Saturday, October 14, 2006

Subjectivist Weekend: Part II

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears, for I have come not to praise subjectivism, but to bury it.

Okay, maybe that's a bit overdramatic, particularly since I am a subjectivist in a sense. I believe that all value depends on desire an, if you eliminate desire from the universe, you eliminate all value.

However, there is one type of subjectivism that I would like to put an end to, if I could. It is the type that says that there are two types of reality - 'objective' reality and 'subjective' reality. These are mutually exclusive categories such that something is either 'objective' or 'subjective' but not both, and that both types of reality have equal merit.

My view?

I have a problem with all dual-reality theories. There is one reality. If somebody wants to assert a second type, I leave it up to them to demonstrate why we need it. Without that evidence, I am quite content with a single-reality theories.

In the case of subjectivism, I believe this:

All subjective statements that make sense and are true can be reduced to a set of objective statements that are true. Any subjective claim that cannot be reduced to an objective fact is an example of "making things up" - just like religion.

For example, I hate beans. My wife loves beans. Is this like and dislike of beans proof that something other than objective reality exists?

Absolutely not. My physical body (including my brain) is structured in such a way that I am disposed to avoid those states that would cause me to taste beans. My wife's body is structured in such a way that she is disposed to pursue states in which she tastes beans. This comes no closer to representing a different type of reality than car that gets 15 miles per gallon compared to a different car that gets 25 miles per gallon. Because of the different way in which the items are put together, they behave differently under otherwise identical situations.

Even the statements, "Cockroach! Ewwww!" or "Spinach! Yippee!" can be reduced to a set of objectively true statements. Cockroaches are entities that tend to cause within me feelings of revulsion - a state that I tend to want to avoid. Or, the taste of spinach is something that I am disposed to pursue.

If there are statements that cannot be reduced to objective fact, then I classify them as objective fiction.

Specifically, if moral claims are not objectively true, then they are objectively false. They are either reporting something that is true in the real world, or they are making false claims about the real world.

That's it. Those are the only two options.

As I said yesterday, this weekend's posts were inspired by an episode of the Infidel Guy radio show on Ethics without God in which Kevin Currie defended subjectivism. One of Kevin’s claims was that, when a person presented a moral theory, sooner or later they would have to provide some type of basic moral statement – a non-fact statement – that could not be reduced to anything in the real world. This basic moral statement, he asserted, can never be objective, and can only be accepted subjectively.

My position is that, as soon as you get to that point where you are introducing a ‘subjective truth’ into your argument, at that point you are introducing an ‘objective fiction.’ If you cross that line, everything that you do from that point on is ‘make believe’. It is fiction. It is a case of, ‘let’s pretend that this particular reason for action exists.’ If, as Kevin argues, morality requires this subjective statement, then morality itself is fiction – as much myth and superstition as religion.

My question is: how far can we go without actually inventing any of these subjevctive facts? If we confine ourselves to objective statements, is there anything in the real world that we cannot handle?

If so, why or how?

David Hume wrote that he found it inconceivable how one could derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’. Perhaps it is because the types of ‘ought’ that Hume was referring to were works of fiction made up in the mind of the author.

If you and I were writing two different books, we would each be able to make up our own ‘facts’. Those ‘facts’ would have relevance in our different works of fiction based merely on the fact that we chose to give them significance. There is no objective reality that our fictions need to match up to. No person’s work of fiction is any more or less valid than anybody else’s work of fiction.

I see no difference between works of fiction and these things we are told to think of as ‘subjective morality.’ They are simply games of make believe – as in, “Let’s pretend these things really are wrong,” that have no correspondence to the real world of objective fact.

So, let’s simply stop short of inventing these works of fiction and sticking with objectively true claims about the real world. If a proposition does an objectively true claim about the world, we throw it out. We count it as irrelevant. If it is not a fact about the world, then it is a fiction.

Subjective morality, since it is said to be something distinct and separate from the set of objective facts, gets put in the bin with, myth, superstition, lies, and other works of fiction.

We simply have no more need for 'subjective truth' when we are talking about the real world than we have for God, ghosts, psychic powers, or any other type of fiction.


Richard Y Chappell said...

"Ewwww!" isn't a statement at all. An expression of disgust (or whatever) may be directed, in some sense, at something in the world. But it is not making a claim about how the world is. Nothing truth-assessable is being stated by such an outburst. Observers might be able to infer various facts from it, but that's another matter. (You can infer that the person has vocal chords, and that they find cockroaches disgusting. Both of these propositions may be true, but neither was stated by the expression "Ewwww!", for "Ewwww!" is not any proposition at all.)

Expressivists about morality think something similar is going on there. Moral claims, on their view, aren't true or false (not even "subjectively" so). They aim not to describe the world, but to change it. Or something like that.

