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Philosophy Week four – Morality

I am playing catch up this week as I wanted to finish my project for the EDC MOOC. Now that is done I can concentrate more on Philosophy.

I just took a whirlwind tour of Morality.

Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens, by Rafael

Six videos with a total length of not quite fifteen and a half minutes described the whole of the Philosophical viewpoint of Morality.  The shortest of the video lectures so far.  The philosophy of morality is ethics.

Before I listened to the lectures my view of ‘morality’ was pretty much the same as the dictionary definition.



  1. Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour.
  2. Behaviour as it is affected by the observation of these principles.

The Status of  Morality

The lectures were about the status of morality. We looked at scientific facts and compared them to moral judgements.

Questions about moral judgements:

Are moral judgements the sort of thing that can be true or false, or are they “mere” opinion?
If they can be true or false, what makes them true when they are true?
If they are true, are they objectively true?

By answering these questions we can consider the three main philosophical views about morality.

Moral Objectivism

The basic premise of Objectivism is that moral opinions can be true or false. What makes them true or false are facts that are generally independent of who we are or what cultural groups we belong to – they are objective moral facts.

This would mean that a scientific fact such as “Water boils at 100 degrees celcius at sea level” bears the same ‘truth’ as a moral opinion such as “Slavery is morally wrong”.

Objections to Moral Objectivisim

Those who argue against this view give the following objections.

There is no empirical evidence to prove that moral opinions can be true or false.

Sam Harris argues that science can– and should — be an authority on moral issues, shaping human values and setting out what constitutes a good life. He has some very persuasive arguments.

Here is another video this time from Paul Zac. He believes oxytocin (he calls it “the moral molecule”) is responsible for trust, empathy and other feelings that help build a stable society.

Moral relativism.

The basic idea is that our moral opinions are indeed true or false, but they’re only true or false relative to something that can vary between people.

In this way, my opinion that slavery is wrong might be true for me but false for someone else in the same way that it’s OK for me to like red wine and them to hate it.  People who think slavery is wrong are not likely however to put it down to a difference in tastes like red wine.

The relativist says that my opinion that slavery is wrong could be true relative to my culture but someone else’s opinion that slavery is not wrong could be true relative to their culture. Then, there’d be no real conflict.

Relativism says that our moral opinions are in the realm of truth and falsity, but their truth and falsity is covertly relative to something like our subjective moral attitudes or our cultural norms.

Objection to Relativism

If morality is relative to cultures, then it is difficult to make sense of moral progress. For example, many cultures in the past condoned slavery, but we’ve come to think that slavery is morally abhorrent. If relativism is right, that shift in opinion does not represent progress from a pervasive false opinion to a pervasive true opinion.

For the relativist thinks that each moral opinion is made true or false relative to the culture in which it is made. The idea of intellectual progress seems like an important commonality between morality and science which relativism has a hard time explaining.


Emotivism says that moral opinions aren’t the sort of thing that can be true or false. According to emotivism, moral claims are neither statements of objective fact nor statements whose truth is subjective or culturally relative. They’re expressions of our emotional reactions.

Emotivism says that our moral opinions are not really beliefs in matters of fact at all but rather the moral attitudes themselves. The utterances which express them are not statements of fact but expressions of emotion.

Objection to Emotivism.

If moral statements are expressions of emotional reactions rather than factual beliefs, it is hard to explain the possibility of reasoning to
our moral opinions.
The emotivist might say that this is exactly his point: our moral opinions aren’t reasoned,they’re emotional. Even if it’s true that emotions influence many of our moral opinions, it still seems that we can reason our way to some moral opinions.
What about cognitive dissonance, where one’s head believes one thing even while one’s heart feels something different. This shouldn’t be possible if  moral opinions are really just feelings and not beliefs.


Although I only did the whirlwind tour of morality and did none of the background reading my opinion of Morality has changed a little.

What I have learned is that morality can be effected by cultural values. Moral judgements are not something that everyone agrees on.  I hadn’t really considered this before. For example I had never considered that polygamy was a moral value. I had considered it a s a cultural difference.

This part of the course also made me think about facts. From the lecture it would appear that facts are things that enough scientists agree on.  We have seen enough evidence of this being quite wrong though. Scientists agree on something in droves until they are proved wrong so can anything be a fact? Are facts only temporary until the next fact takes its place?

When I was at school I learned that I had  evolved directly from tree dwelling apes via a stage that was a Neanderthal.



  1. Steven E.A. says:

    If you go to TED’s website and search “morality” you can find a couple awesome talks by Paul Zak and Sam Harris on morality and science. Really interesting stuff. Also: I enjoyed your thoughts. 🙂

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Thank you Steven for coming to visit my MOOC blog. I have just watched Sam Harris – It is a great video and addresses some very good points. I am going to embed it in this post as an example. I love this course. It has really been making me think about things in a different way and re evaluating certain beliefs I took for granted. Thank you for helping me on my way 😉

  2. Nat Nelson says:

    Nice summary as ever! Will have a look at the videos when I ave a bit more time. I have just done the week 5 videos on testimony which I will write something about when I have had time to digest it.

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Thanks again Nat. I am trying to absorb all this. I will pop over and visit you site when I have got too grips with week five.

  3. […] if they are likely to be right. This is similar to Sam Harris’s view in the TED video when he says that if he told people that string theory was rubbish he would not be credible because […]

  4. gbl55 says:

    Really good summary Louise (much better than the one I didn’t dare publish!) On ‘facts’ – the ‘either black or white’ of philosophy sometimes irks me. In science ‘facts’ surely vary in quality and strength depending on soundness of supporting evidence, how long established, their importance etc. Attempting to falsify ‘facts’, reduce their standing as it were, is crucial to scientific method – a sort of survival of the fittest strategy. Good thing that scientists are often proved wrong (usually by other scientists) but some important facts are probably here to stay!
    Gordon Lockhart

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Hello Gordon
      Thank you for your kind comments. I wonder how we will feel about facts that we believe today in the future.

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