Philosophical Categories of Ethics

The epistemic study of ethics within philosophy breaks down the knowledge of ethics into three camps.  Ethical Nihilism, Relativism, and Objectivism.

Nihilists do not believe ethics exists.  They see ethics as a figment of the human imagination.  To them, there is no right or wrong, good or evil, there just is; and what is, is all there is and ever will be.  They view ethics as a Skeptic – they don’t believe ethics exists.

The term Skeptic when applied to a philosophical ideology, is a basic denial that anything is knowable.  George Smith provides a great rebuke of philosophical skepticism in his book, “Atheism, the case against God”.  To paraphrase, the Skeptic wanting to deny all aspects of reality should be rendered mute.  If you do not believe in objective reality, then you would be unable to learn words, communicate, etc.

Philosophical Skeptical arguments can be hard to overcome if you are ill prepared for them.  They are a good starter for inquiry however.  My philosophy professor posed a Skeptical question to me that took me a decade to answer properly and was the seed to this blog, “How is it you know that?”  That being whatever it was I claimed.  Good question.  After reading a lot about philosophy, psychology, epistemology, sociology, etc, and connecting the dots from other disciplines, I am confident that my understanding of ethics is sound.  And I can clearly reject Ethical Nihilism.

Relativist believe ethics can only exist within a given culture.  It is the “Culture is King” philosophy of right and wrong.  The thought is that ethics are a type of norm that develops within and are constrained by culture.  Without a culture to develop norms and enforce them, ethics would not exists.  Relativist do not see ethics as universal truths or innate knowledge; they see them as learned and different between different groups.  Such a culture centric view can work OK within a given culture but quickly loses ground when two cultures come into conflict (including sub-cultures within the society that do not subscribe to the larger group’s norms).

All religions, generally speaking, fall into this camp.  Ethical relativism is unavoidable for those who feel they get their ability to determine right from wrong through knowledge gained by reading and interpreting ancient holy texts that are considered, “words of absolute truth.”  If you believe your foundation of knowing right from wrong (ethics) is derived from your god and you come into conflict over a matter of ethics with someone else who holds a similar conviction about their god, you have a big problem.  It will be hard for you to find common ground to resolve your dispute.  The options available are conversion from one faith to another (not a likely scenario) or force.  The latter has been a historically chosen view.  God being all mighty is typically seen to be on the side of the winner.

The third camp is Objectivism.  The word Objectivism has been co-oped by others in the past, so I will define its meaning for use in this blog.  Objectivist believe that ethics are knowable and they transcend culture and time.  Attempts to derive a foundation for ethical objectivism have not been historically successful.  Many of the concepts of the enlightenment sought this goal.  The concept of Humanism came out of such thought.  The founding fathers of the U.S.A. used concepts of balance of power, universal human rights, etc to help anchor our government to a foundation of ethics.  Still, a simple, easy to grasp and apply foundation for universal ethics has been elusive.

Ethics defined provides not only a simple definition for Ethics, but also provides scientific and philosophical proofs to support the definition.


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