Introduction For morality to be objective, in the philosophical sense, some moral statements must be valid and binding vis-à-vis mind-independent facts about the universe. An objectivist holds at least one statement of the form "x is good" or "x is bad” to be not merely grounded in individual and/or cultural opinion—there exists, for the objectivist, right and wrong answers to moral questions. For example, the psychopath content to murder the innocent isn’t, thereby, just flouting the herd morality—isn’t just morally ‘unfashionable’—he or she is really wrong. In this article, I clarify my major disagreements with the objectivist; I argue that the case against objective morality is strong, and the case for objective morality is not comparably strong. By consequence, objectivism is rendered the less plausible position, relative to its counterpart (subjectivism).
Arguments against objectivism 1. J.L. Mackie’s Argument from Queerness a. Metaphysical Queerness Objective moral values, if they were to exist, would be entities or relations of a very strange sort. There are prima facie conceptual barriers to understanding how ‘badness’, for example, can be something real and instantiable—forming sensible causal interactions with the physical world. So, moral values are metaphysically queer.
b. Epistemological Queerness We don’t access moral values through logical/mathematical deduction, the senses (one can't see the wrongness of shooting someone in the same way that one sees the gun) or conceptual analysis. So, objective moral values, if we were to be aware of them, would require some special, uniquely moral faculty, of which we have no clear understanding. So, moral values are epistemologically queer. ------ Response: Many other queer properties of the world are simply taken-as-given—e.g., number, causation, modal properties. Where is the dis-analogy between the queer metaphysics and epistemology of a mathematical realist as against the moral objectivist? Do we not want to say that 2 + 2 = 4 is a necessary truth, without, nonetheless, understanding those metaphysical/epistemological circumstances that make it so? ------ This is a formidable objection—i.e., there can be sufficient overriding reason to suppose that moral values exist objectively, despite the associated queerness. However (in my view), arguments (2) and (3) present this overriding, as occurs in the mathematical case, conceptually underdetermined. ------ 2. Best Explanation for Disagreement The degree to which people share moral beliefs is in-principle orthogonal to the question of objectivity, as one can imagine is the case with agreement or disagreement about empirical facts. Nevertheless, given there is radical disagreement in moral beliefs across individuals and cultures, we can ask ourselves what the best explanation is for this disagreement. The objectivist has to explain: Why do people go wrong? Why do some societies perceive moral values better than others?
Of course, there is some explaining here which will not be difficult, where moral disagreement is rooted in disagreement about the way the world is. For instance, if I believe that God has endowed all blastocysts with an immortal soul, I might be more cautious about their termination than someone without this conviction. But in those cases where there is a plain difference in values between individuals and cultures, objectivist explanations are less than satisfactory. Consider: An Ancient Roman, in her most enlightened state, is liable to endorse blood sport without moral qualm; she is not ill or delusional, and yet the objectivist must say there has occurred some mis-perception or mis-intuition about what is truly good. Subjectivism can give a much simpler account: disagreement in moral values arises out of differences between those who disagree.
3. Evolutionary Debunking Argument (EDA) General formula: (1) S’s belief that P is explained by certain causal processes. (2) These causal processes do not ‘track truth’. (3) Therefore, S’s belief that P is unjustified.
Applied to moral beliefs: (1) Human moral beliefs developed in the context of certain evolutionary pressures (e.g., altruism is selected for on the basis of evolutionary game-theory). (2) These evolutionary pressures do not ‘track truth’. (3) Therefore, human moral beliefs are unjustified.
Taking this argument to heart can be a decisive way of breaking the objectivist intuition. Human moral beliefs developed in a context inconsiderate of their truth-value, and so we have every reason to believe that the ‘seeming’ truth inherent to our moral beliefs would be there regardless of the truth. Then, this fact alone does not entail that such beliefs are false—indeed, to claim this is to be guilty of the genetic fallacy. However, it does seem like exactly the kind of dis-analogy we want to draw with the mathematical case aforementioned, because it does mean that we lack the appropriate warrant for our moral beliefs, in contradistinction to mathematical beliefs. While mathematical beliefs also developed in an evolutionary context, the relevant selection pressures at work do track truth. So, consistent with argument (1), to elaborate an extravagant metaphysical and epistemological framework accommodating our moral beliefs (unlike our mathematical beliefs) also lacks the appropriate warrant.
Note: It’s important evolutionarily that we abstract out mathematical truths. Without loss of generality, if two lions go into a bush, followed by another two lions, then (it's trivial that) we benefit from knowing that there are now four lions in the bush. ------ Response: The EDA would be problematic if all our moral beliefs were direct derivatives of evolution. However, this is not the case: At least some of our moral beliefs are direct derivatives of reason (which may be itself derivative on an evolutionarily-instilled sensitivityto reason). Similar relations likely bear on the truth of the mathematical case. ------ This is an unconvincing move; it should be clear that moral beliefs are not derivatives of reason. As Hume reminds us: “Tis’ not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”. ------
Arguments for objectivism 1. Obviousness In moral experience, we encounter a realm of moral values and duties that is properly basic to us. Some actions—actions which deliver the most gratuitous and prolonged suffering—present themselves to us as clearly and objectively wrong. Any argument against objective morality will be less obvious than these truths with which we’re so acquainted. ------ Response: Nonetheless an intuitive mode-of-argument (invoking strongly held normative ethical beliefs), this faces multiple epistemic problems: a) In argument (3) against objectivism, we established that there is reason to believe that our moral beliefs would be obvious to us, in a way tangential to their truth-value. b) It’s unclear how truth ‘seeming’ gives us access to reality. c) It’s unclear what constitutes bad epistemic circumstances for truth ‘seeming’. ------ 2. Companions in guilt Epistemic norms are those norms which suggest that we should value and/or conform to such things as logic, reason and evidence—e.g., a competent agent should infer a given conclusion from a given set of premises. Epistemic norms are relevant because abandoning claims to objectivity in the normative domain requires abandoning epistemic norms. Since we can’t abandon epistemic norms, we can’t abandon claims to objectivity in the moral domain. Conversely, it is true that insofar as we grant ourselves epistemic norms, at least some form of objectivism must be retained. ------ Response: Here, the uncomplicated response is to bite-the-bullet; it’s not the case that we should comport with logic/reason/evidence/etc., but, by virtue of its apparent applicability, we just do. ------
Conclusion Within this article, I have briefly examined the (secular) case for objective morality. Ultimately, I hold that such a case fails on account of implausible metaphysical and epistemological commitments; and, the prospect of financing these commitments meets challenges at arguments (2) and (3) against objectivism, and insufficient support from arguments (1) and (2) for objectivism. To the alternative view, subjectivism, its implications can be explored via further-reading. Specifically, I recommend “Morality”, by B. Williams.