Defending the idea that universal truths do not exist.

Reply Thu 16 Sep, 2010 12:12 pm
I'm taking my first ethics class and am not experienced in organized debates. My professor is very experienced in debate. He is a Christian (not very vocal about it though) and he holds to the idea that all truth (including morals) are objective. Every moral question has a right or wrong answer. I am an atheist. I do not believe that there is anything (god, spirit, force or whatever) that could be used as a yardstick to measure morality.

Portions of the email I sent to my professor:

In my email I used the idea that "Candy is delicious" is subjective. There is no universal truth that states "Candy is delicious".

"If my thinking is correct, then I see no reason why I can't apply the same logic to the sentence, "Homosexuality is immoral"? (By the way, I don't think it is immoral). I think that the possibility exists that this statement is also subjective, similar to the candy sentence. I am not saying that the sentence IS subjective. I am saying that the possibility exists that this statement is subjective. What do you think?"

" The sentence "I like candy" is inherently ambiguous, because the "I" could stand for you or for me. If you liked candy and I did not you would not claim I was "wrong." The statement has no objective referent. As you suggest, it is saying nothing whatever about "candy." It is talking, really, about ones subjective states.

Such statements concern matters of taste. You could not argue that my tastes were "wrong." The only question remaining is whether or not you believe that ethics is a matter of taste. Is the claim "wife beating is wrong" equivalent--in your mind--to "my elbow itches?" Is it a matter of indifference to you that some people believe it is OK to cut a young girl's clitoris out and bind her vagina? Or would you insist that people who think such things are OK are wrong? Would you say, "You ought not do that," meaning precisely that?

The position you are defending is called "emoptivism." I don't find it coherent, but if you do, you would simply need to accept that there is, for you, no area properly called "ethics." Obviously, if all matters of ethics are simply matters of taste (or prudence) then there is no sense of maintaining the distinction.

I see myself more in the camp with Meta-ethical Moral Relativists. These terms are new to me, so I might be using the wrong verbiage. I do not object to moral values themselves, I just deny that they exist outside of human convection. Morals are human inventions IMHO. Morals serve a good purpose for society, family and the individual. I think asserting your beliefs on a particular topic is perfectly acceptable (I'm not sure if this can be said of an emotivist). I see nothing wrong with me saying, "The act of an 18 year old male performing sexual acts with a 7 year old female is immoral," if I believed this to be true. But if I make this statement I need to be prepared to back up my assertion.


"It seems to me that you are committing yourself to defending what is usually called the "noble lie." If you deny that morals have any status aside from human convention, you could not--except via lying (prevarication) claim that a moral statement is true except in the sense that you would be DESCRIBING a social norm. Of course a description would have no normative force. When we say "X is immoral" we mean, "You should not do X." To say "Muslim nations see a woman's baring her head as immoral" is to say nothing of the sort. You can reformulate many ethical claims as sociological descriptions or prudential advice, but you will not retain the full normative "thou shall not" of real moral claims and you could never use them as legitimate tools for reformation as in claiming "slavery is evil" in a community where it was accepted. By your definition, moral claims collapse to descriptions of social convention and in that case, your claim would be counter to the convention.

Given the reduction of moral claims to descriptions of social conventions, how could you possibly "believe" it is "true" that pederasty is "immoral?" You may believe that convention supports it (it does in some places), you may believe it would be a sensible convention to have (poor parents could make lots of money making their your daughters sexually available to rich old men) but to say it is "immoral"--that it is somehow wrong regardless of the practical or historical circumstances--you could not do. If morality exists solely as moral convention, those who practice the convention could not be "wrong," could they?

Thus, in claiming that something is "immoral" you would simply be pandering to lesser minds incapable of your level of enlightenment. Sadly, they still believe in the "truth" so you must accommodate to them for their own good. Someone who would claim something to be "moral" in that case would obviously be lying, but since he was doing it for the other's good (which he obviously knows better than the other possibly could) it is "noble" (of course, in a world were there was no morality, nothing could be "noble" but when one is committed to making claims he cannot really endorse, he must expect inconveniences like that.)

The position is pretty arrogant but it has a long line of followers including Nazis and Marxists. You will find some defense of it in Nietze and Machiavelli. Social engineers tend to adhere to it (BF Skinner).

Honestly, you need to clarify what you mean by "moral." If it can be assimilated to other concepts without remainders, it is simply an empty word. If you think it is possible to exist with no robust sense of morality, then you should try (note that my advice--the "should"--actually denies the possibility) to do so. On the other hand, if you simply cannot exist without constantly relying on counterfactual "should"s, then you have proven that you believe morality has an independent existence and you need to adjust your life to that fact."


1) In philosophical terms how would you describe what I believe?

Here is how I describe my beliefs.
There are no MORAL absolutes because there is nothing to measure these moral issues against. I do agree that if a God exists, then God could say that "Smoking marijuana is immoral", but still does that really make it immoral? However, I believe that we create morals to protect our best interests. I don't want anyone to kill me. So, I say that killing is wrong.

2) How do I respond to him? Or what philosopher literature would help me to defend (or change) my position. I'm open minded. I was a Christian for 15 years (very passionate about it) and my studies led me to atheism.

Thanks for your time.

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NoOne phil
Reply Thu 28 Oct, 2010 09:30 am
I was never very smart in school, however, I did figure out one thing I found useful. If I were to speak at all concerning anything w0rthwile, I would first have to learn the principles of predication. Now, I realize that there is no currect work in that area which is worth the study, if at all, and that the past works by those who did, apparently are beyond the comprehension of society in general. What does one do?

PS. As Philosophers have known for a very long time, logic is binary. To say that Universal truths do not exist is neither true nor false, it is also a tautology, and third, one can neither assert nor deny existence. Nor can one predicate of a first principle. Perhaps a few years with Plato might help you understand.
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