Tuesday, May 08, 2007

What right do I have?

Let's get this right out in the open. I advocate meta-ethical subjective relativism; I assert there are no objective moral truths, only truths about what people subjectively believe. So what gives me the (objective) right to make ethical judgments?

Well, nothing. Duh. "Rights" are about ethics; I assert there are no objective rights any more than there are any other kind of objective ethical truths.

What I do have are exactly the things I assert do exist: subjective opinions about ethics. And I write about them.

I'm accused of reducing ethics to the level of "taste". First of all, I didn't reduce anything: The world is the way it is, I just try to understand it. It's not like I can make truth go away just by disbelieving it, any more than one can make falsity come to be just by believing it. Perhaps I'm wrong. But getting mad at me and calling me stupid won't change the truth, won't change my mind, and won't make me stop writing. I won't change my mind on the basis of anything but sound argument.

Secondly, asserting the equivalence of subjective ethical belief to "taste" is fallacious and misleading. It's fallacious in that similarity does not entail identity. Subjective ethical belief and taste are similar: They are both subjective. But they are not identical: tastes are those subjective ethical beliefs which are relatively trivial and which we don't extend to others. Subjective ethical beliefs are those which are important and which we do extend to others. Drawing the identity asserts that all subjective beliefs are trivial and are not extended to others. I simply deny this assertion.

At the political level, one might ask: What right do I have to impose my personal subjective beliefs on the rest of the world? It's a little more difficult to answer this question because I don't personally impose my beliefs on anyone. In case it has escaped anyone's attention, I am not the dictator of the world. Neither do I blow up buildings, murder abortion doctors nor fly airplanes into buildings. I'm a civilized person and a citizen of a democracy. What subjective beliefs do get imposed on a society is a complicated process of negotiation; no one person's beliefs are ever privileged.

Another objection that has been raised is that I assert, by virtue of approving of democracy, that if a majority holds an ethical belief, then that belief is objectively true. If you think I say this, you are not paying attention. I say that nothing at all ever establishes objective truth. Majority opinion establishes only that a majority holds some opinion, and that contrary opinions are held by a minority. As it happens, if a majority of a society holds a particular ethical opinion, that opinion will usually find its way into their law, but that's a horse of a different color: It's a (rather obvious) statement of sociological science, not an ethical judgment.

I love the truth. I love the truth more than I love my wife (and I love my wife a lot, and that she loves the truth as much as I do is no small reason why I love her). If ethical objectivism were the truth, I would believe it. But, for good or ill, it's not. As I've written earlier, we have no epistemic foundation for establishing objective ethical truth. It's just not there.

If you don't like this meta-truth, tough shit. The truth is the truth, whether you like it or not. There is no God, whether you want there to be one or not. You can't flap your arms and fly to the Moon, whether you like it or not. If you get cancer, you might die, whether you like it or not. If the sun explodes, or if the apocalyptic idiots in the White House start a nuclear war, we'll all die, whether we like it or not.

I could, of course, be mistaken. Maybe there is an epistemic foundation for objective ethical truth. All you have to do is prove it. But arguing against meta-ethical subjective relativism because it is not objectivist, because you just can't stand the idea of objectivism being false, is futile, stupid, and ridiculous.


  1. Secondly, asserting the equivalence of subjective ethical belief to "taste" is fallacious and misleading.

    OH? Where is the fallacy? If our opinions on politics and ethics are merely subjective and desire-based (as Hume himself suggested)then your desire to see the democrat party to succeed is about the same as your preference for chianti instead of zinfadel: there is no "identity" since desires are not exactly quantifiable, but it is you says values have no relation to rationality, and there are no moral facts: thus what one desires as good has some relation to what is pleasurable...so supporting the Democrats gives you pleasure, as does buying a new presario, etc. Consumer subjectivism. And a quick perusal of say an Ethics 101 text will show that that the utilitarians (mostly following Hume in terms of establishing values/ethics/politics on subjective, "hedonic" grounds) more or less said the same thing: that whatever one defines as good is pleasurable and thus a matter of taste, not rationality. That a majority might all have similar political or economic tastes does not mean an objective "good" has been defined, except in conventional sense. I doubt that even Bentham would have said that his hedonic calculus actually produced objective values. Nonetheless for all of your amorality (and MESR does entail amorality), you do seem to often reintroduce various intuitive sorts of beliefs and moral claims (such as Demo secularists are to be preferred to religious conservatives), and hint that those are the "right" perspectives. Yeah this is all a bit obvious, but you seem to overlook what that hedonic-based value system (ie non-values) implies.

