Sunday, April 02, 2006

Authoritarianism and Meta-ethics

Doctor Logic wonders why there's a correlation between moral objectivism and authoritarian political views. The answer is: sloppy thinking. People have a tendency to conflate objectivism with dogmatism; the idea that "the truth is out there" with the conviction that one has sole possession of it. Further, they foolishly assume that tolerance requires relativism; that you cannot believe someone to be mistaken without feeling the urge to forcably "set them right".

But in fact, as I've pointed out before, this gets things precisely backwards. Only objectivists can admit their own fallibility. Relativism would make everyone infallible, for whatever you may believe, the sheer fact of your belief in it suffices to make it "true for you". (What drivel!)

Consistent objectivists are cautious about imposing their views on others. They should always have the nagging concern, "what if I'm mistaken?" The objectivist recognizes that not all opinions are equal, so perhaps he has something to learn from others. Perhaps they are right and he is wrong. Given this possibility, he really must take care to hear others' views, investigate the evidence carefully, and come to a well-reasoned conclusion.

The relativist can recognize no such thing. He takes his moral views to be infallible. If he wants to impose his arbitrary prejudices on others, then he couldn't possibly be mistaken in doing so. Caution is unnecessary; reflection, superfluous. The relativist has no reason to refrain from authoritarianism.

Even if the objectivist is confident in their views, they need not impose them on others. I think that most people would have better lives if they watched less TV, and spent their leisure time on more worthwhile activities (like philosophy!). But I wouldn't dream of imposing this view on others. Indeed, I think it would be objectively wrong for me to do so! Liberal tolerance is not just a "compromise" I make for the sake of ensuring that others don't try to interfere with me. I think it's positively normative, a good thing in and of itself. Respect for other people entails letting them make their own decisions, and even their own mistakes.

The objectivist can hold, as I do, that tolerance is an objective value. That intolerance is positively wrong. That if I were intolerant, that would be bad of me. Again, the relativist cannot recognize any of this. Perhaps he happens to value tolerance, or perhaps he doesn't. Neither option is an improvement on the other. Even if he doesn't value tolerance for its own sake, he might behave tolerantly for prudential reasons, as required by the social "peace treaty". But if such a person could get away with breaking the treaty, he would have no reason not to. This relativist is tolerant only insofar as he is weak. Once powerful enough to impose all his preferences on others without fear of reprisal, he has no reason to hesitate. He doesn't recognize the concerns or choices of others as having any intrinsic import; perhaps he will choose to respect others, but he might just as well choose not to. After all, he's a relativist. "Anything goes."

Finally, let me address a specific remark from the Doc:
[T]he moral relativist is more open to differences in moral behavior, as long as they aren't excessively offensive to his sensibilities. For example, the relativist may find abortion to be distasteful, but will not coerce a woman to come to term against her will. As long as his wife or daughter aren't forced to have abortions, the abortions of others do not represent a threat in the form of a challenge to an overarching principle.

But that's nonsense. If the relativist is "excessively offended" by abortion, as many conservatives are, then he will try to advance his preferences -- possibly without regard for the value of women's autonomy, if the latter is not something he personally cares about. Replace "abortion" with "infanticide" or "murder" in the above quote (as many conservatives consider them morally equivalent). Do you really think that people will just ignore murder so long as it doesn't affect them? If so, you seem to be describing an amoralist, not a relativist that has any sincere moral convictions.

Conversely, consider the moral objectivist who has doubts about the morality of abortion. For reasons discussed above, he may be tentative about his own fallibility here, and so reluctant to force his (possibly mistaken) views on others. He doesn't want to make a mistake, after all. (This is something relativists never worry about.) And even if confident in this case, he must recognize the autonomy of women as having some moral weight. Finally, if he is utterly convinced that abortion is murder, then we can expect him to do all he can to oppose it -- perhaps by force. But of course the same is true of the relativist who holds such personal convictions.

The only reason for thinking that relativism would lead one to be more "liberal" here is if relativism leads you to simply not care about others. Objectivism can lead us to the principle of "live and let live". Relativism goes further, to "live and let die".


  1. Richard,

    Your theory about objectivists admitting their own fallibility is an interesting one. Your diligence and care in exploring ethics and morality demonstrate that you have a healthy degree of moral doubt.

    Nonetheless, I cannot say that I naturally associate moral objectivism and humility. Of course, it's plausible that authoritarians prefer to pose as moral objectivists even when they are not.

    The problem with your analysis is a simple one. The only basis you have for selecting an absolute morality is your subjective opinion. This renders objective morality indistinguishable from subjective morality. How can you convince me that you haven't simply hidden the subjective/persuasive elements of morality in some deductive framework to make moral conclusions look like logical derivations?

    More succinctly: you can devise a system that tells me what I should do, but that system cannot create a moral imperative that says I should accept the system itself. You have to persuade me to do that independently by using subjective means. That is, you must first convince me to accept your moral axioms.

    You claim that the relativist is likely to be less liberal because he has no basis of doubt on which to act against his feelings. I struggle to think of a scenario in which this would be the case. Abortion is a tricky issue because it must weigh more than one moral issue (autonomy, privacy, termination, etc.). Why should the relativist be much more certain than the objectivist when his feelings on these issues conflict? It seems to me that the relativist uses a decision procedure that's almost identical to that of the objectivist.

    For example, you try to persuade the reader of your position by replacing the term "abortion" with "infanticide" and "murder," or by saying "live and let die" (great Bond movie, btw). Your goal is to have the reader decide in your favor based on the reader's subjective views on the matter. But if morality were truly objective, I should be able to come into the debate thinking that murder and infanticide were good, and still be convinced by your claim. As it happens, our subjective moral tastes are probably in very good agreement, but if morality is objective, we should hardly have to rely upon them at all. Thus, I claim that your moral decision-making process is no less subjective than my own.

