There are no objective moral values.
However, there are objective moral facts.
In my last post I explained what is meant by the claim that there are no objective moral values. It means that there are no intrinsic values – no sense in which value exists as something embedded within and intrinsic to the object of evaluation. To give a sense of what is being denied I asked to imagine value as a form of radiation – emissions of “goodons” and “badons” – that come from various arrangements of matter such as an act of murder or of charity.
No such thing - and nothing like it - exists.
A moral claim that says that this type of objective badness exists in rape or slavery, for example, would be false.
However, this does not imply that "slavery is bad" or "rape is bad" is false. A lot of objectively true statements do not refer to objective properties. Not only are they still true, these truths make up a significant portion of science - perhaps all of science.
Take, for example, the proposition, "The earth orbits the sun at an average distance of approximately 150 million kilometers." This is true. Furthermore, it is a scientific claim – a claim that one would not be surprised to find in a science book or on a science test. This proposition does not describe a property intrinsic to the earth or the sun. Instead, it describes a relationship between them - a relationship that can change over time.
A rogue planet could zip through the solar system and throw the Earth into a new orbit - perhaps an average distance of 200 million kilometers. The relationship between the earth and the sun changes. However, the new claims we are making about that relationship are still objectively true and would count as legitimate claims within the realm of science.
So, a claim can be objectively true or false and a legitimate claim in science even if it is not referring to an intrinsic property.
The same is true in morality. A moral claim can be objectively true or false even though it is not a claim about an "objective value" in the sense that ethicists often use the term. An objectively true or false claim can describe a relational property - such as the orbital relationship between the earth and the sun. In the case of morality, desirism argues that it refers primarily to a relationship between malleable desires and other desires.
All of the following propositions are objectively true or false using the scientists' concept of "objective".
Albert has a desire that P. P can be any proposition. We can, for example, make P = "Kate is married to Albert." This is a statement about an organ in the body (the brain), how it is structured, and how that structure affects observable events. It is as objective as the statement, "Jim has a blood pressure of 134/88" - a proposition that any scientist would be comfortable making. It allows us to make predictions about how an agent will behave in certain circumstances. Future observations will help to verify or falsify our hypothesis. Some complex variables might make it difficult to determine if Albert really has this desire. However, difficult-to-know objective facts are still objective facts.
For a particular state of affairs S, P is true in S. This is a simple descriptive claim about S. In our hypothetical case, we are talking about any state of affairs in which Kate is married to Albert. This is no stranger in science than talking about a state in which water is heated to 80 degrees centigrade.
Albert has a motivating reason to realize S. A desire that P is a motivating reason to realize a state of affairs S in which P is true. This is what desires do - they provide motivating reasons. If both of the previous statements are true, then this one is true.
If Albert has a motivating reason to realize S, and giving somebody else a desire that Q will aid in realizing S, then Albert has a motivating reason to give that somebody else a desire that Q. This is nothing more than means-ends rationality. If you want a new car and you need $25,000 to buy a new car, then you have a motivating reason to get $25,000. You might not be able to get the money. There might be other things you want more (e.g., to spend time with friends and family), but you still have a motivating reason to get $25,000. When true, this is objectively true. When false, it is objectively false.
Some desires are malleable. They can be changed by triggering the reward system in the human brain. Rewards such as praise reinforce certain desires. Punishments such as condemnation reinforce certain aversions. Consequently, a motivating reason to give somebody else a desire that Q is a motivating reason to use the social tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to mold those desires.
There are some desires and aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. Desires to help others in times of need, make a contribution to society, promote and defend institutions that allow for peaceful cooperation, are things nearly everybody as reason to promote in others, and others have reason to promote in them. Aversions to lying, killing, breaking promises, taking the property of others, acting in ways that intimately affect others without their consent, and the like are aversions that virtually everybody has reason to promote in others, and others have reason to promote in them.
In any of the cases mentioned above the claim may be false. Perhaps we have many and strong reasons to promote selfishness and to condemn concern for others as the Ayn Rand Objectivisits argue. Whatever the case may be, there is a fact to the matter that can be determined by looking at the evidence. There is an objective fact of the matter as to whether people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a particular desire. This fact is substantially independent of the beliefs or sentiments of any individual person. No person can make it true that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a desire to help others just by believing it or wanting it to be "true for me". It is true or false as a matter of fact.
The many and strong reasons to promote these desires in others are many and strong reasons to direct social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote these desires and aversions. This simply involves using the reward system - which is effective in molding malleable desires - to promote those desires one has reason to promote. It is true in the same sense that having many and strong reasons to change a tire implies having many and strong reasons to get the jack out of the trunk.
Moral terms contain elements of praise and condemnation. We praise certain people by calling them good and virtuous, by calling them heroes, by giving them plaques and honors, and by saying they did the right thing. We condemn them by calling them vicious or evil, calling them liars or bigots or thieves, by shunning or punishing the, and by saying that their actions are wrong. There may be cases in which a person uses moral terms without implying praise or condemnation. However, these are rare.
All of these propositions point to the conclusion that there is an objective rationality to our use of moral terms. This rationality carries through to a large set of activities related to how moral terms are used. For example, it makes sense of how excuses are used as a defense against condemnation, explains the possibility of conflicting obligations, links "should" to reasons for action that exists, and it does all of this in a way that fits with the natural universe and, in particular, the fact of human evolution.
Two follow-up questions that one might ask are: (1) "Well, all of these things are objectively true or false, but they don't tell me why I should be moral. Why should I be moral?" and (2) Is this a moral theory? Are we talking about something that deserves to be called 'moral facts'?" The two questions may be related. Some may argue that a theory's inability to motivate a person to do the right thing simply be explaining the relevant facts to them cannot properly be called a moral theory.
However, this post is already too long to handle those questions. They will be handled in future posts.
Thursday, July 26, 2012
There are no objective moral values.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:31 AM