Although philosophers disagree about many elements of morality, they agree about quite a bit as well. Philosophers disagree about whether capital punishment or the war on drugs are right, but they agree that slavery and torture are almost always wrong (if not always wrong). Philosophers also agree quite a bit about what views about morality are false, and for good reason. These myths are untenable views about morality, and they are often very popular among the nonphilosophers. I think it’s important that everyone find out that these views are untenable. I will discuss ten of these myths about morality:
- Morality is a matter of opinion.
- All opinions about morality are equal.
- It is impossible to reason about morality.
- It is impossible to have moral knowledge.
- There are no justified moral beliefs.
- The situation isn’t relevant to morality.
- Objective morality requires God.
- We have no reason to be moral unless God exists.
- Either morality comes from god or relativism is true.
- Either morality is relative or absolute.
Morality is a matter of opinion.
Many people think that “there are no moral facts, so moral opinions are just a matter of taste.” A fact is a part of the world. For example, my belief that I have a dog corresponds to the actual existence of my dog in the world. Many people think that morality is nothing like this. There is no wrongness or goodness in the world for my beliefs about wrongness and goodness to correspond to. Many people then conclude that morality is either delusional or is just based on people’s personal preferences. To say that slavery is wrong does not correspond to wrongness in the world, but it is an expression of my personal dislike of slavery instead. If saying slavery is wrong is merely to express a personal dislike to slavery, then it’s just like a personal dislike of broccoli.
However, philosophers at large strongly disagree that morality is just a matter of taste.
First, most philosophers think there are moral facts. When I experience suffering, it seems that the suffering really is bad. To think suffering isn’t bad is to completely misunderstand what the word even means. We say that something is wrong because it creates something bad, such as suffering.
Many philosophers argue that we can observe moral facts—such as the badness of suffering (of myself and others). I know that other people experience suffering just like I do and I know they experience suffering from intense pain. I know that similar things that give me pain (such as severe burns) also give other people pain. I know that the loss of a loved on can cause suffering in myself and others, and I can observe other people experiencing grief despite the fact that I can’t actually see inside of their mind. I know that their mind is similar to mine and will have similar experiences with similar expressions of their experiences (such as body language).
Many philosophers agree that to say something is “wrong” has to do with the harm caused by the action. For example, something can be wrong if it causes more harm than the amount of good that is done. (This is often compared to alternative actions as well. To kill a criminal might have some benefit to society, but a similar benefit might be attained merely by life in prison.)
Second, some philosophers agree that morality is a human invention, but they still agree that some actions are universally immoral and others aren’t. For example, moral actions could be those that will mostly help people and immoral actions can be those that mostly hurt people (with a consideration of alternatives), and this is true for everyone. Certain things really do help people and certain things really do hurt people. The words “hurt” and “help” could refer to things people agree to, even if they don’t refer to things beyond our interests (e.g. suffering is a form of harm).
Imagine that morality is just a matter of taste. In that case you could never reason with anyone and explain to them why it’s wrong to torture people or have slaves. We couldn’t explain why racism or sexism is wrong. Either the person likes torture and slavery, or they don’t. Either they like other racial groups or they don’t. And so on. This is not only false, but it is dangerous. To think that morality is just a matter of taste is to become unreasonable. If morality is a matter of taste, then we will decide that we have no reason to listen to moral arguments. We could then decide that slavery isn’t wrong no matter what anyone says (if we personally want slaves). If morality is a matter of taste, then we would have no reason to improve ourselves morally because improvement would be impossible. Hitler and Stalin would not be evil as long as they believed they were doing right.
However, morality isn’t a matter of taste and we have reason to listen to moral arguments.
All opinions about morality are equal.
Many people think that morality is a matter of opinion, which means “everyone’s moral beliefs are equal.” This view is false. All serious philosophers agree that some moral beliefs are better than others. The belief that slavery is wrong is a better belief than the belief that killing people is always right.
How can one moral belief be better than another? Because some moral beliefs have better justifications than others. We can explain why some moral beliefs are more likely to be true than other beliefs. The more likely a belief is to be true (given our current information), the more justified it is.
How exactly moral beliefs are justified is a matter of debate, but we seem to know certain moral beliefs are true—such as killing people willy nilly is wrong and slavery is wrong. We can try to understand how these beliefs can be known to be true. For example, slavery and killing people willy nilly are wrong because they treat people with disrespect and they cause suffering. We know it’s bad to be disrespected or to experience suffering because we have had personal experience in the matter, and we know that other people will also experience such things as bad.
