How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways January 20, 2011

Jason of Lousy Canuck thinks I am quibbling over semantics in complaining about his characterization of morality as essentially “subjective” and he wants me to clarify how my position diverges in substance from his own.  Answering his questions and his formulations may prove a fruitful way to clarify my own positions.  So, here goes.  He writes,

If words mean what we agree upon to mean, then words are subjective in that they change.

A thing’s ability to change is quite distinguishable from its being subjective.  Words can change but they are not subjective for several reasons.  For one thing, they involve communal standards which are not idiosyncratically personal (subjective) but objective with respect to an entire community.  The conventions of language can be quite objective once fixed and they do not change not with any particular person’s subjective preferences but only when the consensus of community usage evolves as the words function better one way rather than another.

Philosophers, for example, fight over which parts of reality are best indicated by what words.  If people have positive honorific connotations for the word “courage”,  a dispute over how courage should be understood is not a merely subjective, personal, idiosyncratic issue.  The question is about which traits people possess from among those plausibly called courage deserve the designation.  Some people would say fearlessness in the face of danger or on behalf of a cause should be worthy of the designation of the term “courage” regardless of the danger or the cause which they are fearing.  To them, even suicide bombers are properly called courageous, regardless of the despicability of their overall action.  Bill Maher advanced this position and got thrown off ABC.  The mindset behind those offended by Maher’s remark about the courage of the suicide bombers is that courage is the sort of honorific which should never be attached to actions which are evil overall.  Aristotle (and my Aristotle professor in graduate school too) took this position.  A truly courageous action cannot just be fearless but must be genuinely just and in all other respects moral action too.

In any case, as our applications of the word “courage” might change, the issue is not one of simple subjectivity or personal idiosyncrasies.  The word has a certain set of real objects it can plausibly be taken to refer to and others it has no sensible relationship to.  Since it is an honorific term, it may vary objectively with our changing views of what actions deserve to be honored as exemplary cases of fearlessness.  And it may even vary with how willing we are to value and honor traits in isolation from the larger moral or immoral ends they serve in the cases of particular individuals.  And it may vary with how willing we are to define courage in a value-neutral way as a descriptive term that shies away from always having to be used in an honorific way.

These are all decisions about how to define courage which will have ramifications for how we successfully communicate with each other and these decisions will be defensible (or not) based on objective considerations about the pros and cons for clarity and for moral understanding.  All such arguments about words are aimed at their more successful employment in the community’s language games for the community’s ends.  That’s not subjective.  It’s intersubjective, in that it has to do with a community’s shared use of a convention and it is objective insofar as reality has bearing on the choices we make and is ideally guided by objective, defensible considerations (or at least considerations which can be objectively defended after the fact).

Using the term “mutability” implies that a) moral laws existed, and b) the law-giver is allowed to change them later. If you disagree with this, or that this makes it subjective, in that one has to presuppose the law-giver to assume that the laws are being muted by the law-giver rather than the people to whom the law applies, then we’re talking at cross-purposes in even having this discussion, Daniel.

No, mutability has two senses.  One is descriptive and the other is normative.  Descriptively it is an observable fact that moral rules have changed within cultures and have varied across the cultures, regardless of whether this is a good or a bad thing.  That morality is mutable in this way is an indisputable fact.

Normatively I am arguing that it is good that moral rules change when they become counter-productive, detrimental, or merely inferior compared to alternative rules that could replace them.  But none of these considerations entail that there was ever such a thing as a “moral law-giver”.  Moral rules evolve rather organically.  In interaction with all sorts of variables, they instantiate and articulate some basic concerns our brains have when confronted with certain sorts of problems.  With relatively few examples, it seems to me that cultures develop their moral views in a far more haphazard and bottom-up way than the notion of a “law-giver” implies.  There may be people who come along and codify moral intuitions in the forms of civil or religious laws (or in some cases in civil/religious, theocratic ones) or in the form of secularly derived rules for living, but they are not inventors of morality itself and their authority rests typically on people’s existing receptivity to them.

