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PHIL 1F91 Lecture Notes - Soundness, Moral Relativism, Categorical Imperative

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Brian Lightbody

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PHIL 1F91 November 23, 2012
Lecture Twelve: Problems With Virtue Ethics Continued…
- Although a virtue ethicist approach may provide us with a guideline for the individual agent, it tells
us nothing about universal ethics as such
- Virtues are sometimes incompatible: honesty and compassion for example
Challenge to Ethics: Relativism
- Ethical relativists argue that there are no objectively moral “rights” or “wrongs”
- Ethical intuitions are subjectively correct according to the person who holds them
- Ethics, as such, is irrelevant because if all ethical intuitions are subjective then arguing about the
objective moral values of ethical intuitions is incoherent
Four problems with Ethical Relativism
1. Self-referential contradiction
2. The preposterous objection
3. The impossible disagreement objection
4. The impossibility of moral improvement objection
Self-Referential Contradictions
Some statements have universal scope in that they describe a characteristic or property about
all statements that belong to a particular set:
o Example: “All logically true statements are objectively true”
However, self-referential statements also belong to the same set about which they describe a
characteristic belonging to a set of statements
o Example: “all logically true statements, including this one, are objectively true.”
Sometimes a self-referential statement will lead to a contradiction depending on what property
the statement purports to describe of the set of statements in question
Usually this occurs with a universal negative statement, example: “There is no statement which
is obviously true.” If this statement is true then it is false since the statement claims that no
statement is obviously true
Application to Ethical Relativism
- Example 1: “All ethical intuitions are subjective.”
If all ethical intuitions are merely subjective then what does this tell us about statement 1?
If the statement is an ethical intuition about ethical intuitions then it is either true or false.
Assume it is true. We have two choices if true: either it is objectively true or mere opinion
believed to be true (that is, it too is merely subjective). But if objectively true then it
contradicts itself. Not all statements are subjective
- Example 2. If it is an opinion believed to be true then that means it has no more validity than any
other intuition and thus why believe it?
Let’s examine the last possibility. Assume premise one is false. But if it is false then ethical
relativism cannot be true and therefore the opposite position (ethical objectivism) must be
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