I Am A Moral Naturalist, Not A Subjectivist

In a long comment on my post from this morning, George raised the question of usage of “subjectivism” beyond my own interpretation of the word.  Let’s look to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which should be as neutral an adjudicating source as the English-speaking philosophy world has.  I selected this source for its independent, encyclopedia character rather than just picking a philosopher who happens to use the term in a way I want.

In the very good article distinguishing Moral Subjectivism and Moral Relativism, Richard Joyce makes crucial distinctions:

Relativism holds that moral claims contain an essential indexical element, such that the truth of any such claim requires relativization to some individual or group. According to such a view, it is possible that when John asserts “Stealing is wrong” he is saying something true, but that when Jenny asserts “Stealing is wrong” she is saying something false. An individualistic relativism sees the vital difference as lying in the persons making the utterance; a cultural relativism sees the difference as stemming from the respective cultures that the speakers inhabit. (There are more complicated possibilities. Gilbert Harman, for example, would relativize the utterance to a context shared by both speaker and audience (Harman 1975; Harman and Thomson 1996).) In either case, it may be that what determines the difference in the two contexts is something “mind-dependent”—in which case it would be subjectivist relativism—but it need not be. Perhaps what determines the relevant difference is an entirely mind-independent affair, making for an objectivist relativism. (Consider: Tallness is a relative notion—John is a tall man but a short pro basketball player—but it is not the case that “thinking makes it so.”) Conversely, the subjectivist need not be a relativist. Suppose the moral facts depend on the attitudes or opinions of a particular group or individual (e.g., “X is good” means “Caesar approves of X,” or “The Supreme Court rules in favor of X” or “God commands X,” etc.), and thus moral truth is an entirely mind-dependent affair. Since, in this case, all speakers’ moral utterances are made true or false by the same mental activity, then this is not strictly speaking a version of relativism, but is, rather, a relation-designating account of moral terms (see Stevenson 1963: 74 for this distinction). In a relation-designating account of moral goodness (say, Roderick Firth’s ideal observer theory, to be discussed in section 5 of the main entry) it is not possible that when John asserts “Stealing is wrong” he is saying something true but that when Jenny asserts “Stealing is wrong” she is saying something false. The mind-dependence relation embodied in a subjectivist theory may give rise to a relation-designating account of moral truth rather than a relativistic account.

In short, the subjectivism vs. objectivism and the relativism vs. absolutism polarities are orthogonal to each other, and it is the former pair that matters when it comes to characterizing anti-realism.

There are two kinds of subjectivism indicated here.  There is subjectivist relativism which allows that each individual creates a good or bad for him or herself by virtue of his or her feeling that things are good or that they are bad.  The goodness or the badness is dependent solely on the individual’s mind.

This is the kind of subjectivism that would allow the Peter’s proposed pedophile to be vindicated.  Good and bad are completely relative to each subject, so what the pedophile feels preference for is good to the pedophile and there is no objectively dissuading the pedophile from calling his pedophilia good.

The best one can do is, say, shame him or make him empathize with the plight of abused children so he feels differently.  But we can make no true, objective judgments that the pedophile is wrong and that he truly should change his feelings.  We can only say we would personally desire that he feel differently but not that he is under any obligation to do so which he must rationally recognize.

This is the kind of subjectivism that hitches goodness and badness to the (potentially) idiosyncratic preferences of subjects, and it is what I want far clearer statements of disassociation from from Jason and George.  And Jason’s emotivist-like discussion of “disliking” pedophilia—rather than condemning it explicitly on objective grounds—has not yet convinced me that his views rule out subjectivist relativist dimensions.

Now the non-relativistic form of subjectivism offered is also mind-dependent but involves designated authorities who supposedly have the power to make things good or bad by their judgment.  These are forms of voluntarism according to which someone’s will makes for what is moral.

So, if a mother tells the kids there is no playing baseball in the house, then her will makes it wrong.  And the reason it is wrong is not because there is anything objectively wrong with playing baseball in the house but because she’s the mom and she says so.  If the kids were to have a dispute about whether baseball playing in the house was okay it would be objectively settleable by appeal to Mom’s decree.

And similarly, divine command theory would say that there is no objective fact about goodness or badness independent of God’s mind but that God’s subjective declarations make  things good or bad by fiat.  And similarly rulings made by a Supreme Court or a legislature would be binding on others.

In each of these cases, the moral justification would be that a particular mind willed or declared that something be good or be bad.  This means that the goodness or badness comes from the fiat of a particualr subject.  It is not relative if for some reason this mind has a true authority to create goodness and badness.

Now, maybe George and Jason truly think this is true.  Maybe they think that if the Zeitgeist of a particular people tells them that something is good or that it is bad that those people are bound to obey that collective judgment about morality.  Or maybe they think the subjective ruler is not the culture but some more specific creator of good and bad within the culture.

But George and Jason keep insisting their position is essentially the same as mine but I consciously and rather vehemently reject the idea that subjective decrees make for moral goodness.  I grant of course the force of positive law rests on the wills of authorities—at least to the extent that they do not violate objective standards of morality and goodness and become egregiously unjust laws.

But I do not think that the truth about morality is determined by cultural Zeitgeists or by authority figures or by a divine sovereign.  I am a naturalist.  I think there are natural values and that specific moral codes derive their justification by reference to the ways that they help us fulfill those natural value priorities.  I do not think that changes in morality are justified simply by changes in authorites’ opinions by rather by objective changes in what practices will bring about the most value.

If George and Jason want to argue I am wrong on this point, then they are free to do so, but they should not accuse me of semantic quibbling but rather explain to me how minds thinking things are good or bad make them so.

Of course some specific things become good or bad based on the idiosyncrasies of our temperaments.  If I find one activity restful, it becomes good for helping me rest whereas if you find that same activity stressful, it becomes bad for helping you rest.  But even this is an objective relationship determining the respective goodness and badness.  Objectively it can be observed that this activity makes me restful and it makes you restless.  The goodness or badness of the activity for helping us rest is not determined by our mind’s simple imputation of “goodness” or “badness” independent of objective factors.

And, as I had argued earlier, there is no necessary connection between the changeability of true values and their being subjective.  If values change only because authorities designated with declaring what is valuable change their mind, then that is subjectivist change.  That happens with the Supreme Court but not with moral truth, as far as I can tell.  If, on the other hand, values rightly change only when what is objectively valuable changes, then that is objectivist change.

I am arguing that values can change with objective justification.  It is not merely an observable fact that the values of people and of culture’s do change but that we can always (at least in theory) assess whether or not they should have changed and how they should have changed or not.  I think we can say some ways morals change are bad and some are good and the mere fact they change is not itself proof they should.  They should only when they rightly improve our alignment with the world for our flourishing.

I am a naturalist, I think there are objective, natural values.  I am a contextualist in that I think the best ways to realize those values varies with real world conditions.  That’s my position.  If George and Jason agree with these views, they should not call themselves subjectivists.  If they disagree, then that’s fine, but they should not accuse me of semantic quibbling when I attack their subjectivism as our dispute is over one of the most substantive metaethical questions—whether values are mind-dependent or mind-independent.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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