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Philosophy 302: Ethics
Reasons for Adopting Moral Rules

Abstract: The traditional theories of truth are introduced and discussed.  Their advantages and disadvantages are noted, and a composite of the correspondence and coherence theories is adopted for the purposes of this course.

Upon what can we base our ethical principles? Subjective methods (such as intuition, revelation, and instinct) are often used; however, these criteria have obvious defects and will not be considered here.

I. Authority: the opinion of those with special ability or knowledge of a field.


A. Advantages:



1. Authorities are respected in courts of law, in government, in scientific circles, and the schoolroom.



2. Authorities are relied upon because highly trained, knowledgeable, talented and successful persons should be able to render valuable opinions in their fields.


B. Disadvantages:



1. ad Verecundiam: the fallacy arising from relying upon an authority outside his field of expertise.



2. Authorities in the same field sometimes contradict each other on the main points.



3. Even if an authority is right, we still need to ask why that person is correct in order to have knowledge.



4. The opinions of authorities change from time to time, but truth should not change over place and time.

II. Consensus Gentium: if there is a unanimous opinion on a particular belief, it is considered to be true. (Related criteria are majority rule, custom, and public opinion.)


A. Advantages:



1. It's democratic--everyone gets a "fair" chance to determine the truth.



2. It's a practical way to decide pressing issues quickly.


B. Disadvantages:



1. ad Populum: the fallacy arising from the belief that simply from the fact many people believe something is true, it must be true.



2. In general, the majority is unreflective and easily swayed by passion and prejudice.



3. Even if the majority is correct, we still need to ask why the statement is true in order to have knowledge.



4. The opinion of the majority changes from time to time, but truth should not change over time.



5. In practical matters, there can be a tyranny of the majority.

III. Legality: whatever is legal is moral.


A. Advantages:



1. The laws are both comprehensive and specific--more so than any set of behavioral rules.



2. The court system can decide difficult applications of principles.


B. Disadvantages:



1. Law and morality are not coextensive. (Not all laws are good or moral.) As as the columnist Walter Williams succintly puts it: "[D]oes legality establish morality? Before you answer, keep in mind slavery was legal, apartheid was legal, the Nazi's Nurenmberg Laws were legal, and the Stalinist and Maoist purges were illegal. Legality alone cannot be the guide for moral people."[1]



2. Laws differ from place to place, time to time.



3. Many laws are vague--the law suffers from "open texture."

IV. The traditional theories of truth:


A. Pragmatism: the criterion that tests beliefs by their results when put into operation, a criterion supported by Peirce, James, and Dewey.



1. A statement is thought to be true insofar as it works or satisfies or fulfills its function.



2. Working or satisfying or functioning is described differently by different people. One attends to the practical consequences of ideas.



3. Peirce wrote, "In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception, one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the expression."



4. The pragmatists reduced the notion of being truth to that of being accepted as true or even to that of being tested for truth.



5. What are the defects for using this criterion for establishing the truth of morality?


B. Correspondence Theory of Truth: this criterion claims that an idea that accords with its object must be true. In other words, a statement is true, if it expresses what is the case.



1. To say that something is true is to say that there is a correspondence between it and a fact.



2. For example, "It is raining here, now" is true if it is the case that it is raining here now; otherwise it is false.



3. The nature of the relation of correspondence between a fact and a true proposition is described differently by different writers.




The controversial features are due mainly to the different interoperations of the key words, "fact" and "statement."



4. One main difficulty is finding what corresponds to a false statement or a nonreferring statement such as "The present king of France is bald."


C. Coherence theory of truth: this criterion is used to ascertain whether the individual statements that comprise a belief are rationally and consistently interrelated. (A criterion used by Leibniz and Spinoza, and Bradley).



1. To say that what is said is true or false is to say that what is said is consistent with or is not consistent with a system of other things which are said.




A statement is true if it is a part of a system of statements each of which are related to each other by logical implication (e.g., Euclid's geometry).



2. Hence a statement is true insofar as it is a necessary part of a systematically coherent set of statements. Thus, truth is a property of an extensive body of consistent propositions.



3. An unusual feature is the doctrine of the degrees of truth: if the truth of an given statement is bound up with, and can only be seen with the truth of all the statements in the system, individual statements as such are only partly true--only the whole system is said to be true.




Consider, for example, the truth of the statement, "The earth is round."

V. What criteria of truth will we used in this course?


A. We will use a composite of the coherence and the correspondence theories of truth. Generally speaking, the process goes as follows.


B. When we use reason to establish the truth or a statement, we need to argue from true premisses.



1. The premisses of our arguments can be established as true either by the coherence theory (they follow from other true statements) or the correspondence theory (they follow from our knowledge of states of affairs in the world)



2. The conclusions of our arguments then can be established from the rules of logic (the implementation of the coherence theory).


1. Walter Williams, "Immoral beyond redemption," Index Journal 94, No. 39 (June 8, 2012): 8A.

Recommended Sources

Ethics Quiz on Theories of Truth:  This short quiz covers the coherence, correspondence, and pragmatic theories of truth.

The Correspondence Theory of Truth: Bertrand Russell's version of the correspondence theory of truth is characterized and discussed.

The Coherence Theory of Truth: Francis Bradley's version of the coherence theory of truth is characterized and discussed.

The Pragmatic Theory of Truth: William James' version of the pragmatic theory of truth is characterized and discussed.

Introduction to Philosophy Quiz: Theories of Truth.  The coherence, correspondence, and the pragmatic theories of truth are the subject of this short multiple-choice quiz.

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