Academic Philosophy

Against Subjectivism

I’ve commented on this once before here, but thought I’d give it another shot. I’m developing this argument for students so figured I’d get objections here first. At the end, I connect it back to the point of this blog (or part of it).

Many people seem to think that whether a particular act is wrong cannot be determined objectively. Many, indeed, seem to think it is a purely subjective matter: if I think the act is wrong, it is wrong for me; if you think its not, its not for you. Others think it is a cultural matter: our society thinks the act is wrong so it is wrong for us; yours does not, so it is not for you. Obviously, I think this is misguided. Indeed, I think we should be seeking truth, where that should be read as “objective truth.” In fact, I am not sure how to understand claims like this: “well, its true for me, but not for you” (whether the “it” is a moral claim, an aesthetic claim, or a scientific claim). I can certainly understand the claim that “I believe its true and you do not.” There we simply have differing opinions. But the truth of a claim does not depend on my opinion, your opinion, or even our opinion.
(Caveat: Of course, the claim “In my opinion, X” very clearly depends on my opinion, but it doesn’t depend on my opinion about the claim.)

Consider the claim “God exists and is omni-beneficent.” Some people believe this claim. Others do not. Does the fact that they have different opinions matter? Before answering that question, notice that we don’t seem to hear debate about the presupposition behind the question: it is a fact that there are different opinions. We take this to be objectively true. That is, we do not say “well, its true for some people that different people believe there is a God and false for other people that different people believe there is a God.” Such a statement would ordinarily be met with incredulity. In fact, if the statement were accepted—it never is, so far as I can tell—we would face the same question at the next level: is it an objective fact that “its true for some people that different people believe there is a God and false for other people that different people believe there is a God”? or is that claim subjective so that

its true for some people that “its true for some people that different people believe there is a God and false for other people that different people believe there is a God” and false for other people that “its true for some people that different people believe there is a God and false for other people that different people believe there is a God.”

The mind boggles at such a question. Of course, the issue gets even crazier if we ask if that claim is itself objectively true or not. Apparently, there are some claims that we all agree are objectively true. The obvious claim here that we all take to be objectively true is that people have different opinions about the existence of God.

Now return to the question that began the last paragraph: does the fact—and I now assume we all agree it is a fact—that people have different opinions about whether God exists matter to the objectivity (or lack thereof) of the claim that God exists? Let me cheat here and simply switch the burden of proof: why would it matter that there is disagreement? Of course, it matters that there is disagreement about God’s existence for very longstanding political reasons: some that believe in God wish not to tolerate atheists, perhaps some atheists wish not to tolerate believers, and clearly believers in different descriptions of God (which go along with different religions) wish not to tolerate believers in other descriptions of God. The narrow question here, though, is this: what difference could it make to the existence of an all-good God that some believe he (or she or it) exists and some do not? I think put that way, the answer is obvious: none whatsoever. It is either the case that God exists or it is the case that he does not. One of those is the objective truth. If God exists, atheists are wrong; if he does not, then theists are wrong. There is an objective fact of the matter even if we do not know what that objective truth is. Our lack of knowledge of the truth has no effect on the truth whatsoever.

If you’ve come this far and agree with me (even if you think some or all of what I said was obvious): why should morality (and in particular given the point of this blog–political morality) be any different? There are (fairly famous) arguments about this (e.g., from J.L. Mackie) that I never found persuasive and that others have argued against.

  • Chris G

    What does this have to do with libertarianism?  From the title, I thought this post was going to be against subjective value theory, not relativism.

    • Anonymous

      “Legalizing heroin would be good.”

      True or false?

      That’s what it has to do with libertarianism.

      • Anonymous

        Do you really think there is an objective answer to that which anyone should accept as an objective truth?

        • Anonymous

          Your question is the same one Andrew Cohen asks in the blog post on which we are all commenting, i.e., it’s the question most commenters are attempting to answer. Chris G, if I understand him correctly, was asking why Cohen thought libertarians would care.

          • Anonymous

            I am not sure I’m asking the same question. I’m asking about a specific case. Andrew C was asking about a general class. While I wish he had selected a different example I think it’s clear that question of god’s existence or not, should it be proven objectively, has implications for all people. I think the question of legalization of heroin has significant import to a small number  (relative to population sizes) but is largely beside the point for most of us from a practical mater.

            So I’m asking you if you think the legal status of heroin, meaning it should be legal and an available choice for any who can pay, is part of that class of objective truths.

            So even if some class Objective Truths exists it’s not clear that heroin is a member and so why is that an example of why libertarians should be concerned or see this as relevant to much of their agenda?

          • Anonymous

            I don’t claim to have definitive answers, but I have a working answer, in four parts:

            (a) There are some Objective Truths, e.g., my car is blue; I’m typing this on a Microsoft keyboard; people breathe air. The existence of this kind of Objective Truth does not prove that there is an Objective Good, or an Objective Morality. 

            (b) For purposes of a BHL blog, the question of Objective Good or Objective Morality focuses on whether there can be an Objectively Good/Moral Law. Please see my exchange with Mark D. Friedman above. My working answer is yes, at least in some cases there can be laws that are Objectively Good or Objectively Bad, and I’ll take MLK’s definition as my standard:  “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Seems pretty strange to contend that’s objective, I know. (And for simplicity’s sake let’s not get into differences between Good, Just, and Moral.) And I certainly don’t contend the MLK standard is useful or even meaningful in all contexts. (E.g., does driving 60mph on an interstate highway uplift personality but not driving 85mph?) But there are certain things that are universally accepted as important to human happiness (e.g., food, shelter, family, friends, autonomy), and some laws that obviously degrade those things (Jim Crow; and, I would argue, marijuana prohibition); and others that obviously lift them up (the right to custody of your children, unless you are proven unfit in a court of law).

            (c) I also think there are some matters about which it is impossible to establish Objective Good or Objective Morality. Please see my reply above to Adam Gurri re: ranking values.

            (d) There are some legal matters about which there is no possible  Objectively Good, exclusive, answer; yet it is obvious that we must implement an answer. E.g., should we drive on the left side of the road, or on the right? What should the minimum voting age be? For this kind of question, a law is Good if it both (1) does not degrade human personality, and (2) was reached through legitimate government processes. What’s “legitimate?” Set up according to laws that are themselves Good. Yes, a law can be legitimately-enacted and still Objectively Bad, e.g., as soon as Missourians got the initiative & referendum in the early 20th century, they used it to enact a Jim Crow code.
            Implementing a libertarian agenda, or preserving libertarian aspects of current society that might be made less libertarian, comes down to answering a lot of little (relatively speaking) questions like, “Would legalizing heroin be good or bad?” “Would abolishing the workers’ compensation system be good or bad?” “Would abolishing FAA safety inspection of airliners be good or bad?” “Would abolishing the EPA be good or bad?” “Would implementing a carbon tax, or single-payer healthcare, or stricter bank regulations, be good or bad?” I think what Andrew Cohen is getting at is, how does a BHL answer questions like that–for other libertarians, and for society at large?

            Applying those principles to the question of heroin legalization: it’s pretty clear heroin addiction degrades human personality. But it’s also pretty clear that heroin prohibition degrades human personality. Last year over 11,000 people were killed in the Mexican drug wars. There are reports of random travelers being snatched off buses and forced to fight each other to the death, to entertain the drug gangs. It’s clear heroin is widely available in the USA despite our spending zillions of dollars to prevent that. Those zillions could otherwise be spent, say, housing the homeless–whose personalities are being degraded. (Would that be consistent with libertarianism? Probably not. BHLism? Probably.) While we cannot be certain the net degradation is greater with prohibition than without, we can be certain that prohibition is causing or at least enabling substantial degradation; whereas without prohibition, virtually all degradation would be caused by personal behavior, not by state action. Thus based on current evidence, I contend that our best guess is that heroin prohibition is Objectively Bad.

            This guess subject to being revised after a couple decades of experience with legalized heroin. The fact that there is an Objectively Knowable Answer does not mean we currently have enough evidence to know that answer. Yet we must implement an answer.

          • Damien S.

            Pedantic yet non-trivial note: “my car is blue” is objective only with a bunch of assumed context.  A fuller statement would be “my car is perceived as blue by a majority of human beings”.  Colors are perceptual categories created by the human brain, not things in the world.  Alternately one could say “the peak wavelengths reflected by my car are 570 nm” (made up number), but wavelengths are a sliding scale, just looking at them wouldn’t tell an alien scientist about the categorical shifts we perceive.

          • Anonymous

            That’s true, so perhaps what I mean by objective isn’t really Objective, but Objective For Humans, or even For Humans Discussing Government. I suppose that opens a large can of worms, yet I think it’s still Objective Enough For Our Purposes, Mostly.

          • Anonymous

            I largely agree with a). I just don’t think the set of objective truths constitutes a sufficient set of truths that allow society to be well governed.

            In getting to your assessment of the legal status of heroin you’ve suggested a number of criteria that must be evaluated to reach your conclusion. Different people will objectively have different assessments of those criteria. If that’s the case then aggregating all those assessments is, I suspect, more likely to lead to some type outcome more like a voting cycle or multiple equilibria situation than a single outcome. What then is the objective truth of heroin’s legal status?

            I think we’ll find that many of the social rules will fall into a similar  situation. It’s not merely the presence of some objective basis but that of aggregation.

  • Robert Fisher

    I certainly agree with the presupposition that there exists some objective truth about the existence of God apart from our beliefs. That question has two distinct and mutually exclusive answers: existence or nonexistence. Similarly, the question of whether a set of moral standards is correct has two answers: correct and incorrect.

    But we can also ask the question: Does a correct set of moral standards exist? If not, then the question of “correctness” is unanswerable, and therefore depends completely and exclusively on our opinions.

    • Backwardation797

      all opinions having equal value means they all have no value and hence your subjectivity leads to nihilism and entropy/decay

  • Mark LeBar

    Andrew, not by way of counterargument, but as a way of trying to expand the problem, let me run another example by you:

    You are in a jury room for a criminal case. What difference could it make for the legal guilt of the defendant that some think he is guilty and some do not?

    I trust the answer is clear: it makes all the difference in the world! Now, my question to you is: why think the story about morality is like the existence of God, and not like the issue of legal guilt? I’m not making a case for one or the other. Instead, it seems to me that if you have an answer to that question you’ll have made progress in thinking about the objectivity or subjectivity of morality.

