Tuesday, March 06, 2007

SteveG on Ethical Subjectivism

SteveG at Philosophers' Playground gives us his views on Ethical Subjectivism (second part of the article). I have written on this topic, and I have much to dispute with Steve's view.

Terminology

Steve uses the term "Ethical Subjectivism", but I think this term is misleading. Ethical Subjectivism is often used to label the view that subjective belief makes objective ethical statements true: If Hitler believes that killing Jews is right, then killing Jews is right. The views that Steve is apparently critiquing are better labeled as meta-ethical relativism (MESR), which is a position on ethical statements, not a position on ethics.
Two technical points about ethical subjectivsm: (1) the relativity of moral rightness - on this view, there is no sense of moral rightness apart from what someone believes; (2) the personal infallibility of moral judgment – it is impossible on this view for anyone to be wrong when they make a moral claim because rightness for them is just what they think it is.
Aside from the misleading connotation of "infallible", this is a pretty good description of MESR.

But the use of "infallible" in (2) deserves special mention. "Infallible" connotes being trustworthy or veridical. The Pope, for instance, is infallible (speaking ex cathedra) not only about his own opinion, but about objective truths concerning God. Steve's use of the word subtly connotes not just that individuals have privileged access to their own mental states, but that the content of these states is veridical. Such a connotation flatly contradicts (1).

Naturally, a charitable reading of Steve's remarks clearly indicates that any speaker is "infallible" in the looser sense that he knows his own states. Still, given what I see as the massive confusion in philosophical discourse between ethical subjectivism and meta-ethical subjective relativism, even an uncharitable connotation deserves specific mention because it subtly suggests an incorrect view to the reader.

Tolerance

Steve later gives us a sensible interpretation, but he first criticizes the supposed subjectivist view of tolerance:
When I teach ethics, the most common view in the room is Ethical Subjectivism, that moral judgments are purely a matter of personal decision. Everyone has his or her own ethical system and the fact that you consider an act morally right means that, for you, the act is morally right. [abrupt segue] While it comes from a good place, the desire to be tolerant, it is in fact, fatally flawed. Turning tolerance from a virtue into the only virtue undermines all meaningful ethical deliberation and handcuffs those who really think tolerance is important.
Notice the abrupt segue: Reading Steve's essay, you might think that (meta-)ethical subjectivism entails that tolerance is the only virtue. Steve gives us no argument whatsoever for this conclusion. It's not only a non sequitur, but it's also a logical contradiction.

Consider the statement:
(T) It is always good to be tolerant
(T) is an objective ethical statement: It does not, directly or indirectly reference any statement of mind, and it makes a specific assertion about what is good. However, meta-ethical subjective relativism specifically denies that any such objective statement can have a truth value.

The only way to get to (T) is to reintroduce ethical objectivism through the "back door" with the enthymeme:
P1: only statements that are objectively true are ethically relevant
But P1 not only flatly contradicts MESR, it is also--by virtue of being expressed objectively--contrary to the spirit of MESR.

Subjectivism and Taste

Steve correctly notes that under MESR, "reasoning about ethics now becomes akin to choosing a favorite flavor of ice cream." Akin to is the key phrase: there is a point of similarity, but not of identity. Therefore the observation that
That horrible knot in the pit of your stomach wouldn’t be there if the choice was just another version of Coke or Pepsi, paper or plastic, ribbed or French tickler.
does at all not undermine the similarity: ethical beliefs are just those beliefs to which we have a greater emotional attachment than to mere taste beliefs.

(Also notice Steve's clever rhetorical technique of shifting from "akin to", expressing similarity, to "just another version of", expressing identity. This is a very effective rhetorical technique, and any intellectual reader should make a special effort to be alert for it.)

Steve correctly notes that, "In cases of deep moral doubt, we don’t just feel, we think." Again, this observation does not at all undermine MESR. Consider the analogy to taste again: I very much enjoy real ice cream (the artificially sweetened version makes me gag), but I also have diabetes and I very much enjoy being healthy. The fact that I have to think to resolve this discrepancy in my tastes does not at all undermine that the underlying discrepancy is still a subjective discrepancy.

