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The Meaning of Morality

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The Concise Oxford Dictionary (p925) describes morality as: ‘1) Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour; a system of value and moral principles. 2) The extent to which an action is right or wrong’. What is morally right in relation to one moral framework can be morally wrong in relation to another, and unfortunately no one moral framework is the final word in true morality. We all live our lives by moral rules, the statement in the essay question states the relativist thesis about justification of out moral principles. This essay will look at the different approaches to morality.

Relativism and absolutism are theories which are concerned with morality and the justification of our moral judgements. Relativists believe that all moralities are equally valid, that there is no single true morality, and that there are many different moral frameworks, none of which are any more correct than the others. Relativism has been criticised quite heavily because it implies the validity even of the view that relativism is false, and because of such views they are undermining the act to try and improve the way in which we think. Moral rules, values, and beliefs, vary from society to society and relativists claim that even if our society see other societies values as ‘bad’, it is just as correct as our own values, they argue that even if something is wrong, as long as we thought it was right at the time then it was.

Few philosophers describe themselves as relativists, but some include, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Emile Durkheim. There are many different types of relativism. Two of these are individual relativism (subjectivism), and social relativism. Individual relativism makes the claim that individual humans are responsible for their morals, where as social relativism makes the claim that society decides what is right or wrong, i.e. we inherit our moral principles from our society. Both these theories have their problems. With individual relativism moral debate becomes impossible, because if you accept that the individual may be wrong, you cannot agree with individual relativism as according to this theory the individual cannot be wrong, also individuals could not improve or reform if they were to change their minds.

Bertrand Russell (1935) in his chapter on ‘Science and Ethics’, in his book ‘Religion and Science’, basically states that if two men have a disagreement about their values then they are not actually having a disagreement but simply a difference in taste, he moves on to say that this is so because it would be impossible to prove that this or that has inherent value, basically because there is not way to decide who is right in a difference of values it has to be a difference of tastes, not one of any objective truths.

With social relativism the problems are that there is no unanimity in society, how do you determine what society approves of? You can’t one hundred percent, and if you were to reach a majority vote, is the majority right? Anyone who disagrees has to be wrong by definition, it is extremely oppressive of the minorities and makes debate between societies impossible. The essay question is not precise enough to decide which of the two relativism’s it is talking about.

The idea of relativism is summed up by Durkheim (1905), he suggests that ‘the content of morality changes with the passing of time: each society has its own particular system which is never the same as that of another society. Nor is it possible to prove which set of morals is superior, for each seems to work well for the particular society in which it is found.’ (Durkheim: Essays on Morals and Education, p116).

The alternative to relativism is absolutism. Absolutists believe that there is a common standard of morality for all of us. They believe that some moral principles and values are right whether we accept them or not, in other words we do not have a choice they just are, for example that the square root of nine is three, we don’t question this because we know it just is. They believe that principles are universal. They also believe that if an act is morally wrong, then any act which is similar, must also be wrong. It seems to be the case that not a lot of philosophers agree with the theory of absolutism, but basic moral diversity is not a contradiction of moral absolutism. Where there are differences in societies cultures, there are usually differences in circumstance, and differences in culture are differences in circumstance which can and do effect moral right and wrong without involving moral relativism. Even when circumstances are basically the same, simple differences do not disprove absolutism.

Every one of us lives our lives by a certain set of moral principles, we have to be able to justify our moral principles. Justification is what deals with determining right action and appropriate beliefs. We can not have knowledge of a belief with out justification, but at the same time, we can be justified in believing something which is false, for example if someone were sitting in a room with no windows and they heard a weather report which said that it was raining in their area, we could say that belief was justified. Then lets say this person then heard what appeared to be rain outside, it may not in actual fact be raining, the sound could simply be a neighbour watering their garden, however this person does have a justified belief. Justification is usually just simply being able to give adequate reasons for a particular belief.

A problem with justification is being able to determine what counts as adequate reasons to provide justification. Also we like to make exceptions to our moral rules, for example lying, if a friend were to ask us if they looked nice, but they didn’t, we might say that they did and we would be able to justify this lie by stating the obvious fact that we didn’t want to hurt our friends feelings. Another problem with justification is that you can’t justify a moral conclusion from a set of facts, for example David Hume (1711-76) states ‘no ought from an is’ (A treatise of human nature, BkIII, Pt 1, p469).

The process of reason giving for justification purposes can be viewed as argumentation in four forms, inductive, deductive, conclusive, and prima facie. Inductive and deductive justification requires evidence and logical evaluation. For conclusive justification reasons are analysed by asking if another rational human being would have the same belief if given the same reasons. Prima facie is giving several different reasons for believing something and then deducing which is the most important one.

In conclusion moral right and wrong is just a matter of opinion. Firstly relativism, it simply does’nt make sense to believe that all moralities are equally valid, for example the fact that we should be nice to people and the fact that we should not kill people are on hugely different scales. Individual relativism at first seems to be a likely theory because at the end of the day it is individual human beings that decide on their morals, some are inherited from our society, but at the end of the day we decide. But at the same time having said that individual relativism seems to be a likely theory, we all know that in actual fact the individual can be wrong, and people can reform if they change their minds. With social relativism you can never be one hundred percent sure if the majority of society is correct. As for absolutism there is a common standard of morality for most of us, but if we don’t accept a certain moral as true, for example the euthanasia debate, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are wrong or a morally bad person. The problem with justification is that most of us, whatever our moral beliefs, can justify why be believe what we do and how we behave, and whether or not other people agree with us, we seem to take the stand that as long as we can justify something to ourselves it is acceptable.

Which ever moral standing we take relativism or absolutism, as long as we believe in it then it makes it right. But after researching them I conclude that they both have their pro’s and con’s and neither of the standpoints seem to be more right than the other, so I stand by my original conclusion that moral right and wrong are simply a matter or opinion.

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