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:
*]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.