The existence of convincing ethical arguments also does not necessarily undermine subjectivism (although it might do so). There are two types of rational arguments that do not undermine subjectivism: (1) arguments rationalizing competing ethical beliefs and (2) arguments about the means to achieve[1] ethical beliefs by manipulating objective reality. To make this objection stick, Steve must show that an ethical argument can succeed by convincing us of the truth of an objective ethical statement contrary to our subjective beliefs (in, for instance, the arguments from evidence for quantum mechanics convince us to overturn our intuitive beliefs about the classical nature of reality).

Ethical Discourse

The sense of Steve's essay seems to imply that MESR renders us entirely mute, that it eliminates ethical discourse. "[W]e would each be sequestered in our own little ethical bubble where it doesn’t matter how reasonable or wacko the folks in the surrounding bubbles are." But this is simply not the case. All that MESR eliminates is objective truth-finding discourse. It still permits rational discourse helping us to rationalize our discrepant and competing ethical beliefs and still permits objective discourse on how to achieve our ethical beliefs.

Furthermore, there are two modes of discourse we can apply to ethical disputes which do not depend on fundamentally finding objective ethical truths: propaganda and negotiation. Propaganda aims to directly change a person's subjective beliefs. Negotiation attempts to find a course of action acceptable in the face of competing ethical beliefs. Again, to use the metaphor of taste, if I want to eat Chinese food and my wife wants to eat Italian, we do not attempt to resolve the issue by deciding which is "objectively" better. We negotiate how we are to best fulfill our competing desires (and, with all good luck, remain married). We might decide, for instance to eat Italian tonight and Chinese next week.

Caging and Framing Tolerance

The idea that subjectivism or relativism entails absolute tolerance is not (outside perhaps academic philosophy) a position actually held by very many more-or-less subjectivist liberals in real life. Absolute tolerance is an idea flogged like crazy by authoritarian conservatives to undermine liberal challenges to their authority. A vast majority of liberals in real life hold Steve's sensible approach to tolerance, "Sometimes justice, fairness, and even promotion of tolerance itself require taking actions that do not place tolerance at the forefront. Tolerance is an important thing, but not the only important thing."

More importantly, this view is not at all contradictory to MESR: A person can have just this view of tolerance on purely subjective grounds. It is only when the fallacious enthymeme noted above is implied that absolute tolerance becomes entailed.

Essentially, conservative objectivist authoritarians have framed the issue of ethical relativism and subjectivism in terms of this fallaciously nihilistic view and caged the discussion to talk about only these aspects.

It's disappointing that the author of this essay would so easily fall for just the technique he so perspicaciously describes.


[1] For the annoying particularists, actualizing a ethically preferred state of affairs.

12 comments:

  1. Steve G's post was surprisingly bush league. The "ice cream" analogy is old and flawed. I've always found the dichotomy he presents -- that one cannot judge others if "tolerance is the only virtue" -- to be false.

    I think, in the end, we have people arguing on different levels. Ethical subjectivists, as Steve characterizes them, seem much more concerned -- as Larry demonstrates -- with meta-ethics, the how and why we arrive at our conclusions. Moral absolutists (or moral realists, for the more polite and honest ones) tend to be arguing about end-results, the moral conclusions. But then both act like they're discussing the same thing, when really they're at cross-purposes.

    I view "moral truths" in a similar way to scientific facts and theories like relativity: Sometimes an idea is just so good, so suited to man's needs, that one continually arrives at it; in the same way, a scientific theory matches the evidence and explains the observed cause and effect interactions better than alternate explanations. It's an inaccurate analogy, of end-result to process, again, and it needs fleshing out, but it works.

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  2. We can certainly create explanatory theories on the basis of subjective ethics: "So and so premises explain the moral beliefs of these particular people."

