Is Morality Subjective? – A Reply to Critics

4. People Disagree in Their Moral Judgements


With this objection, critics point out that there is a multiplicity of moral frameworks. These critics acknowledge that within some of these frameworks, the principle of impartiality is an ordering principle that defines 'objectively' allowable reasons for action. However, they argue, no framework itself, considered as an entirety, has an objective warrant. Each individual has adopted their own framework and each society has adopted its own ordering principles, they say, with each of these frameworks different in certain respects. What is considered moral within one framework is not considered moral within another framework, with there being no independent standpoint from which to judge one more objective than the other.

An example to illustrate this objection is the enslavement of Yazidi girls by Islamic militants. These fundamentalist Islamic fighters claim that their sexual enslavement of these young girls is morally allowable. In justifying their actions, they make no appeal to considerations of impartiality. Even though the weight of world opinion considers their actions morally depraved, critics insist, these fighters have not abused moral language in making their claims.


Book cover: Philosophy of Religion by Louis P. Pojman

The scenario of the captured and enslaved Yazidi girls is an excellent illustration of my thesis that for a reason for action to be a moral reason, it necessarily needs to appeal to considerations outside of the individual's interests and that of the individual's favoured group. Contra the critics claim, the Islamic fighters are appealing to an impartial authority. In this case, the Islamic fundamentalists are appealing to the ultimate impartial arbitrator; their God Allah. Of course, their reasoning is a bastardization of an appeal to impartiality and I stand with my critics in objecting to the fundamentalists' rationalizations.

However, notice how we counter-argue against the soldiers' moral position. We reason that if Allah were truly impartial, he would count the feelings of the enslaved girls equally with that of the soldiers. In addition, we would advance evidence that their trust in a supremely powerful and intelligent moral arbitrator of the universe is misplaced.

The way religious fundamentalists implicitly rely on a supreme impartial arbitrator in the face of a seemingly capricious God reminds me of how some Divine Command Theorists respond to the Euthyphro dilemma. When challenged with the seeming changeability and arbitrariness of God's preferences, these theists insist that God would never command that we murder innocents, for example, because this would be contrary to his 'loving' nature. When caught on the horns of this dilemma, even the Divine Command Theorist relies on the notion that God tends to the welfare of everyone.

A final important point that I want to make here concerns how we regard the moral status of the divergent moral frameworks pointed out by my critics. I've argued that the reason advanced by the Islamic fundamentalists is a moral reason because it appeals to a notion of impartiality. In meta-ethical terms, the religious fighters are using moral language correctly. Contrast this with the overtly self-centred justification for opposing voluntary euthanasia given by the third friend placed in the opening scenario described in my Introduction (§1). Precisely because it is self-centred, his justification is not counted as a moral justification.

Even though the justification given by the fundamentalist warriors is a moral reason while that given by the friend is not, the warriors' justification may not be the best moral reason. Which is the best ethical framework for judging actions is an open question. This is a normative question and not a meta-ethical question. However, the range of normative answers is constrained by what it is to be an ethical framework (as opposed to, say, a prudential, customary or aesthetic framework). This constraint means that for a framework to be an ethical framework, it necessarily allows only impartial reasons for moral action. This meta-ethical requirement is normatively quite weak. How this requirement for impartiality plays out in practice is a normative question that has exercised moral philosophers for centuries and will continue to do so for some time to come.

Copyright © 2016, 2020

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