University of Kansas, Spring 2003
Philosophy 161: Introduction to Ethics, Honors

Class notes: meta-ethics

The following notes correspond roughly to what we cover, including at least a portion of what I put on the board or the screen, in class. In places they may be more or less comprehensive than what we actually cover in class, and should not be taken as a substitute for your own observations and records of what goes on in class.

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  1. EMP, chapter 2: “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism”
    1. section 2.1: “How Different Cultures Have Different Moral Codes”
      1. Callatians and Greeks, Eskimos
      2. what to notice: that moral codes can vary, to a surprising extent, from one culture to the next
    2. section 2.2: “Cultural Relativism”
      1. Rachels gives six statements that relate to cultural relativism. Although he doesn’t make this explicit in this section, the fourth and fifth best capture the idea of cultural relativism.
      2. Rachels mentions that cultural relativism “challenges our ordinary belief in the objectivity and universality of moral truth” (p. 18). This is an important idea that will come up in the next chapter as well.
    3. section 2.3: “The Cultural Differences Argument”
      1. This is the main argument for cultural relativism. Its premises are (1) different cultures have different moral beliefs and (2) these differences show that there are no universally correct moral standards. (And the conclusion, of course, is the thesis of cultural relativism: there are no universally correct moral standards, but only culturally relative ones.) Note then, that the bare fact of cultural differences is only part of an argument for cultural relativism, not proof all by itself. Another premise, relating these cultural differences to morality itself, is needed.
      2. That premise was stated above as “(2) these differences show that there are no universally correct moral standards.” This is pretty much how Rachels presents it. But to make this more rigorous, and to make the underlying thought of the argument more explicit, the second premise should be stated like this: “(2) The best explanation for these differences is that there are no universally correct moral standards.”
      3. one objection to the argument: An objection to this argument can be generated by substituting something for ‘moral beliefs’, such as ‘beliefs about whether the world is flat or round’ or ‘beliefs about arithmetic’. If people disagreed about these things, would we conclude that cultural relativism is true for these areas of thought, too? (Would the lack of some fact of the matter about these things be the best explanation of this disagreement?) Or wouldn’t we just conclude that some people make mistakes about these areas of thought? (That is, wouldn’t we just conclude that the best explanation for this disagreement is not that there is no fact of the matter, but that some people don’t have all the facts?)
      4. another objection to the argument: Another objection to this argument can be generated by leaving the phrase ‘moral beliefs’ alone, and substituting something for ‘cultures’, such as ‘persons’. The resulting argument would imply that morality is relative not to cultures, but to individual persons. So if the cultural relativist accepts the form of the cultural-differences argument, it is unclear why he or she draws the line at cultures, and concludes with the doctrine of cultural relativism, instead of going further, to individual persons, and concluding with a doctrine that might be called individual relativism.
    4. section 2.4: “The Consequences of Taking Cultural Relativism Seriously”
      1. If cultural relativism were true, then all of the following would be true as well:
        1. We could have no logical basis for saying that the customs of one society are morally superior to those of another.
          1. Why does this follow from cultural relativism? Because if cultural relativism is true, then there is no objective standard by which to judge various cultures. There are only the standards that obtain within each culture.
          2. Why is this problematic? Because we often want to evaluate the relative merits of various societies’ customs, and feel as if we could have some logical basis for doing so, if we thought carefully, collected all the facts, etc. But cultural relativism pronounces any such endeavor as misconceived from the start.
        2. All you need to do to see how you ought to behave is to see what your own culture says about how you ought to behave; and you cannot (logically) make any moral criticism of your own culture’s norms or practices.
          1. Why does this follow from cultural relativism? Because if cultural relativism is true, then the only available standard is a culturally relative one: that of one’s own culture. Thus your moral obligations are entirely and conclusively specified by your culture’s practices; and it would make no sense to say, “Some of our culture’s practices are immoral,” since this would (if cultural relativism were true) be equivalent to “Some of our culture’s practices are not allowed by our culture’s norms”—and it is hard o see how one could logically say this.
          2. Why is this problematic? Two reasons. First, we do not think that ascertaining what we ought to do is as easy as just seeing what our culture says we ought to do; rather, we think it’s harder, and involves critical reflection on the norms of our own culture (instead of just taking them for granted). Second, we often think that there must be a way to “step outside” of one’s own culture and evaluate it from an objective standpoint. But, as before, cultural relativism pronounces such an endeavor as misconceived.
