Friday, January 30, 2009

The case for moral objectivity

A redated post.

I. The argument from Implied Practice

1. If ethics is subjective, then we should expect people to recognize that actions which they are inclined to think of as "wrong" are only wrong from their point of view.
2. But invariably, people view wrongs against themselves as actions that are really wrong.
3. Therefore moral values are objective and not subjective.

II. The argument from Underlying Moral Consensus:
1. If morality were a subjective matter, we would expect to find sizable differences of fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
2. But there is, in general, agreement concerning fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
3. Therefore, morality is objective rather than subjective.

III. The argument from reformers:
1. If moral values are subjective, then moral codes cannot improve, since there is no objective standard by which to judge one code better than another.
2. But the work of people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks shows that moral codes can be made more just.
3. Therefore, moral values are objective rather than subjective.

IV. The argument from clear cases
1. If moral values are subjective, then even in clear cases of wrongness, we have to say that it is neither true nor false that an action was wrong.
2. But consider the case of someone inviting another person over for dinner, shoving that person into the oven, and then eating them as dinner. (Or the Holocaust, etc.)
3. Therefore, moral values are objective rather than subjective.

V. The argument from human rights.
1. If moral values are subjective, then there are no inalienable human rights. (A right in a moral obligation on the part of someone not to do something to you. If I have the right to free speech, that means someone has the obligation not to forcibly shut me up).
2. There are inalienable human rights.
3. Therefore, moral values are objective and not subjective.

Any missing argument here?

20 comments:

Steve Lovell said...

At least one more occurs to me, really along the same lines as the argument from Reformers: The Argument from Disagreement. If two people have different moral views, which would normally be expressed my statements like "Abortion is morally wrong" and "Abortion is morally permissable", then we usually take it that they can't both be right, and that the argument which results makes sense. However, if their claims really reduce to

(a) Abortion, Boo!
or
(a') Abortion is wrong for me/wrong in my culture.

and
(b) Abortion Hurrah!
or
(b') Abortion is okay for me/okay in my culture.

it will turn out that they just differed and didn't actually disagree at all. On (a) vs (b), they are just "emoting" not actually saying anything, and on (a') vs (b') both could be correct.

Hallq said...

If the argument is about whether people think they're moral views are objective, the answer is easily yes, and the argument from disagreement is one way to show this. If the question is whether there actually are objective moral facts, the argument from disagreement is fallacious, like noticing disagreements about the hair of the present king of France and infering that there is such a person.

One of the most subjective arguments for moral objectivism, advocated by Thomas Nagel, is that we cannot help but act, and therefore cannot help but take the question of how to act as a serious question. The argument seems much more powerful than other ones presented here, which seem to be variants of "we think there is objective morality therefore there is." The key premises are not absolutely absurd, but it is somewhat difficult to claim we know them and can use them as basis for argument.

Steve Lovell said...

The argument from disagreements is hardly fallacious, although it might not be persuasive. The point is that what appear to be disagreements are not even disagreements if objectivism is false. Therefore, if there are disagreements, then objectivism is true. Your point then is presumably that we should be careful about taking at face value the apparent disagreement between statements like "Abortion is wrong" and "Abortion is permissible".

The same goes for the argument from reformers and others. If the we want to hang on to the idea that moral reform has improved things then objectivism follows. These arguments aren't fallacious as such, but neither are they watertight demonstations of objectivism. Rather, they point to some pretty strong and pervasive intuitions and show that you'd have to give those up if objectivism were rejected.

I also pointed out the argument from disagreement because there is a similarly titled argument against moral objectivity, and I think this one makes a good counter-point.

Steve



point of these arguments is

Caleb_Woodrow said...

As far as cultural moral relativism goes, one argument is that it is self referentially incoherent. This is because the statement 'all individuals ought to follow the moral norms of their society' is taken to be objective.

Another is that perhaps it is the *application* of moral norms that is subjective, and not the moral norms themselves. This seems plausible.

Another one (which has already been put in a different formulation)is that moral subjectivism does not follow from disagreement.

