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 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).
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 some prima facie conceptual barriers to seeing how ‘badness’, for example, can be something real and instantiable — forming sensible causal interactions with the physical world. Thus, moral values are metaphysically queer.
b. Epistemological Queerness Note that 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. Thus, moral values are epistemologically queer. ------ Response: There are many other queer properties of the world that we simply take as given: number, causation, modal properties etc.; it’s extremely difficult to draw a dis-analogy between the queer metaphysics and epistemology of a mathematical realist over-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. There can be sufficient overriding reason to suppose that moral values exist objectively, despite the associated queerness. In my view, however, 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/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?
There is some explaining here which will not be difficult: where moral disagreement is rooted in disagreement about the way the world is. 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, with respect to some state-of-affairs, objectivist explanations are unsatisfactory. 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) 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, these moral beliefs are unjustified.
Taking this argument to heart can be a decisive way of breaking the objectivist intuition. Homo Sapiens’ moral beliefs developed in a context utterly inconsiderate of their truth-value. And it’s so that we have every reason to believe that the ‘seeming’ truth inherent to our moral beliefs would be there regardless of the truth.
Of course, this fact alone does not entail that such beliefs are false (indeed to claim this is to be guilty of the genetic fallacy), or that there aren’t moral truths in principle accessible through some discrete means other than those intuitions and sensibilities instilled by evolution (see Response). 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 will have also developed in an evolutionary context, the relevant selection pressures at work do track truth; it’s important evolutionarily that we abstract out the truth of 2 + 2 = 4, for instance. Consider: two lions go into a bush, followed by another two lions — we want to know now that there really are four lions in the bush.
Therefore, to elaborate an extravagant metaphysical and epistemological arena accommodating our moral beliefs also lacks the appropriate warrant. ------ Response: The EDA would be devastating if all our moral beliefs were direct derivatives of evolution. However, this is clearly not the case — at least some of our moral beliefs are direct derivatives of reason (which may be itself derivative on an evolutionarily-instilled sensitivity to reason). In fact, similar relations likely bear on the truth of the mathematical case. ---- This is an unconvincing move. Nonetheless plausible with respect to the mathematical case, 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”.
NB: There are many ways to equivocate on what one means by ‘reasonable’ here. What we’re interested in is the metaethical question of whether moral beliefs are reasonable simpliciter. This is not, for example, the same as whether a belief is reasonable with respect to a certain goal — i.e., if you want X, then you should do Y. The former question is that which invites substantial doubt. ------ For objectivism
n 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: This mode of argument can have an intuitive gravity, often invoking strongly held normative ethical beliefs. Nonetheless, it introduces a slew of epistemic problems. For instance:
-In argument (3) against objectivism, we established that there is reason to believe our moral beliefs would be obvious to us, in a way tangential to their truth-value. -It’s unclear how truth ‘seeming’ gives us access to reality. -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 such things as logic, reason and evidence. Consider this argument:
(1) If p, then q (2) p (3) Therefore, q
This is one of the most basic forms of logical reasoning (called ‘modus ponens’), and that a competent agent should infer the conclusion (3) from the premises (1,2) is an epistemic norm.
It’s relevant because philosophically learned objectivists will highlight the fact that abandoning claims to objectivity in the moral domain requires abandoning epistemic norms. Since (they will argue) 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: The uncomplicated response here is to bite the bullet. It’s not the case that we should value logic, for example, we just do; we may comport with logic in virtue of its truth or usefulness to us, and this still admits of valid and invalid applications — but we don’t want to say that doing this is something of an objective ‘good’. ------
Within this article, I have (deliberately) examined the secular case for objective morality*. Absent any overriding considerations, I believe such a case fails in virtue of implausible metaphysical and epistemological commitments. First-order intuitions to the contrary, I hope we have seen, fall under scrutiny.
The alternative view, subjectivism, has numerous implications. And one is certainly tempted, in bringing down the objectivist hypothesis, to expound comprehensively such implications — not least in the interest of maintaining psychological equilibrium. For that I will recommend wider-reading; specifically, “Morality”, by B. Williams.
*needless to say that from within a religious worldview, there is a much simpler (though not uncontroversial) path to objectivism
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