Moral philosophy or ethics is the discipline that is concerned with what is morally good and bad, and morally right and wrong. This term can also be applied to any theory of moral values or principles. How should we act? Is it right to be dishonest in good cause? Morality describes the principles that govern the answers to these kinds of questions, and thus our behavior, character, and how we interact with one another in society today. This being said, it is clear that our beliefs are critical to our moral behavior. Due to variance in our beliefs, many philosophers debate whether or not there are universal moral facts– “universal” meaning objectively true, and “objectively true” meaning truths that do not depend on anyone’s particular beliefs, opinions, or preferences. The belief that there are at least some moral ideas that refer to something objectively real and true is known as moral realism. Therefore, the belief that moral ideas do not refer to anything objectively true is known as moral anti-realism. The validity of both realism and anti-realism are contingent upon their supporting theories, theses, and evidence presented by those philosophers who agree with or create these. With a plethora of theories and philosophers supporting both sides of this debate, it is unclear whether or not we should believe objective moral truths exist. So, I will lay out the arguments for Ethical Naturalism and Intuitionism on behalf of realism, followed by the arguments for Sentimentalism and Nietzche supporting anti-realism.
Ethical Naturalism or Utilitarianism is the view that moral claims are objectively true and reduced to statements about some intrinsically good, measurable, natural fact. “Utilitarians believe that the purpose of morality is to make life better by increasing the amount of good things (such as pleasure and happiness) in the world and decreasing the amount of bad things (such as pain and unhappiness)” (“Utilitarianism, Act, and Rule | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy”). Thus, the morally right or wrong action is dependent on the amount of good or bad it creates, making it measurable and thus objective. Philosopher, Jeremy Bentham argues in favor of ethical naturalism in his essay Introduction to the Principle and Morals of Legislation. Bentham begins with “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure” (Bentham, 1). From this, we see that for Bentham, pleasure, and pain serve as explanations for action and define one’s good. Throughout his essay, Bentham provides evidence to support his main argument that human decisions and existing ethics trace back to the search for pleasure and that good must mean pleasure. Bentham supports this stance with the argument that good and desired things are always pleasant. He continues with the case that people wrongly associate pleasure with lower pleasures such as eating and often forget about higher pleasures such as reading, which are equally pleasurable. Bentham also uses the practice of asceticism to elucidate that although this lifestyle may require abstinence from sensual pleasures, the purpose of abstinence is to achieve spiritual pleasures. Therefore, all actions are derived from the hope to achieve direct or indirect pleasure. This being said, ethical naturalism has been criticized most prominently by philosopher, G.E. Moore. Moore’s criticisms are based on ethical naturalism failing to prove that “good” simply means “pleasure.” Instead, Moore suggests instead that the meaning of the word “good” is simply intuited as described by the Intuitionism thesis.
Intuitionism is a moral realist thesis that elucidates there are objective moral truths, that these truths cannot be broken down, and humans are capable of discovering these truths (“BBC – Ethics – Introduction to Ethics: Intuitionism”). Specifically, this thesis says that our awareness of value or knowledge of evaluative facts forms the basis of our ethical knowledge. Philosopher, G.E. Moore provides evidence for Intuitionism with his writing on goodness and consequently moral truth being indefinable (unable to break down). In Principia Ethica, Moore explains that “goodness is a simple, undefinable, non-natural property” (Moore and Baldwin). Moore describes how goodness exists in its own basic, autonomous form, is not reducible to its constituent parts, and is therefore only definable or evaluated through its terms– moral, non-natural ones. Put simply, “good” cannot be defined as it is instead simply intuited. Moore uses what he calls the “Naturalistic Fallacy” and the “Open-Question Argument” to provide evidence for the impossibility to describe the term good (or any equivalent term) using natural, scientific and metaphysical statements. The Naturalistic Fallacy provides us with “x is good” is equivalent to “x is pleasure” shows us that “good is good” is not equivalent to “good is a pleasure.” The open-question argument turns any proposed definition of good into a question, for example, “good means pleasurable” becomes “is everything pleasurable good?” “Moore’s point being the proposed definition cannot be correct because if it were the question would be meaningless (“Naturalistic Fallacy | Ethics | Britannica”).” This being said, some negative consequences result from the open-question argument.
