Announcement: I am honored to have one of my postings selected for this edition of "Carnival of the Liberals."
New Business: Subjective Morality
I consider common moral subjectivism to be one of the most obnoxious belief systems around. In fact, I have more intellectual respect for the religious ethicist than the moral subjectivist, based on one principle point.
If you go to a religious ethicist and ask, "What would be the implication if you were to discover that there is no God and everything you base your morality on is simply made up, having no tie to reality?"
The religious ethicist will answer, "That will be a problem."
Ask the same question to a moral subjectivist, and he would answer, "What do you mean 'if'?"
The subjectivist admits that his rules have no bearing on reality. He even draws a hard distinction between 'fact' and 'value' to stress the idea that any talk of 'value' has nothing to do with 'fact.'
In this, as I wrote yesterday, the subjectivist's so-called 'morality' has a lot in common with a child's game of 'let's pretend.' The moral subjectivist makes up a set of rules. He decides to act as if those rules were true. While, at the same time, he admits that they are not true.
Furthermore, if somebody else were to invent a different game of 'let's pretend' with different rules, he cannot say that his game is objectively better than theirs. All he can do is appeal to his own let's pretend rules. Those rules might or might not not include rules like, let's pretend that slavery is wrong or let's pretend that people who seek to execute all the Jews in a Holocaust are evil.
The particularly obnoxious feature of subjectivism is that it is a game of 'let's pretend' that is used to 'justify' real-world violence. The subjectivist's game of 'let's pretend' is a game of, "Let's pretend that it is okay to fine, imprison, enslave, or even kill X." Importantly, it is then actually used to fine, imprison, enslave, or even kill X.
Why is okay to kill them? Ultimately, the subjectivist answers, "Because I invented this let's pretend rule that says that it is okay to kill them. If I had invented a rule that says that they should live then, ergo, they should live. Of course these are make-believe rules, and I could have just as easily adopted a different set of make-believe rules in which these people lived rather than died. But, they happened to find themselves in a universe in which I adopted the make-believe rule that said that they should die. So I killed them."
One Argument for Subjectivism
I particularly enjoy the argument for subjectivism that notes that people have different moral beliefs. "Therefore, morality is subjective." For example, in a recent discussion, one participant offered to prove that morality is subjective by saying, "I know one person who is a Muslim who believes that a man can have multiple wives, and another who is a fundamentalist Christian who believes that a person should have only one wife."
Sorry, sir, but I know a scientist who thinks that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, and a biblical literalist who insists that it is no more than 10,000 years old. Should I imply from this that the issue of the age of the earth is subjective?
Your Muslim and Christian friends are both basing their moral claims on a false premise -- 'God exists.' It makes absolutely no sense to say that we should take conclusions grounded on a false premise and say that they are equally sound. We already have good reason for rejecting both claims -- or, at least, rejecting their evidence for these claims.
The only type of evidence that would count as 'proof' of subjectivism would be cases where two people agree on all of the facts yet reach different moral conclusions.
A Matter of Taste
One of the mistakes that subjectivists make is that they start talking about personal preferences as if they were moral claims.
For example, it is possible that I can agree with my wife on every single fact in the universe. Yet, it is the case that I like calamari, and she hates it. Does this not prove that value is subjective?
Well, it is also the case that my wife and I agree on every fact in the universe (hypothetically), yet I am male, and she is female. Does this prove that gender is subjective? Even though we agree on every fact in the universe, I have brown hair while hers is red. Our agreement on every fact in the universe happens to coincide, at the moment, with the fact that I am in Denver while she is in Boulder. Yet, none of these facts are properly called 'subjective'. They are not put in separate category that is somehow different from 'fact' the way that subjectists put value in a category distinct from fact.
The fact that have different likes and dislikes, even while we agree on all of the facts of the universe, is no more proof of subjectivity than the fact that we have different genders, hair color, and location. These qualities are still a matter of objective fact. Treating them as something else is simply a mistake.
Then, there is the question of whether moral claims are claims about one's personal preference - a claim that runs into its own problems.
The Implications of Personal Preference
Once we recognize that personal preferences are still matters of objective fact -- like gender, hair color, and location -- we must then recognize that we are limited in the conclusions that we can infer from having these qualities. For example, the proposition "I have a desire to have sex with Martha" does not entail, "Martha is morally obligated to have sex with me."
This implication, however, lies at the foundation of moral subjectivism. The moral subjectivist draws moral conclusions from what are, in effect, his or her own personal preferences. Their 'morality' as they call it is nothing more than their own individual likes and dislikes. Yet, in appealing to their likes and dislikes, they draw conclusions about what others ought to do, who ought to be punished, who deserves a reward, and who he will fine, imprison, enslave, or kill. They make an entirely incomprehensible and invalid leap from "I like X," to "You ought to bring about X."
