Objectivity and Moral Viewpoints

It seems to me that selection of a moral point of view is similar to selection of a car to buy. There is no such thing as “the right car to buy”, although there are probably lots of “the wrong cars to buy.” Selection of a car is neither a purely subjective matter, nor is it a purely rational and objective matter. Selection of a moral point of view is also neither a purely subjective matter, nor a purely rational and objective matter.

There are reasonable criteria that can and should be considered when deciding on a car to buy: price, other costs (insurance, taxes, maintenance), economy (estimated miles/gallon), performance, safety, comfort, reliability, and style/appearance. Of course, different people will place different weight or significance on different criteria. For some people who have lots of money, price, other costs, and economy may be of little importance. For some people who like to live on the edge, safety may be of minor importance. For grandmothers who just plan to drive a mile or two to a grocery store once a week, performance may be unimportant. But, in general, people agree that these are all relevant considerations, and in general, people will take all of these considerations into account when making a careful selection of a car to buy.

If two cars are for sale, and they are both exactly the same in all of these relevant respects, except that the price of car A is 40,000 dollars, and the price of car B is 20,000 dollars, then car B is a better choice than car A. This does not mean that selection of car B is the right or correct choice, because there are other cars with other configurations of features and characteristics to choose from. But at least we can make a comparative evaluative judgment that is objective.

It might not be quite so easy to identify the criteria for selection of a moral point of view, but it seems in principle a similar sort of evaluative process. Suppose we are considering moral viewpoint A (= MVA) and moral viewpoint B (= MVB). Suppose that we determine that if society X adopts MVA this will probably result in widespread misery and suffering for people living in society X. Suppose that we also determine that if society X adopts MVB, this will probably NOT result in widespread misery and suffering for people in society X. Given this information, I think we can reasonably conclude that it would be better for society X to adopt MVB than to adopt MVA, other things being equal.

As with cars, there are not just two alternatives to chose from, and as with cars, there are multiple criteria to apply, multiple considerations to weigh, and different people give different weight to different considerations (the classic example being the tension between individual liberty and social stability). So, just as there is no “one correct car” to choose, there is no “one correct moral viewpoint” to choose. But we should be able to articulate criteria or relevant considerations that bear on this decision, and we should be able to make at least some comparative evaluative claims, like “moral viewpoint A is better than moral viewpoint B in such-and-such respect.”

About Stephen Law
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    In the context of discussing whether objective moral values exist I am not sure what useful purpose is served by finding analogies where “ought” questions (e.g. what car ought one buy) only admit of subjective answers. One can equally well find examples where “ought” questions do admit of an objective answer. For example when going up a mountain two friends may disagree about which of two ways is the best way to reach the summit, even though there may well be an objective answer.

    That one can axiomatically build systems of ethics (for example based on the axiom that avoiding pain is good) is also irrelevant to the question.

    The objectivity of moral values (i.e. whether moral “ought” questions admit of an objective answer) is a claim about a property of the very fabric of reality, to use Mackie’s expression. It’s a question of whether one can derive a moral “ought” from an ontological “is”. Theism of course implies that objective moral values exist, and ontological naturalism implies that they don’t. The theistic argument from morality does not so much depend on demonstrating that some moral values are objective and thus falsify naturalism, but rather on demonstrating that if one holds that at least some moral values are objective then one has reason to reject naturalism. And many, perhaps most, people do hold that some moral values are objective. For them to torture a child for fun is wrong in itself, and not because of personal opinion, or because of social convention, or because of the way our brain has evolved. If they found themselves on another planet where to torture children for fun was an admired activity and where good scientific explanations were available of why that is so, they would not at all change their mind about the objective evil of such actions. Indeed that moral values are objective is such a strong intuition that this objectivity is entailed in the very language we use in ethics (see the first chapter of Mackie’s “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong”). The theistic argument from morality then is that given the strength of this intuition and in the absence of really overwhelming evidence for naturalism the only reasonable thing is to reject naturalism as a viable ontology. Naturalism, despite its name, is a very unnatural ontology, for it clashes with the nature of our human condition (see also the problem of free will, the intentionality problem, and others).

    Can intuitions give us sufficient warrant to reject ontologies? I think obviously they can. For example if an ontology implied that time flows backwards, and that it seems to be flowing forwards only because of an “illusion”, then I think the only reasonable response would be to reject that ontology as untenable, unless there were really overwhelming evidence for that ontology. In the context of ontological naturalism there is arguably no evidence for it whatsoever, so for many people the argument from morality is a very powerful one.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Response to Dianelos Georgoudis…

    “One can equally well find examples where ‘ought’ questions do admit of an objective answer.”

    I was attempting to provide an exmaple of a true or correct evaluative judgement: “Car B is a better choice than car A” (in the hypothetical situation that car A and car B are the same with respect to all relevant criteria except price, and car B was cheaper than car A).

    My focus was on the epistemology of moral judgments rather than on ontological questions. I was not intending to argue for or assume the existence of a mysterious entity called “objective moral values”. However, perhaps my thinking in the post requires such an assumption. That seems to be your view:

    “The objectivity of moral values (i.e. whether moral ‘ought’ questions admit of an objective answer) is a claim about a property of the very fabric of reality, to use Mackie’s expression.”

    Can you explain a bit futher why you think that a belief in true or correct moral judgments requires/presupposes a belief in the existence of some sort of moral entity (e.g. “objective moral values”)?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Here are some questions to consider:

    Does the belief that there are true or correct mathematical claims require a belief in the existence of objective mathematical entities?

    Does the belief that there are true or correct logical claims require a belief in the existence of objective logical entities?

