With the school year about to begin there are going to be plenty of students entering colleges and universities who have never taken an ethics course before. When I teach introductory philosophy courses the common response that I get when I ask students about ethical issues is “it’s all a matter of opinion.” This is part of a general attitude that when it comes to ethics there is no judgment that is better than any other. This habit of thinking can be so hard to break that even after an entire semester of talking about moral problems and debating the merits of different moral theories, students will still report that it is all just a matter of opinion. Why is this a problem? The habit of thinking that ethics is just a matter of opinion ultimately serves as a roadblock to ethical thinking and moral inquiry.
Moral relativism can be a complicated topic in philosophy, but for our purposes we can define it as the view that moral judgments are not true or false in the same way as factual judgments. Instead, morality is dependent on groups or cultures, each with their own incompatible ways of understanding the world. J. David Velleman has argued that based on data collected from various communities, different communities understand moral actions differently. Jesse Prinz argues that emotional sentiment plays a strong role in moral judgments; an action is wrong if it stirs a negative sentiment. Moral relativism is also often connected to tolerance; if there are no universal moral principles, the moral principles of one culture are not objectively superior to others so we should be tolerant of other cultural practices.
Relativism would seem to offer support for the idea that ethics is all a matter of opinion. Being tolerant of other moral worldviews is generally considered a good thing. Often moral issues can strike different emotional chords with people and it can seem disrespectful to tell people that they are wrong. If ethics is about how we feel about moral problems, then it seems hard to claim that it can rise above mere opinion. However, the view that ethics is all just a matter of opinion and relativism are not necessarily the same. If one believes that morality is dependent on culture, it would not warrant the claim that morality is all a matter of opinion, especially if we are only talking about a single person. Littering is considered a cultural faux-pas in North America so an individual would not be able to claim they are morally okay littering merely because it is their personal opinion that it is morally okay.
Indeed, while the justification for the view that ethics is just a matter of opinion and the moral relativist view can overlap, the position that ethics is just a mere matter of opinion (especially personal opinion) is especially problematic. For starters, one can be tolerant of other cultures and their moral views without having to believe that ethics is merely opinionated. For instance, a moral pluralist may claim that there are objectively correct and incorrect ways to react to moral problems and that moral answers can vary depending on local concerns. Second, while ethics does contain an emotional component, we are not therefore obligated to accept that ethics is merely emotional. Just because you or many others feel something about a moral issue does not mean that that feeling justifies any possible response.
The biggest problem, however, with the view that ethics is merely a matter of opinion is that more often it becomes an excuse to not think too deeply about moral problems. Consider this example: You have a strong desire to help others and are trying to determine what charities you wish to donate to and how much. You could investigate how effective each charity is, who may need it the most, and how much money you wish to give relative to other financial needs and desires you may have. But instead, you decide to take your cash and shred it.
Certainly, we can debate what might be the right thing to do in this situation, but it would require a fairly idiosyncratic person to decide that shredding money was the moral thing to do in that situation. We may not all agree on what the right thing to do in that situation is, but we can establish a fairly broad consensus on what is the wrong thing to do in that situation. Someone who is genuinely interested in helping others and is genuinely conflicted how to do it is not justified in shredding their money. Objectively, this is because it doesn’t solve their own moral problem. In other words, mere opinion is insufficient to justify any possible answer.
Now let’s say that in the same situation I decide that the most moral thing to do is to give money to an animal charity. You may disagree and opt instead for a charity that alleviates hunger. Should we conclude that our disagreement is a mere matter of opinion? Two moral people can come to different conclusions, with each trying to secure different goods and avoid certain problems. Each can also recognize the moral reasoning of the other as being legitimate without having to conclude that the other was morally wrong for doing what they did. This is not merely because the two have a difference of opinion. It is because each appreciates the moral reasoning of the other; they are capable of recognizing the legitimacy of other courses of action. However, they may not recognize the morality of a mere opinion that hasn’t been thought through. Both could agree that shredding your money is morally wrong action and both could recognize the importance of moral reasoning as a means of revising and refining a proposed course of action.
American philosopher Charles S. Peirce believed in the importance of inquiry for settling disagreements and disputes of opinion, not only between each other but with ourselves. If we could only inquire long enough, he argued, we could test our ideas in practice. Because of this, he claimed that part of the bedrock of reasoning is that we do not take steps to block the path of inquiry. The instinct to look at any moral problem and claim that it is all a matter of opinion does exactly this. The immediate response that the answer to any moral problem is a matter of opinion cuts off inquiry before it begins. If we accepted that there is no better answer, we will not seek it. It is an excuse to not look for a better answer, to not rely on our reasoning, to not discuss our proposed solutions with others, and to not seek consensus by refining our ideas.
The notion that the answer to any moral problem is a matter of opinion and that is all there is to say about it is intellectual laziness. If you are a new student who is taking their first ethics class, I urge you to look beyond such an attitude and to inquire further. We may end up concluding that our answers are only opinionated, but we have no justification for starting with that answer. Instead, we may find that we have missed several better responses that can only come from a willingness to inquire further.