Yesterday I kicked off a series called “Paths to Objective Morality”. In response to commenters vigorously challenging my choice of vocabulary in calling morality “objective”, I decided to lay out my justification for my word choice systematically and to explain how it will be justified in each of the major components of my overall account of morality. This post serves as one of the most comprehensive one-post overviews of what is going on in my moral philosophy and should be able to serve as a master post and map for the “Paths to Objective Morality” series itself.
Why I Make The Semantic Choice To Call Morality Objective Despite Being Uncommitted to an Ontology of Human-Independent Moral Facts
The main question in morality is, “How can we determine that we genuinely must do something even when it goes against our immediate, personal feelings, desires, will, perceived interests, etc.?” This is the normative question. Why must we do anything? What makes anything obligatory?
If there is to be genuine morality in the traditional sense of the word there are going to be some things that it can be truthfully said that one simply must do and some things it can be said that simply one must not do.
Inherent in the structure of morality is the assumption that there are potentially things which would pull against morality. Desires might compete with what one morally must do. Or the will. Or one’s feelings. Or one’s personal interests. Morality must be that which has some sort of genuine authority to compel even against these countervailing sources of reason or motivation to disobey what it insists upon.
If morality in the most consistent and genuine sense of the word is to be affirmed as something that really binds people in some way then it must prove that it has some sort of authority to override the various competing factors one finds within oneself that might lead one to choose against morality. A genuine morality must establish a source of reason and motivation to the subject such that the subject knows. We can call this several things. What should we call this thing that morality must establish it has in order to be genuinely the real and binding thing with true authority over people that people’s around the world and for all time in one way or another believed existed in some way? We could say that it is its normative force. I think that’s a good term. We can also say that it is morality’s objectivity, taken in a particular sense. When we talk of the normative force of morality as being its objectivity we are conveying the sense in which morality is not merely acquiescence to what is subjective within us. It is not merely following our subjective desires, subjective feelings, our subjective interests, our subjective wills. In its most fundamental and binding respect it is not something that arbitrarily changes with the idiosyncrasies of each particular person or each particular situation. In some way it transcends them and gives a reason that can, with objectivity independent of the subject’s feelings, will, desires, interests, override these things and give the subject a command that the subject knows she must obey instead and knows she has a good reason to obey instead.
Now many ideas have grown up about how it is necessary for the world to be in order for morality to have this normative force and objectivity that can override the idiosyncrasies and partialities and prejudices and weaknesses of subjectivity. One strategy for explaining objectively overriding, normative force is to posit that there is a set of objective moral facts that are in some sense completely independent of humans. On this idea, somehow it is part of the fabric of the world that murder is wrong, for example, and this is the case whether or not there are humans.
Now some would say that to say that morality is objective we would have to posit this theory about how reality is. We would have to posit the existence of these facts that are totally independent of humans. But I think that we can say that morality is objective in the sense of having normative force to override what we subjectively feel, desire, will, etc. without having to posit that it is objective in the sense of existing human-independently as quarks and atoms and trees do.
All that is necessary for morality to be objectively normatively forceful for us is that it be independent of our subjective wills, subjective desires, subjective interests, and subjective feelings sometimes. It does not have to be independent of our being all together. It could theoretically be inextricably tied to humanity and yet still have objective force for us in the sense that sometimes when we are having subjective feelings, desires, wills, and interests which oppose it, we can apprehend it in our thought and realize, “despite what I subjectively want, I realize objectively that I must do as morality says.” This is the relevant sense of morality that has historically been the core meaning of the term. I want to prove that morality really can veto subjective states of mind with rational force such that it is irrational to ignore it. I want to prove that morality can establish itself through a number of rationally objective considerations from a number of rational angles.
I do not think I should abandon the word “objective” here, simply because I grant that the view that there are objective moral facts that are totally humanly independent is doubtable. I want to say that maintaining the meaning of “objectively normatively forceful” to override subjective states within us is more crucial to the historical meaning of morality than this one theory of reality that has been proposed to explain and give force to that objectivity.
While there are descriptive facts that are very relevant to understanding morality, the primary question of morality is normative: Why must we do or not do some things. It is not primarily descriptive the way science is. It is not primarily about a particular description of the world but primarily about determining what must be done and why. Therefore, when considering the phrase “moral objectivity” it is more important to me that we preserve (if at all philosophically possible) the ability to say morality is normatively objective (i.e., has sufficient reason in it to override what is subjectively felt, willed, desired, etc.) than that we retain the sense of “objective morality” where it means a description of the world as containing a particular kind of objective moral facts. That hypothesis is only interesting and important insofar as it has hope of establishing the normative sense of objective morality which is more integral to the received meaning and practical force of the very concept of morality itself.
This is why if I can establish that there are rational reasons to defer to norms against our momentary subjective preferences, I would say that morality is in the main “objective”. It is a way of affirming that morality is ideally capable of the kind of normative force that people have claimed for it.
How Explanations, Justifications, and Contextualizations of Morality May Be Revised Without Undermining Morality’s Character as Having Objective Normative Force
For it to have objective normative force, it does not have to have a lot of things often hypothesized in the past as existing to explain or justify it.