        3. Moral progress never occurs.
          1. Why does this follow from cultural relativism? Because the very idea of moral progress involves (it seems) comparing two cultures, or one culture at two different times (which we’ll regard as two different cultures), and judging one to be better than the other. But if (as cultural relativism maintains) there is no standpoint outside of a given culture for judging its norms and practices, then there is no standpoint for making such a cross-cultural comparison. (Notice that cultural relativism does not, then, deny that what we regard as moral progress has actually taken place; it just denies that such events can logically be labeled “progress,” or with any term of praise or condemnation.)
          2. Why is this problematic? Because we are inclined to regard certain changes as constituting progress, and others as regressions, and still others as morally neutral changes. But, again, cultural relativism says there is no logical room for such evaluations, no standpoint from which they can be made.
      2. The fact that cultural relativism has these problematic implications suggests that it clashes with several intuitions we have about the kinds of moral judgments it’s possible to make and what it takes to make them. This may be a reason to reject it (or it may be a reason to reject all of the intuitions it clashes with).
    5. section 2.5: “Why There Is Less Disagreement Than It Seems”
      1. Customs and norms result from both values and factual beliefs. Sometimes, a difference in norms can appear to indicate a difference in values, but actually reflects only a difference in factual beliefs.
      2. To see the relevance of this to cultural relativism, recall that the cultural differences argument begins with the premise that different cultures have different moral beliefs. If this apparent difference in moral beliefs comes to seem doubtful or less extensive than it seemed at first, then a premise of the cultural differences argument will be weakened.
    6. section 2.6: “How All Cultures Have Some Values in Common”
      1. Cultures cannot persist without certain kinds of behavior being prevalent, such as caring for infants, respecting persons’ lives, and telling the truth. So, almost as a matter of anthropological fact, there are certain limits to how much practices can vary from one culture to another.
      2. The relevance of this to cultural relativism is roughly the same as before: since the cultural differences argument begins with the premise that different cultures have different moral beliefs, limits on how varied cultures’ moral beliefs can be have the effect of limiting the support for cultural relativism.
    7. section 2.7: “Judging a Cultural Practice to be Undesirable”
      1. Rachels describes a girl fleeing her society because of its practice of excision. This case can be used to explore your intuitions about cultural relativism. Suppose you knew this girl and were advising her. Would you tell her that the practice is right, because it’s an integral part of the culture? Or would you evaluate the practice by some standard that is independent of the culture of which it is a part?
      2. Rachels proposes that the practice can be evaluated without resorting to a culture-neutral standard of right and wrong, by appealing to a standard having to do with promoting or hindering the welfare of the everyone affected. The important thing to appreciate here is not the specific content of the standard Rachels proposes, but his continuation of the considerations of sections 2.5 and 2.6: here, the thought that our disagreement with societies that practice excision is not only or entirely a disagreement in values, but a disagreement in beliefs about matters of fact (specifically, how the practice affects individuals’ welfare).
      3. Judging a cultural practice to be undesirable should not be confused with (1) thinking that we should intervene, such as in diplomatic or military ways, in order to get the practice stopped, (2) refusing to be tolerant towards practices we regard as undesirable, or (3) judging the entire culture of which it is a part to be a bad culture. So, one can reject cultural relativism without being committed to intervention, intolerance, or judging an entire culture negatively.
    8. section 2.8: “What Can Be Learned from Cultural Relativism”
      1. Rachels distills two lessons from the considerations surrounding cultural relativism.
        1. Not all our preferences, or even all the moral judgments we take very seriously, are based on an absolute rational standard. Many of them—perhaps most of them—may be based on accidental features of our culture. (Where cultural relativism goes wrong is in assuming that all of them are like this.)
        2. It is necessary to keep an open mind about moral questions, and be willing to reconsider our moral beliefs.
      2. Note that neither of these “lessons” of cultural relativism requires us to subscribe to cultural relativism itself—Rachels’s point is that one can reject cultural relativism while still profiting from the above “lessons.”
    9. true or false?
      1. If people have different beliefs about something, then each of their views is equally plausible—there’s no “fact of the matter.”
      2. Cultural relativism could be true even if the cultural-differences argument is unsound, as Rachels claims it is.
      3. In showing the consequences of taking cultural relativism seriously, Rachels shows that cultural relativism is internally inconsistent.
