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Foundation for the Study of Religion Essay

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a). Discuss some of the issues raised in Meta-Ethics. (17 marks)

b). How convincing is the view that, when talking of morality, we are talking about facts? (33 marks)

(Total 50 marks)


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–> Remember, in an exam, you have 30 minutes to choose, plan, and write any essay.

–> At AS Level, exam questions are twofold [i.e., there will be an (a) section and a (b) section].

–> Do not forget to answer both sections of a question!

–> Usually, the marks appear beside each section of a question.

–> In each question, section (a) holds 17 marks, and section (b) holds 33 marks. A total of 50 marks per question.

–> Write your responses to questions appropriately – its no good having a detailed (a) section and a brief (b)!

–> This model essay is structured so that it is realistic in its time expectations.

–> If you have revised thoroughly, and know your stuff, you should be writing this sort of exam essay.

–> Remember, do not waffle. An examiner will not assess 65% waffle and 35% real content in an exam essay!

–> Keep your essay responses thorough, yet concise – again, you have very little time to respond to questions!

–> Finally, it remains for me to wish you very good luck, happy last minute revision, and a most successful first exam!

a. Discuss some of the issues raised in Meta-Ethics.

Ethics is the study of how people behave, and how they should behave. It is based on ideas of what is morally ‘good’. But, in order to understand ethics, a definition of ‘good’ needs to be determined. Here, one sees that such ideas will vary from person to person and from culture to culture. Likewise, such ideas explain why there is such a variety of moral systems in use today and a marked difference in the level of commitment to a personal moral code.

Ethics and ethical language, the study of which ‘Meta-Ethics’ is part, can be split into three distinct branches: descriptive, normative and meta-ethical. On the one hand, descriptive ethics describes the way we live and the moral choices we happen to make. On the other, normative ethics employs the kind of language which is more openly moral and presents a clearer idea about what is held to be right or wrong; so, a statement such as “It is always wrong to tell a lie” is a normative statement. Contrastingly to both, meta-ethics is the study of the meaning of ethics itself, gauging the meaning of ethical language, and taking into consideration the authority of moral claims and the effects of personal preference.

Bearing this in mind, it is possible to note that meta-ethical theory poses questions such as ‘Can we define which action is ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’, or ‘wrong’?’ and again, ‘Is it possible to give a definition to ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’, or ‘wrong’ in themselves?’ Admittedly, all four of these words are related from a moral point of view. But, if we could measure ‘good’ completely and accurately, then we would be able to measure everything else against it. Yet, philosophically, it is impossible to define ‘good’ so completely. For instance, if one were asked to define ‘yellow’, one is able to say what yellow is like (such as “Yellow is like a banana’s jacket”); but, one unable to say completely and accurately what ‘yellowness’ is. Thus, in the same way, one is able to say what ‘good’ is like, yet one is unable to say what ‘good’ is. Naturally, it could be argued that ‘good’ actions add to the well-being of all concerned; but, again, ‘good’ actions depend very much on individual preference and one’s individual idea of ‘good’.

The puzzle, then, of how to define ‘good’ has intrigued philosophers for thousands of years. Indeed, the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, defined ‘good’ as being how far something fulfilled its purpose in life: for example, a ‘good’ building is one which looks pleasing aesthetically, provides comfort and shelters from the elements. Similarly, a ‘good’ person is one who fulfils well the role into which he or she has been placed. To illustrate this point further, a ‘good’ slave works well as a slave; and, again, a ‘good’ ruler rules the community effectively, maximising everyone’s happiness. This approach has its origins in the Greek word ‘telos’ meaning ‘purpose’ and is therefore referred to as the ‘teleological’ approach to ethics, a purpose-based criterion for gauging what is ‘good’.

A differing method is the ‘deontological’ approach to ethics, which has its origins in the Greek word ‘deon’ meaning ‘duty’. Unlike the teleological approach, this one is a duty-based criterion for gauging what is ‘good’: something is ‘good’ if it fulfils it duty. For instance, Immanuel Kant, bearing in mind the absolute rule of morality ‘Do not steal’, claimed that one should never steal under any circumstances because it is always wrong in itself. For example, if you came across something that had been abandoned by someone who could not possibly have any use for it, even if you needed it and it would hurt no one to take it, it is still stealing and, therefore, wrong in itself. Thus, to do ‘good’, one always must do one’s duty.

Meta-ethics, then, attempts to go a long way in explaining the essence of ‘good’ and ‘good’ action, combining alike viewpoints yet, likewise, displaying very different perspectives of the real meaning of ‘good’.

b. How convincing is the view that, when talking of morality, we are talking about facts?

But, when attempting to define ‘good’, and certainly when considering ethics as a whole, is it actually possible to say that moral systems deal with ‘facts’? Some ethicists would claim not. GE Moore, for example, in his book Principia Ethica (1902) claimed that ‘good’ is impossible to define because it entirely depends on the moral codes a person brings to a particular situation. This would suggest that, owing to the wide range and variety of personal preference in ethical systems, it is impossible to talk of facts when dealing with morality. Moore, though, did suggest that ‘good’ was an entity in itself and that it was something which human beings intuitively sought. Indeed, human beings do a thing that is ‘good’ in order to achieve some long-term goal. However, he stated that in doing so, people commit what he coined the ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’. Namely, that in finding oneself in a particular moral dilemma people assume it is natural and logical to shift immediately from dilemma to solution, treating moral conclusions as if they were absolute.

