I continue to find debates between moral objectivists and subjectivists frustrating – mostly because my own views fit solidly in both camps.
I hold that there are moral facts. The claim that there is an ‘is/ought’ distinction is false. We only have an ‘is/is not’ distinction. Value claims in general, and moral claims in particular, are either to be anchored firmly in the ‘is’ category, or they are floating free in the ‘is not’ category. If the latter, then they are as irrelevant to real-world decision making as any other myth or superstition. The subjectivist proposition that each person gets to make up his or her own morality is substantially consistent with the view that morality floats in the ‘is not’ category. What each person has the power to make up exists only in the realm of make-believe (fiction, myth, superstition).
At the same time, the facts that make up moral claims concern relationships between states of affairs and desires. Desires exist – they are as much a part of the real world as finger nails and laptop computers. However, they are mental states. Eliminate all desires from the universe, and you eliminate all value. Nothing has value except insofar as it has value to somebody, and no claim that something has value to somebody is true unless that ‘somebody’ has desires that are fulfilled by that thing.
When I criticize subjectivist they assume that I must believe that ‘intrinsic values’ (what they euphemistically and confusingly call ‘objective values) must exist. I agree with this – there are no intrinsic values. There are only relationships between states of affairs and desires. However, claims about those relationships between states of affairs and desires are objectively true or false.
When I criticize objectivists, they assume that I must believe that everybody gets to make up their own morality – that morality is ‘just a matter of opinion’. Of course, they point out how absurd it is to believe that one moral opinion is no better than any other – that this has all of the qualities of ‘make believe’. I agree with this; the idea that a person can make up a morality and have it ‘true for them’ is as absurd as the idea that a person can make up a God and have the claim that this God exists ‘true for them’. The only realm where the power to make something up exists is in the realm of fiction – fantasy.
In yesterday’s post, I referenced a dispute between objectivism and subjectivism and criticized some of the claims made by the representative objectivist.
Today, I will raise objections to the relevant subjectivist. Where the objectivist claimed that morality is like an owner’s manual, the subjectivist claimed that morality is like a legal system. Just as different countries can have different statutes, they can adopt different moral systems. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ is defined by the moral system adopted within a particular community.
Like the ‘owner’s manual’ concept of morality, a person is free to stipulate that they are adopting a particular definition of any term. However, it is a mistake to claim that this private, stipulated definition is the same as the public definition when, clearly, the two terms are used in substantially different ways.
In describing morality like a legal system, db0 wrote:
Strangely enough, even though these rules were written by consensus and do make the roads safer, you can still see that there are areas of the world where driving in a completely “illegal” way is the right, as in driving on the left side of the road.
However, please note that there is a significant difference between the standard where Americans drive on the right side of the road and British on the left, and the standard where Americans allow women to have drivers’ licenses and Saudi Arabia where people do not.
The former is not taken to be a moral standard. It is recognized in both cultures to be an arbitrary choice – that it does not matter which option people choose as long as they choose the same option. The latter, on the other hand, is taken as a moral choice. The Saudi Arabians are wrong to deny women the right to drive in a way that the British are not wrong to drive on the left side of the road. Even from the Saudi perspective, the choice not to allow women to drive is a moral choice in that it is wrong to allow women to drive.
Db0’s argument is like arguing, “Here is an example of a shape that is round. Squares are shapes. Therefore, squares can be round.” Imagine encountering this argument in a society where people clearly use the term ‘square’ to refer to something that is not round as if it proves something about squares that others do not seem to recognize.
Compare this to the argument, “Here (law) is an example where standards are arbitrary. Morality is a set of standards. Therefore, morality is arbitrary.” Imagine encountering this argument in a society where people clearly use the term ‘morality’ to refer to standards that do not cross cultures – where to say something is ‘wrong’ means that anybody who says that the same thing is ‘right’ must be mistaken.
A key, defining characteristic of moral claims that they are universal – that they apply to everybody, or they do not apply at all.
Db0 also writes:
I could even argue that if someone from another planet were to come here and observe our rules of the road he would find us absolutely bat-shit insane. Not because the rules do not work, but because in his planet, failing contact with our idea of rules, they have created something completely different and incompatible.
Again, when it does not matter that one culture has different standards than another, then we are talking about non-moral standards. If they hold that some alien culture decides that Again, we recognize the difference between cultural norms and morality. We find a culture in which the dietary habits or standard way of dress or even architecture is different than ours. They do things their way, we do things a different way. The mere fact that these are substantially arbitrary standards classifies them as cultural, but non-moral. Standards would not qualify as ‘moral’ unless they are universal. To claim that all standards are cultural is not to say that morality is cultural. It is to say that there is no such thing as morality – that all moral claims are false.
This may be true. However, this is also consistent with the proposition that ‘cultural morality’ makes as little sense as ‘owner’s manual morality’. If they, for example, hold that all headlights must be red (because their vision is such that they see red better than any other color) then we are not talking about non-moral differences. However, if we were to encounter a race that builds a segment of its population into their cars and imprisons them there against their will to serve as chauffeurs for everybody else, we may pass a moral judgment.
The difference is that moral judgments, unlike cultural judgments, are trans-cultural. A moral judgment is a judgment about what no culture may legitimately do. If an evaluation is culturally bound then it is, by definition, non-moral.
Finally, I want to make a quick comment about db0’s claim:
Nevertheless, what you are not considering is that these morals are still being considered by humans with their own subjective perspective which is firmly grounded in the western morality. They are not creating morals off the top of their head, but rather they are using their current idea or morality to try and find something better.
Please note: scientists do the same thing. No scientist ever creates a theory off the top of his head, but rather he uses the current ideas to try to find something better. This is the best we can do – all we can do. This may make science ‘subjective’ in a sense. However, it makes morality no less ‘subjective’ than science. It certainly does not provide a reason to believe that morality is less objective than science.
As I said, none of this proves that cross-cultural standards actually exist, or that it makes sense to talk about such things. Perhaps they do not exist and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ actions have the same status as ‘divine’ actions – in other words, they do not exist. None of this changes the fact that people who speak about ‘morality’ referring to standards that are confined to a culture are inventing a language quite different from English. They are no more speaking English than the person who talks about round squares or married bachelors.