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Ethics: Where are you? part 3

June 24, 2010

Rousseau’s major premise was based on romantic sentimentalism and the “natural goodness of people.” He believed that “feelings inform us of what is right and wrong” and that society is an impediment to “innate goodness” because we are forced to wear “masks of hypocrisy and deceit” (Boss, 2008, p. 88). I don’t believe his beliefs to be true because sociopaths do not follow universal moral principles, they follow their own beliefs which are usually deviant and not innately good.

Wollstonecraft argued against Rousseau’s theory of romantic sentimentalism stating that “reason is more important to morality than individual feelings and that there are universal moral principles.” She also differed from Rousseau in that she believed morality is the same for men and women and is not different based on gender. (p. 92, 99). I believe her beliefs to be true, to a point.

I think reason and feeling can work together when figuring out what is right and what is wrong. I think reason should prevail. For example, many people have prejudices which are based on feeling. If they critically analyzed those prejudices, many people would discover that their prejudices against race, class, and gender have no basis in fact. In Wollstonecraft’s time, women were considered unequal to men based on their gender (some people still believe this to be true).

Ethical subjectivism is a relativist theory in which morality is created by individuals, it is not discovered. ES is the belief that what is “morally right and wrong is a matter of personal opinion. Individual feelings provide the standards of moral truth.” Its main components and assertions state that ethical subjectivism “does not imply tolerance” (p. 83, 99).

Ethical subjectivism “states that we can know moral truths” but ethical skepticism states “it is difficult if not impossible to know whether moral truths exist or what these truths are” (Boss, 2008, p. 84). Ethical subjectivism is not emotivism because emotivism states that “all moral statements are meaningless and that there are no universal standards of moral truth” (p. 99). Ethical subjectivism is not student relativism because student relativism is basically a cop out, it’s taking the easy way out of having to support an argument by stating, “don’t scrutinize my opinions, although I can scrutinize yours.”

To summarize, ethical skepticism states that we cannot know with certainty whether objective moral truths exist; emotivism states that all moral statements are meaningless; and ethical subjectivism states that individual opinions provide the basis for moral truths.

Ethical subjectivism is prescriptive/normative and not descriptive. ES is about what a person ought to do. Basically, a person can declare that a moral statement is a matter of opinion and is neither right nor wrong but simply a statement of how someone feels about a matter. I agree that ES is prevalent in our society and I think it is evident in the fragmentary nature of each person deciding on their own behalf what is morally right and wrong. The result is that each person can invent their own moral statements rather than discover universal truths.

My observations that form my opinion include examples of ES’s prevalence in our society such as groups that hold deviant morals to be true, such as Nazis, KKK followers, terrorists and other such groups. These groups believe it is their right to hate others based on race and that it is their right to use violence against those whom they hate. The Amish believe it is their right to live a simple life and the Mormons believe it is their right to practice polygamy. Which, if any, of these groups are following universally held moral beliefs is the subject of much interest in ethics, and I am interested to learn more.

1. ES incorrectly assumes that moral disagreement necessarily implies that there are no universal moral standards (p. 96). If we were to try to persuade someone that an action was morally wrong, we would have to assume that the person had the same basic morals as ourselves. Child abusers may believe that it is wrong to hurt a child, but may twist that belief around by stating that the child caused the abuse by acting badly.
2. ES is based on the incorrect assumption that we cannot be mistaken in our moral beliefs (p. 96). When our beliefs change over time, a true ES would never state that his/her earlier beliefs were wrong, just that they were different.
3. We do pass judgment on our feelings and actions (p. 97). I agree with this criticism of ES because almost everyone has at one time or other felt like doing something, but then not done it because it was morally wrong. For example, a rude neighbor can become a nightmare – movies have even been made of the rude neighbor – and we might want to do something to that neighbor such as dynamiting their house or shooting out their floodlights with a bb gun, but we don’t act on these feelings because we know that they are wrong reactions.
4. In real life, we regard acting on certain feelings and desires as immoral (p. 97). I agree that, according to ES, Hitler and the Nazis, KKK members, and other sociopaths acted violently because of their moral beliefs. In actuality, if we were to follow the beliefs of ES, we would consider them to be “highly moral people because they acted on their deeply held inner feelings” (p. 97).
5. ES is disastrous for the weak and defenseless (p. 97). The strong rule the weak, but according to ES, there is no victim because there is “no universal moral principle that says we must respect other people’s ‘right’ to put their desires into action.”

The “Kitty Genovese Syndrome” is the failure of bystanders to come to the aid of someone in need of help, or “moral indifference to another person’s distress” (Boss, 2008, p. 94). This syndrome is typical of human nature because I believe that in group situations each person feels that someone else took care or will take care of the situation. I believe that if a person can feel empathy for the person in distress then that person may do something to help, especially if the person who needs help calls out to someone by name.

Ethical subjectivists would argue that a universal code of ethics does not exist and everyone must rely on their own feelings and beliefs to decide if helping a person in distress is the right thing to do, and vice versa, whether it is okay to harm another person. Everyone must decide for themselves if causing distress is the right thing to do. “Morality is just a matter of personal opinion” (p. 94).

A recent real life example against ES as an explanation for the Kitty Genovese Syndrome are the people involved in a local car accident in which a teen-age driver turned a corner as a mother pushed her baby in a stroller across the street. Neither saw the other in time to avoid a collision. The driver was very distraught and checked to see if the mother and baby were all right. The father had witnessed the accident from across the street and ran to attack the driver. Bystanders held the father off the driver and helped the driver back into his truck to protect him from the angry father until police arrived. So in this instance, we can say that universal moral truths, non-maleficence or “do no harm” came into play.

Ethical subjectivism holds that moral truths are created by the individual. ES is not the same as ethical skepticism which holds that there is no evidence or it may be hard to prove that moral truths exist. ES is not the same as student relativism which holds that moral truths are created by individuals who have a right to their own moral truths and that others do not have the right to question these moral truths. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile is about the education of boys in which he writes that humans are born inherently good and that it is society that ruins that goodness. Rousseau’s belief was complementary to romantic sentimentalism which was popular from the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. The roots of ES are an outgrowth of romantic sentimentalism.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a critic of Rousseau’s romantic sentimentalism and ethical subjectivism. Wollstonecraft argued that universal moral truths exist and that reason, not opinion, plays an important role in moral truths. The Kitty Genovese Syndrome is also known as bystander apathy in which witnesses to a person in distress do nothing because each person assumes that someone else in the group will do something. Critics of ethical subjectivism acknowledge that moral truths may begin with the individual and that non-sociopaths may be born innately good, but that moral truths should not begin and end with the individual, but rather with a collective critical analysis.

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