  • Consider the claim, “‘Nuthin but a g thang’ by Snoop Dogg is the best song ever.” There would certainly be disagreement about the claim. And I don’t think there’s a fact of the matter as to which is the best song ever.

    Why not take morality to be like this? I think that’s the claim of (at least some) subjectivists.

  • Anonymous

    I think you can distinguish between objectivity and universalizability.   God’s existence or non-existence does not depend upon a sentient being’s judgment, as it is a feature of physical reality.   Morality is a characteristic ascribed to certain human judgments (and actions deriving therefrom) and, therefore, independant of physical reality.
    However, you can believe that the principles underlying your moral position (maximisation of general well-being, individual autonomy etc.) should apply to all people without also believing they are a natural law.   I think you can base the prioritizing of individual autonomy on the lack of objectivity of morality – because there is no objective morality, there is no reason to coercively impose a morality on anyone else.  Morality aspires to universality only through consent – convincing people to accept a given moral order.

    • Damien S.

      Conversely, if there’s no objective morality, there’s no reason to not coercively impose a morality on anyone else.    Remember that “don’t murder, rape, and steal” is a morality, one most of us find an interest in imposing…

      • Anonymous

        True.  Let me narrow that statement a bit – what I should have said is there is no moral imperative or motivation to coercively impose our morality on anyone else.  There is a pragmatic consideration in imposing morality on others, such as protecting members of one’s social group from the depredations of those who subscribe to no moral order or to an incompatible moral order. 

  • I’m not sure you’re giving the subjectivist a fair representation. I think that “truths” in metaphysics are different from “truths” in ethics or aesthetics. You appear to be conflating the two. The consequence is that we can’t make sense of the notion of individual preference. We can still resolve disagreements in ethics and aesthetics, but objectivity means something different:

  • Opinions on morality are significantly different from opinions on unknown facts. Actually, I don’t think the two can be compared at all.

    The mere fact that you believe in god or not does not in any way affect my daily life at all. You could be a member of The Flat Earth Society, subscribe to 9/11 conspiracies and think the CIA assassinated JFK.  You are free to hold these beliefs, and you are free to attempt to convince me that these claims are true with whatever evidence you have. However your beliefs fall on these disputed ‘facts’ we each form our opinions on the weight of the evidence. Even if you were very passionate about these beliefs, you would be hard-pressed to find a way to craft a set of policies based on those opinions that could compel me to do anything. (Outside of an inquisition-style “profess your beliefs in my facts or suffer!” type of environment.)

    Morality, however, has a significant emotional component. That emotion can drive people to apply force against others.  Take these four items, stated as simple “unknown facts”:

    1) People who pray every day consider themselves happier than those who don’t.
    2) Food stamps help people get back on a financial footing.
    3) Arresting marijuana smokers now lowers the crime rate in the future.
    4) People who have sex outside of marriage bring shame to themselves and to their families.

    These could be considered moral ‘facts’ that are either true or not. People could argue them one way or the other, presenting their evidence. However, they are used to create strong policies that affect my life directly:

    1) All children must pray every day in school.
    2) A percentage of all earnings must be contributed for redistribution (under penalty of arrest, causing the destruction of your family and career.)
    3) Anyone found possessing marijuana must be arrested (causing the destruction of their family and career.)
    4) Adulterers are to be killed.

    Now, you could certainly say these policies would have a pretty wide-ranging overall ‘approval’ rate, (and that rate would be very different depending on where you asked the question — #4 is pretty popular in some circles) but that doesn’t enter into the final point: Opinions on morality tend to lead to policy that affects others. Opinions on as-of-yet-unproven facts generally don’t.

    • Those first four statements may contain “emotional” content, but they are testable. You’re not seriously contending that human emotional attachment to statements causes their truth value to be come indeterminate?

      As for your last paragraph, the reason why the dichotomy appears as such is because you’re labeling beliefs about the world that are not held provisionally as being “moral” beliefs and beliefs that are held provisionally as being as-yet-unproven facts. But all this means is that people who are absolutely certain about their beliefs tend to support oppressive policies. The actual truth value of their beliefs is irrelevant. They go astray simply by holding their beliefs without self-reflection.

      • “You’re not seriously contending that human emotional attachment to statements causes their truth value to be come indeterminate?”

        Not at all. I did say to the first four statements that they could be argued with evidence.

        In my last paragraph I was trying to stick to the particular question at hand — political morality. This is a very difficult yet important subject because as a libertarian, I believe the best way to convince the typical liberal or conservative of my views is to ‘win’ on moral grounds. But if ‘moral truth’ -itself- is a fictional construct, then there is no longer any argument against Pol Pot, Che Guevara or .. (well, in respect of Godwin’s Law, I’ll stop there.)

        • Sorry, your post was slightly confusing to me since the first paragraph implied you were keen on Hume’s is/ought dichotomy, but the rest of it seemed to imply that moral statements *can* be evaluated.

          I think Hume was wrong — that “ought” statements are either shorthand for complicated “is” statements, or simply nonsense. There are only “is” statements, and “is” statements are either true or false. This is the only way to resolve the dilemma you present. Political arguments only matter if they are amenable to rational discourse and evidence.

        • Damien S.

          Yeah, I realized at 17 there wasn’t any *argument* against Pol Pot or Nazis, one where the Light of Pure Reason could make them stop and go “Oh, I was wrong!”  (Simplifying: one might be able to convince an actual Nazi that various factual beliefs about  Jews were wrong, but if someone had “we should kill Jews” as an axiom, well, tough luck.)

          Note that’s not at all the same as not having any reason or justification for acting against Pol Pot.

          • Anonymous

            But, it is a hallkmark of evil people that they don’t accept moral arguments that seem self-evident to persons of good will. The fact that Nazis couldn’t recognize the humanity of Jews or that Pol Pot was unable to recognize that you can’t just kill all your “class enemies” doesn’t imply at all that there were not valid argument’s against their actions, based on equal respect for all persons. What do you say to a person who can’t understand that a table can’t be round and square at the same time? It doesn’t mean that this law of logic is wrong, just that this particular person can’t “get” it.

          • Anonymous

            MLK, Letter From a Birmingham Jail: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

            “Just” and “good” are not quite the same, but they’re close enough for discussion.

            I suppose the Nazis or Khmer Rouges would not be interested in whether MLK was right, or whether Jews are human, or whether killing class enemies brings about, in some utilitarian way, a net uplift in human personality.

            But what about libertarians? Does MLK’s definition of just law square with a libertarian concept of good law? How about a BHL’s?

          • Anonymous

            I don’t think it’s an operational statement but does express the right spirit — but even then that’s going to be qualified fairly heavily as just because a law “uplifts human personality”  doesn’t mean it’s one that should be established as a formal law. MLK’s statement allows for no separation between public and private.

          • Anonymous

            Well, I admire MLK, but the statement you quoted is so vague and ambiguous that I am not sure how to answer. What exactly does he have in mind by “uplifts human personality”? MLK was certainly not a libertarian, so I doubt he understands a good law to be one that shields competent adults from unjustified physical aggression or the threat thereof, which is roughly the way natural rights libertarians understand it. I will let the BHLs speak for themselves.

          • Anonymous

            Of course this requires speculating a bit, but it’s not too difficult to come up with a basic set of core values that are important to most human personalities: The chance to have your and your family’s basic material needs met–food, shelter, physical safety. The opportunity to do meaningful work and be fairly paid. The chance to participate in choosing your government, and then in influencing the government you chose. The freedom to associate with friends and family of your choosing.

            Obviously trying to assure that everybody actually realizes material security and social happiness would go well beyond the limits of libertarian government. But to what extent, consistent with libertarianism, should the government ensure people have a reasonable chance to acquire these things on their own? I’m thinking primarily of the social safety net, and of government intervening in employer-employee relations.

          • Anonymous

            Your qualification “consistentent with libertarianism” makes your question a little tricky to answer, because there are a lot of different flavors of libertarianism. I think almost all libertarians would say that any arrangement voluntarily entered into between employer and employee should not be disturbed by the state. Maybe you can come up with some crazy theoretical counterexample where there is a single employer in the entire country who only offers slave wages, but new entrants would then come into the market and successfully compete by hiring away its most productive employees, so I am comfortable with my statement as a general principle.

            The social safety net issue is harder. My personal view is that in a purely laissez faire society we would have high levels of employment and wealth, reducing the need for a safety net. To the extent required, “friendly societies” and mutual aid arrangements (quite common in Victorian England and 19th century America) would replace the dole. However, to the extent voluntary arrangements would not prevent “widows and orphans” from starving in the street, I would support government taxation and intervention to prevent this. My justifiaction for departing from a strict stance on non-coercion is a little too complicated to present here. 

  • Jonathon Martin

    The issue is what you consider a moral fact to be. Your argument only shows inconsistency if you accept your premise, which is that all facts are alike. Mackie rightly points out that moral facts, if they exist, are unlike any other facts. Similarly too, the non-cognitivist would likely think a moral fact to be different in quality to the facts you are suggesting. It’s a metaethical issue though and to give it a full treatment requires understanding all the different metaethical positions, so it might be a bit challenging for your students.

  • “There is an objective fact of the matter even if we do not know what that objective truth is. Our lack of knowledge of the truth has no effect on the truth whatsoever.” <– I always thought that this was subjectivism.  At least, this is the type of subjectivism one finds in Kierkegaard's writings.  In fact, I was surprised not to see him mentioned in the comments already, given that he spent his life writing on the topic of subjectivism, objectivism, and one's relation to the Truth.

  • The existence or non-existence of a god is plausibly a matter of objective fact (at least in everyday terms, leaving aside obscure ontological arguments or lame ‘what if we live in the matrix’ noodling).  However, his beneficence – that’s a different thing.  That something has the value of ‘Goodness’ is not so clearly binary as the value of ‘Existence’. 

    Certainly, in scientific training, one is taught to eschew moral values as ultimately untestable and outside the realm of science.  However, scientists deal every day with questions of existence.  If you ask a scientist, “Does there exist such a thing as a an electron?” he would be able to point to evidence thereof.  If you ask a scientist, “Are electrons morally good?” he would look at you like you’d grown a second head.  He might say, “Well, without electrons, there could be no chemicals, and without chemicals there’d be nothing to make our bodies out of, so I suppose they’re necessary, if that counts as good.”

    So while I won’t say categorically that there can be no objective measure of goodness, it’s certainly a FAR more difficult problem than having an objective measure of existiness, and I tend to expect that no such objective measure will exist.

