Friday, January 21, 2005

Devil's Advocate: Subjectivism

Johnny-Dee argues that moral reformers like Martin Luther King Jr. pose a problem for moral subjectivism:
The challenge for the moral subjectivist is to give a meaningful account of what MLK was up to. If morality is subjective, why should anyone ever go against the the status quo? Moreover, the subjectivist cannot say that MLK brought about a better state of affairs through his efforts. All the subjectivist can say is that MLK brought about another type of morality that is just as legitimate as the one he replaced. This is problematic for two reasons: (1) it is obvious that the morality MLK introduced is, in fact, better than the one he denounced; (2) if MLK was just introducing another equally viable ethic, he should be called immoral for going against the accepted morality of his culture.

Unfortunately, I don't think subjectivism is so easily refuted. Clearly one could go against the status quo for the sake of personal/subjective values. MLK didn't like racism, so he fought against it. Simple. Moreover, the subjectivist can say that the resultant state of affairs was indeed better according to MLK's values - and, of course, our own. So there's nothing problematic about the fact that most of us prefer the obtaining of a less racist state of affairs.

The only serious restriction subjectivism poses here is that we cannot say that this result is better for everyone, or just 'better' simpliciter. But - arguably - neither of those statements would be true anyway. The first is clearly false: some individuals (e.g. racists) are surely worse off now than they used to be. The second, one might argue, is technically meaningless: value judgments must be made relative to some set of interests or preferences, so there is no 'better', simpliciter. The universe doesn't care about racism. Only people do. (That's the grain of truth hidden within in the otherwise pernicious doctrine I play at defending in this post.)

So JD's talk of equally 'legitimate' rival moralities may be taken as nonsensical by the subjectivist. "Equally legimate from whose viewpoint?", the subjectivist could ask. From within our perspective, racism is simply wrong, and any suggestion to the contrary is mistaken. We don't consider the racist's views to be legitimate. They are to him, within his viewpoint, but that's not one that we need approve of. Objectively speaking, there just isn't any fact of the matter independent of these rival perspectives. One might say it is the viewpoints themselves that are equally legitimate, rather than the substantive moralities they in turn endorse. But they're not 'equally legitimate' in any positive sense - for there's no standard against which to make such a judgment - instead, they're simply incommensurable.

As for the 'going against his culture' objection, subjectivists (unlike cultural relativists) would deny that the dominant culture is privileged in any way. MLK was wrong according to the racists, but right according to himself (and us). There's nothing more to be said about the matter, according to subjectivists. We certainly shouldn't call him "immoral", for we share his values! But yes, racists could do so (and probably did).

JD continues:
The very idea of progress in morality presupposes an objective standard against which these changes can be evaluated. The alternative is to say that no morality is better or worse than another (i.e., there is no objective standard), which belittles the work of great moral reformers like Martin Luther King Jr.

Although I'm sympathetic towards these sentiments, a subjectivist could plausibly disagree. Clearly objective progress is impossible according to subjectivist/relativist accounts, but one can still assess changes according to how well they comport with one's own subjective preferences. We think MLK is great. He changed the political landscape in a way that we all consider favourably. The subjectivist would say there's nothing belittling about this. Cosmic approval being not ours to bestow, the greatest honour we can give someone is our personal approval, and MLK receives precisely that.

P.S. I'm actually not a subjectivist. Indeed, moral relativism quite often infuriates me. My next post will balance this one by explaining why...

9 comments:

  1. Just for clarifications sake... is there a difference between subjectivism and relativism? I tend to conflate the two terms, and even though I've done a modest amount of reading in metaethics, I've never really been sure what the difference is, if any. Richard, I notice that you seem to do that too, so I thought I would ask, for the sake of us all. 

    Posted by Peter

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  2. As I understand it, 'moral relativism' is a more general term which covers any non-objective metaethical theory.

    'Subjectivism', then, is the specific case where morality is relative to the individual.

    'Cultural relativism' is entirely different - it states that morals are relative to a culture, which has the absurd result that moral reformers like MLK are actually doing wrong! (This theory is most often espoused by unthinking leftists who mistakenly believe it is somehow conducive to tolerance.)