For one thing morality does not need to be completely unchanging. It could be something that is responsive to contexts. It can vary substantially with objectively relevant different cultural conditions across times and places. And while often we experience the tension between our subjective states and objective norms when it is incumbent upon us to follow rules we don’t feel like following at the moment, and so must treat rules as though inherently binding and not merely important for their use to us, ultimately those rules may not have a character by which they are always absolute or always totally independent of our interests. All they need to be able to do is sometimes have normative force to override our immediate subjective states of mind.
And even though we have to sometimes treat rules as though they are important independent of all considerations of consequences that our subjective preferences may be tempted to over-prioritize, nonetheless, in the long run and on the macro level, rules may be ultimately justified by reference to the way they lead to some ultimately important consequence or objective good. I think there is such an objective good—objective in the strong, human independent sense—and that it is power.
Power As Our Objective Good
Our power, in brief, is our good because we are constituted of it. Put simply, we are our powers. They constitute us. They make us up. We do not simply have reason, emotional capabilities, technological capacities, artistic abilities, physical strengths, social skills, sexuality, aesthetic sensitivity, etc. We only exist in and through such powers. Each of these broad categories of powers is composed of a large set of subset powers and can combine into more and more complex and efficacious powers. Definitionally our powers’ greatest possibilities for realization of themselves is our greatest good. (Accomplishing this total greatest power possibility often means curbing some powers in various ways for the sake of the total net power.)
The most objective sense of the word good we have is this one of functional effectiveness. “x being effective at bringing about y” is “x being objectively good at bringing about y“. “x and y functioning effectively together to a greater or lesser extent to make a z” is “x and y functioning well as a z“. To the extent that something functioning to an extent as a z fulfills the formal functional possibilities for z’s it is an effective, or good, z. Each power is understandable as one of these functional abilities, a form of effectiveness, objectively describable from a third person point of view. Each power is an ability of some set of x, y, z etc. to function together as a functional power in the world. Each functional power is, descriptively, an empirically “good” instance of that power insofar as that functioning happens well according to that kind of function that it is.
Moral rules gain their objective normative force from the instrumental ways that they ultimately serve the total human community’s total growth in power. Since our interest in our own power is fundamentally tied to that total power, those rules gain objective normative force for us too. So objectively normative moral force with the ability to override our short term, micro level subjective interests need not be completely independent of our personal interests for its normative force (although this is often thought to be necessary). In my view, ultimately for us to really be bound to morality it must ultimately come back to our own objective interests. The normative force of morality comes from the ways that it instrumentally allows us to fulfill what I think are our objectively determinable interests. Those objectively determinable interests may be at odds with our subjective feelings, desire, will, or misperception of our actual interests. What I think is ultimately happening in morality is that it is overriding our misperception of our interests and our tendencies to subjectively desire in short term and micro level ways, in order to fulfill our ultimate interests on the macro and long term level, considering our good from a third person standard of what maximizes our total power.
Rational Standards For Coherent and Consistent Norms and Actions
Objective normative force is sometimes found in the need to square our moral judgments, our will, our desires, our beliefs, etc. all as internally consistent, coherent, free of practical contradictions, and not self-undermining. In these ways, morality can rationally compel us to realize we objectively must act in some ways and not in others comparable to the ways that concerns about consistency, coherency, and avoiding contradictions rationally compel us to believe in some ways and not in others.
Objectified Subjective Interests
Sometimes, objective normative force works against our subjective experience of our interests by determining what they them themselves are really after. For example, oftentimes our objective good involves simply fulfilling our subjective interests. But sometimes we misperceive even how to fulfill our subjective interests. We may, for example, have the subjective desire to take a medication we think will remedy our illness but in fact a different medication will actually do the trick far better. In that case Peter Railton points out that we have an “objectified subjective interest” in the latter medication. Our ultimate subjective desire is to feel better and to have that which makes us feel better, even if in our actual, subjectively experienced desire is for something else. Sometimes, I would argue, objectified subjective interests can lead to objectively normative reasons to be moral against our actually experienced subjective desires.
Now another way that we can get objectivity in normative force is through what is known as “intersubjectivity”. We can observe that all relevant agents share a set of beliefs, desires, or interests. This can provide a degree of invariance between people that makes an appeal to what they share universal (at least to all relevant people) rather than idiosyncratically subjective. Appealing to something that all (or virtually all) subjectively recognize as desirable is more like appealing to something that is objective, since it is the same for everyone, than appealing to something subjective. So when, say, a legislator appeals to the importance of preventing flooding that would destroy the city and kill thousands of people, she is appealing to a goal that is at least intersubjectively desirable to all who would be in danger (and I would argue, further, objectively good). To speak technically we would call this intersubjective. If this was all there was to morality’s normative force we would probably have to call morality only “intersubjectively” grounded. But ultimately it is just another of many ways that morality is more like objective on net than subjective. It is the character of the appeal as being appealing to all independent of the idiosyncracies that separate them as subjects that is decisive in making it moral, rather than their subjectivity itself.
I will explain these various considerations that make morality objective in more depth in my future “paths to objective morality” posts. I just wanted to lay out an overview of more of the terrain and why I am inclined to call it, when speaking simply, a situation in which the ideal of objective moralities is a legitimate one to talk about. While we will never attain to total objectivity, it is an ideal we can approximate to one extent or another with numerous rational tools at our disposal.
To read more of the substance of my arguments for objective morality, read any of my many posts on the subject. Most of them are listed below: