On this blog I regularly declare myself for “objective morality”. But what I mean by the term is often misunderstood. My views are a bit idiosyncratic. People typically need to read a handful of the right posts to get a full picture so that they can situate the context for any one post. Those who are not specialists in philosophy often do not understand what I mean to refer to in part because they are generally unfamiliar with historical and/or contemporary moral philosophy. And even those who are relatively familiar with moral philosophy, and who may even be specialists in it, often do not immediately grasp my meaning because the ways that I interpret and synthesize other moral philosophers’ ideas is unorthodox. While probably most of my views on ethics have arguments in their favor in the academic, professional, peer-reviewed philosophical literature, my particular way of relating various aspects of my system to each other is, as far as I have seen so far, quite peculiar (or, as I like to think of it, innovatively groundbreaking and correct!).
In order to remedy this problem, I have decided to write a number of posts about the various “paths to moral objectivity”. I do not think that everyone need accept every method for attaining morally objective outcomes to agree with enough of them to be able to say that to some important extent morality is objective. This post will start the series with a pragmatic argument for talking about “objective morality”. Along the way it will indicate further “paths” to be explored in future posts.
Interestingly a great many people seem to agree with most of my individual views about the facts, concepts, and logical relationships relevant to the question of whether or not morality is objective and yet balk at my use of the simple phrase “objective morality” to describe all those facts, concepts, and logical relationships. Despite agreeing about so much, I think our differing choices to describe the overall endeavor of moral reasoning as either potentially “objective” or essentially “subjective” ultimately has practical implications of either encouraging discussion or encouraging entrenched disagreement and resignation to disagreement among people.
This is because, pragmatically, saying “morality is objective” often amounts to saying something like “you can’t just dismissively wave away my moral views just because you don’t like them; you have to have reasons to reject them!” or “let’s continue arguing even though we disagree because there are ways to overcome our differences.” And often saying either “morality is subjective” or “morality is relative” both amount to responding to a moral argument with “Just leave me alone to do as I please and I’ll do the same for you” or “I don’t have any confidence that we can persuade each other, so let’s just leave this alone” or “I can’t refute your argument so I won’t acknowledge any arguments in these matters have any truth”. None of which I consider helpful or honest.
Sometimes saying “morality is relative” is simply a confused way of saying “morality needs to take account of situational variations and consequences”. I think that’s true but that it doesn’t mean that morality is in the main relative. It is what we might call “objectively relative” and what it is best relative to each situation can be objectively determined (at least in principle, if not always in fact).
There are more philosophically sophisticated, technical (and even sometimes moral realist) accounts of moral subjectivism, of course. I hope moral subjectivists will forgive me for ignoring those for the time being. The conversation-stopping connotations I mention are, I would guess, the most commonly intended and commonly heard meanings of “morality is subjective” among non-philosophers and so that is why they concern me.
Now, I think that there are independently good reasons to think that the word “objective” is overall better for describing the nature of moral reasoning, or at least of its ideal potential. Despite a number of obvious subjective elements in moral reasoning, I think that I can show numerous ways that moral disagreements can make progress on grounds that are objective enough to say that the overall endeavor of moral reasoning and debating has the potential to be more objective than subjective. I have written a lot of posts about the possibilities for moral objectivity already and have even ambitiously tried to unite them into integrated accounts of internally consistent, robust moral objectivity on some occasions and in my overall project (between my dissertation and the blog posts on ethics all taken as a systematic unity).
But beyond just thinking that it is much truer to call morality more objective than subjective in the main, I am also deeply motivated by concern for the practical implications of calling morality basically objective vs. basically subjective.
Now, before I defend speaking of morality as objective, let me note that there is a downside to some uses of the phrase “morality is objective”. Sometimes it worrisomely means either “I hold my moral opinions with so much uncritical certainty that I will not listen to anyone who disagrees”. Sometimes it problematically means “All moral principles must be applied categorically and neither situational nor consequentialist judgments can have any place in morality”. Sometimes it means “All the identically same moral standards must be true in all times and places and allow for no defensible cultural or temporal variations responsive to differing needs and mindsets of differing peoples”. Or “Morality can not be rooted in the particularities of human lives or needs in anyway whatsoever but exists in a purely human-indifferent way”. I am at pains to distinguish that objectivity in morality is not nearly identical with such absolutist positions.
Such absolutist statements, and similar possible ones, have the dangerous potential to arbitrarily, falsely, counter-productively, and unethically shut down the necessary personal introspection, rational inquiry, and communal debates that make actual, objective, moral progress possible. They are actually antithetical to what I think defensible moral objectivity is. So when I say morality is objective I don’t mean those things and I don’t mean to endorse anyone who does mean those things.