  • Let me answer your question with a question (apologies): why should language be culturally determined? Shouldn’t there be one, objective truth about what words mean?
    In my view morality emerges the same way language does, and its rules are often as vague and full of exceptions as rules of grammar. I before E except after C, and all that–killing someone is wrong except for when it’s in self-defense, etc.

    Rules of behavior emerge through a Hayekian/Burkean trial-and-error process in each community and to some extent in larger cultural units over time.

  • Also: I can conceptually imagine what it means for there to be an “objective” truth about the existence of a God, or the theory of gravity, or the color of the grass. But I have no concept of what an objective morality would look like. Where would its objectivity come from?

    I understand Searle’s use of the term–that morality is epistemologically objective but ontologically subjective–but I don’t think that’s what you mean.

    • “Where would its objectivity come from?”

      I tend to start at the place where if I wouldn’t want an act done to me, then it would be immoral for me to commit it against another.

      But I think your question in unanswerable. After all, we don’t even have consensus that the world is round. And, even if we did, consensus != truth. 

      • “I tend to start at the place where if I wouldn’t want an act done to me, then it would be immoral for me to commit it against another.”

        A classic moral claim, but again the question is how we would establish whether it’s even possible to call it objectively true or false. As you say, this may be unanswerable (but my belief is that it is not objective)

        • Anonymous

          It’s not even really possible to know whether you’d want some acts done to you. For instance, suppose you are pretty far gone with Alzheimer’s and cancer. Would you want, say, a feeding tube or a ventilator to extend your life? Are you sure? If you change your mind later but your competence is greatly reduced when you do so, is your change of mind valid?

          And whatever your choice, isn’t it obvious that someone else could reasonably make the opposite choice?

          Deciding what is moral in this situation requires ranking values that can come into conflict: respecting personal autonomy, preventing suffering, preserving life. How could we possibly say objectively which of these values should be ranked #1, #2, #3?

          In other words, no, I don’t think an objective definition of good is possible.

      • Damien S.

        “against another”

        But which others?  And other which circumstances?

  • Anonymous

    For reasons already expressed by others here, I do not think you can easily shift the burden of proof on to those who dispute the factual (objective) nature of seemingly sefl-evident moral claims. My personal take on this subject, for what its worth, is that it is rational and plausible to hold that moral claims are objective, but not irrational to deny this, either. As expressed on another thread on this blog, I believe that basic moral facts inhabit the same metaphysical space as the axioms of math, logic and geometry, i.e. they can be known to be true by pure reason, without resort to experience. Micahel Huemer’s book ETHICAL INTUITIONISM makes a good case for this point of view. But other leading philosophers deny that we can know anything a priori other than things that are true by definition, and that systems of math, geometry and logic fall into this category. So, to prove these folks wrong, you must wade into some very deep waters.

    • Vlad Tarko

      I think you might be misrepresenting Huemer’s views here. If I remember correctly, he links morality to experience. That’s how we get moral progress.

      • Anonymous

        I don’t think so. Please read pages 231-32 of his book, which is a summary of his views, and then tell me what I have wrong. There, Huemer specifically says that “Some basic principles about good, bad, right and wrong are self-evident, such as the following: Suffering is bad…These principles are self-evident in the same sense that the following are: Nothing is both green and red…” If you mean something else by “links morality to experience,” then I do not know exactly what you have in mind, and why it shows that I misrepresented Huemer’s position.

  • Anonymous

    For reasons already expressed by others here, I do not think you can easily shift the burden of proof on to those who dispute the factual (objective) nature of seemingly sefl-evident moral claims. My personal take on this subject, for what its worth, is that it is rational and plausible to hold that moral claims are objective, but not irrational to deny this, either. As expressed on another thread on this blog, I believe that basic moral facts inhabit the same metaphysical space as the axioms of math, logic and geometry, i.e. they can be known to be true by pure reason, without resort to experience. Micahel Huemer’s book ETHICAL INTUITIONISM makes a good case for this point of view. But other leading philosophers deny that we can know anything a priori other than things that are true by definition, and that systems of math, geometry and logic fall into this category. So, to prove these folks wrong, you must wade into some very deep waters.

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  • My response was rather too long for a comment, but I take a shot at this here:

    • Damien S.

      I think ‘subjectivism’ does collapse down to nihilism (philosophical, not attitudinal), and I’m fine with that.

  • Anonymous

    Do you make any distinction between “objective truth” and “X is true”?  It seems to me that there’s a difference between the concept of “truth” and the binary evaluation of true/not true.

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  • The Woman

    “God”, as addressed in the question of existence, is an entity with a proposed existence independent of other entities.  “Goodness”, in contrast, is an abstraction of extent, and a relativistic one at that.  Goodness is an abstract _property_ of things in sentient (presumed human) regard.  Asking if it is objectively true if something is good is at best logically equivalent to asking if it is high, or heavy, or bright, or big.  The only possible reply is, “Compared to what?  In what frame of reference? For whom?”  Pretending otherwise is a precious conceit.  Asking if something is objectively good simply assumes the local frame of the speaker as universal, not unlike asking if something is objectively heavy, assuming it is near sea level on Earth.

    Abstractions are fundamentally subjective phenomenon; though they have objective referents, they exist solely as the products of perception, solely in minds.

    If we cannot prove that _mathematics_ has objective existence (and, indeed, we cannot), we haven’t got a prayer with goodness.  Fortunately, calculus doesn’t need objective existence to be rigorous nor to go on doing its exemplary job at representing things that do have objective existence.  Likewise, an entirely subjective “goodness” may also have rigor and do well at describing things that do have objective existence.  It is not the case that subjective means the same thing as “every persons answer is different, and as satisfactory as every other person’s answer.”

  • dL

    P=”God Exists” is a classical logical proposition in it that it either has to be true or false to be a logical proposition. However, P is not an objective proposition or claim–that is, a scientific claim–in that it is an “unfalsifiable” claim. 

    Scientifically, there is no no such thing as “objective truth” because hypotheses cannot be “proved” true; they can only be falsified. This is the basic scientific method.

    Constructing logical propositions P is not a sufficient condition for testable scientific(objective) claims. P has to be falsifiable. If it is not, then it is outside the scope of “objective evaluation.” Thus, the rest of Cohen’s argument against “moral subjectivism” unravels.

    What is a testable and falsifiable hypothesis is the proposition P that a common  “ethical foundation” is a necessary condition for a set of universal moral judgements. This Proposition P  is something that experimental, sociological research has proven to be false.

    More commentary here:

    • This supposes that ethical statements have the same objectivity conditions as empirical or scientific statements—a supposition that seems not only unwarranted but almost certainly false. Also, your summary of Cohen’s argument at the link is pretty clearly not at all the actual argument Cohen was advancing.

      • This supposes that ethical statements have the same objectivity conditions as empirical or scientific statements—a supposition that seems not only unwarranted but almost certainly false.

        Why? Why should the standard of objectivity be different for one sort of statement than it is for another? If “doing action X is wrong” is objective in a different way than “ice is a solid, while water is a liquid,” where do you draw the line between a sufficiently different standard of objectivity and subjectivity?

  • Anonymous

    “The narrow question here, though, is this: what difference could it
    make to the existence of an all-good God that some believe he (or she
    or it) exists and some do not?”

    I think you’re asking the wrong question. The options are not just
    A) God exists
    B) God does not exist.

    The options include:
    A) God exists AND we can know that God exists
    B) God exists AND we cannot know that God exists
    C) God does not exist AND we can know that God does not exist
    D) God does not exist AND we cannot know that God does not exist

    In the analogy with moral objectivism, these correspond to:
    A) Moral objectivism
    B) Moral skepticism
    C) Moral nihilism
    D) ?? (This position is not much discussed–what’s the point of being a moral skeptic if you don’t think there are moral truths to be known to begin with?)

    In my opinion, if these are the ONLY options we’re considering, then the question of disagreement is primarily relevant not to  the question whether there are moral facts, but to the question whether these facts are knowable. I.e., the point of intractable disagreement about moral matters is that it provides evidence that none of us knows the truth. If, say, moral judgments are based on moral intuitions or upbringing or contingent social norms, and these determine different answers to moral questions in such a way that we can’t resolve them, then why should I think that MY answers to moral questions are more likely to be correct than anyone else’s?

    How do you get from here to subjectivism? Well, even if I have no reason to think I’m more likely to have gotten things right than you, it seems that I morally should not give up my moral convictions. Moral questions are not like scientific questions where we can suspend judgment until we gather more evidence and reach a consensus. So I should stick to my guns despite having no reason to think I’m more likely to be right than you.

    I’m not claiming the above reasoning is sound, but it’s something like this that motivates the thought that objectivism, skepticism, and nihilism must not be the only options. It sure is hard to develop subjectivism in a way that makes sense. But expressivists, non-cognitivists, quasi-realists, and more have all made valiant efforts that cannot be easily dismissed.

    Bernard Williams’ lovely little book “Morality” is a good introduction to these questions.
    Gil Harman’s half of Harman and Thomson, “Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity,” is a powerful defense of moral relativism (though not necessarily the b.s. anthropological/social science version that Williams rightly criticizes).

  • It seems to me that Kurt Horner hit upon something important – the Objective is Testable in a way that is completely independent of the people doing the testing – the Subjective is not. I can Test for whether or not Saturn actually have rings – it’s beyond me personally to be able to do so, but I can postulate how you would Test that and anyone who ran the Test under the same conditions that I do should see roughly similar results (allowing for certain variations, of course). By the same Token, I can create a Test for the existence of God. Now, most people’s perception of the nature of God would allow the deity to thwart my Test, but I can postulate how I would go about it.

    I’ve never seen anyone create a Test for morality that doesn’t rely on assumptions, and go for the low-hanging fruit – everyone starts of with a murder rather than asking about, say, prostitution, and they always postulate some random act of deliberate hostility, and then claim that my agreement that yes, such an act would be wrong, proves that Morality is Objective. But it seems to me that you can’t create a Test for Morality that is independent of the person doing the testing. Commonly what happens is that people take a failed Test to be a fault of the Tester – that person is either lying (which cannot be objectively proven without telepathy), insane (although the clinical criteria tend to be lacking…) or Evil (which, in this instance, is completely circular).

    • Anonymous

      I think you can’t create a universal test for morality. But you can devise a test that will sometimes identify morality or immorality. Please see my long reply to j_m_h below; Andrew Cohen’s comments above re: gathering evidence.

      • I think you can’t create a universal test for morality. But you can devise a test that will sometimes identify morality or immorality.