  2. Perezoso

    OH? Where is the fallacy?

    I actually say in the post where the fallacy lies. It would be really helpful if you would show a little evidence that actually read what you criticize.

    it is you says values have no relation to rationality

    It's not helpful to put words in my mouth. At no point do I say that, "Values have no relation rationality." This is a lie, and you are a liar. Again, you need to read what I actually write.

    That's your position, not mine, and it's a stupid position. Why shouldn't it be rational to do something just because one wants to? Just because you say it's irrational? Bullshit.

    You're welcome to comment when you're ready to write with a shred of common courtesy and intellectual integrity and basic honesty. Until then, this is the last comment I'm permitting from you. It's my blog, my rules, and if you don't like it, go bother someone else.

  3. Actually, I changed my mind. You're not welcome to comment here ever again, even if you reform your character. I'm done with you.

  4. I think some of Perezoso's critique -- where it gets interesting (to me) -- is in the conflation of straw-man ethical relativism with utilitarianism. I think this comes about when Larry has used terms like "pleasure" in the past; to someone who hasn't gone back and read through all the tagged essays in order, it's easy enough to assume that preferential utilitarianism is all there is to imposing an underlying order in MESR.

    I had a thought while in the shower: Even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that subjectivity means there are no facts -- assume, in fact, that Perezoso is wholly correct -- this is not a relevant basis for excluding someone's opinion even if they hold that belief. Ultimately, morals are judged by result and not content -- it is the application of them we judge. Someone who is an amoral psychopath, but who never acts on those urges, is not judged for holding no ethics: He would be judged if that lack of ethics led him to kill for pleasure or profit.

    Similarly, does -- again, a characterization for the sake of argument, no more -- Larry holding "no ethical facts" remove his basis for critique if the results are substantively the same? He is, ultimately, judging something (say, a political act) on the same criteria -- whether or not he finds the results acceptable -- that anyone else is. He quantifies results of cost versus benefit versus personal feelings of repugnance for the methods used.

    It seems to me that Perezoso's magic Humean slaying bullet lacks stopping power: The foundation ultimately isn't as important as the conclusion.

    Moral objectivity and ethical realism are not based on anything more substantial than shared opinion; there's no law of "thou shalt not kill" with the substance of the laws of thermodynamics. Moral objectivism is simply another form of operational schema: One cannot confirm moral "facts." One simply must concede that, on a substantive level, there's no "there" there: the "modus operandi" is simply an aid to cognition, a tool for arriving at conclusions.

  5. jeff.maynes5/8/07, 10:21 PM

    What does it mean to call meta-ethical relativism a "truth"?

    If I follow the argument, it seems to be this (oversimplified):

    1. There are no natural moral facts.
    2. For ethical judgments to be objectively true or false, they would have to track ethical facts.
    3. Therefore, ethical judgments cannot be objectively true or false.

    Alright, if that's what we mean by "objective" then I'm with you so far.

    4. If ethical judgments are not objectively truth-apt, then their truth conditions track subjective factors.
    5. Therefore, the truth conditions of ethical judgments vary according to [whatever subjective factor you ground moral judgments in.]
    6. Therefore, meta-ethical relativism is true.

    Here's where I think there are two things going on that I want to highlight. If we are describing that conditions that obtain for ethical agents to consider their moral beliefs true or false, then I might be inclined to think this is true. There is a good battery of empirical evidence that suggests we make ethical decisions based on our emotions.