      4. If Rachels’s criticism of the cultural differences argument in section 2.3 were not sound, then his objections in section 2.4 would be left without support.
  2. EMP, chapter 3: “Subjectivism in Ethics”
    1. section 3.1: “The Basic Idea of Ethical Subjectivism”
      1. The basic idea of ethical subjectivism is that our moral opinions are based on our feelings, and on nothing more. In other words, it is the view that moral judgments do not reflect facts about the world, but reflect only our feelings about facts about the world.
      2. The feelings that we have about various issues, and the moral opinions that result, may be based on some view of the facts of a given situation, but (according to a subjectivist) there are no moral facts for our moral opinions to match up with or get wrong.
      3. Like cultural relativism, this not a theory of what’s right and what’s wrong; rather, it’s a meta-ethical theory: an account of the nature of morality. Cultural relativism says morality is relative to each culture; subjectivism goes further and says that it’s relative to each individual.
      4. So stated, the theory is rather vague. Beginning in section 3.3, we’ll consider two versions of subjectivism.
    2. section 3.2: “The Evolution of the Theory”
      1. The two versions of subjectivism we’ll consider come in a certain order.
      2. One of them was proposed first, but then objections to it led certain philosophers, sympathetic to subjectivism but aware of the difficulties with the first version, to propose another.
    3. section 3.3: “The First Stage: Simple Subjectivism”
      1. According to simple subjectivism, when a person makes a moral judgment, he or she is stating or reporting his or her feelings of approval and disapproval. For example, “X is good” means something like “I approve of X.”
      2. One objection to this view is that it makes making correct moral judgments look like a much easier endeavor than we ordinarily believe it to be. For if (1) “X is good” means nothing more than (2) “I approve of X,” then one can make a correct moral judgment (such as statement 1) as easily as one can make a correct report of one’s feelings (such as statement 2). But we tend to think that it’s much harder, and requires much more thought, to come up with correct moral judgments than it is to come up with correct reports of one’s feelings. As a result, simple subjectivism ends up giving an account of moral judgment that is at odds with something we think we know about what it takes to make a correct moral judgment. (Rachels puts this in terms of infallibility, but I find this term a little misleading.)
      3. A second objection to this view is that it denies that moral disagreement is present in many circumstances in which we would think, intuitively, that it is present. For example, if Falwell says (1) “Homosexuality is immoral” and Foreman says (2) “Homosexuality is not immoral,” then we would take them to be disagreeing: we would take them to be saying things that can’t both be true at once. But according to simple subjectivism, what Falwell is saying has the same meaning as (3) “I [Falwell] disapprove of homosexuality” and what Foreman is saying has the same meaning as (4) “I [Foreman] do not disapprove of homosexuality.” And statements 3 and 4 can both be true at once! So simple subjectivism implies that two statements we regard as not capable of both being true at once (1 and 2) actually mean the same things as two statements that can both be true at once (3 and 4). (For clarification: What does Rachels mean when he says “changing the subject” (p. 36.3)?)
      4. A third objection to this view, one not mentioned by Rachels, is that simple subjectivism not only fails to account for moral disagreement, but also (and in precisely the same way) fails to account for moral agreement.
    4. section 3.4: “The Second Stage: Emotivism”
      1. In response to the difficulties with simple subjectivism, another, more sophisticated, version of subjectivism, one known as emotivism, has been proposed. According to emotivism, when a person makes a moral judgment, he or she is expressing his or her feelings of approval and disapproval. For example, “X is good” means something like “Yay, X!”
      2. The difference between simple subjectivism and emotivism depends on the difference between stating or reporting something and expressing it. Unlike statements or reports of attitudes, expressions of attitudes are neither true nor false, neither correct nor incorrect.
      3. This subtle difference between simple subjectivism and emotivism enables the latter to avoid being vulnerable to the two objections to the former we considered earlier:
        1. The first objection was that simple subjectivism makes making correct moral judgments look a lot easier than we believe it to be. But emotivism avoids this implication, by denying that moral judgments can be correct or incorrect at all.
        2. The second objection was that simple subjectivism fails to regard, as disagreement, two people whom we, intuitively, would regard as disagreeing. Emotivism accounts for this disagreement by distinguishing between (1) disagreement about facts and (2) disagreement in attitude, and by regarding moral disagreement as disagreement of the second kind.