        I don’t think so. Mainly because I don’t think that we have any way of establishing what an objective Good or objective Morality is outside of fiat. If Mr. Cohen is right, there should be a way of me getting to/understanding objective morality without first knowing what it is, as long as he gives me the proper definitions. But the real world doesn’t work that way. Instead what we have is people’s understanding that they arrived at their morality objectively, and so others of sufficient moral character and intelligence should arrive at the same place they did.

    • Anonymous

      The idea of murder may or may not be a low hanging fruit. I do think one can make a case that murder is objectively wrong. The test I suggest is finding a society that any real endurance or cohesion that has not held murder to be wrong. I don’t think any societies exist that do not hold murder to be wrong. The concept itself is just that: a wrongful killing. 

      The problem is that the specific acts included in the concept of murder does vary from place to place and through time. I’m not sure that actually changes the status of murder being objectively wrong or not though, right now I lean towards saying it doesn’t.

      • Damien S.

        Yeah, “murder and theft are wrong” is universally true by way of tautology, being defined as wrongful killing or taking.  But what’s wrongful killing or taking?

      • As Damien notes, “murder is wrong” is a tautology. But my greater point is this – the idea that pretty much every society on Earth finds heinous crime x to be wrong does not, on its face, serve as proof that morality is objective across said societies.

        In other words the fact that you and I agree that any single given act violates our shared moral standards does not prove that a) all acts that violate the standards of one will violate the standards of the other, or b) that those standards are independent of our own experiences and natures.

        • Anonymous

          I agree the the mere presence of agreement does not prove anything, my claim is not that mass belief creates reality or objective truths.

          I think we need to ask what would something being an objective truth, in the moral sphere, mean. Can people simply ignore that truth and human existence continue on as if nothing happened? I don’t think so. The implication of that is that if something like murder is objectively wrong then human society cannot simply ignore that truth. If it’s a purely subjective view then we’ll see certain degree of variation across societies and through time.

          The test I suggested is looking for refuting the hypothesis. I confess to sloppy writing when I used the word “prove”. However, failure to refute is typically taken as support that the hypothesis is true. The only certain proofs we ever get are tautology.

          • Damien S.

            Whereas I cannot see what work is done by “objectively wrong”, or what consequences would result, that can’t be more precisely and more groundedly described in terms of preferences and practicality.

          • Anonymous

            I think if something is subjective we should expect to see more than trivial variation across societies and through time. That should include societies for which the “wrong” simply isn’t. 

            If something is objectively wrong then I don’t think we see the same variation or cases where that wrong simply is not recognized as wrong by the society. 

            As the issue of objective wrong, or objective morality, holds import for a libertarian agenda/BHL I think another distinction is needed: objective wrongs that are essentially private in nature and those that are essentially public in nature, by which I largely mean lead to the failure of the society but I suppose one could also consider negative externalities if they are sufficiently large.

          • Damien S.

            By the variation standard, slavery isn’t objectively wrong.  Neither is marital rape, or statutory rape.  Or honor killings.  Or infanticide.  I’m not sure anything meets a no-variation standard other than “don’t kill your same-sex same-class same-‘tribe’ peers outside of a duel”.

          • Anonymous

            It’s certainly possible that no objective morality exists. I certainly don’t deny that. However, you need dig into each of those case and look at the societies you say allow such behavior to see if those are generally apply or if they all are conditioned in some way. For instance, any parent can kill any of their babies? Any adult can kill any infant?

            With regard to honor killings, how do they differ from capital punishment? Why should an honor killing be any less moral than when the state does the killing?

            Statutory rape? Are you saying that many societies have not formal or informal taboos regarding adults having sex with the young under some age?

            I’m not sure slavery is objectively immoral or wrong — though I do think it’s wrong and immoral. I would point out that I’m not aware of any society that allowed slavery that did not also have laws that clearly showed ownership of another person was not the same as ownership of live stock or inanimate objects. That at lease suggests there some level of doubt that people can be just another form of capital asset or chattel property.

          • Hmm… it seems to me that you’re linking universality with objectivity. I don’t know that you can use that as a standard, since, technically, an objective fact is still true even of no-one agrees with it.

            Let’s a take a margin case for a moment – if I believe that governments are immoral, does the fact that pretty much all human societies larger than bands of hunter-gatherers have them become evidence that my moral understanding is purely subjective?

          • Anonymous

            That might be what I’m doing, though I don’t think so. 

            I do think the observation suggests a few things. I don’t think it leads to the conclusion that you’re moral understanding is purely subjective — it could simply be wrong.  It could also be that while government is not per se immoral all the one’s we observe are — perhaps governments are natural organizational constraints, like any of the physical laws, an entirely neutral in and of itself.

            I am curious about two other things. 1) is the objective morality you think exists one that’s completely independent of human kind? Could a wolf murder a fox if men didn’t exist at all?

            The other is what import would such moral truths have? Are they like physical laws, we cannot ignore them with impunity? Are they like that but with a asymmetric structure. To clarify, any society that simply rejects the laws a nature will not produce viable technology and most of the efforts by it’s members will fail, leading to social failure. We can however overcome the laws of nature, e.g., using aerodynamic life to allow flight, using buoyancy for shipping heavy items. Working to overcome gravity, a neutral objective truth, allows us to achieve both good and bad. I would think objective morality would require that such efforts to overcome those objective truths should lead to bad social outcomes, not any positive ones.

          • I don’t think that an objective morality exists. I’m simply working from my understanding of the characteristics that it would have.

            Given the way that it is spoken of, an objective morality would be completely independent of humanity. Applying it to animals incapable if human cognition seems iffy, though.

            It seems to me that a hypothetical objective moral truth would have the same import our current moral beliefs have, namely justifying our own actions, or allowing is to see actions in nature as being driven by “karma,” as opposed to randomness.

          • However, failure to refute is typically taken as support that the hypothesis is true.

            I suppose so, but that sounds like sloppy and somewhat self-serving thinking to me. I’ve never been taught that failure to falsify a hypothesis is the same as supporting it. Although I guess that explains a lot.

          • Anonymous

            So when someone comes up with some new experimental finding and a bunch of other people perform the same test and get the same results, that is, they fail to refute the experiment’s hypothesis, and the scientific community then says “ration X produces result Y” you find they are being sloppy? 

          • I draw a distinction between an experiment that supports a given result, one that falsifies it and one that, for whatever reason, does neither. Because I’m not working from a binary state, in my worldview, equating non-falsification and support is sloppy. Your mileage will vary.

  • Andrew Cohen

    First, thanks for all the feedback!  And now… 

    The biggest issue I (somewhat intentionally) left out was clearly the simple rejoinder that talk about God is one thing, but talk of morality (perhaps especially political morality) another.  I used the God stuff intentionally because in one argument (in Mackie), we are told that science is one thing and morality another.  Science is clear.  Morality is odd.  If X is wrong or bad, people should avoid it.  But what sort of thing would make
    people avoid X?  What sort of thing could wrongness or badness be?  A very odd sort of quality, indeed (Mackie called it “queer” but that was a different time).  If I recall correctly, it was Jean Hampton that developed a response to this Mackean sort of rejoinder—which Robert Fisher, Jason, and others raise here—that she (I think) called the “partners in crime” response.  The response entails showing that science and morality are equally odd and equally sound (that isn’t the right word, but I am not sure what is).  I would have thought that many readers here already thought that about God and morality so that if they were is willing to accept that there is an objective fact about God, they would also accept that there is an objective fact about morality (which is not to say that they are related to one another, though I do not mean to deny that either).  So does “a correct set of moral standards exist”?  In my view, that question should be treated precisely the way I treated the question “does God exist?”  In short: though I may not know the answer, there is an objective fact of the matter.

    Mark Lebar and Jason’s comments, I think, push the Mackie-inspired discussion in a useful way.  I assumed that morality was like the existence of God and Mark asks if that is right or if it’s more like law (moral guilt being like legal guilt) and Jason asks if its more like aesthetic judgment. Of course, I think it’s more like God then law (and likely more like God then aesthetic judgment, but I often think there is objectivity there as well).  But
    why think that?  This won’t likely be persuasive, but one answer is simply that whatever else it is, law is a legal
    code and like other codes, law is developed by humans so that we know well where it comes from and we know how it works.  (Natural law theorists might say I am not talking about genuine law, but I leave that aside.)  God and morality seem different—at least we can’t say the same thing as easily: determining what God or morality is and how they exist takes much difficult work.  Does this matter?  Legally, murder is wrong.  More simply, it is punishable.  Why?  Because there is legislation and judicial precedent that says so.  Morally, murder is wrong.  Why?  Not because there is legislation against it.  Try reading the U.S. Harmonized Tariff Schedule and then telling me legislation makes something moral or immoral (I have a copy of a 2007 version if you’re really interested).  Of course, some would claim there is a difference between that sort of administrative law and congressional legislation, but its not clear what that difference would amount to.  Still, some would claim that there is “moral legislation” which is different from state law.  I don’t know if that is right or not and I am not sure if it would mean morality was objective or not (clearly this depends on how the “moral legislation” is fleshed out).  So why is murder morally wrong?  I think there are multiple answers to this that can work (deontological, consequentialist, eudaimonistic, etc.).   Unfortunately, I am not prepared to give a real full answer.  I think I would refrain from doing so if I could.  While I am concerned that we have an objective defense of morality (and BHL), I am not committed to thinking there is only one such answer.  My point has only been that there is objectivity to morality, nothing more.
    So, AdamGurri wants to know where the objectivity of morality comes from (or where I think it comes from).  I think my best answer for now is “I don’t know.”  But I also don’t know where the objectivity of science, religion, or math comes from.  To take an old fashioned example (is it from Goodman?): How do we know the mathematical sequence is 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, … 2978937987978976, 2978937987978978 and not: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, … 2978937987978976, 2978937987978979?  How do we know the rules of mathematics don’t break down at those significantly high numbers?  I think we do know that, but I don’t know where the objectivity of that knowledge comes from.  This does not make me doubt the objectivity of math. 

    Some smaller comments
    A general comment: I should have left omni-beneficence out of the picture entirely.

    Chris G: What does subjectivism have to do with libertarianism?  In a nutshell, I seek a defense of the later.  I take it that means I seek objective arguments in its favor.  A subjectivist can’t do that.  Also see mphillips57 comments. 

    Sheenyglass: “Morality aspires to universality only through consent – convincing people to accept a given moral order.”  Does consent objectively matter?  If so, we are in agreement.  If not, you’re view gets you nowhere.

