Philosophy and Christianity (Part 5): Distinctions Within Moral Discourse Part 2

Moral vs Factual Distinctions

Last time we looked at some distinctions found within moral discourse. As mentioned in the conclusion of the previous post, we’ll be turning to how basic moral arguments are formed and the distinction to be made between the two types of premises in such arguments. Later, we will apply this knowledge to the same issue we addressed in the previous post.

All basic moral arguments can be formed in a simple syllogistic form. That is, an argument with 2 premises that lead to a conclusion. I’ll give an example of a moral argument then break it down:

      1. All human beings ought not be treated as mere property.

      2. Colored people are not human beings.

      3. Therefore, colored people can be treated as mere property.

As can be seen, this is the logic of those employed in the slave trade business years ago. Now, we would disagree with the 2nd premise – and thus the conclusion, but this is how any basic moral argument is formed. First, a moral premise is drawn (perhaps a claim about the moral status of something – like in this instance: all human beings ought not be treated as mere property). Secondly, a claim about a particular object or case is applied to the first premise in order to see if the object in question falls under the category offered in the first premise.

Detailed in other words, the first premise makes a moral claim about a class or category as a whole – then the second premise takes a specific object and claims that this thing either does or does not fall under that class or category.

1st premise = Moral law

2nd premise = “Factual” truth

Conclusion = Does moral claim apply to the specific object offered in premise 2?

Note: It’s worth pointing out that even those pro-slave trading also shared the common moral law found in the first premise with those who were opposed to the slave trade (more on this later!)

Clearing The Fog

Why is this distinction important? Because both premises are different in nature, and therefore cannot be demonstrated by the same means. For example, let’s look at another moral argument and examine how we would demonstrate the truthfulness of each premise:

      1. The unjustified killing of a human being is morally wrong.

      2. Elective abortion is the unjustified killing of a human being.

      3. Therefore, elective abortion is morally wrong.

Now, whether you disagree with the conclusion or agree, we need to at least be honest enough to recognize that premise 1 cannot be known by – for example – scientific means. Moral truths are known by different means – by a moral faculty (an immediate and direct knowledge of moral truths).

When someone asks you, “Is torturing an innocent baby wrong?”, you do not say, “Well, I’ll have to employ the scientific method and make some observations before deciding!” No, you would have direct and immediate knowledge that such a thing is morally wrong. (Whether we have immediate knowledge about all moral truths is a different issue!)

On the other hand, premise 2 is not a moral premise – thus it cannot be known by the same faculty. However, premise 2 can be known be scientific means. It’s a claim about something in the physical and empirical world.

Premise 2 is asserting that the unborn are fully human. How do we determine whether this is correct or false? By appealing to woman’s rights? Feelings? Slogans? I hope we can all agree that this is a claim that fits in the realm of science. We need to examine things like biology and embryology in order to see whether or not the unborn are human beings. Does Dna play a role? Does some sort of function on the part of the organism in question play a role?

Likewise, in the first argument above, in order to find out whether colored people are human beings we have to use science to figure this out. Does skin color determine whether someone is a human being?

This is all to point out the difference between the two premises. One deals with moral issues or truths, then second deals with issues of “factual” concerns which is an application of the moral claim to a specific case.

Do Different Cultures Have Different Moral Codes?

Remember from our last discussion – my previous post in this series – that even if the moral codes of different cultures are different, it doesn’t follow that there is not a universal moral law that binds all people. Now then, the question should be asked, “Do different cultures have different moral codes?” This is where our distinction between moral premises and “factual” premises comes in.

Let’s look at a few arguments that demonstrate this issue clearly:

      1. Human beings are instrinsically valuable.

      2. Jewish people are not human beings.

      3. Therefore, Jewish people are not intrinsically valuable.

This is the logic employed by the Nazi regime (at least to the public). Notice, the issue is not about the moral claim. Even the Nazis believed that humans are valuable (for whatever reason). The issue is the application of the moral principle to a particular case. So, the moral code isn’t different here, it’s the application that is different (which, I think, is clearly false!).

      1. Love your “neighbor” as yourself.

      2. Tribal group X is not my “neighbor.”

      3. Therefore, eating the people of Tribal group X is morally permissible.

Again, tribal groups that like to eat rival tribal groups do not have a different moral code (i.e. love your neighbor), they simply don’t think that these other tribal groups are their neighbor (just like we see in the gospels – the story of the good Samaritan – where Jesus is asked, “who is my neighbor?”) These tribes do believe that their fellow tribesmen are their neighbors, and treat them with love!

So when people claim that different cultures have different moral codes, we need to first clarify these distinctions. Do different cultures have differing moral codes or applications of those moral codes to specific cases? I think we would really find that the vast majority of cultures share some core moral law or code – perhaps some like: “it’s wrong to kill innocent people for mere pleasure,” “protecting one’s family is a good thing,” “those who treat other people unjustly ought to be punished in some way,” etc.

This may be what one would expect is there was a universal moral law, and perhaps not what would be expected if morality was relative – that there in fact does seem to be a shared common core of moral codes across differing cultures and people. I’d like to quote C.S Lewis – this coming from the end of his second chapter of “Mere Christianity” (although I would disagree that it “prove[s] just the opposite” – although it might make it more likely than it would have been otherwise [which might be what Lewis meant in any case]):

“I conclude then, that though the difference between people’s idea of Decent Behavior often make you suspect that there is no real natural Law of Behavior at all, yet the things we are bound to think about these differences really prove just the opposite.”

I hope that this series has been interesting and helpful. I’d be grateful and interested to hear back from those who have followed my contributions during these last few posts. Let me know what your own thoughts are and whether you enjoyed or perhaps didn’t enjoy this series!

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3 comments

  1. Good point about the distinction between application and code. You make sense.

    1. Thanks. Glad you were able to understand the distinction!

      1. Me too, new ways of thought are very conducive to my existence, haha

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