(I don't wholly agree with them, myself. I think moral claims are truth-assessable. But it's an alternative view you seem to be overlooking in this post, when you claim: "Those are the only two options.")

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Actually, I did not 'overlook' the view you mentioned. I dismissed it. Yes, there are people who hold that an expression like 'Ewwww' is something other than a proposition.

I argue that they are wrong.

Even 'Ewww' has a proposition up the expression.

So, 'Ewww' does, in fact, fit inside one of what I say are the only two options.

Now, clearly, I am not intending to argue that everything is an expression. A sneeze, a cough, crying, and laughing represent a category of behavior that I am not going to reduce to propositions. At the same time, people do not use this type of behavior as premises in arguments - as ways of arguing in defense of a conclusion like, 'X is good' or 'X is bad' - so they fall outside the scope of the discussion.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Please allow me to try my response again from a slightly different angle.

My claim is that I do not need anything but 'objective reality' to explain and predict things in the real world. I do not need any type of 'subjective reality'.

Everything in the real world can be handled by a collection of objectively true statements. That which cannot be handled by a set of objectively true statements are objectively false.

A sneeze or a cough can be handled through a set of objectively true statements. A physical object interacts with the physical human body and generates a physical response.

If 'ewww' is like a sneeze or a cough, then it too can be fully captured by some set of objectively true propositions having nothing 'left over' that we need 'subjective truth' to explain.

Or, if it is a statement of some kind, then it can be replaced by a set of objectively true or false propositions as I described above.

I still see no evidence that I need anything other than objectively true or false propositions to explain and predict any phenomena in the real world.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The short answer to your question of whether this is an attempt to dismiss the relative nature of morality is: No.

You are correct that desires are as relative as our positions in space and time. I have used this analogy often to show how something can be relative (location in space and time is always described as a relationship between one thing and another), and objectivity (location statements are objectively true or false and are clearly statements that scientists can handle without any difficulty).

To illustrate the type of concept that I am talking about, I sometimes compare moral statements to statements about the 'center of population'.

Such a concept takes into consideration everybody's desires/location. The result can change as desires/location changes. Yet, there is a 'right answer' that is substantially independent of what any individual happens to desire/where he happens to be standing at any given moment. A person cannot look at his own desires/location and from that alone determine moral truth/center of population. However, over time, and with dramatic changes in circumstances, moral truth/center of population can change.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alonzo, I agree with you about the superfluity of "subjective reality" (which is surely reducible to objective facts about various agents, e.g. their beliefs and such).

But just because laughter or tears can be causally explained, doesn't mean that the explanation can "replace" the phenomenon itself. To report the objective fact "I am amused" is to engage in a very different sort of action from the direct expression of my amusement through laughter.

Anyway, I really just wanted to draw attention to the false dichotomy:

"moral claims... are either reporting something that is true in the real world, or they are making false claims about the real world."

Someone might hold that moral expressions are not really claiming/"reporting" anything about the world at all. Nothing you've said here speaks against such a view. Overlooked, "dismissed", whatever -- you haven't argued against it.

Staircaseghost said...

But just because laughter or tears can be causally explained, doesn't mean that the explanation can "replace" the phenomenon itself. To report the objective fact "I am amused" is to engage in a very different sort of action from the direct expression of my amusement through laughter.

Several posters attempted to explain this to him on IIDB a year or so ago, at considerable length, but it was like water off a duck's back. Alonzo just has this idée fixe that whenever anyone opens their mouth, they simply must be engaged in making truth-functional propositions, because that's the only possible use of language. He always says that anything else is "nonsense" or "a fiction".

He never really engages with the expressivists' arguments, because in his universe expressivism can't even be formulated as a position. The upshot of this is that he doesn't have an opinion on the actual claims of expressivism, because the vocabulary for discussing it simply doesn't exist. This problem gets exacerbated because he spends a lot of time responding to random nonphilosophers on the internet who don't know how to formulate it either, rather than engage with the primary literature.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Fancy meeting you here.

How are you doing?

I must say, your description of what I believe is false. People can 'use' language for all sorts of things. Just as people can 'use' a magazine to kill bugs or 'use' a stick to kill their neighbor, they can certainly 'use' words in a number of different ways.

My interest is in the much narrower concern of eliminating the category of 'true for me' or subjective truth. This is an invention - as much a fiction as God and ghosts.

The category of "True OF me" exists - so people can clearly talk about how they feel about things and how things look to them. Yet, there is still an underlying reality - fully captured in objectively true propositions, to account for those facts.

In fact, your account would contradict a major part of what I am saying. I describe the use of praise and blame as having the effect of altering desires - and that desires cannot be altered through reason. Truth-bearing propositions can have implications for what a person believes, but not for what a person wants. So, of course, I say we use statements as more than truth-bearing propositions. Yet, not in any way that justifies a category of 'true for me'.