Most of us are inclined to believe that there are some things that just are right, and some things that just are wrong. It seems true to say that “torturing sloths for fun is wrong”. But what is it that makes it wrong? This is a topic I will go on about at great length if given half a chance, but here I will only outline some of the main theories (and waffle on about them at great length in future posts).
1. Cultural relativism
Cultural relativism argues that “torturing sloths for fun is wrong” because of certain cultural norms that make it morally unacceptable to torture a sentient being just for the fun of it. You might think of it in terms of manners. In some cultures people shake hands when meeting a new person, in others people place their hand on their heart and bow. There is no right or wrong here, it’s just different norms. In the same way, those who favour cultural relativism are inclined to argue that there is no truth regardless of culture. What makes “torturing sloths for fun is wrong” true is that it is culturally taboo to be the sort of person who tortures sloths.
2. Virtue ethics
Alternatively, you might believe that it is not culture that makes it wrong, but rather the fact that you are a human being. Good humans act in a virtuous manner and do not torture sloths for the mere fun of it. It would not be virtuous to torture a sloth, it would be cruel and brutish, and a virtuous person knows not to act in cruel and brutish ways. He should instead foster virtuous behaviour such as generosity, kindness and honesty – especially towards sloths.
3. Kantian ethics
Or you might believe that it is wrong to torture sloths because you cannot rationally will every other person to torture sloths. Before you act you must think “would I want everyone to act in this way?” (the so-called universalisation test) Do you think that it would be alright if everyone was to torture a sentient being for fun? Presumably not, in which case it is wrong. (Although Kant is a little awkward to bring up in an example about animals).
It could, instead, be that it is wrong to torture sloths because of the pain it gives to the sloth. A utilitarian would argue that maximising pleasure is right and maximising pain is wrong. Therefore, the pain of the sloth would mean that it is wrong to torture sloths for fun.
Notice, however, that a utilitarian has a problem in that a person might enjoy torturing a sloth and he might be in a room full of sadists who gain more pleasure as a group from watching the sloth’s plight that the sloth is in pain. The utilitarian has to do some tricky argumentative gymnastics to hold that “torturing sloths for fun is wrong”, if many people gain pleasure from it.
5. Divine Command Theory
Another option is that what is right and wrong depends on what God commands. If God commands that torturing sloths for fun is wrong, then it is wrong because God has commanded it. Here it is worth noting that those who don’t believe in God are not let off the moral hook. Just as someone who does not believe in gravity still feels its effects, the fact that people don’t believe in God wouldn’t change the fact that it is wrong. There are, however, numerous other problems with God suring up morality that will be explored in another post. (roll on the jolly old Euthyphro Dilemma)
This list is hardly exhaustive, but it offers some of the main options open to you if you are inclined to say that “torturing sloths for fun is wrong”. Of course, there are some who argue that it makes no sense to say that “torturing sloths for fun is wrong”. I will save this motely bunch of anti-realists for another day.