Moral Subjectivism


#1

Note: My wife was reading the “Ask the Atheist” thread and thought quite highly of this post. So I decided to repost it for its own discussion.

If we allow subjective opinion about ethics to establish objective truth, we are faced with a contradiction:(1a) Alice approves of kerfibbling gnorts; therefore kerfibbling gnorts is objectively good.
(2a) Bob disapproves of kerfibbling gnorts, therefore kerfibbling gnorts is objectively bad.
But “good” and “bad” are mutually exclusive; it is a contradiction to say that kerfibbling gnorts is both good and bad.:hmmm:

The moral objectivist way of resolving this contradiction is to say that subjective opinion does not establish objective truth: either Alice or Bob are mistaken. But the objectivist has to go farther: He must say that even if Alice and Bob were in agreement, they might both be mistaken. In fact, if everyone in the world agreed that kerfibbling gnorts were good, they might all be mistaken. Objective truth is, by definition, independent of any subjective opinion.

But this leads to a real problem: If everyone agreed that kerfibbling gnorts was good in and of itself (and not as a means to an end), and they were all mistaken, how would they ever find out they were mistaken? There’s no way they could determine their mistake by emprical observation.

It seems obvious that the only possible way they could find out that they were mistaken and kerfibbling gnorts was actually bad was if a god existed and the god told everyone that it was bad. (This would still not prove that kerfibbling gnorts was objectively bad, only that the god subjectively disapproved of it (see Euthyphro). But, god being god, we can assume for the sake of argument that god’s opinion somehow mysteriously establishes objective truth for all practical purposes.)

But in this world, no god appears to be telling everyone anything. All I see are people claiming to speak for various gods, with no well-defined objective way of deciding between their contradictory assertions.

Moral subjectivism, on the other hand, resolves the contradiction by removing the “therefore” clauses from each assertion. The moral subjectivist observes tat:(1b) Alice approves of kerfibbling gnorts.
(2b) Bob disapproves of kerfibbling gnorts.
That’s it. The subjectivist is left with just an observation of the subjective facts. Neither are mistaken, their views do not entail a logically contradiction; there’s no objective truth of the matter to be mistaken about, no objective truth to be contradictory. Their views are not contradictory; they are, rather, in conflict.

There are several ways to resolve the conflict. They could evaluate the conflict according to meta-ethical rules which they both agree on. For instance, Alice and Bob might both agree that if participating or refraining from an activity didn’t entail harm or suffering to another, the meta-ethical rule of libertarianism should prevail, and that Alice should refrain from coercing Bob to kerfibble gnorts and that Bob should refrain from coercing Alice to not kerfibble gnorts.

If they don’t agree on a meta-ethical rule, they both have to evaluate the consequences, then, of trying to coerce each other. But coercion is difficult in itself. How hard will each of them resist coercion? Even the stronger party risks loss when attempting coercion; at the very least, people who have been coerced are less freely cooperative. What do Carla, Dave, Emily and Frank think?

It should be noted that this is a pretty good account of how fundamental societal ethics have actually evolved over the years, especially in discussing and establishing subjective agreement to meta-ethical rules.

Moral objectivism is left without a working epistemological method. Moral subjectivism, on the other hand, needs an epistemological method only for discovering individuals’ opinions, which is easily satisfied by asking them.

Moral objectivism, lacking a working epistemological method for determining objective moral truth, can make no actual predictions about the outcome of societal evolution. Moral subjectivism, on the other hand, makes definite predictions:

[list=1]
*]Societal ethics will tend to converge on those ethical and meta-ethical principles which provide the best overall satisfaction to the psychological features which are most prevalent in human beings in general.
*]Societal ethics will change only when people’s subjective opinions change.
*]When two subjective beliefs are in irreconcilable conflict, force will be used to resolve the conflict, therefore police and prisons, soldiers and wars.
*]Even when force is used to resolve conflicts, the outcome will, in the long run, be consistent with prediction (1).
[/list]And this is precisely what we see in the historical evolution of societal ethics.


#2

[quote=PLP]…

The moral objectivist way of resolving this contradiction is to say that subjective opinion does not establish objective truth: either Alice or Bob are mistaken. But the objectivist has to go farther: He must say that even if Alice and Bob were in agreement, they might both be mistaken. In fact, if everyone in the world agreed that kerfibbling gnorts were good, they might all be mistaken. Objective truth is, by definition, independent of any subjective opinion.

But this leads to a real problem: If everyone agreed that kerfibbling gnorts was good in and of itself (and not as a means to an end), and they were all mistaken, how would they ever find out they were mistaken? There’s no way they could determine their mistake by emprical observation.

It seems obvious that the only possible way they could find out that they were mistaken and kerfibbling gnorts was actually bad was if a god existed and the god told everyone that it was bad.


[/quote]

I’ve snipped large portions of the argument, because there’s a particular claim that I want to focus on. In essence, the claim that runs as follows:

1: There’s no way for a human to distinguish between actually knowing an objective moral fact and merely thinking they know an objective moral fact
2: Therefore individuals are epistemically isolated from objective moral facts
3: Therefore there are no objective moral facts

Before I go on: is that a correct summary of this argument? I get the feeling I might be missing something; if I am, I would love to be corrected.


#3

I find it ridiculous, that people use things that do not exist as to confuse a point.
Lets use life
I believe life is good
you believe life is bad
therefore you go about killing everything that lives because of you belief, which according to the theory you are attempting to pass off would require an action upon such a belief, because it would be at the core of existance. If as the quote says nobodies right is right and nobodies wrong is wrong then which way so we opt. Logic is illogical! Explain to me how it is not, without using your subjective truth.


#4

[quote=EnterTheBowser]there’s a particular claim that I want to focus on. In essence, the claim that runs as follows:
[/quote]

You’ve not quite captured my meaning…

1: There’s no way for a human to distinguish between actually knowing an objective moral fact and merely thinking they know an objective moral fact

I don’t assert that there is in fact no way of knowing objective moral truths. I assert only that we do not presently have any agreed-upon epistemological methodology for doing so.

2: Therefore individuals are epistemically isolated from objective moral facts

Therefore individuals are presently epistemically isolated.

3: Therefore there are no objective moral facts

Therefore we do not presently know any objective moral facts.


#5

[quote=tdandh26]I believe life is good
you believe life is bad
therefore you go about killing everything that lives because of you belief, which according to the theory you are attempting to pass off would require an action upon such a belief, because it would be at the core of existance.
[/quote]

I assume that you’re using “you” in the rhetorical sense; I personally, of course, believe that life is good.

A person who did in fact believe that (other people’s) life was bad would in fact go around killing people. Of course, people who did in fact believe that life was good would restrain or kill the first person. This does appear to be what we actually observe happening: People who believe that taking other people’s property is good do in fact become burglars, thieves and robbers, and people who believe that taking other people’s property is bad do in fact hire police and prisons to capture and imprison burglars, thieves and robbers.

If as the quote says nobodies right is right and nobodies wrong is wrong then which way so we opt. Logic is illogical! Explain to me how it is not, without using your subjective truth.

I’m not sure if I’ve answered your question satisfactorily. I hope I have, but if not, please rephrase it.


#6

[quote=PLP]You’ve not quite captured my meaning…

I don’t assert that there is in fact no way of knowing objective moral truths. I assert only that we do not presently have any agreed-upon epistemological methodology for doing so.


[/quote]

Well, if that’s the case, I’ve got no argument with you. I thought you had made a stronger claim.


#7

[quote=EnterTheBowser]Well, if that’s the case, I’ve got no argument with you. I thought you had made a stronger claim.
[/quote]

Actually, I do have a question - what would count as a valid epistemological method for determining whether a moral fact is true or false? I mean, what would the criteria for the validity of such a method be?


#8

[quote=EnterTheBowser]Actually, I do have a question - what would count as a valid epistemological method for determining whether a moral fact is true or false? I mean, what would the criteria for the validity of such a method be?
[/quote]

Some method that is at least as reliable as empirical observation and experiment in determining scientific truth.


#9

[quote=PLP]Some method that is at least as reliable as empirical observation and experiment in determining scientific truth.
[/quote]

What do you mean by that? By “reliable” do you mean “generates consistent results”?


#10

[quote=EnterTheBowser]What do you mean by that? By “reliable” do you mean “generates consistent results”?
[/quote]

Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. :slight_smile:


#11

[quote=PLP]Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. :slight_smile:
[/quote]

Alright, just some further things to clarify - just to avoid any possible confusion:
-We’re talking about criteria for evaluating normative theories, not the criteria normative theories use for evaluating action.
-These criteria aren’t “silly” in that they don’t make explicit reference to a normative theory (eg "The valid theory is the one that embraces the greatest happiness principle).
-These criteria are determinate and consistent (ie they pick out a single correct normative theory)

Are there any other stipulations regarding these criteria?


#12

[quote=EnterTheBowser]Alright, just some further things to clarify - just to avoid any possible confusion:
-We’re talking about criteria for evaluating normative theories, not the criteria normative theories use for evaluating action.
-These criteria aren’t “silly” in that they don’t make explicit reference to a normative theory (eg "The valid theory is the one that embraces the greatest happiness principle).
-These criteria are determinate and consistent (ie they pick out a single correct normative theory)

Are there any other stipulations regarding these criteria?
[/quote]

This looks good as a first approximation.


#13

[quote=PLP]Some method that is at least as reliable as empirical observation and experiment in determining scientific truth.
[/quote]

Ah yes, scientific truth? Scientific truth is only as good as ones hypothesis and the “proof”, observations and measurements leading to a “proven” theory. Theories and even laws of science are often only the best available approximations; accurate enough to be useful, but not always “de-fide.” Any time one observes or measures, the system is perturbed which leads to an uncertainty as Heisenberg proclaimed. In any case the truth of a logical arguement is only as good as its first premise.


