Monday, December 28, 2015
I have been asked if I wish to participate in a debate on morality at the blog “Truth Interrupted”.
I am deciding whether or not to participate in the debate. However, following a chain of links brought me to a post where the challenger attempted to defend the proposition that there are objective moral values and duties.
He defined “objective moral values and duties” as “moral values and duties that are valid and binding independent of human opinion.”
I believe that many of these debates are fruitless because of the ambiguity of terms such as “objective values”.
I deny the existence of objective, intrinsic prescriptivity – a moral value built into the very fabric of certain actions, character traits, or states of affairs. However, I assert that there are (or can be) objectively true moral claims that are substantially independent of the beliefs and desires of any given agent. I assert that values (including moral values, but also other types of values) exist as relationships between states of affairs and desires. Some people call this a subjectivist theory because “desires” are essential to value. However, these relationships exist as matters of fact in the real world, and are substantially independent of anybody’s belief in or about those relationships. They are as much a part of the real world as planets and atoms.
What would it mean to say that moral values and duties are “valid”?
I am being pedantic here. In logic, the terms “valid” and “invalid” apply to arguments. An argument is valid when, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. A valid argument can still have a false conclusion, but only if one of its premises are false as well.
I hold that at least some moral propositions – propositions of the form, “It is wrong to respond to mere words or communicative acts with violence or threats of violence” – are, or can be, objectively true. I would not speak about a moral value being “valid”. The proposition either points to something that is true in the world, or it does not.
Moral values are “binding”?
I hear this phrase a lot in discussion. I do not know what this means. I don’t even have a good guess.
I think it has something to do with the relationship between moral facts and motivation. Therefore, let me explain what I think to be true about the relationship between moral facts and motivation, and let others decide what this implies about moral values being “binding”.
I hold that “It is wrong to respond to mere words or communicative acts with violence or threats of violence.”
I do not mean by this that everybody has a reason not to respond to mere words or communicative acts with violence or threats of violence. In fact, some people may have no reason to refrain.
However, I hold that people generally have many and strong reasons to give people generally an aversion to responding to mere words or communicative acts with violence or threats of violence. They might not have such an aversion, but they “ought to have” such an aversion, meaning that people generally have many and strong reasons to cause them to have such an aversion. The way that people generally can cause others to have such an aversion is by rewarding (praising) those who display such an aversion and punishing (condemning) those who appear to lack such an aversion. So, people generally have reason to reward/praise those who refrain from responding to words and communicative actions with violence or threats of violence, and to punish/condemn those who respond with violence or threats of violence.
What does this imply about a moral value being “binding”? Somebody is going to have to tell me.
This term “opinion” is ambiguous.
In a strict sense, the term refers only to beliefs. If Bernadette believes that Carlos’ car is red, then Bernadette is of the opinion that Carlos’ car is red.
Using this definition, the truth of a moral proposition is independent of human opinion because it has nothing to do with beliefs. Moral claims are claims about the relationships between malleable desires and other desires. These relationships exist as a matter of fact – regardless of any person’s beliefs about those relationships.
Now, let’s take a statement of the form, “Jim prefers chocolate over butterscotch”. According to our first definition of “opinion”, this is independent of opinion. It is as much a fact of the world that Jim prefers chocolate over butterscotch as Jim’s age, height, weight, and any number of other perfectly objective facts. That is to say, if somebody else were to report, “Jim prefers butterscotch over chocolate”, that person would be wrong as a matter of fact. It is simply not true. If Jim himself were to say that he prefers butterscotch over chocolate he would be guilty of lying.
Yet, we sometimes call preferences “opinions”. So, here we have a set of things that are both referred to as “opinion” and, at the same time, reports a fact about the world.
I think this is where a lot of the discussion on the objectivity of moral values gets confused. People treat “opinion” as a clear and unambiguous term distinct from “fact”. However, this is not the case. We sometimes use the term “opinion” to refer to things that are, at the same time, “facts”. Relationships between states of affairs and desires – the type of facts reported in value claims including moral claims – are precisely the set of facts that are also, at the same time, called “opinions”.
Anyway, moral values are independent of human opinion in the narrow sense because relationships between states of affairs and desires are independent of beliefs. Moral values are not independent of desires since they actually describe relationships between objects of evaluation and desires. Yet, these relationships exist as a matter of fact. Whole societies can believe that a particular relationship exists between an object of evaluation and desires and be wrong. They would determine the truth or falsity of these propositions the same way they would investigate any objective, scientific claim about the world.
So, I would say: Moral claims sometimes report facts that are independent of beliefs and are independent of whether the speaker or people generally want the claim to be true. They are not independent of all desires because, when they are true, they report relationships between malleable desires and other desires. However, these relationships exist and are as objectively real as anything that any scientist may wish to study.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 9:14 AM