And our moral perceptions change gradually through a decentralized collective process, which is influenced in a myriad of complex and interconnected ways by legal debates, social debates, formal philosophical debates, religious debates, literary insights, scientific information, changes in material conditions, etc.  While some socially designated moral authorities (like, for many, religious leaders) have significant sway over people’s judgments, often the changes result from changes in circumstances and longstanding discussions and social experiments that yield collective intuitions about what seems fair, just, beneficial, etc.

The community and no one law-giver debates moral codes through a constant dialectic with communal life in which the rules and the practices which they are meant to bolster are constantly tested against each other.  Sometimes practices prove rightly condemnable according to the rules and sometimes rule changes are forced when desirable practices once forbidden prove their value in practice.  It’s a slow and organic process of values clarification and reconsideration that people often only can see in retrospect.  It is not perfect, some changes in moral judgment are deleteriously mistaken and regressive since human beings are fallible.  But the process involves lots of objective influences and can have many objective considerations, however fallible, contribute to it.

My argument was, and is, that “subjectivity” — by which I mean morals are dependent on the zeitgeist of the times — is exactly how humans develop their moral “rules and laws”. It may be well possible to improve these morals, so as to better serve humanity, by changing these “rules and laws” to better reflect the desired outcome — that of, let’s say, equality, or justice, or what have you.

Fine but that’s not, by itself, “subjectivity”.  That is a communal process that can be extremely objective in that it involves consideration of real values, in that it involves arguments that appeal to common values and common needs among members of the community, in that it is both implicitly and explicitly guided by formalizable senses of equality and justice and other basic, universal human moral priorities.  All of these factors make me unqualifiedly reject the term “subjective” as at all helpful for describing this process.  It is a misleading word, which everyone from the average person to professional philosophers would take to mean a process that is idiosyncratic or based only on arbitrary preferences and neither based on objective values nor guided by any objectively true moral principles.

If this argument is entirely about word-meanings, that smacks of pedantry and probably explains why I have little patience for “philosophy”, in that it is mostly supplanted by actual scientific discovery.

No, it is not pedantry.  And take your contempt for serious philosophy and concern for clear and accurate use of language elsewhere.  I don’t find it impressive.  And there is not “actual scientific discovery” at issue here.  The issue is that the word subjective refers to idiosyncratic personal preferences/feelings/interpretations that admit of no interpersonal adjudication.  It has nothing to do with mere mutability, which is all you are describing.  This is not a petty semantic quibble.  The word subjective is inaccurate and fundamentally misleading.  If you say that the only way that moral perspectives change is subjectively then you are saying that in some eras people  just feel differently than in others and do so without any objective defensibility even being possible.  That’s what you are implying when you treat mutability as purely equivalent to subjectivity.  You are saying that every case of mutable moral values is also a case of a sheerly subjective change in feeling.

And then, the moral realist Christian hears that from an atheist and thinks, “see, the atheists think that morals are just subjective feelings and admit that the only reason in some eras or places pedophilia was or is denounced and in others it was or is accepted is just because people feel differently.  And since morality is inherently subjective according to atheists like Jason Thibeault, there is no objective way to normatively adjudicate between these changes to say which ones are good or bad”.

And the religious person suspicious about atheism because they think it involves moral anarchy hears that it changes with subjective factors and thinks, “well that means if people stop feeling like murder is wrong then it would be okay to them and such subjective measures are all that matter” or “the only reason that those evil secularists accept homosexuality is because they do not believe in objective moral constraints but are willing to make it fit whatever they subjectively feel, since morality is variable to arbitrary subjective preferences—next thing you know they’ll be letting pedophiles do what they just subjectively feel like”.

That’s what the word “subjective” signifies to most people.  They think morality is a fixed, absolute thing and that all challenges to their conception of morality really just stems from either a consistent nihilistic rejection of moral value or a purely subjective and indefensible refusal to accept moral truth that they do not like.  This is exactly the kind of person you ran up against in Peter and you jumped up and down insisting you are a subjectivist when he rightly understands that it leads to those perfectly consistent inferences.  You gave him exactly what he wanted and undermined any other nuances you went on to inconsistently throw in, all while throwing in gratuitous mockery and contempt for him when it was you who were mangling the English language as much as his own ideas mangle logic.

You confuse the otherwise persuadable reader when you want to muddle up mutability with subjectivity so that they are one and the same in people’s minds instead of doing what I am doing and explaining how variations in what is genuinely worth calling morality need not be arbitrary, i.e., need not be “subjective”.  What I am doing is not pedantry, it is clarifying. It is philosophy.  What you are is an obscurantist amateur presuming to pontificate rather arrogantly about things you manifestly are not clear about and to speak for atheists in the process.  Unfortunately everyone assumes that they can discuss metaethics and philosophy in general on a public platform regardless of whether they have the slightest academic training in the subjects.  You would not be so flippant in mouthing off about chemistry or physiology or astronomy, I imagine.  But, seriously, you are not qualified to tell me about how philosophy does things wrong.  Feel free to disagree with me and offer reasons, but show some respect.

While there’s a meta-ethical question about what criteria we should use in order to form our “objective” moral frame, the fact that we can change that frame makes it subjective.

No, it does not.  It makes the objective good for us a matter that we determine by considering the context-dependent needs of our communities and our organism.  That does not make the frame itself “subjective”, just context-dependent, community-dependent, species-dependent, etc.  It is not subjective to say that it is good for us to breathe even though breathing’s goodness is relative to the needs of breathing animals. Breathing is an objective good for animals who would die without breathing, not a merely subjective preference for breathing animals.  The fact that it is not a good “in itself”, in the sense of “good regardless of whether there are any breath-dependent animals” is irrelevant.  Nothing is good void of a context or purpose for which it is good.  It is an unintelligible use of the word good to divorce it completely from meaning “valuable for ends”.  Goodness, in applications to specific things, is always a context-relative term.  That means even objective goods are contextually defined as “valuable for a relevant purpose in a given the context”.

And if we determined, say, that arranged marriages in India  in some era (or still today even) were (or are) objectively as vital to their survival and happiness as marriages of choice are integral to our Western identities and happiness, then it would be objectively good for Indians to have arranged marriages and objectively good for us to have marriages of choice, even though our different subjective feelings in combination with different circumstances play constitutive roles in how that good comes to be objective.

It is misleading to characterize subjectivity as the fundamental category since that implies the moral variance is arbitrary and a matter of sheer preference or other undecidable idiosyncrasies, and not subject to objective, third-person vindications or criticisms.

If we decide “protecting all members of humanity, especially those most vulnerable, from harm that would abjectly and materially damage their person or psyche”, then we can say that certain Bible laws are backward. But only by examining them through a different moral frame can we do so.

Well, I disagree.  I think that we can do more than employ our contemporary moral frame to assess biblical laws.  I think common ground can be achieved in that the biblical peoples had just as much of an objective interest (whether they acknowledged it or not) in the maximum flourishing of their psyches.  If we find that the only way they could, given the poverty of their material conditions, attain increases in the total happiness was to make some awful trade offs to vulnerable groups’ happiness, then that may be a hard choice we can forgive them.  But if we find through careful historical analysis that there were better ways available and discoverable to them, even in their primitive state of understanding, and that they nonetheless refused such options, then we can fault them on objective grounds for failing best to realize their own, objective, cross-cultural human goods of flourishing.  If they did it out of sheer ignorance we can lament their failure to discover better ways and if they did it knowing they were rejecting the better alternatives we can fault them for poor moral judgment in the face of available moral evidence.

If in philosophy “mutability” means something different than “subjectivity” outside of the idea that a law-giver can change the law, then perhaps we should define it as such before we have a conversation about it.

I have tried to make these definitions clear.  I wish you would stop being so stubborn and read the clarifications in my previous post.  And I hope you think seriously about the ones made in this post.

