Is Morality Subjective? – A Reply to Critics

7. Impartiality Is Only a Contingent
Feature of Ethics


The simpler version of this objection is that I am factually in error in contending that everyone agrees that impartiality is a necessary requirement for ethical thinking. Critics espousing a more sophisticated version accept that most people favour the principle of impartiality in their moral thinking, but object that this is only a contingent fact about human preferences. This sociological fact, these critics argue, cannot then be masqueraded as an 'objective' truth about the nature of morality itself. This descriptive generalization about what people prefer, they continue, does not entail anything about the meaning of ethical terms. The critics' case is illustrated with a counter-example: even if 99% of people opine, 'Ice cream is delicious', this fact does not make 'ice cream is delicious' objectively true. If one person exclaims, 'Ice cream is awful', this person is not wrong. They only have different tastes.


Book cover: A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume

Dealing with the simpler version of this objection first, I'm not contending that it is a fact that everyone agrees that impartiality is a necessary requirement for ethical thinking. For me or any student of meta-ethics to say that would be clearly overstretching the mark. What I am advancing is the linguistic component of a broader meta-ethical thesis about how moral language functions. Like any linguistic thesis, it relies on informed analysis. However, it can't be expected that every man and woman in the street will agree with the thesis. Take the linguistic analysis of the English words 'the' and 'a'. A linguist will tell you that these are, respectively, the definite and indefinite articles that function to point out a specific referent and a class of referents. Ask the man and woman in the street what these words mean and you will be met with an array of answers and some quizzical looks. Of course, these varied responses do not invalidate the linguist's analysis of these words.

For contentious linguistic analyses and for meta-ethical theories in general, there will be an absence of agreement even among the experts. However, to get to the truth of these matters, the least helpful thing to do is to take a poll to gauge what every person in the street thinks. Students of meta-ethics, of course, should take heed of the way moral terms function in ordinary language. That was my purpose in presenting the two scenarios in my earlier essay, Is Morality Subjective? [Allan 2015a]. I used these scenarios (about bribing a politician and beating up a bystander) in order to show that impartiality is built into the concept of morality. The additional scenario I painted in the Introduction (§1) to this essay (about friends discussing voluntary euthanasia) further advances this same purpose.

I will now address the more sophisticated version of the objection. Contra the claim of these critics, my method was not to generalize the normative views of the populace and then declare the result 'objective'. I will illustrate my defence using the critic's ice cream example. Consider first the recognized semantic constraints to what the word 'delicious' can apply and the logic behind the use of the word. If I said, 'The sky is delicious', you would think me, on a generous interpretation, simply ignorant of what the word means or, on a less generous interpretation, delusional. That's because, although the word 'delicious' may have wide descriptive meaning, it has some 'thin' descriptive content that restricts its use to apply to only what we eat. That's part of the logic of the usage of the term 'delicious'.

The critics are correct in pointing out that whether something is 'delicious' is a subjective judgement. However, that truism has no bearing on the fact that the word is reserved for describing and commending the taste of the food we eat. Lexicographers find out this fact about the range of the word by observing how competent English speakers use the word in ordinary discourse. I can agree with the critics who argue that the proportion of the populace who judge ice cream to be delicious compared with how many don't is irrelevant to the meaning of the word 'delicious'. In the same way, how many people think enslaving the Yazidi girls discussed in §4 is right compared with how many think it's wrong is irrelevant to the meaning of the word 'right'. Once we understand how semantic constraints work, we can see how the fact that people apply words such as 'delicious' and 'right' to different things does not count against my thesis.

So, to sum up, the veracity of my thesis does not rely on counting up how many people morally approve of impartiality and then objectifying the result. It is a mistaken analogy to liken my chain of argument to counting up how many people think ice cream is delicious. My reasoning is more akin to evaluating how many competent users of the English language think that the blueness of the sky is either a reason for thinking that it is delicious or that it is not delicious. These sorts of enquiries help to map out the semantic scope of a word in a way that elucidates its meaning.

The foregoing discussion crystallizes an important point about my thesis. The kind of objectivity in ethics that I am advocating is not the kind that ascribes to ethics some kind of spooky metaphysical truth or ontological reality outside of human preferences. I think it is this prospect that engenders in the less sophisticated subjectivist an automatic reaction against any kind of suggestion that ethics has an objective aspect to it. This discussion shows that the 'objectivity' (in the sense of 'impartiality') for which I am arguing is a linguistic constraint on how a competent user of moral language justifies their moral judgments. I am not contending that this constraint is imposed by some mysterious property of the universe or some divine being.

Copyright © 2016, 2020

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