Sunday, July 14, 2013

An Argument For Ethical Skepticism

I'm teaching an introductory ethics course this summer and we're reading Russ Shafer-Landau's The Fundamentals of Ethics. In the introduction, he considers ethical skepticism and mentions that some people think that ethics is just in "the eye of the beholder" or that it's "a bunch of make believe."  Here's one argument he considers for embracing this kind of skepticism about ethics:
(1) If there were a universal ethic, then that would make it okay for some people to impose their views on others.
(2) But that's not okay at all.
(3) Therefore, there is no universal ethic.  
What do you think about this argument?  Are the premises true?  How might someone respond to this argument and what do you think about such a reply?

34 comments:

Jesse Steinberg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christina said...

In regards of validity, this is a logically valid argument. Assuming that both premises are true then the conclusion makes perfect sense. However this is not a sound argument because the first premise is contradictory. If there were a universal ethic then there would be no need for anyone to impose their beliefs on others because there would only be view that everyone agreed upon. The second premise implies that everyone already has the same perception as to what is correct and what is not. It is implying that imposing ones beliefs on others is morally unacceptable, however it is making a generalization saying that for everyone it will be morally unacceptable. When fact of the matter is that precisely because there may not be a universal ethic then this is not necessarily the same view that everyone has.

Jesse Steinberg said...

Thanks for commenting, Christina. This argument does indeed seem valid. I don't see, however, your point about the second premise implying that everyone already has the same perception as to what is correct and what is not. The second premise simply states that it's not okay to for some people to impose their views on others. I think what people mean by this is that it's not acceptable for a group of people to force their moral views on others or to expect others to live by the moral code of this group of people.

Given that the argument seems valid, we should question whether one or more of the premises is false. Note that the first one is a conditional claim. It's a claim about the relationship between there being a universal ethic and it being okay for some people to impose their views on the others. The second premise is a claim about it not being okay for some people to impose their views on others. Hopefully this clears up the argument a bit...

So are either of these premises false? What do you think?

Lik Sheng said...

I think there is a universal ethic but instead of using a strong word such as "imposing" the ethical views on others, is it possible to change it to "persuading" someone? That creates more leeway for objectivism. I am actually in between ethical objectivism and subjectivism, for I think that if there is enough people to support a certain ethical view, namely view X, then the view X goes. If another person opposes view X, he better convince enough number of people to challenge view X. Till then, view X is the dominant ethical view.

In short, I am acknowledging that there are some ethical codes that are objectively true, but I also acknowledge that ethics is a social construct and it evolves with time.

I know I have a slightly contradicting view in favor of ethical objectivism, but this is what I think. Feel free to comment on this.

Karynne Woodard said...

I believe that this argument is valid and sound. However, I do believe that there are some universal ethics. A set of morals that the majority of the public should live by ie deliberatly hurting other people require justification, most societies have laws against these. However, there are certain ethical standards that are different for some people, such as abortion. For some they believe they can have a choice and some believe that is wrong and these beliefs should not be imposed on others.

Yuan Xu said...

I think this argument is valid but does not sound reasonable. Suppose premise one and premise two are both correct. If there were a universal ethic, it would be fine for some people to impose their views on others. However, it was not all right to impose anyone’s views on others because one’s views of the world may not be always correct. Therefore, the logic structure is correct that there cannot have a universal ethic.

However, in my own opinion, I think premise one is wrong. Suppose there were a universal ethic. It indicates that there were universal standards which distinguish right from wrong. It does not mean that everyone would agree upon that kind of universal ethic. It could be the case that someone still has a different ethic but just those different ethic standards are wrong (because it is different from the universal one). Therefore, the existence of a universal ethic does not guarantee that everything holds the same standards. So, premise one is wrong.

Heather Wittrock said...

I think the argument is valid but I personally do not agree with it. For example, if there were a universal ethic to do others no harm (as there should be). I think it would be right to impose this on others. If there were(as of course there are) other places in the world constantly waging war on its people then I think it is okay to intervene. Somebody should not have to fear for their life just because of the region they were born, and if it takes the brass of some other ethical person or people to stop this then it is right for them to do so.

