Is Morality Subjective? – A Reply to Critics

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2020. Is Morality Subjective? – A Reply to Critics, URL = <>.

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Since publishing my short essay, Is Morality Subjective? [Allan 2015a], I received a lot of interest and engaged in a number of conversations about the ideas I presented. Unsurprisingly, my argument for objectivity in ethics garnered a pleasing level of support while at the same time attracting a level of criticism. In this essay, my intention is to collect up the major criticisms of my thesis and respond to them. I have not identified the authors of each objection in order to respect their privacy and because the objections considered here were advanced by two or more people. The objections were also of a general nature, so knowing the author of particular criticisms does not aid understanding the point of each objection.

In my original essay, I argued that for a reason for action to be a moral reason, that reason must appeal to interests beyond that of the agent and the agent's preferred social group. It is in this sense of 'impartiality', I argued that morality is objective. I supported my case with two scenarios drawn from real life in which moral agents unsuccessfully attempt to support their actions with personally biased reasons. These two scenarios are of a similar vein to the following. I add it here to further illustrate the case I am making.

Imagine three friends in discussion over a vexed moral issue. They are discussing whether people enduring unbearable pain much of the time while suffering a terminal illness ought to be able to end their lives as they choose. One friend argues that they ought to have that right as people have a right to act autonomously unless the act harms someone else. The second friend argues that they ought not as instituting such a right will lead to abuse with some elderly coerced into ending their lives. The third friend also opines that the terminally ill should be prevented from choosing the manner of their death. When asked the reason for his view, the third friend replies, 'I just like it that way'. When pressed further by his other two friends, he insists that is just what he wants.

If we were observers to this conversation, we would readily acknowledge that the first two friends are offering a moral reason for their judgment. Their reasons are based on considerations broader than their own personal wants and preferences. Of course, we may disagree with one or both of their justifications, but we readily concede that they are advancing a moral argument.

Regarding the third friend, however, we would concede he is not offering a moral reason for his judgement at all. By exclusively appealing to his own personal preferences, he seems not to have engaged in the moral debate at all. We admit he may be advancing a prudential reason for his view. However, we would insist that he is not putting forward a moral justification for his position.

These kinds of scenarios demonstrate, I argued, that trying to underpin the objectivity of ethics with God's commands, intuited non-natural properties and the like is misguided. Objectivity in ethics, I argued, should not be contrasted with dismissing some supposedly 'objective' mysterious metaphysical realm. Objectivity is more properly contrasted with biased and prejudicial reasoning when deciding what we should do.

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Many objections to my view attempted to reinstate the radical subjectivist view that the requirement for objectivity has no place in moral theory. Some critics attempted to show by way of counterexamples that it is sometimes morally excusable to act impartially. When I explained how the critics' notion of impartiality is overly simplistic and that a more nuanced and practical interpretation of the principle of impartiality actually warrants preferential treatment in some circumstances, some critics went on to charge me with duplicity. These critics claimed that my argument for impartiality is inconsistent with my warranting preferential treatment based on valuing human welfare.

Some critics agreed that impartiality figures highly in most people's moral reasoning, but objected that this was only a contingent feature of moral thinking. Other commentators simply pointed to the fact that a preference for impartiality is a personal opinion, and hence necessarily subjective. Others accepted that there is a logic to moral argumentation, but pointed out that there are a multiplicity of moral frameworks, each with their own inbuilt logic and with no meta-level criterion to choose between them. Another type of objection highlighted my promotion of sophisticated emotivism as a moral theory. These objectors argued that this position's focus on preferences showed my view to be essentially subjectivist. I deal with all of these objections in this rejoinder.

Drawing another scenario in my original essay, I went on to make another substantive point against the radical subjectivists' view. I argued that by treating all moral judgements simply as personal preferences, subjectivists fail to make a distinction that we all make naturally; the distinction between moral valuations and non-moral valuations. In my essay, I used the example in which Mary bakes a cake for her friends one time and regularly performs voluntary work for the disadvantaged. Whereas we recognize that saying Mary's cake is 'good' is a non-moral judgement while saying her volunteer work is 'good' is a moral valuation, the radical subjectivist is left in the unenviable position of not being able to draw this same distinction.

In response, critics adopt one of two replies. Some critics bite the bullet, maintaining that we don't need to make a distinction between moral and non-moral judgements at all. The other line of reply is to propose a fuzzy demarcation between the two based on interpersonal behaviour. I respond to both of these lines of attack.

All up, in the following sections, I consider seven objections in these two areas of criticism; the requirement for impartiality and the need for demarcation. Responding to these objections allows me to further clarify and expand on the thesis that the notion of impartiality is embedded within the concept of ethics.

Copyright © 2016, 2020

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