To what extent can moral dilemmas have right and wrong answers?

In this blog, I will investigate the metaethical notion of objectively ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers in reference to moral dilemmas. I will analyse the arguments against realism such as scepticism, moral disagreement, and cultural relativism, concluding that moral dilemmas have relative, not objective, answers. Ultimately, one’s answer to this question lies in the definition of ethics as a subject. To state ethics is a subject such as history, in conjunction with ‘facts’, suggests moral dilemmas will have objectively right and wrong answers. My answer stems from the formulation of the question: if it’s a moral dilemma, there are no objectively ‘right’ answers, if there were, we wouldn’t have a genuine dilemma. The burden of proof and moral relativism are the cruces of the anti-realist argument against realism; if objective truths about the world exist, we would have access to them. Answers in ethics are founded on widespread views and conveniently culturally approved habits, rather than objective and universal facts.

Metaethics and Truth-aptness

It seems ‘true’ to us that human rights are ‘good’, and it appears a ‘fact’ that racism ‘wrong’. The question is then,  ‘can we sincerely have moral knowledge?’. This inquiry is founded in metaethics, a second-order discipline consisting of moral language, psychology, and ontology. Metaethics attempts to understand the nature and presuppositions of moral thought, semantics, and practices. Where one stands in metaethics is dictated by your answer to this question: do mind-independent moral truths/facts exist? Or is moral value a projection of personal feelings, desires, and attitudes?

Realism and anti-realism are the central horns of metaethics; realism maintains that moral facts exist, arguing that moral properties exist independently from moral judgement, and are thus truth-apt. If moral realism is correct, we can argue that murder holds the property of wrongness, regardless of what agents believe. Realism is the default position because we have developed to speak like realists, where moral utterances look syntactically just like statements: subject + copula + predicate. For example, ‘murder is wrong’, and ‘London is the capital of England’ are grammatically parallel. Since statements have a truth value, moral utterances have truth-aptness, thus answers to dilemmas have truth-value too. Realists argue that X appears to us as it does because that is how X is – the burden of proof then lies with those who depart from this stance, such as anti-realists.

The anti-realists claim that the world doesn’t contain mind-independent moral facts. They argue that moral properties don’t exist, nor do objective or normative facts. Applied to moral dilemmas, objective answers don’t exist, but values and opinions will prevail in our quest for answers. The is-ought gap shapes the anti-realist view of moral motivation and the nature of moral experience. This Humean point of justification discusses the two imperative propositions to human decision-making: fact and value. For example, Mill formulates utilitarian moral decision-making based on the consequences of happiness:

P1: All agents seek happiness (descriptive fact)

C1: We ought to do what promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number (prescriptive value)

Non-cognitivism, a branch of anti-realism, emphasises that we cannot make moral values based on facts, implying the estrangement between truth-apt facts and values. This is based on a missing logical step, denying the validity of moral conclusions. In terms of moral dilemmas, no ethical evaluative conclusion can be justifiably inferred from purely factual premises.

Scepticism and Quine’s Web of Belief

Building our argument for anti-realism, we will now discuss moral scepticism. Such linguistic theories like non-cognitivism imply scepticism regarding moral truth-aptness, since ‘murder is wrong’ infers ‘boo to murder’. Some opponents accuse moral scepticism of leading to immorality, yet not all sceptics seem to have acted immorally, as sceptics need not be any less motivated than non-sceptics as they can still hold a substantive moral belief. What they are sceptic about, is if these beliefs can be justified.

Critics still argue that moral scepticism conflicts with common sense beliefs. Pyrrho believed that common sense beliefs were able to be revised if reason was found to doubt them. The Pyrrhonian sceptics refrain from taking any ethical position; since all perceptions are flawed, a wise man will refrain from any judgement or claim as we cannot justify or know anything is true. Moore came to the defence of common sense, using his insulation argument against the early Athenian-advocated scepticism. Moore states that we can be confident in one principle, and this is insulated from critique. However, it may seem modest to believe that we should conduct our search for truth by assuming we already know what the truth is. We then appear to be in an infinite regression of reasoning, where agents cannot escape their starting point, insulated from the very challenge in the scheme of reasoning. For example, Utilitarians might assume that maximising welfare (principle of utility) is their starting point, but Hume would ask what the justification for this premise is.

Rather than assuming morality as a deductive system of antecedent axioms and following judgements, we may think of it as a workable system of precepts. This system can be thought of as part of a ‘web of belief’, developed by W.V Quine. Quine conceived of this idea as a method of expressing and interlinking empirical observation, scientific theory, and laws of logic. None of these precepts are immune from critique, as new evidence and new considerations come to light, the axioms are then subject to revision. Realistically, Quine sought that we are less reluctant to release some of our beliefs, and these are at the centre of the web, and the outskirts hold the beliefs we are less confident in.

If we think of our moral system as part of a web, some of our moral judgement stands at the centre of the web, such as ‘causing harm is bad’. For example, the difference between killing and letting die, lie in different phases of the web, regardless of the analogous outcome and connection via logical entailment. Moral beliefs can be interlinked; the belief that Jack the Ripper was a ‘bad person’ may relate to the belief that there is inherent validity and dignity in human life and treatment. Morality is a workable system of precepts, but it clearly involves irrational elements – our job is to figure out which precepts are irrational, and which can be relative to you and your community.

Moral Relativism

Defended by Harman and Prinz, relativism posits that ethical truth is isolated to a background, consequently, there is no one truth-apt body. Some ethics are ‘true’ for some, and some are ‘true’ for others, and one cannot say a certain action is right or wrong without qualification. The dramatic awareness of moral diversity was the antecedent to moral relativism, where the primary impetus was derived from cultural anthropology. The criteria of rightness and wrongness of actions and decisions are relative to each agent. The agent’s moral framework is part of this criteria, tying questions of morality to reason. For example, if the agent has a consequentialist moral framework, their answers lie in the best outcome for most people (principle of utility).

The consequence of relativism in metaethics is that moral truths and justification are not absolute, but relative to the moral standard of the agent or community in question. For example, stating ‘murder is wrong’ may be true in conjunction with one aspect of a culture or society, but false relative to another culture. Simply, the statement is not true or false, but merely relatively justified. This latter point suggests that standards of justification also differ, implying the lack of a rational basis for resolving differences.

The foundation for moral relativity is grounded in a lack of objectivity for the definitions of right and wrong. Truth then hinges on a universal standard; for right and wrong to be applicable, it is required to be universal in application, an argument refuted by relativity. If there is no shared universal moral framework, does this not reduce normative ethics from a pillar of moral life to mere opinion? The life works of philosophers such as Mill, Kant and Hume to prove their normative theories then become futile. This isn’t to say that haven’t attributed greatly to academia and education, but in stating their theories cannot be right, what then becomes the point of proving them? One may add that the broad range of moral theories, from Mill to Kant, serves to prove the differing array of morals, all equally applicable to parallel and synonymous dilemmas.

Cultural Relativism

One form of relativity is cultural relativism, the idea that beliefs and practices are understood on the grounds of the agent’s culture. Cultural relativism was first established in Franz Boas’ anthropological research, ascertaining that civilisation was not absolute. On this idea, it can be interpreted that our ideas and conception are true only as far as the civilisation goes. If we apply this to moral dilemmas, we can see how people may solve dilemmas according to their relative answers of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. This point was made as early as the 5th Century BC by Herodotus, pointing out that the Callatians consumed the bodies of their dead fathers. This juxtaposed the Greeks, who practised cremation and funeral conventions as the ethical way to dispose of the deceased.

Sociologists and Anthropologists have impressed on us that moral standards and values differ over cultures and time periods. In asserting this, they emphasised the custom and convention that authors human action and thought. Considering such variability, it would seem juvenile to assume that moral views are more than cultural conduct. What is thought of as ‘right’ in one group may be forbidden or frowned upon in another, such as bestiality or polygamy. However, others stress it would be insufficient to state that the existence of cultural relativism is independently enough to refute moral objectivity. Some cultures have different ideas regarding scientific questions; selected cultures remain ‘flat-earthers’, and some cultures believe that covid-19 is a government hoax. Disagreement on scientific matters serves to prove the difference in belief; the difference here is truth versus being ill-informed. What implications does this have? Disagreements in ethics might highlight nothing more than differing levels of enlightenment and intelligence.

Furthermore, if each agent can justify their own relative moral judgements, does this then permit all behaviours and actions on the grounds of relativity? No certain action can thus be labelled wrong, and this has dramatic implications for moral responsibility and punishment. Ignoring the necessity of opposing violations refutes contemporary pillars of society such as criminal law. If cultural relativism is so, we can no longer discuss the customs of alternative societies being morally inferior. However, we would be prevented from critiquing other societies. If no decision or behaviour is classed as inherently ‘wrong’, we then cannot place societies in a moral hierarchy.

