This installment of my Empowerment Ethics series is deeply indebted to a superb excerpt from David O. Brink’s Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge Studies in Philosophy). Pgs. 198-209 of that book were republished in on pgs. 376-382 of Foundations of Ethics: An Anthology, edited by Russ Shafer-Landau and Terence Cuneo and published by Blackwell in 2007. The post follows his basic points and outline with my own spins on the ideas here and there.
Last weekend I gave a talk on moral philosophy at the 2014 Pennsylvania State Atheists and Humanists Conference (PASTAH Con). First at my talk, then over dinner, and now on my blog, Jerry Coyne of the excellent Why Evolution is True raised some hard cases of moral dilemmas that reasonable people can disagree about in order to claim that despite some dimensions of morality that can be worked out rationally morality was in the main “subjective”. In my first reply to him, I clarified what I mean by objective human flourishing and the various procedures that I think can lead to rational answers. In this post, I want to address the claim that because there are certain outstanding moral questions that people disagree about or because people don’t always do what is morally best, morality ultimately comes down to subjective preferences.
The first point to reiterate from my talk and from several previous blog posts where I’ve fleshed this out in greater detail, is that when asking whether morality is “objective” or “subjective” we should not be absolutist and demand that the only way to be “objective” is to have simplistic, situationally unresponsive black and white rules that are knowable apart from all experience and agreed upon by everyone. That kind of standard of objectivity is absurd. It’s not one we hold science to (and for good reason). When we talk about an endeavor being objective in the main or subjective in the main we’re talking about whether there can be objective principles that can often, at least theoretically, lead to determinations independent of our preferences. Science is objective because it leads to conclusions we simply have to accept whether we like them or not if we are being rationally consistent and adequately empirically responsive to evidence. It’s not objective in the sense that it actually is successful in determining every matter of fact whatsoever or eradicating every disagreement among scientists or successfully compelling agreement among the general populace, even.
The objectivity is in the strength of the methods that can compel results contrary to one’s mere subjective feelings and tastes. That’s the key objectivity of science and ethics. Ethical arguments has numerous tacks on which it can undermine your feelings and give you principled, rationally compelled changes of mind that can lead to you putting aside your immediate desires and preferences for the sake of something you rationally think you must be responsive to. So long as it can in principle do this most of the time (and I think it really can), it is generally speaking objective, rather than subjective. That doesn’t mean it gives determinations in a vacuum (neither does science). That doesn’t mean we cannot change our ethical views with new information or through better reasoning (just as we do with science!). It also doesn’t mean that every culture or individual has to be remotely good at discovering ethical truths or living by them. We don’t demand that the true in science be vindicated by popular agreement or by having been known from time immemorial. Why should ethics be subject to the whims of historical opinion or cross-cultural opinion and not be determined simply by the most rational consistent and empirically informed arguments too? To say that it must is to simply assume subjectivism from the outset.
The question is whether if we don’t start out assuming ethics is just in principle subjective but take the elements of objectivity within it and then see whether disagreement undermines those, does objectivity end up vindicated.
Let’s explore 13 of the ways that moral disagreement can be perfectly consistent with a general view that moral questions can be resolved objectively in principle, whether or not any one specific question is yet in fact. (Remember, we do not consider science generally objective only if it resolves every possible empirical question in fact. Some it may in principle never be able to solve. Some it may not have yet solved but will. Some are at least in principle solvable. Science’s general objectivity is in its tools’ in principle abilities to generate rationally better answers that are rationally compelling to those honest inquirers, even against their own wishes where those conflict with the best reasoning. Morality can meet the same test.
1. In some ways the charge of moral relativism embeds an assumption that no people can be in systematic error about anything major in morality if it’s objective. “If morality is a matter for objective moral inquiry, the reasoning goes, then why do whole peoples endorse genocide, slavery, subjugation of women, etc.? If we’re right and these things are objectively evil, shouldn’t everyone just objectively know that they’re evil?”
As Brink points out, some people (even all people for many eras, or even all time!) can be in systematic error about something true. For most cultures in most of human history evolution was unknown. Credible biologists with honed tools of rational investigation have determined evolution is true. Even though whole cultures systematically disbelieve in it, those cultures are just wrong. Evolution is no less objectively true. The mere presence of their disagreement is not an argument against evolution. The mere presence of racists, sexists, homophobes, slaveholders, genocidal governments does not at all invalidate the objective arguments against racism, sexism, homophobia, slavery, or genocide.
2. Just as with creationism, people have ulterior motives that can entice them to persist in moral errors. Evolution is objectively true but many religious believers have subjective reasons that they prefer it not be true and that powerfully prejudices their perceptions, even in the face of the most overwhelming evidence. That’s only proof of bias, not an argument for creationism. And similarly, in our selfishness we may be biased against any number of morally objective truths that we subjectively perceive to go against our interests. And with just as much self-deception as creationists we may deny what are the most rationally consistent and empirically informed moral arguments. That doesn’t invalidate the rationality of those arguments at all. (In fact, it makes the ability to train people to reject their subjectivity just as important as it is in the sciences. Their subjectivity stands in the way of genuine moral goods. Calling morality “just subjective” gives them license to irrationally ignore a wealth of objective factors for selfish, shortsighted reasons and falsely claim their thinking is just as valid as those who oppose it.
