Intro to Philosophy – Week 4 – Morality

  • the first lecture explored the “status of morality” – not “is this moral statement correct?” but rather “what is it that we are doing when we make moral statements? are moral statements objective facts? or are they relative to cultural/personal? are they emotional?”
  • empirical judgments are things that we can discover by observations (e.g., the earth rotates around the sun; electricity has positive and negative charges; the Higgs-Boson exists; it was sunny today)
  • moral judgments are things that we judge to be right/wrong, good/bad (e.g., it is good to give to charity; parents are morally obliged to take care of their children; Pol Pot’s genocidal actions was morally abhorrent; polygamy is morally dubious)
  • 3 questions to ask to about these judgments
    1. are they the kinds of things that can be true/false or are they merely opinions? (empirical judgments can be true/false and some philosophers think that moral judgments are merely opinion, though other disagree
    2. if moral judgments can be true/false, what makes them true/false?
    3. if they are true, are they objectively true? (or only true relative to a culture/personal approach)
  • three broad approaches that philosophers have taken to these questions: objectivism, relativism, and emotivism


  • “our moral judgments are the sorts of things that can be true or false, and what makes them true or false are facts that are generally independent of who we are or what cultural groups we belong to – they are objective moral facts”
  • in this approach, if people disagree about morality of something, they are seen as disagreeing over some objective fact about morality
  • e.g., genocide is morally abhorrent – this seems to be something that can be true/false, seems to be objectively true (if someone disagreed, we’d probably thing they are wrong!)
  • e.g., polygamy is morally dubious – but many cultures practice it – perhaps it isn’t objectively true – so this example argues against objectivism
  • objection to objectivism: how can we determine what the empirical truth of a moral claim is? We can’t observe it like we do with empirical judgements.
    • potential responses to the objection: if you take the position that what is right is what maximizes overall happiness, then you can observe which option maximizes overall happiness to make your moral judgements. Or you can say that there are mathematically empirical facts that we can know without observing them in the physical world – instead, you reason them. So we can do the same with morals.


  • “our moral judgments are indeed things that can true or false, but they are only true or false relative to something that can vary between people”
  • e.g., the statement “one must drive on the left side of the road” – is true in Britain, but false in the US (so it’s a statement that can be true or false, but whether it is true or false is relative to where you are)
  • e.g., polygamy is morally dubious – can be true or false, but depends on your culture
  • e.g., Oedipus sleeping with his mother was morally bad – (remember, he didn’t know it was his mother) – if you consider incest wrong, is it wrong across the board or only wrong if you know?
  • subjectivism: a form of relativism where “our moral judgments are indeed true or false, but they’re only true or false relative to the subjective feelings of the person who makes them” “X is bad” = “I dislike X”
    • subjectivism has a hard time explaining disagreements
  • cultural relativism: a form of relativism where “our moral judgments are indeed true or false, but they’re only true or false relative to the culture of the person who makes them.” “X is bad” = “X is disproved of in my culture”
  • objection to relativism: it seems like there is moral progress (e.g., people used to think that slavery was morally OK, but now we’ve progressed to say that slavery is morally wrong. However, under a relativism view, you’d say that slavery was morally acceptable relative to the time and culture. So relativism does not allow for moral progress.
    • potential answer to the objection: cultures overlap – so, for example, if you consider “America” a culture


  • “moral judgments are neither objectively true/false nor relatively true/false. They’re direct expression of our emotive reactions”
  • objection to emotivism: we reason our way to moral conclusions – e.g., you might say “it’s wrong for Oedipus to sleep with his mother,” but then someone says “But he didn’t know it was his mother” and then you reason “OK, he can’t be held morally responsible since he didn’t know.” But emotivism says that moral judgments are only based on emotions
    • potential answer to the objection: some evaluations are reason – e.g., if you prefer A to B and prefer B to C, but then you prefer C to A – that’s irrational. So we do use reason when it comes to emotions/preferences.
  • some people in the class discussion asked questions like “Can’t there be a universal principle that unites objectivism and relativism? E.g., a relativist might say “Women should wear headscarves in some cultures but not others, but an objective could say the principle is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” – which would work out to “Women should wear headscarves in those cultures where that is what is expected and not in other cultures where it is not”. Another discussion point was that we could agree on a moral judgment but disagree on the reason for it (e.g., We agree that kicking dogs is morally wrong, but one might think it’s because you are causing pain to the dog, while another thinks it’s because it desensitizes the person doing it to cruelty”)
  • “Objective” can mean moral principles independent of us, or it can mean moral principles apply to everyone equally (relativists would just object to the latter).
  • Another question from the class was could objectivism be right for some moral principles, relativism is best for other moral principles, and emotivism is best for yet other principles. Philosophers talk about “agent neutrality” – the reasons that morality provide for whether something is moral are independent of the individual and they talk about morality is overriding. If this is correct, you’d expect there is a unified domain of morality.
  • Probably none of these theories are right – they all need some work to figure out which, if any, is correct.
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