Debates highlight the possibility that no ‘universal’ answers exist; in answering whether moral dilemmas can have right or wrong answers depends on whether one views ethics as a subject. This is vehemently debated, from the rituals of the dead to force-feeding an anorexic. The existence of law and moral disagreement emphasises the plethora of moral views and judgements. Pluralism is often associated with cultural relativism, contending that no isolated principle is a necessary and sufficient condition regarding justification. According to Susan Wolf, there exists a plurality of values of principles, all of which are relevant to moral judgement (Wolf, 1992). This range of moral values certifies that values are not subject to a systematic methodical ordering. No principal strategy or decision procedure exists to guarantee objective and determinate answers to moral questions and dilemmas.

If judgements and answers to dilemmas were unanimous and universal, there would not be debate surrounding morality, and what is ‘right’, it would already be known. The law then serves as a guiding foundation to create a more applicable moral coding and keeps society coherent.

Cultural relativism has a certain style of argument, arguing from facts regarding alternative cultural outlooks, to a conclusion concerning the “status of morality”. This is the standard metaethical argument from cultural relativism:

P1. Different cultures have diverse moral codes and values.

C1. Morality doesn’t have objective truth, answers to ethical questions are relative opinions.

The trouble here is that the conclusion does not soundly follow the premise. Even if P1 was true, the conclusion could be false because the premise concerns belief, and thus the conclusion doesn’t logically follow. For example, the Aztecs in South America believed cannibalism to be ‘right’, whilst many contemporary societies do not. It doesn’t follow from disagreement that there is objective truth regarding cannibalism. It could be that it’s inherently wrong, and the Aztecs have mistaken the truth. This ‘cultural difference’ argument endeavours to derive a substantive conclusion regarding a disagreed subject, cannibalism.

To determine whether a conclusion is true or false, we require premises in support, and if it isn’t, the idea of moral progress is called into doubt. Anti-realism cannot state claims as expressions cannot serve as premises. If they did, they would merely hold the façade of validity. However, isn’t the point of relativism that there is not objective right and wrong? If we cannot know, prove, or justify any moral code or answer to a dilemma, anti-realism is reinforced once again.

James Rachels holds that the motivation for cultural relativism comes from the observation of cultures ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. It can be said that these differences are over-exaggerated; the differences do not lie in values, but in belief. For example, Eskimos kill female infants, an immoral contemporary act. Many assume this behaviour highlights disregard for children and diminished respect for human life. The reasoning is quite the contrary; because food is in short supply, they cannot nourish their babies, and girls are chosen over boys because men are the primary hunters and food providers. Infanticide does not signify a different attitude towards children, but is a necessary aspect of population and survival. This emphasises that the raw data of anthropologists can be misleading.

There are some moral values that seem to be universal, such as nurture for children. For example, Beauchamp and Childress’s four principles give medical professionals the tools they need to navigate moral dilemmas. Their theory of Principlism provides standard statements regarding desired values. The four pillars include autonomy, beneficence, harm, and justice, all encompassed because they are said to involve universally accepted values. Shared values are evident as they shape and guide people’s lives. If individuals were self-sufficient, societies wouldn’t be able to work and would be vulnerable to collapse and anarchy. There are some rules all societies and cultures have, but those rules are a necessary requisite for that society to exist.

Moral Disagreement

Aristotle held that moral disagreement was not necessarily a consequence of differentiation in standards of rationality, but stems from causes such as ignorance, poverty, and religious oppression. The test here is that if one is to believe a norm binds all rational agents, we must have valid and sound reasons to show for it. Commonly, no matter how much information is provided, nor how rational the agents are, they will still disagree, but are they disagreeing about facts, or opinions?  For example, take a catholic, an atheist, and the problem of abortion.

The different moral frameworks of the Catholics and atheists regarding abortion would create moral disagreement. This would determine the truth of their moral claims, meaning their judgements will never converge. They are not making mistakes regarding facts or reasoning incorrectly, but they will disagree based on frames of reference. When the Catholic states ‘abortion is wrong for me’ and the atheist states ‘abortion is right for me’, they are not disagreeing, but discussing cross purposes. Moral assertions made by speakers with different moralities about different things are not having moral disputes. The relativist splits meaning from truth conditions; moral disagreements would then only occur because their moral claims have common meaning, the truth of such claims remaining relative to the speaker.

