Is Morality Subjective? – A Reply to Critics

6. Demarcation Is an Answer
without a Problem


In my original essay [Allan 2015a], I raised the demarcation problem faced by subjectivists; the problem of demarcating moral valuations from non-moral valuations. Some critics object that this is a problem of the objectivists' own making. These critics claim that we don't need a precise distinction between the two kinds of valuations as all valuations, in the end, are grounded in personal preference. Similarly, they say, we regularly make artistic judgments without relying on objective criteria for what counts as 'art'. Less strident critics propose the fuzzy demarcation criterion that 'moral' judgements are those that express preferences about how we treat fellow human beings.


Book cover: The Language of Morals by R. M. Hare

I will deal first with the proposal that a sufficiently precise demarcation between moral and non-moral valuations is the divide between those judgements, respectively, that are about how human beings treat each other and those that are not. I don't think this will do as this demarcation criterion easily breaks down. My friend asks me whether he should go out with Joan or June and I respond, 'Go out with Joan as she is more fun'. This valuation is about how my friend treats Joan and June, but this is about a prudential choice and not a moral choice.

Considering next our need to have a precise distinction, I agree with my critics that it is acceptable for the moral/non-moral divide to be fuzzy around the edges. Many of our philosophical concepts and everyday notions are imprecise, including the criterion of impartiality that I advocate. However, it's another thing to not be able to make a meaningful distinction at all. Returning to the example above, my friend could have asked me instead whether he should bash Joan or June. For the subjectivist, it seems, there is no moral distinction between my friend deliberating on whom to date and his deciding on whom to bash. For the subjectivist, both decisions have the same moral significance.

Many moral philosophers argue that the key reason we make a distinction between purely prudential choices (such as who we date) and moral choices (such as who we bash) is that it is only the latter type of choice we reserve for public condemnation and commendation and reward and punishment. On a simple subjectivist account, this crucial distinction is missed entirely.

In the field of aesthetics, philosophers and art critics similarly debate where the dividing line between art and non-art lies. Drawing this dividing line clearly is important in the interests of both human communication and social policy. In ordinary language, we label a sunflower painting by Van Gogh a work of art, but not the number '8' or sodium iodide. Politically, governments allocate the budget for 'the Arts' as a different bucket of money to the one allocated to public infrastructure. To be sure, the art/non-art distinction is fuzzy around the edges. However, it's not the case that any person's personal opinion about what counts as art is as competent as any other.

A meta-ethical theory that cannot explain our natural language distinction between moral normativity and other forms of normativity is, I think, highly problematic. Any convincing meta-ethical theory needs to explain a number of key features of moral language. Questions that any competent theory needs to answer include, Why are we motivated to do what we think is right and how do we come to know what is good? It also needs to give an adequate account of our feeling that morality is independent of our personal preferences, our conviction that moral judgements are true or false and the role that facts and logic play in moral argument. The demarcation between moral judgements and non-moral judgements is another one of these important features of moral discourse that a competent and comprehensive meta-ethical theory needs to explain in a convincing way. The subjectivists' failure to provide such an explanation remains a serious limitation of their view.

Copyright © 2016, 2020

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