    Andrew Hanson: I don’t take “objectivity” to mean “intersubjectively valid.”  Indeed, on my view, something could be objectively true (in ethics, metaphysics, or any field of inquiry) and be thought false by everyone.  See

    Sean Leal: I’m not sure I understand your comment.  Your final point is that “Opinions on morality tend to lead
    to policy that affects others. Opinions on as-of-yet-unproven facts generally don’t.”  I doubt this is true.  I think there are opinions about unproven facts of economics or environmental science that lead to policy that affects many.  But I am also not sure why this matters.  I never denied there are different opinions about morality or that these affect policy.  Indeed, that there are is reason we should pursue the truth.
    Joshua House: I’m not a Kierkegaard expert, but I don’t think he was a subjectivist as I use that term.  Though
    I am not certain of this, I do think he was a subjectivist in the sense that he thought what mattered was a subject’s experience.  He likely believed, though, that that was an objective fact (of some sort, moral or religious I am not sure). 
    MARK_D_FRIEDMAN: I agree with all of your substantive points.  Thanks!

    Julian Sanchez: I like your post a lot.  Well done.

    j_m_h: what would the distinction be? 

    The Woman:  “Abstractions are fundamentally subjective phenomenon; though they have objective referents,
    they exist solely as the products of perception, solely in minds.”  I’m not sure, but I think you are using the
    term “subjective” differently then I do.  Is it the abstractions or their referents that exist solely in minds? 

    dL: (1) can the scientific method itself (in principle) be falsified?  If not, is science “outside the scope of ‘objective evaluation’?” (2) Your last paragraph has a big ambiguity.  If “universal” means “accepted by all,” then your necessity claim is false: everyone may accept a claim, though they accept the claim for different reasons so that there is no common ethical foundation.  It would be true, though, that S was falsifiable.  On the other hand, if “universal” means (something like) true for all rational beings, whether they recognize it or not, I do not think S would be falsifiable.  (3) About your post at rulingclass: (a) libertarianism is not the only theory that insists on separation of ethics from law and justice, (b) libertarianism is not—or at least need not and should not—be unconcerned with moral foundations (which is not to say that we must determine the single correct foundation), (c) as I’ve indicated  before my libertarianism is not anarchist, (d) there are more then 2 ways to be a libertarian, (e) I agree—definitely—that “Libertarian social theory does not imply ‘moral subjectivism’.” 

    gregates: Nice way to fill out the alternatives. Let me suggest some differences:
    “The options include:
    A) God exists AND we can know that God exists
    B) God exists AND we cannot know that God exists
    C) God does not exist AND we can know that God does not exist
    D) God does not exist AND we cannot know that God does not exist
    In the analogy with moral objectivism, these correspond to:”  (Here are my disagreements)
    A) Morality is objective and we can know it.  (Alternatively:
    “Morality is objective, we can know that, and we can know what it is.”)  You call this “moral objectivism.”  Good. 
    B) Morality is objective and we cannot know it.  (Alternatively: “Morality is objective, though we can know that, we cannot know what it is.”)   You call this “moral skepticism.”  Good enough, but I might
    prefer to call it “skeptical moral objectivism.” 
    C) Morality is not objective and we can know it is not.  You call this “moral nihilism.”  While I tend to think subjectivism devolves into nihilism, I am not certain it does, so I prefer to call this something like “moral anti-objectivism” (or perhaps “non-cognitivism”).
    D) Morality is not objective and we cannot know it is not.  I guess I would call this “skeptical moral anti-objectivism.”
    I think (A) and (B) here are both equally plausible positions to hold.  Arguably, (B) is superior to (A).
    I think I agree with the rest of what you say except that I suspect in most cases, moral questions are “like scientific questions where we can suspend judgment until we gather more evidence.”   At a certain point though—in both scientific and moral questions—we are likely to have enough evidence to stand firm in our claims.  As Schumpeter said, “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.”

    • Anonymous

      ” I suspect in most cases, moral questions are “like scientific questions where we can suspend judgment until we gather more evidence.”   At a certain point though—in both scientific and moral questions—we are likely to have enough evidence to stand firm in our claims.  As Schumpeter said, ‘To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.'”

      And, I suspect, it is this deference to accumulated evidence that distinguishes a BHL from a generic libertarian.

      FWIW, at this point in my life I am pretty sure I’m more BH than L.

    • Anonymous

      Andrew, while I don’t say this with complete confidence I think one might say the distinction is that of a complex versus simple structure. Perhaps think of it in the context of the whole versus the sum of the parts. Would it be possible that all the “parts” of some truth are objective the whole not?  Is there a potential fallacy of composition error here?

      • Andrew Cohen

        j_m_h: people have made a variety of distinctions like what I think you have in mind.  I’m not sure how helpful they are–or are not.  One thing to note is that a libertarian could either (a) agree that there are such things as harmless and private immoralities that are not subject to state intervention, whereas a harmful and public events (presumably also immoralities) are OR claim (b) that the former sort of thing do not exist at all–i.e., that if its harmless, its not immoral.  Both, I think are defensible. I’m not sure if that helps.

        • Anonymous

          I would certainly expect the libertarian to take such a position as a), and can see a defense for b). Not really helping as these cases are the nonevents.

          What I’m struck by now is that what seems the more relevant issue from an objective truth position is not morality but really the harms/damages from a libertarian perspective. As you note, if there’s no clear harm then the libertarian society really doesn’t care about a given behavior. Where is the libertarian with an objectively true moral violation but without any objective case for presenting the harm they experienced? Or does this just become a bit of a fine point — where morally neutral actions that cause easily calculable harm  may or may not be seen as an actionable harm where as any immoral act requires compensation for any demonstrated harm even if the harm is less than the other case?

          • Andrew Cohen

            There is disagreement about this.  I tend to think (b) is right–that there are no such things that are harmless immoralities.  But I am not fully committed to that.  On the other hand–and perhaps more important for you–I tend to think all harms are immoral.  (Indeed, I standardly work with a definition of “harm” as “wrongful setbacks to interests.”)

          • Damien S.

            “wrongful setbacks are immoral”?  Isn’t that tautological, like murder and theft being wrong (as opposed to killing and taking)?

            If you’re fired from a job, or targeted by a boycott, I think most people would say you’re harmed in a sense, yet in the general case not wrongfully so.

          • Andrew Cohen

            “(Morally) wrongful setbacks are immoral” is tautologically true.  That’s why (some of) the hard work, given my definition, is determining when there is wrongfulness.  My definition, of course, is only a definition, its not a moral claim.  

            There are different senses of the term “harm.” People say they are harmed when a tree branch falls on them.  That’s clearly not a moral issue though.  

            I use the term “harm” a lot–though perhaps I should seek a better term (I’ve tried)–because I work with Mill’s harm principle, which indicates that when there is harm, interference is permitted.  No interference is permitted with the tree when the branch falls (this seems clear to me; I know people that deny the claim).  So, the harm principle must make use of a narrower definition.

          • Anonymous

            I don’t particularly see why one assumes that morality must hinge on external harm, especially if morality is presumed to be some objective, independent from human concept. Like you say, it’s not a point without dispute.

            I suppose I now have a better understanding of position regarding an objective moral truth — it provides the mechanism for defining harms  versus costs imposed by live (reduced profits due to increased competitions, erosion of you house value because you neighbor doesn’t or cannot maintain his house and yard in very good condition)

          • Andrew Cohen

            I don’t think morality must hinge on harms.  I do tend to think, though, that all immoralities are harms.  I can’t defend that here though.  I may say something about it in the future.

  • Objective reality, of whatever sort, presupposes a canon and as both Damien S. (above) and the Greek Skeptics (before) demonstrated, arriving at a genuine objective canon for even the simplest observations is not a small task.  An objective morality, of whatever sort, must also presuppose a canon, but with higher standards of objective reliability because that canon must bind every individual. And it must bind them immutably. 

    Leaving aside Damien and the Skeptics, it might be objectively true that my car is blue today, but it is no moral issue if you’re wrong about it. Nor doesn’t stop me from painting it red tomorrow and changing the objective truth entirely. But, to assert that it’s a moral wrong for me to run over an innocent person with that car won’t change tomorrow, whether or not I paint it. The car color is subject to my whims, a malleable truth that binds no one to belief or practice. But my whims are by definition, subject to objective moral truth. It cannot be objectively moral otherwise. 

    Further,  a blue-green colorblind person might be entirely wrong about the color of my car (before I paint it red, anyway) with moral impunity. Not just because he is colorblind, but because it is not a moral issue. But if a truth is a genuine moral truth, it cannot be excused for deficiency or want of knowledge. It is morally wrong, despite the deficiencies or ignorance that might provoke it. The genuine lunatic cannot be morally innocent or morally neutral because the external, objective morality exists apart from his understanding. Of course, that doesn’t require the law must punish that person as a sane and aware individual, but it does not change the fact of his moral guilt.  The moment we remove moral guilt from disobeying an objective moral truth is the moment we’ve admitted it subjective and malleable to human circumstance. 

    Extrapolating, it follows that the same moral truth binds all those people with whom I share a society or culture and to assert that an objective moral truth exists independently of the cultures that practice or reject it implies those cultures are subject to that objective moral truth.

    So, if child sacrifice to a deity, rape, or torture are objective moral wrongs today, cultures and societies, as comprising individuals, are subject to them, regardless of whether they actually obey them, it implies the same of those moral wrongs in cultures prior and cultures future.

    That leads to a difficult set of questions that obligate the objectivist:

    1. If something is always a moral wrong, has it *always* been a moral wrong?

    2. If it has always been a moral wrong, what is the canon for that judgement?

    3. But, if there was a time that a moral wrong was not morally wrong, how can we be certain it will remain a moral wrong?

    4. If we cannot be certain a thing always was or always will be a moral wrong, how can we be certain that it binds individuals today?

    5. What renders a moral wrong morally wrong for humans, but not for other animals?

    6. If something is, in fact, a moral wrong, ought it always be condemned as such, even when performed by a mental deficient or recorded in our own histories and holy books?

    P.S. “Devolves into nihilism” is loaded language that smuggles premises into the debate. 

