Skeptics of moral knowledge claim that
moral values and judgements are simply
‘matters of taste’.
Saying ‘abortion is wrong’ is no different to
saying ‘I like spinach’.
Emotivist’s argue all moral debate is nothing
more than a set of boos and cheers.
Do you agree with this?
According to moral relativism our values are
determined by the society we grow up in, and
there are no universal values.
Moral values are simply customs that vary
from one culture to another.
The Diversity Argument – The sheer variety
of moral practices suggests that there are no
objective moral values.
The Lack of Foundations Argument – Moral
values appear to be ungrounded or lacking in
To highlight the lack of foundation to moral
arguments consider this example:
Some people in the world are starving.
Therefore, I ought to give some of my food to the
It can be seen that there is no logical link between
what is the case, to what ought to be the case.
The argument is emotive but it is not
One of the attractive features of moral relativism is
that it seems to encourage a tolerant ‘live and let
live’ attitude to other cultures.
Each and every culture’s values and beliefs are to
be respected as no one cultures values are better or
more important than another.
Tolerance therefore avoids – Cultural Imperialism.
The belief in universal tolerance is not
consistent with moral relativism.
Consider the following example…..
Punishing adultery by stoning to death.
Punishing murder by lethal injection.
Female genital mutilation.
Imprisoning suspected terrorists without
Discriminating against minority groups
There appears to be shared moral values amongst all
nations, people’s, culture’s and religions such as limiting
violence, protecting property, promoting honesty etc.
The moral systems of the major world faiths contain very
similar moral codes.
Some values can be justified as intuitively obvious. For
example the vast majority of people would think ‘random
torture is wrong’.
Admittedly it cant be proved but it can be argued that
‘random torture is wrong’ is as obvious as 2+2=4
The theory that human beings are always and
There are 4 arguments in support of this
It is necessarily true that everyone is selfish.
You are being selfish when you do what you
want to do and you always end up doing what
you most want to do – otherwise you
wouldn’t do it.
Peter Stringfellow is comparable to Mother
Theresa because there is no such thing as
Human beings are naturally selfish creatures
who are programmed to pursue their own
Looking after number 1 is intrinsic to the
struggle for survival.
We get various hidden benefits such as
gratitude, praise, and a positive image of
ourselves from being kind to other people.
If we help people when they’re in trouble
then we can ask for help when we’re in
Fear of punishment keeps us in line and
prevents us from wrong doing.
The fear of a fine, imprisonment or even
death is enough to deter most people from
Consider what it is like living in places where
law and order has broken down. What do you
think takes place?
While it may be that some values are relative and
that people are often selfish, we do not need to
conclude that all values are relative and that people
are always selfish.
It follows that there is room for the idea that there is
such a thing as moral knowledge.
We are now going to have a look at a more
systematic and coherent approach to ethics which
enables us to make sense of our moral beliefs and
Often reduced to slavish obedience to religious
codes of conduct laid out in holy writings eg The
Bible, Torah, Old Testament, Quran.
However, this raises serious questions.
Should we really put people to death for working on
It was Plato who first introduced us to the problem
of attempting derive ethics from Religion.
Is something good because God says it’s good, or does
God say it’s good because it is good?
On the one hand, if something is good simply because God
says it’s good , then if God suddenly decided that murder
was good, it would be good.
Most people would reject this conclusion.
On the other hand if God says something is good because it
is good then it seems values are independent of God.
Goodness exists outside and beyond of God. We therefore
do not need to appeal to Him in order to justify our values.
This is a very convincing argument against religious ethics.
The failure of religious ethics to counter
Plato’s argument as well as religious ethics
not appealing to atheists has led to the idea
of ‘duty ethics’.
Ethics is a matter of doing your duty.
The problem is finding out what exactly it is
we need to be dutifully performing.
People have different views on duty
Some people believe it their duty to remain
faithful – others do not.
Some people believe it is their
duty to not take life – others do not.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Argued that all duties can be known through reason.
Something is your duty if you can consistently generalise
it. For example – if you wanted to jump the dinner queue
because you can’t be bothered to wait – you should ask
yourself what would happen if everyone did that. The
answer of course would be chaos. If everyone jumped the
queue there would be no more queue to jump.
So if you were to generalise the rule ‘jump the queue
whenever you feel like it’. You end up with a contradiction.
Therefore it is your duty to stand in line and not jump the
queue whenever you feel like it.
The same reasoning is applied to every moral decision
Consider Kant’s response to the following…..
This another key area in Kant’s thinking.
It is sincere motives behind our actions that are
important and not the consequences our actions
If you genuinely try to help a blind man cross the
road but he gets knocked over, you should not be
If however, you intended to murder someone but
they escaped unharmed you are still considered a
Kant also insisted that truly moral behaviour
should be motivated by reason and not
He felt feelings are unreliable and cannot
If you feel like helping someone today there is
no guarantee you will feel like helping them
Who were the rational students?
Who were the more emotional students?
What would Kant think?
Do you agree with him?
What would an emotivist think?
Kant believed there were 3 different motives for
You expect something in return
Kant believed the only moral actions are ones
performed out of duty with sincere motives behind
them and without regard for consequences.
Kant has been instrumental in shaping
modern approaches to ethics however, it can
be seen that Kant’s theory suffers from very
A madman asks you
where he can find the
person he’s trying to
kill and you know
where they are
hiding. What should
you do? According to
Kant you have a duty
to tell the truth, and
not lie regardless of
are likely to happen.
This seems clearly
Simple theory of ethics.
There is only one supreme moral principle – that we
should seek the greatest happiness for the greatest
Basically maximise happiness.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill
Wanted to give a scientific foundation for ethics in
the same way science was discovering natural laws
Bentham and Mill were looking for moral laws.
The only thing that is good in itself is happiness and
actions are right if they increase happiness and
wrong if they decrease happiness.
You may ask ‘what is happiness?’
Bentham would reply ‘the sum of pleasures and a
happy life one that maximises feelings of pleasure
and minimises feelings of pain.
According to this theory apply the principle of utility
to the following examples…
It is a simple and coherent theory.
It is based on human nature which would seem to
suggest we all seek pleasure and avoid pain.
It is based on reason and seesm to suit the egoistic,
hedonistic, individualism of the 21st Century
It’s based on the premise that desirable
consequences are more important than motives or
It avoids criticisms like that held against Kant.
How do we measure happiness?
How do we accurately predict the outcomes
or consequences of our actions?
Also consider the following horrific example
which would be considered morally justifiable
Ethics is inescapable and a part of all our lives.
In the case of a girl on holiday about to cheat on her
unknowing boyfriend back home – What would a Utilitarian
think? What would a Kantian think?
How much use are theories in practice?
Perhaps they offer a sense of support when we make
decisions and justify them on the basis of others.
The fact that we can never be sure that we have done the
right thing, or that we are painfully aware that we could have
done better, is perhaps part of the tragedy of the human
To what extent is
our perception of
things coloured by
Are scientists morally
responsible for how
their discoveries are
Does history show
that we have made
Is ethics more of
a matter of the
head than the
To what extent
should the arts
have a moral
Do moral truths
exist in the same
way as maths
How do ethical
experiments in the