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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Are the folk objectivists about ethics?

We usually assume that the folk are objectivists about ethics, i.e. that they think that a question such as "Is incest (of a certain kind) morally wrong?" has a determinate and more-or-less factual answer ... in much the same way as a question like "Does 2 + 2 sum to 4?" or "How high is the Empire State Building?" The latter question might be ambiguous in certain ways, of course, but assuming we can specify more precisely what is meant, such as the height from street level on a particular side to the top of the tower, or whatever else we need to avoid any ambiguity, there is an answer that is independent of our tastes, desires, or anything else about us that we tend to think might legitimately vary. (I'll set aside any possible ambiguities in the arithmetical question.)

Conversely, answers to questions such as "Was Cleopatra beautiful?" or "Which taste nicer, cashews or maccadamias?" or "What is the best way to understand Hamlet?" seem rather different. Even if all human beings could agree that Cleopatra was beautiful (if we could reconstruct an accurate and precise image of what we looked like), there could be plenty of other intelligent beings in the universe that quite legitimately don't agree, even if they have similar senses to ours. And the likelihood is that even human beings could disagree about it quite reasonably. There is not an answer that is governed by facts that are independent of our standards of beauty, and there is nothing about reality that compels all rational beings to adopt the same standards on pain of being simply wrong.

Clearly, many questions do not have objectively correct answers. There are facts in the vicinity, but these facts will include the fact that someone with such and such standards of beauty will see Cleopatra as beautiful and someone with different standards will not. Even if human standards of beauty are genetically encoded to some extent, that does not make them objective in the sense under discussion, as there could be other rational beings that do not have the same genetic coding.

If the folk believe that there are objective answers to moral questions - moral facts that are somehow Out There to be discovered, and inescapably binding on all rational beings - then they are very likely wrong. It is difficult to see what these answers could be.

One can, of course, attempt to make morality objective by definition, such as by defining "is morally wrong" to mean "fails to maximise overall happiness". But that is hopeless. If that is all "is morally wrong" means, then there is a further question as to whether I should refrain from performing acts that are "morally wrong". Perhaps, for example, there are acts that fail to maximise overall happiness but are effective in saving my loved ones from danger; surely it makes perfectly good sense sense to ask whether I should perform the latter acts or not.

Similarly, someone can,in a moment of desperation, define "A should do X" to mean "of the acts available to A, X is the one that will produce most overall happiness." But if we start defining "should" in that way we are now stuck with someone being able to say "I should, by your definition of 'should', do X, but is it really what I ought to do?"

We can then redefine "ought"! But this still won't solve the problem. Our interlocutor will need to use new terminology, but it still remains open to her to convey that she is not going to do X, even though she "ought" to do so by a stipulated definition of "ought" and she can feel comfortable that she is not breaching any standard that binds her inescapably.

The lesson is that we can go on redefining "good", "should", "ought", or any other words we like, and it accomplishes nothing. These words have something extra that won't be captured by such definitions, the something extra being this component of a standard that is binding on the agent concerned. The person who wants to try to solve the problem can go on forever defining more and more words and expressions, but she will never be able to show that some standard of conduct is binding on me in a way similar to the way an empirical fact is binding on me (the Empire State Building just is a certain number of feet high, and there's nothing I can do to change it short of physically altering the building).

(Of course, a standard of conduct might be applied to me by others, such as the police. There are social facts about what standards of conduct people actually do apply to each other. I might not be able to escape the fact that the police apply a standard of a certain kind to my conduct. But what if I am in a position to escape detection by them? Am I still somehow inescapably bound to act in accordance with the standard on pain of being just mistaken, as if I think the Empire State Building is 2100 feet tall? Surely not!)