    5. section 3.5: “Are There Any Moral Facts?”
      1. According to emotivism, any consideration that influences someone’s attitudes counts as a reason. But this admits, into the class of things regarded as reasons for moral judgments, many things that we intuitively would not think should count as reasons. So emotivism seems to offer an inadequate account of the connection between reason and moral judgment.
      2. As a middle ground between any subjectivist view and the view that there are moral facts that are just like “facts about stars and planets,” Rachels proposes that we regard a moral judgment as true if it is supported by the strongest reasons.
    6. section 3.6: “Are There Proofs in Ethics?”
      1. Subjectivist views may seem appealing because we seem to have much more trouble finding convincing proofs for ethical truths than for truths in other fields, such as the sciences. This suggests to many people that there are no proofs in ethics.
      2. But what about the “proofs” of “ethical truths” that Rachels offers? Are these proofs, or could one accept their premises and reach different conclusions?
      3. The thought that ethical truths can be proved becomes easier to accept when one
        1. stops holding proofs in ethics to an overly demanding standard
        2. observes that although there are many contentious ethical issues on which people persistently disagree, there are also many on which there is wide agreement
        3. distinguishes proof from persuasion, and does not mistake the absence of the latter for the absence of the former
  3. deriving morality from nature
    1. the standard form of the argument and its difficulties
      1. There is a standard form of argument that is generally applicable to attempts to derive morality from nature, and here it is.
        1. X is unnatural. (X could be homosexuality, or abortion, or equal rights for women and men, or whatever.)
        2. Whatever is unnatural is wrong.
        3. Therefore, X is wrong.
      2. The challenge for any proponent of such an argument is to find an interpretation of ‘unnatural’ so that, for some X,
        1. The first premise is true.
        2. The first premise is not question-begging. (So, for example, ‘unnatural’ should not be interpreted as evil.)
        3. The second premise is true.
        4. The second premise is not trivially true. (The is basically the same constraint as the second one: ensuring that ‘unnatural’ is not interpreted in a morally-loaded way.)
        5. The word ‘unnatural’ has the sane sense in the first premise as in the second—i.e., that the word is not used ambiguously in the two premises.
      3. The problem for deriving morality from nature is that it seems extremely hard to come up with an interpretation of ‘unnatural’ that satisfies all the foregoing criteria.
    2. section 3.7: “The Question of Homosexuality,” through the first full paragraph on p. 46
      1. Rachels presents a set of considerations in defense of his view that homosexuality is not immoral.
      2. He also considers the claim that homosexuality is unnatural. To assess this claim, he distinguishes three senses of the word ‘unnatural’, each of which may figure in a claim made about homosexuality.
        1. ‘unnatural’ as statistically uncommon, or rare
        2. ‘unnatural’ as not in accordance with (natural) function
        3. ‘unnatural’ as wrong
      3. It is important to see that Rachels’s main purpose in this passage is not to convince us that homosexuality is not unnatural—though he does believe this—but to show the futility of using the notions of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ to establish moral conclusions.
    3. section 4.3: “The Theory of Natural Law”
      1. This theory is a particularly sophisticated way of trying to derive morality from nature.
      2. main components of the theory
        1. The first component is a theory of what the world is like. According to this theory, the world has values and purposes built into it. For example, animals are resources for humans, plants are food for animals (and also humans), and rain falls for the sake of plants (and animals and humans, presumably). This theory is, of course, completely incompatible with the modern scientific worldview of everything in nature as just there, with no scheme or plan built into it; and this incompatibility between this component of natural-law theory and the modern scientific worldview makes many people skeptical of this component of natural-law theory.
        2. The second component of the theory of natural law is the thought that the purposes things serve are the purposes they ought to serve; and that any deviation from these purposes is bad. This sort of thinking has been taken to lead to such conclusions as (1) people ought to be helpful to one another, because it’s clear from the way humans are designed that they were meant to live cooperatively and (2) people ought not to have non-procreative sex, because the true, legitimate purpose of sex is procreation. The leading objection to this component of natural-law theory is that it seems not to have adequate reason for its claims of how things ought to be just on the basis of its observations of how things are. (Rachels mentions that a second objection rests on the incompatibility of natural-law theory with the modern scientific worldview, but I think this makes more sense as an objection to the first component of the view, as noted above.)