    • Andrew Cohen

      I’m not honestly sure what you mean by the claim “Objective reality … presupposes a canon.”  I also don’t see Damien making that claim.  In any case:
      1. I don’t have a problem with answering this affirmatively.  Boiling a living human baby for fun is wrong.  I believe it has always been wrong.  Of course, there once was a time when there were no living human babies, but that is not relevant.  If there are living human babies, boiling them for fun is wrong.  Always been the case.  Always will  be the case.*  Similarly, the claim that arsenic is a bad thing for humans to ingest is always true.
      2. As indicated, I don’t understand this.  Do we need it to be written for us to know it?
      3. There wasn’t such a time.
      4. See 1 and 3
      5. Non-human animals are different then us.  I assume most (some would say “all”) do not have the required attributes to be considered morally blameworthy or praiseworthy.  What are those attributes?  I am inclined to say rational autonomy, but I can see disagreement about this.  (If a tree drops a limb on you–or, more reasonably put, if the branch falls on you–we do not blame the tree.  Similarly, if a cat kills a mouse, etc.)
      6. First part is really the same question as 5.  A human might be so mentally deficient as to lack what is required for moral blameworthiness or praiseworthiness.  As for the second part, I fail to see what difference it makes if an event is recorded in “our own histories and holy books.”  Surely, people before us–including previous citizens of our states, previous co-religionists, etc–have committed immoral acts.

      *I should note, I guess, that I have no reason to deny that context matters.  Something that is (always) prima facie wrong may not be wrong in every circumstance.  This is actually why in #1 above, I specified the reason for boiling the baby.  Boiling a baby is always a bad thing, but I can imagine far-out science-fiction-y examples where doing so was the morally right thing.  By indicating the reason for the boiling–one’s own jollies–I mean to indicate there is nothing in the circumstance that would alter the moral assessment.

      • Please pardon me for using you as an example, Andrew…

        Boiling a living human baby for fun is wrong.  I believe it has always been wrong.
        This, j_m_h, is what I meant when said “I’ve never seen anyone create a Test for morality that doesn’t rely on assumptions, and go for the low-hanging fruit…” (it occurs to me that I should have said “unstated assumptions” before). I mean, “boiling a living human baby?” Really? Outside of “Kobolds Ate My Baby” (which is a humorous fantasy, rather than science-fiction,  game) where and when has that ever been considered socially permissible? And I expect that even with the caveat that the baby is being boiled for fun, that there are some other assumptions that have gone unsaid. Not that these assumptions, were they to turn out to be untrue, would lead Mr. Cohen to a different conclusion, but that they might mitigate another person’s understanding of blameworthiness. In this particular case most of the assumptions would be shared to begin with, so it’s not that big a deal, but there are some unsaid assumptions nevertheless.

        I think that more contentious examples make for better discussion fodder, and better philosophical illustrations. So allow me to replace “Boiling a living human baby” with “Buying a living human baby.” For the vast majority of recorded human history, there was nothing wrong with this in many places. Of course, I’m still making some assumptions here, so I’ll share them. I’m assuming that the purchaser has the expectation that the newly-purchased baby is now, and will remain for life (or until resale), the purchaser’s private property (a slave, basically), to be disposed of as his whim, but in accordance with whatever rules govern such things in his society, both laws and social mores. I’m also assmuing slavery is both legal and normative, that no-one, other than the slave, is being subjected to coercion or fraud and that nothing particularly out of the ordinary is going on – this isn’t some sort of strange underground cult or wealthy psychopath doing the purchasing for some unconscionable act – it’s just some dude, purchasing an infant slave, perhaps because he’s purchasing the mother and is too much of a softy to part them. Or maybe the child is an orphan, and his wife always wanted to care for a child, or their own kid will need a playmate. Take your pick. He enjoys slave shopping, and this is basically a “fun” purchase, though.

        Now, in many conversations, especially here in the United States, the calculus becomes more demanding, and the “relativism” and “subjectivity” start to creep in for people who are otherwise moral absolutists. After all, many of the founding fathers were slaveholders, and many conservatives squirm when you try to pin them down on something that would render them morally blameworthy. Southerners, whose ancestors were slaveholders (or who take pride in their Confederate ancestry) tend to become equally uncomfortable – the argument is often made that since Africans themselves, were in on the slave trade, Southern Whites can’t be held fully at fault. (Note, however, that I said nothing about slavery in the Americas, specifically.) I’ve heard some pretty creative justifications in my day.

        • Damien S.

          You don’t even have to go to slavery.  Think surrogacy.  Or, is paying some poor mother so you can adopt her baby so unthinkable?  (Does it not happen today?)

          There’s also infanticide and exposure, which were pretty common.  Not for fun, but for resource management, one way or another.

          • Think surrogacy.  Or, is paying some poor mother so you can adopt her baby so unthinkable?  (Does it not happen today?)

            I didn’t think it did, actually. I’ve always thought of surrogacy as the surrogate mother either having a fertilized embryo implanted in her uterus or her being inseminated with the father’s sperm. But that’s not something that I follow, so I could be wrong.

        • Anonymous

          The claim for the objectivity of moral facts is not refuted by the circumstance that we are (obviously) confronted by controversial ethical issues, or that our collective opinion about such issues may change over time. The most fundamental moral judgments, such as the one cited by Prof. Cohen, are (as you seem to acknowledge) self-evidently true. It then becomes up to us to reason from these basic facts to more particular conclusions. We need to ask WHY it is wrong to “boil babies” and less wrong to boil other animals. We then need to apply these answers to other more controversial moral issues, using deductive or dialectical arguments. The answers to these issues will certainly not be self-evident, but the same would be true of matters of math and science.  

          • Sure. My point isn’t that controversial ethical (why not moral?) issues refute the argument that there are objective moral facts, just that the non-controversial issues are poor supporters of that same argument. If we’re going to limit the set of objective moral facts to just those that we all agree on, that’s wonderful, but then I fail to see the point.

            You bring up an interesting point, it is the “why” that’s important. But when people say “because it’s a self-evident moral judgement,” or “because God says so,” you don’t get anywhere, if you don’t already accept those premises. And if you and I disagree on the why of boiling babies (which I still think is unhelpful as an example), we’re going to come to different determinations as to other issues down the road. “Babies don’t deserve to be boiled,” “healthy children are precious and hard to come by” and “my deity will smite you” start to diverge pretty quickly.

            And, for the record, I don’t think that “it’s wrong to boil babies” is a self-evident moral judgment – it’s a learned one that comes from a time when randomly murdering the offspring of the community for sport could doom said community to extinction. But to the degree that any moral judgments could be self-evident, I think that they’ll be found wrapped up in biology and, as a subset of that, the need to promote the community.

          • Andrew Cohen

            Aaron-I think you are missing the point here.  First, the self-evident claim was “suffering is bad.”  I think that is a clear case of an objectively true moral claim–indeed, I think its analytically true.  Anyone that understands the term “suffering” understands that it includes badness, which means it has (something like) “to be avoided-ness” built into it.   Second, of course we are going to use “low-hanging fruit”–i.e., obvious cases–when trying to suggest that morality is objective.  The point is to demonstrate that despite the oft-repeated claim that there is much disagreement about moral questions, in fact there is much agreement.  That does not prove there is objectivity, but it blunts the objection.  After that move, I added the “partners-in-crime” response, arguing that the fact that I can’t definitively prove the rules of math don’t change at high numbers does not make me think they do; that is, I do not start doubting the objectivity of math–though I can’t definitively prove where that objectivity comes from. I think, then, that morality and math are on similar ground regarding objectivity. Just because I can’t definitively prove they are objective does not mean we have good reason to think they are not. (And there are easy and hard cases of both; 2+2=4 and “boiling babies for fun is wrong” verse some quadratic equation with imaginary numbers and “abortion is wrong.” Its a problem that we tend to emphasize the hard moral cases.)

          • Damien S.

            It’s tautologically true that suffering is bad for individuals and will be avoided by them.  (Simplifying away a lot of actual behavior.)  That’s not the same as caring about other people’s suffering, which takes more work.

            Rules of math at higher number: that’s what proof by induction is for.  We *can* prove this stuff, it’s rather elementary.

            And again, math is a self-contained logical system.  It doesn’t describe reality or tell us what to do, it’s ultimately formal symbol manipulation.  That’s a lot different from what morality is trying to do.

            Is war objectively wrong?  Torture?  Wife-beating?  What does it mean if we end up calling most of human history objectively wrong?

          • Actually, there are people who claim that math DOES describe reality, since so many physical traits of reality can be boiled down into mathematical equations.

          • Damien S.

            Some maths can be used to describe reality, yes, which we find through empirical observation, sometimes learning that the math we thought described reality was only an approximation of a completely different equation and underlying physical concepts.

          • Andrew Cohen

            Damien: I never said that everyone will care about morality.  Or that everyone will care about suffering.  I do not think either.  I think its objectively true–as you may agree–that suffering is bad.  That’s my only point.
            Is war or torture objectively wrong?  These are harder questions.  I assume they involve suffering, which we agree is bad.  But there may be overriding factors that make them right nonetheless.  (Wife-beating, though?  Seriously?  Assuming this is not part of some voluntary S&M sort of thing, how can that not be wrong?)
            As for history.  Lots of things in history were wrong.  So what?

          • Damien S.

            If people were doing wrong things for thousands of years without obvious consequences to them, I have to question what it means to be objectively wrong, or what work it is doing over “we don’t like that”, or why anyone should care about objective wrongness, vs. dismissing it as an attempt to garner extra status for someone’s preferences.

            Wife-beating: enforcing the obligations of the marriage contract and obedience to the husband, just as with spanking a disobedient child or flogging convicts. There are your overriding factors.

          • Andrew Cohen

            Sometimes people get away with acting immorally.  Unfortunate, perhaps, but true. And irrelevant, in my view.  We don’t say that Hitler and Stalin were morally fine as long as they got away with their acts and we shouldn’t say it in the counterfactual world in which they completely succeed and face no repercussions. 

            I don’t know what marriage contract you’ve read.

          • Damien S.

            Uh, the traditional Christian marriage vows have the bride swearing to obey her husband.

            I think one of the Bible or Koran specify how thick a rod you can use to beat your wife with.

            And of course Paul had the husband subservient to Christ, and the wife subservient to the husband.

            Or to get away from monotheists, the Roman paterfamilias had customary power of *life and death* over his family and household.  Wife, children, even adult sons.

            Again, why should anyone care about objective morality, and how would we know it when we see it?

          • Andrew Cohen

            Yes, there are traditional views of marriage.  They are not standardly contracts.  Some may be: vows exchanged could certainly be taken to be. 

            Why should we care about objective morality?  Scroll way up to the first discussion, started by Chris G.

          • The “rule of thumb” allegedly comes from English common law, but has never been substantiated. It’s not in either the Bible or the Koran, however, even though there is a similar phrase in Persian.

