Sunday, September 21, 2008

Moral Absolutes and Moral Arrogance

I read an article today about Republican presidential candidate John McCain's relationship with Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvil. (Newsweek: Why McCain Loves Misha)

It contained the following statement:

[McCain] likes Saakashvili's sense of moral absolutes, says Dimitri Simes, founding president of the realists' home think tank, the Nixon Center: "I understand how someone who takes this posture would appeal to Senator McCain, who also does not tend to see international relations in shades of gray."
The above quote is linked to the following quote in the same article:

Saakashvili's stint as Georgia's justice minister ended abruptly at a cabinet meeting in 2001 when he brandished a dossier of photos showing top ministers' lavish country homes, slapped it on the table and demanded that his colleagues be prosecuted immediately. "We are similar in many ways," Saakashvili says. "We agree that you can't compromise your beliefs."

These two quotes blur a set of important distinctions that I think it is important to keep distinct. The first quote equates the concept of "moral absolutes" with the idea that there are "no shades of gray" in morality. The second quote introduces what can best be described as moral arrogance - the unyielding beliefs that the agent knows what the moral facts are and has no reason to consider other views.

In a sense, I believe that there are moral absolutes. That is to say, I believe that there are moral facts - that a person can make a moral statement that is absolutely true (or absolutely false).

To add to the confusion, the concept of "moral absolutes" is sometimes used to mean "moral rules without exceptions". This would incorporate a view like "it is always wrong to lie," where a person who adopts the rule will refuse to lie regardless of the consequences - even if it was the only way to save the whole human race from destruction. This view of "moral absolutes" is nonsense.

However, it is not inconsistent to hold that there are moral absolutes in another sense - moral absolutes that have exceptions built into them. An example of this type of moral absolute says that it is wrong to kill except to protect an innocent life from an aggressor. This is not an absolute in the sense that the rule has an exception built into it. However, it is (or can be) an absolute in that, taken as the whole, it is a rule that describes (or could describe - it doesn't actually) a moral fact.

A person can hold that there are moral truths of this type, and still have the humility to realize that he or she does not always know what those moral facts are.

Here, we can take science (or even mathematics) as an example. Scientists believe that there are facts about the universe (and that it is their job to find them). In other words, there are physical absolutes to be learned. However, the scientist who believes that there is a fact out there to be discovered can believe at the same time that she does not know what those facts are. He may have a hypothesis, but that hypothesis still needs to be evaluated in the light of evidence that others might bring to the discussion.

The belief that there are moral truths does not imply moral arrogance.

In fact, the belief that there are moral truths gives us a far better grounding for moral humility than relativist moral theories give us.

Moral realism - the idea that there are moral facts - gives us the possibility of moral error (the possibility of being wrong).

Moral subjectivism tells us that our moral opinions cannot be mistaken. We cannot make a mistake in measuring moral value, because there is no objective reality against which our beliefs can be compared. There is no "moral truth" for us to be wrong about.

A person can make morally relevant factual mistakes. A person can believe that it is wrong to take somebody else's luggage at the airport, and yet walk away with somebody else's luggage (because she wrongly believes thatthe luggage is hers). However, moral subjectivism gives us no possibility of being wrong on the moral principles surrounding that fact. For somebody who is morally arrogant - who wants to assert the impossibility of making a moral mistake - moral subjectivism is a dream come true. Moral subjectivism eliminates all possibility of being wrong.

The morally arrogant - whether they are moral objectivists or moral subjectivists - are some of the most dangerous people around, because they act without thinking and do not look for the possibility that others might be right. They act with the unshakable conviction that they are right, and that their righteousness gives them total authority to do whatever they please.

Many of the worst atrocities were committed by people who had an unshakable faith that they could not make a moral mistake - that whatever they want to do they have a right to do, and what they have a right to do they can do without any need to worry about restraints of any type.

Of course, when it comes to moral arrogance, Palin is the worst of the lot. She contains the same type of moral arrogance as Bush, and substantially for the same reasons. They think that their moral opinions - their 'gut feelings' - are messages from God and, as such, come from the best possible authority. In fact, their 'gut feelin' is simply their set of learned prejudices, untainted by any form of reality check. Bush's 'gut feelings' created so many problems because they were not the messages from god that he thought they were. Bush's 'gut feelings' got us into trouble because they were not connected to reality.

And Palin's gut feelings have an even more tenuous connection to reality.

In this case, I simply want people to be a little bit more careful about what they are talking about when they use this type of language. We almost never hear the term 'moral arrogance' used in these types of discussions. They use the phrases that I mentioned above, and others.

Moral arrogance is a serious problem. It is one that we have many and strong reasons to talk about, and it represents something that we have reason to complain about wherever we discuss such issues.

Just, let us not confuse the idea that there are moral facts with the moral arrogance of presupposing that one knows what those facts are without the possibility of error.

3 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

Moral subjectivism tells us that our moral opinions cannot be mistaken. We cannot make a mistake in measuring moral value, because there is no objective reality against which our beliefs can be compared. There is no "moral truth" for us to be wrong about.
...
For somebody who is morally arrogant - who wants to assert the impossibility of making a moral mistake - moral subjectivism is a dream come true. Moral subjectivism eliminates all possibility of being wrong.


Non sequitur. You're confusing moral subjectivism (or meta-ethical subjective relativism) with moral intuitionism: that our moral intuitions are a reliable or authoritative epistemic basis to determine objective moral truth.

An arrogant person must, by definition, believe that he is correct, and those who disagree with him are mistaken. (To be specifically arrogant he must also be either incorrect or lack a sufficient epistemic basis for his assertion.)

Moral subjectivism, as you describe it, flatly contradicts the necessary precondition for arrogance.

Harbl said...

Gotta disagree with the barefoot bum. A moral subjectivist can be arrogant, but the "and you're wrong" part is just directed somewhat differently.

Let's say I'm someone who believes that everyone is right about their own personal morals. My neighbor is right that he should never kill anyone, and I'm right that I should kill whomever I please. As a radical subjectivist, I would never tell my neighbor that he should start killing. But if he tells me I should stop killing, he is wrong, for trying to impose his private morality upon me.

I'm still refusing to acknowledge any possibility that my own actions are wrong. And when my neighbor disagrees about my actions, he's wrong. That's still an arrogant stance.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

barefoot bum

Your dispute here with me appears to be merely semantic. I am using the term "moral arrogance" to refer to any position where a person says, "I cannot be mistaken."

This does not necessarily presuppose that there is an objective fact of the matter. One of the ways that a person can be in a state of "cannot be mistaken" is because the possibility of a false moral claim simply does not exist.