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Why ethical realism is true

  1. May 14, 2009 #1
    Ethics are our theories on morals, and morals are what we should do. But why do we need ethics? The human being is a living organism, and we have to choose between life and death. Maintaining life depends on certain actions. It is the existence of life that gives rise to values, because it is only for living entities that things can be good or evil.

    Values express our relationship to things that benefit or hurt a living organism. To say that something is of value for an organism, is to say that it maintains the life of an organism. For instance, when we say that water is valuable for a plant, we are saying that water supports the life of the plant, which is an undisputable fact.

    Ethics therefore have a fundament in empiri. The sphere of values is therefore not separated logically from the sphere of facts. Normative considerations can therefore be derived from facts. Several specific sciences care about normative considerations. In medicine, for instance, prescribes those actions that should be carried out to maintain health. But for the decisions of the doctor to be vaild, they must be bassed on objective knowledge, facts about human nature though physiology, anatomi, etc. Ethics is therefore a normative science.

    A normatiive consideration is to say that we must act in a certain way to obtain a given target. A doctor should do X if he wants to cure his patient. In the same way, ethics are theories about what we should do to obtain Y. We therefore have to find what this target is that we want to obtain. What should we value more than anything? If we don't know this, we get a problemm motivating actions, solving conflicts, something Immanuel Kant knew perfectly well.

    Happiness is the ultimate goal. I have therefore proven that those actions that lead to less suffering and more happiness, relative to other choices, are the moral ones. Utilitarianism is true.

    It is important to note that this is not only about the consequence of the action for the external environment, but also for the very person that acts. Ethical theories are therefore objective.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 14, 2009 #2
    Described above is a classic objectivist defense of ethical realism.

    A nice, short article that describes this position is Sally and Cy: Morality in Action!. According to the definitions provided in that article, fact is something we know, value something we want to keep (and from the objectivist perspective, the functional equivalent to biological needs) and morality is simply that which we use to figure out how to fulfill our values using facts. Further details can be found in http://www.graveyardofthegods.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=19&t=4316 [Broken], for instance.

    A free online book that presents a similar, and compatible perspective, is Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics by Stefan Molyneux.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  4. May 14, 2009 #3
    Morality exists and is unique, because those who would argue otherwise would either have to reject logic itself or to agree that they are ok with murder or theft.
  5. May 14, 2009 #4
    So if I value health, It's immoral to eat chocolate?
  6. May 14, 2009 #5


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    If you value only health, at the exclusion of joy (or some similar quality of life that makes it worth being healthy).
  7. May 14, 2009 #6
    Isn't this rather a defence of moral relativism?
  8. May 14, 2009 #7
    I can say that I do not like murder and theft but at the same time reject that there is any universally intrinsic or empirically verifiable reason. I may simply say that it is through my subjective experience and perspective that I do not wish to see these things occur.
  9. May 14, 2009 #8
    How can you disagree after reading my post where I proved that moral realism is true?
  10. May 14, 2009 #9


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    I'm not totally sure whether you are being serious or not...

    ... but there's no proof in your post at all. It's a couple of assertions and some implicit assumptions.

    For example. You assert: "Happiness is the ultimate goal." There's no argument given for this. You apparently take it as axiomatic.

    There are also a whole pile of hidden assumptions in there as well, which make foolish the claim for "objectivity". Happiness for whom? Do you include animals in this? How is happiness defined? What is the happiness of a group? Do you maximize mean happiness? Or maximize the minimum level? What about transient happiness? Can happiness be negative, and if so, where's the zero point? For instance, is it good to kill someone who is alone and friendless and unhappy?

    Many of these are good questions worth examining... but in my opinion the simplistic assumption that there's some objective measure (which is never EVER defined in a way that allows objective comparison of the happiness metric for different circumstances in general) is a sure fire way to go off the rails from the start.

    Looking at the post just made me think of a recent article that some folks have been laughing about, in which someone tried to sounds all scientific and objective about prayer, with calculation of the optimal position and quantified claims for the percentage of "divine consciousness" that is absorbed or transmitted. See How Does Prayer Work. Your post strikes me as similarly futile in a claim for objectivity.

    I'm not meaning to be offensive. Just explaining why, in my view, you don't have anything even remotely like a proof in this thread.

    Cheers -- sylas
  11. May 14, 2009 #10
    I like honest replies, so don't worry, you didn't offend me.

    Happiness is the ultimate goal. And happiness for everybody of course, not only one person. Which person should that be? Me? You? There's no reason to differentiate, therefore animals the happiness of animals counts as well.

    And yes, it may be right to kill someone who is unhappy and friendless, if there's no hope that he will become happy.

    If your opinion is that suffering is better than happiness for a living being (in essence all that I asserted), all I can say is "that's unbelievable". Happiness is better than suffering, and therefore it's wrong to expose ourselves and other beings to unnecessary suffering. Objectively.
  12. May 14, 2009 #11
    Because I disagree with that post aswell. There are no universal values. Values are subjective. One man may value a life over freedom while another may see no value in life without freedom. Different people possess differing moral standards because they have differing values. Or would you presume to tell others what value they should place on things such as their own life and freedom?
  13. May 14, 2009 #12
    Universal values exist: happiness. Happiess is better than suffering for everyone.

