Tuesday, 20 March 2012


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One of the most important issues in ethics concerns the status of moral views. Are they either true or false (as are, say, statements regarding mathematics and biology), or are they merely matters of taste? Throughout the history of philosophy numerous theories have emerged and evolved each attempting to establish and defend a position on whether or not truths and falsehoods in ethics exist. Of those theories that accept that ethical statements and opinions must be either true or false there are three in particular that seem to be repeatedly discussed and defended throughout philosophy’s history. These three philosophies - Realism, Cognitivism and Absolutism, are individually opposed by three counter theories Anti-Realism, Non-Cognitivism, and Relativism �each taking some form of the opinion that no standard exists by which to judge truth in ethics. Under these three opposing philosophies, moral beliefs and judgments can be neither true nor false and there are no normative truths about what one morally ought or ought not to do. As expected each of the theories in favor of objective moral statements (and vice versa for the opposing theories) are similar to one another in principle, however when examined carefully one can find substantially important differences amongst these theories establishing them all as individual philosophies yet not large enough to eliminate the ability for there to be philosophers who advocate more than one of these theories at the same time or any combination thereof.

Of the three theories in support of moral truths in ethics the mildest version takes the form of Cognitivism, whose advocates believe that good and bad, right and wrong, exist in some fashion in this world � independent of things like social customs, beliefs or opinions. Cognitivists deliberate that humans can find the answer to ethical questions through our capacity to reason, and that ethics can be reduced to a set of rules prescribing right and wrong. In conjuction with this Cognitivist view is that of Realism - the thesis that the objects properties and relations the world exist independently of our thoughts about them or our perceptions of them, avowing itself to the Cognitivist view that moral claims express propositions that are literally true or false . Moral Realism is however more complicated than Cognitivism as not only does it hold that moral claims purport to be about facts but also that there are moral facts that make at least some of these claims true.

While both Realism and Cognitivism admit that moral properties exist upon an objective foundation and that there are rules which we need to abide by in order to be ethical a third philosophy of similar convention may also be recognized and slightly differentiated from the other two by its religious foundation. Absolutism, while prescribing to the same principles as the others is founded in religious faith and tends to be more extreme then the other two philosophies. Some Absolutists believe that the truth of right and wrong comes from God, such as in found in the Ten Commandments and therefore should not be reckoned with. Even those Absolutists who do not find their arguments in religion tend to be stricter than both Cognitivists and realists as they believe the rules of ethics should not vary by situation. Hence, if an action is wrong in one situation an absolutist would deem it wrong for every situation.

On the complete other end of the spectrum to this theory of objective absolutes lies the subjective philosophy of Moral Relativism - the view that morality is relative to the individual moral agent. This is not to say that ethical systems under Moral Relativism cannot exist, they just cannot be compared to one another. Non-Cognitivism on the other hand, while also admitting that moral statements cannot be either true or false, has a slightly different perspective than Relativism. While Relativism claims that there exists no set of universal moral rules for us to follow, it does not rule out the possibility of each person/culture/society (depending on which form of Relativism we are referring to) having their own set of moral rules to abide by. Under Moral Relativism moral facts can exist as in relation to your own society whereas Non-Cognitivists claim moral facts can never exist. As a Non-Cognitivist you would believe that moral statements are neither true nor false; they are rather expressions of sentiments emotions, attitudes, or commendation/condemnation.

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As a third theory in opposition to the idea that moral facts can be either true or false, Anti-Realism provides a substantially different perspective than Non-Cognitivism. While Non-Cognitivists believe that moral statements can be neither true nor false as they are merely expressions of our emotions, Anti-Realists do not believe in this indifference. Rather they believe that there are no objective moral standards or objective moral truths and therefore no moral judgments or moral rules are true.

It can therefore be seen that there are in fact differences amongst those philosophies which claim that moral truths exist and also those which claim they do not. However, although some of these differences are large and considerably important it still seems clear that it is in fact possible for a philosopher to have a standpoint consisting of more than one of these philosophies without being altogether too controversial.

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