With respect to cultural relativism again, it can be asked what happens when the morality of two cultures conflict? Who is just? Then one could cite examples (like Nazi's etc.) where if they won we still wouldn't find their morality to be just, etc.

Those are a few off the top of my head.

SteveK said...

It seem clear to me that morality is objective in the sense that non-contradiction laws apply so morality exists objectively at some level or it doesn't exist at all.

Speaking from epistemology, I fail to see how anything can be subjective all the way down to it's core root. At some point you either "bump against" the thing you're looking for (morality in this case) and know it, or you discover it's not capable of being known.

If something is incapable of being known then it's not subjective knowledge, it's an illusion of knowledge.

Ilíon said...

I hope this doesn't turn out to be a repost (I *thought* I'd successfully posted this comment):


How about an argument from incoherence:

C: Since morality is not objective, then objectively it is wrong for some persons to claim that morality is objective.

It seems to me that if one looks, one can find this incoherence nestled in *all* arguments against the objectivity of moral obligations. Unstated, but there nontheless. And, of course, one could expand the above into multiple premises and conclusion; but the result is the same: the moral "subjectivist" is incoherently asserting that morality is simultaneously both non-objective and objective.

Darek Barefoot said...

I, too, doubt the coherence of the denial of moral values. Do we all know the meaning of the statement, "Moral values are not real"? I think we do, but I'm not sure how we could if the statement were true. The unicorn and the philosopher's stone are unreal, but we identify them by means of concepts and properties that are real. Horses are real and horns are real, but the conjunction of the two represented by "unicorn" is not. I can't see what real concepts or percepts or properties can be conjoined unrealistically to account for what it is we are denying when we deny moral values.

mattghg said...

ilion

C: Since morality is not objective, then objectively it is wrong for some persons to claim that morality is objective.

I don't think the committed subjectivist is going to have much trouble denying this. He/she will just say that it is wrong in the sense of *mistaken* to claim that morality is objective.

Of course, if the same person starts talking like an objectivist five minutes later, he/she is being inconsistant.

Ilíon said...

The "committed" subjectivist cannot help but be inconsistent, though he does frequently need help to see his inconsistency; that's why I said "... one can find this incoherence nestled in *all* arguments against the objectivity of moral obligations. Unstated, but there nonetheless."


Ilíon: "C: Since morality is not objective, then objectively it is wrong for some persons to claim that morality is objective."

Mattghg: "I don't think the committed subjectivist is going to have much trouble denying this. He/she will just say that it is wrong in the sense of *mistaken* to claim that morality is objective."

Yes, they will try generally something like this (some of them fully understand what they're doing); they're used to being able to get away with it because it would be "rude" of others to expose the ruse of smuggling in as hidden assumptions the very things they are denying. Well, I'm rude.


Mattghg: "Of course, if the same person starts talking like an objectivist five minutes later, he/she is being inconsistant."

Also, my point isn't that the individual subjectivist is inconsistent; though, of course, he is. That's trivial and no more counts against subjectivism than does the fact that objectivists are frequently inconsistent counts against objectivism. At the same time, it does seem to me mildly interesting that we have difficulty living up to our stated beliefs, whereas they find it impossible to live down to their stated beliefs.

My point is that subjectivism itself is inherently incoherent. My point is that the subjectivist argument cannot even be advanced without *assuming* the very thing being denied. The subjectivist himself generally makes the assumption [that objectivism is actually true] when attempting his argument, and, more importantly, counts upon his objectivist opponent to make ... and continue to make ... this assumption in evaluating and responding to subjectivist argumentation.


Back to this:
Ilíon: "C: Since morality is not objective, then objectively it is wrong for some persons to claim that morality is objective."

Mattghg: "I don't think the committed subjectivist is going to have much trouble denying this. He/she will just say that it is wrong in the sense of *mistaken* to claim that morality is objective."

My claim was that this incoherence is hidden in *all* arguments against the objectivity of moral obligations.

Certainly, the subjectivist can, and in fact must, deny making this assumption. For, to *see* that the assumption is being made as part of the subjectivist argument is to see that the particular subjectivist argument fails. My point here is not to claim that any subjectivist is a "liar;" it is to help others start to see that all subjectivist arguments are always inherently incoherent.

What is the *point* of all this argumentation between the two sides? At a minimun, and non-exhaustively (and to attribute no nefarious motives to anyone ... though, "nefarious" is meaningless if subjectivity is the truth):
... 1) To discover the truth about a particular and important question
... 2) To convince others that the truth about this question has been discovered
... 3) To convince others to modify their behavior in accordance with this now-known truth
*BOTH* sides are attempting to do at least the above; if they are not, then there is no point whatsoever in making the argument(s).

If, in response to the observation that his argumentation critically depends upon assuming the very thing he means to deny, the subjectivist "just say[s] that it is wrong in the sense of *mistaken* to claim that morality is objective," then he is denying indeed that 3), and quite possibly 2), and perhaps even 1) is included in his objectives for advancing his argument(s). What he is saying is that it doesn't matter what the truth of the matter is, or he's even saying that the question itself is unimportant. What he's saying is that rather than arguing, he's merely being argumentative (i.e. in modern netese, he's saying that he is a "troll").

Well then, why is he arguing in the first place if not to convince others to modify their behavior based upon accepting the conclusionn(s) of his argument(s) as being true? Certainly, it's true that one's motivation for advancing an argument has nothing to do one way or the other with the soundness and validity of the argument. But, if a critical premise of one's argument is that the argument itself and its conclusion are irrelevant ... and that *is* what the subjectivist is asserting in the hypothetical response you've offered, and all similar responses ... then ought not *we* take such a one at his word?

Look again at those three objectives I've listed; each of them contains or relies upon the assumption that there are objective moral obligations: we *ought* to conduct our behavior in accordance with the truth(s) we know; we *ought* to admit to the truth of valid and sound arguments; we *ought* to be concerned with discovering the truths we can discover.

Now, of course and of necessity, the moral subjectivist must deny that the moral obligations I've just here listed exist. For, to admit any one of them is to deny subjectivity; but that's not my point here. My point here is to remind the reader that one can *always* refute any subjectivist argument ... on its own terms ... by merely responding: "So what?"

All subjectivist argumentation counts upon and depends upon the objectivist (and frequently, the subjectivist himself) failing to understand that subjectivism is coherent only upon the premise that *nothing at all matters* But, if nothing matters, than neither does the "truth" of the subjectivist position nor the "falsity" of the objectivist position. If there is no objective moral obligation to conduct our behavior in accordance with truth, then it doesn't *matter* that I (or you) claim there are objective moral obligations even were there none.

To say this yet again: the subjectivist can even begin to argue against the objectivist position only because all parties implicitly understand that the objectivist will remain an objectivist even should he become "convinced" that the subjectivist position is true.


So, one can spend one's time trying to convince the subjectivist to the truth of objectivism. This is generally a waste of time (if that is one's primary objective), since few subjectivists are actually interested in knowing the truth. Or, one can say: "Well, you've convinced me: there is no such thing as an objective moral obligation! But, you know what? I don't care; I'm going to keep on asserting that there *are* objective moral obligations."

What, exactly, can the subjectivist object to? Any objection he tries to raise shows subjectivism to be false.

mattghg said...

Ilíon,

That's a very interesting and persuasive argument, but I still think it can be dodged.

we *ought* to conduct our behavior in accordance with the truth(s) we know; we *ought* to admit to the truth of valid and sound arguments; we *ought* to be concerned with discovering the truths we can discover

The subjectivist will certainly have to deny that these really are objective "ought"s. But what's to stop him/her saying, "Well, I care about what the truth is and want to modify my behaviour in accordance with it, and I assumed you did, too - that's why I'm arguing as I am. But if you don't, then there's no point us having this discussion." Now, we may well doubt this claim can ever be made with sincerity, but that's not the same as showing it to be incoherent.

This reminds me of a discussion on DI2 a few months back where Victor was arguing as follows:

1. Probably, if naturalism is true, there are no objective epistemic values.
2. There are objective epistemic values.
3. Therefore, probably, naturalism is false.

To which Doctor Logic responded by arguing that epistemic values are not "objective" but "intersubjective" (although I didn't at all buy his arguments for saying so, but that's by the by for the moment).

Best,
MG

Ilíon said...

MattG: "That's a very interesting and persuasive argument, ..."

Well, thanks; it was certainly my intention to say something interesting and persuasive. And true.


MattG: "... but I still think it can be dodged. ...[3 "oughts" related to truth and reasoning]... The subjectivist will certainly have to deny that these really are objective "ought"s. But what's to stop him/her saying, "[the dodge]"? Now, we may well doubt this claim can ever be made with sincerity, but that's not the same as showing it to be incoherent."

I think it's appropriate that you used the word "dodge" to describe such a response, because that is exactly what the hypothetical statement you offered as the hypotheticial subjectivist's response to my argument is: a dodge of the argument I offered against his position. Is it not, in fact, exactly an acknowledgement that my argument is sound and valid; that the conclusions of my argument are correct?

This statement/response certainly isn't an *argument* and it doesn't address my argument; rather, it attempts to dodge the logical consequences of the subjectivist's own position -- and it certainly seems to me that to the extent that our hypothetical subjectivist were to try to use it as an argument, he commits a number of logical fallacies; for instance, and non-exhaustively: an appeal to emotions; an appeal to popularity or to common practice; perhaps an appeal to consequences; and importantly, the subjectivist fallacy stood on its head and absolutized (which is to say, the subjectivist is denying his own position); perhaps a subtle poisoning the well; etc.

Does not this statement attempt to smuggle (say, through the basement window) a hidden "ought" back into the discussion? For, is not our hypothetical subjectivist trying to place an expectation -- his own personal expectation of what *I* ought to do -- upon me (in my role as the devil's advocate's devil's advocate)?


Typically, this exact dodge is made in more vehemently emotional terms. Typically, in these sorts of exchanges, the objectivist points out that by the subjectivist's own position and arguments, performing some obvious and odious atrocity (say, torturing small children for one's amusement) is morally equivalent to not performing it. Typically, the subjectivist then accuses the objectivist of being defective in some way (sometimes emotionally defective, but generally morally defective -- despite that the the subjectivist's own position is that there *is* no objective moral standard), or of having "frightening" beliefs or thought-patterns, and so on (cf: this recent post at AtheismSucks)


MattG: "... Now, we may well doubt this claim can ever be made with sincerity, but that's not the same as showing it to be incoherent."

Of course. For instance, I make no bones about my belief that the claims and arguments of subjectivists (or 'atheists,' in general) are almost never made with sincerity -- for, if they *were* generally sincere, then they would admit to certain things; at a minimum: they would admit when their arguments have been defeated (for instance, by being shown false, or worse, incoherent); they would give up this silly village-atheist pretense that our positions and arguments are always and automatically irrational whereas theirs are the epitome of rationality.

When was the last time you (I mean here the gereral reader, not merely Matt) saw any subjectivist (or 'atheist') admit even so basic a thing as: "OK, your arguments have defeated all the arguments I marshalled. Mind you, I'm still not convinced to your position ... I still hope that I may yet discover a defeater for your arguments ... but I freely admit that at this time I don't have a rational argument against your position." Now, of course, it isn't impossible that you have seen something like this, but I much doubt you ever have (or ever will).

MattG: "... but that's not the same as showing it [in context, 'it' seems to me to refer to any specific subjectivist argument or claim, rather than to subjectivism itself] to be incoherent."

And, I've said as much previously: Ilíon: "Also, my point isn't that the individual subjectivist is inconsistent; though, of course, he is. That's trivial and no more counts against subjectivism than does the fact that objectivists are frequently inconsistent counts against objectivism. ..."

It may certainly be interesting on a personal level to discover that no moral subjectivist is ever a consistent subjectivist (cf. "Of course, if the same person starts talking like an objectivist five minutes later, he/she is being inconsistant." or "Personally, I think Bahnsen's method is the best: just wait for the subjectivist to start talking like an objectivist (it's bound to happen sooner or later) and then point out the contradiction to him/her."), but that doesn't really disprove moral subjectivism. The point of the argument presented in my last post was to disprove moral subjectivism: Ilíon: "... My point is that subjectivism itself is inherently incoherent. My point is that the subjectivist argument cannot even be advanced without *assuming* the very thing being denied."


MattG: "That's a very interesting and persuasive argument, but I still think it can be dodged."

As I've said, at this point, our hypothetical subjectivist isn't dodging my argument against moral subjectivism, he's attempting to dodge the logical consequences of his own position.

The argument I presented in the last post had two main thrusts:
.. 1) That the belief or idea that one can have "subjective morality" is inherently incoherent, for as soon as one begins to speak of "oughts," one is making claims of objective moral obligations.
.. 1a) Related to that, if the moral subjectivist argument includes the claim or mere assumption that moral objectivists have an obligation to stop claiming/arguing that morality is objective, then the individual argument is incoherent [and they always do, unless the subjectivist has moved on to "absolute subjectivism," as in 2) below]
.. 2) That the only way to make moral subjectivism coherent is to deny that there are *any* moral obligations whatsoever ... including (but not limited to) any obligation to hold coherent beliefs or behave coherently with one's professed beliefs.

That is, the moral subjectivist must either deny that there even are such things "right" and "wrong," or he must abandon moral subjectivism.

I've shown this, haven't I? Is it not the case that our hypothetical moral subjectivist, in the hypothetical response you offered, has not even attempted to counter my argument (much less has he been able to defeat it), but is rather attempting to distract attention away from this conclusion?

walden2ite said...

Implied practice rests on the very questionable assertion that people will realize the truth of the universe...

Understanding moral consensus can be explained easily through psychology

Argument from reformers - the very idea of what an improvement is is subjective, as is obvious by people rejecting these reforms

Argument from clear cases - the example is only wrong if we're assuming the muder is objectively wrong. This can not be proved, the argument is circular.

Argument from human rights - "There are inalienable human rights" - unproven.

None of these arguments are convinving.

Matthew said...

is this a redated post?

Andrew T. said...

It seems to me that the predicate of all of these proofs is the claim that morality is not subjective. Even if true, the fact that morality is not totally subjective in no way implies theism; see, e.g., Kant's Prolegomena.

Victor Reppert said...

This discussion is simply a presentation of arguments for moral objectivity. Period. The argument for theism requires an additional premise, not being disucussed here.

Andrew T. said...

Victor: fair enough. It seems to me that there is still a gulf between "not entirely subjective" (the predicate of your various proofs) and "objective" -- for example, intersubjectivity.

J said...

""""IV. The argument from clear cases""""

Not sure that works. Say the cooked person is a mafia hitman, and the family who cooks him are starving professors or something: by cooking and eating him they prevent future crimes, and also feed a family of intellectuals. Most of those arguments can be tweaked a bit, and then don't seem to show moral objectivity.

One variation on this goes something like this: imagine a small town DA, Judge and cops conspire to put away an innocent stranger for a murder he did not commit (and the culprit has not been found). So they put him on trial, manufacture evidence, stack the jury--find him guilty. They even pay off reporters, and townspeople more or less go along with the frame-up. Everyone's happy because the crime was apparently solved---included family of victim.

Obviously some people would find that injust, even if everyone in the town (or state? country?) agreed it was ok sometimes to frame a person to make everyone happy. That seems to suggest something like "Justice" exists apart from any utility considerations. There are other variations--.

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Rick Warden said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick Warden said...

You asked if there were any more arguments...

The argument from cannibalism

If moral values are subjective, then there is no problem in eating legally aborted human fetuses, because humans are considered merely animals.

But nowhere is it legal to eat legally aborted human fetuses, even in atheist-based, Communist China.

Therefore, moral values are objective and not subjective.