Chen Huey Tsan said...

I believe that there is a universal ethic that is accepted by the public today. For instance, we know that it is unethical to cause harm to others or go around killing people. It is a known fact. I disagree with premise 1 because I do not think that it is okay to impose certain views on others because everyone is free to have their own opinions and views on certain issues.

I believe in objectivism but in certain cases, I think people have different tastes in determining what is right and wrong. For instance, killing another person is known to be morally unacceptable whereas controversial issues such as abortion and use of animals for scientific experiments very much depends on each person's views and beliefs.

Miles Jeon said...

If there were a universal ethic, then it is very reasonable to impose your view on someone. We can compare it to a universal truth, couldn't we? If 2+2=4, and someone argues otherwise, I would tell that person, "Hey, you're wrong. I'm right. This is why..." However, many arguments about ethics in society today do not have a universal truth. We may believe that there is a universal truth for topics like abortion or birth control, but there really isn't. I believe the premises are true, and when there is a universal ethic, you have the right to impose it on someone, but there aren't too many universal ethics in the world for hot topics in today's society.

What I just commented is what I would tell people arguing against this claim. If they had a solid, sound, truthful ethic, lay it on me. However, a universal ethic is, hard to come by. A lot also depends on who you talk to. Different societies have different upbringings, and what might seem ethical in one may not be ethical in another. As much as I want to believe that there is a universal ethic, my arguments and beliefs are all based on what my society and my religion has told me was morally right or wrong. And because we haven't all grown up in the same upbringings, imposing something we believe to be correct, to someone else, would be wrong.

Yeet Chien Tan said...

All the time, I always think that Ethical Skepticism is too methodological. By looking at Landau's argument, I would say that they are valid. However, I would not support premise 1 as I think there is no universal ethic and also, it is not good for someone to impose his/her views on others.

Given there are a lot of religions and belief in the world, it is hard for people to adopt an universal ethic that tells them what is wrong or what is right. In other words, they may disagree with each other because they believe in different ethic but this does not prove that other ethics are wrong.



Noratikah Ali said...

The argument is valid and I agrees that there is universal ethic. However, i think that it is not right for some people to impose their views on others. This is because people have different views on different issues. We agrees on basic things whether it is right or wrong. For example, killing a man is wrong. However, we will have different opinions on complex matter such as abortions issues because we hold on different principles. As such, I think that there is universal ethic to some extent, but it is not necessarily right for some people to impose their views on others.

Zhen Ming said...

In my own opinion I believe the argument is valid. The premises follow a logical reasoning structure and entail the conclusion. However, I don't believe the argument is sound because I don’t believe the premise is true. In some cases there are universal ethics. For example, everyone knows and all have some senses of morality of not to kill/harm another innocent human beings. Therefore, it should be okay for some people to impose their view on others. This would make premise 2 false.

However, in some cases, people often have different viewpoints in determining what is right and wrong such as abortions and cloning etc. Therefore, in this case it would not be okay for people to impose views on others, meaning there are no universal ethics in some cases.

Reed K said...

I don't believe this argument is sound. Substituting opinion for view, the second premise claims: It is not okay for somebody to impose their opinions on others.

And slightly reworded, the first premise claims:
If there were a universal ethic, a person who believes in that universal ethic could impose it on others.

However, a universal ethic is by definition objective and belonging to no specific person or ideology, so it isn't really their view or opinion. If an objective morality exists, then it would be a natural truth and it would be accepted by any rational human because it is a fact. If it is accepted then it can't be forced or imposed. All rational people accept facts, therefore, the claim that a universal ethic could be imposed isn't true.

robert broome said...