3. Some arguments against moral objectivity point out that sometimes we apply the same moral principles to justify opposite policies. But that’s not in principle contradictory at all. Principles have to take into account the empirical variables of unique situations. Just as the same scientific principles interacting with opposite data will yield objectively opposite measurements and predictions, so applying the same moral principles to situations which are different in morally important ways will yield opposite objective moral prescriptions about how to judge or act in those distinguishable circumstances. We can have objective arguments, appealing to objective, shared criteria of rational consistency and objective and intersubjective basic values, about why applying the principle objectively in the one case looks different than applying it in the opposite case. Of course, people can be selfish and want to overemphasize one factor or another for their own benefit and inconsistently apply principles. But then, again, the problem is with fallible people (just as it is in believing matters of science), not with the standards for rational assessment themselves.
4. Not all moral disagreements need to be resolvable in principle. It is sufficient that most are. Again, science, in order to be objective need not be able in principle to determine every empirical fact. What’s important is that it gives the tools for objective progress. Same with morality. It is deceptive to dismiss the huge class of moral disagreements that are already resolved or either partially or fully resolvable in principle. To say “morality is subjective” is to imply that all the areas where agreement exists and is rationally defensible already or can be rationally defended in the future is all just subjective. It’s not. In many respects it’s objective and saying it is in the main simply subjective because not every question is in principle resolvable is misleading.
5. Brink argues correctly that J.L. Mackie was wrong when he famously claimed that all moral facts must be necessary and non-contingent (i.e., they couldn’t vary at all across time and place). Morality is a practical endeavor of telling ourselves and others what we should or should not do, can or cannot do. As such the right answers to these questions must sometimes change when our circumstances change. All practical reasoning understands this. Doctors know this. They know to take into account the specifics of a patient’s condition before prescribing a medicine. Engineers know they have to take into account innumerable considerations about location, topography, climate, existing infrastructure, available resources, etc., etc. in practically determining what is best when designing a specific facility. Or they need to take into account people’s needs when designing technologies.
Morality is a technological endeavor too. It’s one of determining what should be done for us all to live as well as we can collectively and individually. We should, as naturalists who have learned the lessons of empirical thinking in the hard sciences, determine our moral codes and practices according to what serves our purposes best. That means responding to unique circumstances uniquely. It also means some cultures and times and places can be right in doing things differently than other cultures and times and places if, by objective metrics, those alternate moralities genuinely enhance the thriving in people’s powers. If those alternate moralities fail to do that as well as they could, they’re as objectively criticizable as relatively deficient technologies. If your people isn’t thriving to the maximum of its potential with respect to their reasoning abilities, their emotional capacities, their social abilities for cohesion and cooperation, their physical health, their sexuality, their capacities as creative, technological beings, etc., etc., and it’s your moral practices to blame, then your people can objectively improve its moral practices.
6. Brink rightly points out that moral realists do not have to be committed in advance of evidence to any specific account of morality’s nature. I would stress by way of example that we do not have to accept the word of theistic absolutists that unless morality is something unchanging in its prescriptions for all time and places that it’s “not really morality”. That’s a bogus standard. It’s empirically false. Moralities always have changed and varied. And it’s normatively pointless. Why should we adhere blindly to unchanging rules when those rules fail to serve our thriving as people? There’s no good reason for that. There’s every good reason to adapt our rules so they lead to our thriving and correlatively adapt our conception of what morality is so that it helps us in the project of adapting our rules successfully rather than thwarts that project. Defining morality as “subjective” needlessly confuses people. It falsely implies that because there’s no one absolute standard of morality as foolish religious insistences demanded (and never actually lived by) that morality has no better and worse. But it does, the better is the kind that is most adaptive for our thriving. The worse is the kind counterproductive to such thriving.
7. Moral realists can admit that there are some genuine moral disputes where there are equally valid competing claims. Sometimes there are just two choices of equally good value or equally bad value. The fact that we’re limited in our ability to have every good value or avoid every bad value at the same time is just a constraint of our finitude. It does not mean that nothing is any better than anything else. So, yes, sometimes there are two equally good things or equally awful options and we have to choose. There are these “moral ties”. That does not make morality always or in the main subjective. It just means that when two means are equally good in those limited cases you can defer to preferences since one is not better than the other.
