When it comes to value theory (ethics and aesthetics) one has a binary choice. Either such value judgments as "This is good/bad" or "That is beautiful/not beautiful" are true or they are not. But clearly they aren't facts in the sense that "Water freezes at 32F/0C" is a fact or "My microwave oven is to the left of my refrigerator" are facts. They aren't facts about the world of things. Clearly, they express opinions. Whatever truth applies to them is the truth of whether or not you really believe what you are saying.

So, how can an opinion become a fact? The only way the ingenuity of man has ever come up with is that there must be some standard or standard-setter independent of the world of stuff and things according to which such statements become factual.

Throughout most of recorded history, the guarantor has been a deity. What is true is what accords with his mind.

We skeptics and free thinkers typically don't believe in deities which means they come up short when trying to claim that an ethical or aesthetic judgment qualifies as factual.



In the clip above, Richard Dawkins was asked how, without making the sort of leap of faith atheists are known to abhor, could there be moral certainty? After recounting many of the abhorrent things one finds in The Bible and Koran, he basically says that, by contrast with the past when such things were decided by scriptural authority and other nonsense, we today discuss and debate and reason and arrive at more rational and humane views.In other words, better opinions and attitudes. Notice, curiously, that he doesn't make any factual claims about ethics or morality. All he says, basically, is that today we're doing our opinions better than they used to in the past because today we have better intellectual tools and we leave religion out of the pictures.

But, of course, even that view is an opinion and not a fact.

And yet, such views as we arrive at by such methods are still not absolutes just as science knows no absolutes other than very basic facts and measurements. No matter how established a theory or law is, it's never out of bounds to question whether it is true or precisely enough stated, and in that sense they really are not facts. Unlike facts, theories and laws are attempts at description. Even if they work every time and in every way possible so far, and even if we treat them much like facts, they are still tentative.

Consensus or majority vote doesn't establish certainty any more than rolling one's eyes at something we disagree with proves it is false.

People believe what people in their day believe, or to be a bit more precise, people tend to believe pretty close to what those in their social or intellectual circle believe. That's the way it is and the way it's always been, and it's obviously true. People in the United States are far more likely to be Christian than Hindu whereas in India the opposite is the case, to take an obvious example.

This is why ethical judgments, just like aesthetic ones, are not factual, much as we may agree with them, and much as we may want them to be true. They are beliefs, attitudes, and opinions which are compelling, and sometimes compelling enough for people to act on, whether the action might be an act of heroism or an act of condemnation. This is what ethics actually amounts to. It involves caring about a belief, attitude, or opinion enough to treat it AS THOUGH it's a fact and feel a need to act upon it.

This may be distressing enough, but it becomes really distressing for many of us when we realize that things we believe in our heart of hearts to be true are still basically just beliefs, attitudes, or opinions. They may be better informed and supported than those other persons or groups hold—and they are comforting (or distressing)—but not even that makes them true, and certainly not absolutely true.

Do slavery, lynchings, The Holocaust have to be absolutely and objectively wrong to be abhorrent to us? No! The concept of a fact is really poorly crafted to be applied to morality and ethics. And thinking they have to be absolutely and objectively wrong rather than abhorrent and disgusting is a kind of category error, which tricks us into wishing for absolutism.

However, even perfect objectivity can't turn an opinion into a fact. That may be distressing and depressing, but it's good to know.

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As I say from time to time, to be of any value at all, solutions to ethical problems should be simple and easily understood and should not require redefinitions, lengthy explanations, hair-splitting and so on. 

Any infantile approach to a difficult problem solving will usually end up on the New York Times Best Seller List of Non-fiction. I can give you the link. You will find all of the "easy to understand even for kindergarten students" solutions you need  in most of those book. I believe Dr. Seusse also offers some marvelous treatments of moral dilemmas and it also comes with the most wonderful illustrations and really fun poetry.

So, if an answer is simple and obvious, it must be wrong. You talk as if plain language answers to plain language problems are necessarily suspicious.

Sometimes simple answers are the best ones. Sometime's they are absolutely not. Only accepting or listening to simple answers will leave you with some knowledge, a lot of lost opportunities and a whole bunch of garble-garble-garble.

Another example of an interesting moral problem.