In the past, I've defended moral error theory: the idea that (1) moral judgments such as "Incest (of a certain kind) is morally wrong" are understood in our ordinary language to make objective claims, essentially because that's how the folk use words in their thought and speech ... but (2) there are no objective truths here. Taken literally, "Incest (of a certain kind) is morally wrong" might mean something like "Incest (of a certain kind) is forbidden by a standard that is inescapably binding on all rational creatures." In that case, such a claim will always end up being literally false. There are no such standards.

It's as if someone said: "Cashews are tastier than maccadamias by a standard that all rational creatures must accept" and hence that anyone who prefers maccadamias is objectively mistaken about the world.

In more recent times, though, I've come to think that error theory needs some extra work. In its usual formulations it may not be the whole story.

In particular, I've come to think that there is at least some merit in sophisticated relativist theories. Sophisticated relativists agree with error theorists that there are no objective moral truths in the sense that I've been attempting to describe, but they say that this does not render first-order thin moral claims simply false. These theories vary, but one way a sophsticated relativist theory might work is if it takes a claim such as "Incest (of a certain kind) is morally wrong" to mean "Incest (of a certain kind) is forbidden by a standard of conduct that is shared, or in question, in the context of our conversation." Other sophisticated relativists might try different tacks, but the overall approach is to offer a translation that could well be true. Spoken in a particular context, "Incest (of a certain kind) is morally wrong" might well be a true, if it conveys that incest of the kind in question is forbidden by a standard that the speaker and listener(s) share.

It seems that error theorists, at least as I'm characterising them, might disagree with sophisticated relativists, at least as I'm characterising them, only on an empirical matter: what do the folk actually have in mind when they make first-order thin moral judgments? What do the folk mean? Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? The problem, I think, is that the folk may be quite confused and inconsistent when it comes to points like this. Perhaps they don't really know what they mean, if asked to choose between the meaning given to moral language by an error theorist or by various kinds of sophisticated relativists.

Time for some empirical research, don't you think? We can maybe survey the folk about what they think they're saying. Maybe that will nail down which metaethical position is best, yes?

Alas, it might not be so simple. But that's a subject for another post.


Brian said...

"Conversely, answers to questions such as "Was Cleopatra beautiful?"...seem rather different. Even if all human beings could agree that Cleopatra was beautiful...there could be plenty of other intelligent beings in the universe that quite legitimately don't agree...even human beings could disagree about it quite reasonably. There is not an answer that is governed by facts that are independent of our standards of beauty, and there is nothing about reality that compels all rational beings to adopt the same standards on pain of being simply wrong.

Clearly, many questions do not have objectively correct answers."

(Emphasis added).

There is not an answer that is governed by facts that are independent of our standards of beauty, but there is an answer that is governed by facts that are dependent on other facts, namely, our standards of beauty.

Perhaps those questions do have correct answers after all.

People mean certain things when they say "wrong", and they also think they mean certain things when they say "wrong", and both are open to inquiry.

There are facts about what would make people happy, facts about how people would act if only they had more information, and so on. These facts ambush anyone who selects a course of action, particularly if they think in terms of in terms of right and wrong, which humans are inclined to do.

Anonymous said...

I'm with ya, Russell. About folk objectivism/realism, about error theory and about the need for more empirical research; metaethics is a descriptive endeavour, after all.

And I think I'm with ya on the 'sophisticated relativism' too.

Without intrinsic/objective values to hinge on, I see morality in instrumentalist terms, with the end being promoted that of fostering fruitful social interaction (a more restricted definition than that usually employed by moral philosophers).

Now, someone could contest whether that end is what they think is most important, but I reckon, as a matter of empirical fact, that virtually everybody does value fruitful social interaction. If that's not contested, then there's your foundation for morality. Basically the same as Mackie's view.

Within that there's scope for relativism, in the sense that the principles that best advance social interaction in different circumstances will be relative to those circumstances. That's slightly different from the account you give, but not too far removed.

One important question remains though: do we abandon moral objectivist talk, as people like Joshua Greene suggest; or do we keep it up, but use it with a wink and a nod, acknowledging that it's just a convenient fiction, as Richard Joyce would have us do. Tangential issue, but important, in my opinion.

