Metaethics: Crash Course Philosophy #32

Posted By on September 23, 2019


Is it wrong to steal to feed your family? Is there such a thing as a good lie? Questions like these are the domain of ethics – the branch of philosophy that studies morality, or right and wrong behavior. But before we can parse questions like these, we need to go deeper – into metaethics, which studies the very foundations of morality itself. Metaethics asks questions as basic as: what
is morality? What’s its nature? Like, is it an objective thing, out there
in the world, waiting to be known? Or is it more like a preference, an opinion,
or just a bunch of cultural conventions? There are lots of different metaethical views
out there. And one way to understand them is to put them to a test to see how they’d help you solve some thorny ethical problems. Like a scenario where you have to steal food
or lie for a good cause. Or what about this: What if you set out to harm someone, but you ended up saving their life by accident? [Theme Music] Some people think that ethics is a kind of science, that it seeks to discover moral truths, whose existence is testable and provable. But others believe the nature of morality is every bit as subjective as whether you prefer plain M&Ms, or peanut. There’s just no right answer. Unless you have a peanut allergy. So, you and your friend might totally agree on whether something is immoral or not, but you might disagree fervently about why. For an example of a slippery moral scenario, let’s just head straight over to the Thought Bubble for some Flash Philosophy. A burglar plots to break into an old woman’s house on a Sunday morning, a time when he knows she’s always at church. So one Sunday, he creeps up to her back window,
and smashes it with a hammer. But, after he looks inside, he sees that the
old woman isn’t at church. She’s in there, laying face-down on the
floor. The sight of her body scares the burglar,
and he runs away. He was down for a little bit of burglary, but getting nabbed for murder was NOT part of his plan. But what the burglar didn’t know was that
the old woman wasn’t dead. She was unconscious, having passed out because of a carbon monoxide leak that would have killed her. When the burglar broke the window, he let out some of the toxic gas, and let in fresh air, which allowed her to regain consciousness. So, the burglar broke into the house with the intention of stealing from the woman, but, inadvertently, he saved her life. Did the burglar do a good thing? Does he deserve praise, even though he didn’t
intend to help the woman? Likewise, does he still deserve blame, even though he didn’t actually get around to stealing anything, and ended up saving the woman’s life? Thanks Thought Bubble! Your answers to these questions will help you suss out where your moral sensibilities lie. And why you answer the way you do will say a lot about what metaethical view you subscribe to. One of the most widely held metaethical views is known as Moral Realism, the belief that there are moral facts, in the same way that there are scientific facts. In this view, any moral proposition can only
be true, or false. And for a lot of us, our gut intuition tells
us that there are moral facts. Some things are just wrong, and others are
indisputably right. Like, a lot of people think that gratuitous violence is always wrong, and nurturing children is always right – no matter what. But, you don’t have to dig very deep into
moral realism before you run into trouble. Like for one thing, if there are moral facts,
where do they come from? How do we know what they are? Are they testable, like scientific facts are? Are they falsifiable? And, if morality is based on facts, then why is there so much disagreement about what’s moral and what’s not, as opposed to science, where there’s often more consensus? This is what’s known as the grounding problem. The grounding problem of ethics is the search for a foundation for our moral beliefs, something solid that would make them true in a way that is clear, objective, and unmoving. If you can’t find a way to ground morality, you might be pushed toward another metaethical view: Moral Antirealism. This is the belief that moral propositions don’t refer to objective features of the world at all – that there are no moral facts. So a moral anti-realist would argue that there’s nothing about gratuitous violence that’s inherently wrong. Likewise, they’d say, if you look at the rest of the animal kingdom, sometimes nurturing your kids doesn’t seem like it’s that important. So, maybe morality isn’t the same for everyone. But still, most people you know – including yourself – are committed to some form of moral realism. And there are MANY forms. So let’s familiarize ourselves with some
of its most popular flavors. Some moral realists are Moral Absolutists. Not only do they believe in moral facts, they believe there are some moral facts that don’t change. So, for them, if something is wrong, it’s
wrong regardless of culture or circumstance. Moral facts apply as universally and as constantly
as gravity or the speed of light. If moral absolutism sounds too rigid, maybe
Moral Relativism would appeal to you. This view says that more than one moral position
on a given topic can be correct. And one of the most common forms of moral