Imagine that all moral beliefs are equal. In that case you would have no reason to listen to the moral arguments given by others and you would have no reason to seek to improve yourself morally. No one would really be immoral as long as they believed that they aren’t immoral.
But now that we know that moral beliefs aren’t equal, we have reason to listen to moral arguments and improve ourselves morally.
It is impossible to reason about morality.
Many people think that it is impossible to give us reason to adopt a moral belief. It is impossible to tell a person why slavery is wrong. In that case it would be impossible to justify our moral beliefs. However, philosophers agree that reasoning about morality is possible. The only reason to think that we can’t reason about morality is to blindly think that morality is a matter of taste, or all moral beliefs are equal. I have already explained why morality is not a matter of taste—because we agree about what harms and benefits people. I have also explained why moral beliefs are not equal—we know that certain moral beliefs are true and we can find out why they are true.
I wrote more about moral reason in my discussion, Can We Reason About Morality?
It is impossible to have moral knowledge.
Many people think it is impossible to have moral knowledge. This is either because they believe that there are no moral facts or because they think it is impossible to reason about morality. Some philosophers might agree that it’s impossible to have moral knowledge in the sense that there are no moral facts for our knowledge to refer to. However, most philosophers think there are moral facts and no one should blindly accept that moral knowledge is impossible. Before committing yourself to that view, you should know why most philosophers disagree with it. For example, suffering seems to be really bad and not just something we agree is bad. Suffering is bad no matter what people believe about it.
Additionally, philosophers almost unanimously agree that we can reason about morality and I have explained why. The superficial belief that moral knowledge is impossible quickly leads people to reject moral reasoning and the intention to improve themselves morally, but almost no philosophers think that. All philosophers I know of agree that we can reason about morality and improve ourselves morally.
Finally, it is not necessary to explicitly reason about morality to have moral knowledge. We don’t need an argument to know that slavery is wrong. Many things we know are not very easily explained. For example, it’s not easy to explain why “1+1=2” is true, but we still know it is true.
There are no justified moral beliefs.
In most cases the view that there are no justified moral beliefs is the same as the view that we can’t reason about morality. The belief that moral beliefs can’t be justified is baseless and rejected by almost all philosophers, and it is the main motivation behind the idea that “all moral beliefs are equal.” I have already explained why not all moral beliefs are equal—some are better justified than others. We can theorize about why some actions are wrong, such as the fact that it causes harm. We might be able to observe or confirm that our theory is correct if the explanation makes enough sense. For example, the theory that nothing is wrong unless I personally dislike it is undermined by the fact that I might personally like harming others despite the fact that such sadistic acts can be wrong. On the other hand a theory that acts are wrong when they cause needless and unjustified harm is greatly confirmed by our moral experiences and knowledge—such as the belief that murder, rape, slavery, and torture are wrong.
Additionally, no actual argument must be presented to have a justified belief. I might have good reason to think murder is wrong even if I can’t explain why. At one point I wasn’t sure why murder was wrong, but that doesn’t mean the belief was unjustified. I knew that murder was wrong, but I just wasn’t sure how to explain how I knew it.
Of course, we need to be able to provide arguments to persuade anyone else that we have knowledge. Sometimes our knowledge is hidden from others and they have no reason to trust us. We need to actually provide an argument to prove to others that our beliefs are justified.
Finally, it is true that two people can have different and conflicting justified beliefs. Some beliefs are highly justified and are the most justified beliefs we can have. The belief that torturing people willy nilly is wrong is incredibly more justified than the belief that it’s not. However, more controversial beliefs can be held despite a great deal of uncertainty. For example, some philosophers believe that capital punishment isn’t wrong and others believe it is wrong; and both of these beliefs can be justified to various degrees. It can be rational to have either belief once a person has a sufficient justification to hold the belief. Some justified beliefs can be rationally held and rationally rejected, but other justified beliefs are so highly justified that people would be irrational insofar as they reject the belief.
The situation isn’t relevant to morality.
Many people think that if anything is right or wrong, it’s always right or wrong. Lying, stealing, killing people, rape, and slavery are believed to be always wrong or never wrong. If an action always leads to suffering without an appropriate justification, then philosophers will agree that it is always wrong. However, it isn’t clear that all wrong actions are always wrong in this way. In fact, the situation is always relevant to moral reasoning. If the situation is one in which people are harmed with little to no expected benefit, then it is wrong. If the situation is one in which lying or killing a person is necessary to save hundreds of lives, then the action could be justified.
