Friday, May 20, 2011

Is morality subjective or objective?

To: Samuel T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is morality subjective or objective?
Date: 29 July 2002 10:44

Dear Samuel,

Thank you for your e-mail of 18 July, with the first draft of your second essay for the Associate program, 'The foundation of Morality: Is Morality Subjective or Objective?'

In your essay you raise a number of good questions which will certainly give any defender of moral subjectivism pause for thought. I should also say that I myself have argued strongly in favour of the view that morality has an objective foundation, both in my book 'Naive Metaphysics' and at greater length in the Pathways Moral Philosophy program (Program E) Reason, Values and Conduct.

However, I found your essay disappointing for a number of reasons.

Although you give a long bibliography, there is - amazingly - no mention of Kant's 'Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals'. This is in fact the source of C.S. Lewises citation of the 'moral law'. (In the 'Critique of Practical Reason', Kant famously cites two things that fill him with wonder: 'the starry heavens above and the moral law within'.)

I would have thought that Kant's 'Categorical Imperative' is the starting point for any serious investigation of the foundations of morality. What Kant is seeking to do is provide a rational foundation for morality: to show, in other words, why it is a constituent part of rationality that we should make certain moral choices, choices which are universally demanded of all rational beings.

Kant was a devout Christian. But he was quite clear about the boundaries between matters of faith and matters of knowledge. He believed that objective foundations for morality could be established as a matter of knowledge, through philosophical argument.

The key idea in your essay is that moral laws exist as Platonic Forms, and that the existence of these Platonic forms can ultimately be explained only through the existence of God.

Amazingly, you cite the dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, yet it is here that opponents of the idea that moral laws derive from God have found their most powerful argument. Socrates asks Euthyphro whether things are pious because they are 'commanded by the gods' or whether, on the contrary, they are 'commanded by the gods because they are pious'. This challenge has been taken as a reductio ad absurdum of any definition of the form, 'X is good = X is commanded by God'. (However, one place where I have found a sturdy defence of Euthyphro against Socrates is Peter Geach 'Logic Matters' which should be in your university library. Geach goes so far as to accuse Socrates of sophistry, though I am not convinced.)

A comparatively recent introduction to moral philosophy, 'Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong' by J.L. Mackie, gives an equally formidable argument against the idea that morality can be based on Platonic forms. Mackie cites two arguments, the 'argument from relativity' and the 'argument from queerness'. You deal at some length with relativity in your essay, and I am partly in agreement with what you say. To make things simple, if there are two cultures A and B, and A believe that X is good and B believe that X is bad, it does not follow that one or other culture cannot be *right*. On the other hand, in order to put forward this defence it is necessary to explain how it came about that one culture espoused the right view and the other the wrong view. Where did the culture that got things wrong go wrong? at what point did they deviate from perception of the moral truth? And how did the other culture manage to get things right?

This is the point were the argument from queerness comes into play. Platonic forms of moral values would be metaphysically 'queer' objects, for two reasons. The problem is not only explaining how our minds can make contact with transcendent, non-material objects (which is difficult enough) but also accounting for the motivational force of such knowledge. The latter point goes back to Hume's famous argument about the gap between 'Is' and 'Ought'.

A lot of the argument in your essay takes the form, 'Morality must exist objectively otherwise there is no explanation of how we came to such-and-such an idea'. But as you are no doubt aware, defenders of moral subjectivism have plenty of explanations. Mackie describes his position as an 'error theory' of morality. The explanation takes the form of an error in reasoning or inference to which we are naturally prone. The problem for your strategy here is that, however many subjectivist accounts you examine and reject, you cannot say definitively that subjectivism cannot account for the origin of our moral ideas. In other words, this form of argumentation is always vulnerable to the 'overlooked alternative'.

You are right in charging relativism with self-contradiction when it says that 'murder is wrong' can be true for me but false for you. If it is true for me that murder is wrong, then I cannot admit that in saying, 'Murder is not wrong' you are saying something 'true'. However, the relativist has a response. This is to deny that there are any moral 'truths'. 'Some people *like* murder and some don't. I am one of those who don't' does not involve any self-contradiction.

As I said earlier, I would put myself firmly in the camp of the moral objectivists. The line I would take is Kantian, in that I believe that what we are looking for is objective reasons for being moral, rather than metaphysical 'objects'. But that is another story.

One last point. Where did Sartre say, "If God is dead, everything is permitted"? Your citation is to Schlick. If this is a direct quotation then it requires a citation of the original source.

All the best,

Geoffrey