relativism is cultural relativism. But there are actually two different things a person might mean when they talk about cultural relativism. The more general kind is Descriptive Cultural
Relativism. This is simply the belief that people’s
moral beliefs differ from culture to culture. No one really disputes that – it seems obviously
true. Like, some cultures believe that capital punishment is morally right, and other cultures believe it’s morally wrong – that killing another human is inherently unethical. But there’s also Normative Cultural Relativism, which says that it’s not our beliefs, but moral facts themselves that differ from culture to culture. So in this view, capital punishment is morally correct in some cultures and is morally wrong in others. Here, it’s the moral fact of the matter
that differs, based on culture. Now, normative cultural relativism might sound pretty good to you; it does at first to a lot of people. Because it seems like it’s all about inclusiveness
and tolerance. Who am I to tell other cultures how they should
live, right? But this view actually has some pretty big
flaws. If every culture is the sole arbiter of what’s right for it, that means no culture can actually be wrong. It means Nazi culture actually was right,
for the people living in that culture. A dissenting German voice in, say, 1940, would have just been wrong, if it had claimed that Jewish people deserved to be treated the same as other Germans. And what makes things even weirder is that, if normative cultural relativism is true, then the concept of moral progress doesn’t make sense, either. If what everyone is doing right now is right, relative to their own culture, then there’s never any reason to change anything. Problems like these make some people take a second look at the antirealist stance, which, remember, is the view that there just aren’t any moral facts. Just one flavor of moral antirealism is Moral
Subjectivism. This view says that moral statements can be true and false – right or wrong – but they refer only to people’s attitudes, rather than their actions. By this thinking, capital punishment is neither right nor wrong, but people definitely have preferences about it. And those preferences key into personal attitudes, but not into actual, objective moral facts about the world. Like, some people favor capital punishment,
and think it’s just. Others oppose it and think it’s unjust. But it doesn’t go any deeper than that. There are no moral facts, only moral attitudes. There are other varieties of both moral realism and antirealism, but this should give you an idea of the general, metaethical lay of the land. And by now, it probably seems like I’ve
given you a lot more problems than solutions. So let’s talk about the moral frameworks you’ll use to navigate your way through all of these moral mazes. These frameworks are known as ethical theories. They’re moral foundations that help you come up with consistent answers about right and wrong conduct. All ethical theories have some kind of starting assumptions, which shouldn’t be surprising, because really all of our beliefs rest on some basic, assumed beliefs. For instance, natural law theory, which we’ll study soon, relies on the starting assumption that God created the universe according to a well-ordered plan. While another ethical theory, known as utilitarianism, relies on the starting assumption that all beings share a common desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The starting assumptions of a theory can lead us to other beliefs, but if you reject those initial assumptions, the rest of the theory just doesn’t follow. Now, in addition to starting assumptions, ethical theories also consist of Moral Principles, which are the building blocks that make up the theories. And these principles can be shared between
more than one theory. For instance, many ethical theories agree on the principle that it’s wrong to cause unjustified suffering. Some ethical theories hold the principle that any unjustified killing is wrong – and that includes animals – while other theories hold the principle that it’s only wrong to unjustifiably kill humans. But the thing about ethical theories is that
most people don’t identify with just one. Instead, most people identify with principles from several theories that help them form their own moral views. We’re going to be spending several weeks learning about these ethical theories, and you’ll probably find elements of some that you already believe, and others that you definitely disagree with. But all of this accepting and rejecting will help you develop a new way to talk about – and think about – what are, for now, your gut moral intuitions. Today we talked about metaethics. We discussed three forms of moral realism and we learned the difference between descriptive and normative cultural relativism. We also learned about moral subjectivism,
which is a form of moral antirealism. And we introduced the concept of an ethical
theory. Next time we’re going to learn about the ethical theory known as the Divine Command Theory. Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association
with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel and check out a playlist of the latest episodes from shows like: Physics Girl, Shanks FX, and PBS Space Time. This episode of Crash Course Philosophy was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.

