Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Coel Hellier's Objections to Objective Morality

My browsing around the internet recently brought be to a post on “Six Reasons Why Objective Morality Is Nonsense.”


Objective vs. Objective

If, by “objective morality”, one means “intrinsically prescriptive moral properties”, I agree, these do not exist. Technically, the claim is not “nonsense” because it does make sense. However, all claims of this type are false.

But, It would serve Coel Hellier well to be a bit more precise in how he uses some terms.

For example, even though objective, intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist, objectively true value statements do exist. They are statements that relate objects of evaluation to desires (or, more precisely, malleable desires to other desires), and they are objectively true or false. To say, "This present is such that it would fulfill the desires of the person it will be given to" is an objectively true or false statement, as objectively true or false as, "This present has a mass of 32.8 kilograms."

Belief Subjective versus Desire Subjective

Another distinction that Hellier ignores is the distinction between belief and desire. He says that morality is grounded on subjective states, but he does not state clearly whether the relevant subjective states are beliefs or desires.

At one point, he wrote:
“If morality were objective, it would have to be conceivable that the statement “George’s actions were wrong and he deserves to be punished” would be true even if every human in the world were of the opinion, “George’s actions seem fine to me, perhaps even laudable”
This relates moral evaluation to beliefs. If the agent, or the community, or a sufficiently large and well defined subculture within a community believes “X is immoral” then (for them), “X is immoral” is true. All that is required is the belief. If the belief changes, then the immorality of the act changes.

The fact that a sufficiently large portion of the population of South Carolina believed that slavery was morally permissible in South Carolina in 1855 means that slavery was permissible. This would imply that, as a matter of fact, anybody who stated that slavery was immoral was mistaken. On a belief model, "slavery is wrong" can only mean "the dominant belief in this culture is that slavery is wrong", which, in South Carolina in 1855, was false.

Elsewhere, he relates morality to desires, as when he wrote:

Thus, a subjective morality is strongly preferable to an objective one! That’s because, by definition, it is about what we humans want. Would we prefer to be told by some third party what we should do, even if it is directly contrary to our own deeply held sense of morality?
Note: He says here that morality is about what people want (desire), not about what they believe.

This relates to the question of objectivity above because relations between objects of evaluation and desires are objective with respect to beliefs. There is a fact of the matter as to whether a certain state of affairs is such as to fulfill some set of desires. It is a fact that exists in the world, independent of beliefs. No matter how many people believe that apricot pits will help people realize a state in which their cancer is cured, this will not make it true.
So if, instead of relating moral judgment to belief, we relate it to desire, then we get moral claims that are objective with respect to belief. An objective morality exists – but morality turns out to be concerned with the question of how best to fulfill desires.

I would, of course, go a lot further and say that morality is about evaluating malleable desires and molding them using rewards such as moral praise and punishments such as moral condemnation, but we do not need to go that far to make the points relevant to this discussion.

Evaluating States Relative to Standards vs. Evaluating Standards

Finally, Hellier fails to distinguish between evaluating a state of affairs relative to some standards, and evaluating the standards themselves.
We humans have a lot to be proud of: by thinking it through and arguing amongst ourselves, we have advanced morality hugely, with Western society today giving vastly better treatment to individuals, to women, children, religious minorities, foreigners, those of other races, the disabled and mentally ill, criminals, etc, than any previous society.

We need an account of how morality can "advance" without there being an objective standard against which we can evaluate it. This would have to be a standard that allows us to compare one moral system (the old moral system) against another (the new moral system) and judge the latter to be "better" then the former.

Subjective morality allows us to make non-arbitrary judgments about states of affairs relative to some standards. However, it has difficulty evaluating different standards. We may just as well adopt a set of standards within that excludes women, children, religious minorities, foreigners, those other races, and promotes exclusively the interests of white males. If this is what people believed . . . if this is what people valued . . . then this is what would be true . . . on a subjectivist sense. If these are the values, then the changes that Hellier says we should be proud of are, in fact, things to be ashamed of.

You could evaluate standards according to some (subjective) meta-standard. But, then, how do you evaluate meta-standards? We could bring in a meta-meta standard, but how is that to be evaluated? Either this chain never ends, or it ends at a standard that cannot be evaluated - a standard that is, ultimately, arbitrary.


There are, then, three distinctions that Hellier should pay more attention to if he is going to continue to condemn objective value and defend subjective value.

The first distinction is the distinction between "objective value" in the sense of “intrinsically prescriptive value properties” versus “propositions whose truth is independent of whether people believe them to be true.” The denial of objective value in the first sense does not imply the denial of objective value in the second sense.

The second distinction is a distinction between grounding morality on belief versus grounding morality on desires. If morality is grounded on our desires, then the truth-value of moral claims are independent of belief. They are, in fact, "objective" in the sense that scientists use when scientists say that science is objective. A great deal of science is concerned with discovering relationships between things in the world.

The third distinction is evaluating states of affairs with respect to standards, and evaluating the standards themselves. Hellier is correct to say that morality is non-arbitrary where it concerns evaluating states of affairs with respect to standards. However, when Hellier goes on to say that some standards are better than others, he needs to provide an account of how we can compare different sets of standards - how we can possibly hold two different moral systems up to the same measure and determine one is superior to the other.

No comments: