In my previous post I discussed distinctions within the discipline of epistemology (theory of knowledge). I am going to address some useful distinctions that arise in the field of ethics or moral discourse. The first distinction, to segue smoothly from our last discussion, is to look at the distinction of ontological vs. epistemological claims – within moral discourse.
To apply the distinction in a hopefully understandable way and also give some practical application of the principle at hand, we will look at an issue that is somewhat common for Christians who interact with others about moral issues to come across.
Christianity asserts that there is a universal or objective moral reality that is binding on all people, irregardless of whether people accept those moral laws or not. That being said, many think that morality is not universal and is relative or mutable (it can change over time, place, person, etc.). To put it more simply, this view is the “what’s wrong for you is wrong for you, and what’s wrong for me is wrong for me . . .” This is known as relativism.
So, here’s where the rubber hits the road. The objection to universal morality is oft made that different cultures and people groups have different views about morality. One group of people may think that cannibalism is wrong, whereas other groups may see this practice as a moral good (for whatever reason). This argument is then implemented: “Since different people have different moral codes, that shows that morality is relative – not universal. After-all, a universal moral code would be known to everyone!”
Let me lay this out in a formal format to make this argument clear and also so we can see in what order the premises are really expressed (with logical notation for those who are interested):
If there is a universal moral law then everyone would have knowledge of the moral law.
If everyone has knowledge of the moral law then moral codes in different cultures would be the same.
Therefore, if there is a universal moral law then moral codes in different cultures would be the same. (HS 1,2)
Moral codes in different cultures are different.
Therefore, not everyone knows that moral law. (MT 3,4)
Therefore, morality is not universal. (MT 1,5)
Here’s a condensed version of the argument, to make it a bit simpler. Just note the logic of the first argument in that it’s asserting the same thing as this one to follow (note: this argument is premises 1, 5 and 6 from argument above):
If there is a universal moral law then everyone would know that moral law.
Not everyone knows that moral law.
Therefore, there is no universal moral law. (MT 1,2)
Let me ask you, is the first premise an ontological claim or an epistemological claim? It should be evident that this is not an ontological claim. This is an epistemological claim. It’s claiming that everyone would have the same knowledge about the moral law.
Remember from the last post in this series that epistemological claims have to stay within the realm of knowledge. If someone makes a claim (or an argument) about knowledge, it should stay within that realm.
Since this should be an epistemologically based argument (since it starts with a claim about knowledge), it should have no bearing on the ontology of morality – that is, whether or not morality is universal or relative. Since this argument (above) has a conclusion about the ontology of morality, we know that the conclusion drawn must be false – since a conclusion about ontology is being drawn from an epistemologically based argument. Something must be wrong with the argument.
I think it’s obvious that the first premise is not true. If morality were universal would everyone know the moral law? If morality were universal, then morality would be universal. As to how we know it and how much of the moral law we could know . . . that’s a different question which has no bearing on this other issue. So there’s a disconnect between the idea that universal morality and that everyone would know about that law – which is what the first premise tries to do.
So, when this kind of argument is given we need to ask, “If morality were universal does that automatically mean that everyone would know the moral law?” I think from here we can see that the argument fails.
Now, let’s look at an argument that uses this kind if premise, and see what kind of conclusion that first epistemological premise should lead to:
If everyone has the same moral knowledge then different cultures would have the same moral codes.
Different culture do not have the same moral codes.
Therefore, not everyone has the same moral knowledge. (MT 1,2)
This is logically valid and sound. It’s a good argument. Notice that the first premise is an epistemological statement and the conclusion is also an epistemological statement. That’s the way it should be. But, it doesn’t have anything to say about the ontology of morality – and it shouldn’t. That is a different issue.
To make this issue really simple now, what would you think about someone who argued the following: “Since everybody has a different view about what electrons are like, that means that electrons don’t really exist.” Does that make sense? Of course not.
The same thing is happening here. The argument first makes a claim about what kind of knowledge (or beliefs, more specifically) people have about electrons and then moves to argue that this has a bearing on the ontology of the electron. Again, this kind of move doesn’t work. It’s more obvious in this example, but the exact same thing is happening in the issue we’ve been addressing.
In summary we looked at the distinction of ontology vs. epistemology within an issue of the nature of morality. Just because different cultures have differing views or beliefs concerning moral law, it doesn’t follow that there isn’t a universal moral law – it just means they don’t have the same knowledge of that law. Just because people have differing beliefs about something, it doesn’t mean that thing itself doesn’t exist.
Next time we’ll look at another area of moral discourse. We will be looking at how all basic moral arguments are formed (a simple syllogism – an argument with 2 premises and a conclusion) in order to see a distinction between the two kinds of premises or propositions that form such arguments.