Posted by Lewis Heart

This article has 100 comments

  1. Morality is a set of rules that allows a group of intelligent conscious organisms (humans) to interact in the most "efficient" way possible, to achieve the highest net happiness and prosperity. Since morality is judged by humans with limited intelligence and not omnipotent supercomputers, we tend not to do crazy things like kill someone because their grandkid is going to be a dictator. Instead, we have general rules for net prosperity such as "killing without being in such situations (…) is immoral" because their grandkid may be a dictator, but also could be a philanthropist, but it will be hard to measure, but what will be easy to measure is the immediate decrease in net prosperity in the people affected in the relatively short time after and after the murder.

    Reply
  2. I'm getting good grade in moral ethics course in college all because of your channel. Great content, precise and exclusive. and great animations too. I don't know how to thank you.

    Reply
  3. Christians are the ultimate moral relativists and situation ethicists because they have holier than thou double standards and they seek to impose a morality upon others which they themselves do not follow (since Biblical law is Jewish, not Christian).

    Reply
  4. Thanks for the awesome video CrashCourse! Just a pointer, the same argument – for explaining the difference between Descriptive and Normative cultural relativism – is used on both sides, but missing the moral fact in the latter:

    Descriptive (4:48) – "some cultures believe that capital punishment is morally right and other cultures believe it is morally wrong; killing another human is inherently unethical"
    Normative (5:14) – "capital punishment is morally correct in some cultures and morally wrong in others" …and?

    Reply
  5. Is it right for aliens to be killing, and eating-let alone torturing- human beings, if in fact that is one of the things they are doing??

    Reply
  6. These Lessons are good, their content is pretty succinct and broad in it's range. However it must also be noted that there is a bias that is being conveyed if not shown, potentially they arent even away it's being conveyed. There section on cultural relativism arguements is missing key points on subjects that take place in anthropological and sociological field work. Overall while these contain good information they do not show a whole picture and have the potential to give an illusion of choice whilst laying out rhetorical questions in a Michal-Moore-ish fashion to lead the viewer to a predestined opinion.
    But go off i guess.

    Reply
  7. realisim works like this people pretend to have morals until survival or greed kiks in for example a woman knows that prostituting her self is morally wrong but if she has to survive offer her a good amount of money and her morals will go out the window.

    Reply
  8. When I was 16 I had a great fascination with ancient reptiles and studied paleontology nonstop. I developed a great deal of respect for the dinosaurs given as they dominated the world for hundreds of millions of years ( whereas humans had only for a couple thousand ) and that they were so successful in adapting and evolving to countless conditions around the world. I sometimes thought that if dinosaurs had taken their success one step further and developed their own complex civilizations what their ethics would be. I asked myself if even basic moral rules would apply to animals other than humans. Like would murder be wrong for these civilized dinos? Or is that just a rule that applies exclusively to some part of the primate, human, brain that these animals wouldn't have. I thought about these a lot and studied biology, philosophy, psychology, and other sciences in search of an answer. I eventually figured stuff out but I still find it funny to think about how much sleep I lost asking myself if civilized birds would be cool with manslaughter.

    Reply
  9. What's the deal with the typo's? It says "what is mortality?" in the graphics, instead of 'morality'. And in a previous episode, intentional was misspelled as 'interntionality'. Just a heads up!

