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Is Morality Subjective? – A Reply to Critics

9. Epilogue

Book cover: Principia Ethica by G. E. Moore

In this essay, I responded to a number of key objections to the thesis I presented in my Is Morality Subjective? [Allan 2015a]. Here, I will make a few concluding remarks on the status of the debate and progress made. Many critics were adamant that the position I took in my essay really amounted to a subjectivist view in disguise. Although the subjectivist outlook defended by these critics is a relatively unsophisticated version of a naturalist ethic, it is a view that dominates the public domain, especially in forums and blogs. Because of its wide public exposure and acceptance, I think it a view worth challenging. This version of moral subjectivism is generally expressed as the idea that moral utterances are either a simple psychological or sociological report of what some person or social group prefers.

More sophisticated varieties of a naturalist ethic could be described as 'subjectivist' using a very broad sense of the term. In this broad sense, a meta-ethic is 'subjectivist' if it regards moral judgements as fundamentally grounded in human preferences and eschews notions of supernatural and non-natural entities and properties. My own view falls into this category. Overtly labelling all such naturalist positions as 'subjectivist', though, is to miss a fundamentally important aspect of moral discourse; the requirement for impartiality. Philosophically speaking, including the more sophisticated naturalist positions under the 'subjectivist' moniker only confuses this view with the naïve subjectivist view that simply identifies moral judgements with introspective psychological or sociological reports.

There is another very important motivation for refraining from using the 'subjectivist' label for views such as mine that so-called 'subjectivists' fail to appreciate. Accepting the 'subjectivist' moniker gives far too much ground to the religious and other purveyors of superstitious ideas. Adopting this label only confirms for them that all naturalists are at bottom nihilists and egotists. Calling ourselves 'subjectivists' conveys the impression to the public as well that all naturalists think that moral preferences are just about what I want. It gives the mistaken impression that for all naturalists, a moral choice is akin to choosing which tie or scarf to wear. I much prefer the label 'naturalism' for describing the general view that grounds our moral systems in our evolutionary history and social organization.

In my discussions with 'subjectivists', I sensed a missed opportunity for them to delve into some of the complexity of moral theory. In the light of my replies to their objections, some 'subjectivists' simply dug in their heels, insisting that if a moral valuation is expressed by a human being, it is by definition subjective. These critics missed a more nuanced understanding of moral discourse and the role played by impartial reasoning. To a large extent, the implications I drew from my scenarios about the semantics and logic of moral language were simply ignored. I saw from 'subjectivists' little appetite to engage with the case studies I presented. The same was true with discussions about how the principle of impartiality should be applied to concrete moral situations. Here again, critics missed a more nuanced and politically informed notion of equal treatment.

I will end this epilogue with some additional comments clarifying the role of objectivity in ethics and the logic of moral discourse. I can summarize my position by first saying what it is not. The requirement for objectivity in ethics does not mean that moral obligatoriness is somehow written into the fabric of the universe or commanded by some supernatural entity. Accepting the constraint of impartiality in our legitimate use of moral language is akin to our recognition of the semantic constraint on the way we use the term 'democracy'. That the term 'democracy' can only apply to forms of representative government doesn't mean that the democratic ideal exists in some transcendental realm. Similarly, the constraints on our use of ethical terms are just linguistic constraints.

How do these constraints give us moral reasons to act? In my view, they don't do this directly. The psychopath is not constrained by the universe to act morally or with regard to the interests of other human beings. It helps to liken our system of moral norms to the game of chess. The psychopath is free to not play the game of morality at all—just as she is free not to play the game of chess. But if she chooses to play the game of chess, then she is bound by the rules of chess. She can't opt in to the game of chess and then decide 'subjectively' that she will move her King three places in one move. Committing to abiding by the rules is, precisely, what it means to opt in to playing the game of chess.

This constraint to play by the rules applies equally when the psychopath or any other rational agent opts in to the practice of behaving morally. Once the psychopath decides to act in accord with moral norms, certain justifications are no longer permissible. Once opted in, she is barred from morally justifying her behaviour with self-serving reasons. Just as a chess player can't decide to move his King three spaces with the reason that he felt like it. If he did move his King that way, he would no longer be playing chess. That's a question of logic.[3]

Footnotes

  1. [3] I say more on comparing moral with other non-moral normative systems (e.g. chess) in my Allan [2015d].

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