Imagine you are hiding from enemy soldiers in a basement, with several other people -- friends, family, neighbours. You can hear the soldiers walking overhead, and any sound will alert them to your presence, leading to everyone's death. In your arms is your infant child, who is about to cry. Do you hold your hand over his mouth, smothering him but saving everyone you are with, or do you let him cry, knowing that doing so will result in the death of not only the baby, but everyone in the basement? (How We Make Moral Decisions)

I guess there is no right or wrong answer. It all depends on someone's world view. Whatever we think the answer might be...we shouldn't judge someone who strangles the child, let's the child cry, gives the child a lollipop, eats the child for dinner or uses the child's decapitated head as a football (especially if they have a different world view). As atheists, we have to be relativists and try to understand these decisions instead of judging them through our own moral systems...even if our moral systems are rationally thought through and consistent. After all...who are we but small individuals on a ball of rock and magma circling an unimportant star...passing the time just being fragile little humans?

Well, you are faced with a choice of whether to kill directly and almost certainly vs a mere high possibility of several others dying. Once again, no moral system really comes to the rescue.

Once again, no moral system really comes to the rescue.

This is just pure laziness unseen. Of course moral systems have answer to this question. You just have to actually stop repeating your stupid mantra "no moral system really comes to the rescue" and actually explore a moral system or two. This is my advice:

1. Stop repeating this mantra "Once again, no moral system really comes to the rescue.". We have read this mantra of yours a dozen times.

2. Explore a moral system and see what it has to say about this question.

3. Tell us if you agree or disagree with the solution as well as the moral system.

You could ignore this though and continue what you are doing.

1. Repeat your mantra "Once again, no moral system really comes to the rescue."

2. Ignore every response to this mantra.

3. Repeat this mantra: "Once again, no moral system really comes to the rescue."

4. Pretend to read people's responses.

5. Repeat this mantra: "Once again, no moral system really comes to the rescue."

6. Skim the responses.

7. Repeat your other mantra: "Atheists have to be relativists".

8. Derp de derp derp derp

9. Repeat your mantra "Once again, no moral system really comes to the rescue."

I think that Kant's Categorical Imperative has some naturalness and usefulness after all.  Sometimes a motivating factor in behaving well is that the world would be a better place if everyone behaved like that, and we hope that we are going to encourage that behaviour in others. 

Note that Kant's system is not the only deontological system but the first to be well worked out. Personally it is not my preferred one. 

I'm going to read:

Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm

which is a deontological theory that actually deals with "permissible harm". It is an attempt to give justifications for making exceptions while still giving clear and consistent principles behind these justifications.

This is a review.

That looks interesting. 

I've been thinking about motivations to be moral for people who don't believe in God.  First we have to define what we mean by "moral".  I take it to mean living up to some pre-defined standard of "good", and not violating it.  This standard of good is something we have to choose because there's no objective way to get values of right and wrong from facts.  

I choose the standard of good expressed in Jesus' statement "love your neighbour as yourself", which I think is equivalent to "when you act, each person affected by your actions is to receive the maximum benefit and minimum harm available to them".  The justication for choosing this is that it's the standard that we think prevailed when our everyday moral standards first evolved in the time when humans and pre-humans lived on the savannah of Africa in small groups.  It was necessary to help your group-mates, and people you went hunting with, because you depended on them to help you survive.  

I was reading an article on Christian motivations to be good, and it repeatedly referred to a set of universal moral standards that we all instinctively feel.  I think it's true, there is such a standard, and it's the one that evolved when we lived in small groups.  That's why it's universal: all humans share this ancestry.  

Apparently what motivates Christians is that they're grateful for Jesus' sacrifice leading to believers receiving the grace of God.  We know different - we know this is a property of all living things since the dawn of evolution.  So they're grateful for the grace of God.  They love it.  

I realised that what motivates highly moral people is that they've been through a hard time earlier in life, caused by somebody not sticking to morality.  So the reason they're highly moral now is that they love goodness.  Without goodness, life tends to go wrong disastrously.  Even a small transgression can easily lead to very bad consequences.  The motivation for non-religious people to be good is that they love goodness in itself, they love how it takes care of life, and they are grateful to it. 

Ethical relativism is the theory that holds that morality is relative to the values of one's culture. That is, whether an action is right or wrong depends on the society in which it occurs. The same action may be morally right in one society but be morally wrong in another.

I don't sense a refutation of that in there anywhere.

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