The meanings of “morality is overall objective” that I mean to affirm are ones along the lines of the following:
1. “Despite our current moral differences, people almost always have substantial points of both rational and emotional common ground between them, such that you and I have good reason to expect some progress towards agreement if only we patiently continue to clarify and argue for our positions with sincerity, introspection, reasonableness, and rigor.”
2. “Just as there are with other beliefs, there are genuinely rational tests and criteria for determining the relative internal consistency, coherency, and logical sense of our moral judgments. Applying these familiar criteria for assessing the rationality of beliefs generally, we can see which moral beliefs are more and less rational too.”
3. “Considerations of both our individual and our collective, subjectively and objectively, specifiable interests can lead to objectively compelling reasons to forego our short term or micro level desires for the sake of greater long term or macro level concerns.”
4. “Even though there may be numerous circumstantial facts to take into account when determining what is best in any given situational context, and even though what is a right or a wrong action can sometimes genuinely be opposite given the relevant relative contexts, there are nonetheless ways to determine what is objectively right or wrong in a given situational context if we know how to weigh all the relevant variations of factors properly.”
5. “Value statements, including moral value statements as a subset, can be both non-anthropocentric and descriptively true about the world in an objectively determinable way.”
I want to stress that I think that each of these connotations of “morality is objective” is objectively true and defensible and that I think others should be willing to say “morality is objective” if they believe any of these are true statements, even if they do not agree with all of them. I realize point 5 is the stickiest point for most people. Because they do not accept 5, people who agree with 1-4 go to the extreme of saying “morality is subjective”. I think that is a big mistake because it misleads themselves and others into underestimating just how much vitally relevant objectivity is present if 1-4 are true.
I think that each of these connotations of “morality is objective” has the vital practical implication of encouraging the kind of continued rational moral debate that makes possible the fairest reconciliation of the most people’s competing interests, with the effect of leading to the most people’s maximal flourishing possible. And I think that saying “morality is subjective” risks undermining their abilities to do that. I will have to argue for this elsewhere, but I think that the maximal flourishing in power for the maximal number of people (while not exploiting a minority such that it is wholesale disempowered just so the majority can be more empowered) is the objectively defensible highest good. Since I think that a heuristic assumption that objectivity is possible helps people reason together best about how to accomplish that, it is, pragmatically and morally speaking, the wiser linguistic choice to call our moral debates capable of “objectivity” rather than inescapably subjective.
Further, as not just a moral philosopher but as an atheist, I am deeply troubled by the false and arbitrary equation of objective morality with theism in the popular (and sometimes even the academic) mind. I think that since many people do (rightly) think that at least a few of the four meanings of “there is objective morality” are true that it is not only false and unnecessary but outright disastrous to encourage them to think that the only way such things could be true was if theism in general or (even worse) Abrahamic monotheism as interpreted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims was true. If they know morality must be objective in some ways and think that atheism is inherently inconsistent with that viewpoint whereas theism fits right in with it, then they have a false reason to think that theism better accounts for the world. And, worse, if they see the same pragmatic value that I do in having the possibility of discussing morality objectively as an assumption, then they would have strong reason to think theism (or, again, a specific theistic religion) was the best thing to promulgate ethically and pragmatically, even apart from truth considerations.
The worst irony in all this is that the divine command theory assumed by many Abrahamic monotheists leads to moral arbitrariness, provincialism, and debates which are rationally incapable of being settled. “God says so” is a subjective basis (the will of God) for an ethics, not an objective one. And even worse there are no objectively compelling reasons to believe the God of the Bible and/or the Koran is real or that anyone knows what He thinks. So there are not objective reasons that the religious believer can give for her own acceptance of her moral views or for persuading those who do not already share her idiosyncratic theology to adopt them. That is hardly a solution to the problem of moral disagreement! Faith beliefs are the most subjective, the most relative and limited to cultures and subcultures of all. When two peoples both feel that their own competing, equally arbitrary and faith-based beliefs about morality are absolutely binding, then they can hardly come to agree with each other. Only reason provides mechanisms for agreement across differences, not faith (except where two or more people already share the same faith).
Finally, I think that if philosophers or atheists declare morality to be, in the main, subjective, without drastically revising the common understanding of that word, they become irrelevant. They become unable to coherently contribute to the numerous discourses that will go on proceeding as though morality was objective. For as long as we will go on acting as though it is objective, we need to be able to understand how to make it as actually objective as possible. Doing that, to a certain extent, means clarifying the best ways of accomplishing degrees of objectivity in moral disputes, rather than confusingly dismissing the entire project of morality as ultimately “just subjective”.
Further in this series: A Map With A Few of My Paths to Moral Objectivity