Michael said...

Well, the folk may interpret moral statement X with interpretation Y but *should* they use interpretation Y?

On another note it just struck me that the difference in semantics between the moral and non-moral types of sentences discussed parallels almost exactly the linguistic semantics of declarative vs imperative statements (in that the 2nd aren't reducible to the 1st). Do you know if much work has been done along those lines?

Russell Blackford said...

Sure, there can be facts about whether or not something meets "our" standards of beauty. But that's not what the debate tends to be about (because it's not something that anyone really wants to deny). The deeper question is whether "our" standards of beauty are binding on, say, an intelligent broccoli plant from another star system. I doubt that anyone would answer "yes" to that one if we're talking about beauty. But if, by analogy, we're talking about morally good actions, a lot of people actually will answer "yes".

BTW that's not to say that "our" standards of beauty or of conduct are arbitrary. With conduct, for instance there are pretty good (by almost anyone's standards of "good") reasons why every human society has some kind of standard of conduct that at least restricts who can be killed and in what circumstances.

Some vulgar moral relativists seem to think that standards of conduct are just arbitary, but error theorists don't make that claim, and I don't think that any of the more sophisticated moral relativists do either.

Michael, there's a huge but inconclusive debate in moral philosophy as to whether the sort of thin first-order moral claims we're talking about might be disguised imperatives, or expressions of emotion, or a combination of both, or expressions of a pro-attitude, or something of the sort. There are some vulgar theories along those lines and also some very sophisticated ones. This is more or less the territory marked out by the expression "non-cognitivism".

My own view is that the crude non-cognitivist theories are pretty clearly false, and that the effort to build highly sophisticated ones is going to be futile in the end. But a helluva lot of philsophers disagree with me.

Ray said...

I don't think you should give up on solving the problem through definitions so fast. You start by asking whether questions including moral terms have an objective answer. You then show that, by properly defining your terms, you can move the problem from correct statements to correct actions. Well, answers to questions tend to be statements, not actions. I suppose an action may implicitly answer the question, "will you do this?" but it certainly does not answer the question "should you do this?"

Having solved the problem you set out to solve, you move the goalposts and ask whether standards of morality are binding on all rational creatures. That depends what your standard of rationality is. Some, economists for example, have a standard of rationality that constrains both beliefs and actions, while most logicians would probably define rationality in such a way that it only constrains beliefs. Granted, no one but an Ayn Rand objectivist would define moral action based on the economist's standard of rationality. However, all this proves is that most people have a different standard for rationality than they have for morality. BTW, there isn't complete agreement about what standards rationality puts on beliefs either. Is it rational to postulate a multiverse to explain fine tuning? A god? reasonable people (by the standards of our society, at least) may differ.

As far as error theory goes. I think the folk understand how morality works much better than they understand what they mean by "objective truth." So if there is an error it's probably with the concept of objective truth. Now, as a good physicalist, I take physics to be the standard of objective truth. So I propose "physical error theory" -- common folk don't understand physics. Anyone want to argue with me?

Russell Blackford said...

No, it's not shifting the goalposts. If you think I've shifted the goalposts you've misunderstood the argument.

Russell Blackford said...

However, I do agree, if this is what you're saying, that people have only a vague idea of that they mean when they say that morality is objective. They seem to mean something like, "Thin, first-order moral claims are inescapably binding on all rational creatures" but of course when you press that point it becomes very unlikely that the sorts of moral claims we're talking about are binding in that way, and perhaps peole can be brought to see this.

But if they're not binding in that way, what force do they have?