Ultimately the situation is necessary to understand why any action can be classified as “wrong.” Although rape might always be wrong, it is only always wrong (if it is) because it causes needless suffering in every situation possible.
It might be that goodness and badness, unlike right and wrong, don’t depend on the situation. The existence of harms are bad, and benefits are good, and that is nothing to do with the situation. The pleasure of sadism can have some goodness, even though the sadism can motivate wrong behavior. To harm someone to get pleasure is usually wrong despite the fact that the pleasure attained is good. The harms and benefits expected from an action are part of our cost-benefit reasoning and a single harm or benefit isn’t always sufficient to determine whether the action is wrong or not.
The belief that the situation is irrelevant to morality leads to simplistic and sloppy moral thinking. People decide that moral rules must be much more simple than they actually are, and people refuse to make use of moral reasoning because the subtleties of various situations are ignored even when they are necessary to determine which action is appropriate. Such poor moral reasoning can lead to immoral actions.
I have written about the relevance the situation has to morality is greater detail in my discussion, Moral Absolutism, Relativism, and the Situation.
Objective morality requires God.
“Objective morality” can mean different things, such as “there are moral facts” or “there are universal moral truths.” Almost all philosophers agree that there are universal moral truths, but some aren’t sure that moral facts exist. However, almost no philosopher thinks that God is necessary for moral facts to exist. If suffering is bad, then God doesn’t have a say on the matter. God can’t decide that suffering is good. The fact that God commands us not to cause needless suffering isn’t what makes an act wrong. If God has any commandments, then they are based on moral facts rather than the other way around. If God likes all morally right acts and dislikes all morally wrong acts, that is because they are right or wrong based on facts in the world.
The belief that God determines morality rather than moral facts in general is dangerous because many people with such a view will reject that we can reason about morality. They think that we can’t find out about moral facts on our own—we need to depend on God’s commandments and insight. It might be that God’s insight can be helpful, but moral reasoning and justification should not be ignored. To reject moral reasoning and justifications is dangerous because they can lead to poorly formed moral beliefs. Some religious fanatics decided that slavery and intolerance was endorsed or permitted by God and they refused to use any moral reasoning to know the truth.
We have no reason to be moral unless God exists.
Almost all philosophers agree that we have a reason to be moral even if God does not exist. This is easy to explain for people who believe in moral facts—we have a reason to do things with good rather than bad consequences. There is real goodness and badness, and it is rational to try to cause good consequences and irrational to try to cause bad consequences. To have a reason to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that one has a motivation to do it. Self-sacrifice can be rational when it is done to significantly benefit many people (perhaps by saving hundreds of lives).
People who don’t believe in moral facts have a difficult task—to prove that we should be motivated to help others. To prove that it’s in one’s self-interest to be moral. This task isn’t necessarily impossible and it is a task that many philosophers have attempted to accomplish (such as Thomas Hobbes).
Either morality comes from God or relativism is true.
Relativism refers to the belief that morality is a human invention or is a matter of taste. The view that morality is a matter of taste has already been rejected, but some philosophers agree that morality is a human invention. However, almost no philosophers thinks that God has anything to do with the debate. I have already argued above that there can be moral facts, even if God doesn’t exist. If God exists, then he merely knows moral facts that would exist anyway.
This belief was explained in greater detail in my discussion, Morality, God, Relativism, and Nihilism.
Either morality is relative or absolute.
To say that morality is absolute means that the situation is irrelevant to morality. To think that morality is either a human invention (or a matter of taste) or absolute is completely baseless. I already explained how both of these claims can be rejected. Morality can be based on facts (such as the fact that suffering is bad) rather than a human invention, and moral facts have little to nothing to do with God. If God exists, then he might know moral facts rather than determine them.
This belief was explained in greater detail in my discussion, Absolutism, Relativism, and the Situation.
Many of these myths about morality have one thing in common—they stop philosophical thinking. They make sure that there is no reason to think anyone could have anything to teach us about morality. If anything is right or wrong, then I think we have reason to think that our moral beliefs can be false and we should try to learn more about it because so much is at stake. Moral philosophy has something to offer the world, but it’s been designated a marginalized position in our society for ivory tower elites.
Some of these myths about morality might actually be products of 100 to 200-year-old philosophy that have been passed down to the masses and corrupted by a lack of actual philosophical oversight. The beliefs that people have concerning morality can be dangerous because they prevent people from engaging in moral reasoning, listening to moral arguments, considering moral philosophy, and improving themselves.
Update 5/8/2011: Made minor changes to make clarifications.