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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They aren't the answers you want to hear. The answers that will reassure what you already think is right.

In other words, no moral system is absolute, it's relative. If considered at all, it would just be something to consider and would only be a factor in any final decision.

If considered at all, it would just be something to consider and would only be a factor in any final decision.

Sigh

Whether or not Unseen takes any of this in, I think this is a very clear explanation. +1

Very funny, but still leaves ethical dilemmas as being over differences in attitudes not differences over facts. If I seem to ignore your points it's because they don't directly address that assertion.

Taking abortion, for example, both sides will stipulate to the purely measurable biological facts, their differences are over the different stipulations they make which go back to their attitudes. When life begins (for the purpose of their argument) is definitional and not factual and reflects the attitudes of those involved. 

"moral systems fail us when we need them the most"  - in itself, I think this is a true statement.  The harder the problem, the more it taxes the moral faculties.  The more desperate the situation, the more we need a solution. 

@ Davis Goodman - If a moral system is worth anything, then you rely on that moral system all the time for almost all of your decisions. There is no time where you need that moral system "more than any other time" let alone when you need it the most, unless within that moral system, it is defined which moral problems require more delicacy or that it is imperative that the right decision is made at that time.

How much do I need my moral system when making brownies? The same as when I see someone drop a $100 bill and have to choose whether to pick it up and give it to them, pick it up and keep it, or walk away?

I don't think so. 

How much do I need my moral system when making brownies? The same as when I see someone drop a $100 bill and have to choose whether to pick it up and give it to them, pick it up and keep it, or walk away?

That's just your own idiosyncratic moral system talking (or your quasi-culturally-situated-moral-system talking). Tell me why your $100 bill is more urgent a dilemma than adding chocolate chips or not to brownies...without speaking through your own personal moral system. Explain...in a detached objective way how one problem is more important than another. You can't.

So you basically want some external moral system to satisfy "important dilemmas" based on your idiosyncratic moral system...or bust.

LOL

I don't think so. 

I know that you can think if you try hard enough.

Tell me why your $100 bill is more urgent a dilemma than adding chocolate chips or not to brownies

Tell me why it's not. If I see someone drop $100 and I keep it, I'm injuring him, am I not?

That's just a consequentialist or utiliarianist moral view. I'm asking you to explain this objectively.

So, the impact of one's actions on others should have no role in an ethical system, at risk of being accused on consequentialism or utilitarianism?

So, the impact of one's actions on others should have no role in an ethical system, at risk of being accused on consequentialism or utilitarianism?

Oh the impact one's action has on others plays a role in the majority of moral systems. But unseen...you know that is not at all relevant to what I was saying. Pay attention.

I'll put it more clearly then. Tell me why the $100 bill question is more important than the brownies question without relying on, referring to or referencing a moral system. Remember this is a meta-ethical question (as is the topic of this conversation that you just started). Good luck.

In the normal sense, making brownies is morally neutral, whereas the $100 bill rightfully belongs to the person who dropped it, and it's a moral issue. 

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