Is there “objective truth” in ethics? By Gabriel Tordjman Humanities 345-BXH:Issues in Bioethics Winter 2013 As a noun “objective” means “goal” or “aim” but this is not what we mean here. We want the adjective meaning of objective, which is: “... something that can be known...; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality”. (dictionary.com) “Objective” means something that can be known and that exists whether people know it or believe it or not. Objective truth means something that is true regardless of anyone’s or any culture’s opinion. 2 +2 + 4 Is this mathematical statement true? If someone believes it’s not true, is it still true? What if an entire culture believes it’s not true, is it still true? Is it objectively true? (True regardless of the opinion or beliefs of anyone or any culture?) “Questions About Adi Da and Adidam,” http://www.adidaupclose.org/FAQs/postmodernism2.html •This is the geocentric model of the universe. •It placed the earth at the centre of the universe. •People believed in this model for thousands of years? •Were they right? •Were they right even back then? “Cosmology and the Origin of Life,” http://zebu.uoregon.edu/2002/ph123/lec02.html The SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) organization is looking for evidence of intelligent life in the universe. (We are looking for the same thing at Dawson College) SETI Institute, “The History of SETI, http://www.seti.org/Page.aspx?pid=581 What if they make contact? How will they talk to them? Is there any language they could use that these aliens must know if they are intelligent creatures? If there is, then that language must be “objective”; something that is known and true and independent of the culture one comes from. 2 +2 + 4 That language would be the language of mathematics. Mathematics is true, regardless of the culture or opinion or beliefs of anyone. Mathematics is objectively true. In the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a massive space ship from another planet lands on Earth. The aliens had sent a message using the language of music and mathematics And the humans understood it and sent back a musical/mathematical response. Musical scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4Kgzn3tDQU “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, http://thecia.com.au/reviews/c/close-encounters-of-the-third-kind.shtml The assumption of the movie and SETI is that we can communicate with aliens through mathematics because mathematics is objectively true. 2+2=4 What a nerd! “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, http://thecia.com.au/reviews/c/close-encounters-of-the-third-kind.shtml Not just mathematics but the laws of nature are also “objectively true”. This includes the law of gravity, laws of motion, and many others that scientists have discovered. We can make a good case for objective truth in mathematics and science but the BIG question is: Are there objective truths in ethics? At first sight, the answer is no because: The laws of nature can be proved with facts that we can see, measure, weigh, test and duplicate. That is not the case with what is right and wrong (ethics). As a matter of fact individuals and cultures differ on what they consider right and wrong. Therefore, there is no “objective truth” in ethics, only subjective truth. A “subject” is an individual or a group. Subjective truth means something that is true from the point of view of the subject. Subjective truth depends on the viewpoint of the subject, while objective truth is independent of the viewpoint of the subject. I like cats I like ducks Some things are clearly subjective truths: I like coffee and you like tea. These are true but there is no “right answer” for everyone (objectively) This is a matter of subjective preference. So, are ethical truths merely subjective, true only from the viewpoint of the individual, or true only as matter of personal preference or taste? If so, there are no objective ethical truths. BUT: Maybe a case can still be made for objective truth in ethics. First, it isn’t really true that only natural laws and scientific theories can be supported with facts and logic. Ethical theories can also be supported with facts and logic. However, ethics cannot claim the same degree of certainty as science. Next, it isn’t true that cultures differ on all ethical questions. For example, there is no culture that encourages people to kill other members of their culture. Humans are much alike in their physical bodies and in their basic needs. Thus, they will come up with many ideas and values that serve to meet these needs. In this way, many (but not all) values and ethics in all cultures will be the same. Moreover, some claim humans have an innate moral sense ( we are born with a capacity to develop morality) Just like everyone has biological features in common (eyes, limbs, head) we may also have common moral features, like the moral sense. If so, this would also tend to support the view that there is a common or objective ethics. Maybe this is part of what Kant meant when he said: "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe... the starry sky above me and the moral law within me." Finally, we should also consider this: Many people don’t like the idea of an objective truth in ethics because it sounds intolerant. What is their case? What are the drawbacks to their viewpoint? Do you agree/disagree with them? Why? What do you think of the idea that there is an objective truth in ethics?