This weekend I am going to take on the subject of moral subjectivism (a.k.a. moral relativism).
I am going to do this even though I believe that there is a sense in which relativism and subjectivism are both true.
All values are claims about how objects of evaluation stand relative to desires. As objects of evaluation and desires change, those relationships change. There are no moral absolutes.
All values ultimately depend on desires - mental states - such that, if all desires were to cease to exist, then all value would cease to exist. There are no intrinsic (objective?) values.
Yet, these statements do not imply the types of subjectivism that subjectivists like to defend. The type of subjectivism that I want to attack is one that says that nobody can make a mistake about moral claims because there are no 'right answers'. There is merely opinion.
The impetus of these remarks made on the Infidel Guy show on Friday, October 6. I had the misfortune of missing that show - I wish I hadn't. I'm going to have to make a point of listening more often.
(Though, honestly, I really have no interest in the question, 'Does God exist?' The answer is, 'No.' Let's move on to more important topics, like the nature of morality. Last Friday's show discussed the nature of morality. D'oh!)
Anyway, I am going to use the comments that Kevin Currie made on that show as my foil - to explain where subjectivists go wrong. By the way, I want to mention that I think Currie did an exceptionally honest job of attempting to defend subjectivism.
The Is/Ought Problem
The show started off with a discussion of what is known as the ‘is’/’ought’ problem from David Hume. Since this post is going to be way too long anyway, for those readers who consider this to be a critical problem for me, I would like to direct you to an essay on my web page called, “Hume on ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’”.
The Definition of 'Good'
Currie used an argument that I have already addressed a couple of times. He claimed that people have different definitions of 'good' and there is no way to resolve the differences between them - no way to say that one definition is the right definition and another definition is wrong. Therefore, he concludes, morality is subjective.
The intention generally is when you say that morality is objective you are saying that there is a criteria of morality that is not itself based on some moral judgment. You are saying that there is some factual criteria to morality. The thing though generally is if you give an account that the ‘good’ means ‘such and such’ you can always ask the question, “Why does the good have to mean ‘such and such’? Why can’t it mean ‘thus and so’? Why do you have to choose the one over the other?” And usually I still think that it comes down to a question of somebody trying to justify morality factually by giving a criterion that is in itself a moral judgment. That this is right rather than that. That this is what ‘good’ means rather than that.
The premises, in this case, are true. The conclusion does not follow from those premises.
As for me, I do not care what definition of 'good' one uses as long as one does not say anything of an object that one says is 'good' that is not objectively true of that object. If somebody wants to say that 'good' means 'a two-dimentional closed shape where all points that are the same distance from a point that is its center,' as long as you do not use the word 'good' in any way that is inconsistent with this definition.
Any moral theory that critically depends on 'good' having any specific definition is a theory that should be thrown out at the start.
An ethicist who asserts, “This is what ‘good’ means rather than that” faces the same problems as an astronomer who asserts, “This is what ‘planet’ means rather than that.”
Astronomers are having problems agreeing on the definition of 'planet'. Furthermore, there is no 'objective' way to resolve the differences between them. Astronomers cannot look into their telescopes and discover whether the definition of 'planet' should contain the requirement that they are the largest item in their orbit, having swept up most of the other debris.
Yet, it does not follow that astronomy is subjective.
The conclusion that 'X is subjective' does not follow from the premise, 'People discussing X cannot agree on a definition of term T and there is no objective way to resolve their differences.' If it did, then all subjects are 'subjective' because this is true in every field of study ever invented. People arrive at definitions by simply, arbitrarily, and non-objectively deciding to use those definitions.
What does follow from the fact that people cannot agree on a definition is not that the subject is subjective, but that people will use different languages when they talk about that subject. These differences in language are small. They are not like the differences between Chinese and English, for example. However, their effect on the objectivity of a field of study is exactly the same as the effect of speaking about gravity in chinese vs. English.
Which is to say, none at all.
The fact that definitions are subjective and there is no way to resolve disagreements on definitions is entirely irrelevant, and utterly fails to support the conclusion that a field of study is subjective.
Differences of Opinion
Currie also argued that people have different opinions about what is right and wrong and there is no way to resolve those differences.
