Thinking about Morals

When we try to think about morals we often find ourselves in difficulty. Morals are often passed down from generation to generation as traditions or maxims of lessons learnt. However, we face problems when we try to understand whether they are accurate or not. Before I tackle that, we must be clear on what a moral is. Morals describe how we as individuals or as groups should act in certain circumstances. A moral is moreover universal. What is right for someone to do in given circumstances is also right for someone else in similar circumstances. A moral can be stated in terms of 'If circumstances are X you should do Y.

However this explanation of what morals are leaves us with a significant problem. Can we logically derive any morals? Well many people argue we cannot. Formal logic doesn't allow drawing conclusions of the sort 'you should do Y' from any statement describing reality as described in terms of the categorisation that formal logic uses. This 'Is-Ought problem' was mentioned earlier when discussing definitions of rationality. However, we become able to talk sensibly and logically about moral statements only if we accept the reality of value statements.

The remainder of this section is concentrated on trying to bridge the is-ought problem by asserting the real value of certain ways of thinking such as 'Logical thinking is good'. This 'real value' implies that there is some true value to our actions; something universal to how we behave that makes our actions worthwhile. It is this that makes an action morally virtuous.

These assertions have their limits, indeed they could be rejected out of hand if someone takes a stand that asserts that such values aren't real. Such a person has a point. We did not reach statements such as 'Logical thinking is good' from within the framework of formal logical reasoning. It was in fact an assertion from the outset. It is made because it is probably going to be accepted by most people with sound minds. However, I will now add to that general statement the assertion that value judgements are real and important. Instead of thinking in terms of abstract categories of things, as formal logic requires, we should become comfortable with values associated with things. Instead of saying 'logical thinking is good', we can say that 'good thinking includes using formal logical reasoning'.

How this can lead us to a more general set of morals should become clear in the following pages.

Moral relativism is a recent development, which asserts that the only reality to values is the reality to the holder of those values. This is however a complete misuse of the word ‘moral’, since (as is mentioned above) a moral has a universal implication. If I believe a moral then I believe that it is true for all people who are in similar circumstances. I may not agree with others on this or that moral but the disagreement must be put down to imperfect knowledge. It is certainly not the same as saying that both our judgements are right. In moral relativism, values are asserted to be completely subjective - they have no objective reality other than their manifestation in the choices people make.

If we accept the ideas of moral relativism we must admit frankly that there is no such thing as good thinking - I might like deceiving myself and paradoxical illogical thinking. Would it then be the morally right thing for me to do?!

How can I debate and discuss any matter with someone who believes and talks nonsense half the time and feels there is nothing wrong in doing so?

If values aren't real then there are no morals and there is no good thinking, there is no particular right choice of sources of knowledge and there is no real knowledge only assertion. Of course this argument could be rejected but to do so is nonsense.


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