          • I should say I’m missing the point. After all, otherwise, there would be no need for debate.

            I don’t know that I agree with the idea that “suffering is bad” is an example of a self-evident, objective moral claim. “Uncontrollable suffering is undesirable” is self-evident – to me, anyway, but I don’t see the moral aspect of it. Given that I understand the concept of uncontrolled suffering, and therefore wish to avoid it, I become at odds with any person who would attempt to inflict it on me. (In pretty much that order, I think.) To the degree that I have convinced myself that I am entitled to not have someone else make me suffer, I label those who would do so as “bad.” So far so good. But now I have to answer the question – what is the source of that entitlement?

            And I think that’s where things break down. I understand the assertion. I don’t understand what underlies it to make it anything other than an assertion.

            Of course, the fact that I don’t see the underlying framework doesn’t mean it isn’t there. But if someone is going to claim it exists, I will place a burden of proof on them to demonstrate it to me. And here’s the thing about a burden of proof. I don’t need to prove an objective basis for morality for that basis to actually exist. But – if I can’t meet your burden of proof, I cannot expect you to behave as if it did exist. And what is morality other than instructions on how to behave?

            As for the low hanging fruit, we’re coming at this from opposite directions. I understand your point that simple, nearly universally acceptable arguments are useful in demonstrating that we agree on many things. But for me, the tendency to emphasize a few simplistic arguments over and over disguises the areas of disagreement, because the idea that there might be an objective basis for any given moral sentiment does not demonstrate that morality itself has a broader basis.

            To use your example, 2+2=4 and a complex equation with imaginary numbers might both be true. But because they rely on different principles, I can’t use “2+2=4 is self-evidently true” as a basis for claiming “any mathematical equation is true” to someone who doesn’t understand math. In other words, the simple addition that make 2+2=4 work is of no help to me in understanding derivatives or differential equations, and so the fact that we agree on 2+2 doesn’t mean we’ll agree on some calculus problem, or even that the problem is valid. By the same token, if the complex equation with imaginary numbers doesn’t ever fall back on basic addition, the fact that we agree on it doesn’t then demonstrate that 2+2=4.

          • Andrew Cohen

            First, keep in mind that I did not say suffering is wrong or that allowing or even causing it is wrong.  Just that it is bad.  Now, try to explain what that means in such a way that its not a moral claim.  I know what “that attempt at art is bad” means–that is I understand an aesthetic sense of the term “bad.”  That doesn’t seem to apply to suffering.  If its not the moral sense, what is it?Assuming it is the moral sense, the next issue is the underlying framework.  I’m not sure what to say here.  “Suffering is bad” is, I think, analytically true.  True by definition.  Understanding the terms is understanding the claim is true.I like using “low hanging fruit” for exactly the reasons you say.  Too many people approach morality by looking at the hard cases and then conclude, from the fact of disagreement, that there must be no objectivity.  (This strikes me as lazy–a failure to consider alternative explanations for the disagreement.  I don’t think that’s what you are doing.)  Of course, given some agreement, there is much work left to do, but that is a next step.As for your last paragraph: if it is accepted that “1+1=2” is objectively true, then it is accepted that there is objective truth in math.  Similarly, if it is accepted that “suffering is bad,” then it is accepted that there is objective truth in morality.  There may, of course, be other moral issues about which there is not an objective truth.  I didn’t mean to deny that.

          • Damien S.

            “Suffering is bad” — but bad for whom?  And bad in some moral sense, or bad in the way that eating shit or strychnine is bad?

            Suffering is disliked by the sufferer, and by empathetic observers, and all those parties will likely seek to reduce the suffering.  That much we can take as objectively true.

            “1+1=2” is true in regular arithmetic, but not in modulo 2 arithmetic, where 1+1=0.  Once again truth is dependent on axioms and context taken.

          • Andrew Cohen

            I asked you for the sense of “bad” you had in mind!  I’d say suffering is morally bad.  I think its prudentially bad (if the suffering is mine) as well.  The same, more or less, as with strychnine.  What sense do you think its bad?  My guess–I can only guess since you have not said–is that you think its only prudentially bad (or maybe you think its only aesthetically bad?)???
            As for 1+1=2.  OK, the point is that “1+1=2 is objectively true in base 10.”  This is roughly analogous to a recognition that context matters in moral issues.  I never denied that.  But it does not change the fact that there are (or so I claim) objective moral claims. 

          • Damien S.

            I tend to follow Epicurus and Hobbes in metaphysics, so I guess either of prudentially or aesthetically bad, meaning individual preferences. Note that doesn’t mean trivial; my preference to not die is rather stronger than my preference to have nice art on my walls.

          • Ah. I see. For me, “bad” is too broad, hazy and loaded a term. That’s why I went with “undesirable,” which I suppose has the effect of watering down the moral aspect of it, and shifts the debate away from suffering and to the state of non-suffering, although I suppose that “unpleasant” might be an even better term to work with, but it also shifts the debate.

        • Anonymous

          I’d second Damien’s comment about building slavery into the story. Do you get to a different point if one case is buying a slave and the other case is adopting a child? Is that due to some subjective element?

          • Andrew Cohen

            I assume that what is done with the “bought” being matters.

          • I’m not sure what you mean here. But there are morally controversial ways of handling adoptions, even though people tend to look at adoption in general as a good thing. And using one of the those, examples, rather than something heinous, tends to forestall the “we agree on this point, so morality is universal” idea.

          • Anonymous

            I didn’t really see why Jason had to toss in the whole I’m buying another person with the same rights as if I bought a table or car. Like boiling babies, who really thinks they have a right to own another person as it they were just some other object. I don’t see how that would have any bearing on the objective status of spending money to “buy” another person. In the end that’s what any adoption process that involves making monetary payments amounts to. 

            I agree that process and end point can be and typically are separate issues that can be assessed separately. I think you’re right that it will forestall and quick agreement and potentially rushed conclusion (which may still be a false conclusion even with full agreement) but it’s also the case that differences will likely be on some aspect that is outside the original claim. For instance, adoption, typically we think of taking a child in need of a home and matching it with someone or a couple who will be caring, loving guardians. People might view the black market as  immoral for reasons that are outside the definition of adoption — organized crime, they’s use the money to do other bad things, undermines the government or leads to higher costs, questionable source for the baby (taken from caring parents or maturity ward) or questionable adopter (has spare space in the baby boiler).

            It’s often hard to tell if we’re missing the forest for the twigs or missing the devil that’s in the details.

      • Anonymous

        ” If there are living human babies, boiling them for fun is wrong. ”

        Just to tease out another facet of this discussion, does that still hold if I’m not human? Taking a different context, is sports hunting moral?

        • Andrew Cohen

          As indicated, many (or all) non-human animals lack the traits needed for moral blameworthiness and praiseworthiness.  So, if you’re not human but are a pit-bull dog, we are unlikely to say you acted wrongly if you kill the baby.  We are, of course, likely to put you to sleep (such a nice euphemism) so that you don’t do it again.  Of course, if you are some sort of fully rational and autonomous alien, I would say you do act wrongly if you boil the baby for fun.

          • Here! This is a clear example of smuggling blameworthiness into the argument:

            Pitbulls lack the human traits required for moral culpability but so do human infants. Assuming that it’s morally wrong for neither a human nor a pitbull to kill a groundhog, there is something distinguishing a human infant from a groundhog beyond the traits necessary for culpability.So the problem becomes distinguishing not moral guilt, but moral claims.
            If you’re claiming essentialism, or the great chain of being, or something created and innate about humans that elevate them above other animals, you need to claim it openly. And if you’re not, you need to develop your premises and support your assumptions.

          • Andrew Cohen

            1. I don’t think I “smuggled” anything in.  I brought it in very openly!  If that wasn’t clear, here you go: persons are different then, and more morally valuable then, other animals.  Most adult humans are persons.  Not all are.  A person is a rationally autonomous being.  2. I’m not sure I understand your second point, but: (a) human infants can’t be properly described as morally blameworthy or praiseworthy and (b) most will disagree, but I do think human infants are morally different then human adults in that the latter, but not the former, count as persons–per #1.  Moreover, (c) I doubt its always wrong to kill a groundhog, but I don’t doubt that its wrong to kill a groundhog in a way that causes it to suffer unnecessarily; still, I can’t say the pitbull does something wrong, though, if it does that.  

          • Damien S.

            Is it wrong to boil a lobster alive?  Or to let fish suffocate to death after being caught?  Or to raise chickens in factory-farm conditions?

          • Andrew Cohen

            I’ve been told that if you put a lobster in water and then boil it, it feels no pain.  I take it that means there is no suffering.  So its not clear to me why it would be wrong to do so.  I think the same applies to fish, but I would need to know more about fish to be sure.  Chickens?  Perhaps its a harder case: they clearly do suffer, but if that is necessary for other important reasons may be over-rideable.  I have doubts that that is the case.

      • There are a lot of problems here. Many.

        A canon is an objective standard of measure. By definition an objective reality requires one and Damien demonstrated how it’s hard to identify such a standard for even the simplest premises.

        1. Here’s your problem: human babies have not always existed as the evocative image you’re conjuring. 

        2. Nope, only objective.

        3. You’re positing an objective morality that binds non-existent entities– ie, pre-evolutionary humans.

        4. See 1 and 3.

        5. Of course non-human animals are different from us, but if moral autonomy is the condition then deficient humans are amoral agents.  The assumption that rationality understands objective morality rather than creates a morality is exactly what needs proved, not simply asserted.

        6. If such a human exists, it cannot be wrong for that person to boil a baby and, thus, morality is neither binding nor objective on that human. The question is whether we are willing to condemn what is condemnable. It’s a litmus and it demonstrates, again, the difficulty of finding a canon.

        • Andrew Cohen

          Your definition of “canon” is, I think, far from the most commonly used definition.  But that’s fine.
          1. I don’t understand.  I don’t think I talked about images of babies.
          2. Fair enough.
          3. Not at all.  I’m not sure why you think that.
          4. See 1 and 3, I guess.
          5. We at least partly agree here (see also my reply to your comment above).  I’d only note that in addition to moral agents, there are moral patients.  This is too commonly neglected.  It may be wrong to do something to a moral patient.  For e.g., I think its wrong to boil a live kitten, but I do not think a kitten is a moral agent–its a moral patient.  Rocks, of course, are not moral agents or moral patients.  In any case, its importantly false that “when we exclude some humans, the deficient and the infant, from moral agency we yield the right to include them under the moral umbrella of moral protections.”  More argument would be needed to decide whether they should be protected as moral patients.
          6. Are you here suggesting that there could be a human adult that is not rational or autonomous and that then boils a baby?  Is this being an automaton, controlled by another?  If so, its true that it is not acting wrongly–because its not really acting at all.  Its controller is, and is acting wrongly.  If that is not what you are assuming, I don’t get the example. 