The thing about just defining expressions like "morally good" or "morally wrong" or "morally right" in factual terms is that it takes the oomph out of morality. These thin, first-order moral claims are supposed to be action-guiding. But the proposition "Xing will maximise utility" (for example) is not action guiding. By itself it just tells you a fact about the world; it doesn't tell you what you have reason to do. Of course, if you already desire to maximise utility, the combination of your desire and the proposition creates a hypothetical imperative. But you may not desire to maximise utility, at least if the alternative course of action will be more effective to protect your loved ones. So the hypothetical imperative never gets created. You are still left with no reason to X, rather taking alternative action Y, which will not maximise utility but will protect your loved ones.

Where I've written "maximise utility" you can substitute whatever you like as long as it's something factual. It can be "follow the social mores", "obey the law", "conduce to the emergence of the Ubermensch", "conform to the commandments in the local holy book", or whatever you like. The point is that if you define a standard thin, first-order moral claim so that it ends up meaning "Xing will conduce to the emergence of the Ubermensch" you have not said something that, by itself, provides a reason for action unless you say it to someone who actually cares about conducing to the emergence of the Ubermensch. If I don't already care about that, I can simply shrug off your statement and say, "What's that to me?" Indeed, even if I do care about conducing to the emergence of the Ubermensch I'll be unmoved if there's something I care about more which will be achieved by alternative action Y.

The folk may be very confused about all this, but at least sometimes they'll talk and act in ways that suggest they believe thin, first-order moral claims have more oomph than this. No one can accept thin first-order moral claims as true but shrug them off as not being guides to action. Or so the folk seem to think.

As for physics - well, the folk, and all non-physicists, may well be in error about scientific claims at a very deep level all the time. But that is what you'd expect isn't it? You wouldn't expect them to be pervasively in error about the authority or objectiveness or degree of oomph of moral language.

Brian said...

"Clearly, many questions do not have objectively correct answers."


"The deeper question is whether "our" standards of beauty are binding on, say, an intelligent broccoli plant from another star system. I doubt that anyone would answer "yes" to that one if we're talking about beauty."

The objectively correct answer is no. That's why people shouldn't answer yes; it's not that there is no objectively correct answer.

Anonymous said...

You really should read Moral Thinking again. I strongly suspect that Hare has answered most of the questions posed in this piece, and that you have not understood him.

josef johann said...

I'm lucky read your comment, Brian! I had just quoted roughly the same section of Russel's post as you, and was about to make almost precisely the same point. Anyway, I agree, and I'm going to be stealing your "ambush" phrase.

Back to Russell:

Clearly, many questions do not have objectively correct answers.

This is where the subjective/objective distinction confuses me. Humans are out there in the objective world, too. That a particular human experiences beauty a certain way is a fact pertaining to the objective world.

And in principle, it's a third person fact relating to brain structure that is accessible to other people. So there is a sense in which it really is objective (yes, I know this isn't the sense in which Russell is using the word).

And we can expand from that. One person's subjective sense of beauty may vary in particulars, but share a similar fundamental outline to that of humanity at large. And you can take the "outlines" from a large number of people and compare them and see that they converge in certain fundamental ways.

Once you have some meaningful convergence, you've discovered an objectively existing, interpersonal truth, that it is possible to be right or wrong about.

And there is always a way in which you can chip away at the trivial differences in individual perspectives until you have arrived at the essentiall unity.

The free-standing possibility of experiencing cleopatra as beautiful is, I think, an experience in principle accessible to all people. At base it may be a functional description of a brain state that can in principle be realized in any fully functional human brain.

The objectivity is the possibility of seeing X as I see it, which stands present before others as a possibility just as well as it stands before me. If I am different, or have a "different perspective" than others, that's just a different way of saying I am more awake to the possibility of this particular experience than others. And they are awake to different variations, too. And the thing we are reacting to (say, Cleopatra), is surrounded by a space of possible experiences.

Experiences will be more or less "true" to the extent that they are actually derived from details of Cleopatra. It is meaningful to say that a statement that "Cleopatra is beautiful" is wrong, if the experience of beauty is provoked by Cleopatra'a polka-dotted skin. As she does not have polka-dotted skin the experience of beauty is not attributable to her.

