Again, I am redating the moral objectivity post because we are covering it in my Philosophy 105 class.
Are Moral Values Objective?
I. Facts and Opinions: Before I start to answer this question, let me rant and rave a little bit about the “fact and opinion” exercises that are given to school children. (Here, I am operating in the tradition of C. S. Lewis, who in the Abolition of Man complained about the implied positivist philosophy that he thought to be smuggled into students’ English textbooks). This “fact and opinion” dichotomy strikes me as being intellectual rat poison. According to the school exercise, A fact is what can be proven true or false and can be true for everyone, an opinion is a personal feeling and is not necessarily true for everyone.
This seems, pretty clearly, to commit the fallacy of the false dilemma. There can be a fact of the matter as to whether something is true or false, without our being able to prove it true or false. There can be a “fact of the matter” about something, and at the same time there can be more or less reasonable opinions about it. In fact, the most reasonable opinion about something may turn out to be false, nevertheless it is the most reasonable opinion. Consider Jack the Ripper. There are a lot of opinions about what Jack the Ripper was, but there is also a fact as to who committed those murders. Is opinion a) something purely subjective, or b) something about which there is a truth, but uncertainty amongst human beings as to what the truth is? I frequently use that term of b, but very often people mean a. This gets really difficult when I ask students to write papers and want me to give me their reflective opinions, supported by argument. If he fact-opinion dichotomy is exhaustive, then I am asking for an impossibility.
II. What is it for something to be an objective matter? An objective matter is about which it is possible to be mistaken. Let’s take
1) 2 + 2 + 4 or
2) The earth is round.
If someone says something that contradicts these claims, we quite straightforwardly say that they are wrong. There is, for example a Flat Earth society, headquartered in Illinois. (If you’ve ever been to Illinois, you might understand why people who live here are tempted to think the earth is flat). These people sincerely believe that the earth is flat, but there is little temptation to say that they the earth is really flat for them, even though it is round for the rest of us. Contrast this with
3) McDonald’s burgers are better tasting than Burger King’s
4) Belching after dinner is rude
In the first instance, we are inclined to suppose that the statement in incomplete; in order to assess its truth or falsity we have to ask “better tasting to whom?” It’s a matter of individual preference, and no further debate or discussion is necessary. In the second case, most of us are inclined to suppose that while it may have been true in our home, there are cultures elsewhere in the world where it is manifestly false, where an after-dinner belch is required by good manners to indicate that one is satisfied with the meal that has been prepared. In neither case are most of us inclined to think that the people who differ with us about 3 or 4 have false beliefs.
But now consider
5) There is life on other planets equivalent or superior in intelligence to our own or
6) God exists
In the case of 5, the matter seems clearly to be an objective one, although I at least, have no clue as to whether it is true or false. I’m very sure that it’s either true or false, whether it is true or false strikes me as something I am not in a position to know.
But 6 seems equally and obviously to be an objective matter. “But not everyone believes that there is a God.” Yes, not everyone believes that the earth is round. If no one can be mistaken about whether or not God exists, then it would have to be that case that God exists for everyone who sincerely believes that God exists, but God does not exist for the people who believe that God does not exist. On this account, God is like Tinkerbell, the fairy who continues to exist so long as people believe in fairies.
Now in order for the objectivity to be made clear, we have to have a clear definition of God in mind. The standard definition of God in philosophy is a being that is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good. If might be that one person might believe some being (say, the Force of Star Wars) to be describable as God, while another might not. That’s why we need a definition of the conception of God to make the claim objective.
But what about moral statements like
7) Abortion is always wrong unless carrying the pregnancy to term will endanger the life of the mother.
This is a profoundly debatable question, one that I can’t settle easily. Some people accept it, others do not. But the same can be said for 5 and 6. There are arguments that can be given both for and against 7. Sometimes the profundity of the disagreement about abortion is take to be evidence that moral differences cannot even be argued about, and that therefore they are subjective. However, let’s notice two things about the abortion controversy.
Both sides seem to agree that
A) Human life has value and
B) The quality of life has value
We don’t hear pro-life people denying the importance of the quality of life. We don’t hear pro-choice people denying the value of human life. Rather, we find pro-choice people arguing that human life in its fetal stage is doesn’t possess personhood in the sense required to give it a right to life, or perhaps it dependent status on the mother makes it acceptable for the mother to relieve her burden even though the fetal life is lost. (Sort of a justifiable homicide argument). But they normally don’t say life just isn’t valuable. (The closest I came to that came from an office-mate of mine in grad school. He claimed that pleasure was the only value and pain was the only disvalue. To the question “Why shouldn't I just kill you now.” my office-mate replied, “Only if you can do it painlessly.” But most defenders of a woman’s right to choose would not take such an extreme position. They think that human life is valuable; they just think either fetal life isn’t human life in the required sense, or that the value of life can be “trumped” in favor of quality-of-life considerations.
It seems, therefore, that the “deep” disagreements involved in the abortion controversy conceal deep agreements as to what our fundamental values are. But consider
8) It is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement.
If you are a moral subjectivist, you have to believe that 8 is subjective, that it is just a matter of custom that you accept it, and someone like, say, Jeffrey
Dahmer who rejected it, isn’t really engaging in wrong behavior, just distasteful conduct. And whether apply moral relativism to a case like this is the real test as to whether you are an ethical subjectivist or not. To do that, I suggest that you have to swallow very hard.
As you have no doubt been able to ascertain, I believe ethical judgments are objective. It may be difficult to determine if they are true or false, but I am confident that they are either true or false. Bertrand Russell thought otherwise. He wrote:
The theory which I have been advocating is a form of the doctrine which is called the "subjectivity" of values. This doctrine consists in maintaining that that, if two men differ about values, there is not a disagreement as to any kind of truth, but a difference of taste. If one man says "oysters are good" and another says "I think they are bad," we recognize that there is nothing to argue about. The theory in question holds that all differences as to values are of this sort, although we do not naturally think them so when we are dealing with matters that seem to us more exalted than oysters. The chief ground for adopting this view is the complete impossibility of finding any arguments to prove that this or that has intrinsic value. If we all agreed, we might hold that we know values by intuition. We cannot prove, to a colour-blind man, that grass is green and not red. But there are various ways of proving to him that he lacks a power of discrimination which most men possess, whereas in the case of values there are no such ways, and disagreements are much more frequent than in the case of colours. Since no way can be even imagined for deciding a difference as to values, the conclusion is forced upon us that the difference is one of tastes, not one as to any objective truth. (From the essay “Science and Ethics”
C. S. Lewis, on the other and, wrote:
The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike...Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish.
--C. S. Lewis
So debate on this question of moral objectivity rages on today.