As aforementioned, non-cognitivists parallel ‘abortion is wrong’ with saying ‘boo’ to abortion. Emotions don’t describe the world as being a certain way, so they can’t direct how the world ought to be. Hence, Ayer asserts that moral disagreements are disagreements about non-moral issues, and moral judgements are not truth-apt, reinforcing my hypothesis (Ayer, 1964). There can then be no moral disagreements if moral judgements aren’t truth-apt. Anti-realists hold that moral evaluations are affective responses that are neither true nor false; two individuals can agree on something but have different moral evaluations of it. Such disagreements are not founded in fact, and thus cannot be settled by appeal to observation or experiment.

The Question of Proof

Proof is the dividing line between ethics and science, where science has shown how the world is round, and that dinosaurs and humans didn’t live at the same time. There are numerous reasons why the no-proof argument stands so tall; agents tend to have an inappropriate standard when it comes to ‘proving’ their judgements, leaning towards explanation with regards to previous experience and assuming to think about the most difficult moral issues. However, in ethics, rational thinking consists of valid reasoning, analysis of arguments and justifying principles.  If moral truths were objective, this would give us the ability to prove morals as objectively true or false. Would being able to objectively answer dilemmas, refute the very existence of moral dilemmas? The reason moral dilemmas exist is due to the result of multiple options for an ethical problem, but if we have an objective answer, we don’t have a genuine dilemma.

The question of proof holds that, if there were objective truths and falsities in the realm of ethics, we would be capable of proving morals. The fact we cannot suggests objective truths do not exist. Our constant debates about issues such as abortion and vaccines ensure that it becomes difficult to ‘prove’ your point of view. The only thing we can do is reinforce our ethical judgements with valid reasoning. For example, Claire is a bad woman, she is a habitual liar, manipulator, cheater, and child abuser. It is clear from this one statement that Claire is immoral, a relative opinion that appears to be backed up by valid reason and explanation. This is not to say that ethical judgements are unprovable, as an agent is already giving more than an opinion if she has a good reason behind the judgement. To defend this argument from Hume’s unjustified first premise, we can then state why lying and cheating are said to be immoral. For example, lying is immoral because it harms people and is a violation of trust, we can say ‘harm is immoral’ by applying utilitarianism (both in our web of belief) holding that pleasure is good, and harm is bad. This is the closest thing to proof – good valid reasons, and provision of explanation regarding why those reasons matter.

The Upshot for Dilemmas

In accordance with Quine’s Web of belief, morality is a workable system of precepts. In order to dictate valid reasoning towards dilemmas, we must work to reduce the irrational precepts because no axioms are insulated from critique. Morality is used as a guide, conducted through reason, and giving weight to specific interests relative to the individual. This reasoning is impartial, guided by intuition and thought experiments, enabling you to place yourself in the situation, from potentiality to actuality. It appears that validity, soundness and consistency must all be met in conjunction with reason in order to relatively answer an ethical dilemma. Dilemmas cannot have right and wrong answers insofar that objective answers in ethics cease to exist. The vast array and plurality of normative theories suggest that ethics can have many possible answers; there is no ‘universal theory’, but some answers are ‘better’ than others. Moral theories such as deontology and utilitarianism provide a framework for evaluating actions. Applying these theories does not exhaust moral reasoning, but they allow us to compare different theories against different backdrops of issues such as infanticide and abortion.

Our decision-making inherently revolves around fact and value; the logical step missing between the ought and the is denies validity of moral conclusions, therefore moral judgements aren’t truth-apt. This anti-realist argument is reinforced by the evidential cultural relativism of moral codes concerning conduct and behaviours, along with the very existence of moral debate. This has led to a rise in theories such as Emotivism, advanced by Ayer and Prinz, grounded in Hume’s theory of sentiments. If objective truth existed, we would know it without the requisite for justification. What are we left with? Moral dilemmas cannot have objective right and wrong answers, but if one is to answer them, answers would be relative and concern personal values.

Published by Harriet Leslie

Hi! I'm Harriet. I am a writer for numerous websites, with a first-class BA in Philosophy and an MA in Medical Ethics and Law. I hope you enjoy my mini introductions to all things philosophy and ethics, many of which have been essays for academic purposes.

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