The open-question argument confirms little for Moore’s point that good cannot be defined. It seems that almost any definition might fail when put through the open question test. Take for instance the definition of yellow. No matter what you say about yellow it will not match exactly what yellowness is. Moore tells us that this is due to the simple, basic nature of yellowness that it shares with goodness; however, any definition can suffer this fate of deficiency. Alongside criticisms of the open question argument, one could argue against the idea of intuitionism with the claim that there is no way for a person to distinguish between something being right and seeming right to that person. Thus, if intuitionism worked properly, everyone would surely come to the same moral conclusions, unfortunately, this is not the case.
Unlike Intuitionism, Sentimentalism is an anti-realist theory in which everyone is not expected to come to the same moral conclusions since morals are just feelings. To be specific, ethical decisions lie purely in our emotional reactions to events, facts are therefore neutral, and moral judgments are not produced by understanding. Philosopher, David Hume analyzes the ideas of sentimentalism in his essay Of the Influencing Motives of the Will and Moral Distinctions Not Derived from Reason. Throughout the essay, Hume demonstrates that reason alone is limited in its uses and therefore, reason never gets to right and wrong. Hume analyzes this by explaining that reason can only calculate facts, and an analysis of facts does not by itself disclose any moral right or wrong. Hume also explains that feelings, desires, and preferences are never “contrary to reason.” Thus, we cannot be criticized rationally for our desires because as Hume remarks, it is “not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger” (Shafer-Landau). Furthermore, desires cannot be evaluated as reasonable or unreasonable. Desires are ‘original existences’ that form in our minds and arise from natural causes. Thus, David Hume explains “nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse; and if this contrary impulse ever arises from reason, that latter faculty must have an original influence on the will, and must be able to cause, as well hinder, and the act of volition” (Shafer-Landau, 8). This quote explains that no amount of reasoning through facts can influence the will on its own. Furthermore, this idea coined “reasons internalism,” states that one needs feelings attached to facts and only another passion (emotion) can change one’s mind. In response to sentimentalism, the trolley problem and the fat man rendition of it could serve as a critique. People choose differently between the two scenarios due to morally irrelevant factors, despite them being the same moral dilemma.
Exceptionally different from Hume, Friedrich Nietzche was a German, anti-realist philosopher. He believed moral realism is false since actions and events are meaningless. To support his beliefs, Nietzche proposed three theories: nihilism, perspectivism, and will to power. Nihilism states that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated because the universe is a blank canvas. Nietzche cohesively states this idea as “[the universe] is neither perfect nor beautiful, nor noble, nor does it wish to become any of these things” from his works in The Gay Science (Nietzche). Furthermore, perspectivism says all truth claims are contingent on the product of a person’s perspective and we project meanings to serve our self-interests. The will-to-power theory explained by Nietzche is the idea that historical groups take control of the way the universe and actions are described. Moreover, morality just comes about when a group temporarily seizes power and narrates human activities in a way that increases their power and influence.
In conclusion, it seems the debate over universal moral facts will continue as there is not yet a concrete theory to prove one side or the other. The validity of both realism and anti-realism are contingent upon their supporting theories, theses, and evidence presented by those philosophers who agree with or create these. Ethical Naturalism and Jeremy Bentham’s coinciding arguments of pain and pleasure seem to have more validity than its counter moral realist theory, Intuitionism. This is due to the only major criticism of Bentham’s pleasure and pain being G.E. Moore’s stance that Ethical Naturalism failed to prove “good” simply means “pleasure.” Furthermore, upon evaluating the validity of Intuitionism and G.E. Moore’s arguments it was apparent that the open-argument test had its issues in confirming that good could not be defined. Therefore discrediting Ethical Naturalism’s equivalating of good and pleasure seems to be void. Sentimentalism, on the other hand, seemed more probable than its counter-moral anti-realist theory presented by Nietzche. Though Nietzche’s theory may be difficult to refute, sentimentalism is a more realistic and understandable theory in my opinion.