Science & Ethics compared: Are There Proofs in Ethics too?

BECAUSE SCIENCE IS, or is supposedly, empirical or verifiable, it seems to provide our paradigm of objectivity. And in comparing ethics to science, “ethics seems to lack the features that make science so compelling” (James Rachels,The Elements of Moral Philosophy: 1999).

          In fact, many assert that there are no proofs in ethics. While we can prove that the world is round and that two plus two equals five, we cannot, they say, prove that abortion is right or wrong. So the “No-Proof Argument” as outlined by Rachels goes like this:

(1)   If there were any such thing as objective truth in ethics, we should be able to prove that some moral opinions are true and others are false.

(2)   But in fact we cannot prove which moral opinions are true and which are false.

(3)   Therefore, there is no such thing as objective truth in ethics.

            The claim that moral judgments can’t be proved, at first glance, appears to be sound especially when considering complicated matters like abortion. However, when applied to simpler issues, it turns out to be dubious.

            Rachels submits the case of a student who says that a test given by a teacher was unfair. Suppose the student objectively point out the following:

1. The test covered in detail matters that were quite trivial.

2. It ignored matters the teacher had stressed in discussion.

3. It included questions about some matters that were not covered in either the readings or the class lecture.

4. It was so long that not even the best students could complete it in the time allowed while it was to be graded on the assumption that it should be completed.

5. The teacher, when asked to explain, has no defense to offer.

6. In fact, the teacher, who is rather inexperienced, seems muddled about the whole thing and doesn’t seem to have had any very clear idea of what he was doing.

          So the question is, hasn’t the student proved the test was unfair? What more in the way of proof could we possibly want?

            Rachels gives other examples that make the same point:

Raul is a bad man. He is a habitual liar; he manipulates people; he cheats when he thinks he can get away with it; he is cruel to other people; and so on.

Dr. Paz is irresponsible.He bases his diagnoses on superficial considerations; he drinks before performing delicate surgery; he refuses to listen to other doctor’s advice; and so on.

Marga, a used-car dealer, is unethical.She conceals defects in her cars; she takes advantage of poor people by pressuring them into paying exorbitant prices for cars she knows to be defective; she runs misleading advertisements in any newspaper that will carry them; and so on.

          Therefore, it is nonsense to say that ethical judgments can be nothing more than “mere opinions.”

But why people believe that there are no proofs in Ethics

Rachels gives three (3) reasons and clarifies the misconceptions regarding the issues:         

          First, when proof is demanded, people might be thinking about “observations and experiments in science”; and when there are no comparable observations and experiments in ethics, they might conclude that there is no proof.

           But in ethics, rational thinking consists in giving reasons, analyzing arguments, setting out and justifying principles, and the like. “The fact that ethical reasoning differs from reasoning in science does not make it deficient.”

           Second, when we think of “proving our ethical opinions to be correct,” we “tend to think automatically of the most difficult issues” (e.g. euthanasia).

           But take note that there are also complicated matters that physicists cannot agree on—because of which we might also conclude that there is no “proof “in physics. Kust like in Ethics, there are nonetheless many simpler matters about which all competent physicists agree.

          Finally,it is easy to conflate two matters that are really very different: “proving an opinion to be correct and persuading someone to accept your proof.”

            Seeing someone reject an impeccable argument does not necessarily mean that the argument is flawed or that “proof” is somehow unattainable. It may mean only that someone is being unreasonable.

            Moral thinking and moral conduct are a matter of weighing reasons and being guided by them. That is why, in focusing on attitudes and feelings, “Ethical Subjectivism seems to be going in the wrong direction.”

Conclusion: the larger picture

Our discussion proves, among others, that there are sound basis to hold that morality is objective. The role played by ‘reason’ in Ethics supports the claim that some actions can be proved to be objectively or right. Indeed, for how could anyone hold that the truth “torturing a baby is wrong” is not a moral absolute but a relative judgment?  Even the challenges posed by Ethical Subjectivism (and Cultural Relativism) could not successfully disprove the fact that some actions are indeed good and some are actually bad.

          Furthermore, moral relativism is self-defeating. The statement “there are no absolutes” itself implies a claim for an absolute principle. One cannot support relativism with a non-relative statement. It should be clear therefore that any theory of ethics which explicitly says, “morality is relative” must be considered flawed, if not automatically wrong.

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