence in itself does not show that morality is rela- tive to culture. Just because people in different cultures have different views about morality, their


’ In recent years many conflicts have flared between those who espouse universal human rights and those who embrace cultural relativism. One issue that has been a flashpoint in the contentious debates is a practice called female genital cutting (FGC). Other names include female circumcision and female genital mutilation.

In FGC, all or part of the female genitals are removed. The procedure, used mostly in Africa and the Middle East, is usually performed on girls between the ages of four and eight, but sometimes on young women. A report in the Yale Journal of Public Health states that in Sudan 89 percent of girls receive FGC and that the cutting tools “include knives, scissors, razors, and broken glass. The opera- tion is typically performed by elderly women or traditional birth attendants, though increasing num- bers of doctors are taking over these roles.”* The practice occurs for various reasons, including reli- gious and sociological, and is defended by some

who say that it prepares girls for their role in society and marriage and discourages illicit sex.

Public health officials regard FGC as a serious health problem. It can cause reproductive tract infections, pain during intercourse, painful men- struation, complications during childbirth, greater risk of HIV infection, bleeding, and even death. International health agencies denounce FGC, but many say that no one outside a culture using FGC has a right to criticize the practice.

Do you think that FGC is morally permissible? If you judge the practice wrong, are you appealing to some notion of objective morality? If you judge it permissible, are you doing so because you are a cultural relativist? In either case, explain your reasoning.

*Sarah Cannon and Daniel Berman, “Cut Off: The Female Genital-Cutting Controversy,” Yale Journal of Public Health 1, no. 2 (2004).

CRITICAL THOUGHT: “Female Circumcision” and Cultural Relativism

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disagreement does not prove that no view can be objectively correct—no more than people’s dis- agreements about the size of a house show that no one’s opinion about it can be objectively true. Suppose Culture A endorses infanticide, but Cul- ture B does not. Such a disagreement does not demonstrate that both cultures are equally correct or that there is no objectively correct answer. After all, it is possible that infanticide is objectively right (or wrong) and that the relevant moral beliefs of either Culture A or Culture B are false.

Another reason to doubt the truth of Premise 2 comes from questioning how deep the disagree- ments among cultures really are. Judgments about the rightness of actions obviously do vary across cultures. But people can differ in their moral judg- ments not just because they accept different moral principles, but also because they have divergent nonmoral beliefs. They may actually embrace the same moral principles, but their moral judgments conflict because their nonmoral beliefs lead them to apply those principles in very different ways. If so, the diversity of moral judgments across cul- tures does not necessarily indicate deep disagree- ments over fundamental moral principles or standards. Here is a classic example:

[T]he story is told of a culture in which a son is regarded as obligated to kill his father when the lat- ter reaches age sixty. Given just this much informa- tion about the culture and the practice in question it is tempting to conclude that the members of that culture differ radically from members of our culture in their moral beliefs and attitudes. We, after all, believe it is immoral to take a human life, and regard patricide as especially wrong. But suppose that in the culture we are considering, those who belong to it believe (a) that at the moment of death one enters heaven; (b) one’s physical and mental condition in the afterlife is exactly what it is at the moment of death; and (c) men are at the peak of their physical and mental powers when they are sixty. Then what appeared at first to be peculiarities in moral outlook on the part of the cultural group in question regard- ing the sanctity of life and respect for parents, turn

out to be located rather in a nonmoral outlook of the group. A man in that culture who kills his father is doing so out of concern for the latter’s well-being— to prevent him, for example, from spending eternity blind or senile. It is not at all clear that, if we shared the relevant nonmoral beliefs of this other culture, we would not believe with them that sons should kill their fathers at the appropriate time.2

To find similar examples, we need not search for the exotic. In Western cultures we have the familiar case of abortion, an issue hotly debated among those who at first glance appear to be disagreeing about moral principles. But in fact the disputants agree about the moral principle involved: that mur- der (unjustly killing a person) is morally wrong. What they do disagree about is a nonmoral factual matter—whether the fetus is an entity that can be murdered (that is, whether it is a person). Disagree- ment over the nonmoral facts masks substantial agreement on fundamental moral standards.