What the moral subjectivist needs to explain, which I suggest that no moral subjectivist can explain, is how they make the leap of logic from "I like" to to "You ought" and "You ought not."
This logical leap requires the introduction of make-believe rules that have validity merely because the subjectivist has decided to insert them into his argument. The subjectivist admits that these rules have no basis in reality or 'fact'. Yet, these make-believe rules have the power to infer 'You ought' and "You ought not.'
This does not solve the problem. If the rules that one is appealing to are make-believe, then the ought and ought-not conclusions that one draws from them are make-believe as well.
Recommendation to Subjectivists
What I would like to suggest to the subjectivist is, "Let's not pretend." Let us deal only with facts and, if something is not a fact, then it should be discarded as being irrelevant in the real world. If values are not facts, then let us throw values out.
If we find that we cannot throw values out -- that we cannot explain and predict events in the real world accurately without postulating the existence of values as real-world entities, then this suggests that values are real-world entities.
If we can throw them out -- if we lose no explanatory or predictive power by never again talking about values -- then they are not real and we have no business using them in the discussion of real-world events. We particularly have no businesses using them to justify our actions when we work to fine, imprison, enslave, or kill other people.
If we get to the point of claiming that values are real entities that explain and predict real-world events, then we can start asking questions like, "What type of real-world entities are they?"
What the Subjectivist Gets Right
As with most belief systems, there are some things that the subjectivist gets right, which provides the initial incentive to adopt the system.
In the case of subjectivists, two principle propositions that they get right are these:
(1) There is no such thing as 'intrinsic value'. There are no 'value entities' that adhere to certain states of affairs, releasing 'goodons' and 'badons' that we somehow sense (and sense correctly) through a magical moral-sense organ locked somewhere in the brain. Any theory that depends on these types of entities can be thrown out as fiction.
(2) People always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires (given their beliefs). Many of the claims that subjectivists make -- though they say they are talking about morality -- are merely descriptive claims about why they do what they do. To explain their actions they make reference to their own beliefs and desires. To appeal to an outside force -- particularly an external moral force -- as a part of the explanation for their actions is a mistake. To the degree that any outside force is responsible, then the action is not their action.
Whatever values are, they must be made consistent with these facts. Yet, at the same time, they cannot be made into imaginary or 'let's pretend' entities. This is the issue that I discussed yesterday. In answer to this challenge, I argue that values exist in the real world as relationships between states of affairs and desires. But states of affairs, desires, and the relationships that exist between them, are all real. They are facts, through and through.
Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Value claims are claims about reasons for action. Value claims are objectively true or false depending on whether the relationship between an object of evaluation and reasons for action is true or false.
These relationships between desires and states of affairs are not 'make believe'. They exist as a matter of objective fact. Because they exist as a matter of objective fact, we can talk about what their real-world properties are. Nothing is 'make believe'. Value-facts are discovered like any other type of fact.
Reasons for Action (Again)
When a person makes a value claim he is making a claim about reasons for action. A person who calls X 'good' is making a claim that there are reasons for action to maintain or bring about states of affairs where 'X' exists. A person who calls X bad is saying that this is a state of affairs that there are reasons for action to avoid.
If he is making a claim about reasons for action, either those reasons for action exist and the statement is (objectively) true, or those reasons for action do not exist and the claim is (objectively) false.
Making a claim about something being good or bad that is divorced from reasons for action is nonsense.
If you are going to assert that there are reasons for action for bringing about or avoiding X, then please identify the real-world reasons for action that exist for bringing about or avoiding X. If you cannot identify real-world reasons for action for bringing about or avoiding X, then, please, do not make assertions to the effect that there are reasons for bringing about or avoiding X. Above all, do not claim that, "There are no real-world reasons for bringing about or avoiding X but I insist that everybody pretend that such reasons exist and those who do not shall be punished."
The quest for reasons for action that exist -- that are real -- is not in vain. Reasons that exist are called desires. Different individuals have different desires -- just as they have different genders, hair color, and location. This does not make them any less real.
Moral obligations and prohibitions are not derived directly from personal preferences. It is wholly invalid to assert, "I would like it if you did X; therefore, you have an obligation to do X."
Statements about obligations and prohibitions, insofar as they are value statements, have to be making a reference to reasons for action (desires). Insofar as "I like/dislike; therefore, you ought/ought not" is invalid, statements about obligations and prohibitions cannot be making a reference solely to the 'reasons for action' of the person making the statement. Moral statements make a reference to reasons for action (desires), but not those of the agent.
I do not have space here to discuss which reasons for action are embodied in moral statements. In that discussion, I would conclude that moral statements evaluate desires (reasons for action) according to whether they fulfill or thwart other desires (reasons for action). But I have no room to defend that position here.
However, whether this is right or wrong it does not save the subjectivist from the problem I have already mentioned -- the problem of 'let's pretend' reasons to fine, imprison, enslave, or kill other people that are actually being used to fine, imprison, enslave, or kill other people.