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Justified actions under moral skepticism?

This isn’t to do with atheism per se, but if you’re a moral skeptic, I’m interested to know what you think about this.

If there’s no such thing as a justified moral belief, then in what sense is it ethical to take a stand? I mean, if there’s no justification for your ethics, then how can I justify decisions I make affecting other people based on those ethics? In particular, what if you’re causing people to act against their own ethical beliefs?

For instance, I might intervene against a parent who’s spanking their child and threaten to do so again. That might mean that the parent couldn’t discipline her child in the way she thought would be best for him. If I can’t justify my belief that it is wrong to spank children, how can I justify my intervention?

Posted: September 15th 2011

bitbutter www

As far as I’m aware, there’s no sound theoretical support for the idea that moral facts exist. The things that we call moral decisions, like any other kind of decisions, are decisions made in accordance with the actor’s subjective preferences (for instance, an actor may prefer to minimise suffering). I wouldn’t use the word 'justifed’ in this context though, I think 'explained’ is a better fit.

The conern about justification may have to do with a worry that without a conviction that moral facts exist, and that are discoverable, moral persuasion becomes impossible.

But that’s not the case. Moral persuasion always relies on appealing to shared convictions about the answers to moral questions. It doesn’t matter whether these convictions are a 'mere’ preference, or reflections of a truth written into the fabric of the universe—either your interlocutor shares them or he doesn’t. To the extent that he does, moral persuasion is possible.

For instance, in the case of the spanking parent, an attempt at persuasion may be 'bootstrapped’ by appealing—probably implicitly—to the agreement between you that the goal of minimising suffering is desirable. You might then go about trying to show that spanking is likely to work against this goal.

Posted: October 2nd 2011

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Mike the Infidel www

If you’re convinced that you can’t justify your belief that an action is right or wrong, I highly doubt you’d care about justifying your actions to someone else. If you could do that… then you’d be able to justify your belief that an action is right or wrong. It’s sort of a tautology.

Posted: October 1st 2011

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Galen Rose www

You seem to be suggesting that any workable moral system must be based on some “higher power,” some absolute, like a god. While many say they believe this, almost no one acts that way.

The Bible is touted by the Abrahamic religions as the “Word of God,” so one might expect it to be the ultimate in moral teaching. However, the Bible commands the death penalty for homosexuality, adultery, disobedient sons, non-virginal brides, and people who work on Sunday. We humans know better. None of those are even crimes in modern Western nations, let alone capital crimes. And the religious are not trying to make them crimes either.

Our morality appears to arise from a combination of evolutionary hardwiring and social agreements and this seems to work just fine, without gods.

You might reflect on the fact that not knowing right from wrong is so rare it’s considered a mentally altered state and a legal defense in criminal cases. Clearly, we all generally agree on the most important issues of right and wrong – no religion necessary.

Posted: October 1st 2011

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SmartLX www

Morals do not have to exist as absolute, ethereal entities independent of human beings to have any worth. Indeed, if morals do exist as imagined by the religious, we have no way to truly know what they are.

Justifying something as absolutely, incontrovertibly “wrong” may be impossible if you and your audience don’t share a belief in a specific moral absolute. However, it’s relatively simple to establish that various acts are harmful, unproductive, unsympathetic, greedy, malicious, sadistic, deceptive, misguided or just mean. These are all words with near-universally accepted definitions, and a near-universal consensus that acts which fit these descriptions are to be avoided and prevented to keep to the social contract between us all.

Basing a moral judgement on these more practical descriptors will be effective unless you’re dealing someone who doesn’t care if their acts are “wrong”, and therefore they’re just as effective as straightforwardly going on “right” and “wrong”.

Posted: October 1st 2011

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