21 March 2010

Moral objectivism

Let us talk for a moment about moral objectivism. I don't mean "Objectivism" with a capital-O, by the way. Anyone who wants to talk about that may be excused.

No, "objectivism" with a lower-case letter is simply the view that some fact is what it is whether or not it is perceived as such. And "moral objectivism," naturally, is the view that there are moral rights and wrongs that are "objective" facts in the same way that yellow and green are objective facts, whatever that way is. We don't have to be sure that we understand "knowledge of the yellowness of the wall" before we can move on to the more complicated questions of morality. We can simply point to that sort of knowledge and say that however we might end up describing it, it will be the paradigm of what we mean by objective knowledge. The implicit contrast is to a proposition such as "french vanilla is the most delicious flavor of ice cream," which we might take as paradigmatically subjective.

When a moral objectivist claims to know that, say, throwing the switch of a certain specified runaway trolley is wrong, he is claiming to know something analogous to the yellowness of the paint on the wall, not something analogous to the deliciousness of ice cream.

The point I'd like chiefly to make today is this: the question of objectivity is different from the question of relativity. A wall may be "relatively" yellow -- it may look yellow in certain lighting conditions or in comparison with another wall. These relative situations are themselves objective facts, i.e. they are what they are regardless of my tastes. So let's not confuse "relative" with "subjective" or demand that something be an absolute before you call it objective.

I'm just mulling things over....


Henry said...

"Moral objectivism" is redundant. Morality, by definition, is objective, which also means that it is universal. It would not make sense to say that a particular action is moral to Person A or Culture X but is immoral to Person B or Culture Y. What you would really be saying is that Person A's or Culture X's rules of etiquette or social conventions differ as to the propriety of the particular action.

I think that you are using "relative" differently from the way it is ordinarily used in the context of morality. It is ordinarily used to refer to differences in moral rules among cultures. Where such differences really exist, however, and are not really differences among rules of etiquette or social conventions, then one of those cultures acts morally and the other acts immorally, because morality, as I said, is objective and universal.

You seem to use "relative" to mean "in different contexts," and, as you note, contexts are objective facts. Thus, to hold that killing for the purpose of stealing your victim's property is immoral, but killing in self-defense is moral, is not a statement of relative morality. It is a statement of two different rules of absolute morality ("absolute morality" being redundant).

Henry said...

A clarification: I wrote, "It would not make sense to say that a particular action is moral to Person A or Culture X but is immoral to Person B or Culture Y." I did not mean, "It would not make sense to say that a particular action is believed to be moral by Person A or Culture X but believed to be immoral to Person B or Culture Y." That, clearly, would make sense. I meant, "It would not make sense to say that a particular action is, as a matter of objective fact, moral for Person A or Culture X but is, as a matter of objective fact, immoral for Person B or Culture Y."

Christopher said...


I can't accept your sharp distinction between "conventions" and "morality." After all, in much of the world, driving on the left side of the road is both a violation of convention, as expressed in the laws, AND a reckless act, given that it will very likely put the driver on a collision course with onrushing cars obeying that convention.

Because it is unconventional it is reckless, and because it is reckless, it is immoral.

In general, it is a virtue to be "reliable" -- to be the sort of person who does not disappoint the reasonable expectations of those around him. What expectations are "reasonable" is a matter of convention, and so varies from place to place, but once a set of reasonable expectations is in place, blatant defiance of it is generally immoral; reliability in those terms is moral.

Christopher said...

I posted that too soon, before bringing this line of thought to its conclusion.

The statement "it is morally wrong to drive on the left side of the road in places where that is contrary to the law" is a statement one might reasonably regard as both relatively and objectively true. Relatively true not only because it is on its face not applicable on every road everywhere, but relative too because even in places where it does apply, we might think its force weakened in certain circumstances -- if I happened to be driving through a sleepy small town at 2 AM, confident that no one around will be driving on the road at all, I might think it something less than a breach of morality to drive for a few seconds on the left side of the road.

Thus, "relative objective knowledge of mortality" is a perfectly sensible description that neither repeats itself nor contradicts itself.

Some such analysis might be appropriate to trickier cases, involving when it is orisn't a moral obligation to rescue someone drowning in a lake, or even questions of trolley philosophy, but I've naturally stuck to the simpler case here.

Henry said...

Christopher, I don't disagree with what you write, but I prefer to analyze it differently. I would say that driving on the right, rather than on the left, side of the road is always a social convention and never a moral requirement, per se. Not needlessly endangering the physical safety of others is a moral requirement, per se. Driving on the wrong side of the road will, in certain circumstances, constitute a violation of the moral requirement not to needlessly endanger the physical safety of others, but that doesn't make it a moral violation; it makes it a means by which one commits a different moral violation. Perhaps I am drawing a distinction without a difference; I don't know.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.