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The word “good” has no real meaning

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  • Category: Ethics

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Critically assess the view that the word “good” has no real meaning (35 marks) Meta ethics looks at ethical language and helps us to identify whether the word good is meaningful. Analytical statements are sentences that are true because of the relationship between the subject and the predicate. Analytical statements are usually self-explanatory, e.g. all carnivores eat meat; we know what a carnivore eats which is meat, the subject is the carnivore and the predicate here is the meat. Analytical statements are logic based, they tell us about language but little meaningful information about the world. Also no additional meaning or knowledge is contained in the predicate that is not already given in the subject. Synthetic sentences may or may not be true as It would need non-linguistic information about the subject the speaker is referring to. Synthetic statements are based on our sensory data and experience. The truth-value of synthetic statements cannot be figured out based solely on logic as these are descriptions of the world which cannot be taken for granted. The truth of synthetic sentences is based on what is happening in the world, not on what is happening in the language. E.g. all men are arrogant, how do we know that all men are arrogant? We can’t take this sentence for granted as we don’t know all men; it’s a highly generalized statement which we are unable to verify.

Non-cognitivists argue that the word good has no real meaning as it’s a subjective statement and an expression of emotion. Subjective statements are those based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions. Non-cognitivists believe that ethical concepts are simply subjective feelings or opinions. E.g. when you say ‘Murder is bad’, you are expressing an opinion that killing someone is not intrinsically bad but you disapprove of it. Therefore the statement ‘Murder is bad’ cannot be said to be true or false. Morality is simply a matter of personal opinion, so you cannot verify whether an opinion is right or wrong. Non-cognitivists reject the idea that statements such as ‘Mother Teresa was a good person’ or ‘the Lake District is beautiful’ are true or false, these statements are matters of opinion or feelings, this is called a rejection of propositions. The Strengths for non-cognitivism are that It accepts the world as it is. Morality is simply a matter of personal choice, which society then formulates into laws for the betterment of the majority’s personal preferences. And non-cognitivism isn’t rigid so It allows for moral flexibility as opinions develop and change. The weaknesses for non-cognitivism are that Its flexibility may be seen as chaotic – truths do not exist and moral absolutes change from day to day.

Also how can we make a valuable judgement about what we agree or disagree with if that judgement is actually meaningless? There are two theories to the non-cognitivist approach; these are emotivism and prescriptivism. Emotivism is the belief that ethical statements are not meaningful as they cannot be verified analytically or synthetically. Instead they are simply expressions of emotion and subjective opinions of approval and disapproval. The emotivism approach is where you project your own emotions on society. An example of this would be that “I think that recreational drug use is wrong.” Strengths of Emotivism are that it highlights the reason why moral disputes are impossible to resolve decisively, it acknowledges and in some way values the existence of moral diversity.

It’s true to say that moral opinions are often formed on the basis of gaining the approval of others or avoiding their disapproval (E.g. childhood) History reveals many examples of emotivist methods of expressing moral views, even if they are not verifiable E.g. Hitler’s condemnation of the Jewish people and current extremist views such as those proposed by the Westboro Baptist Church.Weaknesses of Emotivism are that Ethical statements are not usually judged according to the response of the listener but on the claims themselves. ‘Abortion is wrong’ makes a claim which can be discussed and evaluated. Its power does not lie simply in how others respond to it. If ethical clams were contingent on emotions, they would change as emotions changed. They cannot be universal claims as the emotions of the speakers would vary. Even when moral statements are carried by a weight of public emotion, that does not provide reason for them to be adopted, nor does it make them right.

Emotivism effectively prescribes complete freedom of action on the basis that everyone’s opinion is equally valid and everyone is therefore free to do what they choose irrespective of the opinion of others. How can we judge between two people’s moral opinions? What criteria is there – if any – for judging the relative merits of a moral viewpoint. Emotions can unite people in a common moral bond, but can also isolate groups and individuals. The emotional force with which a moral view is expressed is no recommendation of its value. Whereas prescriptivism is the belief that ethical statements are not only expressions of emotion, but intrinsically prescriptive, as they imply what ought to be done and that it is universal. The Prescriptivism approach would be the projection of your own emotion on other people. An example of this would be that “I think that recreational drug use is wrong and so should you.”

This statement suggests that not only I think recreational drug use is wrong, but I think that you should adopt my opinion to. Strengths of prescriptivism are that it allows groups and societies to create rules and laws, this is because people can agree independently on a subject e.g. murder is wrong, then universally a law is passes that murder is wrong, therefore murder should be made illegal. Weaknesses of prescriptivism are that the naturalistic fallacy claims that what we ought to do can’t be based on the fact of what ‘is’ this means that we can’t just turn what appear to be right or wrong into a rule, E.g. murder is wrong so we should put the murderer to death because that’s what they deserve, they took away an innocent human life so why shouldn’t we do the same to them, it makes the world a better place. This would be highly immoral although the death sentence is still performed in some states of America and other countries A world without any objective moral absolutes would descend into absolute chaos, this statement would be true as if the world only relied on people’s opinions to make the rules e.g. recreational drugs are an enjoyable pastime, we should allow that as a rule, or I like killing people, let’s make killing people allowed.