The work of several anthropologists provides some evidence for these kinds of disagreements as well as for the existence of cross-cultural moral agreement in general. The social psychologist Solomon Asch, for instance, maintains that differ- ing moral judgments among societies often arise when the same moral principles are operating but the particulars of cultural situations vary.3 Other observers claim that across numerous diverse cul- tures we can find many common moral elements such as prohibitions against murder, lying, incest, and adultery and obligations of fairness, reciprocity, and consideration toward parents and children.4


2Phillip Montague, “Are There Objective and Absolute Moral Standards?” in Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems in Philosophy, ed. Joel Feinberg, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1978), 490–91. 3Solomon Asch, Social Psychology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1952), 378–79. 4See, for example, Clyde Kluckhohn, “Ethical Relativity: Sic et Non,” Journal of Philosophy 52 (1955): 663–77, and E. O. Wilson, On Human Nature (1978; reprint, New York: Bantam, 1979).

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Some philosophers argue that a core set of moral values—including, for example, truth telling and prohibitions against murder—must be universal, otherwise cultures would not survive.

These points demonstrate that Premise 2 of the argument for cultural relativism is false. The argu- ment therefore gives us no good reasons to believe that an action is right simply because one’s culture approves of it.

For many people, however, the failure of the argument for cultural relativism may be beside the point. They find the doctrine appealing mainly because it seems to promote the humane and enlightened attitude of tolerance toward other cul- tures. Broad expanses of history are drenched with blood and marked by cruelty because of the evil of intolerance—religious, racial, political, and social. Tolerance therefore seems a supreme virtue, and cultural relativism appears to provide a justifica- tion and vehicle for it. After all, if all cultures are morally equal, does not cultural relativism both entail and promote tolerance?

We should hope that tolerance does reign in a pluralistic world, but there is no necessary connec- tion between tolerance and cultural relativism. For one thing, cultural relativists cannot consistently advocate tolerance. To advocate tolerance is to advocate an objective moral value. But if tolerance is an objective moral value, then cultural relativism must be false, because it says that there are no objective moral values. So instead of justifying tolerance toward all, cultural relativism actually undercuts universal tolerance. Moreover, according to cultural relativism, intolerance can be justified just as easily as tolerance can. If a culture approves of intolerance, then intolerance is right for that cul- ture. If a culture approves of tolerance, then toler- ance is right for that culture. Cultural relativists are thus committed to the view that intolerance can in fact be justified, and they cannot consistently claim that tolerance is morally right everywhere.

At this point we are left with no good reasons to believe that cultural relativism is true. But the

problems for the doctrine are deeper than that. Like subjective relativism, it has several implica- tions that render it highly implausible.

First, as is the case with subjective relativism, cultural relativism implies moral infallibility. A culture simply cannot be mistaken about a moral issue. If it approves of an action, then that action is morally right, and there is no possibility of error as long as the culture’s approval is genuine. But, of course, cultural infallibility in moral matters is fla- grantly implausible, just as individual infallibility is. At one time or another, cultures have sanc- tioned witch burning, slavery, genocide, racism, rape, human sacrifice, and religious persecution. Does it make any sense to say that they could not have been mistaken about the morality of these actions?

Cultural relativism also has the peculiar conse- quence that social reformers of every sort would always be wrong. Their culture would be the ulti- mate authority on moral matters, so if they disagree with their culture, they could not possibly be right. If their culture approves of genocide, genocide would be right, and antigenocide reformers would be wrong to oppose the practice. In this upside- down world, the antigenocide reformers would be immoral and the genocidal culture would be the real paragon of righteousness. Reformers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mary Wollstonecraft (champion of women’s rights), and Frederick Douglass (American abolitionist) would be great crusaders—for immorality. Our moral experience, however, suggests that cultural rela- tivism has matters exactly backward. Social reform- ers have often been right when they claimed their cultures were wrong, and this fact suggests that cul- tural relativism is wrong about morality.