    So, here is one sense in which relativism might be true. It might be true that our ethical judgments track subjective facts and necessarily not objective facts. Note that this is a descriptive claim. It talks about what conditions obtain for the judgments we do make. But, now I want to turn to a comment you made I disagree with to see the other thing going on in your argument:

    "But arguing against meta-ethical subjective relativism because it is not objectivist, because you just can't stand the idea of objectivism being false, is futile, stupid, and ridiculous."

    I think it's not only a mistake to poison the well by calling such positions "futile, stupid and ridiculous," I think these labels ought not apply. One of the main questions a lot of us ask about ethics is what is the normative force of our ethical claims. For those of us looking for our ethical beliefs to adjudicate ethical dispute, meta-ethical relativism is worth rejecting based on the fact that I "can't stand" it.

    I am with you that ethical facts are non-natural. I think there is some hope in accounts that rely on projected moral facts, but either way, I do not think that we can read ethics off the world. If anything, we project it back onto it. Ethics is responsive to what we want it do (and therefore subjective in one sense of the term). If our ethical beliefs cannot accomplish the aims we set out for it, then these ethical beliefs are insufficient.

    If meta-ethical relativism is true, then the truth-conditions of our moral judgments is relative to the individual/culture/whatever. My ethical judgments are simply false in the ethical discourse of the other. It is difficult to see what force my arguments would have on this person. Ethics simply cannot possibly play any role adjudicating ethical dispute between people in different groups; because there are no shared standards.

    Therefore, I have good reason, due to my interest in what a human ethics ought to do, to reject any ethical views that lead to meta-ethical relativism. In the end, I have to walk the tight road between two positions I cannot accept - moral realism and meta-ethical relativism.

    And there is lots of interesting work being done here! Sentimentalist theories, projectivist theories, and evolutionary ethics all offer possible ways for ethics to be both universal and non-natural. I'm not sure where to come down on these complex and intricate debates. Nor am I saying that in this short post I've offered a knock-down argument against meta-ethical relativism. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I just read Jesse Prinz's forthcoming subtle and interesting defense of meta-ethical relativism.

    What I do take myself to have done is show that it is not "dumb, futile and ridiculous" to reject the conclusions of your argument because one does not like the conclusion. Further, I have indicated that meta-ethical relativism does not necessarily follow from subjectivism (as in, non-naturalism of moral facts).

  6. Jeff: I do think it's dumb, futile and ridiculous to reject any argument just because you don't like it. I don't think making a counter-argument—a task I've repeatedly asked of Perezoso—is at all dumb.

    I don't think I'm poisoning the well. My characterization was not against the contrary position, but the lack of argument for that position.

    The problem is that MESR is a descriptive theory. One can certainly reject Humanism, or Nazism, or utilitarianism because one can't stand it, because those are in fact normative ethical theories. But descriptive theories are simply true or false; to reject a true theory is to reject rationality itself—which one can do, although people seem really to like rationality in the abstract.

    You have a good summary of MESR, but you go awry just a bit when you say, "My ethical judgments are simply false in the ethical discourse of the other."

    Your ethical judgments are facts about you. As such, they are, qualified with place and time (and thus person), universally true. Your ethical judgments are "false" of others in just the same sense that "being 177 cm tall", a true property of myself right now, is a "false" property of Wilt Chamberlain in 1980. In just the same way, the predicate adjective "being 177 tall", as an absolute, is neither true nor false; it must be stated relative to some object.

    You might just be using philosophy jargon to say that people have differing ethical judgments, but it doesn't seem clear, especially since meta-ethical subjective relativism is so often confused with ethical subjectivism, where subjective belief establishes objective truth.

    I'm not sure what you mean that MESR doesn't following from subjectivism; I argue that MESR follows from a lack of epistemic basis for objective moral truths.

  7. Sigh. "Being 177 cm tall" is, of course, a predicate nominative.


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