This is different from the above argument. This argument requires the assumption that people are using the same definitions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ (something like ‘ought to be promoted’ and ‘ought to be shunned’). However, they are disagreeing on what actually fits this definition.
This is a different problem, and it requires a different answer.
In this case, my answer is that we cannot tell whether an object fits a definition or not – if there is no objective answer to that question – then we should not be making claims one way or the other. Anybody who believes, at the same time, A person who says, ‘abortion is wrong’ is saying, ‘that which fits the definition of ‘abortion’ fits the definition of ‘wrong’” If somebody else is saying that abortion is not wrong, then he is saying that whatever fits the definition of ‘abortion’ does not fit the definition of ‘wrong’. The subjectivist says that, at the same time, these two speakers can be using one and the same definition of ‘wrong’, that there is no way to determine whether abortion fits that definition or not, and that it is perfectly acceptable for one person to say that it fits the definition, and the other to say that it does not.
I suggest that this is an absurdity.
The words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ don’t necessarily have an empirical reference in that there is no way to check them. If I say that this is right and you say that’s wrong there is no way to check that because it is not an empirical statement. It is a statement about individual judgment.
My answer: If there is no way to ‘check’ a statement - then don’t make that statement. Making a statement such as ‘abortion is wrong’ presumes that there is a way to check them such that, if no way to check the statement exists, the statement is unfounded. The only legitimate position to adopt in this type of situation is that of agnosticism; ‘there is no way to determine if abortion is right or wrong’.
Everything in the real world can be described with an objectively true statement. If a statement is not objectively true, then it does not refer to anything in the real world. We should throw those statements out and stick only to statements that are objectively true.
Even with this limitation, I can say, 'I like chocolate ice cream.' This statement is true in the real world. If we want to interpret 'abortion is wrong' as identical to 'I do not like it when people have an abortion', we can do that. When this statement is true, it is objectively true - in just the same way that when the statement 'I am over 6 feet tall' is true, it is objectively true.
We never, ever, need to make a subjective statement. Subjectivism itself is a perfect candidate for Occam's Razor. We don't need them. They serve no useful purpose. We can eliminate them without suffering the least harm to our understanding of the real world, because the real world is 100% objective.
Except for entertainment value.
"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."
Another argument uses the fact that there is disagreement to prove subjectivism. In its basic form, the argument states:
(1) If morality would objective, everybody would agree on what the moral principles are.
(2) People disagree on moral principles
Therefore, moral principles are not objective.
James Lazarus answered this version of the argument. My phrasing if that response asks, “What would you say if somebody came to you and said, 'If the age of the earth is objective, then everybody would agree on what the age of the earth is. Since we see that people disagree about the age of the earth, then it is not objective.'?” Clearly, disagreement does not prove subjectivity.
Kevin answers by saying that, not only is there disagreement, but there is no way to resolve those disputes. However, this runs into the same problem that I discussed above. If there is no way to resolve these disputes, then people should not be asserting that there is an answer to these disputes. If we cannot answer the question of whether abortion is right or wrong, nobody should be saying that abortion is right or wrong.
However, there is another problem here. Have you ever tried debating the issue of the age of the earth with one of these people? Curry said that in any dispute between science and religion, we can resolve the dispute by looking at the empirical evidence. However, this is the same as saying that in any dispute between science and religion, we can resolve the dispute by taking the side of science. In fact, there are as many problems reaching universal agreement on the question of whether God exists – what counts as good evidence and what follows from that evidence – as there is for moral claims. The existence of dispute combined with difficulties in how to universally answer those questions is not proof of subjectivity.
If the lack of a universal standard is proof of subjectivism, then everything is subjective, and 'morality' ends up in the same category as 'astronomy'. If we want to put morality in a different category from physics, we need a different argument.
It is an objectively true that if one person prefers chocolate ice cream over vanilla, and another prefers vanilla over chocolate, there is no argument that can imply a change of taste so that both like chocolate or both like vanilla. Accordingly, if one man likes women and another likes other men, there is no principle of reason that dictates that either preference is mistaken.
