Do moral statements have meaning?

Human beings undeniably discuss engage in discussions about ethics and morality on a daily basis, often without even realising it. From something trivial, like whether or not it’s ‘right’ to borrow your friend’s pen without asking, to passing moral judgement on those we see accused of horrific crimes like murder or assault, we cannot avoid the topic of morality. It does however beg the question: do these conversations have any real meaning behind them? Or are we simply expressing emotion that adds absolutely nothing to the objective narrative of events? Is it at all possible for something to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’?

There are two main branches of ethics that can be used to answer this question: objectivist moral realism and subjectivist moral antirealism. Moral realism is essentially an ethical school of thought that calls ethical terms meaningful. When we claim that moral language has meaning, we are claiming that we are adding new, factual information when using terms such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Conversely, when we argue that terms such as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ describe no real facts we are partaking in moral antirealism. This theory supports the view that terms which are used to put forward moral judgement are merely reflecting our emotional states or what is in our minds rather than offering any meaningful description of the real world.  Broadly speaking, antirealism is the belief that right and wrong do not actually exist, and that ethics are just a matter of opinion. These two branches of ethics can be explored through three main factors: shared moral values, moral progress and the need for a standard.

Those supporting moral realism often point to the general agreement that exists around moral values we hold. For example, most everybody would agree that torture, rape and murder is morally wrong. This general agreement suggests that morality is not simply a personal view. On the other hand, this in itself could just be a matter of opinion as there is an undeniable variation in morality, be that due to differences in culture, religion or generation. This variation becomes incredibly clear when we begin discussing matters such as abortion or gay marriage which often cause great controversy, thus supporting the antirealist view. In the case of moral progress, realists claim that we have made considerable advancements in our attitudes towards topics such as slavery and women’s rights. This implies that moral language does have legitimate meaning as, if there was no such thing as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ it would be impossible to even discuss progress since it requires a fixed point against which to measure. This is why antirealists struggle to accurately explain the idea of moral progress whilst maintaining their view that ethics are meaningless. One explanation offered is that since there is no right or wrong, 21st century attitudes are simply different and not better or worse, a somewhat inflammatory view, particularly for those members of communities that were once seriously persecuted. Finally, if there is no objective moral right and wrong then there is no logical reason why there should be a moral standard. Though our society currently promotes tolerance and fairness for the most part, there is no reason, according to antirealists, why it won’t’ begin valuing hatred and cruelty towards others, nor would any objective moral reason exist that proves the latter to be worse than the former. However, this is a greatly uncomfortable and dissatisfying thought, so many antirealists have attempted to solve this problem by appealing to the “good sense of human beings”. This means that although there may be no objective reason for our society to be tolerant, the vast majority of its members have decided subjectively that it is better to live in a society not built on intolerance and hatred and many of our current moral standards stem from this subjective agreement. This also helps avoid the ‘is/ought’ problem so often encountered in realist theories such as naturalism. This problem, famously outlined by the Scottish philosopher David Hume, essentially states that just because something is a certain way does not mean it ought to be.

Outside of the above three factors, there are two serious issues with hard moral antirealism. The first of these is the trivialisation of morality. When ethical language loses all meaning, as hard antirealists will have it do, saying “It was wrong that X was killed” becomes no different to saying “X was killed” as the moral judgement passed adds nothing to the statement or event. Thus, if morality is just personal preference, a phrase such as “I think murder is wrong” becomes no more important than “I think milk chocolate is nicer than dark”. The second key criticism of antirealism is that it stifles ethical discussion. If ethical language is meaningless, there is way to comprehensively discuss it, no way to prove your view to be correct and therefore little point in talking about ethics altogether.

Realism is by no means perfect either. Its single biggest flaw is the assumption that all humankind has some kind of shared ethos, whether that be due to our shared human nature or through God-given intuition. Not only is this categorically not true, given how frequently people disagree about almost anything one can think of, but it is quite alienating to some. The idea of a shared moral code, a “Natural Moral Law” as St. Thomas Aquinas put it, relies entirely on the existence of a God, whose nature and existence is heavily disputed all over the world. Almost every ‘common’ human moral code, such as the desire to protect one’s children or to not kill members of one’s own society, can be attributed to instinct or heavy societal influence. Something like cannibalism for example, which is generally frowned upon here in the UK, is still reportedly practised within the Korowai tribe of Western New Guinea. It isn’t implausible to believe that had our society been ordered differently, perhaps this practise would be commonplace here too.

It is quite clear that “hard” versions of either theory work successfully as approaches to ethics and morality. Though I lean more towards antirealism in that I don’t believe in a principle of universality, nor in absolute moral truths, I think it is crucial to take into account the fact that ethics do not have to be universal to be meaningful. Philosopher J. L. Mackie claims that we build belief in objective fact into our language, which he says is incorrect as there are no objective facts, but rather only subjective values. I don’t think it matters. Though our values remain subjective and our moral facts non-existent, there has been change made in the last 100 years, which has stemmed from people’s moral outrage at the treatment of those around them, which has resulted in better conditions for all, inasmuch as we define conditions to be ‘good’. We have set up the parameters of what it means to live a good life, at least to some extent, and I believe we can continue defining and redefining what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ means to us. Since there has yet to be some objective sign of right and wrong, it is only logical we live by the subjective moral standards we ourselves set, which to me suggests that moral statements have meaning inasmuch as we give.