I believe this argument is logically valid. If both premises were true, then the conclusion would makes sense. However, there are a couple issues with this argument that lead me to believe it is not sound. First off, premise 1 is highly debatable. If there were universal ethics, or in other words there was a universal right and wrong for every situation, then it still wouldn’t make it okay to impose your views on someone else, since everyone is entitled to their own interpretation of what is right and wrong in a free world (whether or not that interpretation lands them in trouble is another issue). On the other hand, if ethics were truly universal, and there was a clear cut right and wrong in every situation, then by definition everyone would have to agree on those rights and wrongs (unless they were insane), and as such there would be no need to impose your views on someone else.

Either way you interpret the meaning of “universal ethics”, premise 1 has its issues, and as such the argument as a whole is not entirely sound. While in most cases there is a clear right and wrong, in my view there are some cases which are much more ambiguous and subjective and therefore despite the argument not being entirely sound, I do agree with its conclusion to some extent.

Su Jia Wong said...

The argument seems to be valid. Given that there is universal ethic, everyone is supposed to know what is right or wrong, and thus it is ok for some people to impose their views on the others. For instance, if the universal ethic says euthanasia is not acceptable, it will be ok for us to criticize the decision of a cancer patient's family to end his life to avoid further torturing.
This make premise one true.

Second premise says it is not ok for people to impose views on others. This premise itself seems to be true because we know ethics are somehow socially constructed and people in different parts of the world live by different rules. What seems to be true in this society might be unethical in another society. Just take polygamy as example and it is not hard to see how ethic varies by societies.

Thus, I think there is no universal ethic and it is not ok for someone to impose their views on other people.

Kah Yee Yap said...

I think this argument follows a logical structure and thus, is valid. Also, I personally agree with the conclusion that there is not any universal ethic. When it comes to examining whether the argument is sound, I think both premises are true. Firstly, I think that it would be reasonable for people to impose their views on others if there were a universal ethic. When certain ethical standards receive unanimous agreement by the society, I think they have turned into facts that need not be subjected to any other interpretation by different people. Therefore, it wouldn't be out of line for people to impose their views on other people. Suppose that abortion is deemed as morally incorrect by the entire population worldwide, imagine that an individual is trying to tell you that it indeed is immoral, that would not be considered improper because it has already become a universal truth that every single person has agreed upon.

I think the second premise is true too. It is not okay for people to influence others' viewpoints. We know that everyone has their own take on whether a situation or action is right or wrong and most of the ethical standards are dependent upon, say, the upbringing of people within their society or culture. It is not sensible to ask other people to follow what they think because we, as individuals, have the authority to hold our perspectives and beliefs on how certain things work out. Again, some people think abortion is a feasible thing but this might be completely irrational for certain cultures. It wouldn't make sense to tell people that you should or should not abort.

Woojai Jang said...

I think that we can impose universal ethic on others on the following conditions as long as we have absolute knowledge about what is right or wrong.

I understand that most of us will not like the word “impose” because it implies coercion. However, the word no longer has the negative implications once the coercer absolutely knows what is right or wrong. What I mean is: the word “impose” seems to have a negative connotation because, in reality, nobody can know for sure about anything. Let’s face it: how do you if you are not dreaming, or dreaming within a dream? Given that we can’t be even certain about the world we live in or our existence as a real being, how can anyone even claim that we know what is right or wrong. If someone says he does, then he is basically advertising himself as having some kind of special insight that gives him a piece of knowledge that everyone else lacks. Of course, it would be foolish of us to take such a person seriously, not to mention his arrogance for thinking he is special in certain way. Now imagine a situation where the person has gotten the power (he became a dictator or religious leader) to impose his moral views on us. Most of us will find his actions appalling.

Yet, for the argument’s sake, grant the person the special insight that allows him to know with certainty what is right or wrong. In that scenario, those of us who do not share his views and do not act accordingly are immoral. So, in that case, when he “imposes” his views on us, what he is really doing us a favor.

Daria Kryuchkova said...

