Empowerment Ethics: “Are Moral Issues Too Subjective To Argue Over?”

The following originally appeared on Secularite as part of my “Empowerment Ethics” series, which now appears on Camels With Hammers.

In a couple of previous posts, I have considered four things people mean when they say “morality is just subjective”. In this post, I want to analyze how such statements sometimes serve as attempts to stop contentious confrontations over moral issues and whether or when we should let this reference to morality’s subjectivity halt conversations on moral topics. So here is the restatement of “morality is just subjective” that this post explores:

5. “Moral disagreements cannot be solved through completely dispassionate reference to decisive criteria unanimously accepted by all or applied the same by all, so it is futile/pointless/arrogant/harmful/confused/oppressive to continue to debate it and we should stop this conversation.”

The first thing about this sentiment I want to analyze is its disingenuousness in some people’s mouths. There are people who very well do argue for moral positions vigorously until they either get frustrated with a standstill or, worse, get frustrated by mounting refutations of their own positions or their own inability to come up with justifications for their views, and only at such points in the conversation do they decide that morality is impossible to discuss rationally because it’s “subjective”. And nonetheless this won’t stop them, again in the future, from arguing implicitly as though moral views were amenable to some objective analysis.

When someone inconsistently claims morality is just subjective because admitting otherwise would make them feel pressured to change their minds, it sounds like simply an attempt to evade changing their mind.

When it is said out of frustration with a standstill, it is an inaccurate, over-correcting plea for tolerance. It is fine to say, “for the sake of getting along, let’s table this particular unproductive conversation before becomes acrimonious or drives too great a wedge between us.” But it goes too far to declare morality a subject that admits of no rational means of working out disagreements.

Sometimes though this is not a way of avoiding a tough conclusion or of making a plea for tolerance, it is a literal conclusion based on the frustrating experience of arguing to a standstill that does not admit of any simple rational adjudication. “Here we were, two honest, rational people of good will, both apprised of the same facts, and yet we simply could not agree, therefore this provides another confirmation for the hypothesis that moral judgments fundamentally come down to arbitrary differences in subjects (their feelings, their desires, their different experiential backgrounds, etc.)”

In another post, I will have to deal thoroughly with the problem of disagreement (i.e., the inference that because moral disagreement is persistent there can be no moral truth). But hopefully just a few considerations can suffice for now. For one thing, just because individuals disagree about some aspects of morality in ways that they cannot surmount does not make it rational to make an all-encompassing claim that morality is, en toto, fundamentally subjective and variant with the mere idiosyncratic differences between individuals. For one thing, substantial agreements also exist within moralities. There are widespread agreements between individuals, between groups, and even between cultures, even as there are also differences. The presence of some disagreements is not cause to say that morality must inall cases be subjective any more than the presence of agreements in (probably more) cases is cause to say it must in all cases be objective. More needs to be established to prove either point. Our moral agreements must count for something, just as our disagreements must.

It is also worth acknowledging that quite often when having a disagreement, our differences reflect varying in judgments about how to apply shared criteria. Many of our disagreements occur in a context in which everyone can safely assume that a number of things are desirable and worth promoting. Pleasure, excellent individual and group accomplishments, social stability, fair treatment, moral consistency, autonomy, and any other number of goods may be agreed upon as worth promoting and many other evils may be agreed upon as worth opposing. The struggle is quite often a matter of making difficult tradeoffs between fundamentally shared values and principles. We can either have objective reasons to share the values or principles we are struggling to figure out the best way to apply or at least we can be said to have an intersubjective agreement.

By an intersubjective agreement in values and principles I mean that since we both share the same criteria we can function as though there is objectivity because we both agree on the criteria whether it is objective or not. If we both share the same goal, regardless of whether there is a reason to share the goal, the reasons that compel me to pursue those things that lead to attaining it best are also reasons for you to pursue them as well. If I show you that the most efficient route to our unambiguously agreed upon and shared priority is x, then you cannot suddenly accuse me of merely being subjective when you do not like that fact. You may try to abandon allegiance to the fundamental intersubjective recognized good but if that’s your only option, and if the intersubjectively recognized good you would be abandoning either no humans, few humans, or no people like you can really be expected to renounce in practice, then you are pretty much stuck accepting the fact that you would rather avoid. Just claiming that our difference is because morality is “subjective” is a copout when it is intersubjective and compelling. My reasons do matter to you because we are not just idiosyncratically different in fact but are effectively working from shared priorities and there are standards of consistency, coherency, and empirical evidence for deciding what is consistent with them or not. And disavowing the fundamental agreed upon goals just because you don’t like to admit what is morally required of you consistent with them, is impracticable or even irrational (let alone hypocritical).

