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Philosophy 101 : Morality

Rajat Hans

April 18, 2020

Status of a moral judgement

By status of a moral judgement we mean to explore the question of what it is that people are doing when they make moral judgments.

We ask questions such as: Is morality objective or subjective? What is the relationship between self-interest and morality? Why should I be moral?

Types of judgements

i. Empirical judgements - It was sunny today, Sun rotates around the earth, Trees have leaves, Scientific discoveries
ii. Moral judgements - Genocide is morally abhorrent, Polygamy is morally dubious (controversial), Democracy is wrong

Questions about these judgements

Q1. Are they things that can be true or false - or are they mere opinions?
Q2. If they can be true or false, what makes them true or false?
Q3. If they are true, are they objectively true? - Moral judgements are not objectively true or false they are based around cultural, personal, sensibility etc.

How to explain the status of a moral judgement?

There are three main approaches that philosophers have taken to explain the status of morality.

Objectivism - the view that we are representing objective facts when we make moral judgments.
Relativism - the view that we are describing some kind of cultural or personal relative practice when we make these judgments.
Emotivism - the view that we are expressing our emotions towards the world when we make these judgments.


Our moral judgements are the sorts of things that can be true or false, and what makes them true or false are facts that are generally independent of who we are of what cultural groups we belong to - they are objectively moral facts.

For objectivism - Genocide is morally abhorrent. Follows the 3 questions and is objectively true.
Against objectivism - Polygamy is dubious. Maybe there’s a cultural thing involved. It can’t be objectively true or false. So objectivism fails here.

According to the objectivist view of morality, moral judgments are like empirical judgments in that both types of judgments concern objective facts that can be true or false, independently of cultural backgrounds.


Our moral judgements are indeed true or false, but they’re only true or false relative to something that can vary between people or culture.

"One must drive on the left side on the road" is relative to a culture or group of people.

Relativistic views of morality first found expression in 5th century B.C.E. Greece, but they remained largely dormant until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Subjectivism - An aggressive/extreme form of relativism

Our moral judgements are indeed true or false, but they’re only true or false relative to the subjective feelings of the person who makes them.

“X is bad” = “I dislike X”.
One says Okra is yummy, other says okra is gross.

So this kind of subjectivism is dependent on an individual's feelings. Subjectivism is good in explaining how moral judgements are relative to things. On the other hand, subjectivism has a hard time explaining disagreement.

Polygamy, for example, for a subjectivist is hard to disagree. There seems to be a real issue at disagreement between those who think it is morally dubious and those who think it’s not. And the subjectivist has a hard time explaining that.

This is what leads to a less aggressive form of relativism called cultural relativism.

Cultural relativism - A less aggressive/extreme form of relativism

Our moral judgments are indeed true or false, but they’re only true or false relative to the culture of the person who makes them.

"X is bad” = “X is disapproved of in my culture”

So what is right in one society may be wrong in another and vice versa. (For culture, you may substitute: nation; society; group, sub-culture, etc.) This is another theory with ancient roots.

Herodotus, the father of history, describes the Greeks encounter with the Callatians who ate their dead relatives. Naturally, the Greeks found this practice revolting. But the Callatians were equally repelled by the Greek practice of cremation causing Herodotus to conclude that ethics is culturally relative.

World literature sounds a recurring theme: different cultures have different moral codes, an insight confirmed by the evidence of cultural differences. The Incas practiced human sacrifice, Eskimos shared their wives with strangers and killed newborns, Japanese samurai tried out his new sword on an innocent passer-by, Europeans enslaved masses of Africans, and female circumcision is performed today in parts of North Africa


Our moral judgments are not the source of things that can be true or false, neither objectively true or false, nor true or false relative to some person’s feelings or some culture. They are the direct expression of our emotive reactions to the world.

Emotivism is a theory that claims that moral language or judgments:
i. are neither true or false;
ii. express our emotions; and
iii. try to influence others to agree with us.

“Okra is gross"
"Go Manchester United!"

They are exclamatory statements that are neither true nor false and have no cognitive content. They express emotions and try to influence others to share the emotion.

Now the difference between emotivism and personal relativism (subjectivism) is subtle. When personal relativists say Gandhi was a good man they report their view of Gandhi. And this report is true or false depending on whether they are telling the truth. But the emotivist claims there is no truth or falsity to moral judgments whatsoever! If I say I hate abortion—assuming I’m being sincere—then this expressed emotion is neither true nor false, it just is. In other words, the emotivist says that different moral judgments are just like differences in taste. I like carrots; you don’t. I like homosexuality; you don’t. But emotivists don’t consider moral judgments as reporting a speaker’s beliefs; they just express emotions. In the same way that cows moo, humans emote. Therefore, according to the emotivists, moral language has no factual content at all and thus cannot be true or false in any way.