        3. The third component of the theory of natural law has to do with how we know what’s right and wrong. It is the claim that we know what’s right and wrong through the exercise of our reason: that God has endowed each of us with the capacity to detect what’s right and wrong, and to act accordingly.
    4. Hume on ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’
      1. In the first sentence, the phrase ‘these principles’ refers to principles distinguishing virtue from vice, or moral principles.
      2. He considers several ways of distinguishing the natural from the unnatural.
        1. non-miraculous vs. miraculous
        2. common vs. rare
        3. not artificial vs. artificial
      3. Then he rejects each of these as mapping onto the virtue/vice distinction.
        1. Virtue is not more non-miraculous than vice. (Indeed it seems that virtue and vice are equally non-miraculous.)
        2. Virtue is not more common than vice. (If anything, the opposite seems to be true.)
        3. Virtue is not less artificial than vice. (Indeed it seems that virtue and vice are equally in this regard.)
  4. deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’
    1. like deriving morality from nature: This is like deriving morality from nature, but more general. (Think of deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’ as the genus, and deriving morality from nature as a species within it.)
    2. Hume on deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’
      1. relations of ideas
        1. ingratitude in humans vs. trees
        2. incest in humans vs. animals
      2. matters of fact
        1. willful murder
      3. ‘is’ and ‘ought’
  5. Stevenson, “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms”
    1. section I (aim: to describe Stevenson’s goal, and to refute one attempt at achieving that goal)
      1. p. 14.5: Notice the aim of translating ethical questions into clearer, less mysterious questions, or of providing definitions of ethical terms. Notice also how clearly Stevenson presents the aim of his paper—he does not leave the reader wondering what he’s going to do, or clueless as to what she should watch out for as the paper proceeds.
      2. p. 15.2: a criterion of adequacy that must be met in order for a definition to be “relevant”
      3. p. 15.4: very clear transition to next tasks (of considering definitions of ‘good’ and then providing one)
      4. p. 15.5: two proposals (both being interest theories, or theories having to do with persons’ interests)
        1. good = desired by me
        2. good = approved by most people
      5. p. 16.3: three things we know about the word ‘good’ that disqualify at least some interest theories
        1. when moral disagreement is happening (recall Rachels’s second objection)
        2. the ‘magnetism’ of whatever is good
        3. not scientifically verifiable (recall Rachels’s first objection)
      6. p. 18.4: helpful summary of preceding claims
    2. section II (aim: to describe Stevenson’s understanding of ethical terms)
      1. p. 18.5: “vary from tradition”—philosophers are often concerned about showing how their views differ from what’s come before, lest their own views seem uninteresting
      2. p. 18.7: reference to traditional interest theories’ descriptive orientation
      3. p. 18.9: a new approach to the connection between ethical statements and interests
      4. p. 19.4: reasons simply as means of facilitating influence
      5. p. 19.5: desert simile
      6. p. 19.9: statement of what Stevenson is currently doing
      7. p. 20.3: ethical terms as instruments
      8. p. 20.9: information about upcoming topics
    3. section III (aim: to explain the notion of emotive meaning)
      1. p. 21.3: descriptive use vs. dynamic use
      2. p. 22.3: very clear transition to the topic of meaning
      3. p. 22.4: identifying a word’s meaning with the psychological effects it tends to have
      4. p. 23.2: emotive meaning—tendency to produce an affective response; contributes to dynamic use
      5. p. 23.4: very clear transition to the topic of the connection between dynamic use and emotive meaning
    4. section IV (aim: to clarify ‘good’ by appealing to emotive meaning)
      1. p. 24.3: helpful statement of next task
      2. p. 24.4: starting with “an inaccurate approximation”—sometimes useful in explanations
      3. p. 24.4: ‘This is good’ is sort of like ‘We like this’, used dynamically.
      4. p. 25.4–5: But this is not really a satisfactory definition.
      5. p. 25.6: the pleasing emotive meaning of the word ‘good’
      6. p. 25.8: the impossibility of finding a helpful synonym
      7. p. 26.4: claim of success in “clarifying” the word’s meaning
    5. section V (aim: to defend understanding ‘good’ in terms of emotive meaning)
      1. review of the requirements from section I
        1. first requirement: accurately reflect when moral disagreement is happening
          1. p. 27.1: disagreement in belief vs. disagreement in interest
          2. p. 26.5: the problem with previous “interest theories” (such as simple subjectivism)
        2. p. 27.8: second requirement: “magnetism” of ‘good’
        3. p. 28.2: third requirement: not scientifically verifiable
      2. further explanation of Stevenson’s view
        1. p. 28.2: A crucial part of Stevenson’s view is that that no matter how much agreement there may be on facts, ethical judgments will not necessarily coincide.