This would cause nit only riots but the whole world if it relied on anyone’s opinions as rules would descend into chaos. In contrast to non-cognitivism is cognitivism. Cognitivists believe that moral concepts are real things whilst non-cognitivists believe that moral concepts have no actual existence, and are matters of personal choice. In the cognitivist approach there are things that are intrinsically bad, good, right or wrong, they perceive moral concepts to be real. Therefore we can say whether the statement ‘Murder is bad’ is true or false. Moral concepts are propositions that are based on empirical data and moral propositions are based on empirical sensory experiences and can be verified by empirical data. There are three theories to the cognitivist approach; these are naturalism, non-naturalism and Intuitionism. Naturalism is the belief that ‘good’ is something which can be defined and has a real existence. Ethical statements are therefore valid, because you can use evidence to support or reject them an example of a naturalistic approach would be E.g. If we say that having a Heroin addiction is wrong, we can support this by observing the evidence that the drug potentially can take away a person’s life or makes them seriously ill, it also causes those around them unhappy, e.g. family as the addict steals from them or becomes violent in order to gain what they want e.g. drug money.

The advantages of naturalism is that it can be verified empirically by observation e.g. by looking at a triangle you know it has three sides; otherwise it would lack the means to be a triangle. Naturalism provides an objective and universal system of morality, so everyone is confined to the same rules e.g. murder and stealing is illegal, every country complies with these rules. Also naturalism takes the existence of objective moral laws (absolutes) seriously, this can be established through reason and logic e.g. murder is wrong as it takes away the life of the person and their family is deprived as they can’t see their loved one anymore as they have been taken away from them. Therefore murder is wrong. However naturalism does not take into account individuality and cultural differences e.g. in ancient Mexico murder via a sacrifice was morally acceptable as it would please the gods, now in some tropical tribes that’s still deemed an acceptable way of living, however if that happened in America then the executor would most likely get the death sentence as its part of some states law.

Naturalism is fixed and inflexible as laws are difficult to overrule or change without sound reason e.g. remove the monarchy, this would be seen as treason by billions of people so the rule of keeping the monarchy would stand. It’s also seen by looking at different cultures and historical times that morality isn’t universal as each culture and religious group have different ways of life so the rules can’t be the same for all people. Non-Naturalism is the belief that ‘good’ cannot be defined or explained in simpler words. Therefore ‘goodness’ can only be understood and defined by providing an example, such as we cannot give a definition of the colour blue, we can only give an example of things which are blue, such as the sky, a pair of jeans etc… The strength of Non-naturalism is that it does not take away the meaning from ethical statements; it merely claims that the facts are inadequate at proving them true or false so unless there is an example it’s difficult to prove. Intuitionism develops out of non-naturalism and is the theory that we understand what is right and wrong by using our moral intuition.

In any given situation, we use our moral intuition to establish what the right thing to do is and what our obligation is e.g. by using our conscience and societies wishes we know morally and ethically that murder is wrong. Intuitionalism explains why different societies share certain moral views as moral views are open to interpretation, e.g. in the Uk we don’t not share the same philosophy of the death sentence as in some states in America as we have our own moral way of life, we do not live in the same place so we might not share the same views as its open for interpretation. Intuitionalism explains the idea that human beings have an innate moral sense as most people will agree to the same basic rules/ morals e.g. murder is wrong so is stealing, whereas the practice of honour and loyalty is good. However, it can be argued that what’s good isn’t always what is immediately evident, and the right thing to do is not always known, e.g. I don’t know if drugs are bad as they make me happy so why should they be banned? The inbuilt source of intuitionalism is never fully explained, e.g. where am I getting these thoughts from?

How do I know if my thoughts are good or bad if I can’t explain where they came from? Also how can we be sure that our intuitions are correct, what if they are not? E.g. I have a basic idea that the practice of euthanasia is wrong, how I know if I’m correct or not. As we have seen in this essay the term “good” is difficult to explain through the use of ethical language, we can’t prove the existence of good, we can merely provide examples of what we as humans perceive it to be through the use of examples which are labelled “good” e.g. we perceive love, harmony and righteousness to be “good” does it make them good just because we perceive them to be? The term good is too broad, we as humans are unable to fully comprehend and rationalise the word good as it was sent from the divine. The meaning of good is very broad and profound, its definition shifts from culture to culture. It could be defined as something that’s beneficial either physically, spiritually or emotionally. The term “good” is very subjective.

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