Saturday, December 15, 2007

Does widespread disagreement on morality mean that there are no objective morals or that nobody knows what they are?

In my last post, I quoted what a friend wrote to me recently. I'm about to post the bulk of my response, but lemme quote him again to remind you of what he said:
I think part of my skepticism on objective morality comes from seeing all the different variations and disagreement that people have on what constitutes it, and observing no real methodology for verifying whose claims are right and whose are wrong; it seems all people can do is just insist more strongly that their morality is the correct one.
Now this is what I said:

I can certainly sympathize with nihilists or moral relativists, especially having toyed with the ideas myself when younger. I used to ask myself, "Does anything really matter?" Nothing matters unless there's somebody it matters to. So if nobody existed, then nothing would matter. Does it matter, then, that we exist at all? It seemed to me that life was completely meaningless, which I found to be a liberating idea. I don't think I was a completely full blow nihilist, though, because I didn't really think through all the consequences, especially in regard to morality.

But as I've said before, there are lots of things we assume we know but that can't be proved--memory knowledge, the trustworthiness of our physical senses, causation, you know, all the basic things Hume talked about. But although I can't prove any of these things, when I'm perfectly honest with myself, I don't really doubt these things either. I simply reflect inwardly and find myself believing.

The disagreements people have about morality do cause me to be skeptical that we perceive morality clearly, but they don't cause me to doubt that there is any morality to be perceived. And there are several reasons for that.

First, five people who all participated in the same event may disagree when they try to remember the details of the event later. That doesn't cause them to doubt the event happened. And it doesn't mean they can't get a general idea of what happened that's accurate. The same can be said about sensory perceptions. People are often mistaken about them. They experience hallucinations, mirages, dreams, etc. People often make mistakes in causal inferences. A common fallacy in logic is the fallacy of false cause, where a person sees A and B always happening together and falsly assume one is the cause of the other when, in reality, C is the cause of both. There are all kinds of examples of how our ordinary common sense perception of the world can be mistaken, but they don't cause us to doubt their general reliability.

Second, people have agreed far more than they have disagreed on morality. That's evident in the fact that cultural anthropologists (who usually subscribe to some form of relativism) have an explanation for the wide-spread agreement. They say the reason for the wide-spread agreement is that people have the same basic needs. We're all social animals, and there are certain morals that are more conducive to survival. Natural selection is what causes such wide-spread agreement on morals. Such an explanation wouldn't be necessary if it weren't true that people agreed far more than they disagree on morals.

Third, although people may disagree on the content of morality, everybody everywhere at all times have always demanded from others and expected from themselves to give a moral justification for their actions. It's universal. The idea of "justifying your actions," is what most (maybe all) morality is based on. So the idea of moral justification is natural and universal. It's built into us. It's just the way we are. One particular justification that seems to be universal is the idea that ought implies can. Everybody everywhere agrees that inability to act is a moral justification for not acting. A person can have no moral obligation to walk, for example, if they are physically incapable of walking.

Fourth, whenever we run into somebody who doesn't seem to make a distinction between right and wrong--who doesn't grasp the concept of moral justification--who doesn't see a difference between a brutal murder and a fun night of star-gazing--we consider those people to be mentally ill.

Fifth, a lot of what seem to be moral differences aren't really moral differences when you look more closely at them. The next time you run into somebody who seems to have a very different point of view than you do on some issue of morality, just ask them why they hold that position. Usually, for every "moral rule" we have, there's a reason we have it, and the reason is always some broader moral principle. When you ask people why they think certain things are right or wrong, you usually find out that they are working from principles you agree with. The reason they arrive at a different conclusion is either because they are working from different facts or their process of reasoning is different (and possibly flawed).

Sixth, when I look at moral debates, I don't see what you see. You said there's no way to resolve moral conflicts except for one person to express their view more strongly than the other. Instead, I see people reasoning with each other. One will say, "Such and such action violates such and such principle." The other person will say, "No, it doesn't violate that principle." So while they disagree on whether the action is moral or not, they're still working from the same moral principle, and there's room for debate. Abortion is a good example. Both sides agree that it is prima facie wrong to take the life of an innocent human being. They just disagree on whether the unborn are human beings or persons at all. (I'm speaking broadly here; I realize there are more nuanced arguments.) I even remember watching the video of Osama Bin Laden right after 9/11. Most people thought it was wrong because they killed innocent people without justification. But Osama kept saying over and over in that video, "They were not innocent. They were not innocent." Maybe he was wrong to say they were not innocent, but clearly the difference in morality didn't go as deep as one might think.


At 12/18/2007 4:04 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

I agree with most of this post, which is odd in some ways, since our meta-ethical stances are so different. (At least they were when I last checked).
On the other hand, just as I have some sympathy with 'quietist' treatments of concepts such as 'truth', I have thought for a long time that debates about objective/subjective or relative/absolute morality are in part a product of false dualisms and dichotomies.

At 12/19/2007 8:23 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Psomniac, what is a "quietist" treatment? Why do you think subjective/objective and relative/absolute are false dichotomies?

At 12/28/2007 8:51 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

Briefly, the quietist approach takes the view that we cannot step outside our actual commitments and estimate from some 'neutral' standpoint whether they are doing well or badly at delineating the world. Instead, the issue is the issue, that is what settles it. If your table of high tides says 2pm for your local beach tomorrow, then the issue of whether the table represents reality is settled by whether the tide is high at 2pm tomorrow. Meta-stories about what the nature of the correspondence between the table and reality might be, are a waste of time.
Some of the reasons why I think the subjective/objective and relative/absolute distinctions are problematic are detailed here


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