Questionable Theories in Ethics

The Bible contains many passages that seem immoral to follow. For example, Exodus 21:20-21, Leviticus 25:44-46, Ephesians 6-5 and Titus 2:9-10 all endorse slavery.   I Corinthians 14:34 commands women to stay silent in church. Deuteronomy 22:28 states that when a virgin has premarital sex (the text is vague about her consent, so the sex could be consensual or non-concensual), she must marry that person (and can never divorce).  Why do we no longer follow these commands? And more important, what does this tell us about the relationship between religion and morality? Explain. (complete after reading 5.1)

Note: I choose the Bible for this question, but I could have chosen passages from the Koran, Bhagavad Gita or any other religious text.  The issue is NOT about Christianity but the relationship between religion and morality.

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5.1 Questionable Theories in Ethics

There are two very common, but mistaken, views of morality:

1. Moral claims are relative; “yours is just as good as mine.”

2. God decides what is right or wrong; thus we decide what is morally right by reading God’s word (Bible, Koran, Gita, etc.?)


First we will examine the various forms of moral relativism:

• Subjective Absolutism

• Subjective Relativism

• Emotivism

• Cultural Relativism


A. Subjective Absolutism

What makes an action right is that it is approved by someone. Notice, the act is right, now and for always, for everyone, if someone approves of it.


However, if two people have different preferences, one act will be both right and wrong, which is contradictory. Thus, this theory is unacceptable.



B. Subjective Relativism

To respond to the problem of the Subjective Absolutist, someone could say, “I meant that an act is right for that person if that person approves of it.” This theory is called Subjective Relativism: What makes an act right for someone is that the person approves of the act.


• However, this theory does not allow for a person to be wrong on a moral matter. If she approved, the act was right for her. She cannot later say, “I was mistaken, it was wrong of me to do that.” But we do this all the time.

• Further, We could not condemn or praise anyone else for their actions. What they did was right for them. But most of us feel that Hitler, for example, was in the wrong.

• Further, any disagreement over a moral matter between two people would have to be a disagreement over the preferences of the two people. If someone was arguing for abortion, and person #2 was arguing against abortion, they would only be saying to each other, “You don’t really approve of it do you?” But this is not how moral disagreements go.



C. Emotivism

The next step is to say, “maybe moral claims don’t say anything at all.” Maybe moral claims are not the kind of statements that can be true or false. According to this theory, moral claims are merely expressions of emotions and have no substance at all. Saying you agree with abortion is just like saying, “Wildcats, Yea!!!”


• While this theory avoids some of the problems of conflict of the previous two, it has its own problems. We cannot disagree with others, all we do when we try is to try and cheer louder than the other people, like at a football game.

• Nothing is good or bad (since “good” and “bad” merely express some person’s emotions).


Cultural Relativism and Divine Command Theory


Cultural relativism is very popular, but mistaken.

• An action is right for someone if it is approved of by that person’s culture.

• This is popular because many people think this theory promotes tolerance, and because people feel uneasy making judgments of others.

• However, we cannot say that morality is relative to one’s culture.


The most common argument for cultural relativism is the “Anthropological argument:”

• This argument has serious flaws in premises 2 and 3.

• Further, if cultural relativism were true, then we would have to accept some rather unacceptable consequences:

a. Cultures are morally infallible.

b. A person within a culture is immoral if acting for change (such as Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Susan B. Anthony)

c. Each person is a member of multiple cultures, thus on many matters, there is no right or wrong for that person.

d. There is no help in this theory for moral dilemmas, the very reason we want a moral theory in the first place.



Divine Command Theory, what makes an action right is that God commands it to be done. Many people claim to believe this theory, but it too is a flawed theory.


This theory claims that something is right merely because God says so. But how did God decides that this act was good? If there is any answer, then that is the theory God is using to decide what is good and what is not, and that is the morally theory we should be looking for. If there is no answer, then God’s actions are arbitrary (there is no reason for doing one rather than another). And If God’s actions are arbitrary, then why do we want to worship her?


Notice, religious people often think God makes the decisions she does because she is good. But if “goodness” is defined merely by whatever God does, then this definition is meaningless (God is good because God does good things. Things are good merely because they are done by God.)


Also, this theory is useless in moral dilemmas. What will God say? Your guess is as good as mine….


Lastly, notice that it is not true, as many believe, that you are more moral if you are religious. There is no evidence that suggests people who are atheists are less moral people than theists. Thus, it is not a good argument for religion to claim that otherwise, people will have no moral guidance.

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