    I suppose a similar objection could be made to subjectivism: namely, that it makes personal moral growth impossible. According to subjectivism, the individual cannot possibly be wrong about morality - for they are the sole standard for their moral judgments. So any deviation from our past beliefs would seem to be immoral of us! This is clearly silly. Sometimes we do change our mind about moral issues, and decide that what we used to believe was in fact wrong - and that we are now the morally better for having learnt this. More in my next post... 

    Posted by Richard

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  3. I agree with your characterisation of cultural relativism. I think it is silly to suggest that certain values may be right because they are specific to a culture. I think originally cultural relativism wasn’t suggesting this at all but rather that as human beings we create values specific to our culture. To admit this though would deny us our righteousness.

    However you are engendering a false dichotomy in reference to moral growth Richard. Subjectivism would hold that the individual is neither wrong nor right about his own morality nor any future deviations thereof. At least I think that is true in the formulation of subjectivism as I see it

    Posted by Illusive Mind

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  4. If we adopt Richard's view of subjectivism, it is indeed silly. But I would suggest that Illusive Mind's formulation of subjectivism here is just as ridiculous: If no action is ever right or wrong, then there is no reason for doing anything--and one may as well choose one's actions wholly at random. Yet this, I would argue, is inconsistent with what we observe even in merely biological nature, where very little at all is left to random chance, and where we definitely observe animals acting according to some form of natural plan.

    The question then becomes: What is the nature of man? Actions that are in accordance with that nature are good, while those that go against it are evil.  

    Posted by Jason Kuznicki

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  5. "What is the nature of man? Actions that are in accordance with that nature are good, while those that go against it are evil."

    That sounds pretty awful to me. If homosexuality could be shown to be (in some biological sense) "unnatural", would you really accept that as a good reason to consider it immoral!? Rape is arguably natural, yet I gather from your earlier comments that you do not consider it morally good.

    Morality is about not doing harm. This is a topic nature sadly knows little about.

    Perhaps you mean 'nature' in some normative (rather than biological/descriptive) sense. But then that would presumably derive from morality, not the other way around, so I don't see that it sheds any light here. 

    Posted by Richard

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  6. "That sounds pretty awful to me. If homosexuality could be shown to be (in some biological sense) "unnatural", would you really accept that as a good reason to consider it immoral!?"

    Yes I would. Homosexuality, though, is not necessarily unnatural.

    Nor is rape proper to man's nature. Because this is a more obvious difficulty with the maxim I've advocated, let me focus on the question of rape.

    I believe that man's fundamental nature--the part of his nature that is more important than all others--is that he (or she) is capable of making complex long-range plans: We plant in the spring and harvest in the fall, or loan money at interest, or design microchips. This long-range planning is both unique to humans and our chief means of survival (as large vertebrates go, we're quite puny otherwise). Because these things constitute our nature, it is wrong to violate the essential nature of another. This would include rape, which is wrong because it violates the ability of the raped individual to act according to the plans that they have made.

    I hope I've cleared things up, but please let me know if I have not. This idea is more or less a derivation of Ayn Rand, but it's easy to see in Aristotle as well--and in Henry Veatch, another great modern exponent of Aristotle. 

    Posted by Jason Kuznicki

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  7. I figured this discussion deserved a post of it's own... see here

    Posted by Richard

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  8. Philosophy et.cetera: Re: Pharmacists who find it morally right to refuse to dispense the contraceptive Plan B. Does the reasons/intent/motive(either they think of Plan B as an abortifact or it will increase teenage promiscuity) make the pharmacist's actions morally right? I get confused when we, class, talk about subjectivism, relativism, consequentialism,et. Any added insight would be appreciated. Thank you, sincerely, Bill Trembley, Urbana, Il. 

    Posted by Bill Trembley

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  9. Philosophy et.cetera: Re: Pharmacists who find it morally right to refuse to dispense the contraceptive Plan B. Does the reasons/intent/motive(either they think of Plan B as an abortifact or it will increase teenage promiscuity) make the pharmacist's actions morally right? I get confused when we, class, talk about subjectivism, relativism, consequentialism,et. Any added insight would be appreciated. Thank you, sincerely, Bill Trembley, Urbana, Il. 

    Posted by Bill Trembley

    ReplyDelete

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