September 2012 Archives

"Ethics and Observation," by Gilbert Harman

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In "Ethics and Observation," Gilbert Harman examines whether moral principles can be tested and confirmed in the same way that scientific principles can. If it is the case that moral principles can be tested using the scientific method, then we would be able to use the data psychologists gather about our moral intuitions as the basis for our moral system. Harman argues that scientific observation can confirm or disprove scientific theories or hypotheses, but moral observations cannot be used to confirm or disconfirm moral beliefs, and thus ethics cannot be treated as a natural science. His argument can be outlined as follows:

P1. A theory or belief can be confirmed by observation if the theory contains facts that contribute to the world being a certain way.
P2. Scientific facts are reliable beliefs because observation can confirm scientific theories.
P3. A moral fact cannot contribute to the world being a certain way.
C1. Thus, observation cannot confirm a moral theory.
C2. Thus, ethics cannot be treated as a natural science.

I agree with Harman's argument to the extent that I also believe that observation cannot confirm a moral theory and that ethics cannot be treated as a natural science. However, I do think our intuitions about morality may be able to point us in the right direction regarding what is a good moral theory. For instance, if almost everyone feels the same intuition regarding the morality of a certain act across cultures and some extent of time, such as the wrongness of committing murder, then there seems to be a reason behind this which may be that it is more than just a moral belief and is actually a moral fact. However, no amount of scientific data would actually be able to prove that this is a moral fact. A majority consensus doesn't always work at confirming a moral theory though as it seems to with murder, when considering that for most of human history slavery would have been seen as justified and relatively uncontroversial and only at our present point in time would slavery have suddenly become immoral.


Harman, Gilbert. "Ethics and Observation." Ethical Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007. 36-40. Print.

" A Critique of Ethics" by A. J. Ayer

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In "A Critique of Ethics," A. J. Ayer argues that moral or ethical sentences are essentially meaningless and only express emotional content. He begins by dividing the system of ethics into four classes, but only focuses on the first: "propositions that express definitions of ethical terms, or judgments about the legitimacy or possibility of certain definitions." Ayer says that only empirical, logical, verifiable terms are meaningful as concepts and since moral judgments cannot be translated into non-ethical terms, they are merely 'pseudo-concepts'. Thus, to Ayer, any ethical sentence is just an expression of emotion of either approval or disapproval but not truly an assertion. His argument can be summed up as follows:

P1. All statements that are empirically or logically verifiable as having factual content are meaningful.
P2. All statements that are unable to be verifiable as having factual content are expressions of emotion and are neither true nor false.
P3. Ethical statements are unable to be verifiable as having factual content.
C. Therefore, ethical statements are only expressions of emotion and are neither true nor false.

Based on Ayer's argument, statements like 'stealing money is wrong' have no factual meaning because wrongness is not a fact than can be proven to be correct, but rather it is an interpretation of disapproval over an event. Thus, this statement merely expresses a feeling of personal belief about stealing. I think that Ayer's view is interesting and does seem to make sense when one really tries to pick apart an ethical concept and determine why it is wrong, but I think this view fails to explain why so many people have the same or very similar intuitions about the ethical status of, for instance, murder. If a statement, such as, 'murder is wrong' is merely a feeling of disapproval, then why does nearly everyone around the world and across multiple cultures share the same view? Not only do people share the same view, but they use the statement 'murder is wrong' as a fact and not as an opinion or expression of feeling. Ayer's problem seems to be that he can verify that ethical statements are un-provable but that in itself does not mean they are devoid of meaning.

Ayer, A. J. "A Critique of Ethics." Ethical Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007. 18-24. Print.

"The Subjectivity of Values" by J. L. Mackie

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All of my thinking about ethics in recent posts has made me want to delve into an analysis of some ethical systems themselves, so I opened my old copy of Ethical Theory and settled on "The Subjectivity of Values" by J. L. Mackie. In this article Mackie maintains that objective values do not exist and all moral judgments are false by way of the argument from relativity and the argument from queerness. His view is similar to subjectivism, which is the view that moral judgments are reports of the speaker's own feelings or attitudes, but Mackie does not necessarily agree that moral judgments are intended to be reports of feelings.

Mackie first presents the Argument from Relativity, which can be summed up as follows:

P1. If objective values are not the cause of moral beliefs, then there is no reason to believe in moral judgments.
P2. Different cultures have very different moral codes.
C1. So, objective values are not the cause of moral beliefs.
C2. Therefore, there is no reason to believe in moral values.

I generally think that this argument is effective, but it seems to me that most if not all cultures have a couple of moral values in common, such as the concept of not killing one another. To me, it seems then that Mackie should consider there to be a select few objective values and then find the remainder to be subjective. In taking Mackie's Argument from Relativity and apply it to Singer's argument about our moral obligation to give to charity, it would be interesting to find out if there are any differences in the concept of charity between different cultures. I couldn't find much history or cultural information about charitable giving online, but if there were considerable differences between different cultures Mackie's argument would determine that charity is not a true moral value.

