Is Morality Subjective? – A Reply to Critics

5. Impartiality Is a Personal Opinion


This objection centres on the point that the requirement for impartiality is only a personal preference about what ought to be the case. This requirement for impartiality is, the critic maintains, a normative view held by individuals and so does not detract from the subjectivist's thesis that all moral views are personal opinion.


Book cover: Ethics Since 1900 by Mary Warnock

Whereas the previous objection highlights the diversity of moral views, this criticism relies on the fact that moral judgements are always made by people and reflect their subjective standpoint. Many critics voicing this objection either misunderstand the semantic significance of impartiality to ethical discourse or ignore it completely. Some objectors fail to appreciate the role meta-ethical theories play in analysing moral language; in clarifying the meanings of the various moral words, the structure and logic of moral reasoning and the social function of moral discourse. For these critics, non-subjectivist meta-ethical views are simply masquerading as just another normative opinion.

I think the critics relying on this objection suffer from two fundamental misconceptions. The first mistake is to think that the notion of objectivity in ethics necessarily precludes the personal nature of moral judgements. The critics' muddle here is to think that the requirement for objectivity in ethics and the grounding of values in subjective judgements are mutually exclusive. This mistake is founded on the notion that 'objective' can only mean 'independent from mind and personal feelings'. However, there is another meaning of 'objective' that is just as common. In this sense, 'objective' means 'free of prejudice and bias'.

In common parlance, we sometimes ask people to 'be objective' as they think through making an important decision. When a good friend is contemplating whether to accept a marriage proposal and when a neighbour is working through how to distribute her worldly goods after she dies, we advise them to 'think objectively' about their decision. Of course, we aren't appealing to some metaphysical realm of 'objective' transcendent truths. We are asking them to reflect on their most settled and important preferences and to not be swayed by short-term feelings that will prejudice the outcomes they want. It is in this sense of 'impartiality' that ethics is objective. Utilizing this important meaning of 'objective', there is no contradiction between a person expressing their personal value judgement while at the same time objectively considering all relevant interests.

The second major misconception this type of critic labours under is to think that because all moral judgments are personal opinion, ipso facto, no judgement can be objective. The critic's conclusion does not necessarily follow from their premise. Consider a parallel case; the realm of human knowledge and beliefs. All of our beliefs about nature are 'personal opinion'. However, that fact alone does not count against the view that there are objective facts about nature.

To be clear, I'm not saying that there are objective facts about morality in the same way that there are objective facts about nature. I don't think there are. What I am saying is that simply pointing out that our moral values are 'personal' does not lend support to the view that there are no objective constraints on our values. Just as the fact that our beliefs are 'personal' does not validate the view that there are no rational constraints on our beliefs.

Copyright © 2016, 2020

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