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Are ethics universal?

PhilosophyPosted by David McDonagh Fri, August 29, 2014 12:43:46

The moral law is universal.

Many people seem to think that as all do not adopt the moral law then philosophers like Plato, or his epigone, Kant err on this hallmark of ethics that moral rules are universal. Many feel that cross cultural studies suggests to them that moral rules can vary from society to society. They also feel that the breaking of the moral law by theft or murder by some people in all societies also shows us that the philosophers badly err.

But neither supposed counter example is really germane, for the flouting of the moral law does not mean it is not universal, as universal here does not mean we have all adopted it, but rather that it applies to one and all by the moraliser. Ethics is about rules, not facts. A flouting of the formal or categorical moral rule is no more a refutation of it than is any schoolboy getting his sums wrong in boring mathematical lessons is a refutation of arithmetic.



  • Comments(2)

Posted by David McDonagh Mon, September 29, 2014 17:21:46

Thank you very much for your criticism, David.

I think the claim made by Plato and Kant was similar to one they would make about geometry and they did not consider what today we might, today, call non-Euclidian geometry. They seemed to assume one ethical set of rules that applied to one and all. I think they were right.

You seem to feel, David, that, as there seems to be room for any number of such rules, that the philosophers erred on ethics, but I do not that that follows. It seems to be enough that we are not likely to think about such abstract alternative ethical systems, ever, in any practical ethical sense. The moral law is nowhere near as extensive as is geometry.

So I think the ignorance of the philosophers of abstract alternatives is not really germane.

Note the slightly different claim that they seemed to make that did not so much relate to abstract alternatives or to completing moral systems viz. that all actual moralising was universal, anyway, so to moralise we are always on about all people, even if we fit no abstract moral law. But, yes, I think they held there was just one moral law on the analogy of there being only one geometry. I agree that they were ignorant about geometry but not that they, thereby, erred in ethics, but only on the status of Euclid.

Plato’s analogy with geometry, that many others adopted between Plato’s time and ours, not only Kant, puts moral values as removed from what is right as mere beliefs are from the actual facts.

There seems to be no alternative to mere assumption when it comes to deciding or to choice. What there is out there is one thing [i.e. metaphysics] and how we can know of it [i.e. epistemology] is another. They relate as loosely as what there is and what we ought to do.


Posted by David Ramsay Steele Sun, September 28, 2014 19:38:45

I sympathize with the thrust of this argument, but I'm not completely convinced by what it is naturally taken to imply. I think the problem can be highlighted by asking: 'Suppose that there are two or more universal systems of ethical rules which are all mutually contradictory, how do we choose among them? Or, more pointedly, is there a rule for choosing among them, and if so, can we demonstrate that this is the only correct or only possible rule?'

When we ponder this question, it becomes clear that what McD is saying is that a system of ethical rules can be universal (it can be universal in its application), but of course it is just one among an infinity of such systems, all mutually contradictory. And no doubt this is what the 'ethical relativists' are getting at, even though they usually phrase it differently. (The relativist argument would actually be just as strong or weak even if everyone agreed on all ethical rules, just as the claim that what we take to be the real world is illusory would be just as strong or weak even if there were no such things as hallucinations or optical illusions.)