Russell Blackford said...

Hare did not think that morality was objectively binding. He gave reasons why we might nonetheless want to be "moral" by his definition, but he always struggled with this, throughout his career. Understandably so. There are in fact reasons to follow many common moral prescriptions, these will, indeed, often tend to approximate utilitarianism. Morality is not just arbitrary (as you know, I've always made this last point).

But that was never enough to give Hare what he really wanted. He was after something much more airtight, and he always failed to find it. To that extent, his project failed.

That Guy Montag said...

A funny suggestion perhaps but what if we stop thinking about concepts as being neutral, and instead think of them as tools. A particular definition then works like a telescope does for an astronomer. Wouldn't that imply then that when a particular description fails, what it shows is we're using the wrong tool, a spanner when we need a screwdriver? What then would it mean if we were in fact using the right tool? I think what we'd find is that whatever conclusions we arrived at would be as real as anything discovered by science. In fact it's this analogy that I think describes what a science of morals would look like.

Russell Blackford said...

It's not necessarily a funny suggestion. I'm not sure, though, whether you're describing something like the familiar kind of conceptual analysis in analytic philosophy or something else. Maybe you'd like to give an example of what you have in mind.

Anonymous said...

I think I see what you mean with regard to Hare. And I still think you have misunderstood his project. The sign is that you keep leaning on the question, "Why should I be moral?" Hare clearly showed this to be a bad question. One might even find much of his work unconvincing and still admit that he was right on this particular point. That question makes productive thinking about morality impossible.

Russell Blackford said...

But he didn't show it to be a bad question. Given his approach, it became a perfectly good question, and he tried to give answers.

The trouble is, there's no single knock-down answer. There are partial answers that may satisfy various people depending on what values they start with - which is not surprising. As I said before, morality is not just arbitrary, and Hare's account of morality is at least in the ballpark of how we understand it. I don't believe it matches the folk understanding all that well, but it's not totally unrelated. So it's not surprising that he was able to say some worthwhile things in favour of acting "morally" in his sense. E.g. he says that we will benefit if we buy into "morality" reciprocally, that we can't expect people to behave "morally" towards us unless we do towards them.

The trouble is, first, many beings that we want to give moral consideration to are in no position to reciprocate because they don't have the appropriate cognitive capacities. Secon, no one really expects others to behave "morally" towards them in Hare's sense of "morally". I certainly don't. I have much lower expectations than that, and I'm sure we all do.

That Guy Montag said...


There's quite a lot of thoughts that are leading me down this particular path so choosing examples is a bit tricky. I am roughly following Davidson's thoughts on meaning and truth minimalism in my thinking though.

In terms of examples, the best I've been able to come up with so far has been math. Here we have a subject that is sort of maximally abstract, almost your archetypally conceptual subject, and yet it serves a vital function in empirical science. I think anyone who felt like going all Pythogorean and looking for the mind of god in math as a result is making a mistake. It makes far more sense to look at math as humanity finding a set of problems that it failed to have the conceptual tools to get to grips with and then developing the kind of social tools that enabled them to overcome those specific problems.

And I think we see similar things in ethics as well. Utilitarianism is a really good tool for helping states make particular kinds of decisions. We find however it doesn't work quite so comfortably for other problems. The mistake of grand theories then I feel is that, like an overenthusiastic Marxist, proponents sit around trying to use it for everything rather like someone trying to use a screwdriver to turn a nut. 

Now there is an obvious threat here that someone will start accusing me of being a Pragmatist, which I am in a limited sense. It's important to my thinking that concepts aren't neutral to perception, or create perception, and similarly what defines success in my view is not simply whether it serves some desired end or other; rather concepts actively aid perception in a similar way to a telescope.

Brian said...