Brink adds to my way of putting it the following:
Disputes over moral ties and incommensurable values are resolvable in principle only in the sense that it ought to be possible in principle to show interlocutors who are not systematically mistaken that their dispute has no unique resolution. Of course there are limits to how often we may construe disputes as tied or incommensurable and still plausibly as tied or incommensurable and still plausibly defend the existence of objective moral facts and true moral propositions. (pg. 378)
8. Some genuine moral disagreements can be settled by attention to clear non-moral facts where people essentially agree on the basic moral principles. Like if all that’s at stake is determining whether something will hurt people, then empirically if we can figure that out whether this will hurt people or not, then objectively settleable non-morally specific facts can settle the question. There are many cases of such objectivity. In many of these cases, we will need to simply wait for more information for something’s effects to be properly experimented with or measured or empirically studied, etc. So, something may seem likely to be harmful now but in the future it will be shown completely not to be so, or vice versa. There’s room here for us to learn from different experiences with relevant non-moral facts and to have reasonable disagreements while information is limited. In principle there’s nothing hopelessly subjectively unsolvable any more than an empirical question is hopelessly subjectively unsolvable while scientists have yet to collect the data or figure out the best way to test for it, etc.
In such cases, disagreements may persist even after indisputably factual information comes in and morally astute people should see the plain moral implications. Such resistance can simply be chalked up to culpable ignorance whereby people may be negligent, lazy, prejudiced, motivated by selfishness or social ideology and refuse (or not bother) to look at relevant non-moral facts or cooperate with going through revealing thought experiments. In such cases, moral agreement is in principle possible were there open minds. That’s all science requires to be basically objective. It’s all morality should require.
9. Some genuine moral disagreements may persist because of reasonable disagreements over non-moral facts. Sometimes, were the non-moral facts simply settled, the moral disagreement would no longer be rational, but the non-moral facts are to some extent reasonably disputed and so it persists (and for a good reason).
10. Some moral disagreements are due to differences in starting moral principles. These disagreements need not in principle irresolvable as these are always amenable to revision through a dialectical back and forth between moral principles and moral judgments. As a coherentist, there is no reason to think that if two people start with different moral principles that they are doomed to interminably irrational conflict. They can find common ground in common moral judgments to give bases to rationally challenge each other’s moral principles’ abilities to fit them. And vice versa. This is an open ended dialectical process of trying to get all our principles and judgments to consistently fit with each other and there is no reason to assume from the outset that the process is doomed to ultimate failure in achieving ultimate agreements.
11. Ethics may have not caught up to the sciences yet in its ability to attain universal agreements but (1) just as with science before it, it has had opposition from religious influences that have unnecessarily slowed its start. Religious beliefs have thwarted and constrained progress in moral thinking, even affecting some non-religious thinkers. In principle, moral philosophy may still progress in winning universal agreement over time. (2) Far fewer thinkers have worked out systematic ethics than have worked in the sciences. (3) Bias is harder to remove in moral discussions than scientific ones because moral debates are about matters that are more likely to elicit selfish avoidance of conclusions that are unfavorable to oneself. That’s not a problem with the rationality of morality but of self-interested people.
12. What progress is being made in moral and socio-political thought among philosophers is ignored by the public. There are many many volumes of moral philosophy out there, rich with insights, and yet this is still wrongly treated publicly as a subject where everyone’s opinion is as good as any one else’s. Like the sciences some of this work is highly technical and maybe off putting to the average person but that doesn’t make its technical distinctions of any less intrinsic or potentially applicable value than any other finding in science or math that is worked out in its own right.
13. Finally (for this list anyway), there have been many actual changes in morality in recent centuries and decades that look like consensus convergences of opinion forming. The trend, tracking general education and prosperity is to realize the evils of slavery, racial discrimination, sex discrimination, child abuse, genocide, xenophobia, homophobia, tyrannical government, unconstrained war, etc., etc. The more the world talks to each other and the more that practical experiments in ways of life over centuries accumulate and interact with better explicit abstract thinking, the more the general pattern is towards convergence of moral opinion, rather than divergence. We’re evolving in the same basic directions even as evil persists. We’re finding empirically that cultures that empower their people more to run their own lives and where there are higher degrees of social trust, people prosper more. To say that our preferences for cultures were people thrive in autonomy and in their abilities to maximize their potential across the full spectrum of human powers in ways that mutually empower other people to do the same is all just “subjective” is to ignore the ways that is objectively vindicated in practice by the only objective and intersubjective measures of thriving that should count.
This is not to say we’re done working out every question or ever will, nor that we will ever compel universal aggreement. It’s to say it’s a basically rational and empirically sensitive process happening not just in moral philosophy departments but worldwide across numerous dimensions of society. We can talk about it as basically objectively defensible, rather than so subjective as to be a matter of arbitrary preferences, yours against mine, as though it’s my mere taste for chocolate vs. yours for vanilla. It’s not that. And you cannot evade a tough moral argument by opting out with an appeal to “subjectivity” when others give you reasons of consistency and empirics to alter your moral judgments.
There’s much much more to cover, as always, for that I refer you to more posts in my Empowerment Ethics series, catalogued here. I’ll write a third post more directly replying to Jerry Coyne, in which I apply the insights from this post and my previous reply to him about human flourishing in general to some of the hard cases he raises explicitly.
In the meantime, if you want to learn more about what philosophy has to say about, check out my online philosophy class on Ethics where you can study in depth with me, face to face, over video (with no homework and just a once weekly commitment).