        2. p. 29.2: very illuminating analogy between imperatives and ethical judgments
        3. p. 29.4: example of agreement about facts, but disagreement in attitude
        4. p. 29.6–9: no rational method for settling ethical disagreement! It's all just persuasion!
        5. p. 30.3–4: helpful summary of main claims in this rich section
        6. This is a crucial element in Stevenson’s view—that
    6. section VI (aim: to rebut the objection that something is missing)
      1. p. 30.8: the main concern: that emotive meaning and suggestion don’t add up to “moral truth”
      2. p. 30.9: Stevenson’s reply: that this “moral truth” is extremely mysterious
  6. EMP, chapter 4: “Does Morality Depend on Religion?”
    1. section 4.1: “The Presumed Connection between Morality and Religion”
      1. Rachels writes that “People commonly believe that morality can be understood only in the context of religion” (p. 49). What does this mean? Does it mean that a non-religious person cannot have moral beliefs?
      2. What is the connection between (1) the “meaning” given to life by most religious viewpoints and (2) morality?
    2. section 4.2: “The Divine Command Theory”
      1. This is the most important section in the chapter. In this section, Rachels’s strategy is to argue against this theory of morality by
        1. claiming that this theory has two possible interpretations
        2. arguing that each interpretation is problematic in some way
        3. concluding that, therefore, the overall theory is problematic as well
      2. The general theory is the thought that what is right is what God commands (or has commanded), and what is wrong is what God forbids (or has forbidden). The attractions of this theory are that it (1) provides a non-relativist, non-subjectivist account of morality and (2) answers the question of what reason one has to be moral (answer: because God will reward you if you are, and punish you if you are not). 
      3. The first interpretation of this theory is that what is right is right because God commands it. That is, God’s commanding something is what makes it right. But this theory (i.e., this interpretation of the divine-command theory) has two problematic implications.
        1. The first problematic implication is that no matter what God commands, it’s right—even if God were to command us to be greedy, dishonest, or murderous. For if God’s commanding something is sufficient to make it right (which is what the theory claims), then there’s nothing that we could (logically) refuse to regard as right, if it were to turn out to be commanded by God.
        2. The second problematic implication is that the claim that God is good ceases to be a statement of praise and becomes a mere tautology, since this theory denies us any vantage point from which we can logically praise God’s commands as wise, or God himself as good. For if whatever God commands is necessarily right, then there’s no way God could possibly have ever commanded anything wrong, and there’s no error that God has steered clear of in commanding what he has commanded. Another way of seeing this point is to observe that if this interpretation of the divine-command theory is taken to be correct, then to claim that God’s commands are good is nothing more than to claim that they are consistent with God’s commands. And this is no praise at all. (It’s not a complaint, either; it’s just a morally neutral observation. The point is that this interpretation of the divine-command theory makes it logically impossible to morally judge God at all.)
      4. The second interpretation of the divine-command theory is that God commands what is right because it is right. This interpretation avoids the first problematic implication of the previous interpretation by viewing God’s commands as being based on what’s antecedently right and wrong; and it avoids the second problematic implication of the previous interpretation by viewing God himself as an extremely reliable, indeed infallible, reporter of what’s good and right (which presumably is a pretty good thing).
        1. The problem with this interpretation, for many religiously minded people, is that it denies God any role in determining the content of morality. If the content of morality is determined independently of God’s will, then he is in no way the “author” of morality, but just a very helpful guide to it.
        2. Despite this shortcoming in this interpretation of God’s will, it is widely viewed as more acceptable than the first interpretation, since the first interpretation makes it tautologous to call God good (and most people are loathe to give up the intuition that God can be praised as good).
    3. section 4.4: “Religion and Particular Moral Issues”
      1. problems with basing moral decisions on religious teachings
        1. difficulty of finding scriptural guidance
        2. ambiguity of scriptural guidance
      2. What does Christian scripture say about abortion?
        1. First, there is a passage in the book of Jeremiah in which Jeremiah quotes God as having said that he “consecrated” him even before he was born. It should be noted, though, that the context is not about abortion, or the status of fetuses, at all.