Where cultural relativism holds, if you have a disagreement with your culture about the right- ness of an action, you automatically lose. You are in error by definition. But what about a disagree- ment among members of the same society? What would such a disagreement amount to? It amounts


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to something very strange, according to cultural relativism. When two people in the same culture disagree on a moral issue, what they are really dis- agreeing about—the only thing they can ratio – nally disagree about—is whether their society endorses a particular view. After all, society makes actions right by approving or disapproving of them. According to cultural relativism, if René and Michel (both members of society X) are disagree- ing about capital punishment, their disagreement must actually be about whether society X approves of capital punishment. Since right and wrong are determined by one’s culture, René and Michel are disagreeing about what society X says. But this view of moral disagreement is dubious, to say the least. When we have a moral disagreement, we do not think that the crux of it is whether our society approves of an action. We do not think that decid- ing a moral issue is simply a matter of polling the public to see which way opinion leans. We do not think that René and Michel will ever find out whether capital punishment is morally permissi- ble by consulting public opinion. Determining whether an action is right is a very different thing from determining what most people think. This odd consequence of cultural relativism suggests that the doctrine is flawed.

One of the more disturbing implications of cultural relativism is that cultures cannot be legit- imately criticized from the outside. If a culture approves of the actions that it performs, then those actions are morally right regardless of what other cultures have to say about the matter. One society’s practices are as morally justified as any other’s, as long as the practices are socially sanc- tioned. This consequence of cultural relativism may not seem too worrisome when the societies in question are long dead. But it takes on a different tone when the societies are closer to us in time. Consider the 1994 genocide committed in Rwanda in which a million people died. Suppose the killers’ society (their tribe) approved of the murders. Then the genocide was morally justified.

And what of Hitler’s “final solution”—the murder of millions of Jews in World War II? Say that Ger- man society approved of Hitler’s actions (and those of the men who carried out his orders). Then Hitler’s final solution was morally right; engineer- ing the Holocaust was morally permissible. If you are a cultural relativist, you cannot legitimately condemn these monstrous deeds. Because they were approved by their respective societies, they were morally justified. They were just as morally justified as the socially sanctioned activities of Albert Schweitzer, Jonas Salk, or Florence Nightin- gale. But all this seems implausible. We do in fact sometimes criticize other cultures and believe that it is legitimate to do so.

Contrary to the popular view, rejecting cultural relativism (embracing moral objectivism) does not entail intolerance. In fact, it provides a plausible starting point for tolerance. A moral objectivist realizes that she can legitimately criticize other cultures—and that people of other cultures can legitimately criticize her culture. A recognition of this fact together with an objectivist’s sense of fal- libility can lead her to an openness to criticism of her own culture and to acceptance of everyone’s right to disagree.

We not only criticize other cultures, but we also compare the past with the present. We com- pare the actions of the past with those of the pres- ent and judge whether moral progress has been made. We see that slavery has been abolished, that we no longer burn witches, that we recognize racism as evil—then we judge that these changes represent moral progress. For moral relativists, however, there is no objective standard by which to compare the ways of the past with the ways of the present. Societies of the past approved or dis- approved of certain practices, and contemporary societies approve or disapprove of them, and no transcultural moral assessments can be made. But if there is such a thing as moral progress, then there must be some cross-cultural moral yardstick by which we can evaluate actions. There must be


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objective standards by which we can judge that actions of the present are better than those of the past. If there are no objective moral standards, our judging that we are in fact making moral progress is hard to explain.