    Reply
  10. Lest anyone be confused, moral relativism in the descriptive, as opposed to normative, sense is NOT a metaethical theory. Since it's simply a statement about how beliefs differ from culture to culture, it makes no statement one way or another about the status of moral facts (whether they exist or not) and so is neither a form of moral realism or anti-realism on it's own. It is an important thing to discuss here since many people get descriptive moral relativism confused with normative moral relativism (which IS a metaethical theory) and/or use descriptive moral relativism as a justification for some other moral antirealist position. Cheers

    Reply
  11. I see ethics and our sense of morality as just a part of evolutionary traits. I came to this idea because I believe in moral antirealism that is there is not moral facts or truth that it's all in our head.
    The reason I see the sense of morality as just a part of evolutionary traits is because it varies widely among groups of people and circumstances. I see this as an adaptation to an environment. The reason most of us don't condemn the Donna party for cannibalism is because that was necessary for the survival of the group. In this way, ethics is just a part of social norms and conventions to maximize the survival and success of a group of species like a colony of honeybees or ants. Even these organisms have some social rules to guide their behavior that maximizes the survival of the group. But most likely the rules differ depending on the environment and the character of the group much like the social rules of us humans. I speculate that we developed our sense of morality because the harmonious and collaborative group was more successful in its survival. It's completely arbitrary construct but is absolutely necessary for social animals. We know this is true when we imagine a human being lone in a spaceship living by himself for his entire life because ethics become irrelevant.

    Reply
  12. Like most Western philosophy the problems are linguistic. The question is not "is it wrong to steal to feed your family". The question is, is it wrong to let your children starve in order to maintain your own "moral purity" – ooooooor is it wrong to imprison someone for stealing enough to feed their, kids – oooooor Is it wrong to take someones kids away for seeking asylum, security and freedom – in a land of wasteful plenty !!!!

    Reply
  13. Okay so if immorality is defined as intentionally causing unjustified harm or suffering and Utilitarianism is the desire seek pleasure and avoid pain where would hunting animals for sport lie? Is it moral because you’re seeking pleasure or is it immoral because sport is not a justifiable reason to kill an animal. Is immorality only defined as causing harm to other humans or all life in general?

    I’m going based off the assumption that cultural relativism suggests different ways of identifying immorality but that the definition of immorality itself stays constant throughout any culture but is that true? Do cultures have different ways of identifying immorality or do they have different ways of defining it. Maybe both?

    Reply
  14. I believe I read about this kind of ethical scenario which occurred sometime around last year when a man broke into a house and found child porn, then reported the owner to the police!

    Reply
  15. lmao who cares, if we dont have free will then no1 is really responsible for their actions anyways rendering the whole debate moot

    Reply
  16. I would add some moral facts to antirealism. Moral terms. Terms whose definitions include moral judgements and there for contain moral facts within them. take murder. We already have the word to kill which can be good or bad to us, but murder is always wrong. This is because the way we've defined murder is that it's inherently bad. If a killing wasn't bad or wrong or unjustified, it wouldnt be murder. What actions qualify for these moral terms are entirely subjective though.

    Reply
  17. Why are people who preach "cultural relativism" always liberals that never apply the idea of cultural relativism to their own culture. They usually bash their own culture incessantly, even though they simultaneously believe all cultures are equal. Usually leftists who like to pretend they're fighting Nazis in the west (because there's no actual Nazis, and no actual threat of any pushback for their antics and aggressive virtue signaling) who are too cowardly to call out any cultural problems in the middle east, even though they call out their own culture evil, racist, homophobic etc. every day.

    Reply
  18. The thief should be awarded a trophy without ceremony, tossed in jail for 3d6 days, then set free with all record expunged yet published.