        2. Second, in the 21st chapter of Exodus, we learn that in the law of the  ancient Israelites, the penalty for murder was death, but the penalty for causing a woman to have a miscarriage was only a fine. The separate (and lesser) penalty for ending the development of a fetus suggests that this was not regarded as murder, and that fetuses were not accorded full human status.
      3. What does the tradition of the Christian church say about abortion?
        1. St. Thomas Aquinas (12th century) maintained that an embryo did not have a soul until it was several weeks old, and the church officially adopted this view in 1312.
        2. But the in the 17th century, the church adopted the view that the fetus is just a very tiny person, with the same status as (other) actual people.
        3. Although modern biological knowledge disproves this view, the church has maintained the moral prohibition on abortion.
      4. Rachels’s point: the Christian scriptures' and tradition's uncertain answers to these questions should make us wary of thinking that religion can be an adequate source of moral guidance and judgment.
    4. section 3.7, from the second full paragraph on p. 46
      1. Here, too, Rachels explores the possibility of finding moral guidance, in this case in regard to homosexuality, from religious sources. (This actually doesn’t begin until the third full paragraph on p. 46—the second full paragraph, which is the first one following what we last read from this section, deals neither with deriving morality from nature nor with basing moral decisions on scripture.)
      2. Rachels identifies two problems with looking basing moral decisions on scripture.
        1. There’s a lot of scripture that many people would be uncomfortable with, to say the least.
        2. It should be possible to find reasons for what scripture says to do and not to do.
  7. EMP, chapter 5: “Psychological Egoism” 
    1. section 5.1: “Is Unselfishness Possible?”
      1. This question is important because just about every moral theory tells us that it is, from time to time, our duty to be unselfish. If this is not possible, then the whole project of normative ethics will falter on an overly optimistic view of human nature.
      2. Psychological egoism is the view that every human action is motivated by self-interest. Slightly different, and perhaps more precise and representative of the debate over psychological egoism, is the following view: people act only in ways that they believe are consistent with maximally advancing their own interests.
    2. section 5.2: “The Strategy of Reinterpreting Motives”
      1. An obvious apparent objection to psychological egoism is the claim that people do things for altruistic reasons all the time (or, at least, pretty often). In response to this, the standard reply of the psychological egoist is to impute to the person some other, essentially selfish, motivation. Hobbes went so far as to provide psychological-egoistic interpretations of charity and pity:
        1. He said that charity, in all cases, is enjoyable to us because it demonstrates our superiority over those to whom we are charitable.
        2. He said that that pity is ultimately self-interested because it reflects our fear of suffering misfortune.
      2. It should be noted that this strategy, however plausible one may find it, only proves that psychological egoism is possible: it does not show that it’s true. Or, in other words that put the point somewhat more accurately: it shows only that one may be able to interpret all behavior as self-interested; it does not show that the self-interested interpretation of all behavior is the best one.
    3. section 5.3: “Two Arguments in Favor of Psychological Egoism”
      1. first argument
        1. Here’s one representation of the first argument:
          1. Whenever people act, they do what they most want to do.
          2. Whenever people do what they most want to do, they act selfishly.
          3. Therefore, whenever people act, they act selfishly.
        2. There are two problems with this argument.
          1. First, the first premise is false: people do not always do what they most want to do. Sometimes, people do what they feel obligated to do instead of what they most want to do. For example, it would make perfectly good sense for a person to say, “I want to go to the movies, but I promised my roommate I’d help her with her math homework.” And although it is open to the psychological egoist to claim that such a person would be speaking colloquially, or in a logically imprecise way, most people would not join the psychological egoist in claiming this. Most people would say, rather, that it’s perfectly reasonable for a person to claim, on occasion, that what he or she is doing is not what he or she would most like to be doing.
          2. Second, the second premise is false: doing what one most wants does not mean that one is acting selfishly. If what you most want to do is to deliver meals to shut-ins, then most people would say that having this desire is the sort of thing that makes one an unselfish person, and that acting on it is unselfish action.
        3. Because of these objections, this argument has few supporters.
      2. second argument
        1. Here’s one representation of the second argument:
          1. Whenever people act in apparently selfless ways, they derive satisfaction from acting in those ways.
          2. If a person derives satisfaction from acting in some way, then acting in that way is selfish.
          3. Therefore, whenever people act in apparently selfless ways, they are acting selfishly.
        2. The first premise may be false, but let’s ignore that. The essential problem with this argument lies in its second premise. As before, if someone desires to help other people and happens to derive satisfaction from that, then does that make his action selfish? Or, rather, is the desire to help other people, and the satisfaction that results from the satisfaction of that sort of desire, the mark of an unselfish person?
