Monday, December 26, 2011

Against Moral Objectivism

Victor Reppert also posted a list of arguments against the objectivity of morality. I'll look at these in the next few posts, as time and holiday events allow. Here's the first:

I. The argument from disagreement:
1. People and cultures disagree extensively about what is right and wrong.
2. Probably, if moral judgments were objectively true or false, people would not disagree extensively about what is right or wrong.
3. Therefore, probably, moral judgments are subjective.

This is the flip side of the argument from moral agreement. I don't think theists or moral objectivists would find this a very persuasive argument.  The objectivist can claim that there is a common " moral core" - as we saw in the argument from moral agreement. While I think the evolutionary view is better at explaining the existing variety of moral codes, the objectivist is free to interpret the same evidence differently.

(Michael Ruse thinks morality evolved, but is nontheless objective. His argument doesn't seem very coherent, though, as pointed out by Jason Rosenhouse.)

Another objection: the theist can argue that true morality only comes from an understanding or acceptance of his/her preferred god, and those who have different moral codes are simply wrong. 

A more difficult challenge for the theist (specifically, the Christian) is to explain how moral codes change over time. Christianity accepted slavery as part of the divinely ordained order of things for more than 1000 years. Yet today most Christians would say that slavery is wrong. (William Lane Craig is one who bites the bullet and says that Biblical slavery was not morally wrong. He also defends Biblical genocide - which is why Dawkins refused to debate him. I'm not finding the link to his Reasonable Faith post about slavery (he calls it "indentured servitude"), tho.) So how is it that God-based morality was so much in error for so long? But theists have potential answers to this challenge, too. (For instance "continuing revelation" or an evolving understanding of God's will.)

Unfortunately for the subjectivists, this might be the strongest argument they have.


  1. There's also this argument you could run..

    1. People and cultures disagree extensively about what religion is true.
    2. Probably, if religious judgements were objectively true or false, people would not disagree extensively about what religion is true.
    3. Therefore, probably, religious judgements are subjective.

    .. which seems as good as the moral one. However, I doubt Reppert would accept the conclusion here.

    On a tangential note, I find the view that morality is subjective to be puzzling. The problem is that saying something is subjective seems to mean that something is merely believed, but there is and can be no fact about whether it is true or false. But surely if some X cannot be true or false, then it is not a proposition, and so it is not something which can be believed. And in that case the subjectivist view collapses into non-cognitivism (one does not believe that X, instead one 'believes' that X, where perhaps 'believing' is being in some mental state indistinguishable to its possessor from believing). On the other hand, if to say that a belief is subjective is to say that it is merely believed, and there is no fact that makes it true, then the subjectivist view collapses into error theory. I find I don't understand what a distinctive subjectivist theory of ethics would look like.

  2. Tai Chi, Reppert is cataloging the arguments on both sides, not just presenting ones he agrees with.

    Philosophers distinguish the subjectivity issue from the cognitive issue. Statements like "That shirt looks red to me" or "I don't like peanuts" are subjective, yet are certainly capable of being true or false.

    The view I'm leaning toward is called intersubjective. "X is immoral" means something like "X is disapproved of by community Y." This needs more work, because "disapproved of by community Y" is ambiguous: disapproved of by a majority? 75%? etc. But, given a proper definition, a statement like that could clearly be true (or false).

    To say "If it's only true relative to a particular group then it's not REALLY true" is to beg the question of whether morality is objective.