#14

[quote=rwoehmke]Ah yes, scientific truth? Scientific truth is only as good as ones hypothesis and the “proof”, observations and measurements leading to a “proven” theory.
[/quote]

Indeed. With all the limitations inherent in the scientific method, I don’t think I’m setting too high a bar for objective moral facts or truth.


#15

In the pride of his countenance the wicked does not seek him;
all his thoughts are, "There is no God."
Psalm 10:4


#16

Just out of curiosity, PLP… are you asking if there is a way to scientifically prove a moral fact or truth?

Thal59


#17

In the book “Moral Philosophy: An Introduction,” TImmons gives a couple of criteria for judging normative ethical theories.
1: Consistency (ie does not give conflicting answers to the same question)
2: Determinacy (gives an answer to each moral question)
3: “Internal support” (gives answers in line with our considered beliefs - eg don’t murder)
4: “External support” (accords with our nonmoral assumptions about metaphysics, epistemology, religion, psychology, etc)

Would you say that your moral subjectivism is based, in part, on a rejection of 3 as a good criterion?

I keep on asking questions and not making arguments because I want to find the proper ground to argue on - hope it’s neither annoying nor repetitive.


#18

[quote=Thal59]Just out of curiosity, PLP… are you asking if there is a way to scientifically prove a moral fact or truth?

Thal59
[/quote]

Well, it would certainly be nice to have scientific proof! OTOH, I’m asking only for a method that is at least as reliable and consistent as scientific proof.


#19

[quote=EnterTheBowser]In the book “Moral Philosophy: An Introduction,” TImmons gives a couple of criteria for judging normative ethical theories.
1: Consistency (ie does not give conflicting answers to the same question)
2: Determinacy (gives an answer to each moral question)
3: “Internal support” (gives answers in line with our considered beliefs - eg don’t murder)
4: “External support” (accords with our nonmoral assumptions about metaphysics, epistemology, religion, psychology, etc)

Would you say that your moral subjectivism is based, in part, on a rejection of 3 as a good criterion?
[/quote]

Not rejection of (3), but finding that (3) is insufficient. Moral subjectivism is trivially consistent with (3).

What I’m really asking for to believe moral objectivism is an account of what it means for *everyone *to to be mistaken about a moral belief, and how they could discover their mistake without first changing their belief about it.

For instance, I have an account for what it means for everyone to be wrong about the Earth being flat, and how they could be convinced of their mistake.

When I say that “everyone is wrong that the Earth is flat”, I mean not only that the Earth is indeed roundish, but that the the statement “The Earth is flat” and “The Earth is roundish” logically entails certain expected perceptions, and the actual perceptions contradict those logically expected from flatness and do not contradict those logically expected from roundishness.

In other words, I need to know how to tell the difference between an assertion of moral fact and its opposite.

Contrast this with faith theism. Faith theism cannot be “mistaken”, nor can non-faith-theism be “mistaken”, at least not in the epistemological sense. By definition, you cannot know whether faith theism is objectively true; you simply are or are not a faith theist by virtue only of the presence or absence of a particular belief; hence faith theism is a epistemologically subjectivist position.

Contrast also with taste: Either you like a particular movie, painting, song, sculpture or you do not. It is not possible to be objectively mistaken about whether “Gone with the Wind” is or is not a good movie. Your opinion about it is simply defined by what your opinion is. You can certainly change your mind about it, perhaps by discovering true objective facts about the movie (for instance, you might believe its a better movie if you discovered it was historically accurate), but still the sine qua non of your opinion about the movie is the opinion itself.

With regard to moral beliefs, I’m asking whether moral beliefs are in the epistemological sense more like science or more like faith and taste.


#20

With regard to moral beliefs, I’m asking whether moral beliefs are in the epistemological sense more like science or more like faith and taste.<<

I’m going out of my way to avoid a complex answer here, because the nature of your questions and examples are extremely complicated and confusing. You are almost in danger of falling into the category, once voiced by Bishop Fullton J. Sheen, as someone who is educated beyond their intelligence. This is in no way meant to be insulting to you: simply to point out how sometimes we have a tendency to make things more confusing than necessary when we put our faith in our ability to use logic to beat a simple subject to death. Quite often, we not only don’t reach a sure conclusion, we end up losing sight of what we started with.

Regarding the quote above…

The universe is filled with science that we have not even touched yet. Perhaps we can say that science is what we have proved, and faith is what we haven’t proved, yet somehow believe. Faith concerns those scientific facts that have yet to be scientifically established. (Just like your flat/round earth example.)

But morality cannot be measured in a flask, or boiled, or weighed, etc. So, for the present - and by the present I mean while we are mortal and have finite minds - those “sciences” more closely related to God have to be accepted by faith. Moral beliefs are one of them.

When we meet the “Great Scientist in the Sky” and our minds are more equipped to understand Him and His ways, faith and morality will become science.

Thal59


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.