One component of rational thinking is a sense of right and wrong. Nearly everyone should have some idea that certain actions or states of affairs are better than others. Similarly, nearly everyone should have an understanding of value and some intuitive evaluative ability. The different ways of interpreting of these phenomena constitute the different understandings of axiology, the theory of values. What is relevant to this project is the branch of axiology known as ethics or morality.

Moral realism is the theory that moral beliefs can be true. Some philosophers who only believe in the physical world and don’t believe in anything immaterial say that they are also moral realists, but when they describes the type of morality that they believe in, often what they are talking about is the moral beliefs that people have acquired through evolution, which is called evolutionary moral realism. This includes the human instinct to care for the well being of others in one’s own group and the instinct to hold others accountable for transgressions against members of the group. A physicalist/materialist understanding of morality is therefore purely descriptive of human nature within a deterministic system.

The physicalist/materialist conception of morality differs from normative moral realism, in which one believes that things ought be a certain way or that people should act in a certain way because such states of affairs or actions would be better, not purely as a function of anything physical such as the instincts people have evolved to have, but at least partially for reasons that ultimately transcend the physical world. For example, if someone believes that oppressing others is always wrong even though humans have an instinctual predisposition to favor their own group over others, and this person does not otherwise explain how this belief is descriptive of something in the physical world, then this implies that this person believes in normative morality.

A similar concept to normative ethics is prescriptive ethics, which are those that are supposed to logically commit someone to act a certain way. For example, the normative statement “Murder is wrong” can be restated as “Do not murder”, which is prescriptive. This is similar to how doctors can prescribe medications for one to use. Essentially, prescriptive moral statements are prescribed to people in order for them to act morally. Normative statements simply state the relation a certain state of affairs has to rightness or wrongness without telling anyone how to act.

The distinction between descriptive and normative/prescriptive morality is important to understand. Although it may sometimes seem like material things or physical actions have inherent positive or negative value, these attributes can neither be found in any material thing nor any physical action through any amount of objective investigation. Since the theory of normative moral realism postulates the existence of morality that is ontologically distinct from anything physical, it is incompatible with physicalism/materialism. Therefore normative moral realism depends at the least on some form of dualism and any normative moral statements (that are not somehow qualified in a way that ultimately makes such statements descriptive of something physical) also depend on dualism.

If one believes that some sort of morals are true regardless of anyone’s point of view, then according to philosopher James Rachels, this invites some problems that an adequate theory of morality must be able to solve 2. Rachels speaks of the difficulty in trying to form a theory of objective morals. For descriptive morals, this is not difficult because such morals must be a function of that which is objective or that which can be known objectively. On the other hand, normative morals ultimately derive, at least partially, from reasons that transcend the physical world. Because of this, knowledge of normative morals is highly problematic.

There may be those who will argue that certain normative morals can be known a priori (prior to experience). The only a priori knowledge that is objective and in no way depends on experience must be entirely based on how the physical brain works. It is impossible for the internal workings of the physical brain to be based on something that transcends the physical world. It is a logical possibility for the physical brain to have some connection to something nonphysical, but any new information that comes from such a connection would have to be considered a type of experience, and thus would not be a priori.

This seems to leave open the logical possibility that normative morals could be known a posteriori (after experience). But even if there is a logical possibility that the physical brain could be connected to something nonphysical (see consciousness and soul), only the physical part could be known objectively. Perhaps in such a situation the brain might have some knowledge of what is happening on the nonphysical side, but such knowledge could not be objective. The only possibility that remains for normative morals to exist is if they begin as subjective knowledge that can then be made intersubjective through communication and mutual understanding. Therefore with regard to normative morals, it is assumed that Rachels’ problems are those that an adequate intersubjective theory of moral realism must be able to solve.

The problems that Rachels mentions are as follows (paraphrased slightly):

  • The ontological problem: an adequate theory must account for ethics without assuming the existence of anything that does not actually exist.
  • The epistemological problem: if we have knowledge of right and wrong, an adequate theory must explain how we acquire such knowledge.
  • The experience problem: An adequate theory about ethics must account for the phenomenology of moral experience.
  • The supervenience problem: An adequate theory must be consistent with the supervenient character of evaluative concepts.
  • The motivation problem: an adequate theory must account for the internal connection between moral belief and motivation (or if there is no such connection, it must offer an alternative account of how morality guides action).
  • The reason problem: An adequate theory must account for the place of reason in ethics.
  • The disagreement problem: An adequate theory must explain the nature of ethical disagreement.

Some of these problems are parallel to the aspects of worldview. Basically, a theory of normative morality must be able to solve all of these problems in order to be on solid philosophical grounds.

In order to analyze whether any normative moral theory can answer all of the questions posed above and thus to be on solid philosophical grounds, it is a good plan of action to begin with some of the more popular and influential theories of ethics, including virtue ethics, deontological ethics, utilitarianism, and theories of rights. Please see the blog for posts relating to morality.

What theory of ethics makes the most sense? Please let your voice be heard in the forum.

2 Rachels, James. Ethical Theory 1 – The Question of Objectivity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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