Monday, October 25, 2021

ethics and contradictions

 Ethics is a study of right and wrong. Sometimes we know what is right to do, and the question is whether or not we find the will to do it. If there is an universal interest in something, we sometimes choose to follow our private interests or to do what is moral. A course in ethics won't necessarily enable you to resist temptation.  But at other times there are moral reasons that someone can  provide for opposing actions. Take war for example. War kills people, but there do seem to be reasons that many people think justify war. Suppose we have a choice between performing an action and killing one person, or not performing an action, in which case five people are killed, but not as a direct result for our actions. What is right to do? 

Are there ethical statements that can be true or false? Now, a statement can be true or false whether or not there is proof available to us. For example, consider the belief that there is intelligent life on other planets. Being right here just means that the belief conforms to reality. You can be right without being reasonable--for example if I had thought that the Cardinals would win their first seven games, I would have been right. But if I thought that because I am a fan of the Cardinals, then I wouldn't be reasonable in forming my belief, even though it turned out to be true. It would still be wishful thinking, and no less so because I turned out to be right. 

Or consider the idea of life after death.  People disagree about whether or not it is real. But eventually we are all going to die, and when we do, we will either experience life after death,  in which case the people who said that there is life after death would be right and the people who denied it would have been wrong. On the other hand, if there is no life after death, then the people who thought there was no life after death were in fact right, though of course they won't be in existence to collect their bets. 

So what about the moral claim that some shouldn't get an abortion if the only reason for getting it is so as not to look fat in her wedding pictures. People disagree about that--some people think that a fetus is not yet a person, so getting an abortion for any reason or no reason is justified. But others disagree. People produce arguments about this issue. People on different sides of this sort of an issue think that their opponents are making a mistake. that they are getting their ethics wrong. 

Can you get your ethics wrong? Is Hannibal Lecter's murder and cannibilism not just distasteful, or illegal, or impolite, but really and truly wrong? If something is objective, then once you clarify what the terms mean, then the statement is has to be either true of false and the law of noncontradition applies. If it is just relative to a person or a society's feelings or preferences, then the law of noncontradiction does not apply. 

The law of nontradiction says that a statement cannot be both true and false. But if the question is whether McDonald's burgers are better than those of In-N-Out's, then there is an implied "for me" clause which prevents the law of noncontradiction from applying. If you ask whether or not belching after dinner is rude, then there is an implied "for my society." But what about moral judgments, ranging from controversial claims like "Abortion is nearly always wrong," to "It is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement." Are these statement relative to some person or society, or are they straighforward statements to which the law of noncontradiction should apply. When you ask yourself whether you can apply the law of noncontradiction to moral statements, think of a controversial case, and then a noncontroversial case. 

In these cases it is tempting to apply the "fact vs. opinion" distinction. Be careful. Both of those terms are ambiguous. "Fact" can mean either true, or provably true. "Opinion can mean either "Reasonable people can believe either the claim or its denial," but it can also mean that it's a matter of personal or societal taste, and therefore it cannot be true or false. 


bmiller said...

The law of nontradiction says that a statement cannot be both true and false. But if the question is whether McDonald's burgers are better than those of In-N-Out's, then there is an implied "for me" clause which prevents the law of noncontradiction from applying.

I think this is a muddled presentation.

The LNC states that a statement cannot be both true and false at the same time and in the same sense

The bare statement that one burger is better than another doesn't contain enough information to make a judgement. In what sense is one better than another? It's not that the LNC doesn't apply, it's simply that the statement is ambiguous. But if the sense is my personal taste at this moment, then the LNC certainly applies.

One Brow said...

The "Law of Non-Contradiction" is merely a position that the process of applying logical values to a sentence is a function, as opposed to a more general relation. Many people find it useful much of the time, but you can create logics that allow for statements to be assigned both values (or even more, for logics that have more values).

Victor Reppert said...

You can create other logics, but which logic corresponds to reality? I would have thought that if I was debating someone and caught them contradicting themselves, I won the debate. But maybe not, maybe I am simply presupposing an axiom of folk logic, and it doesn't really matter.

One Brow said...

Formal debates have previously agreed upon rules, informal debates often lack them.

Why should any single logic be the one that universally corresponds to reality better than any other logic at all times? Perhaps different situations call for different types of logic.