What is metaethics?

What is metaethics?

The word ‘meta’ means ‘beyond’ or ‘about’, and as a prefix means a higher level of abstraction of the topic at hand, which is ethics. So metaethics is not concerned with making moral claims – that’s the realm of normative ethics. Metaethics involves making claims about the nature of moral claims.

Let’s take the claim that ‘we ought to keep our promises’. This could be expressed as a moral fact: ‘it is the case that breaking our promises is wrong’. Metaethics asks if moral facts such as these actually exist, or are they merely statements about how we feel about moral issues? If they do exist, what kind of thing are they? Moreover, can we ever know what these facts are? Of course, there is all manner of views about the answers to these questions, and the purpose of this post is to classify them in a way that is comprehensible.

Moral realism

The most important question is whether moral facts exist at all. Moral realists think they do, and so these moral facts make our moral judgments true or false. If I claim that it’s okay to break my promise, and it is a moral fact that ‘it is the case that breaking our promises is wrong’, then my claim is false. Conversely, moral anti-realists reject that there are such things as moral facts (sometime they are called irrealists).

Moral realism is a broad church – there are a wide variety of opinions about what kind of thing moral facts are, and disagreement about the facts themselves. It might even be that moral facts exist, but we have no way to determine what they are – a position known as moral skepticism.

The most important question for moral realists is whether moral facts are objective: whether they exist independently of human beings or not. Moral relativism says moral facts are true or false relative to some human standard. Relativists point to the diversity of moral values across cultures as evidence for their views, and believe that this diversity shows objective moral facts are unlikely. If moral facts aren’t objective, is moral relativism really a form of moral realism? Some philosophers believe it is, while others argue that moral relativism is actually an anti-realist position.

If moral facts are objective, a position sometimes called moral absolutism, what kind of thing are moral facts? Those who hold to naturalism – the belief that only features of our universe exist are natural ones, i.e. those amenable to study by empirical science – must believe moral facts are natural, a position called naturalistic moral realism. There’s a problem with this view though, which faces an objection known as Moore’s Open Question Argument. This argument led Moore to non-naturalistic moral realism, which concludes we must admit the existence of unique non-natural properties such as goodness. There are two options here: either these properties are supernatural, attributable to God or gods in some manner, or they are non-natural and non-supernatural, a position known as non-natural non-theistic moral realism and ably supported by Erik J. Wielenberg. I discuss Wielenberg’s ideas here.

It’s time to mention cognitivism, a term often encountered in metaethics. It’s a theory that says moral claims are expressions of beliefs that can be true or false. This sounds like moral realism, but it’s broader than this (especially if you think moral relativists are not realists). Moral relativists are cognitivists, yes, because they believe moral claims can be true or false. But you can be a cognitivist and believe all moral claims are false. In this case you are what’s called an error theorist – there are no moral facts, it’s all nonsense and you believe all talk of morals is hugely in error. J. L. Mackie is the most famous advocate of this view.

Moral anti-realism

Recall that anti-realists reject that there are things such as moral facts, and so error theorists are also anti-realists as well as being cognitivists! But most anti-realists are noncognitivists: like error theorists, they don’t believe there are such things as moral facts. But unlike error theorists, noncognitivists thinks people who accept moral claims don’t actually have real beliefs about these moral claims, but instead are expressing their attitudes or desires. One form of noncognitivism is called emotivism, where moral claims are said to express our emotions. For this reason it is sometimes known as hurrah/boo theory. and is also a form of expressivism.

I haven’t yet mentioned an important anti-realist position known as moral nihilism, which is that nothing is morally wrong. Nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, who was not only a moral nihilist but a nihilist about any values at all. This doesn’t sound much different to error theorists, and indeed error theorists are often thought of as moral nihilists.

It should be apparent by now that metaethics is a deep rabbit hole to explore. One useful tool for navigating the topic is the chart shown below, which I believe is the work of David Faraci. You’ll see that there are numerous other metaethical views not mentioned in this overview.  Fortunately, there are many good introductory texts on metaethics, one being Alex Miller’s An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics which I have seen recommended, as well as Metaethics: An Introduction by Andrew Fisher.

metaethics

 

 

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What is ethics?

What is ethics?

Ethics is a field of study that attempts to answer questions of how we should live and act.  As rational creatures who make conscious choices in our actions, we use ethics to decide what is the right and wrong thing to do in particular situations. It’s a vast and important area of enquiry, and involves a wide range of questions. To understand ethics, it’s helpful to divide ethical questions into three main categories.

