Theory of Knowledge: Ethics & Moral Reasoning
When we argue about ethical questions, there are two things we often look at: whether people are being consistent in their judgments, and whether the alleged facts on which those judgments are based are true.
Consistency: to what extent do you think the following individuals are morally inconsistent?
• A vegetarian who buys leather shoes
• A public school teacher who educates her children at private schools.
• A politician who advocates family values and has an extra-marital affair.
• An environmental activist who drives an SUV
Facts: what facts, if any, are relevant in assessing the following value-judgments?
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If, on the other hand, you want to insist that everyone should be tolerant, you are implicitly saying that there is at least one universal value—tolerance—and you cannot then call yourself a relativist. What comes out of this example is that the belief in universal tolerance is not consistent with moral relativism. Once moral relativism in uncoupled from the belief in tolerance, it because a much less attractive position.
According to self-interest theory, human beings are always and everywhere selfish. Since selfish behavior is usually seen as the opposite of moral behavior, this theory suggests that, even if there are objective moral values, we are incapable of living up to them.
What do YOU think?
Plato argues that we cannot derive ethics from religion. In one of his dialogues, he raised the following question: Is something good because God says it is good, or does God say that it is good because it IS good? On the one hand, is something is good simply because God says it is good, then if god suddenly decided that murder was good, it would be good. Most people would reject this conclusion. On the other hand, if God says that something is good because it IS good, then it seems that values are independent of God and we do not need to appeal to Him in order to justify them. This suggests that rather than deriving our values from religion, we already have values by which we decide whether to accept or reject what religion tells us to do. Since a religion based ethics is not going to satisfy atheists in any case, we will need to look at other ways of justifying our moral values.
Things to think about:
• Since the Pope condemns birth control, can a person still be a good Catholic if they practice birth control?
• Can religious texts give us moral guidance on the use of genetic engineering and other technology that were unheard of when such texts were written?
According to some philosophers, ethics is fundamentally a matter of doing your duty and fulfilling your obligations. Who decides what these duties are and how they are justified? According to philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) our duties are not arbitrary and we can determine what they are in an objective way by appealing to reason.
Kant’s approach to ethics
Kant argued that the way to decide if something is your duty is to see whether or not you can consistently generalize it. Imagine that you are wondering whether or not to cut in the lunch line because you cannot be bothered to wait in line. According to Kant, you should ask yourself what would happen if everyone did that. This answer is that there would be chaos. If everyone did it, there would be not line to cut into. If you try to generalize the rule, “cut in line whenever you feel like it,” you end up with a contradiction. Therefore it is your duty NOT to cut in line.
The reason Kant attached so much importance to the...