I consider subjectivism to be a particularly pernicious doctrine – because it basically boils down to, “If I wish you dead, then you deserve to die.” If Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, et al., are going to campaign to convert the world to atheism, I would prefer it if atheists were not holding onto a view of ethics that was at least as prone to irrationality and abuse as scripture.
To help understand a little of why I hold this position, and the position itself, I wish to address some comments that Atheist Observer made to yesterday’s post. Atheist Observer wrote:
While one can work out a logical objective relationship of ethics based on the "encouraging desires that fulfill other desires" it would seem the desires that are being thwarted or fulfilled may be in some respects subjective.
Take cooperation and competition. I may desire to see competition be promoted in society because I think it brings out the greatest effort in people. You may think cooperation should be promoted because you desire society to accomplish great things and you feel the greatest accomplishments are achieved through cooperation.
We could both see our positions as best to fulfill others' desires, but have quite different views of what should be encouraged.
I'm in no way arguing from the "everything is subjective" perspective, but that in the desires we have, and how we see them fulfilling the desires of others we can't totally escape some degree of subjectivity.
Before I go on to use these comments to explain some of my own views, I want to state that my interest in using this quote is to create a ‘Rosetta stone’ of sorts that compares the statements that Atheist Observer wrote to statements that I would write. It is a translation from one language into another that I hope will better make the one language understandable. Towards this end, I thought it might be useful to present an account of what goes through my mind as I read a comment such as this.
At the end of the first paragraph, I read the words “…the desires that are being thwarted or fulfilled may be in some respects subjective.”
The word subjective has multiple meanings, and I wonder which meaning the author has in mind. There is one sense of the word in which I insist that all value is subjective – this being the sense that says that value terms are irretrievably about mental states. Value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Desires are mental states. Anybody who asserts that value exists in a form independent of mental states is mistaken. All value is subjective in this sense. Is this the sense that the author has in mind?
I am presented with an example. There are two agents. Agent one has “a desire to see competition being promoted.” This is because the agent “thinks it brings out the greatest effort in people.” The other agent has “may think that cooperation should be promoted.” This agent’s reason is because the agent “desires society to accomplish great things” and “feels the greatest accomplishments are achieved through cooperation.”
So, Agent 1 has a belief that competition “brings out the greatest effort in people.” Agent 2 has the belief that cooperation brings about great accomplishments.
What does it take for an effort, or an accomplishment to be great?
‘Great’ is a value-laden term. For an effort to be great, there must be many and/or strong reasons to promote that effort. The only type of ‘reasons’ that exist are desires. So, a ‘great effort’ must be one that, directly or indirectly, fulfills many strong desires. Any other evaluation of an effort either does not make any reference to reasons for action at all, or makes references to reasons for action that do not exist. In these cases, there are no real ‘reasons for action’ for promoting the level of effort. The speaker’s suggestion that something for which there is no real ‘reason for action’ to promote is ‘great’ is nonsense. That is, unless, we define ‘great’ to be synonymous with ‘ordinary’, ‘unimportant’, ‘insignificant’, or any other term indicating that which we have no reason to be concerned about.
Now, the author does not say that greatest effort is the product of competition, but only that Agent 1 ‘thinks’ that this is the case. Agent 2 “feels [that] the greatest accomplishments are achieved through cooperation.”
Well, another agent may ‘think that’ an eye could not exist unless it had a designer, or ‘feel that’ God is present in a beautiful sunset. That a person ‘thinks that’ or ‘feels that’ something is the case, does not imply that it is the case. I dismiss anybody’s claim that Agent 2 “feels that” cooperation brings great accomplishments for exactly the same reason that I dismiss anybody’s claim that he “feels that” God is present in a sunset.
Feelings are not to be trusted. Only facts.
If it is not possible for cooperation to bring great accomplishments to be true in fact, then feeling that cooperation brings great accomplishments is a hallucination. If it is not possible for competition to bring out the greatest effort in people is true in fact, then ‘thinking that’ it does involves believing a fiction.
Building social policy on hallucination and fiction is not a very wise plan. I will admit that hallucinations are subjective – they exist only in the mind of the person who is having them. And one person’s hallucinations may not coincide with the hallucinations of another. However, I also hold that these hallucinations are to be ignored. They deserve as much respect as sources of knowledge as faith. And that one person ‘thinks’ is the case is to be weighed in decision making only to the degree that he can demonstrate that it is true.
Next, I come to a paragraph that states, “We could both see our positions as best to fulfill others' desires, but have quite different views of what should be encouraged.”
Of course, people are going to have different views on what should be encouraged. We clearly have an example here of two people who are in disagreement. There is disagreement, for example, over the existence of God and what happens to a person after death. Some ‘think that’ there is no life after death, and others ‘feel that’ there must be something of a person that survives death.
However, the claim that subjectivists defend is that a person can ‘think that’ something is the case and use that ‘something’ as a basis for deciding who lives, who dies, who remains free, and who goes to prison, even though he has no evidence supporting what he thinks and, in fact, no evidence is even possible. Because what he ‘thinks’ is the case is the type of thing that does not allow for evidence or proof – it is ‘true’ merely because the person ‘thinks that’ it is true.
The problem is not one of disagreement. It is one of disagreement based on beliefs with evidence – belief in things that lack evidence, or even the possibility of evidence.
If there is a mere difference of opinion, that is fine. Let us try to evidence for or against the various option. However, if there is a difference of opinion about something for which there is not and can never be evidence, I have to ask, “Why have those opinions? And, more importantly, why insist that they play a central role in determining who to kill and who to let live?”
Now, I am not at all inclined to condemn a person who ‘thinks that’ or ‘feels that’ something is the case without evidence – without anything to be said for making that case that what he ‘thinks’ or ‘feels’ is the case is in fact the case. However, I do hold that these beliefs that are immune to evidence are the last things to be weighed in any question of who is to be harmed, and to what degree.
That is to say, people generally have more and stronger ‘reasons for action that exist’ (desires) for giving these beliefs-in-things-that-can-never-be-proved-or-disproved-because-they-exist-outside-the-realm-of-proof the least consideration in its deliberation, then the high status that they enjoy today.
Atheist Observer, I value your comments. Please do not take this posting as harsh criticism. In a context such as this, it is hard to provide the inflection and tone that would communicate that my intention here is only to explain how I deal with some of the concepts that I find in your post. Yes, it is true, I think that you are giving ‘beliefs that cannot be proved’ more weight than they deserve. I hope I have explained the nature of this disagreement. I also hope that you take this explanation in the spirit that I intended it.