Metaethics examines the nature of our moral judgments. What do we mean by right and wrong? Are moral judgments statements of fact, or are they just our preferences?  If they are facts, what kind of facts are they? Can we even know what they are?

Normative ethics is the study of moral theories that tell us how we should act – they help us determine whether our actions are right or wrong. There are many moral theories, and they don’t always give the same results. Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of our moral character, while consequentialism evaluates actions on the basis of their consequences. Deontology is based on rules that we should follow rather than considering the consequences of our actions.

Finally practical ethics, or applied ethics, is concerned with how we should act in real-life situations. This can range from bioethics, which examines the ethical issues associated with advances in medicine and biology, such as abortion, euthanasia and cloning, to environmental ethics, which ask how we should act to preserve our planet.

In my next post, I’ll be looking at metaethics. I’ll try to classify the better known metaethical theories that are out there, and explain how they differ from each other.

Why I oppose capital punishment

Why I oppose capital punishment

I oppose the use of capital punishment. I don’t live in a country that uses it: I’ve lived the majority of my life in Australia, which abolished capital punishment in all states by 1984, and last executed someone in 1967. I’ve also lived for many years in the United Kingdom, which abolished it in 1998, and last executed someone in 1964. But the death penalty is still widely used in some other countries. The United States executed 1,477 people between 1976 and 2018, and it is legal in 31 states. China executes several thousand people each year, although this is down from over 10,000 in 2002.

I don’t actually oppose capital punishment itself. It seems reasonable that some crimes might be so heinous that the death penalty is warranted, although I’m unsure what criteria should be used to decide. Certainly, the main theistic religions have historically permitted the death penalty. The Old Testament mandated it for certain crimes, provided two witnesses could testify to the accused’s guilt. There doesn’t seem to be a strong theological case against the concept as far as theists are concerned. Capital punishment seems against the precepts of Hinduism and Buddhism, but India uses it and so does Thailand.

What about pro-life beliefs and capital punishment? I am strongly pro-life with regard to abortion, but I don’t think pro-lifers who support the use of capital punishment are being inconsistent. You can, I think, oppose the killing of innocent human beings while supporting the killing of guilty ones. People can forfeit their right to life – for example, I accept that an assailant can be killed if self-defense requires it for preservation of one’s life.

So what’s my issue? It’s the use of capital punishment that worries me.  Fundamentally, I don’t trust governments with the power to take their citizens’ lives. After all, I have difficulty trusting the government to spend my taxes wisely.  I don’t trust the government to secure the data they have collected on me, much of which I didn’t even know about until Snowden alerted us to the extent of government surveillance. I don’t trust the government not to use that data against me in the future, either. And finally, I don’t trust the government to tell me the truth about matters that might put the government in a negative light. So no, I don’t think it wise to trust the government to administer the death penalty.

Americans share my distrust of government. A recent survey showed that only 18% trusted the government to do the right thing most of the time.  Curiously, though, a majority of Americans still support the death penalty, which seems strange given their low level of trust in government. Perhaps they have a greater trust in the judicial branch?

Let me break down this lack of trust a little.

Firstly, I don’t trust the government to administer the death penalty without making mistakes. And mistakes are sometimes made. Since 1973, there have been 163 exonerations from the death penalty. I suppose you could say the system is working because people are being exonerated. But sadly, numerous people have been executed who are thought to be possibly innocent. We’ll never know for sure, because once they have been executed, there isn’t a clear path to establishing their innocence – courts and defense attorneys aren’t interested in defendants who are dead. It’s worth noting that for wrongful convictions we know about (in general, not specifically for death penalty cases), the leading contributory cause (over 80%) was due to official misconduct. Another major contributory cause was perjury or false accusation. So there is significant scope for miscarriages of justice with the death penalty, and once carried out, there is of course no way to compensate the defendant.

Secondly, I don’t trust the government to administer the death penalty fairly. You’d expect it to be applied consistently for similar crimes. It doesn’t seem to be. In fact, there is evidence that whether or not a defendant receives the death penalty for a particular crime is dependent on geography, race, mental illness, and poverty – factors that should not have any influence in a just process, particularly one that results in the defendant losing their life.

The error-prone and arbitrary nature of how the death penalty is applied should concern everyone who favors its use. Of course, these characteristics aren’t unique to capital cases – they are equally applicable throughout the justice system. But the consequences are particularly grave in capital cases, and once carried out, can’t be reversed or atoned for. Eliminating these flaws seems unlikely to be achieved. Given that life in prison without parole should be equally effective at preventing re-offending, offers more opportunities for rehabilitation, and is likely to be cheaper, there doesn’t seem to be a strong case for using it.