The second argument is Mackie's argument from queerness, which goes like this:

P1. Objective values are strange and "utterly different from anything else in the universe."
P2. Knowledge of objective values requires "some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing anything else."
P3. If the strangeness of objective values and our knowledge of them cannot be accounted for, then objective values do not exist.
P4. The strangeness of objective values and our knowledge of them cannot be accounted for.
C. Therefore, objective values do not exist.

I do not find this argument as persuasive as the first because Mackie's concept of 'strange' seems entirely subjective to me. For instance, there are many other strange and unique things or phenomena on our planet (at least to me), but I still believe that such things exist. Thus, I do not think that the trait of 'strangeness' in objective values is a valid criteria for disbelieving in them.


Mackie, J. L. "The Subjectivity of Values." Ethical Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007. 25-35. Print.

I have been thinking more about my feelings towards Singer's argument put forth in the past two posts about our moral obligation to charitable contribute to those in need. On the one hand, after reading his argument I want to sell all of my gorgeous leather-bound books and forfeit next years travel plans in order to buy bushels of rice for the starving in order to relieve my guilt. At the same time, I think that there is something in his argument about this giving being a 'moral obligation' doesn't sit quite right with me. I would not feel right condemning those who did not give to charity, as Singer suggested, in the same way that I would in condemning someone who embezzled money or burglarized a family's home. For instance, if the world's richest man, Bill Gates, planned to give every penny of his fortune to his children instead of the $28 billion he has given to charity, I would feel wrong calling him a 'bad man' simply because of his lack of giving. Reading "World Hunger and Moral Obligation- The Case Against Singer" by John Arthur helped me to figure out what might be the cause of my discrepancy of moral feeling. In this article, Arthur explains how entitlements, such as rights and deserts factor in to play. In terms of rights, Arthur argues that a duty to help a stranger in need would be the consequence of some sort of positive right, such as an agreement or contract. However, no such contract exists between, for instance, a US citizen and an impoverished person living in Africa. He maintains that these rights are not the only considerations in determining morality, simply that that they are nuances which Singer's argument never takes into account. The example Arthur gives is in reference to an example in Singer's "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" which puts forth a similar argument to the reading for post number one:

"[in the case of] a lifeguard who contracts to watch out for someone's children. The parent whose child drowns would in this case be doubly wronged. First, the lifeguard should not have cruelly... ignored the child's interests, and second, he ought not to have violated the rights of the parents that he helped. ... Other bystanders also act wrongly by cruelly ignoring the child, but unlike the lifeguard they did not violate anybody's rights."

I think Arthur is correct in arguing that there is something more in play in terms of Singer's argument. In the case of the drowned child, I would feel right condemning the lifeguard and although I might feel that the bystanders acted poorly or even wrongly, it would be much easier to sympathize with their reasoning for not helping.

Arthur argues that these rights as well as deserts, which are benefits or punishments for those who justly earn them, are important parts of our moral code and are based upon fundamental values such as fairness, justice, and respect. He maintains that a rational moral code must be practical and that "Rules that would work only for angels are not the ones it is rational to support for humans". To Arthur, a rework of Singer's conclusion would require people to help when their is no substantial cost to themselves or significant reduction in their level of happiness. Most people's savings accounts are not insignificant, and thus Arthur argues these entitlements would outweigh another's need. However, if something trivial is at stake, such as dirtying one's clothes to save a drowning child, then these rights would not override the greater moral evil that could be prevented. Both Singer and Arthur's conclusions would require most people to donate more than they currently do, however, I think that Arthur's argument takes into account a better reality of human beings who feel that they are entitled to be happy by using the money that they work for and also a less critical frame of reference for passing judgements on humans who make make frivolous mistakes with their money. Thus, to me Bill Gates seems entitled to use his money as long as it was not ill begotten. However, at the same time I can think that I morally ought to donate more to charity because I can determine for myself what I need to be happy and what would be better spent on feeding the hungry. In all, I agree with Arthur that the situation is more nuanced than Singer would have us to believe.

Arthur, John. "World Hunger and Moral Obligation- The Case Against Singer." What's Wrong? Applied Ethicists and Their Critics. Ed. David Boonin and Graham Oddie. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 142- 145. Print.

"Questions for Peter Singer"

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As I was reading the comments to Peter Singer's NYT article, "What Should a Billionaire Give- and What Should You?," that I wrote about in the last post, I found a link to another article where Singer answers many questions that were raised by his readers (http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/interviews-debates/20061224.htm). One of these questions is similar to the issue I raised near the end of the previous post-

"When thinking about an individual ... it's impossible for me to disagree with the idea of saving each and every child that we can possibly save -- but when considered abstractly I wonder if saving lives is actually helpful to humanity as a whole. Aren't we pushing the world even further out of balance ecologically by increasing population? I know it sounds terrible, but in the long term, wouldn't we be better off if more were dying, rather than fewer? ..."