    Reply
  19. About that burgular what was his intention. I think morality must be based on people intention not on action. And there r some universal immoral thing which r recognisd by our inner soul/instinct

    Reply
  20. After hearing the thought bubble, Is a judgement of the burglar the most constructive use of our time? For example couldn't we do more "good" by using the info to design a system that helps prevent people from dying of carbon monoxide poisoning in their homes? Is there a name for contemplating just how often we should be deciding if something is even ethical (be it in a fundamental or subjective way)?

    Reply
  21. I hope my friend cared to read what I think a true God of the humans would think about homosexuality. He’s Chinese, so my religious musings bore him. I wish he found me more interesting.

    Reply
  22. I'm sorry but what you explained about moral relativism is wrong, Germans killing bunch of Jews were relatively wrong during their culture 80 ago. Maybe if we go back in time all the way to primitive culture where killing was ok, then it would be correct. But during World War II, it was pretty much consensus in the world that killing innocent people were morally wrong, so relative to that culture, any ideology that calling for mass murder a certain race was wrong for that culture. Usually I like you videos but I hate your example of attacking moral relativism here since you are not representing the other argument that well.

    Reply
  23. Metaethics… wow. This video has completely changed my perspective on morality and life… Well, I'll just be over here, having an existential crisis.

    Reply
  24. Thank you for the very interesting content. This is super benifical and has greatly increasd my understanding!

    Reply
  25. I have one big question:

    How come in this video "Moral Relativism" is in the category of "Moral Realism"?

    I mean, I may be missing something here. You define Moral Relativism as simply allowing more than one moral position on a given topic to be correct. But generally, Moral Relativism stands for a lack of universal moral norms. So if something isn't universal, how can it be within the domain of Moral Realism which states that morality is objective and out there to discover?

    Reply
  26. I adore your approach to presenting, Hank, and have seen other videos of yours. You have a light touch that makes even difficult and serious topics digestible. PBS Digital Studios is lucky to have you working with them. Is there a YouTube playlist of all the videos you have published, so I can see more? Thanks!

    Reply
  27. Maybe I’m too simplistic, but the burglar one seems easy to solve.

    Crime committed: destruction of property, which is a relatively minor crime.

    Wanting to steal might be unethical, but no robbery was committed.

    And considering good came from his actions, he ought to be held responsible for the breaking of the window but not charged with a real crime. Make him pay for the replacement window and call it a draw.

    Reply
  28. Interesting. One of the biggest thing about being moral I see today is that is somewhat based on the number of people who are in agreement with for example, an attitude or behavior etc. I've come to the conclusion that some "whatever you wanna call it" are justifiable. I'm currently studying in healthcare field. I find somethings morally incorrect, but in the end I have to overlook some of them. This makes me question every day, what is "moral"? Is it quantifiable/qualifiable? Does it even matter? Why? As I see it, a justification is based on situation, not entirely but it fits to my needs.

    Reply
  29. Moral anti-realism is false— there are moral facts about the way that humans should behave in the world. Moral relativism and normative cultural relativism is dangerous and wrong, period. Moral absolutism is the truth

    Reply
  30. in the robbery situation, the robber’s morality relies on how truthful he will be when sharing about the situation. if he lies and says he meant to save her life, he is lying and evading the truth which might make the robber feel guilty knowing he is getting praise for lies. does this mean he has strong morals? since he is lying to get rewards of his immoral actions, he feels bad. but does his feelings of regret give him morals? or does it make him more moral by telling the truth knowing he will face consequences. to the public, he will he seen as a robber, but since he told the truth he can be happy with himself, knowing he is willingly facing consequences for his actions because he has strong morals which help him own up

    Reply
  31. So, what do you think, is killing morally wrong? Are there any cases where killing (humans or animals) is morally just?

    Reply
  32. I want more, its fundamentally wrong for you to be able to present information on philosophy, and not do it. This is gold…I want you…impaticular to fo some political and social philosophy, more on freire, and machiavelli

    Reply
  33. It's extremely simple, if you're not hurting anyone you're fine. It really isn't that hard. More than that, it's just a process of moral algebra.