 

 

A simple argument against abortion: possible replies

A simple argument against abortion: possible replies

I recently posted a simple argument against abortion for pro-choice advocates to consider. I challenged them as to how certain they were of their conclusions, comparing this to the certainty associated with applying the death penalty, and noting the dismay most people feel when someone who is on death row is exonerated.

I’d now like to examine the most common replies to the first premise: it is morally wrong to kill innocent human beings. Rejecting this premise seems the only possible defense against this argument, unless the humanity of the fetus is denied, an extremely dubious proposition.

But how can this premise be rejected? Isn’t it always wrong to kill innocent human beings? Certainly, the onus is on pro-choice advocates to find good reasons why this may not be the case. Innocent people are sometimes killed in war, but no-one thinks this is permissible, but rather deeply regrettable: deliberately targeting the innocent in war is morally wrong. There are two general approaches, and I’ll briefly examine them both.

Bodily autonomy

The first approach is to claim that in some situations, innocent human beings can be killed. Usually, these situations involve a reference to a woman’s bodily autonomy, and come in two forms. One is to argue that a women has sovereign control over her body, and can whatever she likes with anything within her body. This doesn’t seem to be true, as it doesn’t seem permissible for a pregnant woman to deliberately ingest a drug that will result in a deformed child. More generally, having sovereign control of a space doesn’t usually confer the automatic right to kill people who enter it, say our private property.

Judith Jarvis Thomson presents the more sophisticated version of bodily autonomy in her famous article ‘A defense of abortion‘. She constructs a rather bizarre analogy about someone waking up to find a famous, unconscious violinist plugged into their body. The violinist needs the use of their body for nine months to survive, and unplugging the violinist would kill him. Thomson claims the victim would be under no obligation to keep the violinist plugged in, and likewise a pregnant woman is under no obligation to continue providing life support for the fetus.

There has been a lot of ink spilled over Thomson’s argument, and debate among philosophers continues to this day. We cannot examine it in detail here. But it’s worth noting some important points. Firstly, the argument is controversial, and not even all pro-choice advocates agree it is a valid defense for abortion in all circumstances (e.g. Kate Greasley). For example, the violinist is attached involuntarily, but some philosophers contend that voluntarily engaging in sexual intercourse implies consenting to pregnancy, should it occur. Others claim a mother has special obligations to her child. Secondly, Thomson never intended her argument to mean abortion is permissible in all circumstances, especially late-term abortions. In fact Thomson notes that she is not arguing for the death of the fetus at all, but rather its removal, which currently inevitably means its death. Artificial wombs could change this. So Thomson’s reasoning isn’t a slam-dunk argument for rejecting the first premise of our simple argument against abortion.

Persons, not human beings

The second approach is to modify the first premise to remove the reference to human beings, replacing it with ‘persons’: it is morally wrong to kill innocent persons. Here,  person is a moral term, meaning an entity with certain rights, in particular the right to life. So the modified premise is really saying it is wrong to kill human beings who have a right to life. Because it is claimed that a fetus does not meet the criteria for being a person, it does not have a right to life, and consequently it can be permissibly killed.

Defining persons also occupies a lot of space in philosophy journals, but it usually involves possessing certain rational capacities such as being conscious and self-aware. Herein lies the problem for this approach: these definitions of person invariably exclude infants. If the ‘personhood’ approach is taken, it is implicitly granting that infanticide is permissible in addition to abortion. For most people, that’s a bridge too far. And if it isn’t, there are implications beyond infanticide.

Conclusion

So there we have it. If the simple argument against abortion is to fail, it will have to fail at the first premise: it is morally wrong to kill innocent human beings. The two main options are rejecting it, via Thomson’s rather controversial argument, or changing the premise to refer to persons, not human beings, and all that implies for infanticide. Are these compelling enough to confidently reject the simple argument against abortion? You decide.

 

 

 

A simple argument against abortion

A simple argument against abortion

Arguments for and against abortion choice can get complex extremely quickly. I wouldn’t be able to do a PhD in the ethics of abortion if that wasn’t the case. But there is a simple argument against abortion that everyone who is pro-choice must face and have good reason to reject. I’ve outlined it below.

  1. It is morally wrong to kill innocent human beings.
  2. A fetus is an innocent human being.
  3. Abortion kills a fetus.
  4. Therefore abortion kills an innocent human being.
  5. Conclusion: abortion is morally wrong.