To be quite honest, I’m very frustrated myself with the track this conversation has taken — shades of meaning do not a disagreement make, especially not when you have to slice the distinction so thin.

If you do not have the patience for serious, important philosophical distinctions, here is a suggestion, do not presume to publicize your philosophical opinions (or, at least, do not let your friends bring them to the attention of philosophers and ask for comment).  I am sure there is something you are better at, go attend to it instead of criticizing the way I philosophize as though I do not know what is important and what is petty but you do.

That you’re getting frustrated with George refusing to recant on using certain words the way Peter does, is revealing.

Yes, it is revealing of the fact that I am a trained philosopher who appreciates the importance of careful philosophical language and understands the issues at stake better than George does.

That I’m getting frustrated that the bulk of your arguments about this is about certain words, is also revealing. It means we all need to actually hammer out what we’ll agree words to mean before we attack one another over them.

Yes, it means we need to do philosophy. Either accept that or go away.  But in either case, stop whining and stop telling me how to do my job.

And granted, I never asked what Peter meant by these words.

Exactly, and that was your rookie mistake.  You have to clarify the terms and show the inadequacies of how he understands them.  The first thing I have been planning to do in thinking of addressing him if I ever actually get around to it is parsing out what exactly objectivity is, where normative force comes from, and why there are all sorts of unstated a priori assumptions universal to humans, which the supposed presuppositionalist and the atheist share alike which are necessary for him to employ before he can even go about appealing to God as the source of objective morality.

And it is this shared understanding of the concept of normativity which must be assumed before any appeal to God can be made and it is not necessary for belief in God to justify it (as it is self-justifying) and when applying the concepts inherent in it with understanding, they refute his divine command theory as superfluous at best and illogical at worst.

Peter is shrewd enough to know to attack the premises and the assumptions behind them and you have to do the same thing in return if you are to get to the philosophical crux of the matter.  What you cannot do is uncritically accept your opponent’s key terms and assumptions and then try to argue for things inconsistent with them, as you did.

If you ask him, I suspect you’ll get another definition for each of these terms — in that a) objective morality is morality by which everyone must agree because there’s a standard passed down from on-high, and b) subjective morality is morality by which anyone can choose to do whatever they want because there’s no objective law-giver (which I guess you mean is “moral relativism”).

I have argued, in the thread and elsewhere, that while morality is subjective in that it definitely changes depending on the zeitgeist, it can be developed by selecting an objective frame of reference. If that means “mutability”, okay. Sure. What about my actual argument, rather than my word choice?

If you were not so hyper-sensitive you would have read me clarify in a simple half sentence exactly the points on which I agreed with you and disagreed with you.  I wrote, “fundamentalists like Peter implicitly believe in moral mutability and it is this which Jason is rightly pointing out but wrongly calling ‘subjectivity'”. That was it, in an easy nutshell.  You were right about the mutability of morality and that Peter implicitly embodied it, but you were wrong to equate it with subjectivity so closely.  After that point, I abandoned discussing your remarks directly and elaborated at length on what the distinction I raised entailed.

But I did have a further substantive and not merely semantic disagreement which I let slide, apart from the numerous ones I have listed above.  I did not agree with your “disliking” pedophilia, which is subjectivist language in a substantive way.  Specifically, it is bordering on emotivist framing of the issue.  I do not think we really only “dislike” pedophilia”, but rather we judge it in objective terms to be objectively harmful to various objective interests of children (at least in our time and place and likely in all or nearly all others), and that, most decisively, we have objective interests in the flourishing of children.   Now, if you really do not think that all these things are objectively demonstrable, and you think our repulsion at pedophilia is primarily an emotionally charged, subjective, and ultimately not a rational response theoretically provable to any objective person, then you really are a subjectivist and we really do have a major substantive dispute that goes well beyond semantics.  And, in that case, you are vulnerable to Peter’s charges that your criticisms of the pope, however emotional, have no rational necessity.

It would be helpful if you clarified your position on this point.

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

Browse Our Archives