Wednesday 9/19

Relativism II: Simple Ethical Subjectivism

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Synopsis

Having discarded Cultural Ethical Relativism as a possibly true theory, we turned next today to the thought that morality is just a matter of opinion.

There are, it seems, good reasons for thinking that ethical judgments cannot be objectively true. We don't experience the properties of being evil or being right in the same way we experience the properties of being green or being round, a point made clear by none other than David Hume.

Hume's theory, Simple Ethical Subjectivism, takes seriously the view that morality is nothing more than a matter of one's own personal approvals or disapprovals--opinions, in short.

Unlike CER, Simple Ethical Subjectivism (SES) passes the standards of clarity and coherence. But it fails to pass reflective equilibrium. There are generally lots of ways a theory can fail to pass reflective equilibrium. A theory might fail to pass reflective equilibrium because it has implications for types of actions which collide with our (reasoned, experienced, etc.) intuitions about those kinds of actions. So, for example, an ethical theory might imply that homosexuality is morally wrong. Such a theory fails reflective equilibrium, but only weakly. That is, it may be that homosexuality is in fact morally wrong despite my intuition that it is not. There are certainly many people who are willing to give arguments to the effect that homosexuality is morally wrong. So perhaps my intuition is mistaken, and I err in rejecting the ethical theory on those grounds. Of course, I can give very good reasons for thinking that homosexuality is not morally wrong. But that is an issue for later. My point here is that a theory can fail reflective equilibrium weakly. In such a case we would say that the theory arguably fails reflective equilibrium, since counter-arguments can presumably be given to the effect that the theory has the correct implications for action.

But there are theories which completely and utterly fail reflective equilibrium. The strong sense of failing equilibrium is this: an ethical theory has implications about the nature of morality which undermine or contradict the core features of morality it must intuitively have. SES is an excellent example of this.

According to the Infallibility Argument, if SES is true, then it follows that we are infallible in our moral judgments. But it is a key feature of our intuitive, pre-theoretic intuitions about morality that it is possible to be mistaken in our moral judgments. We might, for example, judge that a killing is morally wrong only to find out that the killing was done in self-defense and thus is morally permissible. We can be mistaken. It would be the height of arrogance to think that we are infallible in our moral judgments.

The Infallibility Argument is deeply problematic for SES since it shows that SES is a theory sharply and significantly at odds with reasoned intuitions about morality. But, as if that weren't enough to reject SES outright, we have the additional problem of the Disagreement Argument. According to the Disagreement Argument, it is an implication of SES that there cannot in principle by any moral disagreement. We are mistaken when we argue over whether or not abortion is morally permissible or whether or not euthanasia is morally permissible since, according to SES, our argument is really just a matter of differences of attitude and there is no basis for any real or factual differences. This implication, that there cannot be any moral disagreement if SES is true, is radically at odds with reasoned and experienced intuition about morality. At root our intuition about morality is that, just as we can be mistaken in our moral judgments, it is possible to disagree about the morality of an action. There is a fact of the matter about whether an action is morally right or morally wrong. Morality is not, then, a matter of opinion as SES would have it.

Following the Infallibility Argument and the Disagreement Argument through to their gruesome conclusions--gruesome for SES, that is--philosophers have almost universally rejected SES.

But philosophers are very clever. The idea that there is no objective truth in ethics is hard to dispel. What, though, is objective truth?

Recall from our discussion of truth conditions in class (and also in the handout Ethical Objectivism) the possible kinds of truth conditions:

1. Objective Truth Conditions

a. A Priori --> Moral Rationalism--i.e., moral judgments are truths of reason.v

b. A Posteriori --> Moral Realism--i.e., moral judgments are truths of fact.

2. Subjective Truth Conditions --> SES--i.e., moral judgments are truths of subjective experience.

But there is yet another possibility. It could be that there simply are no truth conditions on ethical statements.

3. No Truth Conditions --> ?

In an important sense, philosophers who hold that ethical statements have no truth conditions are really holding that there is no point to studying ethics. When we argue over abortion, for example, we are not saying anything that can be either true or false. Philosophers call the thesis that there are no truth conditions on ethical statements "Emotivism" (EMO, for short.)

Now, we have rejected (2), since we have rejected SES. The truth conditions on moral judgments cannot be subjective. But rejecting (2) still leaves two possibilities. Either the truth conditions on moral judgments are objective--as in (1)--or there simply are no truth conditions on moral judgments--as in (3)--so that moral judgments are not properly judgments at all. We can put this into an argument.

  1. Either truth conditions on moral judgments are objective or truth conditions on moral judgments are subjective or there are no truth conditions on moral judgments.
  2. If truth conditions on moral judgments are subjective, then SES is true.
  3. SES is not true.
  4. Therefore, it is not the case that truth conditions on moral judgments are subjective. (2&3)
  5. Therefore, either truth conditions on moral judgments are objective or there are no truth conditions on moral judgments. (1&4)
  6. If truth conditions on moral judgments are objective, then it is possible to show that some moral beliefs are true and others are false.
  7. It is not possible to show that some moral beliefs are true and others are false.
  8. Therefore, it is not the case that truth conditions on moral judgments are objective. (6&7)
  9. Therefore, there are no truth conditions on moral judgments (5&8)

The argument is valid in the sense that its premises entail its conclusion and, so far as I can tell, it has all true premises with the single possible exception of premise (7). Thus the conclusion is true if premise (7) is true.

Let us suppose, just for the sake of argument, that (7) is true. Then what would ethics be like? Making a moral judgment could no longer be counted as saying something which is true or false. Instead, moral judgments like 'lying is morally wrong', which have the same grammatical form as 'grass is green', would not be a judgment at all. So what could it be? We have lots of examples of sentences that do not have truth conditions: "What time is it?", "Go Islanders!", "Sit down!", etc. Perhaps moral judgments are not statements--even though they resemble statements--but are, rather, verbalizations of emotion. EMO claims that statements like 'abortion is morally wrong' and 'keeping your promises is morally right' are the speakers expressions of emotion. What the speaker says is 'abortion is morally wrong', but the only way we can understand this is as if the speaker had said 'boo abortion'. Similarly, when the speaker says 'keeping your promises is morally right', we must understand the speaker as saying the equivalent of 'yeah, promise-keeping!'.

EMO may sound like an odd theory, if we can call it a theory, but a number of philosophers have taken it very seriously. EMO presents the most serious skeptical challenge to ethical discourse and debate possible. It even has an interesting argument in its favor (in the form of the above argument.)

The key, then is whether or not it is possible to show that some moral beliefs are true and others are false.

I think there is a way to respond to the Emotivists' challenge.

According to Plato, ethics is about how we ought to live our lives. Ethics is about all the decisions we make day-to-day in choosing what we believe to be the best course of action. What, in other words, is the right thing to do in a given situation?

Now, ask yourself this question: What is it that differentiates a human being from, say, a goose? It seems to me that although the goose may have some rudimentary reasoning abilities, it is mostly under the control of instinctual processes about which it has no input.

A human being is, presumably, different. Our most basic assumption about ourselves--an assumption which has certainly not been proven true, by the way-is that we are not under the control of instinctual processes like the goose or the lemming. Rather, we make decisions for ourselves. We reason about what is best to do; we reason about what is the right thing to do. But the very possibility of reasoning about what is right or wrong presupposes that EMO, and with it premise 7 in the above argument, is false. If 7 is true, and EMO is true, then we cannot reason about our actions, in much the same way that the goose cannot reason about its actions. I find this implication intolerable. Although I think there is less light between goose and human behavior than most people would be comfortable admitting, I also think that there is a difference - a difference which contradicts EMO.

Having explored and dismissed the skeptical challenges to the possibility of studying ethics represented by Culture Ethical Relativism, Simple Ethical Subjectivism, and (now) Emotivism, we next turn to the one firm bedrock ethics traditionally has been thought to enjoy. That is, thus far we have discussed two theories which adopt the fundamental assumption that there is no universal moral truth. There are instead at most relative moral truths. The first, Cultural Ethical Relativism, did poorly against our Standards. The second, Simple Ethical Subjectivism, did better, but we still ended up rejecting it as a possibly true theory. Of course, morality could still turn out to be relative in some way or other, but the prospects aren't good. So if there is universal moral truth, how do we establish it? What could justify universal moral truths?

Ethics is traditionally thought to be the province of religion. If we want to understand what is morally right or morally wrong, we need only consult one or more sacred texts or take up the matter with a privileged religious leader whose job it is to make moral pronouncements. Let us call this view moral theology. Only by invoking God's authority can we make sense of universal moral truth. Thus moral theology is popularly viewed as the only alternative to moral relativism. We begin there next time, after we take our second quiz.

The second quiz will consist of three sections:

  1. Cultural Ethical Relativism
  2. Simple Ethical Subjectivism
  3. Ethical Objectivism and Emotivism

Note that you need to understand the arguments we gave for and against each theory, which of course requires also knowing our Standards of Evaluation. Count on about 40 minutes for the quiz, and please be sure to get to class on time.