I don`t really get the point of this argument. Isn`t the ethic already universal? It has plethora of fixed rules that ideally people should follow in order to be accepted in the society. I really think, ethic is universal. Hence, the argument is invalid. 1 premise in my opinion is true, while second premise and the conclusion are false. Our views constantly get imposed by others. A moral individual has to follow rules of universal ethic and has his/her own views. I think the definition of right and wrong is somewhat the same everywhere. At least it has been identified. Our modern urge to be unique gets mixed up with the idea of following standard rules. Murder for example is a murder, from the moral point of view it can`t be right in any case. Argument about universal ethic reminds me about ethical starting points that according to the book are "reasonable constraints that can guide us when thinking about how to live". Any morality has to have them, so ethic is universal.

Enrique Franco said...

This argument appears to be valid but I don't consider it to be an effective argument. I don't think it is a sound argument because I'm not convinced either premise is true. Let's begin with premise one. Suppose there is in fact a universal ethic, I don't think it's an appropriate assumption that imposing ones views on another would be ethical. That assumption presupposes an aspect of the "universal ethic". It could just have easily been phrased for instance 'If there was a universal ethic, then it is not ok for people to impose their views on others.' It seems natural to acknowledge that no one wants opinions forced upon them. So perhaps the obvious issue with premise one is its language. The first premise seems to ignore the value of autonomy.

Similarly is the second premise less then clear. While the first premise ignores the value of autonomy the second places its value extremely high. If it were never ok to impose views on others then murder, as an example, should never be stopped. The murderer in one fashion or another has a desire to kill. His or her belief structure could fully support killing for pleasure, amusement, or boredom but under the second premise no opposing view, say that life has value, should be imposed.

I'm not quite sure what an ethical skeptic might argue in rebuttal. Possibly, if there was a universal ethic it would exist independent of individual wishes or opinions and subsequently could never BE imposing. Truthfully I'd appreciate any skeptical set of rebuttal because the skeptics claims seem problematic to me.

Enrique Franco said...

sooo i typed a comment and then when had me choose an identity and sign in and then my comment disappeared. i don't know if it just hasn't posted it cause you need to approve or if it deleted it. This is a follow up test comment. Feel free to delete

Jake Seymer said...

I do believe that there are a few universal ethics, mainly the most powerful such as don't kill strangers. For the most part though the details of life are dictated more on a subjective basis (ie our day to day lives). I don't agree with the phrasing of the first premise. Along with the assumption of a universal ethic, to me it seems like its assuming that such an ethic would be created by man and forced on others. First our class is about the origin of morals, so I don't think its alright to make such a large subtle assumption like that. Second, who says they would be forced on others. If you know the 'true' moral code, why can't you just live your life morally and offer advise if others ask? I don't see why it must be forced onto others. Premise 1 just makes to many jumps for one line and isn't believable.

Sara Klunk said...

Though the argument is valid, the first premise seems false to me. I do believe that there is a universal ethic, but that does not mean that it is okay to impose those views on others. I think it is possible for something to be right or wrong, yet depending on the situation, people may interpret this “universal ethic” differently. This is when people begin to disagree on how a universal ethic can be applied and try to impose beliefs upon one another, which should not be tolerated.

For example, most people would agree that murder is wrong. At the same time, many of the same people would also agree killing an “enemy” in war is necessary for a country’s protection, and is not considered murder. Again, some of the same people would also agree that a doctor who euthanizes his patient is committing murder, despite the patient’s willingness to die. Though many believe that murder is wrong, this example shows the difficulty in applying one universal rule to a situation. This grey area that so often comes up justifies the right to a difference of opinion and for that opinion to not be imposed upon by others.

Sara Klunk said...

Though the argument is valid, the first premise seems false to me. I do believe that there is a universal ethic, but that does not mean that it is okay to impose those views on others. I think it is possible for something to be right or wrong, yet depending on the situation, people may interpret this “universal ethic” differently. This is when people begin to disagree on how a universal ethic can be applied and try to impose beliefs upon one another, which should not be tolerated.

For example, most people would agree that murder is wrong. At the same time, many of the same people would also agree killing an “enemy” in war is necessary for a country’s protection, and is not considered murder. Again, some of the same people would also agree that a doctor who euthanizes his patient is committing murder, despite the patient’s willingness to die. Though many believe that murder is wrong, this example shows the difficulty in applying one universal rule to a situation. This grey area that so often comes up justifies the right to a difference of opinion and for that opinion to not be imposed upon by others.

