What does it mean that something is right or wrong?

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  • #1
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Main Question or Discussion Point

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?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #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.
 
  • #3
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The purpose of discussion and argument is, obviously, to force my morals on all of you!
 
  • #4
apeiron
Gold Member
2,013
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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.
 
  • #5
459
7
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?
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.

In distinction to many other Buddhist sects, Zen de-emphasizes reliance on religious texts and verbal discourse on metaphysical questions. Zen holds that these things lead the practitioner to seek external answers, rather than searching within themselves for the direct intuitive apperception of Buddha-nature. This search within goes under various terms such as “introspection,” “a backward step,” “turning-about,” or “turning the eye inward.”

In this sense, Zen, as a means to deepen the practice and in contrast to many other religions, could be seen as fiercely anti-philosophical, iconoclastic, anti-prescriptive and anti-theoretical. The importance of Zen's non-reliance on written words is often misunderstood as being against the use of words. However, Zen is deeply rooted in both the scriptural teachings of the Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama and in Mahāyāna Buddhist thought and philosophy
 
  • #6
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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.
 
  • #7
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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.
 
  • #8
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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.
Agreed. As i meant to imply with my previous post, this concept of right and wrong as absolutes is just wrong.
 
  • #9
664
3
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.
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.
 
  • #10
664
3
Agreed. As i meant to imply with my previous post, this concept of right and wrong as absolutes is just wrong.
Do you honestly don't see the contradiction here? :tongue:
 
  • #11
647
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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.
 
  • #12
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.
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.

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.
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.
 
  • #13
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Do you honestly don't see the contradiction here? :tongue:
-_-

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.
 
  • #14
drankin
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.
 
  • #15
664
3
Neither philosophy is proscriptive in any sense, they only offer a perspective through which to look at morals.
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 is no objective standard of behavior implied.
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.
 
  • #16
664
3
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.
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.
 
  • #17
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.
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.
 
  • #18
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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.
The moment you start advocating either in a rational debate, you are asserting prescriptive statements.
 
  • #19
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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.
 
  • #20
The moment you start advocating either in a rational debate, you are asserting prescriptive statements.
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?
 
  • #21
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I think perhaps the point of Moral Relativism may be being missed-- as a moral relativist, I attempt to avoid judging the actions of others as "good" or "evil", but instead as "stuff I agree or disagree with".

As an example, take Osama Bin Laden. I disagree with his actions, and I'd do what I can to attempt to prevent him from taking those actions with which I disagree, largely because I disagree with them to an overwhelmingly large extent. However, I don't hold that he's an evil person. George Bush, on the other hand, believing in an absolute set of morals, holds that Bin Laden is necessarily evil.

Ultimately, morality is the groundwork for society. If you were living all by yourself with no other living organisms around, you wouldn't have a need for morality. But as soon as you get another living being, a need for morality becomes apparent, as your relationship with other beings acquires definition. Usually this results in a common set of morals by which everyone in the society generally agrees with. The less agreement there is with regard to common morality, the weaker that society becomes, and visa versa.

Hence, morality is a fundamental tool of society, and is conceived of in individual terms in conjunction with the surrounding society. They effectively act as "the law" without generally requiring to be written definitively. The details will differ between individuals within the same society to a small extent, and will likely differ more largely between different societies.

To ascribe universality to morality or ethics is simply silly. Relative morality, however unpopular, appears to be an accurate conception of how morality functions. It DOESN'T mean, however, that we ought to ignore the actions of those who are "evil", simply because they may be "good" by their own set of morals. It means that we must avoid justifying our actions by our own moral valuation.

DaveE
 
  • #22
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Can one be utilitarian and moral relativist at the same time?
 
  • #23
176
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To ascribe universality to morality or ethics is simply silly. Relative morality, however unpopular, appears to be an accurate conception of how morality functions. It DOESN'T mean, however, that we ought to ignore the actions of those who are "evil", simply because they may be "good" by their own set of morals.
It means that we don't have to, because morals are relative after all. It means that I don't have to help someone in jeopardy.
 
  • #24
Can one be utilitarian and moral relativist at the same time?
From wiki..
In philosophy moral relativism is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances.
As far as I can tell the basics of utilitarianism are compatible. The differences between the realism camp and relativism camp are not so great. The primary difference being that one sees the rule of measure as objective and the other subjective. Both would seem to agree that circumstances can alter the outcome of a moral proposition.

Edit: Your not unreasonable desire to believe in or discover moral truths seems to make you lean towards realism. Personally I prefer to remain agnostic.
 
  • #25
It means that we don't have to, because morals are relative after all. It means that I don't have to help someone in jeopardy.
Well I've only gotta stay black and die. ;-p

Relativism only means there is no certainty of moral rightousness. That you only can do the best you can with what you've got.
 

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