Friday, 5 June 2009

Moral Subjectivism


The last post Is Morality all in the head?, whilst not triggering the interesting debate I had hoped for, can still serve as inspiration for me to clarify my position on the topic of Moral Subjectivism. I think this thesis is, meta-ethically, false, yet many criticisms of it address poor caricatures or straw men versions of it - albeit such criticisms may actually be addressing real people who do support such a naive and poor version of moral subjectivism.

As a former moral subjectivist (although I was always wary of self-labelling and might never have called myself that) I think I have some expertise at providing a sophisticated version, as opposed to the typical critiques of naive Moral Subjectivism, even though I now hold that both are flawed. This is partly driven by the thought that I can still provide far better arguments for Moral Subjectivism, than many of those who believe in it and argue for it in debate with me! This is frustrating as I would like to test my best criticisms of moral subjectivism and rarely have that opportunity, instead having to deal with poor arguments that I had always rejected in support of that thesis!

Moral Subjectivism
Moral Subjectivism to be the idea that there are no values independent of humans, there are no objective moral values, no intrinsic values or inherent prescriptive properties of objects or actions, no objective moral reasons and moral justifications, no prescriptive laws whether natural or supernatural; absolute (static) or not (dynamic). They do not exist. I held this as true then as I do now, even as I now hold to a version of that allows morality to be objective but that topic, Desire Utilitarianism, I have covered previously.

Normative Relativism
Still one needs to differentiate between a theory of moral subjectivism and the particular moral view that I, you or anyone else holds. According to the theory, anyone's moral views have no objective grounds, regardless of whether they assert otherwise - including finding support from their theory - there are no objective moral reasons to justify their morality. However this does not prevent any such views from being immune to non-moral criticism, apart from noting that these cannot be defended by invoking moral fictions or fantasies that are the supposed to (fallaciously) exist. Of course, a moral subjectivist could criticise a moral objectivist on such grounds. However, there are plenty of non-moral grounds to criticise anyone's moral views, available to the moral subjectivist too. These grounds are such as ratio-empirical, epistemic, conceptual and semantic norms.

In other words moral subjectivism does not necessarily entail ethical relativism, let alone normative relativism - that one cannot judge a person's or group's moral views, because there are no (moral) grounds independent of such views and so no basis to privilege one over another.

Now, of course, some who hold onto the theory of moral subjectivism might disagree, on the basis that using such norms have moral implications (but which comes first?), or that all such norms are inherently moral or ethical in nature. However it suffices to make my point that there is no necessary connection, which can only be made if there is no non-circular argument over such others norms and I do not think any such attempt is successful (see below). This certainly might separate my old view from some garden variety version of the theory, which also explains how others, in my view, seem to be sloppy in using the terms subjective and relative as synonyms. They are not.

Ratio-Empirical Norms
Grating the last point, anyone's moral views, as a moral subjectivist, can still be criticised on ratio-empirical grounds. Being a moral subjectivist does not entail being a cognitive relativist. This means that if one's moral views are coloured by mistaken and false beliefs these can still be criticised, regardless of how these beliefs are employed in supporting their moral views.

Epistemic Norms
The epistemic criticism is that just because there are no external moral values, so, in some sense, how we know our moral values are completely subjective, does not entitle one to provide non-moral subjective reasons, such reasons are still to be decided upon epistemic norms that apply anywhere else. Just because the issue is about morality does not mean one can lower such epistemic standards for arguments in support, the same epistemic norms still apply.

The use of epistemic and ratio-empirical norms might be rejected by some moral subjectivists on the basis that these are all value-laden and (they claim that) moral subjectivity rejects an objectives basis to any value. However they need to meta-ethically show that all values are moral values to make this case, without assuming cognitive relativism, since as meta-ethicists we are, by definition, disallowing any moral norms and only employing ratio-empirical and epistemic norms. At the meta-ethical level, this can be rejected as it is both question begging and self-refuting.

