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Is Morality a Matter of Taste?

4. Objectivity in Ethics

Book cover: The Methods of Ethics by Henry Sidgwick

I think this scenario shows that for a reason to be a moral reason for action, we expect it to be impartial; without appeal to the speaker's peculiar interests or the interests of their favoured group. We think people who give a partial or selfish reason for a moral judgment as being conceptually confused about what constitutes a moral reason for action. This requirement for impartiality, I want to say, is built into the very concept of morality.

Most moral philosophers down the ages have felt than morality is objective in some sense. And here they are in agreement with the person on the street. However, in their attempt to explain this sense of objectivity, some philosophers and most theologians have been looking for this objectivity in the wrong place. They have been looking for it in some mind-independent or human-independent metaphysical realm. And I think this project has failed. Here are four prominent examples:

  1. Theists tried to identify the good and the right with God's preferences and commands.
  2. Intuitionists mistakenly conflated moral attributes with some mysterious realm of non-natural properties and transcendent rules.
  3. Neo-Aristotelians and Natural Law theorists relied on a dubious teleology of life's evolution on earth.
  4. Lastly, Kantian Rationalists tried to derive moral rules from the demands of pure reason.

Their mistake, I think, is in thinking that 'objectivity' in ethics must be contrasted with 'subjectivity', where 'subjectivity' is meant in the sense of being grounded in people's attitudes and preferences. Their mistake is in thinking that ethics is objective only in the epistemic sense; that ethics is about human-independent facts that are there to be discovered and known. Let me illustrate this way of thinking.

Diagram 1 – Moral objectivity as human-independence

Diagram contrasting view of ethics as independent of human attitudes and preferences

However, as humanists and naturalists, we know that morality is somehow intimately grounded in people's attitudes and preferences. Moral judgments can't just be about facts. Otherwise, how do we explain the queerness of someone saying, 'Torturing babies is morally abominable, but I don't really care whether some people do it or not.' Let me place a tick, then, next to 'SUBJECTIVE' in our diagram. So, this kind of counterpoising of 'objective' and 'subjective' can't be right.

We also know that morality is not just about what we like or personally prefer. There is more to saying torturing children is morally abominable than just saying I don't like or approve of such torture. Our scenario with Fred, Mary and John concretely brings this point home. The puzzle is solved, I suggest, by thinking of 'objectivity' in ethics as more correctly contrasted with 'subjectivity', where 'subjectivity' is meant in the sense of being partisan, selfish and parochial. Think of the inappropriateness of John's response in our scenario. Being 'objective' in ethics, then, is more like this:

Diagram 2 – Moral objectivity as impartial judgment

Diagram contrasting objectivity in ethics with parochial and self-serving bias

So, being 'objective' in our moral judgments is not about tapping into some transcendental realm of moral facts. It's about being impartial/non-partisan in our moral judgments. Let me place a tick, then, next to 'OBJECTIVE' in this diagram. Conversely, when we accuse someone of being 'subjective' in their moral reasoning, we are not calling them out for expressing their preferences and attitudes. We are accusing them of basing their moral judgments on their own selfish interests or on those of their favoured group. This, then, is how we properly contrast objectivity in ethics with subjective preferences.

Contrasting now the two ways of viewing ethical discourse, we can say the initial view, the view of many theists, the intuitionists, the Natural Law theorists, and so on, is mistaken. I will put a big cross next to that view (see below). I will also now put a big tick next to the second of our considered approaches that contrasts objectivity in ethics with partisanship.

Diagram 3 – Two views of objectivity in ethics

Diagram contrasting objectivity as human-independence with objectivity as impartiality

Copyright © 2017

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