The majority of philosophers cannot answer the question whether a person can get true moral knowledge or not. These data can help scientists find out what actions can be considered evil and what good in order to make society follow the moral rules. This topic has been studied by scholars of many philosophical branches. The main of them are moral realism, skepticism, relativism, and absolutism. Each of these theories has its own definition on what moral knowledge is and what moral statements are true. Moreover, they are often contradicting each other through their claims. Analysis of the pros and cons of these four theories and their ideas shows that although a person cannot obtain true moral knowledge, he can use the method of mutual respect in order to act morally appropriately.
To begin with, in order to make a decision regarding the question of whether a person may receive moral knowledge during the course of his life or not, it is vital to understand fully what morality is. One of the most important ideas that must be shared in the study of morality is the difference between morality itself and ethics. Many researchers use the words ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ as synonyms since they have a similar meaning. Nonetheless, it should be noted that ethics is a branch of philosophy that studies morality. Morality in a greater degree denotes views based on practice or learning how people should behave in a personal relationship and in society; while ethics is more relevant to the system of principles or philosophy and its theoretical justification.
Further, there are two views on morality. On the one hand, in the descriptive sense, "morality" means personal or social values and a code of conduct or social norms. It does not give objective judgments about the good and the evil but describes what is considered good or bad by society. Descriptive ethics is a branch of philosophy that studies morality from this point of view. However, in the normative sense, "morality" claims what is really good or bad and what can be valuable regardless of the values or customs of some particular people or cultures. The branch of philosophy that pertains to morality from this position is called normative ethics. In this way, moral knowledge can be considered as such if it corresponds to the norms of morality that are accepted in society. Despite the fact that the concept of morality is studied quite well, many researchers are having disputes regarding the ability of an individual to receive moral knowledge.
Furthermore, moral realism which also may be named ethical realism while moral Platonism discusses this issue. Many researchers are sure that the first appearance of this branch can be attributed to the philosophy of Plato; therefore, one of its designations bears his name (Rist 239). Generally, it is a class of theories that states there are distinct statements that describe objective facts related to morality. There are two main advantages of this opinion which allow a person to check moral principles whether they exist or not. Firstly, moral realism uses standard rules of logic for moral statements (Rist 125). Thereby, any moral statement can be called false or unnecessary if the premises exist just as it is with the ordinary faith. In the second place, if two moral statements contradict each other, the followers of moral realism do not recognize either of them. Nevertheless, there are also disadvantages of this opinion. Followers of this philosophical branch do not explain the nature of the conflict between beliefs. Moreover, they argue that moral facts exist and people must rely on them. Even though, they cannot be considered real things or objects.
In addition, the question of moral knowledge and its existence is also being studied by such branch of philosophy as moral skepticism. This branch is divided into three parts that differently consider the general idea that this doctrine expresses (Sinnott-Armstrong 1). All followers of moral skepticism believe that no moral statement can be recognized as true. Moreover, no one can know what kind of moral claim is correct based only on their opinion. These two thoughts are combined in a moral error theory that is supported by many followers of skepticism. Moreover, this branch is combined with such teaching as moral nihilism (Sinnott-Armstrong ch.3). As for the criticism in this regard, the theory of realism disagrees with this idea, since its supporters believe that there are objective reasons for moral statements. Thereby, the error theory of skeptics is also not an ideal model.
Nevertheless, moral relativism and absolutism also consider the issue of moral knowledge in human life from other points of view. According to the moral relativism, there is neither absolute good and evil nor true moral statements. Gowans states that "the truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons" (2). Thereby, moral approval can be received by a person during his life. Nonetheless, this statement cannot be true for all communities and for every person in the world. The fact is that according to the moral relativism, the morality of any action is determined by the cultural, traditional, and other customs and habits that are accepted in a particular community. Despite this, there are moments in this theory that may seem weak for researchers. For example, a person can belong to several groups with different views on morality. Person’s religion can approve sacrifices while the society in which he lives can reject this idea. In this case, it is impossible to determine what moral statement will be chosen.
Moreover, moral absolutism considers the existence of moral knowledge from a different point of view. Its essence lies in the proclamation of morality as the unconditional and most important basis of human activity and the desire to be moral as the main meaning-building motive. According to Pojman, the followers of this philosophical thought are sure that there is at least one moral statement that is always true (50). Moral act’s origin can be explained in different ways. In absolutely heteronomous theories, morality is often directly derived from the Divine will, and the priority of the moral motive is founded on the basis of the notion that God judges man primarily for his moral deeds. In other concepts, the Absolute is regarded as forces that impact people and create a nature of a person in which the features of absolute morality are initially laid. Sense of shame and a desire for moral development can be named as examples. In this way, even the killing of a terrorist during detention can be considered an immoral act. Despite the fact that it can save many lives, a murder is considered unprincipled due to its nature. Thereby, it is possible to criticize this theory because there is no single true fact that a crime for the sake of good can be regarded only as a crime.
Lastly, adding all the above theories and facts, it is possible to understand that it is impossible to obtain moral knowledge that may be considered ethical for all people around the world. Firstly, it is impossible to consider moral knowledge as an object of reality. Secondly, it is impossible to say that all moral statements are wrong because people use many of them for centuries. Thirdly, it is impossible to say that moral statements can be relative because, in this case, they can contradict themselves. Moreover, an immoral act not always carries evil into the world, so sometimes it can be considered as moral. In this way, a person cannot find true moral knowledge but he may adhere to the golden rule of morality and respect all people around in order to act correctly.
In conclusion, many researchers have different opinions about the question of whether a person can receive moral knowledge during his life or not. Considering the fact that morality is primarily a set of rules and guidelines that society uses to analyze correctness of moral knowledge. Nevertheless, different strata of the population, communities, and nations have different attitudes and habits that relate to morality and immoral behavior. Because of this, moral realism, skepticism, relativism, and absolutism have opposite thoughts on this issue. Each of these theories was criticized and their shortcomings were revealed: it is impossible to assess moral knowledge as a real object, not all moral statements are wrong, moral knowledge cannot contradict each other, and so on. Summarizing all these factors, it is impossible to get the moral knowledge that all people in the world regard as true. Nonetheless, it is suitable to use the rule of mutual respect in order to act as morally correct as possible.
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