    4. section 5.4: “Clearing Away Some Confusions”
      1. There are some confusions on which the apparent plausibility of psychological egoism may rest.
        1. One is the confusion between selfishness and self-interest. Earlier Rachels argued that not all behavior is selfish. Here his point is that even if all behavior is something similar to selfish—namely, self-interested—that would not mean that all behavior is also selfish, since self-interest is different from selfishness. (It is unclear why Rachels thinks this is much of a response to psychological egoism, since that doctrine does not claim that all behavior is selfish; it just claims that all behavior is self-interested. So the truth of psychological egoism is not directly threatened by the observation that not all self-interested behavior is also selfish.)
        2. Another is the confusion between acting self-interestedly and acting in pursuit of pleasure for oneself. Sometimes, people act in pursuit of pleasure for themselves in ways that actually harm themselves. Unlike the remarks just noted, these do work directly against psychological egoism, since they suggest that no matter how often people act in the pursuit of pleasure, we can’t infer that they are also acting self-interestedly.
        3. A third is the confusion between self-interest and disregard for others’ interests. It is perfectly possible for someone to act self-interestedly, but also to have considerable regard for others’ interests. Again (i.e., as in the case of the first “confusion” mentioned above), the bearing of this on the thesis of psychological egoism is unclear. Rachels’s point seems to be this: that even if we can reasonably describe a whole lot of behavior as self-interested, that is not as dire as it might sound, given the extent to which self-interest is typically compatible with concern for others’ interests.
      2. Once these confusions are cleared up, psychological egoism may lose some of its appeal.
    5. section 5.5: “The Deepest Error in Psychological Egoism”
      1. The deepest error of psychological egoism is its failure be testable, or falsifiable. For an analogy, consider a psychiatrist who believes that someone is insane, and who persists in interpreting all of someone’s behavior as evidence of insanity, regardless of how sane the person may seem to others who are not guided by the hypothesis that the patient is insane. The psychiatrist’s hypothesis is not testable or falsifiable, since the doctor does not regard his hypothesis as being tested against observable facts, or falsifiable by certain behaviors of the patient (such as plainly sane behavior). The claim that someone is insane must be testable; otherwise it provides no information at all.
      2. Similarly, psychological egoism must be regarded as testable if it is to informative. Otherwise, it is just a decision to use the concept of self-interest to encompass all of human behavior, instead of an assertion that human behavior has a property (that of being governed by self-interested) that we didn’t realize it had. In other words, if psychological egoism is understood in a way that makes it testable, but instead is held as an interpretive framework into which all observations of behavior are to be shoehorned, then we must ask, how useful is this framework, this lens through which all behavior is seen as self-interested? How useful is the thesis of psychological behavior in the task of explaining behavior?
      3. As Rachels shows with his example of the psychiatrist, psychological egoism is not alone in being the sort of thesis that one can hold as an irrefutable interpretive framework, rather than subjecting it to testing. For an additional example (and here we go a bit beyond where Rachels goes), imagine someone holding a view that we might call psychological altruism: the view that people act only in ways that they believe are consistent with maximally advancing others’ interests. A psychological altruist could be just as relentless in interpreting individuals’ motives as altruistic as a psychological egoist might be in interpreting individuals’ motives as egoistic. The fact that the strategy of reinterpreting motives could lead to such a stalemate shows that it is not a source of good reasons for a psychological theory. And here are a couple of further, more far-fetched but still analogous, examples:
        1. “People only act in ways that they believe have some special connection with the number 7.”
        2. “Everything, when you dig deep enough, is made of cheese.”
    6. true or false?
      1. If someone is a psychological egoist, then he or she always acts in ways that he or she believes will maximally promote his or her self-interest.
      2. If someone is a psychological egoist, then he or she believes that people believe that people always act in ways that they believe will maximally promote their interests.
      3. If someone is a psychological egoist, then he or she believes that people always act in ways that they believe will maximally promote their interests.
      4. If someone thinks some people always act in ways that they believe will maximally promote their interests, then he or she is a psychological egoist.