Finally, there is a fundamental difficulty con- cerning the application of cultural relativism to moral questions: the doctrine is nearly impossible to use. The problem is that cultural relativism applies to societies (or social groups), but we all belong to several societies, and there is no way to choose which one is the proper one. What society do you belong to if you are an Italian American Buddhist living in Atlanta, Georgia, who is a mem- ber of the National Organization for Women and a breast cancer support group? The hope of cultural relativists is that they can use the doctrine to make better, more enlightened moral decisions. But this society-identification problem seems to preclude any moral decisions, let alone enlightened ones.

What, then, can we conclude from our exami- nation of cultural relativism? We have found that the basic argument for the view fails; we therefore have no good reasons to believe that the doctrine is true. Beyond that, we have good grounds for think- ing the doctrine false. Its surprising implications regarding moral infallibility, moral reformers, moral progress, the nature of moral disagreements within societies, and the possibility of cross- cultural criti- cism show it to be highly implausible. The crux of the matter is that cultural relativism does a poor job of explaining some important features of our moral experience. A far better explanation of these features is that some form of moral objectivism is true.


The commonsense view of moral judgments is that they ascribe moral properties to such things as actions and people and that they are therefore statements that can be true or false. This view of moral judgments is known as cognitivism. The

opposing view, called noncognitivism, denies that moral judgments are statements that can be true or false; they do not ascribe properties to anything. Probably the most famous noncognitivist view is emotivism, which says that moral judgments can- not be true or false because they do not make any claims—they merely express emotions or attitudes. For the emotivist, moral utterances are something akin to exclamations that simply express approv- ing or disapproving feelings: “Violence against women—disgusting!” or “Shoplifting—love it!”

The English philosopher A. J. Ayer (1910–89), an early champion of emotivism, is clear and blunt about what a moral utterance such as “Stealing money is wrong” signifies. This sentence, he says,

expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had written “Stealing money!!”— where the shape and thickness of the exclamation marks show, by a suitable convention, that a special sort of moral disapproval is the feeling which is being expressed. It is clear that there is nothing said here which can be true or false. . . . For in saying that a certain type of action is right or wrong, I am not making any factual statement, not even a statement about my own state of mind.5

If moral judgments are about feelings and not the truth or falsity of moral assertions, then ethics is a very different sort of inquiry than most people imagine. As Ayer says,

[A]s ethical judgements are mere expressions of feel- ing, there can be no way of determining the validity of any ethical system, and, indeed, no sense in asking whether any such system is true. All that one may legitimately enquire in this connection is, What are the moral habits of a given person or group of people, and what causes them to have precisely those habits and feelings? And this enquiry falls wholly within the scope of the existing social sciences.6


5A. J. Ayer, “Critique of Ethics and Theology,” in Lan- guage, Truth and Logic (1936; reprint, New York: Dover, 1952), 107. 6Ayer, 112.

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The emotivist points out that while moral utterances express feelings and attitudes, they also function to influence people’s attitudes and behav- ior. So the sentence “Stealing money is wrong” not only expresses feelings of disapproval, it also can influence others to have similar feelings and act accordingly.

Emotivists also take an unusual position on moral disagreements. They maintain that moral disagreements are not conflicts of beliefs, as is the case when one person asserts that something is the case and another person asserts that it is not the case. Instead, moral disagreements are disagree- ments in attitude. Jane has positive feelings or a favorable attitude toward abortion, but Ellen has negative feelings or an unfavorable attitude toward abortion. The disagreement is emotive, not cognitive. Jane may say “Abortion is right,” and Ellen may say “Abortion is wrong,” but they are not really disagreeing over the facts. They are expressing conflicting attitudes and trying to influence each other’s attitude and behavior.

Philosophers have criticized emotivism on several grounds, and this emotivist analysis of disagreement has been a prime target. As you might suspect, their concern is that this notion of disagree- ment is radically different from our ordinary view. Like subjective relativism, emotivism implies that disagreements in the usual sense are impossible. People cannot disagree over the moral facts, because there are no moral facts. But we tend to think that when we disagree with someone on a moral issue, there really is a conflict of statements about what is the case. Of course, when we are involved in a con- flict of beliefs, we may also experience conflicting attitudes. But we do not think that we are only expe- riencing a disagreement in attitudes.

