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>> September 26, 2022 - A “quick” guide to moral theories

Hi. Today we’re learning all about moral theories, which try to answer questions like these and more:

1. Where do morals come from?
2. Are there universal morals that apply to all people and all actions, totally outside of humanity’s control?
3. How is religion involved in morality?
4. Is morality a social construct?

It’s kind of hard to explain without explaining the theories, honestly, and this will start making more sense after you learn about the theories. I’ll give you the name, the idea of the theory, a few examples, arguments for and against it, and some sources for your own reading.

First is the easiest to understand theory - moral absolutism.

Moral absolutism claims that there are actions which are universally good or bad, regardless of culture.

This theory is closely tied with religion, mainly because religions usually include a set of morals. For a moment, assume that Christianity is 100% true (but people still hold the same beliefs that they do now) for the sake of this example. Sex before marriage, according to Christianity, is absolutely immoral. It doesn’t matter if someone is a member of another religion, or even has no religion - if they have sex before marriage, they are committing an immoral action. Someone’s religious standing has no impact on whether the action is moral or not, because in the end, God said that sex before marriage is immoral, and there is no way to get around that or to change it. This contrasts moral relativism, which will be discussed next. Keep this example in mind!

This theory isn’t always associated with religion, by the way! An argument has been made that morals are actually scientifically real and able to be proven and found. A philosopher called Sam Harris claims that actions that lead to human flourishing are objectively moral, and that actions such as beating children objectively increase human suffering. Read the transcript of his Ted video for an overview - it’s hard to briefly explain.

The flaws with absolutism are that:

1. Religion has not and likely will not be proven to be true any time soon. Religious absolutists will struggle to prove their point to nonbelievers.
2. This one isn’t an actual flaw with absolutism, and more with search engines, but it is borderline impossible to find nonreligious arguments for moral absolutism outside of Sam Harris’. If you don’t like his argument but still think moral absolutism is correct, good luck proving it to others easily. Please send me more nonreligious arguments for moral absolutism if you manage to find them.

For your own reading:

1. Video: Science can answer moral questions | Sam Harris
Transcript: here (The video is here too, but it doesn’t seem to load)

Second, let’s look at moral relativism, which is a moral theory that claims that right and wrong is decided by person, culture, or some other third factor. An example of this: in the United States, it is seen as absolutely necessary to tip waiters. In other countries, such as Japan, tipping is seen as disrespectful, and implies that you thought the waiter was giving good service just for the tip! These places have totally opposite views, but only one view is moral while you’re in the country. Another great example of this is religion (yes, again. I’m sorry). What is seen as moral when someone is a Christian versus Muslim varies wildly.

However, a major flaw with moral relativism is that if someone thinks that it is morally correct to follow the current etiquette, they then are actually being moral absolutists. How? The underlying moral that leads them to tip in the US and not in Japan is something along the lines of “I must follow the etiquette of this culture”. I explain this kind of badly - go to the first referenced article to understand this better.

For your own reading:

1. The Maze of Moral Relavivism
2. The Challenge of Cultural Relativism
3. Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict

Lastly, there is moral nihilism. Unsurprisingly, moral nihilism is the total opposite of absolutism, and is a theory that claims that there are no actual morals at all. According to this theory, morals are simply a social construct, just like weekdays and marriage. They may be useful, but they’re not actually real! This means that saving a cat from a fire is not actually good - it means nothing. Abusing a child means nothing. Torturing someone has the same moral value as dropping a pencil - absolutely nothing.

A strong argument for moral nihilism can be made by comparing humanity to animals (because, of course, humans are animals)! It is not seen as immoral when a bird eats a worm, or when a snake swallows its food whole. No - this is simply the cycle of life. Without eating worms, the bird would die. Without eating mice, the snake would die. Their actions don’t have any inherent moral value, and neither does humanity’s actions. Humanity is not above the animal kingdom. We are a part of the animal kingdom, and thus, our actions are similarly lacking in moral value. This argument is lifted straight from William Lane Craig, who claims that if God is real, then moral absolutism is true, but if God isn’t real, moral nihilism is true.

Nonreligious people who had issues with the scientific theory of moral absolutism mentioned earlier might find this theory pleasing to them. Don’t settle so soon, though! There’s plenty of research to do on your own, and better arguments for all of these if you care to go looking.

For your own reading:

1. Debate: God & Morality: William Lane Craig vs Erik Wielenberg

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