However, this is true in the same sense that if one person is 6 feet tall, and another is 5 feet tall, there is no principle of reason that can make them the same height. It is true in the same sense that if one of them 43 years old and another is 17 years old, no amount of reason can make them the same age.
Personal preferences (likes and dislikes) are like height, weight, eye color, hair color, skin color, and any host of other personal characteristics. It is a personal description about how a person's body is put together. In the case of desire, it is a description of how the brain is wired – a description of the structure that connects one neuron to another and the frequency with which they get used. Reason alone does not imply a change in any of these characteristics.
Reason alone can dictate a change of beliefs - but only beliefs.
The problem here is in claiming that 'morality' is a statement of personal preference - that the statement, “I prefer prayer in school over no prayer in school” is substantially the same as, “I prefer chocolate over vanilla.”
The subjectivist will admit that the statement, “I love chocolate” is not a moral statement. Rather, 'I love prayer in school' becomes a moral statement when it generates a particular set of physical symptoms that people tend to take as characteristic of perceiving wrongness. This special kind of love also has to generate a willingness to act violently (at least if he can get away with it) against those who get between the agent and what he loves in this 'special way'. If a person has all of these physical symptoms and dispositions, then this counts as a moral sentiment.
If morality is nothing more than a willingness to do violence to others to get something that one wants, then everybody who does violence to another is a paradigm of moral virtue, because everybody who does violence against another loves the expected return from that violence more than he cares about the welfare of those that he harms.
I want to suggest that subjectivism is so popular in part because it makes everybody morally perfect. With subjectivism, everybody gets to do what they really want to do and can do whatever they want to those who get in their way. Some people do not want to harm those who get in their way. Some people do not want to own slaves or rape children or slaughter all of the Jews. However, if they did want these things then it would be okay for them to act on that desire.
So, the reason slavery is wrong is because I do not want slaves badly enough and I am not willing to kill those who would get in the way of my having slaves. If I did want slaves badly enough and were willing to kill those who got in my way, slavery would be permissible.
This type of reductio ad absurdum should be sufficient to sink subjectivism.
The Euthyphro Problem
To carry this one step further, I find it interesting to note how many people claim that the Euthyphro problem defeats divine command ethics, but who fail to realize that the problem applies to all forms of subjectivism.
The Euthyphro problem says that, if moral value is determined by what God loves, then if God loved the torturing of children for pleasure, then the pursuit of opportunities to torture young children for pleasure would be good.
Please note, I am not talking about the torturing of young children for the sake of saving lives or some other noble purpose. I am talking about the torturing of children simply because one gets off on the sweet sound of a child screaming in pain. If moral value is determined by what God loves, then, if God loved the sweet sound of a tortured child's screams, then it would be good to torture children.
However, it is absurd to believe that the torturing of children for pleasure is good. Therefore, 'good' cannot be whatever God loves.
To the subjectivist makes moral value depends on the likes and dislikes of the agent or the assessor (depending on one's specific brand of subjectivism). This means that if I loved the sweet sound of a child screaming in pain from being tortured, then it would be good to torture children. The only reason that it is wrong not to torture a child is because the agent does not enjoy it enough. If he only learned the pure pleasure of skinning a child alive in a vat of salt water, this alone would make performing such an act morally permissible, even obligatory.
The absurdity of this implication should defeat all forms of subjectivism - whether it is divine subjectivism (X is good of God loves X), agent subjectivism (X is good if the agent loves X), or assessor subjectivism (X is good if the assessor loves X). Or, if it fails to provide an objection to agent or assessor subjectivism, then it fails to provide an argument against divine subjectivism as well.
I certainly do not have room to go into a detailed description of what I think answers these problems - without making the mistake of asserting the existence of desire-independent (what some people mistakenly call 'objective') values.
Simply, in brief, please note that people generally have reason to promote some desires (desires that tend to fulfill other desires) and to inhibit other desires (desires that tend to thwart other desires). They have tools available for promoting or inhibiting desires - these are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. I suggest that the use of these tools to fulfill these ends describes the institution of morality.
However, names are not important. Scratch the term 'morality' completely out of our language, and it would still be the case that people have reason to promote some desires and inhibit others, and it will still be the case that the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment will be available to do this job.