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To what extent are ethical facts definite?


October 2, 2016 by jayeren

Lately, a news title caught my eye: “Italian court rules food theft ‘not a crime’ if hungry”. I was surprised because according to conventional thoughts and laws in many other countries in the  rest of the world, no matter what the intention of stealing is, theft is always a crime; I assume that the other governments weigh the consequence of the action of stealing, which are lost of store-owners and corruption of social moralities, over the intention of the thief, which is “immediate and essential need for nourishment”. On the other hand, Italian government focus on the intention of theft and claimed that “right to survival prevails over property”, and that “it is called humanity”. Evidently, there is a conflict between different countries on the issue of what is ethical and human, what isn’t. This leads to the knowledge question of: to what extent are ethics facts definite?

Ethics are the principles that prescribe a certain sort of conduct, which basically restricts human behaviour from exceeding proper. Though there are controversies on which actions exceed proper, which don’t. Similar to the contrasting idea of Italian government and other countries on the boundary of ethics, there are two approaches to determine whether if an action is ethical or not.  The two reasoning approaches(schools of thought) are called Deontology and Utilitarianism respectively; where Deontology focuses on the action itself and evaluate the correctness of it based on factors of intention and duty to act in that way, Utilitarianism considers good or bad only on consequences of the action. These two ways of approaching moral dilemmas result in different opinions on whether one action is ethical or not.

This controversy leads to further debate on whether ethical facts are matters of opinion or actual facts that are independent of anyone’s opinion; Moral Realism thinks that ethical facts are  objective and unarguable, while Moral relativism argues that an individual or the cultural background is how people form their values and moral judgements are made dependent on these factors, therefore agreement or disagreement on moral issues are only expression of feelings and attitudes of people instead of matters of fact.

This led me think of a traffic legislation in China, which states that no matter if the motor-vehicle driver has any responsibilities for traffic accidents, if the pedestrian was being hit by the motor-vehicle, the driver would have to assume at least 10% of the compensation liability. For example, when the car is driving under normal conditions without violating the law, if a pedestrian ran the red light or didn’t walk zebra, and is hit by the car, granted that the driver didn’t do anything wrong, he/she still needs to pay part of the compensation. Chinese government set up this law for the protection of pedestrians who are relatively more vulnerable than people sitting in the car , therefore this law is set up according to Utilitarianism school-of-thought, where process of action aside, the consequence of traffic accidents is that pedestrians would be worse off in terms of physical damages in most cases. Apparently, Italian and Chinese government followed two different ways of approaching moral issues, therefore they set up two different laws for their own countries. If we match this situation with the Moral relativism approach and argue that this difference in approaches of moral issues is caused by different cultural backgrounds, this will lead to another question of: to what extent are moral judgements dependent on cultural backgrounds?

To answer this question, it would require an investigation on historical development of cultures, and the formation of values of the vast majority of the country’s citizens(if the government is a true representation of the country’s cultural value). For example, according to my quick research, the European Renaissance contributed to the development of the idea of humanitarianism, which reached to a common theme of no distinction is to be made on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, race, caste, age, religion, ability, or nationality(Concept of humanitarianism), and that the European’s values were strongly influenced by this revolution. People from Europe may view humanity as a more important  issue than other factors when it comes to moral issues. Similarly, other countries have a different period of history and has gone through revolutions of different natures that help them form values differently.

In conclusion, according to relativism’s point of view, ethical facts vary because of different view of people or cultural backgrounds. In reality, there are differences in moral judgements, though the reason why they are different still needs further investigation.


Italian court rules food theft ‘not a crime’ if hungry


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