Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Philosophic Problem of Moral Disagreement

There is little doubt that there is disagreement on many moral issues among individuals and groups of people. This includes nations and political parties within nations.

In the book “Whatever Happened to Good and Evil”, Russ Shafer-Landau puts forth that despite these disagreements, there is subjective morality.

In examining my own personal belief system, I find that he and I are in agreement on that issue. There is indeed subjective morality, despite the existence of moral disagreements among intelligent, educated people.

The 'Argument from Moral Disagreement' basically states that if two open-minded, intelligent persons continually disagree about an issue, then there must be no objective truth to that issue.

The basic philosophic problem is the falsity of the premise itself - that simple informed disagreement equates to a lack of basic truth.

Shafer-Landau’s book “Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?” gives an example from the physical sciences: in areas such as physics, chemistry, and geology, scientists may frequently disagree on some basic premise.

Yet those scientists remain committed to their being an objective truth to the issue being studied and disagreed upon. If this is so for non-moral areas, such as the physical sciences, why should it not be so for ethics?

Also, in it’s 'Synopsis of the Major Arguments' section, the book points out that ethics is related to philosophy: “ethical disagreement is a species of philosophical disagreement.”

Although there is disagreement in philosophy, this does not mean there is no objective truth to questions such as those regarding free will, good and evil, and even the very existence of God.


It is important that we recognize that moral disagreements are going to occur. People are fundamentally different from one another across any number of experiential communities: racial, religious, ethnic, geographical, sexual, political communities, just to name a few.

Each of these communities brings to bear their separate influences and pressures to our individual consciences. As to our morals, we are very much a product of the environments in which we have found ourselves during our lives.

We need to recognize that others of differing backgrounds are going to have different viewpoints and different morality than our own.

Still, this does not mean that one of us, or possibly even all of us, are not ultimately incorrect in our morality and ethics. That we are not thinking and acting in opposition to the way some objective moral truth would prefer to have us think and act.

Some possible consequences of moral disagreement include traumatic ones for humanity. For instance, there was a time in American history when a large part of our country felt that there was nothing morally wrong with human slavery.

There was a time in the 20th century when a nation and ideology, Nazi Germany, believed that systematic extermination of another group of people, mostly Jewish, was not morally wrong. Moral errors such as these have hurt, and even killed, numerous human beings.

People may have disagreed about these things on a moral level, but that did not undermine the objective morality which states that slavery and ‘ethnic cleansing’ are wrong. The slave owners of the American South and the leaders behind the Nazi war machine may have been able to argue their position to those of a similarly twisted moral mind, but they would be hard-pressed to show how their positions and actions were objectively moral on any level.

In “Whatever Happened…”, Shafer-Landau puts forth that morality is objective. He further states that true intractable moral disagreement exists among people on only a few ethical issues, but that these disagreements are “especially widespread” and go “especially deep.”

Shafer-Landau also writes that much of this ethical disagreement stems from certain people lacking adequate information, or failing to logically think through the information that they do have.

But Shafer-Landau posits that even if people did manage to achieve this level of thought, there would still be disagreements because there is so much at stake in ethical matters.

In addressing these critical matters, people tend to bring with them all of the accumulated biases formed from their cultural, religious, political, familial, educational, and other influences. This has the ultimate effect of “undermining neutrality”, and making it difficult to get at some consensus. He believes that, if we can think better and eliminate biases, then we can “shrink the scope” of moral disagreement.

I believe that moral disagreement is to be expected due to the wide variety of influences that individuals and societies come under in their respective experiences.

However, I also believe in subjective moral truths. I believe that absolute “rights” and “wrongs” do indeed exist. That some things, actions, and even people themselves are “good” and “evil”, despite the fact that other intelligent, informed thinkers might not agree with me on the specifics, or even on that idea in general.

My beliefs can be described further by my positions on the issues which I sited earlier. I believe that slavery in the American South was wrong, that all human beings have an intrinsic worth and that they should be respected as human beings, not as property to be bought and sold.

I also believe that efforts to effect the extermination of the Jewish people by the Nazis was wrong, and that not only mass exterminations in ‘ethnic cleansing’ efforts, but individual murder is wrong.

Human beings should not take the lives of other human beings, and the exceptions to that basic moral truth, such as to defend one’s own life, should be considered seriously, measuring greater good against the cost to humanity of the loss.

I believe that things such as murder, abortion as ‘birth control’, and suicide/euthanasia are taking innocent human lives, and are always wrong for men as a subjective moral truth.

Issues need to be discussed. Controversial topics need to be addressed, often publicly. And when a large, varied, educated, experienced public is involved, there are going to be a wide range of ideas on morality brought to the table in those discussions.

But in the end, the existence of those moral truths needs to be recognized. Seeking such truths out and applying them to our societal and individual lives should be the goal for all of us.

(THIS article represents a term paper that I turned in at St. Joe's in my Sociology class this semester)

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