Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

What does it mean that something is right or wrong?

  1. May 10, 2009 #1
    If those who say that ethics is subjective mean by this that when
    I say that cruelty to animals is wrong I am really only
    saying that I disapprove of cruelty to animals, they are faced
    with an aggravated form of one of the difficulties of relativism:
    the inability to account for ethical disagreement. What was true
    for the relativist of disagreement between people from different
    societies is for the subjectivist true of disagreement between any
    two people. I say cruelty to animals is wrong: someone else
    says it is not wrong. If this means that I disapprove of cruelty
    to animals and someone else does not, both statements may be
    true and so there is nothing to argue about, and the whole field of
    ethics is dead, because there is no room for reason or argument.

    So what does it mean that something is right or wrong?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 10, 2009 #2
    If both persons agree that ethics/morals are subjective then there is room to persuade. I also find that discussion/argument is often more a means of exploring and refining one's own beliefs than for the purpose of persuasion.
  4. May 10, 2009 #3
    The purpose of discussion and argument is, obviously, to force my morals on all of you!
  5. May 10, 2009 #4


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Are you not forgetting that "cruelty to animals" is a particular truth, and would have to be seen to follow from some more general truth?

    So the discussants would have to step back to see if they arguing for different local outcomes based on similar global assumptions. Or if they indeed hold to different general truths too. Which is usually where you would expect one to be exposed as illogical, not following some reasoned path.
  6. May 10, 2009 #5
    It's an exchange of viewpoints for each to consider.

    The way you phrased your thoughts makes me think you may be interested in understanding a zen perspective. This is a small piece from the Wiki article on zen. The field of ethics isn't necessarily dead. It just becomes internalized, and requires a different philosophy to understand this particular viewpoint.

  7. May 10, 2009 #6
    Its all about effect. If abusing animals has an over all detrimental effect on a given group of people for whatever reason, than yes it is wrong. If it has a positive effect (for example some odd or rediculous scenario in which it is the only way to achieve some necessary goal) than it may not be wrong, however there may be other methods of achieving the same effect that do not involve harming an animal, something that in itself could have its own detrimental side effects.
  8. May 10, 2009 #7
    0 and 1.

    Unfortunately when it comes to human interaction both of those concepts cease to exist. There are no absolutes. It's this very reason why we develop values, morals, ethics, and law. We make agreements amongst ourselves (which are ever changing and different depending on where you go) on how to judge actions. Does that make it right or wrong? Of course not, it just makes it universally (locally! lol) agreeable.
  9. May 10, 2009 #8
    Agreed. As i meant to imply with my previous post, this concept of right and wrong as absolutes is just wrong.
  10. May 13, 2009 #9
    By what (absolute) standard do you determine that no absolute standards exist?

    The moral relativist/nihilist is immediately faced with several unsolvable problems, such as since the Nazi culture thought Hitler and the Holocaust was morally virtuous, it is wrong to say that the Holocaust was evil or do object to genocide or the fact that you are implicitly positing an objective standard of behavior (you ought to think moral relativism/nihilism is valid by the standard of, say, reason) at the same time as explicitly rejecting the existence of any objective standard of behavior (stolen concept fallacy) and so on.
  11. May 13, 2009 #10
    Do you honestly don't see the contradiction here? :tongue:
  12. May 13, 2009 #11
    The holocaust was wrong from our point of view, but it was not wrong from the nazi point of view. This is actually an argument for relativism rather than against it - if there were absolute morals then the nazis wouldnt have believed that what they were doing was right. What possible absolute moral laws would there be, and where would they come from? I don't think the people in this thread are claiming that there can't be an absolute standard of reason, just there there aren't God given moral laws.
  13. May 13, 2009 #12
    Moral relativism and nihilism are two different things though they both agree to disagree with moral absolutism.
    The nihilist would not believe that the Nazis were virtuous because they themselves believed that they were virtuous. The nihilist believes that no one is virtuous.
    The relativist believes that the Nazis may have held to some standard of morality of their own. Nothing in moral relativism says that standard must be accepted, which touches on the last bit of your post.
    Neither philosophy is proscriptive in any sense, they only offer a perspective through which to look at morals. There is no objective standard of behavior implied. In the case of the moral relativist there is often the fallascious argument made that because the relativist believes that others possess their own moral standard and the relativist recognizes differing moral standards as valid that the relativist must abide and accept those standards. But obviously, even by that argument, taken to its full conclusion the relativist's own moral standard is just as valid and they have just as much right to act upon it.

    Just because there may exist an absolute standard of moral behavior does not mean that all persons are privvy to it or choose to follow it even if they are. That is the eternal struggle of the moral absolutist; they and their like minded fellows are the only ones who know what is right.
  14. May 13, 2009 #13

    It is wrong to write that I was wrong for writing that the concepts of right and wrong are just plain wrong. When I write right and wrong are just plain wrong, the first "wrong", that is the wrong on the left, and the second "wrong", that is the wrong on the right, have two separate meanings. There is no contradiction, just word play.

    So yes, I do don't see the contradiction here.
  15. May 13, 2009 #14
    I believe there is a definite right and a definite wrong. And it means what I decide it to mean. And I'm 100% right about all of my decisions. If you don't believe me, just ask me.
  16. May 14, 2009 #15
    So you agree that a moral relativist or nihilist cannot ever attempt to rationally persuade someone of the validity of their position without directly undermining their own position?

    There certainly is. If I enter a rational debate with the intent of making you adopt moral relativism, I am implicitly making the prescriptive statement that it is objectively true "you ought to adopt moral relativism because of reason x, y, z". So they are implicitly accepting the position which they claim to be refuting. Similarly, If I say that all language is meaningless or that you cannot read, I have also denied or presupposed a position that I am actively trying to prove/refute.

    So the moment a relativist or nihilist tries to convince someone of the validity of their position, they must presuppose some form of moral realism.
  17. May 14, 2009 #16
    That position is contradiction. A statement cannot both be correct and incorrect at the same time, thus it is not possible that the Nazis could both be morally right and morally wrong. It is just as absurd as claiming that my cat is both a mammal and not a mammal. I am not a moral absolutism; I reject that position as equally absurd as moral relativism / moral nihilism. I subscribe to moral realism.

    I can give you an example of a statement that is objectively morally true: "You ought to prefer truth over falsehood". It is impossible to deny this statement without a contradiction; if you ought to prefer falsehood over truth, then you obviously cannot prefer it, since it is true and you ought to prefer falsehood.

    I can also make several objectively false moral claims, such as "all librarians ought to have their pay cut because all paper towels are pink elephants". All paper towels are not pink elephants and if they where, it is not at all clear why that should have any effect on librarians salary levels.

    True moral statements are derived from reason and empiricism, nothing magical.
  18. May 14, 2009 #17
    Moral relativism and nihilism are both perspectives on the subject of morals, they do not advocate any prefered set of morals. They do not attempt to prove or refute any set of morals. Each, after thier own fashion, simply refutes the idea that there are absolute or empiracally verifiable sets of morals. These are statements about morals not moral statements.
  19. May 15, 2009 #18
    The moment you start advocating either in a rational debate, you are asserting prescriptive statements.
  20. May 15, 2009 #19
    There is no contradiction in moral relativism. What you said is X can't be morally wrong and morally right at the same time. You assume here that morality is absolute. X can be morally wrong and morally right in a relative sense.
  21. May 15, 2009 #20
    But are they morally prescriptive or intellectually prescriptive? As I pointed out they make statements about morals not moral statements. Do you not see the difference?
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Similar Discussions: What does it mean that something is right or wrong?
  1. What does UFO mean? (Replies: 6)