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Is Morality a Matter of Taste?

8. Conclusion

Book cover: Practical Ethics by Peter Singer

To wrap up this talk, let me summarize what I've tried to show:

  • I began by pointing out instances of how secular humanists and naturalists calling themselves 'subjectivists' leaves them open to the charge of moral relativism, nihilism and egotism. This labelling potentially isolates them from public debates on social policy.
  • I introduced the scenario of three friends discussing the ethics of voluntary euthanasia to illustrate how the notion of impartiality fits in our everyday moral reasoning.
  • Next, I argued that it is a mistake to think that because it turns out that ethics is not grounded in some mysterious metaphysical or religious realm, that choosing our moral values is simply a matter of subjective preference.
  • I suggested that subjectivists fall into the same trap as metaphysicians and religionists of confusing 'objectivity' in ethics with mind- or human-independence.
  • I then properly contrasted being 'objective' in ethics with its antithesis; that is, being 'subjective' in the sense of being self-serving, parochial and biased.
  • I offered five examples showing how 'objectivity', in the sense of 'impartiality', has a long and distinguished tradition in moral philosophy. I also gave three examples from the mono-theistic tradition extolling the virtue of impartiality in ethics.
  • I concluded by showing how my two criteria (sociality and impartiality) avoided the subjectivists' inability to distinguish judgments of personal taste from moral valuations.

What do I call myself when I try to encapsulate what ethics is about? I don't think the labels 'objectivist' and 'subjectivist' are particularly helpful. Moral philosophers draw the objectivist/subjectivist divide in a variety of ways and to label us one way or the other only promotes confusion. I think other distinctions made by moral philosophers are more instructive; in particular, the cognitivism/non-cognitivism and realist/anti-realist divides. [For more on categorizing moral theories, see my Meta-ethics: An Introduction and my more detailed treatment in A Taxonomy of Meta-ethical Theories.] If I had to choose one word to describe my outlook, I'd say it is 'naturalism', understood in its broad sense.

To find out more about impartiality in ethics, I encourage you to check out my original short essay, Is Morality Subjective?, and my Is Morality Subjective? – A Reply to Critics. The first two chapters of Peter Singer's book, Practical Ethics, also explain in plain language this view of 'objectivity' in ethics as 'impartiality' of judgment.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to what I had to say.

Copyright © 2017

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