Once we realize a few things, I wonder how much else discussed here will be important. Those things include:

a) that we can describe our desires as properties of physical brain states and others' desires as properties of physical brain states,

b) that any of a set of activities would fulfill those desires,

c) that any of another set of activities would change those desires to those corresponding to other brain states, i.e. there are fact about how people will respond to stimuli. There are facts about which arguments people will and will not find persuasive at different times and under different pressures.

d) people actually mean things when they talk and this generates meaningless fake problems when their meaning does not correspond to their words (broccoli questions go here),

e) people think they think things that they do not think,

f) the moral systems people believe in and think they believe in form an incredibly complex conglomerate into which all beings' actions fit morally,

g) people may believe in square circles or a certain definition of "free will", "maximizing utility", or "morality" but that does not mean they can exist without internal contradiciton,

If someone asks me "Why should I be moral?" I can (in theory) tell them many true things. I can tell them if they are using the word "moral" to represent a coherent concept. I can tell them what they care about and why, as well as what it would take for them to care about different things. I can tell them which of those arguments that would convince them are invalid and/or untrue and which arguments they reject that are valid and true. I can tell them the relationship between their biology, what they care about, what they think they care about, and what it would take to change their desires.

In the midst of all this I don't feel poor for not being able to tell someone "why" they should do something. If I know how to make Biff my slavish handyman, and that certain people can't be convinced to be harmless due to their religious upbringing, and how to change the minds of others, and what mix of desires in the population results in honor killings and that all but the tribal and addled abhor that practice for good reasons, etc. please tell me what, if anything, I am missing out on by not being able to convert an "is" to an "ought".

Russell Blackford said...

Well, it makes sense for states to act pretty much like utilitarians when, for example, they're making macroeconomic decisions. But even then you'd probably want to qualify it in various ways.

Ritchie the Bear said...

I've been a human being for a while now, and this leads me to think that those, such as Sam Harris, who redefine all moral terms so that they have happiness-related meanings are being intellectually (or perhaps emotionally) dishonest. When my mother said, “you should do the dishes,” I did not interpret that to mean, “net well-being will be increased if you do the dishes.” Not that I thought my doing the dishes won't make people happier. I thought it would. But that's not what the statement meant to me! Similarly, if someone says to me, “you should donate to Oxfam,” I do not experience the statement as literally being equivalent to the statement “overall well-being will be increased if you donate to Oxfam.”

That's one level of intellectual dishonesty. There's another, which is when Sam Harris tries to argue that all moral statements can really be interpreted as being about well-being. This requires some rather lofty interpretation. For example, suppose someone says, “you shouldn't deface that army poster.” Jonathan Haidt, through his research, has offered a simple explanation for this: loyalty is another moral axis, distinct from happiness. Harris would be left to argue that the statement really means “defacing this army poster reduces net human well-being." Or imagine a woman about to donate a hundred dollars to Oxfam, when her husband says, “you shouldn't do that, so we can go out to dinner together.” I take it as obvious that this sort of statement cannot be reasonably interpreted to mean “net well-being will be increased if, instead of you donating to an internationally respected charity, we go to a fancy restaurant.”

I really think that Harris's redefinitions are obfuscatory equivocations.

That Guy Montag said...


I don't think that's what Harris is arguing for in fact. He's rather saying that whatever we consider good, ultimately has to have an impact on conscious minds. Remember the title of his book is The Moral Landscape and he talks of "many different peaks" and "human flourishing" which implies he's well aware that there are different goods that people strive for. I think it's safer to think of his argument as more like cogito ergo sum than JS Mill, though hopefully without the dualism.


I can appreciate you're probably busy so I'm not going to waste too much of your time with my pet philosophy project. Just so that it's on the record though my argument as a whole is aiming to be pluralistic. The more tools as it were in our cognitive toolkit, the better off we are so I'm not actually limiting myself to Utilitarianism.

josef said...

To build on Guy's point, I think Harris' definition, far from redefining morality, actually captures and accommodates everyday moral discourse.

I also don't think Harris suggests morality is exclusively about happiness.