Illusive Mind

The Unquestionable should be questioned

Monday, May 23, 2005

Subjectivism: Some problems


To say x is wrong, just means that I disapprove of x.

This is how the thesis of Subjectivism is often formulated, often just before attacking some of the problems such an account of morality might raise. Some of these are:

This is not we think we mean when making moral claims
Moral disagreements or debate are rendered impossible
Moral speakers are made infallible

I think this reading of subjectivism is overly simplistic and that a more refined interpretation can solve a lot of the difficulties that subjectivism raises.

The father of subjectivism is David Hume who wrote extensively about the subjective nature of moral claims in A Treatise of Human Nature in 1739.

Hume didn’t argue that all moral claims were just emotional reactions of approval or disapproval but they were ultimately reducible to these emotional reactions.

He uses the example of avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, one of the most fundamental motivating desires of human beings and all sentient creatures. Putting my hand under some running water after it has been burned may be seen as a consequence of my desire to avoid pain (or minimise it) but it is not a consequence of desire alone but also reasoning.

Based upon logical and empirical considerations I may reason the best methods to go about achieving my desires. Sticking my burnt hand under boiling hot water would be the product of faulty reasoning in attempting to achieve then end of avoiding pain.

When this is transferred to the realm of moral claims, I think some interesting distinctions emerge by extension of this line of thought. Returning to x is wrong, let’s substitute x with torture. What do I mean when I suggest that “murder is wrong”?

Yes, of course I mean that I disapprove of murder and don’t want to murder people or want other people to be murdered, but is this all? Might not this claim be the product of second order reasoning in accordance with some other principle or desire?

I might desire that all people respect the laws, and thus infer that because murder is against the law (an empirical claim) it is wrong. Or I may desire that all people be free to live their lives and infer that murder violates this desire and is hence wrong.

When I say it is right that all people be free to live their lives I might too then be referring to some higher desire or principle. And that desire may be inferred from another desire et cetera. What you may find after this process of reduction is that all of your moral claims rest upon a few fundamental moral facts or perhaps just one. Perhaps just the simple human ideal of acting towards others as you would have others act towards you.

This human sympathy, also explained in game theory and evolutionary theory as reciprocal altruism is as fundamental to the constitution of human beings as the avoidance of pain.

This does not make it objective, just common. It is still an arbitrary, subjective desire upon which moral claims are based, but it is one claim which most people can agree on.

So the argument that “I disapprove of x” is not quite what we mean when making moral claims is a valid one. I don’t think that this is what we mean. When I say to a friend of mine you shouldn’t steal that money because it is wrong, I’m not suggesting that he refrain from stealing just because I disapprove of it. I am suggesting that in accordance with the principle of justice or fairness of reciprocal altruism it is inconsistence to steal the money, and that if he shares my consensus with one or all of those principles then he is acting irrationally.

This characterisation also refutes the second objection that subjectivism renders moral debate impossible. You can criticize other people’s attempts to act in accordance with their principles if they lack consistency. You can also criticize any empirical claims which their reasoning may be based on.

If it turns out that a foetus does not count as a living thing, then the pro-lifers stance against abortion on the principle of protecting life is irrational and the subjectivist is free to point this out and persuade them of this fact.

The idea that subjectivism means that moral speakers are made infallible is also put to rest because mistakes of reasoning can be made in their attempts to accord their actions with their claims and their claims with their principles.

I think subjectivists are able to stimulate moral debate in areas it has died because of the insistence of objectivists that their claims of rightness of wrongness are objectively true, and one is irrational if they can not grasp this.

What is happening when the speaker makes moral claims such as ‘x is right’ is that they are using the word ‘right’ in two different important ways.

Giving to charity is ‘right’ in the sense that it is consistent with or accords to some principle which I believe in, such as doing to others, what you would have them to you or ‘the golden rule’.

The golden rule is ‘right’ in the sense that I agree with it, or I approve of it. Or oven that the majority of people agree or approve of it.

This does mean that the subjectivist has no basis to criticize the amoralist who does not agree with such fundamental principles. But the decision of a minority of people to not engage in moral discourse is just a factor of the diversity of human beings and poses no threat to the meta-ethical framework.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home