Sometimes we are not even just disputing how best to make tradeoffs between competing values and principles. Sometimes it’s just that balancing multiple goods to accommodate each of them can be done in more than one way and choosing among them is difficult. Which intricate course of action does the most justice to the most of our concerns? Some things that may make my model work successfully cannot be changed in the way necessary to make your model work successfully. It is sometimes possible that both models work if adhered to but that nothing will work if we try to split the baby and do things half your way and half mine because both require systematic consistency. This could mean we have two roughly equal proposals but have to pick between them rather than compromise. That’s not an instance of morality just being subjective. That’s just another instance of the truism that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. That doesn’t mean that just any way would work. If in our moral arguments we are able to narrow all possible arrangements to just a handful, or even just two, and rule out countless other possibilities as either flawed upon consideration or as so implausible as to be beneath consideration, then we are doing a relatively objective job even if there is some room for indeterminate judgment left over and those final decisions have a dimension of “subjectivity”, at least for the time being.

And sometimes our two models are not equally good. This can, at least in principle, be determined. When we adopt the same value prioritization ranking (not even having a question of choosing between competing shared values, but agreeing on which value should be preeminent) we can then make predictive guesses about which of our competing models for attaining it leads to it best. In this way, our disagreement may not be fundamentally subjective at all but just a function of not having enough factual data. Our values are the same and yet our verifiable and falsifiable hypotheses about what course of action will realize them is the only thing varying.

Or sometimes we share the same value prioritization ranking and empirical data but have a difference in what constitutes realizing the value in the best way. We might both think autonomy is a value that trumps almost all others. But autonomy can mean multiple things. And in a given case, two core concepts of autonomy can be in conflict. The paradigmatic dilemmas here are those related to whether one has a right to surrender one’s own autonomy. Can you be forced to be free or is the truest freedom the ability to choose enslavement? This is a rational paradox due to the conceptual structure of the idea of autonomy itself. When people disagree over something like this it’s not an indication that “all of morality is just subjective”. It’s not just a question of differences in feelings and desires and cultural conditioning and personal idiosyncracies and experiences. It’s a rational problem that admits of ongoing analyses by criteria of coherency, consistency, logic, evidence, etc. Just because we have some tough conceptual nuts to crack in morality does not mean that none of morality admits of any rational adjudication–or even that those nuts themselves don’t.

Your Thoughts?

Not satisfied with some aspect of my moral philosophy yet? Click the question or challenge that is closest to yours or raise it below in the comments if you don’t see it:

What is Empowerment Ethics?
Who Is Anyone To Tell Others What To Do?
How Can We Find External Criteria To Assess Morality’s Truth and Authority?
Is Empowerment Ethics Atheistic?

Can Morality Mean Something Other Than Absolutist Morality?
Is Morality Just Subjective?
Are Individuals’ Moralities Merely Personal?
Is Morality Relative?
Does Everyone Mean Something Different By The Word ‘Good’?
Are Moral Issues Too Subjective To Argue Over?
Can Atheists Condemn Rape Without Theistic Moral Absolutism?
Is Morality Just Culturally Relative?

I am a philosopher who specializes in ethics. For years, starting in my doctoral dissertation and then continuing right here on Camels With Hammers, I have been drafting, defending, and developing my own spin on the perfectionist and humanist ethical traditions that I call “Empowerment Ethics”. I write about everything from the most abstract foundational issues related to the nature of value and morality themselves (what philosophers call “metaethics”), to the most pressing moral controversies of our time, to how to live a good life in practical terms. The post above was an entry in this larger series. For a regularly updated full list of posts in this series and a very brief, 5 paragraph long, primer on what “Empowerment Ethics” is about as a moral philosophy see and bookmark this permanent page. A more thorough overview of the views can be found in my post My Systematic, Naturalistic Empowerment Ethics, With Applications To Tyrants, the Differently Abled, and LGBT People.

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