Two Consequences for this view
To provide some meat to this view, my old view (well it still is) on some of the most common and lethal problems in the world, of a moral nature, were and are due to prejudice and bigotry. These are, in my view, all reflected in informal and formal double standards in society, from the mild to the lethal. If objective moral reasons do not exist, then none can be validly provided to support such double standards nor to condemn such standards.

Now if one could provide a non-moral ratio-empirical grounds to a purported double standard, then it is in fact a single standard. If one fails then it is a double standard. If there is no justification for such double standards, then that is a reason to campaign against them. This is on the presumption that a more rational and empirically grounded hence realistic society is (practically) better than one that is not and that there is no prior ratio-empirical basis to prefer one group over another, all reasons for this must be considered as part of the analysis and not left as a presupposition. (This is what I have held in the past although I have now moved on, providing I think better arguments now. Still the issue of whether a society is better off being more rather than less "rational" is an interesting topic I will explore in the future, regardless of whether you think that I, when I was a moral subjectivist, was smuggling in universal moral values or not. I am just presenting a version of moral subjectivism, not the be all and end all on this topic).

Another point that could also be taken that one could criticise someone's moral views, whether they regard morality as objective or not, in terms of whether they were internally consistent. Certainly it appears for that for many who hold views based on moral objective arguments that they, very often, contradict themselves and their positions are self-refuting or incoherent. It does not matter how much one holds to an objective basis to a position, if it is internally inconsistent, there are no grounds for it to be true. This is useful and an additional way to deflate any supposed moral arguments in favour of keeping or modifying double standards rather than rejecting them.

Again such tests can also be applied to anyone's moral views even if they subscribe to some form of moral subjectivism, this does not excuse them for being incoherent.

Moral Motivation
Can there be such a thing as a distinctively moral motivation if, as a moral subjectivist, there are no external moral norms? The sophisticated moral subjectivist would answer yes and this is their most common gripe with criticisms of stereotypical moral subjectivism, such criticisms being predicated upon assertion that such a theory leads to people claiming that what they like is moral and what they dislike is immoral and that is it. That is a very unsophisticated understanding of the topic, still there are some who do openly espouse such a moral subjectivism but they can still be criticised, even by other moral subjectivists, as in the version I am presenting here.

This is because it is a part of the semantics or conception of morality is that there is, in some sense or other, a universal aspect. There may be disagreement on what that is (which is why I qualify it with the "in some sense or other" clause) but it is, at least partly, constitutive of its meaning that it applies in some form or other to everyone. A moral view requires some form of impartial, unbiased, neutral view of everyone, without this aspect it is not a "moral" view and the same still applies to a moral subjectivist. I will expand on the semantic or conceptual issue below.

What this means is that one can decide, from the moral point of view, a certain standard to hold or aspire to, such as rejecting bigotry or prejudice, thereby seeking to identify and eliminate any biases in one's thinking that could support such views. Many not always succeed, indeed could fail and learn from such failures but such a position does not imply that whatever someone likes is automatically right, rather one could hope to improve oneself and this may not be easy.

This is also different to what one might hold is in one's prudential self interest. Akrasia - weakness of will - I hold that rather than being rare, exceptional and difficult to explain seems to be endemic in society - look at the amount of diet books for sale in a bookshop for one. Now of course, akrasia usually leads to pandering to one's immediate interests even thought the long term consequences are prudentially detrimental. This is meant here to parallel the relation between one's moral interests and immediate interests - one can be morally akrasic as well as prudentially akrasic. Still this point leads to a very obvious question:

Prudential versus Moral Motivation
Can there be such a thing, for a moral subjectivist, something other than prudential self-interest as a final motivator? Note that nothing prevents a moral evaluation - something of the form where everyone, in some sense, counts - versus a prudential evaluation - only one's long-term interest counts - but why would anyone choose to follow a moral consideration, if it conflicts with a prudential one? After all there are no external over-riding reasons to do so?