Emotivism also provides a curious account of how reasons function in moral discourse. Our commonsense view is that a moral judgment is the kind of thing that makes a claim about moral properties and that such a claim can be supported by reasons. If someone asserts “Euthanasia is

wrong,” we may sensibly ask her what reasons she has for believing that claim. If she replies that there are no reasons to back up her claim or that moral utterances are not the kind of things that can be supported by reasons, we would probably think that she misunderstood the question or the nature of morality. For the emotivist, “moral” rea- sons have a very different function. Here reasons are intended not to support statements (since there are no moral statements) but to influence the emotions or attitudes of others. Since moral utterances express emotions or attitudes, “present- ing reasons” is a matter of offering nonmoral facts that can influence those emotions and attitudes. Suppose A has a favorable attitude toward abor- tion, and B has an unfavorable one (that is, A and B are having a disagreement in attitude). For A, to present reasons is to provide information that might cause B to have a more favorable attitude toward abortion.

This conception of the function of reasons, however, implies that good reasons encompass any nonmoral facts that can alter someone’s atti- tude. On this view, the relevance of these facts to the judgment at hand is beside the point. The essential criterion is whether the adduced facts are sufficiently influential. They need not have any logical or cognitive connection to the moral judg- ment to be changed. They may, for example, appeal to someone’s ignorance, arrogance, racism, or fear. But we ordinarily suppose that reasons should be relevant to the cognitive content of moral judgments. Moreover, we normally make a clear distinction between influencing someone’s attitudes and showing (by providing reasons) that a claim is true—a distinction that emotivism can- not make.

The final implication of emotivism is also problematic: there is no such thing as goodness or badness. We cannot legitimately claim that any- thing is good or bad, because these properties do not exist. To declare that something is good is just to express positive emotions or a favorable


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attitude toward it. We may say that pain is bad, but badness (or goodness) is not a feature of pain. Our saying that pain is bad is just an expression of our unfavorable attitude toward pain.

Suppose a six-year-old girl is living in a small village in Syria during the civil war between Presi- dent Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist government and rebel forces. Assad’s henchmen firebomb the vil- lage, destroying it and incinerating everyone except the girl, who is burned from head to toe and endures excruciating pain for three days before she dies. Suppose that we are deeply moved by this tragedy as we consider her unimaginable suffering and we remark, “How horrible. The little girl’s suffering was a very bad thing.”7 When we say something like this, we ordinarily mean that the girl’s suffering had a certain moral property: that the suffering was bad. But according to emo- tivism, her suffering had no moral properties at all. When we comment on the girl’s suffering, we are simply expressing our feelings; the suffering itself was neither good nor bad. But this view of things seems implausible. Our moral experience suggests that some things in fact are bad and some are good.

The philosopher Brand Blanshard (1892–1987) makes the point in the following way:

[T]he emotivist is cut off by his theory from admit- ting that there has been anything good or evil in the past, either animal or human. There have been Black Deaths, to be sure, and wars and rumours of war; there have been the burning of countless women as witches, and the massacre in the Katyn forest, and Oswiecim, and Dachau, and an unbearable proces- sion of horrors; but one cannot meaningfully say that anything evil has ever happened. The people who suffered from these things did indeed take up attitudes of revulsion toward them; we can now judge that they took them; but in such judgments we are not saying that anything evil occurred. . . . [Emotivism], when first presented, has some plausi-

bility. But when this is balanced against the implied unplausibility of setting down as meaningless every suggestion that good or evil events have ever occurred, it is outweighed enormously.8

Obviously, emotivism does not fare well when examined in light of our commonsense moral experience. We must keep in mind, though, that common sense is fallible. On the other hand, we should not jettison common sense in favor of another view unless we have good reasons to do so. In the case of emotivism, we have no good rea- sons to prefer it over common sense—and we have good grounds for rejecting it.