Let’s leave the first premise for a moment, and examine the second. Certainly, a fetus is innocent, more so than any other human being. It hasn’t had a chance to be otherwise – it isn’t guilty of anything, other than existing. And that’s not its fault! Some people might argue that a fetus isn’t a human being (this is in a biological sense), but that’s difficult to sustain – just check an embryology textbook. If you want something more technical, try this academic discussion on whether human organisms start existing at fertilisation.

Okay, so the second premise can’t be denied by any reasonable person. The third point is obviously true, and the fourth point follows directly from the second and third, so if you accept the second and third premises, you have to accept the fourth. It’s time to look at the first premise – if this is also accepted, the conclusion – that abortion is morally wrong – must also be accepted.

Is it always morally wrong to kill an innocent human being? The only way that abortion isn’t morally wrong is if this premise is rejected. It commits you to agreeing that sometimes, it’s not wrong to kill innocent human beings.  That’s a big step to take! You would want to have very good reasons for believing this! What if you are wrong? There can’t be many bigger moral errors you could make if you are mistaken!

So in the end, this argument comes down to a challenge. What reasons can you give that would make it okay to kill an innocent human being in some circumstances? Are you confident these are good reasons? How confident? A comparison with the death penalty is instructive. In the United States, the average time spent on death row after being given the death penalty is over ten years. Why so long? Because there is widespread agreement that every avenue should be explored to ensure that condemned prisoners are guilty. No-one wants to execute someone who is innocent. There have been 162 exonerations since 1973 at the time of writing. That’s about 1.6% of death row prisoners, but it’s enough to cause serious concern about the death penalty, as it prompts the question, how many were innocent that we don’t know about who were executed? Even a single person wrongly executed is too many.

But do we apply a similar degree of commitment towards the unborn? How certain are you that it is okay to kill innocent human beings? 99% 50%? Even philosophers disagree about this issue! Unless you are highly confident of your reasoning, prudence would suggest taking the safe option, especially since abortion takes millions of lives annually, not the hundreds taken by the death penalty. The safe option is to assume that it is morally wrong to kill innocent human beings unless a compelling case demonstrating otherwise is provided, one that is highly certain to be correct. If you do feel you have such a compelling case, I’d love to hear from you.

I’ve tried to anticipate some of the most common replies here.

 

Queensland’s proposed abortion laws

Queensland’s proposed abortion laws

The Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018 has just been introduced to parliament in Queensland, a state of Australia. The bill is based on recommendations put forward by the Queensland Law Reform Commission, which published its Review of termination of pregnancy report in June. The most pertinent conclusion was to ‘alter the current law to provide that a termination is lawful if it is performed by a medical practitioner and, for terminations after 22 weeks, in accordance with the stated requirements for a lawful termination’. In short, the intention is to decriminalise abortion, making it a ‘health matter’, not a criminal matter.

Currently in Queensland, having an abortion or assisting in an abortion is technically a criminal offence under sections 224-226 of the Criminal Code, although section 282 allows for exceptions if it is ‘to preserve the mother’s life’. However a Victorian ruling by Justice Menhennit in R v Davidson (1969) declared that abortion was lawful if a doctor thought it was

necessary to preserve the woman from a serious danger to her life or physical or mental health (not being merely the normal dangers of pregnancy and childbirth) which the continuance of pregnancy would entail; and in the circumstances not out of proportion to the danger to be averted’

and the 1986 McGuire ruling in the District Court opined that this was also the case in Queensland. Since that ruling, abortion has become widely available. According to Children by Choice, it is ‘generally accepted that somewhere between 10,000 and 14,000 abortions take place each year in Queensland’. It seems obvious that most abortions in Queensland are not necessary to preserve the woman from a serious danger to her life or physical or mental health, and the law is being ignored.

According to the Queensland Law Reform Commission and the Labor Party of Queensland, the solution is to decriminalise abortion for up to 22 weeks, and with the consent of two doctors, make it permissible at any time until birth. What are the key conditions for abortions after 22 weeks? The doctors must give regard to ‘the woman’s current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances’. But of course this is less stringent that the current restriction that the abortion must be necessary to preserve from a serious danger to life or health, and which is ignored anyway! Effectively, it gives the green light to abortion up until birth, giving Queensland some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world.

It seems from the latest opinion polling that 60% of voters oppose abortion after 13 weeks, and 52% oppose abortion for any reason, putting the recommended new laws out of step with community views. Unfortunately, Queensland does not have an upper legislative house, and so there is not a check on legislation, unlike in New South Wales where the Senate voted down changes into abortion law in 2017. Hopefully, there will sufficient opposition from both the public and parliament to prevent the bill being passed. Public submissions will open in the near future, so when this is available, be sure to make a submission. Concerned Queensland voters should contact their Member of  Parliament. A summary of their personal views can be found here. Labor is permitting a conscience vote, so the result is not predetermined.

