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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).

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Shafer-Landau on moral objectivism

Russ Shafer-Landau's discussion (The Fundamentals of Ethics) of moral objectivism does pick up (albeit briefly), the real problems with it - such as how can our moral judgments ever transcend such down-to-earth things as our actual desires, values, and purposes (and throw in needs, if you like, though I think needs pretty much reduce to actual or ascribed purposes).

To suggest that the objectivist position is at least not hopeless, he offers the following as a case where someone seemingly has a desire-transcendent reason to act in a certain way:
Suppose you are hiking along a cliff path and notice a stranger who is absent-mindedly walking from the opposite direction. You see that he's about to take a wrong step and plunge to his death. There is a reason to yell to him and alert him of the danger. And this reason applies to you even if you don't care about the stranger or about the pats on the back you'll receive when the story gets out. There is something to be said on behalf of your warning him, something that favors it, that justifies it, that makes it a legitimate thing to do. These are just different ways of saying the same thing: There is a reason for you to save that stranger's life, even if doing so won't make you any better off or get you anything you care about.
But this is very weak. Shafer-Landau tells us repeatedly that there is a reason, but he doesn't tell us what it could possibly be ... and I've got to say that I can't imagine what he thinks it is.

Now, as it happens, I would have reasons to save the stranger's life. I immediately feel sympathy for him, and want to help him as I see him in his dire and immediate peril. I can help him by yelling out. Hence, I have a reason to do so. Yelling out will achieve my purpose of helping him. From my viewpoint, it's a productive action.

But there's a sleight of hand here. I have a reason because of something about my desire-set: my sympathies generate or amount to (it doesn't matter which) a desire to help others who are in danger. So Shafer-Landau claims that I would still have the reason even if I didn't have the desire-set. That claim might have some psychological force, but that's because I can't really imagine myself without the desire-set.

I suppose I might have other reasons, but none of them transcend my desire-set. E.g., I may wish to conform to a code of social norms that I've internalised. Or I may fear the law (particularly in a jurisdiction that has an obligation of easy rescue).

Really, ordinary human beings who are not psychopaths or anything of the sort will have plenty of reasons to yell out, but that's because ordinary human beings care about each other, at least in some minimal or basic way, and because they care about other things such as how they are regarded, whether they are obeying the social expectations that they encounter every day, whether they are obeying the law (this may contain a lot of bad norms, but most of us have at least some residual wish to obey it), and so on.

Shafer-Landau asks, in effect, whether I'd still have a reason if I turned into the sort of person who'd be regarded as a monster - someone who doesn't care about, and is not restrained by, any of these things. I can't imagine myself as such a monster, so I feel emotionally bullied into agreeing that I'd still have a reason. But on reflection, it seems clear that I wouldn't. I'm not sure in what sense I'd still be me if I turned into such a monstrous creature, so perhaps it's better to ask what would be the case if I were replaced by such a creature.

Suddenly I've been whisked away by an act of Zeus who has sent in my place an evil demon that has no compassion for human beings, no fear of humans and their laws, no identification with human social codes. This being is too powerful to be constrained by human expectations and requirements and is totally without sympathy. It regards the death of a human being with a sort of clinical fascination, and nothing more. It is, however, intelligent and rational - at least rational in the "thin" sense of being able to find out facts about the world and to avoid acting in ways that are counterproductive to its own purposes.

Does this creature have a reason to call out? I can't see it. We may have a reason to regard the creature as evil - such a creature is horribly dangerous to our interests, we can't reason with it or appeal to its sympathies or anything of the kind - but it has no reason to save the guy's life. It's in no sense making a mistake about the world, drawing a false inference, acting against its own purposes, or anything of the kind, when it watches in silence then observes (and makes notes) as the man falls to his death.

Again, our moral systems are created for us ... for creatures that, by and large, are animals that are responsive to each other (and to a lesser extent to other animals and to various other things). It is perfectly rational for someone like me to yell out, and for my society to develop a norm according to which I am required to yell out. Nothing in this picture is irrational or arbitrary.

Morality is not arbitrary or irrational for creatures like us (though many specific moral norms may be, and some moral systems may contain a lot of norms like that). But it can't get a grip on powerful, rational monsters. Fortunately, we don't encounter many! Business corporations sometimes emulate the actions of powerful, rational monsters ... but even they usually restrain themselves to some extent, given that their decisions are made by actual human beings. You can draw similar conclusions about churches, armies, governments, and other powerful corporate entities whose purposes can become unyoked from ordinary human sympathies.

When and if we do encounter such things, they are a danger to us, and it's rational for us to protect ourselves from them if we can. But that's not what Shafer-Landau is saying.


Steve Zara said...