Dan Richard said...

The argument is definitely deductively valid. However, whether you or an objectivist or subjectivist, I think the argument has to be seen as unsound. The second premise is stating a universal ethic. To say that it if there were a universal ethic then x, and then to say x is not okay at all, is stating a universal ethic in itself. Therefore, I do not find this to be a convincing argument for ethical skepticism.

Emily Engel said...

I feel that this argument is valid; however, I don't necessarily feel that the argument is sound. To me, it's very well possible that universal ethic exists. It's also possible that one of these ethics states that it's not okay to force your beliefs on someone else, which would prove premise one to be false and eliminate the arguments validity.

Max Haraldsen said...

I think this argument by Shafer-Landau is no sound. The biggest problem is with premise 1. This premise assumes that if a universal ethic exists that everyone would willingly follow it and totally understand it. In regards to ethics in general, there are many cases where someone was aware of an ethical "rule" and chose not to adhere to it. This does not mean that the ethical "rule" is not true, it simply means the person for someone reason does not want to follow it. Additionally, I believe that in terms of universal ethics there are several very general points that humans interpret different. Thus, one could know of an ethical "rule" and interpret it in a way much different than another person. This would not mean that the "rule" does not exist but that people see it in other ways.

Caitlin Cooper said...

I think that the first premise is true and the second premise is false. Even though I don't think it's right to impose my own view on others I think people impose their views on other people all the time. For example the US government creates legislation based on opinions and morals that the entire country doesn't share like laws about who we can marry (same sex marriage, polygamy, ect.) as well as laws regulating abortion. I think that if there was a 100% true universal ethic then it would be OK to impose those morals on others since we do it anyway when our current ethic is all over the place. I think that in general we all want to believe that we don't impose our ethics on others when in reality it's very normal to do so.

Robert Romeo said...

This argument is difficult for me because I do agree that there is no universal ethic, however I do believe that some peoples moral compasses are more accurate or better than other. This belief would suggest that some people are more correct and therefore those people are getting closer to a universal ethic. The way that I believe this is wrong is that there are certain situations in which the right thing to do is going to be different for different people, and no choice is better than another. One example that comes to mind is the suicide scenario. I do not generally believe that suicide is ok or that it should be viewed as an option, but for someone dying in pain in hospice I believe that there should be an assisted suicide option. Again, whether or not this will be a good decision is purely a case-by-case basis.

Zhantao Xu said...

I think the first premise is wrong. Personally I agree that if there is a universal ethic, then it is ok for us to impose that ethic on someone who doesn’t agree with it since it is universal. We all believe that the earth revolves around the sun. It is a universal truth, and if someone say no to me, I will try my best to impose this theory on him/her, and I think I have the responsibility to do so. It is the same between universal truths and universal ethics since everyone should believe them. But the first premise argues that we can impose “our” view on someone if there is a universal ethic. What I am considering is that it is not “our” view that can be imposed, instead it is the universal ethic that can be imposed on someone. So, we cannot claim that there is no universal ethic through this valid but not sound argument.

Enrique Franco said...

(Possibly take 2)

I think the argument presented is a valid. Certainly if both premises were true this argument would be effective. I remain naturally skeptical about the conclusion which leads me to question their truth. I believe that premise presupposes that a universal ethic would condone imposition of our beliefs on to those who don’t share them. For instance premise one could have just has easily read ‘if there is a universal ethic then it is not ok for people to impose their views on others’. Both statements assume aspects on the subject you’re trying to prove exists. I do not believe either statement holds much truth because I don’t believe you can guess at qualities of a universal ethic in order to determine its existence. Premise 2 seems even easier to dispute. Take for instance a rapist or murder who genuinely believes that what they do is ok. It would be absurd to think that it isn’t ok to stop them. When considering morality or an ethical life it is only natural to subsequently find life to have a high value, high enough that we would preserve it at the expense of the murders’ views.
I really don’t know what objections an ethical skeptic might raise. This specific argument demonstrates the problems that I think are bound to come up concerning ethical skepticism. However I would enjoy/appreciate any suggestions as to what one might say.