    It is not clear to me that the one requires or presupposes the other.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    In response to Bradley Bowen:

    Does the belief that there are true and correct claims in some field of knowledge X require a belief in the ontological status of the objects of investigation of X? I suppose the answer depends on what one means by “true and correct”. If one’s meaning is instrumentalist or pragmatic then the answer I suppose is “no, at least not in general”. One can always hit on the effective epistemology and do some useful work discovering true and correct claims in this sense. So, for example, a scientist who is a solipsist, and a materialist scientist, and an idealist scientist, and a scientist who believes we all live in a computer simulation, and an agnostic scientist – can all equally well do good science by analyzing and mathematically modeling phenomena, notwithstanding their very different ontological worldviews and their very different beliefs about what ultimately produces the phenomena they study.

    Still, the epistemology of field X cannot possibly be objective, if the ontological status of the objects of X is not objective. So, for example, if moral truths are not objective (i.e. do not refer to objective properties of fundamental reality) then there can’t be an objective epistemology of morality, which implies that one can reasonably consider all moral claims to be arbitrary at some level. One could try to anchor morality on some objective property of reality (according to one’s ontological views), but this anchoring can reasonably be considered arbitrary itself. I suppose the only way to convincingly claim objective truths, or an objective epistemology, is if one’s ontology entails that objectivity. I think monistic materialism does that in the case of physical laws, but does not in the case of morality. In contrast the theistic worldview entails that the fundamental level of reality is God on whose moral character all ethical truths depend. So the theistic moralist can claim that moral truths are objective even if she fails to give an objective epistemology for discovering such objective truths.

    In the context of this discussion a good example is the case of mathematics which you raise. It is certainly the case that one can reasonably believe in the truth of mathematical propositions without having any particular belief about the ontological status of mathematical objects. Most mathematicians themselves believe that mathematical objects exist and exist necessarily and eternally in some kind of Platonic realm. But what about the monistic materialist? She may claim that mathematics is just a methodology which we find useful for understanding material reality, or in other words that all mathematical objects represent properties of material systems. So, for example, any mathematical truth no matter how abstract may be interpreted as a prediction about what will happen if you push a material pencil to leave marks on a piece of paper when following a particular set of rules. Has the materialist succeeded in anchoring mathematics in a purely materialistic reality? It’s doubtful. For example virtually all mathematicians believe that the claim “The one centillionth digit in the decimal expansion of pi is 5” is as objective as the claim “The first digit in the decimal expansion of pi is 1”, but the material world is far too small for the former claim to represent any property of it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11567400697675996283 J

    The theistic argument from morality does not so much depend on demonstrating that some moral values are objective and thus falsify naturalism, but rather on demonstrating that if one holds that at least some moral values are objective then one has reason to reject naturalism.

    What justifies moving from “some values are objective” to “if some values are objective, then naturalism is false, and ghosts exist”? For that matter, what justifies theism? Something like faith, usually

    Anyway, were objective values to hold, it’s not a matter of consensus, and it’s not obvious most people hold to moral realism. One can argue (ala Locke, perhaps–or the golden rule) for a sort of entitlement ethic: X values his entitlement right–having the liberty (or apparent liberty) to obtain his goals, needs, pleasures, etc–ergo X should value his neighbor Y’s entitlement right; Y should do the same in regards to X. That “ought” seems fairly sound (even logical, based on an identity: X is human with economic needs, and Y is human with economic needs), and the law recognizes it.

    The law does enforce entitlement ethics, to a degree: the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are both “rights documents”, really, and make no mention of Theology (of course some feel that the Constitution does not suffice as ethical document, say in regards to economic rights, property distribution, corporate power, etc.).

    For that matter, Malthusian concerns creep into “ethics”: in ‘Nawlins post-Katrina, a Lockean “natural right” required a 30.06 as back up.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    “I suppose the only way to convincingly claim objective truths, or an objective epistemology, is if one’s ontology entails that objectivity. I think monistic materialism does that in the case of physical laws, but does not in the case of morality.”

    How about the selection of a car to buy? Can a materialist or naturalist make any kind of objective evaluative claims in that area?

    If not, what sort of ontological commitments are required in that case? Does theism allow for objective evaluations of cars?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Bradley Bowen said: “How about the selection of a car to buy? Can a materialist or naturalist make any kind of objective evaluative claims in that area?

    Depends on what you mean by objective evaluative claims. I suppose the price of a car is such an objective evaluative claim about the car, no matter one’s ontology.

    In any case I stand by my claim that one can only claim objective truths or an objective epistemology if one’s ontology entails that objectivity. And also that naturalism and materialism do not entail such objectivity in the case of ethics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    “…..naturalism and materialism do not entail such objectivity in the case of ethics.”

    This is a typical theological subterfuge: suggest that naturalism and materialism destroy the moral fabric of our communi-tay–ergo, those views must be wrong. I think that’s the Ad Schaflyius (after wingnutette Phyllis Schafly).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    In my post I gave an example:

    “If two cars are for sale, and they are both exactly the same in all of these relevant respects, except that the price of car A is 40,000 dollars, and the price of car B is 20,000 dollars, then car B is a better choice than car A.”

    There are two main questions to consider here:

    (1) Is the claim that “Car B is a better choice than car A” (in the circumstances described) a valid counterexample to the generalization that ALL evaluative claims are purely subjective?

    (2)If it is a valid counterexample, then does it shed any light on the more specific claim that ALL MORAL claims are purely subjective? (Is the respect in which the comparative evaluation of cars is OBJECTIVE relevant to moral claims?)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03061817576096396569 Victor Michael

    i think all of you are familiar with situational morality. for example: lets say you are horny so you ask your girlfriend to have sex with you. but then she don’t want to sex at that time(how unfortunate). what would be the moral thing to do? that would be to respect her decision. the immoral choice would be to force her to do it.


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