Objections to these approaches


Okay, so here’s an objection to objectivism. Remember the objectivist thinks that our moral judgments are the sorts of things that can be true or false, and when they’re true, they’re objectively true like the empirical judgements made in science are objectively true. But you might think, well, there’s an important dis-analogy between our moral judgements and our empirical judgements. When somebody disagrees with us about some empirical matter, there’s a method that we could use to go out and verify the right opinion. We can observe reality and determine whether it was indeed sunny today, for example. Or whether the Earth does indeed rotate around the Sun. These sorts of judgements look like they admit empirical verification through some sort of observational method.

With moral judgements we don’t have a method to figure out the disagreements.

Can this objection be met?

Of course. This is where philosophy debates various objections and responses and tries to develop new theories.

For example, the objectivists could argue that sometimes we do use empirical observation to determine what’s right and wrong. For example, many objectivists think that what’s right and wrong is determined by what maximizes overall happiness. And we can go out and measure different policies as to whether they promote or don’t promote overall happiness. That’s something that you can observe.

Alternatively, the objectivist could say, look, in the case of mathematics, we think there’s an objectively true or false answer to many questions. But we don’t think you can observe that answer, not like with your eyes and your ears, but we have powers of rational reflection or intuition that we can come to figure out the objective right answer. So these are a couple of the types of responses the objectivist might give to that objection.


So let's talk about an objection to relativism. Remember the, that the relativist thinks that our moral judgments are true or false but they’re only true or false relative to somebody’s culture or someone’s individual subjective moral feelings. But if that’s right, it seems like it’s hard to make sense of moral progress.

So we think that humanity gets better at being moral in certain ways. So for example in the past people thought that slavery was perfectly fine. But now we think slavery is morally abhorrent. That seems like a piece of moral progress. We’ve gone from a bad view to a good view.

But if the relativist’s view is right, somebody in the past said slavery is morally okay. That could be true, relative to that culture. Where as somebody now, says slavery is morally wrong. That could be true relative to our culture and there’s a sort of difference in opinion. But there’s no progress in opinion.

So the basic challenge here for the relativist is to explain the possibility of moral progress.

Can this objection be met? Lets see.

Relativists argue that that different cultures overlap. For example, the slavery in America in the 18th century is part of our cultural heritage now. You could see that culture is overlapping with our culture and so there is moral disagreement there because there’s cultural overlap. It’s not two radically different cultures. So that could be a possible response by the relativists to the objection for moral progress.


Let's discuss an objection to emotivism. Remember that emotivism is the idea that our moral judgements aren’t beliefs about matters of fact, either objective or relative, they’re expression of our emotions, our emotive reactions to things. They’re like saying boo for polygamy or hooray for charity.

The challenge this view faces is that it looks we sometimes reason our ways to our moral views, our moral opinions. But if emotivism is right, then our moral opinions are just emotive reactions. They are not reasoned responses to questions about morality.

So, think about the example of Oedipus is sleeping with his mother, Jocasta was morally bad. You might have initially thought, that’s right. But then reasoning oh well Oedipus didn’t know it was his mother and so it wasn’t culpable what he did. Come to think well it wasn’t morally bad. So that kind of transition, changing your mind through reason is really hard for the emotivist to explain. Because the emotivist thinks that the ultimate judgements that you make when you make moral judgements, they’re emotive reactions and not reasoned responses to beliefs about the way things are with morality.

So, the basic challenge of emotivism is to explain how we can reason to our moral views.

Can the objection be met?

The emotivists can say: look, some of our evaluative reactions to things are in the space of reasons. They are the sorts of things we can reason to.

For example, if you prefer a to b, and b to c, but you prefer c to a, there is something wrong with your preferences because they’re irrational. This is something that’s well studied by theorists of rational preference and choice. That seems like the sort of thing that you can then reason your way to say: oh well, I need to change my preference about a and c somehow to sort this out so that it’s not irrational. But those preferences they are beliefs in objective matters of fact, or relative to matters of facts. They’re evaluative attitudes.

So if you think of our moral attitudes, our moral judgements as something like preferences, when we make moral claims, we’re expressing a certain kind of moral preference, rather than just an emotive reaction. Then maybe the emotivist could make a more refined version of emotivism and answer that challenge, that, we can’t make sense of the way we reason to our moral views.

So again, that’s just one possible response to the objection I mentioned for each of these three theories. You’ll have to think yourself about whether you think those responses are compelling, or whether there are counter objections that come up because of the response.

But this is the methodology of good philosophy, thinking about how we can refine our views, refine our initial intuitions and opinions. In light of the types of objections that people who have different views from us would raise in order to get closer and closer to what we think is the right view about the status of morality.

Further reading

A detailed description of definition of morality
For a detailed discussion about moral objectivism Objectivism vs Relativism

Rajat Hans © 2020