This is a topic I have discussed more fully in the past in Ethical Egoism, but for now only note that there is a confusion between people only able to operate upon their own desires, versus the object of their desires. In the standard parlance nothing a priori prevents people having other-regarding desires as well as self-regarding desires. It is an additional limitation to insist that people only have self-regarding desires as final ends. Further there is no ratio-empirical argument that can be made, such as stating dis-confirming evidence the lack of which would confirm this additional limitation, so it is both an unfalsifiable and epistemically subjective position. It might be true but there is no way to practically prove it. Against this are many who hold that it is not true, with the parsimonious advantage that they are making one fewer assumption, to which the only argument holders of this view (egoism) can provide are subjective arguments - post hoc rationalisations about the real motives of anyone who proclaims otherwise.

Additionally, this is a psychological egoism which can lead to ethical egoism, but this is a position that can be arrived at from not just subjective but from purportedly objective positions, that is some ethical egoists reject moral subjectivism (such as Randians). So there is no necessary connection between the two, moral subjectivism does not automatically entail ethical egoism, many moral subjectivists reject ethical egoism.

Trying to be brief so will only provide a simple and illustrative example, bearing in the egoist post hoc rationalisations that can be applied. A friend of mine trained as homoeopath and I met her a skeptics meeting where she was skeptical of skepticism. She repeatedly returned even at the cost of realising the falsehood of here views on homoeopathy which against here prudential self-interest as she had devoted herself to this field and it was her only skill to earn money. Many others I think would not have sought the truth - in order to keep to their (unadmitted) self-delusions and keep their career, such a search was not in her prudential self-interest. I know many people who have taken similar positions to her and also know also many more who do not (don't we all?) or, likely, never would. There is no a priori reason for a moral subjectivist to not take a moral view that might conflict with some sense of their prudential interest, some do, some don't.

Semantic and Conceptual Norms
The final point in this post is to expand on the meaning of moral to which I alluded to above. On the one hand all terms in language are subjective, there is no necessary requirement for them to be used in one way over any other. On the other, there are typical and conventional uses of terms that facilitate communication and mutual understanding, abusing these usages is breaking semantic and conceptual norms required for communication.

This can still apply to moral terms where one rejects, as a moral subjectivist, an external referent for such terms. There still is some basic, shared meaning of these terms even as there are many disputes over what it exactly refers to, what its grounds are and so on. The moral subjectivist holds that there are no external referents for such terms but (semantically) should still agree that there is broad, although not exact, agreement about what these terms are about. For example, moral terms about what effects everyone, in some sense other, this still stands even as one rejects moral objectivism. So a moral subjectivist is still quite entitled to criticise anyone doing fundamental violence to the meaning such terms, even if they have no external referents.

One very common action is to redefine morality to be identical with prudentiality and one can complain about this in terms of breaking semantic and conceptual norms. This complaint is quite different to an egoist argument that concludes with prudentiality or possibly narrow self-interest as the purported best solution (such as "invisible hand") to the problems that morality poses - where everyone counts, in some sense or other. That is different argument entirely and I am not commenting about how a moral subjectivist answers that. The complaint that a moral subjectivist could make over such a idiosyncratic definition is that it is a redefinition and not an argument. The underlying issues, even for a moral subjectivist, remain unanswered by such a redefinition.

Of course anyone reading this blog will know this post was triggered by my unproductive debate with a commenter who was purportedly defending moral subjectivism. The point I wanted to make is I could just as easily have made the same criticisms as a moral subjectivist, as I have as a moral objectivist. In other words, my particular moral theory, regardless of my moral views, made no difference in this particular debate, at least I think so. Indeed I would have made the same arguments 10-15 years ago when I was a more of a moral subjectivist.

I only finish on briefly noting the moral subjectivism fails since it has an impoverished and incorrect concept of value. It is a false dichotomy to think that if value is not "out there" then it must be "all in the head", it can be a relation between both, and it also a genetic fallacy and hasty generalisation to think that, correctly, that value depends on what is "in the head" that, therefore, incorrectly, it is "all in the head".


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Naviya Nair said...

Wow. This really made my day. Thanks a lot!

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