    If a man values freedom, it is because freedom it makes him happy. Therefore, it does not matter if people value different things, because it all boils down to happiness.
  14. May 14, 2009 #13
    First, murder and theft are crimes by definition, while most people would agree murder and theft are wrong, they would not agree on what constitutes murder or theft.

    Second, there is nothing logical about morality. Morality is simply a set of rules, or premises, and in human beings they are largely a result of emotion and instinct.

    Defining a morality is good for social cohesion, but ideas about morality are just that, ideas. They have no more reality than a dream. You can't derive an ought from an is. No logic there at all, no matter how many logical back flips you do to try and justify... YOUR morality.
  15. May 14, 2009 #14
    Happiness is an empty word, it means something different to everyone.
    Happiness is subjective and does not necessarily mean 'no pain'.
    And freedom? Not everyone wants that either.
    Universals are fantasies.
  16. May 14, 2009 #15
    Happiness is just the carrot on the stick. The things that make one person happy could spell horror and tragedy for everyone else. I'm sure Osama Bin Laden feels perfectly justified in carrying out his plans to make the world a better place in his eyes, and it makes him happy to see his plans carried out. The pursuit of happiness is not intrinsically a moral or ethical activity.

    The key is whether one's personal approach to pursuing happiness aligns with and benefits the rest of society. If it doesn't then it's immoral.
  17. May 14, 2009 #16
    Crimes, so what? They are not wrong because they are crimes, they are wrong because they cause suffering.

    Yes you can. If happiness is good, then we ought to strive to obtain it.
  18. May 14, 2009 #17
    So you agree that moral realism is true?
  19. May 14, 2009 #18
    As already pointed out there are many versions of happiness and what makes one person happy may make another suffer. Discussing hapiness and suffering are a bit distracting though since it simplifies too much. It's rather easy to say that people value life over death or happiness over suffering. We can come up with either-ors all day. The real issue is just what value each person places on these individual things. What value does one ascribe to life, happiness, freedom, ect? Its different for everyone. Moral realism says that you can produce emperical objective analysis of any moral statement. This is true so long as all people hold the same value of life, the same value of freedom, the same value of happiness, the same value of science, the same value of art, the same value of everything. But they do not. So one must either ascribe universal values oneself, robbing people of the ability to determine their own freedom and happiness, or admit that moral realism breaks down.
  20. May 14, 2009 #19
    Well, that depends on how you frame the question.

    If you're asking whether there is some underlying intrinsic morality ingrained in the structure of the universe, then no.

    Atoms don't possess morality. Ants don't possess morality. Only when you approach the level of human consciousness and social constructs does the question even begin to have meaning.

    One person who is completely isolated from any other human contact is incapable of acting in a moral or immoral way. When one's actions have no effect outside one's own well-being, how can they be assigned a moral value? It is only through interpersonal relationships that morality comes into play.

    Society defines morality. It takes at least two to tango. Within such a framework, morality is a very real thing.
  21. May 14, 2009 #20
    That each case must be treated differently doesn't make moral realism untrue. If x makes X happy and y makes Y happy, it is moral to give x to X and to give y to Y.

    All I want to rob poeple of, is the ability to determine that they don't value happiness. Even if different things make people happy, everyone must value happiess. Happiness is valuable per definition, I dare say. Since happiness is valuable, we should try to obtain as much as possible of it.
  22. May 14, 2009 #21
    You agree that there exist economic truths? Economy deals with facts. Economy is science. Even if neither atoms nor ants possess money.
  23. May 14, 2009 #22
    Nope. Money and the economic system are merely agreed-upon human social constructs. No science involved at all. Within those constructs, there are consistent truths.

    Sure, we can use the same math system used to describe nature when dealing with economic ideas, but that doesn't make them any more "real". We use math to play Dungeons and Dragons, but that doesn't make it real either.
  24. May 14, 2009 #23
    If moral realism isn't true, how can we convince people like Hitler that they are wrong to do what they do? Then they aren't...
  25. May 14, 2009 #24
    A crime is something that is agreed, by a group, to be wrong. Pain is part of life. If you want to end suffering, end your life. A bullet to your head would end your pain, and unless you mess it up, it likely wouldn't involve much pain.
    Feel free to define happiness at any time.
    Then I'll tell you if I want it.
  26. May 14, 2009 #25
    We do exactly what we did. We eliminate them and everything they stand for.

    Society has various mechanisms for dealing with sociopaths. At the local and state level, these mechanisms were not sufficient to prevent someone like Hitler from coming to power and exerting his influence. However, once his actions and policies began to have global consequences, human society as a whole(minus his supporters) was compelled to act.

    You can't convince people to be good. The only way is to encourage "good" people (people who's motivations contribute positively toward society), and discourage or eliminate "bad" people. People will either modify their behavior to contribute positively, or society will punish and possibly eliminate them.

    That's why when someone like Bernie Madoff comes around, people are shocked. How did this happen? We expect society to weed these types of people out. That's why we always freak out and come up with a bunch of new laws every time something unexpected and tragic happens. It's like developing new antibodies to fight viruses.
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