What is the supposed need for any kind of moral transcendence? What is it that those who are in search of it are after? What would they do if they found that a transcendent morality was not their morality?

Charles Sullivan said...

It would seem we have to figure out what human nature is, in order to determine whether our individual desires are in accord with our species' norms.

Anonymous said...


I have a suggestion for the alternative, which is a very specific and specialized desire: the desire to be moral. It seems to me that to be truly said to be acting morally you have to be acting at least primarily on a desire to be moral and do the right thing. This would hold regardless of whether morality is subjective -- ie just a personal code -- or objective.

So, at the end of the day, even if all of your other desires scream that you should not call out to that person, the desire to do the right thing and to be moral can trump all of those and make you act morally regardless. Thus, lacking those other desires wouldn't make you a monster, but lacking that desire to be moral might. It seems to me that if you are going to be considered a moral agent it must be the case that you have the capacity to have a desire to be moral and to act on that desire. And if you have that, then there clearly are times when you will act on that desire and not your other ones.

Anonymous said...

In the case of that rational demon, perhaps self-interest is enough motivation in order for it to call out. After all, living in a society which expects that strangers ought to help each other in such situations is better for one's health than the alternative, and a good way of creating such a society is by setting an example.

Russell Blackford said...

Perhaps, but I can't understand what this "right" thing is at this stage of the discussion. I don't see any property of "rightness" out there in the world that the demon is failing to detect.

There's "rightness" within a set of norms or a moral code, of course, and people (including me) can have internalised these codes and want to act in accordance with them. We see that phenomenon all the time. Perhaps societies even need it to happen like that for their survival, though there may be a lot of room for variation as to exactly which moral code gets internalised.

But Shafer-Landau needs a property of "rightness" that exists before moral codes and irrespective of naturalistic things like desires. Consider the demon again - it internalised any human moral code and doesn't care about such things. It knows all the naturalistic facts, including that its inaction breaches our moral code (and perhaps the law, depending on the jurisdiction) ... yet it goes ahead as I described.

I can't see any mistake about the world that the demon is making. We might say to it later, when it's too late, that its conduct has the property of being "wrong" or "not right" in a way that transcends our moral codes and is somehow prescriptive for it ... and the demon just looks at us coldly and goes its way. It's satisfied that it made no error.

The thing is, this transcendent "rightness" property looks very strange. I can't even imagine what it means. Whereas the down-to-earth sort of rightness, judged by the standards of an individual or a group or a society, makes perfectly good sense. And the human need (that word again) to establish such standards is such that they're not just arbitrary or idiosynscratic. They actually can help social creatures like us live together effectively, for example.

Svlad Cjelli said...

@Steve Zara

I thought about that myself a while back. Being that specific moral sets seemingly can differ on virtually any point, isn't it possible for this hypothetical transcendent morality to coincide with what no worldly moral set would consider good?
How would things pan out in a universe in which the transcendent morality was both known and in opposition to all moral sets held by any actual being?

Russell Blackford said...

Sure, anon., I agree. We have motivations such as that. But that wouldn't demonstrate objective wrongness in not calling out. It would only demonstrate that there is, depending on the facts, a good reason to call out based on our purposes such as you mention.

Shafer-Landau wants to say that we have a reason that transcends all that.

I can't see why we should think so, at this stage of the discussion, where nothing like the existence of objective rightness and so on has yet been established, to think tht there are any such transcendent reasons. So he fails to convince me.

But I agree that in practice that there will be overlapping non-transcendent reasons. They don't rationally bind the demon, which has no sympathies, doesn't have to live in society with us, is too powerful for us to be able to punish it, and so on. But the point is that human beings are not actually like powerful, pitiless, self-reliant demons. Given what we actually are like, we have perfectly good, non-transcendent reasons to call out. Those reasons include facts about what we desire, value, need for our purposes, and so on, and in that sense (but not some more worrying sense) are subjective.

Jean Kazez said...

You say you can't imagine what sort of "a reason" S-L is alluding to. But I think he's just alluding to familiar reasons like (just as an example) "this is a person whose life has special value." I could recognize that as a reason to stop the guy from falling, even if I felt no sympathy for him. Maybe he's actually vile and disgusting--covered in festering sores or something. I feel absolutely nothing. Yet I do have "a reason" to stop him from falling--he's a person with special value.

Saying that's "a reason" isn't saying it's decisive or could trump all competing reasons. Maybe I'm in a huge hurry, because my child just got bitten by a snake. Or whatever. Maybe, in fact, that reason has only a little bit of weight with me. Still--it's something! I don't think his point requires him to say anything stronger than that.

Lance S. Bush said...


I'm pretty much on the same page as you regarding metaethical issues, especially after your posts and comments prompted me to read more about error theory and clarify some of the misconceptions and fuzziness in my thinking.