    Reply
  34. 4:15 How is cultural relativism on the side of moral realism? it should be on the moral anti-realism side of the divide. it seems like the definition for moral subjectivism is just a wordy version of your definition for cultural relativism. If not please explain.

    Reply
  35. As dad used to say 'kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out. '
    Dad was kinding hiding from life behind a bottle.
    The burglar may have saved the granny's life but his intentions were bad. He should at least pay for the broken window.
    After moving to Japan 18 years ago, ethics are cultural. i've learned that everything i learned that was right in America is wrong in Japan. and what's wrong in America is right in Japan. it's just weird. it's another world here.

    Reply
  36. is it crazy I think I can binge watch this serious in comparison to other subjects on crash course for FUN

    Reply
  37. I knew as soon as you said what normative cultural realism was that i disagreed, cause like in some cultures its totally cool to eat people in some sort of ritual to appease your god

    Reply
  38. When someone does a good thing for a bad reason, they have demonstrated that they are likely to make bad decisions in the future, even if this particular time things turned out well. Thus, it is in society's interest to castigate the person doing something for a bad reason even if the result was good.

    When someone does something good for a bad reason, the long-term result is more harm, both in the possible future bad choices of the person and anyone who might emulate that person. Intentions matter, but only because it affects long-term consequences.

    Reply
  39. The burglar did a good thing, but he doesn't deserve praise because he set out to do a bad thing and had no intention of doing the good thing that he did.

    Reply
  40. the burglar could have bee "looking for his dog" ditched the mask, and inadvertantly saved the womans life by lyinfg to the police that he has seen her unconcious and thought that breaking the window would allow the smell of carbon monaxide to be let out, eevne thought its undetectable, some people can still sense that some sort of gas may have been present and thought that might be the right thing. he would be praised

    Reply
  41. Hi miss hollHi miss hollHi miss hollHi miss hollHi miss hollHi miss hollHi miss hollHi miss hollHi miss hollHi miss holl

    Reply
  42. moral relativism vs. moral absolutism

    the very nature of you claiming something is wrong …makes you a relativist by default ..checkmate

    Reply
  43. Morals are dependent on values . Everyone can agree that contructive behaviour is moral and destructive behaviour is immoral . What we do not agree on is the application ofconstructive and destructive and what are the metrics and worth of either ?

    Reply
  44. I think one of the obfuscating problems with capital punishment is how much human societies suck at it.

    In the United States, our justice system yields a lot of false convictions. Inmates on death row are routinely exonerated after the fact, and that's limited to those who are privileged to have an exoneration team continuing to investigate their case (not all of them do).

    And then there's the matter that we can't seem to find a consistently humane way of killing someone. Our current methods, including lethal injection, hanging, gas chamber, firing squad and electric chair are far from painless or distressing to the convict being killed (let alone executioners, technicians, officers and witnesses).

    And then there's those executions that are committed ad hoc, the about-one-thousand-per-year fatal officer-involved slayings (mostly shootings) by officers of law enforcement, which occur without due process and routinely with insufficient review or oversight.

    Before we can even discuss the morality of capital punishment, we'd have to assure that it is conducted humanely and is painless to the convict, that wrongful convictions are so rare the risk of killing an innocent person is negligible (say, one per century), and that the sentence of capital punishment is issued only in the most heinous of crimes after all other possibilities are ruled out.

    Until then, capital punishment puts the responsibility of innocent and cruel deaths on the state and its people, which is an unconscionable situation.

    Edit: Formatting

    Reply
  45. If morality is subjective then nobody can call the next person moral or immoral since both parties would be correct!!!! The issue is bias and dishonesty and there is a lot of that going around! Especially in secular circles!

    Reply
  46. No, the burglar didn't do a good thing because his intention wasn't there. It was simply circumstances with a positive outcome motivated by selfish means. You are the vehicle that's driven by your ethical choices.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *