Friday, January 21, 2005

Objective Moral Relativism

The problem with subjectivism, I think, is that it confuses morality with other sorts of value. Value is indeed often agent-relative; our tastes may differ, or something may happen that is good for you and yet bad for me. But morality is a specific subset of value. It isn't about what's "good for me" or "good for you", it's about what's good for us, collectively. And this, as I will endeavour to show in this post, is a matter of objective fact - that is, it is something about which our beliefs may be mistaken.

Before we get into morality, note that even agent-relative value concerns objective facts. This is because value derives from desire fulfillment, and this is clearly something we can be mistaken about. You might think smoking is good for you, until you get lung cancer, at which point you will realise that you were previously mistaken about what was in your best interests.

So, although value is assigned relative to a 'valuer' (or set of desires), it becomes an objective matter once this parameter is fixed. It is a matter of objective fact whether something is good or bad relative to a particular set of desires. Such 'objective relativism' sounds oxymoronic, but it's really no more odd than other such relational facts as that birds are larger than bees, and Europe is north of Africa.

According to our general analysis of value, 'X is good' is considered to simply reduce to 'X is such to fulfill the desires in question'. Now that we're interested specifically in moral value, we must specify precisely which desires those would be. I would suggest: all of them, i.e. the aggregate of everyone's desires. I find this a fairly intuitive claim, and one which comports well with how we use moral terms. Besides, there don't seem any plausible alternatives. For example, to consider only your own desires, would be described as self-interest, not morality. More generally, it would seem unacceptably arbitrary to include the desires of some people but not others. Morality is supposed to be more universal than that.

I think this conception of morality captures the best of both objectivism and subjectivism. Subjectivists are right that there are no mind-independent values 'out there' in the world, just waiting for us to detect them. We read value into the world; it's not something that's "objectively" there to begin with.

However, it does not follow that all value is just a matter of opinion; this is where subjectivists go drastically wrong. The question of how to fulfill a set of desires is one that has an objective answer, quite independently of our individual beliefs about the matter. What is "good for us" has the same answer whether asked by you or by me, for the parameter remains fixed on that same group - "us" - the entire time. So the objectivist is correct to maintain that morality is universal, and grounded on something more solid than mere individual opinions.

I'm effectively accepting the general subjectivist framework described in my previous post, but suggesting that questions of moral value are concerned with a particular 'viewpoint': that of humanity as a whole. For those who are interested in assessing values from this perspective (i.e. the perspective that yields what we call 'moral' values), it is a matter of objective fact that Martin Luther King Jr. improved the world. It's not just my opinion that he helped fulfill desires generally; it's damn well true that he did so.

So we can have quasi-objective morality whilst recognising that there is no 'intrinsic' value existing in the world independently of human interests and desires. We can have an objective moral relativism. What more could we want?

See also Alonzo Fyfe's essay, Resolving the Objectivist/Subjectivist Debate.

Update: As to why we might be interested in the moral perspective, see here.


  1. I think that you have to better explain what you mean by "the aggregate of everyone's desires." Do you mean by this that if there are more people who think racism is good for us than people who think it is bad for us, then it is indeed good for us? If not, I'm having a hard time thinking of what else you might mean. If so, I'm having a hard time seeing how that is different than cultural relativism, seeing as how different cultures in different times have had different ideas about what is good for themselves.

    I'm really having trouble seeing how humanity's collective desires could tell us what is good. Sure it might be correct very often. But if the aggregate of everybody's desires was that racism was good, then it seems we would have problems. This seems like the ethical equivalent of "All your friends are jumping off the bridge, so you should too."  

    Posted by Macht

  2. I second Macht's comment. The aggregate of everyone's desires strikes me as nothing more than democracy, and while a measure of democracy is necessary for good government, it does not strike me as the fundamental criterion of morality. 

    Posted by Jason Kuznicki

  3. "Do you mean by this that if there are more people who think racism is good for us than people who think it is bad for us, then it is indeed good for us?"

    No. By 'aggregate' I don't mean you simply do a vote of preferences on each individual issue. Rather, you take the entire set of all desires in existence, and ask how best to maximise their fulfillment. (Follow the 'desire fulfillment' link for a full explanation of how it differs from mere preference satisfaction.)

    This set will form a sort of 'web' structure with each desire as a 'node' connected to many others. To fulfill a desire for something bad (like racism) will tend to thwart many more other desires - that's why it's bad, after all. So a sort of natural equilibrium tends to be reached by fulfilling good desires and thwarting bad ones. That's the general idea anyway, I'll probably elaborate on this in a future post. (Any initial criticisms you have to make about it for now would be most welcome though!)

    The view as I've presented it is a sort of utilitarianism, as you may have noticed. It does require a bit of tweaking to avoid the common objections to utilitarianism ('what if the whole world were Nazis and torturing a few Jews would make this majority happy?' sort of thing - much like your question, actually). But again, that's for a future post. (Sneak preview: I'll be advocating an indirect utilitarianism based not on acts or rules, but character. The effect of this, I will show, is to favour harmony rather than simple majoritarianism.)

    I don't mean to dodge your objections - I promise to engage them more fully, soon! But I should emphasise that the purpose of this post was just to outline how subjective values could give rise to objective morality (i.e. a meta-ethical claim). 

    Posted by Richard

  4. It seems to me that in your comments you have run full on into the problem that utilitarians (you might rather call them "majoritarians", I suppose, because we are discussing desires rather than goods) will always face: how can I force my "objective" moral structure to match my "subjective" moral structure!

    You want to fulfil the "aggregate desires" of the world so long as those desires strike you as moral. Ho hum.

    What if it turns out that your "bad" desires are in fact "good" and your "good" bad? What if racism turns out to be the best route to fulfilling the most "good" desires? What if there is nothing much to gain objectively from antiracism but a lot to gain subjectively? What if we should be antiracists because, it turns out, we don't like it? What if objectively we ought to be racists? 

    Posted by Dr Zen

  5. take an issue that concerns only 2 people. Person 1 favours and would be better off with outcome A, person 2 favours and would be better off with outcome B.
    you can expand this case to cover many more problems: conflicts between different groups of similar size, conflicts between present and future generations, etc..
    How do you weight preferences in these case??

    if everyone is worth the same, then you need to allow for despotism of the majority. the classic example would be to kill one healthy person to get the organs to save five.

    you can then say that everyone is worth the same with respect to our duty to benefit, but when it comes to our duty not to harm we should be deontological: no person should, without her consent, ever be harmed. how do you then distinguish between actively harming someone and failing to help?

    ( say i am not murdering an african children when i do not donate money to oxfam, am i murdering him if i am in africa and see him starving and still deny food? am i murdering him if i work for a company that is making food supply in his area unreliable? etc.. drawing boundaries seem all too arbitrary)

    if you weight people differently then you can be charged of platonic totalitarianism.

    i feel that if you want to give objective foundations to morality then you need to venture into the metaphysics of moral facts- do we have reasons to suppose they exist? are they simply un-analysable things we acquaint ourselves with through moral intuition? what relatioship links moral nurture and moral nature?

  6. I strongly agree with your basic view here, but I have a couple quibbles:

    (1) You say you've defended "relativism" and "subjectivism," although reaching a middle position that compromises with objectivism. That seems simply inaccurate -- you've defended the view that ethics is objective, period. "Relativism" and "subjectivism" don't apply to any ethical theory that attributes any value to states of minds. Those terms refer to the source of the very correctness of moral propositions.

    (2) You say "you take the entire set of all desires in existence, and ask how best to maximise their fulfillment." As I said, I basically agree with your view here, but do you really think it's absolute? Can you really say with a straight face that bin Laden's or Mugabe's desires for fulfillment are as morally weighty as yours or mine?

  7. This 4-year-old post doesn't represent my current views, but I'll just note that your second question was already addressed upthread. (So yes, my past self would indeed say exactly that, and then go on to point out that this doesn't really have any objectionable implications.) Though for a competing view, cf. the post I wrote 5 months later.


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