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3 AM Philosophy

Metaethics, normative or applied? Why it matters…and why it doesn’t!

Do atheist and non-believers make a mistake when discussing morality to allow theist to concentrate on meta-ethics (what makes something ethical), moral epistemology (how do we know what is moral) or moral ontology (Do morals actually exist? Are they more than just social constructs?)…when what we should be concerning ourselves with is normative ethics (How do we arrive at what is “right” or “wrong”? or to what do we appeal to make our actions moral vice immoral?) or even applied ethics (How ethics should be applied in specific fields or topics such as bioethics, animal rights, or capital punishment)?

Does it really matter to an atheist or non-believer if morals facts are objective or subjective? Of even if moral statements express moral  propositions or facts in the first place (moral non-cognitivist)? Generally speaking, it probably shouldn’t. These are all metaethical topics and when all is said and done do not really tell anyone what you, as a person and a moral agent think is ethical behavior nor relate to other what you believe to be moral or immoral. Should the conversation not be geared more towards what makes someone an honorable person who not just believes that they know right from wrong, but actively choose to do what is right over what is wrong?

When I talk to people about morality it almost inevitably starts, or quickly goes into, with a never ending battle of are more facts objective or are they subject? Or are morals relative or absolute? Well here is my opinion on the matter…other than from a point of pure academic inquiry and a true interest in the topic, it does not matter to me what morals are, where they came from, or how we know what is moral, because at the end of the day I am much more concerned if you are going the kinda person who likes to kick small puppies, thinks moral atrocities are acceptable by world leaders, or even just as banal how you conduct yourself in social discourse.

Even the terms “objective” and “subjective” have been so bogged down with baggage and imprecision of terminology that they mean different things to different philosophers and to those engaged in moral discussions…more time is spent trying to define those words (as well as “relative” and “absolute”) and extricate the nuances of them from the overt misuse of them that it inexorably makes it effectively impossible to have any actual productive conversation.

Even if objective morality does exist in the strictest sense…so what? Does it change any thing about our understanding of reality? Does it bring closer a necessity for an existence of a divine creator? Of course not. Objective morality can be grounded in a deity, this is true (such as Divine Command Theory which is ethical subjectivism, but some theologians do argue it can be make into an objective moral framework)…but objective morality can be grounded in harms/benefits (Harris, Carrier), or empathy/compassion (Wittgenstein), or maybe human flourishing (“eudaimonia”, perhaps Epicurus of Samos and utilitarianism?)? So long as there is some type of agreement or social compact between people, one can build an objective moral framework from subjective axioms…just like in mathematics or the rules of a game of chess.

But even if one accepts moral facts are merely subjective (belief that morals are mind-dependent and contingent upon the individual) they are still moral facts. Things we believe to be “right” or “wrong”, be they relative (specific to a culture) or absolute (true for all cultures and societies), are what we hold to be morally true. I hold it is wrong to harm people intentionally, I hold it is immoral to steal from ones employer, I hold that teaching our children things like creationism and flat Earth are immoral acts…does it matter to me if those moral facts are relative or absolute? Not in the slightest, because at the end of the day those moral facts can be shown to have real world consequences. That to me is what should really matter.

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