A final note: it is a scandal that abortion statistics are not officially recorded in Queensland. We do not know how many human beings have their lives ended this way – we can only guess.

Michael Ruse talks with John Lennox

Michael Ruse talks with John Lennox

The Unbelievable? show, an apologetics and theology discussion program on Premier Christian Radio, recently launched The Big Conversation video series. The idea is to feature friendly conversations between world-class Christian and atheist thinkers.

The most recent session was filmed live in London in front of an audience, and featured philosopher of science Professor Michael Ruse, of Florida State University, talking with Oxford mathematician, Professor John Lennox. Michael Ruse is well-known to anyone with an interest in philosophy of science, but he has also written an introduction to atheism, called Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know. John Lennox, while a mathematician, is known for books such as God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?. So the scene was set for a great discussion on science and religion. The PA was there, and filed this report.

A central feature of these series is a friendly exchange of views, and this one started well with Lennox shaking Ruse’s hand and plenty of cordial banter. Both men are very capable and engaging speakers, and the tone was set for an enjoyable evening, especially with Justin Brierley moderating the discussion.

Quite early in the discussion, the speakers discussed their childhood upbringings. It was illuminating to hear how Lennox’s Christian parents were such a influence on him growing up in Northern Ireland. He explained how his father considered every person as made in the image of God, and was scrupulously fair in hiring employees from both sides of the sectarian divide. The cost was having his workplace bombed!

One of the most interesting things about the evening for me was finding out about Ruse’s Quaker background. He mentioned it numerous times, and it is clear that it has had a life-long influence on him. This came out strongly when Lennox spent some time discussing the important of evidence for his Christian faith. Ruse seems to have retained the Quaker love of the mystical, and numerous times he stated that for him when it came to faith, evidence was not important. Rather, revelation was, and since he had not experienced revelation, any evidence Lennox presented was not going to sway him. In fact, Ruse seemed to think evidence was almost a negative, in that it reduced the requirement for faith. Needless to say, this was a worry for Lennox, who emphasized the importance of evidence for his Christian faith. Not proofs, of course, because the only proofs available are in mathematics, as Lennox was careful to mention!

There was an informative discussion on the influence of Christianity on the development of science. Ruse and Lennox had quite similar views on this, with Ruse stating ‘modern science owes its being to Christianity’. Lennox explained how Christianity was the source of the idea that the universe is governed by uniform laws, which was crucial to being able to do science at all. Ruse noted that over time, as this uniformity became widely accepted, God gradually became ‘a retired engineer’: he had served his purpose and was no longer needed.

Towards the close of the discussion, there was some gentle sparring on the issue of suffering. Lennox properly acknowledged the deep difficulty of the issue for everyone, atheist, agnostic or Christian, and didn’t attempt to give pat answers. Ruse addressed the free will solution, using the rather extreme example of Himmler’s evil to demonstrate why the cost of free will was too high. In the question and answer session, I tried to point out that he was using a particular edge case as the entire foundation of his argument, but his response didn’t engage with this. Lennox, however, could see the point.

Ruse made some interesting comments about the Bible during the evening that I didn’t expect. He claimed he ‘loved the Bible’, he found it ‘deeply meaningful’, and he mentioned how he found the story of Ruth ‘deeply moving’. He made it clear he was an agnostic, not an atheist: he just didn’t know. I did get the impression that at 78, he had little expectation of ever knowing.

There were some excellent audience questions after the main discussion period. Two I recall in particular were about objective morality, asking Ruse to clarify his position. He seemed to obfuscate a little on this, conceding the importance of morality, but ultimately seemed to think that it was a product of evolution. Lennox pointed out the difficulty of deriving an ought from an is, citing Hume, but Ruse was unmoved. I think his view is that as long as enough people believe and act as if morality is objective, that’s good enough for a society to function.

To summarise, this was a brilliant evening. I didn’t learn a great deal in terms of apologetic content, having read quite widely in this area, but that’s not why I was there. I did learn far more about Michael Ruse’s worldview, and that was very interesting. Most of all, I enjoyed the experience of watching a civilised and honest discussion between two public intellectuals with two very different points of view on God.

The video of this conversation will be released on 7 September, 2018, at The Big Conversation. In the meantime, check out the earlier conversations, featuring speakers such as Steven Pinker, Jordan B Peterson, Susan Blackmore and more.