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Philosophy 302: Ethics
Edward Westermarck, "Ethics Are Relative"

Abstract:  Since there is no empirical basis for objective standards in ethical theory ethical relativism results.  Moral belief are ultimately only based on emotion.

1. Explain how a normative science should be defined? Why does Westermarck believe ethics is not normative?

2. Why does Westermarck object to the notion of a conscience as the basis of the objectivity of moral judgments?

3. Explain Westermarck's view on the judgment that an action is not right because a Supreme Being decrees it; on the contrary, the reason a Supreme Being would decree it is because the action is right.

4. Clarify how on Westermarck's view moral judgments are not objective.

5. Explain why, in Westermarck's view, "…to say that something is good because it is in accordance with the will of an all-good God is to reason in a circle."

6. How does Westermarck answer the charge of "ethical subjectivism" against his view of ethical relativity?

7. Explain Westermarck's argument that moral judgments cannot be objective even though they are not arbitrary.

 

1. Explain how a normative science should be defined? Why does Westermarck believe ethics is not normative?

A normative science and normative ethics is a set of principles which are objectively true.  On this view, right and wrong, good and bad, are not notions dependent upon what you or I think.

Westermarck believes that no one ethical theory has been shown to be objectively true; therefore, unlike scientific theories, ethical theories reflect mere opinion. Moreover, no ethical principle is self-evident.

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2. Why does Westermarck object to the notion of a conscience as the basis of the objectivity of moral judgments?

Conscience, he thinks, is formed by social and religious sanctions of behavior and is shaped by what most persons believe.

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3. Explain Westermarck's view on the judgment that an action is not right because a Supreme Being decrees it; on the contrary, the reason a Supreme Being would decree it is because the action is right.

Even if God's existence could be proved and thus the source of objective validity of morality is God, it does not follow that an action is right because God commands it.  This would be circular reasoning. As Aquinas says, "right is not right because God will it, but that God wills it because it is right."

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4. Clarify how on Westermarck's view moral judgments are not objective.

Westermarck does not think the objectivity of moral judgments can be scientifically proven.

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5. Explain why, in Westermarck's view, "…to say that something is good because it is in accordance with the will of an all-good God is to reason in a circle."

If an action is thought right or good because God commands it, then what is right or good is so because God is right and good.  In brief, the supposed justification of good is God approved  and the justification of  God is his  nature of goodness.

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6. How does Westermarck answer the charge of "ethical subjectivism" against his view of ethical relativity?

Moral judgments originate from moral consciousness and these feelings are not arbitrary. We are not entirely free to believe whatever we will.  Even so, Westermarck admits that there are no absolute standards of morality, and moral standards will vary.

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7. Explain Westermarck's argument that moral judgments cannot be objective even though they are not arbitrary.

He concludes moral judgments are not objective and are entirely based on emotion.  Emotions have no truth value; only beliefs based on those emotions could be true or false.

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Recommended Sources

Ethical Relativism:  The history and variety of the arguments dealing with ethical relativity designed to help form your own view.

The Definition of Morality.:  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Descriptive and normative definitions with links by Bernard Gert.

Ethics Homepage     

 
Charles A. Ellwood, "Ethics Are Culturally Relative"   Top of Page   G. E. Moore, "The Objectivity of Moral Judgments"
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