Enrique Franco said...

(Possibly take 2)

I think the argument presented is a valid. Certainly if both premises were true this argument would be effective. I remain naturally skeptical about the conclusion which leads me to question their truth. I believe that premise presupposes that a universal ethic would condone imposition of our beliefs on to those who don’t share them. For instance premise one could have just has easily read ‘if there is a universal ethic then it is not ok for people to impose their views on others’. Both statements assume aspects on the subject you’re trying to prove exists. I do not believe either statement holds much truth because I don’t believe you can guess at qualities of a universal ethic in order to determine its existence. Premise 2 seems even easier to dispute. Take for instance a rapist or murder who genuinely believes that what they do is ok. It would be absurd to think that it isn’t ok to stop them. When considering morality or an ethical life it is only natural to subsequently find life to have a high value, high enough that we would preserve it at the expense of the murders’ views.
I really don’t know what objections an ethical skeptic might raise. This specific argument demonstrates the problems that I think are bound to come up concerning ethical skepticism. However I would enjoy/appreciate any suggestions as to what one might say.

Conner Schultz said...

I do not agree with this argument. It’s logically valid by modus tollens, but the argument is not sound. On account of the condition in premise one, it seems like it’s a bit of an assumption. If there is a universal ethic, it could be the case that the universal ethic says that it’s bad to impose your views on others. That could possibly be the case. If that is the case, then premise one is clearly false. I believe that it isn’t morally acceptable to impose their view on others (mainly because of the use of the word “impose”). To discuss (or persuade), however, is morally acceptable. It’s important to point out how people can be very ethically misguided, and oftentimes, it’s difficult to decide on what the universal ethic might be. Therefore, you shouldn’t impose views on others. Imposing morality coerces people into morality; they don’t come to moral decisions on their own terms and their own rationale. For example, it isn’t ethical to not kill someone solely because of the illegality of it; you shouldn’t kill because it’s immoral to kill. Imposing views forces people into morality for the wrong reasons, so that’s why I think that premise one is false, because even if there is a universal ethic, that does not mean it is okay to impose views on others.

A person in support of this argument could disagree and say that since people are so ethically misguided, the universal ethic needs to be imposed in order to end ethical misguidance. I, however, find this to be rather authoritative and immoral in itself.

Conner Schultz said...

I do not agree with this argument. It’s logically valid by modus tollens, but the argument is not sound. On account of the condition in premise one, it seems like it’s a bit of an assumption. If there is a universal ethic, it could be the case that the universal ethic says that it’s bad to impose your views on others. That could possibly be the case. If that is the case, then premise one is clearly false. I believe that it isn’t morally acceptable to impose their view on others (mainly because of the use of the word “impose”). To discuss (or persuade), however, is morally acceptable. It’s important to point out how people can be very ethically misguided, and oftentimes, it’s difficult to decide on what the universal ethic might be. Therefore, you shouldn’t impose views on others. Imposing morality coerces people into morality; they don’t come to moral decisions on their own terms and their own rationale. For example, it isn’t ethical to not kill someone solely because of the illegality of it; you shouldn’t kill because it’s immoral to kill. Imposing views forces people into morality for the wrong reasons, so that’s why I think that premise one is false, because even if there is a universal ethic, that does not mean it is okay to impose views on others.

A person in support of this argument could disagree and say that since people are so ethically misguided, the universal ethic needs to be imposed in order to end ethical misguidance. I, however, find this to be rather authoritative and immoral in itself.

Jeff Collins said...

I believe that this argument is valid and sound. Looking at the first part of the argument, I think it would be perfectly fine for someone to impose their view on others if there were a universal ethic because their view would be seen, as fact and everyone in the society would agree with this view. Going onto the second part of the argument, I agree with the statement that it is not okay for people to impose their views on others because everyone of us has different views on different topics and I think it should be able to stay that way.