Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Desire Utilitarianism and Objective Moral Relativism - Part II

Objective Moral Relativism

I am going over a set of questions that I have been sent regarding my basic moral philosophy. Currently, I am addressing the question of whether one position I defend - Objective Moral Relativism - is the same as another view that I defend - Desire Utilitarianism. In my previous post I described desire utilitarianism. So, in this post, I will look at objective moral relativism.

The short answer is that objective moral relativism is not the same as desire utilitarianism. However, the two claims do not conflict, so they both are true.

Objective moral relativism is a term that I use to confront the popular (and hugely mistaken) assumption that for moral values to be objective they must be some sort of property that is intrinsic to actions or states of affairs that somehow signal to us that the action ought (or ought not) to be done or the state ought (or ought not) to be realized.

Consequently, a moral objectivist must assert the existence of such entities. Those who deny their existence are moral relativists, who hold that morality is nothing more than the unfounded whim of the person making the moral claim.

The idea that one must choose between intrinsic properties or subjective properties is simply false. Science claims are considered objective. However, there are very few if any scientific claims that refer to intrinsic properties. Most scientific claims describe relationships between things. Yet, this fact does not, in any way, threaten the objectivity of science.

My paradigm example of objective relativism is location. I challenge you, the reader, to describe the location of anything in absolute terms. All location claims describe relationships. They point out where one thing is by describing its relationship to another thing. The keys are on the table. Denver is in Colorado. I am at home.

Yet, scientific research papers are filled with location claims.

Surprisingly, nobody ever thinks to assert that scientific research isn’t real science if it contains a location claim.

Another fact about location claims is that the decision as to what to describe an object’s location relative to is a matter of whim. We give the location of many things on Earth relative to an imaginary line drawn between the north and south pole through Greenwich, England. But why Greenwich England? Can any researcher, anywhere in the world, provide me with a scientific argument proving that Greenwich, England is the one and only correct place to use for zero degrees longitude? Or is it the case that this reflects a substantially arbitrary choice by a bunch of men who simply agreed to use this line?

Yet, even with this arbitrary, unfounded decision to use Greenwich, England as the point for zero degrees longitude, we still do not have an objection to the claim that a statement in a scientific paper giving the location of an object in terms of latitude and longitude is an objective scientific claim.

My claim is that moral statements, like location statements, represent a type of objective relativism. Moral statements, like location statements, describe relationships between real things in the universe. Specifically, moral statements describe relationships between malleable desires (those desires that can be molded through social forces such as praise and condemnation) and other desires. They are not statements about mysterious properties that are somehow intrinsic to objects of evaluation that tell us whether or not the object of evaluation should be realized or not.

Furthermore, these relationships are perfectly fit subjects for scientific study – as fit as relationships between objects in space and time. They exist as a part of the real world. Nobody has the power to alter these relationships simply by changing their mind about them, any more than they have the power to move a star trillions of miles through space simply by changing their mind on where the star is at, or to move their keys to their coat pocket simply by believing, "My keys are in my coat pocket."

The next objection usually to come up asks on what basis I am justified in calling these particular relationships 'morality'. My answer is: Call them what you want, it does not matter in the end. In just the same way that choosing Greenwich, England as the starting point for latitude and longitude has no relevance to the objective location of things on the Earth what we choose to call morality has no relevance what is and is not true about relationships between desires and states of affairs.

If X is a desire that people generally have reason to promote or to inhibit through social forces such as praise and condemnation, then X remains a desire that people generally have reason to promote or to inhibit, regardless of what we call it. Just as the longitudinal distance from Greenwich, England to Denver, Colorado, remains the same regardless of what location one arbitrarily decides to call "zero degrees longitude".

So, in short, Objective Moral Relativism says that moral statements do not refer to intrinsic moral properties. Instead, they refer to relationships that exist in the real world that allow moral claims to be objectively true or false. Desire utilitarianism holds that the specific relationships in question are those between maleable desires (desires that can be molded through social forces) and other desires.


Kmeson said...

On the science side the utility of experiments done in a single chosen reference frame (Greenwich in your example) is that there are well established rules that allow (Conservation of Momentum, or Translation Invariance for one, more complex ones for rotating or accelerated frames) that observed relationship to be described in any other frame. Those tools help more general conclusions to be drawn from specific experiments.

In the moral case I'm not sure I see how you can assert that the relationship between desires observed in one frame (or culture), will generalize to any frame.

I'm a bit out of my depth on the philosophy side, but I love the analogy to the science side. I'm likely reading too much into the analogy, but the science behind the connections of relationships between frames is, to me, some of the most beautiful and powerful physics around.

Luke said...

This is excellent. Thanks for taking the time to explain your theory so slowly and clearly to everyone!