On what criteria does a person choose between normative systems of ethics?

Atheism doesn’t necessarily imply ethical relativism. But when a person chooses to subscribe to a normative system of ethics (eg. utilitarianism or egoism) what criteria do they use to make that choice?

Posted: December 17th 2007

George Locke

My answer to this question, What gives 'law’ its authority, is related. In it, I claim that moral relativism is not a necessary consequence of atheism, and I make specific reference to utilitarianism. I won’t repeat what I’ve already written, but what I write here applies equally there and vice versa. I think this response is closer to the truth, though.

My basic point here is that the meaning of the term 'ethics’ is inseparable from the means by which humans arrive at it. One cannot take for granted a conflict nor even a distinction between 'absolute’ morality and 'relative’ morality. No such conflict, no such distinction exists. The reason there is no conflict is that there is no absolute morality. Without known, existent absolutes for comparison, the supposedly essential relativeness of 'moral relativism’ is revealed as meaningless, a purely academic distinction, lacking substance. Inasmuch as either exists, relative and absolute morality are both products of the natural world and contingent.

(Some may think the above statement is improper, an absolute statement that there can be no absolute statements. No. All I’m saying is that the absence of unanimously accepted moral standards renders the hypothetical existence of absolute standards moot for all practical purposes. Since humans will never agree on absolutes, all we can do is compromise.)

'Moral relativism’ is nothing but a slur that reactionaries use to complain that things aren’t the way they used to be, when men were men blah blah blah. What they vilify, the alternative to their fallacious golden age, is not the disbanding of human decency. It is acceptance of reality. This is perhaps an arrogant position, but the simple fact of human fallibility makes any person’s claim on 'absolutes’ utterly indefensible.

(Note that human fallibility follows directly from our bodies, which are subject to increasing entropy, so the only way to disprove fallibility is to miraculously suspend the second law of thermodynamics or miraculously suspend the reliance of belief on physical systems, in contradiction with all evidence.)

Furthermore, the slur is used to shove fascism under the rug. The materially relevant question is what the moral standards are and how to apply them, not whether the standards are 'absolute’ or 'relative’. By using the slur, fundamentalist hate-mongers tacitly propose that the morals they condone are in fact known to all, so that any who speak against them are either liars or half-wits.

Although I say this knowing that he is not to be trusted, Nietzsche provides us with at least one truth: morality is a bad concept.

Posted: December 24th 2007

See all questions answered by George Locke


This is a philosophical and psychological question more than one especially related to atheism, but I’ll tell you what I think.

I think the question is mostly nonsensical.

Basically, the problem with the question is that it results in a bit of a “chicken and egg” problem. AFAICT, the only possible way of evaluating a system of ethics is by using an ethical standard. In other words, you need to already have such a standard before you can evaluate such standards.

Then pretty much by definition, that standard that you are evaluating is not as good as your current standard, for if it wasn’t, you’d adopt that other standard.

This is really just a long-way of me saying that I don’t think people choose a system of ethics, people have a system of ethics.

Posted: December 18th 2007

See all questions answered by Eric_PK

flagellant www

It would need considerable empirical research to give the general answer apparently required. However, survey questions of the type 'What criteria do/did you use to subscribe to your ethical system?’, addressed to a stratified sample of a given population would be unlikely to elicit sensible replies, no matter how carefully the questions were phrased. General incomprehension might be the result.

It might be more fruitful to address the question to a group of moral philosophers, a group who would unfortunately be bound to skew the investigation. (I mean, how many honest philosophers do you know?) However, here’s my own, individual, approach.

As a student, I was very much taken with what Kant considered to be a truly moral act. He maintained that moral acts could only be performed disinterestedly, i.e. that they should be done because they were the right thing to do, irrespective of the consequences, how it made one feel, and how other people judged the action. While this disinterestedness provided an interesting criterion, one had to conclude that, using Kant’s analysis, a truly moral act was impossible.

I have been faced with many ethical decisions so far but few of them have offered a serious moral dilemma. Such major choices as there have been were made in the light of Kant’s observation, trying to take a disinterested view. The majority, though, were made according to the circumstances at the time; they were not decided according to a specific moral system. It is rather that each moral choice was made by considering a range of factors. To this extent, my personal ethics are eclectic, rational, and often ab initio.

It is only comparatively recently that the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive systems has been formally made. As far as I know, only moral philosophers would describe themselves as belonging to a particular school of ethics and that would probably only apply academically. I cannot speculate on what their criteria for subscribing to a particular school would be. Other than academically, I would expect them to have an empirical, rational approach.

So, it’s back to the survey of atheist philosophers, is it?

Posted: December 18th 2007

See all questions answered by flagellant


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