I'm not sure if you've commented on it before, but I'm interested in what your take is on Desirism, which presents itself as an objective/realist ethical approach. There's a FAQ on it here that breaks it down pretty clearly:


Felix said...

Reading your post made me think of a widlife photographer observing a leopard hunt down and kill a young gazelle that he had been following for days.

We know that this happens and yet I have never heard anyone chastising a photographer for this.

But what if the victim of the leopard was a chimpanzee and thus of greater moral worth?

Presumably if there was a universal moral reality it would have to be based upon something like Singers model of sentience, consciousness etc.

It appears that in this example we are operating outside of a morality. Like the demon.

Russell Blackford said...

Jean, I just find that incomprehensible. The demon doesn't find this person's life of special value. The demon doesn't care. You and I value the person's life of course, but Shafer-Landau has asked us to imagine someone who doesn't. This being knows all the facts and makes no errors of logic or anything of the kind. It's very difficult to see where it's making a mistake at all.

Of course, we prescribe that the demon save the man. But that's because we feel sympathy for the man, or place a value on his life, or whatever. The demon doesn't do any of those things.

So, if I'm asked whether I'd have a reason to act in a certain way if I were like the demon ... it seems to me pretty obvious that I wouldn't. At the very least, it's not intuitively obvious that I would which is what Shafer-Landau's argument requires. As I say, at this stage of the argument, where we are not assuming the existence of anything such as a "special value" or an objectively prescriptive property, or whatever.To assume that would be circular. Without making that sort of assumption, there seems to be no mistake about the world or irrationality when the demon goes ahead and lets the guy die.

Fortunately for us, we don't encounter these demons. We encounter psychopaths, and we encounter business corporations, etc., but these are a lot easier to deal with. Not easy, but easier.

Charles Sullivan said...

If the monster thought it would be morally wrong if someone else let him fall off the cliff, would you consider him to be irrational or inconsistent?

Or what if we attempt to reason with the monster by getting him to admit that he would not desire if someone let him fall off the cliff, and also get him to admit that he values his own life no more than the person about to go over the cliff values her life.

The question is, could we consider him irrational if he admitted these things, but still saw no reason to prevent the person from falling off the cliff?

Or would it be rational for him to simply say "I value my life, but I don't value her life"?

Russell Blackford said...

Charles, if the monster is thinking straight it wants to be saved from falling off cliffs. It may even prefer to live in a jurisdiction where there is a duty of easy rescue to give it some protection against falling off cliffs. The monster doesn't have to be opposed to social contructs or systems of social norms.

But it doesn't regard someone who is disclined to save monsters from falling off cliffs as "morally wrong" in her conduct if that means failing to take an action that is objectively prescribed for all rational creatures. It can know that the person who is disinclined to save it may have no relevant desires, etc., may be making no mistakes about the world, may not be acting irrationally, etc. That person may not have a reason to save monsters ... which was where we came in.

Anonymous said...


I was actually quite careful to specify that I wasn't defending objective morality there; moral objectivists/realists do indeed still have to prove their objective position.

My point, though, was about being able to find a reason that one would have to accept summed up morality using only moral terms, without appealing to non-moral ones. The desire to be moral does this by definition, and seems to me to be a basic desire that cannot be justified in terms of non-moral desires. If you want me to justify wanting to be moral in terms of other wants, I can quite reasonably say that at that point it stops being moral.

Thus, if the demon internalizes a moral code and possesses a desire to be moral but never acts on it, I think we can quite rightly say that the demon is not being moral in a way that even the demon must accept. The demon doesn't have to act moral and I think most objectivist positions do not really claim that morality provides an actual compulsion to act morally, but the demon would have to accept that if the demon doesn't act out of a desire to act morally then they aren't in any way acting morally. This, then, I think, gets us out of the discussions about reasons and the like, since we'd have to be talking about moral agents and it must be the case that to be a moral agent wanting to act morally must be possible for that agent. At which point we can turn back to what I think is the more key argument over what, if anything, actually counts as a moral code.

Russell Blackford said...

I'm genuinely confused by this, V.

We are at a point where we are asking if the monster or demon or whatever it was has a reason to save the guy. At this stage we are trying to derive a moral requirement from non-moral reality and practical rationality, so we can't yet assume that anything like a moral requirement (whatever that really is) exists.

What I say is that the monster has no reason.