Subjective relativism is the view that an action is morally right if one approves of it. A person’s approval makes the action right. This doctrine (as well as cultural relativism) is in stark contrast to moral objectivism, the view that some moral principles are valid for everyone. Subjective relativism, though, has some troubling implications. It implies that each per- son is morally infallible and that individuals can never have a genuine moral disagreement.

Cultural relativism is the view that an action is morally right if one’s culture approves of it. The argu- ment for this doctrine is based on the diversity of moral judgments among cultures: because people’s judgments about right and wrong differ from culture to culture, right and wrong must be relative to cul- ture, and there are no objective moral principles. This argument is defective, however, because the diversity of moral views does not imply that morality is rela- tive to cultures. In addition, the alleged diversity of basic moral standards among cultures may be only apparent, not real. Societies whose moral judgments conflict may be differing not over moral principles but over nonmoral facts.

Some think that tolerance is entailed by cultural relativism. But there is no necessary connection


7This scenario is inspired by some of Brand Blanshard’s examples from “Emotivism,” in Reason and Goodness (1961; reprint, New York: G. Allen and Unwin, 1978). 8Blanshard, 204–5.

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between tolerance and the doctrine. Indeed, the cultural relativist cannot consistently advocate toler- ance while maintaining his relativist standpoint. To advocate tolerance is to advocate an objective moral value. But if tolerance is an objective moral value, then cultural relativism must be false, because it says that there are no objective moral values.

Like subjective relativism, cultural relativism has some disturbing consequences. It implies that cul- tures are morally infallible, that social reformers can never be morally right, that moral disagreements between individuals in the same culture amount to arguments over whether they disagree with their cul- ture, that other cultures cannot be legitimately criti- cized, and that moral progress is impossible.

Emotivism is the view that moral utterances are neither true nor false but are expressions of emotions or attitudes. It leads to the conclusion that people can disagree only in attitude, not in beliefs. People can- not disagree over the moral facts, because there are no moral facts. Emotivism also implies that present- ing reasons in support of a moral utterance is a mat- ter of offering nonmoral facts that can influence someone’s attitude. It seems that any nonmoral facts will do, as long as they affect attitudes. Perhaps the most far-reaching implication of emotivism is that nothing is actually good or bad. There simply are no properties of goodness and badness. There is only the expression of favorable or unfavorable emotions or attitudes toward something.

EXERCISES Review Questions

1. Does objectivism entail intolerance? Why or why not? (p. 20)

2. Does objectivism require absolutism? Why or why not? (p. 20)

3. How does subjective relativism differ from cultural relativism? (p. 20)

4. What is emotivism? How does emotivism differ from objectivism? (p. 21)

5. How does subjective relativism imply moral infallibility? (p. 22)

6. According to moral subjectivism, are moral disagreements possible? Why or why not? (pp. 22–23)

7. What is the argument for cultural relativism? Is the argument sound? Why or why not? (pp. 23–26)

8. Does the diversity of moral outlooks in cultures show that right and wrong are determined by culture? Why or why not? (pp. 24–26)

9. According to the text, how is it possible for people in different cultures to disagree about moral judgments and still embrace the same fundamental moral principles? (pp. 25–26)

10. Is there a necessary connection between cultural relativism and tolerance? Why or why not? (p. 26)

11. What does cultural relativism imply about the moral status of social reformers? (p. 26)

12. What is the emotivist view of moral disagreements? (p. 28)

13. According to emotivism, how do reasons function in moral discourse? (p. 29)

Discussion Questions

1. Are you a subjective relativist? If so, how did you come to adopt this view? If not, what is your explanation for not accepting it?

2. Suppose a serial killer approves of his murderous actions. According to subjective relativism, are the killer’s actions therefore justified? Do you believe a serial killer’s murders are justified? If not, is your judgment based on a subjective relativist’s perspective or an objectivist perspective?


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