    In other words, specific ethical theories can be evidentiary, but they are still subjective in the sense of depending completely on subjective facts with no objective content.

    In essence, ethical theories are very much like psychological theories: They explain how we do think, not how we should think.

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  3. Also, to be fair to Steve, I think his comments are pretty standard stuff; I see this argument--and the trivially fallacious arguments he criticizes--fairly often in what little of the professional literature I read as well as the derivative popularizations.

    I view the situation more in terms of the classical physicists in the early 20th century, having such deep intuitions about classical physics that relativity and quantum mechanics just didn't seem to make sense at a deep level.

    I don't think my views on meta-ethical subjective relativism (which are probably just restatements of better philosophers than me; there is little actually new in philosophy) will ever achieve currency, much less currency in my own lifetime.

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  4. I have to disagree with this: "In essence, ethical theories are very much like psychological theories: They explain how we do think, not how we should think."

    There is obviously a degree of moral phenomenology in ethics but it is also about putting forward positions that might hold sway. Ethical revolutions take place the whole time, although unlike parallel scientific revolutions there is no objective fact about what is moral feeding the belief and far more regression. Instead it is the result of dialogue between people which is where the psychological element comes in. Yet unlike a theory of consciousness morality has no roots in what actually is, morality is a huge collection of thoughts people have had over time which they have tried to convince others should be the case.

    If you used the term meta-ethical instead of ethical inside your argument, I think it would go through.

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  5. Toby Lewis:

    There are indeed no small few moral writings that are propagandistic (in a good way) in that they attempt to change our existing beliefs about what is good.

    I think, though, that theory really does have to apply to what is in some sense. Moral propaganda is not theoretical in nature. Which is ok; not everything has to be a theory.

    However, there's a lot of propaganda that looks like theory, which is in my view bullshit. I'm against bullshit in principle, even if its well-meaning.

    It was explicitly my intent to relate specifically ethical theory (and not meta-ethics) to psychological theory. I may be wrong (and if so, I'll take my lumps), but I'm not going to retreat to meta-ethics on this point.

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  6. It does look like you are saying the whole of ethics is metaethics. Can that be right?

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  7. Well, I'm not certain what my comments look like, but I know my own intent pretty well, which is not to say that the whole of ethics is meta-ethics.

    The intent of meta-ethics is to discuss what kind of ethical theories can be true (or false). SteveG's essay is also meta-ethical: It doesn't talk about what is true, it talks about what can be true.

    Steve and I probably agree close to 100% about what we think is good: I suspect that we have almost identical ethical content. Where we appear to disagree sharply is how to discuss, interpret, contextualize and substantiate our ethical beliefs: all of these are meta-ethical issues.

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  8. Perhaps the demarcation is this: Are moral "truths" objective facts or simply "universally" agreed upon? I suspect the latter.

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  9. James,

    That's an excellent point. What convinces us of an objective reality with regard to perception is (near) universal assent to occasion sentences; the moral statements that obtain universal assent are all standing sentences.

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  10. Some terminological comments.

    It is not clear to me that the view you have espoused as "Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism" is really a metaethical viewpoint. Metaethics asks several questions, the main ones being:

    metaphysical: Are there genuinely moral properties in the world which are constitutive of things in the same way the properties ascribed by, say, physics are?

    epistemological: Can we ever have knowledge, or justified belief, about what is good or is valuable?

    semantic: Do assertions pertaining to moral matters express propositions, or are they emotive expletives, or are they sui generis speech acts like commands? What is moral discourse about, if anything?

    There are two ways one might understand your position (perhaps you'll clarify).

    Let Ethical Subjectivism (ES) be the thesis:

    (ES) An agent b has an obligation to perform act A if and only if agent b bears an appropriate attitude (e.g. approval) towards the proposition that agent b performs act A.

    This thesis (ES) belongs to normative ethics, since it circumscribes particular duties that an agent might have. This position is meta-ethically neutral -- a realist about moral properties can hold (ES)! (This may be closer to what Steve G was really talking about.)

    The expression 'is true' is a monadic predicate which applies to a proposition when it is true simpliciter. Perhaps you mean to advance the thesis that moral truth is a two-place relation between a proposition and an agent that proposition is true for, leaving open the possibility that a proposition might be morally true for one agent and not for another. This thesis we might call the Subjectivity of moral Truth thesis (ST):

    (ST) The truth of a moral proposition is always indexed to an appropriate mental state of an agent.

    This would be a genuinely metaethical position on the semantics of ethical discourse.

    So far you haven't provided any linguistic evidence that this is the way it is. Why think the phrase 'is true' has two different meanings in different domains of discourse? To be sure, prima facie the phrase 'is true' means the same thing in moral discourse as ordinary, fact-stating discourse. So, I am not sure why we should not take this at face value.

    Perhaps you can set the record straight.

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  11. First of all, the terminology in philosophy is not as rigorous and well-defined as some professors of philosophy might have you believe. Even where it is relatively well-defined, it's been my experience that these definitions seem as if they were made to maximize confusion.

    It is neither my desire nor intention to regularize philosophical terminology. I speak usually in ordinary dictionary English; where I find the need for specific jargon, I explicitly define it.

    Metaethics asks several questions...

    People talking about meta-ethics have asked several questions, some of them sensible, some of them stupid. I'm using meta-ethics in terms of any discussion about ethical statements, in accordance with the dictionary definition of "meta-" as "A prefix meaning one level of description higher."

    metaphysical: Are there genuinely moral properties in the world which are constitutive of things in the same way the properties ascribed by, say, physics are?

    First of all, "metaphysics" by itself is not used consistently in philosophical literature. It's often used confusingly (as you do here) as a synonym for "ontology".

    I make very plain assertions about ontology of moral properties: They are exclusively properties of minds.

    epistemological: Can we ever have knowledge, or justified belief, about what is good or is valuable?

    Yes, in the exact same manner as we know any of our own and others' mental states.

    semantic: Do assertions pertaining to moral matters express propositions, or are they emotive expletives, or are they sui generis speech acts like commands?

    To the extent that specific ethical sentences directly or indirectly reference mental states, they are propositional. To the extent that they do not, they are metaphorical or in error.

    What is moral discourse about, if anything?

    Usually Propaganda and Negotation

    (ES) An agent b has an obligation to perform act A if and only if agent b bears an appropriate attitude (e.g. approval) towards the proposition that agent b performs act A.

    This statement is, like every other expression of Ethical Subjectivism, logically incoherent. It asks, "Is it good to do that which you think is good to do?" It is conflating an ethical question with a meta-ethical question.

    While forming self-referential paradoxes strange loops, and hiding the self-referentiality in as much obscure jargon and pseudo algebra seems like a time-honored philosophical game, it is not the sort of philosophy I'm particularly interested in.

    The expression 'is true' is a monadic predicate which applies to a proposition when it is true simpliciter...

    This is a very limited way of looking at "true": Statements expressing relations (San Francisco is ~3,000 miles from New York) can propositional and can be true in the ordinary, prosiac sense of "true". The distinction you draw is confusing without adding any additional rigor.

    (ST) The truth of a moral proposition is always indexed to an appropriate mental state of an agent.

    This would be a genuinely metaethical position on the semantics of ethical discourse.


    I say explicitly:

    Statements about ethics have an absolute truth-value if and only if they are stated relative to some subjective entity or property.

    Why think the phrase 'is true' has two different meanings in different domains of discourse?

    It's you, not me, who's trying to create multiple meanings of "true" and/or trying to deny the propositional content of relationship sentences.

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  12. It should be noted regarding (ES) that, given the general goal-directed nature of human minds, people will in fact do that which they choose to do.

    But that's a purely descriptive statement, not a normative, ethical or even meta-ethical statement.

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