In other words, does donating money to feed and medicate those in poverty artificially allow their poor populations to grow unsustainably in which more and more charitable money is needed in order to provide sufficient nutrition and medicine? To this question Singer replies:

"...ecologist Garrett Hardin proposed, for reasons very like those you have expressed, that the world should cut off aid to Bangladesh. Instead, in part because aid of many kinds... continued, Bangladesh is no longer among the world's most desperately poor nations. Moreover, its population growth has slowed. We don't need to wish for mass starvation to reduce population growth. Far, far better is to help other nations get to the point where improvements in health and education... begin to slow fertility."

I find Singer's response to be relatively unsatisfactory. While I agree it would be better if aid could be used to help improve a nation's health care and education systems, many times it is the governments themselves which hinder their own citizens from being able to make and support these changes and improvements. Unless charity aid were to fund civil wars in some countries, endless streams of aid would be ineffectual in making any changes to the quality of life of those in poverty. For instance, take Singer's own example of the improvement in Bangladesh, although he cites aid as being the primary motivator of change, he fails to note that around the same time a new government and independence from Pakistan also took hold. Without the change in the way that Bangladesh was ruled, the charity and aid may very well have made no change to the situations of those in poverty. Militaries, civil wars, and coup d'├ętats are usually necessary in order for these types of countries to have changes in power structure- not charities. With that being said, aid organizations could potentially bring education to those in poverty about democracy and human rights which could lead to the changes in government. But charity in the form of providing food the hungry and medicine to the infirm would continue to motivate population growth exacerbating the problem until, if ever possible, a new regime could take hold.

Singer, Peter. "Questions for Peter Singer." 24 Dec 2006. Web. 15 Sep 2012. http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/interviews-debates/20061224.htm.

In "What Should a Billionaire Give- and What Should You?" Peter Singer discusses the huge charitable donations of two of the world's richest men, whether their contributions (which amounted to over $67 billion in 2006) are enough, and what this all means for those earning more modest incomes. For instance, the world's richest man, Bill Gates, has given 35% of his $53 billion fortune to charitable causes. In contrast, real estate mogul Zell Kravinsky has given away the vast majority of his $45 million worth to medical charities. Singer argues that one ought to help to alleviate suffering caused by extreme poverty, especially if it causes little or no additional suffering on one's own part. Donating to charities can alleviate suffering of those in poverty through the distribution of necessities such as food, clean water, and medicine. Singer thinks that the the top 0.01% of U.S. taxpayers, those making more than $5 million annually, ought and could easily donate 33% of their income. Furthermore, those making at least $1.1 million each year ought to donate 25% of their income, those earning over $400,000 ought to give 20%, netting at least $276,000 should equate to donations of 15%, and everyone who earns at least $92,000 should give 10% to charity. Singer admits that the levels and percentages are subject to argument, but insists that these levels of charity are unlikely to impose hardship on the contributor and very likely to help those beneficiaries of the charity. Singer ultimately believes that "it should be seen as a serious moral failure when those with ample income do not do their fair share toward relieving global poverty."

Singer's argument is based upon his utilitarian perspective and in this case shows how charitable donations on part of the wealthy (relative to those in extremely impoverished conditions) impose very minimal hardship but greatly benefit the living conditions of the poor, thereby minimizing world suffering. Based upon previous works by Singer, I was surprised that he only recommended donations of 33% of income from top earners be donated, considering most could get by quite happily with far, far less than 66% of $5 million. However, I think his more moderate stance is prudent in this case considering that his audience consisted of all New York Times readers and not those who are necessarily accustomed to reading deep philosophical works. Thus, his main point seems to be that most people could easily give far more to charity than they currently do- and so they should. I think one issue with Singer's argument is that much of the aid given to developing nations seem to have no effect or even adverse outcomes in relieving poverty. For instance, donations of food to the starving definitely relieve the immediate suffering of those beneficiaries, but it also allows those families to have and care for more children than they would otherwise be able to- in other words more and more mouths to feed than the charities can keep up with. With the population of starving able to increase in part because of the donations of food, suffering has increased due to the same charity. Perhaps Singer would reply that those who consider this scenario to be a problem should instead donate their money to an organization specializing in distributing birth control to the same populations, but then those people would continue to starve and their current suffering would not be alleviated. Furthermore, many of those living in extreme poverty are there because of the state of their corrupt governments, and without a change in regime, will continue to do so even with great influxes of foreign aid.

Singer, Peter. "What Should a Billionaire Give- and What Should You?" New York Times, 17 Dec 2006. Web. 14 Sept 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/17/magazine/17charity.t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

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