Maybe you're not saying it has. But all I'm saying is that Shafer-Landau claims that there is a reason for me even if I become like the monster (and presumably even for the monster if I am replaced by the monster). All I'm then saying is that I can't see that any reason has been provided. And if no reason has been provided, then I don't see how the monster is compelled, on pain of showing some sort of irrationality or making a mistake, to act in a way that we'd normally classify as morally good. Which is just to say that morally good action is not something that's objectively required of us by the nature of non-moral reality (the only reality we know of at this stage of the argument) and practical rationality, irrespective of our actual desire sets (which is what Shafer-Landau has been addressing at this point of the book).

I don't claim objective morality, if it existed, should force us psychologically - e.g. we might not be aware that we are being irrational. Or even if we are I suppose it's still possible that we won't respond to reason's demands because of weakness of will or something. But we should at least be wrong about something when we decide not to act in the relevant way. But again, it's hard to see that there's anything the monster is actually wrong about. It can know all the facts and not make any errors of reasoning as it ponders how to respond to them. And there's nothing self-defeating in what it does. It's a dangerous critter to have around, but what mistake has it actually made that it can't dismiss as not being a mistake at all, or as something that it is not required by reason to take into consideration? I can see none.

So, Shafer-Landau's thought experiment fails to demonstrate his point.

We, on the other hand, with our actual psychologies - sympathies, desire sets, and so on - have plenty of reasons to act in ways that are usually classified as morally good. There's almost an embarrassment of riches if we're looking for reasons for creatures like us, as we actually are, to act in those ways.

But maybe you agree with all this. Sorry if I'm still misunderstanding you and not being responsive to the point you're wanting to make.

Anonymous said...


Ah, I see the problem.

I'm rejecting the idea that you can ever derive a moral requirement from non-moral desires. I'm arguing that the right way to look at this is to appeal to the moral reason of wanting to be moral and do the moral thing, which is something that all moral agents have the capacity to want and prioritize over everything else and that if you can't or won't act in the name of, you aren't acting morally.

So, for regular folk in the thought experiment, they will always have a potential reason to call out -- presuming that that is moral -- which is that they want to act morally. And if they don't call out for that reason, they still aren't acting morally. Psychopaths are amoral because they can't legitimately form a desire to act morally, at least in part because they don't have any idea what morality is (they fail the moral/conventional distinction). Your demon either is incapable of internalizing a morality and forming a desire to act morally that it can make the top priority -- at which point it is amoral, just like psychopaths -- or it has all of those things but chooses to act in opposition to them, at which point it is immoral.

To me, trying to justify moral desires or actions in terms of non-moral desires or priorities immediately makes the decision at least amoral. So perhaps I'm disagreeing with both, but at the heart of all of this I'm challenging the idea that it makes any sense to justify moral decisions by non-moral considerations.

Anonymous said...

If my last comment shows up three times, just delete any two of them. I think the length checker between the text here and blogger itself is off, so here you can post something that's over the limit that then gets rejected by blogger ...

Tim Martin said...

Why is it that people will try so hard to rescue moral objectivism?

It's bad enough that all the philosophical arguments for it fail, but the empirical evidence for it is just as bad.

We know that humans make moral decisions (especially ones that have a very "personal" aspect to them) using the emotional parts of their brains, not the rational.

We know that psychopaths are physically incapable of feeling remorse, and as such they treat other people as tools to get what they want, which is exactly what any intelligent person who didn't care for others would do.

And we know that stupid people are just as kind and warm and moral as anybody else (this one's anecdotal, I admit). It doesn't take intelligence to call to the man near the cliff; it just takes empathy. Is there any evidence we have that isn't in support of this?

Svlad Cjelli said...

@Jean Kazez
"Still--it's something!"

But is it? What does "there is a special value" add that "there is a special reason" doesn't add? The question regards what - if anything - that reason or value would be.

Saying that it's "special" doesn't register as anything more with me beyond the bare assertion of an uncanny somethingness that I can't distinguish from a nothingness.

That Guy Montag said...


There are in fact two ways that we can conceive of failing to be motivated. The first would see the monster failing to be pushed by the force of the reason in order to act. In particular this seems to be the kind of conception of moral motivation that Humeans are looking for, an almost physical force that compels a particular action.

The second way to conceive of the failure to be motivated is going to be the sort of motivation I'd be looking for and possibly S-L as well. In this view reasons exist independently of whether I am aware of them or not; being motivated by them is not them forcing me to act, but my developing the ability to see them as reasons.

The important point to walk away with is that this respects what the objectivist is aiming for: it respects the direction of fit from world to mind. It is also genuinely empirical because I think what it does is it leaves us with nothing to hang our metaphysics on. By turning moral motivation into an act of perception, I leave myself in the position of not being able to say before hand what it is that will ultimately motivate me. In practice I think we'll generally see that the kinds of things we give as reasons will be things the subjectivist won't object to, but I'm going to assert that that is just a contingent metaphysical fact on exactly the same level as the fact that protons have mass.