For instance, imagine a 15 year old girl having her drink spiked by a much older man who then makes her pregnant. Indeed, the girl did not want a sexual relationship with the man and was horrified when she realised what had happened, particularly because she was a devout Christian with high moral standards. Many people would say that the girl ought to be offered medical treatment such as the morning-after pill or an abortion.

Here, using the principle known in moral philosophy as ‘Hume’s Law’, Moore would claim that people have committed the ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’ because they have moved from an ‘is’ statement to an ‘ought’ statement. In other words, they move from a description of how things actually are, to how they ought to be. Put in a simpler form, (A) A teenage girl is pregnant against her wishes; (B) She ought to be offered an abortion. ‘A’ is the ‘is’ statement, ‘B’ is the ‘ought’ statement; yet, to move from one to the other, Moore claimed that an intermediate (or, midway) proposition is needed. This could be as follows: ‘A woman should only carry a child to full term when she has chosen to be pregnant.’ This is known as a ‘value proposition’ and it is this element of the equation that gives the conclusion (B) its moral force.

But exactly why does Moore refer to this straight shift from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’ a misleading notion? It is because (B) is simply a blind, na�ve opinion without any value whatsoever. The intermediate proposition gives it moral value and force because it establishes that the pregnant girl is neither a ‘woman’ nor one who has ‘chosen to be pregnant’. Thus, it states that she is a teenage girl who is pregnant against her wishes and, because of the intermediate proposition of women only carrying a child to full term when she has chosen to be pregnant, the girl’s situation goes against the moral code. Naturally, using a different moral value in the intermediate stage would produce a different outcome, which suggests that, when talking of morality and moral codes, we are not always talking about facts.

Like Moore, whose claims reject the idea of morality being factually-based, RM Hare developed a theory for ethical language called ‘Prescriptivism’, in which he claimed that in prescribing a particular course of action for others, people ought to ask ‘Am I prepared to prescribe that somebody else should do it to me if the roles were reversed?’. (Interestingly, this idea is parallel with the golden rule of Christianity that appears in Matthew 7:12 – ‘Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”)

Although this gives the impression that all people should be treated equally, it does not suggest that morality is factually-based because such moral rules can be accepted or rejected. Moral statements, then, according to Hare, are more than mere signs of the personal preference of the speaker; for him, they prescribe a course of action. But, just as he claimed moral rules are hugely important in influencing lives, he also added that one cannot say moral rules are true or false. Thus, it is untrue that – when talking of morality – we are talking about facts.

In morality, then, there is a difference in how language is used. In everyday communication, language can be used in either ‘cognitive’ or ‘non-cognitive’ ways. Used cognitively, language states fact and reasoning and is non-moral; in other words, it has no moral values attached. However, used non-cognitively in a moral setting, language aims to express attitudes, exercising an influence over people. In morality, this influence is to persuade people of the moral rightness or wrongness of an action.

Indeed, CL Stevenson, a philosopher closely associated with ‘Emotivism’ – a system of morality based on feeling – claimed that, when used non-cognitively, the word ‘good’ is very persuasive because it has a moral tag which tries to draw the listener into taking a moral stance. It pulls on the emotions. Certainly, Stevenson suggested one’s moral code is an emotional response – one simply ‘feels’ something is good or bad. Again, then, it is impossible to say that when we talk of morality, we talk of facts because, as ‘Emotivism’ shows, individual feelings differ and, therefore, individual moral codes influenced by ‘feelings’ similarly are going to differ.

Thus, in conclusion, it is unconvincing to say that, when we are talking of morality, we are talking about facts: Moore, would agree because his ‘value propositions’ in moral dilemmas can easily be altered to produce a different outcome and, therefore, a different moral force; Hare claimed one cannot say moral rules are true or false, therefore failing to deliver morality to the territory of ‘fact’; and, finally, Stevenson claims that individual moral codes are influenced by individual ‘feelings’ about the rightness or wrongness of an action, thus rendering factually-based morality a nonsense owing to the rich diversity of individual emotion.

Indeed, the highly influential philosopher, AJ Ayer would agree with such an avowal because he suggested all moral statements are ‘meaningless’ statements. For example, how could one prove that it is wrong to cheat? He insisted that such statements as ‘Is it wrong to cheat’ are totally without meaning or provable sense because, logically and empirically, they cannot be shown to be true. All one can do is show that lots of people believe it is wrong to cheat. All they can do is express a personal dislike of cheats, cheating, and its consequences; they can express how they consider it to be unfair. That is, they can express how it does not coincide with what they believe to be fair and right – but that is all. Moral statements, then, are reduced in this way to personal preferences and are not concerned with ‘fact’.

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