  • Adam Ricketson

    You may be interested in Paul Griffiths and John Wilkins’ examination of “evolutionary debunking arguments” and their different application to science, religion, and morality.

    This has been reviewed at “Philosophical Disquisitions”

    • Andrew Cohen

      Thanks Adam!

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  • The nut of the thing is that a rational person would not, cannot, deny that either objective morality exists or objective morality does not exist. But that alone does not imply objective morality must exist, yet that seems to be the gist of of your argument:

    It seems that you’re saying a god either exists or does not exist, independent of  both individual beliefs about its existence and the virtually infinite and contradictory sets of traits those that do believe in a god describe to the god in which they believe. Thus, a god either exists or does not exist independent of both belief in that god and belief about that god.

    All true. But it certainly does not establish any god’s existence. And if you had gone on to say, thus atheists are wrong it would have been an obvious error. But that seems to be exactly how you approached the existence of objective morality, by ignoring the first (and correct) half of your conjunction in your segue into objective morality.

    An objective morality either exists or does not exist and neither belief about its existence nor particular beliefs about morality affect that existence or nonexistence. You’ve proven nothing more than that, but that really requires no proof. Nor does it imply anything about whether objective morality actually does exist.

    • Andrew Cohen

      Vince-Most of what you say here, I think, is right with regard to my original post.  I think I improved that in my first–and largest–response.  That is, the response to all that begins “First, thanks for all the feedback!    And now…”  At least, some.

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  • I think I’m getting the hang of this. The idea, “that whether a particular act is wrong cannot be determined objectively” comes from, I believe, different understandings of what morality “is.” (Not the right word, I think, put perhaps I can make it suffice.) In my understanding, the conclusion concerning the rightness or wrongness of any particular act is an effect, and not a “first cause” as it were. So let’s take the following scenario, drawn from a study published in the journal “Nature”:

    You are part of a group of ecologists who live in a remote stretch of jungle. The entire group, which includes eight children, has been taken hostage by a group of paramilitary terrorists. One of the terrorists takes a liking to you. He informs you that his leader intends to kill you and the rest of the hostages the following morning.

    He is willing to help you and the children escape, but as an act of good faith he wants you to kill one of your fellow hostages whom he does not like. If you refuse his offer all the hostages including the children and yourself will die. If you accept his offer then the others will die in the morning but you and the eight children will escape.

    Would you kill one of your fellow hostages in order to escape from the terrorists and save the lives of the eight children?

    (Note that to answer this question “yes” or “no,” as the researchers intended, you have to make a whole raft of unstated assumptions, for instance, that a man willing to take innocent ecologists and children as hostages, and be a party to their murder is honest enough to uphold his end of the bargain. Me, I find that one to be more than a bit iffy.)

    Now, as far as the researchers were concered, there IS a right answer – after all, the reason they were doing the study was to demonstrate that people with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex were more likely to make “abnormally ‘utilitarian,’ ” moral choices, whereas people lacking such damage were more likely to make “normal judgments of right and wrong.” You could say that they’d hit upon an objective standard of morality, and were setting out to prove that people with brain damage had difficulty following it.

    But for me, what I saw was a deeper conflict,between the “utilitarian” standard of saving as many lives as possible, and the “normal” standard of keeping one’s own hands clean. Here’s another example, along the same vein:

    A viral epidemic has spread across the globe killing millions of people. You have developed two substances in your home laboratory. You know that one of them is a vaccine, but you don’t know which one. You also know that the other one is deadly.

    Once you figure out which substance is the vaccine you can use it to save millions of lives. You have with you two people who are under your care, and the only way to identify the vaccine is to inject each of these people with one of the two substances. One person will live, the other will die, and you will be able to start saving lives with your vaccine.

    Would you kill one of these people with a deadly injection in order to identify a vaccine that will save millions of lives?

    (Again, you have to make some assumptions – and you have to ignore the easy way out given to you – if you’re willing to risk your own life, that is. But this is the scenario as writen, verbatim and it is a yes or no question.)

    There’s a clear understanding at work here, that it is immoral to ever take the life of an (assumed) innocent person, regardless of how many other (presumably) innocent people would be helped by doing so. Interestingly, this is a negative right, rather than a positive one – it’s not that people have a right to live – it’s that (under the circumstances postualted) no-one has the right to kill another person. But there is another scenario, one with much less conflict to it, that seems to postulate a responsibility to help others, if the only cost is damage to ones material well-being.

    You are driving along a country road when you hear a plea for help coming from some roadside bushes. You pull over and encounter a man whose legs are covered with blood. The man explains that he has had an accident while hiking and asks you to take him to a nearby hospital.

    Your initial inclination is to help this man, who will probably lose his leg if he does not get to the hospital soon. However, if you give this man a lift, his blood will ruin the leather upholstery of your car.

    Would you leave this man by the side of the road in order to preserve your leather upholstery?

    And I think that this becomes the difficulty when attempting to evaluate an objective basis to morality – what’s really under consideration is which moral standards one adheres to, and which ones trump which others. And I suspect that it’s going to be the attempt to create a coherent ranking of moral strictures that will doom any effort to create a moral framework that people not already so inclined would accept at “objective.”

    • Andrew Cohen

      Aaron-Interesting stuff.  Philosophers have long considered these sorts of examples.  The first is very similar, for example, to a case by Bernard Williams.  In any case, I suspect the cases are meant to determine whether consequentialist or deontological intuitions are more common.  There is much of this sort of work from experimental philosophers (X-Phi) today.  There is also a good bit of literature arguing it can’t really help moral theory.  In any case, I think its really a different topic: at least with the first 2 cases, and perhaps also with the third, the authors don’t seem to question that there is objectivity to morality–they only question the best way to understand morality.  David Schmidtz argues that we should understand moral theories as maps to the moral terrain.  I think this is a helpful idea: morality is objective, theories are merely attempts to accurately describe it, and (I add) problems with descriptions should not be taken to indicate anything about the mapped thing (morality).

  • Anonymous

    @google-e5cf811e2d93d8ed9f70a3a7c0331f3c:disqus :  You write, “I think I agree with the rest of what you say except that I suspect in most cases, moral questions are ‘like scientific questions where we can suspend judgment until we gather more evidence.’   At a certain point though—in both scientific and moral questions—we are likely to have enough evidence to stand firm in our claims.  As Schumpeter said, ‘To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.'”

    I agree that one should not abandon one’s moral convictions; my point was that this is precisely what differentiates them from non-moral beliefs (when one’s evidence is insufficiently weighty). Now, you’re suggesting here that this distinction is wrong–as I understand you, you’re saying that we should suspend judgment on moral questions whenever the evidence is not decisive just as we should with scientific questions. But now I’m wondering what you think decisive evidence consists in, in the moral sphere?

    One popular answer is that moral beliefs are supported by moral ‘intuitions’ or ‘sentiments’—I can just see that setting kittens on fire for pleasure is morally wrong, because of how that feels to me. Of course, our intuitions are not perfectly reliable, so we need to engage in some critical reflection and try to systematize our intuitions into a moral theory (hopefully reaching something like Rawls’ ‘reflective equilibrium’).

    But if that’s true, then why should I keep my moral convictions in the face of evidence that other people have radically different moral intuitions? If that’s the sort of evidence we have, then why should I think that my intuitions, rather than theirs, track the objective truth? Am I just lucky? Or if I just believe (with no independent evidence) that I’m a better person, then isn’t that hubris of the worst kind?

    There’s a really good recent paper by Kieran Setiya in Philosophical Topics, “Does Moral Education Corrupt Youth?” which presents this argument much more carefully. (Again, the argument is: given a certain conception of what the evidence for moral claims consists in, we should be moral skeptics. His conclusion is that the conception of the evidence should be rejected.) I think it’s an important argument, although possibly it does not directly address your view, since I’m not sure what you think the evidence for moral claims is.

    Edit: Here’s a link to the paper.

    • Andrew Cohen

      gregates-Determining what should count as good (let alone decisive) evidence will be hard.  So this won’t be a real answer to your question.  Sorry.   Thanks for the paper and the comment. 
      I do think using something like a process of reflective equilibrium is useful (though I suspect that is really just a description of what moral theory always was anyway).  And I do think what others believe should be considered–and, depending on who the people are, given substantial weight.  Importantly, there are lots of things to consider though, including explanations as to why people would make mistakes.  Cleaning out my grandparents’ apartment recently, I came upon 3 books of (more or less) Soviet propaganda/apologetics; its not hard to see how their authors succumbed to (the same) errors, so I don’t take them to be particularly good pieces of evidence that the former USSR was really as good as they say in those books (“no unemployment!,” “no prisons!”).  I think we can often do the same thing with people living now, around us.  So, lots of people (seem to) think *The Housewives of NY/NJ/DC/etc” is valuable TV programming; I think they are mistaken and I think there are reasonably clear explanations for their mistake.  Of course, I just don’t care about that very much.  I do care about morality, especially political morality.  So I seek to learn from experts.  I see what they have to say–and sometimes I see errors in their reasoning and sometimes I am persuaded by them.  (And, by the way, I find it annoying that people think there is no such expertise.)

  • Anonymous

    @google-e5cf811e2d93d8ed9f70a3a7c0331f3c:disqus  Surely, if we’re going to get a real problem out of intractable disagreement, it has to be disagreement between otherwise ideally rational inquirers with carefully systematic moral theories that do systematize conflicting intuitions—not just any old case of disagreement will do. One can deny that such disagreement is possible, but it’s certainly not obviously impossible.

    • Andrew Cohen

      I’m not sure if I’d go with the push for ideally rational inquirers, but otherwise I agree.

  • @google-e5cf811e2d93d8ed9f70a3a7c0331f3c:disqus , I’m curious if you’ve familiarized yourself with Richard Joyce’s ‘The Myth of Morality’? I highly recommended and feel that you would profit greatly by reading it. 
    The Notre Dame Philosophical Review of the book is here:

  • Backwardation797

    if everyone’s opinion is equal then all points of view are worthless, equal to zero, and hence negates all value and meaning: subjectivity leads to nihilism and entropy/decay