Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Impossibility of Objective Morality

Every once in a while, I force myself to take seriously the idea that morality, and moral disputes, are a matter of objective fact. I confess that I have never been able to find a good argument for this viewpoint, and while I know that many have been convinced by it, I confess my blindness for how.

The most convincing argument for me against the possibility that morality is about objective fact is the idea that the only "thing" we have to measure the "correctness" of moral statements by is our moral sentiments. Further, there is simply no good reason to suspect, and every reason to reject, that these are objective in nature. In other words, we have no objective moral blueprint to hold up to our moraal judgments to help us know whether they are correct. We only have our individual sentiments on the matter, which seem far from being objective.

To put the matter concretely, when two or more people disagree on a scientific proposition or conjecture, experiments can be performed (and it is quite hard to deny that the world these experiments are performed in is not objective). Competing theories will stand or fall based on their results in experiment against an objective world, results that are independent of anyone's wishes or desires.

Contrast that with disagreement over moral matters. When two people disagree on moral matters - one says x is right and the other, that x is wrong - there is nothing resemblinng the objective world - a world of moral fact- that we can hold the competing judgments up to. IN order to know whether x is REALLY right or wrong, we would have to have access to the world of moral facts, so that we can find out which proclamation that world endorses. So far as we can tell, there is no such world of moral facts (and when people say there is, they are generally getting there by intution, begging the question of how objective those intutions really are.)

Some diagree with this; they suggest that there IS a factual resolution to moral disputes. When I say x is wrong and you say x is right, some say that we can experiment. Per Hume's is/ought dichotomy, it is a different thing to say, "x causes suffering," than it is to say, "x is wrong." That x may cause suffering is an observable fact. That x is wrong expresses more than that x causes suffering, but goes further by inserting a value judgment that suffering is wrong. As good as that may sound, there is no objective way to prove the latter as there is the former. This is precisely because "x causes suffering," can be validated solely by appealing to the objective world of descriptive fact. That x is wrong is unprovable because it goes beyond the brute world of descriptive fact.

I confess that I cannot see how to get around this. The arguments I've heard seem to mistake the speaker's strong intuitional moral sense for an objective world of moral facts. And to me, there seems no good reason to suppose that these intuitions are anything more than psychological preferences (that we mistake solely becuase they are so strong that they SEEM to be obvious to everyone).

I have tried and tried to "get into the belief" and understand how one can believe in an objective morality, but there seem too many problems to make such a belief worthwhile. How can moral disagreements be resolved similarly to the objective resolutions in science? Where are the incontestible proofs of some moral propositions over others? How can "is" (recognition of fact) lead inexoribly to "ought (a prescriptive obligation)?


  1. Subjectivism is very unintuitive for most people because almost anything you can believe as a moral objectivist you can also believe as a moral subjectivist. You can't tell a real subjectivist when you pass them on the street. My dad often asks me "how can you believe that as a relativist?", and I'm often surprised at what strange assumptions he makes.

    Once you finally convince someone that being a subjectivist doesn't make you crazy or imply all the bizarre things they tend to assume, then they'll say it's just word games and isn't worth their consideration. I agree with your statement elsewhere that it is an error theory, and most people just can't understand why an error theory would have any significance at all.

    The question of hard determinism is very similar. With determinism, choices have almost exactly the commonsense significance we normally place on them, but we view the concept of time from a slightly different perspective. With moral subjectivism, moral judgements have the same commonsense significance, but we're more careful with how we use the words "objective" and "fact". It's how we think of ourselves that's at issue in both cases, and I have hope that as our understanding of neurology expands by leaps and bounds, the ideas of free will and moral objectivism will slowly evaporate. Yes, we may get stuck somewhere along the way and never have a complete model of "the self", but it's my hunch that we'll eventually get there by bits and pieces, and that we'll make significant progress sooner than most people think.

    OTOH, I'm not content to wait for that to happen and leave people to think what they think in the meantime. I can't decide what other people will think, but I see no reason not to make my case to anyone who will listen.

  2. Good points. The idea that subjectivists cannot take stances is only tenable if one assumes that the only stances worthy of being taken are those which are more than opinion statements. This leads the defender of moral objectivism into the round-about position of saying that if it is opinion, it is not worth taking a stance on. (So who is the true nihilist?)

    Subjectivism, in my opinion, is the viewpoint that leads best towards action, as unlike the objectivist, the subjectivist realizes that it is ultimately up to her to work at convincing others of her viewpoint. The objectivist will often fall easily into a dogmatic slumber of assuming the truth of their point and thus being less ready, dilligent, or patient in defending the point.

    And to me, error theory is quite intuitive in validity. Just like I find it difficult to imagine that there are people who don't share my lofty opinion of the value of coffee (while recognizing that my tendency here is an error on my part), so I see values; they are opinions held so strongly that we erroneously think of them as binding on all and all alike. (The only other way to explain hefty moral disagreement is to assume that while one "side" is true, everyone else simply cannot see the truth of that side. The explanation by error theory is much easier, simpler, and dignifying to humans.)