    It's not surprising that many objectivists have religious convictions. Only God could establish an absolute morality free from human subjectivity. Or, at least, God could if he weren't that jumble of linguistic nonsense defined to be able to achieve that very goal.

    Once moral law has been "revealed" (i.e., made up), it becomes necessary for the religionist to sweat the small stuff because even minor violations of the law represent a threat to objective moral decision processes.

    Of course, the moral interpretation of revelation ends up being decided on subjective moral grounds anyway...

  2. Erm, I'm as atheistic as they come. I've written before about why religion cannot ground objective morality. (Long story short: God's preferences might be just as arbitrary as anyone else's. Murder is wrong because it causes harm, not because someone - you, society, or God - disapproves. It would still be wrong even if you, God, and society all approved of it.)

    "Why should the relativist be much more certain than the objectivist when his feelings on these issues conflict?"

    Because the relativist doesn't need to consider the possibility that he might be mistaken. Sure, he still has to make decisions. He has to decide whether to prefer fetus-life or women's autonomy. But there isn't any basis for this decision which demands careful reflection or reconsideration of one's prejudices. He can pick whatever he likes, and never look back. No consistent objectivist can be so flippantly dogmatic.

    (Of course, there are plenty of inconsistent objectivists out there, mostly of the religious variety. Like I said, people are sloppy thinkers. But the fault lies in their rank stupidity, not in moral objectivism. It's like blaming evolutionary theory for "social darwinism".)

    "The problem with your analysis is a simple one. The only basis you have for selecting an absolute morality is your subjective opinion."

    Depending on what you mean, that's either trivial or false.

    My subjective opinions are not the only rational basis for coming to one moral conclusion rather than another. (Indeed, mere opinion is not any sort of rational basis.) Some moral views are better justified than others. My belief that gratuitous torture is wrong is better justified than the homophobe's belief that sodomy is immoral.

    It's similarly untrue that there are no rational grounds for accepting one moral system over any other. My post consistency and utilitarianism offers a strong argument for utilitarianism. People who believe in (say) the Divine Command theory of ethics are simply unreasonable in contrast.

    Alternatively, perhaps you didn't mean to speak of justification, but were instead proposing the trivial point that our beliefs are grounded in our own subjective judgments, i.e. I believe that P because I think that P is true. But that's utterly trivial. It's true of all our beliefs, not just our moral ones.

    I believe the Earth is round because it is my "subjective opinion" that this is so. Similarly for my beliefs that 2+2=4, and that gratuitous torture is immoral. All these beliefs are well justified. So what's your point?

    "you must first convince me to accept your moral axioms."

    Again, this is trivial rubbish. You can't do science with someone who doesn't accept the scientific method; you can't prove theorems to someone who rejects the axioms of arithmetic or logic. And you can reason morally with someone who doesn't antecedentally recognize that harms are bad and human flourishing is good. Anyone who rejects the axioms is a blind fool. That's their problem, not mine.

  3. I guess
    1) there are many ways you can be authoritarian but random behaviour is unlikely to result in it
    2) a simple rule is naturally authoritarian, a complex one is unenforcable

  4. Richard,

    Trust me. I know you're a fellow atheist! I was just saying that the theists recognize that moral absolutism requires a system for absolute compliance (e.g., everyone is treated to a personalized Heaven or Hell, or some other such nonsense).

    Because the relativist doesn't need to consider the possibility that he might be mistaken. Sure, he still has to make decisions. He has to decide whether to prefer fetus-life or women's autonomy. But there isn't any basis for this decision which demands careful reflection or reconsideration of one's prejudices.

    Sure he does. The complexity of the moral calculation for the relativist is about the same as it is for the objectivist because both rely on an evaluation of consequences. That kind of complexity always results in doubt. Such doubt can only be suppressed by that tiny group of relativists who are either 1) practically omniscient, or 2) indifferent to the consequences of their actions.

    You can't do science with someone who doesn't accept the scientific method; you can't prove theorems to someone who rejects the axioms of arithmetic or logic.

    In mathematics, axioms are assumed truths. The theorems of each mathematical system are statements about what else would follow from that system's assumed truths. In that sense, the conclusion from the assumptions is objectively true. However, each mathematical system is equally valid, even when the axioms of these systems conflict. Algebra problems with x=5 conflict with algebra problems where x=7, but neither system can be said to be preferred in any objective sense.

    I'm sure there is broad agreement that, given specified axioms of morality, we will all end up deducing the same theorems of morality. However, the devil is in the details of the axioms we choose, not in the deductions that follow. There are many different definitions of "harm" and "flourishing."

    If each individual human prefers to live life in a perfect virtual world, are we still flourishing? If we are borg and settle the entire universe, have we flourished? How do we compare a few large harms with many small ones? The only way to resolve these questions is to see how we subjectively feel about the theorems (consequences) they produce. And this subjectivity robs the process of objectivity, for if we change our biology, we may end up changing our preferred set of axioms.

    (As materialists, we can make moral decision-making appear objective by turning it into a physics problem, but then it's not morality anymore, it's just a descriptive simulation.)

  5. But of course human preferences are an objective component of reality. Ethics is no more "subjective" than psychology in that respect; the fact that both take mental facts as inputs doesn't make them merely a matter of opinion! See my Objective Moral Relativism. (You also seem to be ignoring my previous comment about "subjective judgments". I wish you wouldn't.)

    Note that the issues you raise are problems for a theory of welfare, not morality. The former topic is prior. But it is also easier. Few people are skeptical of the possibility of a naturalistic theory of welfare, i.e. what is good for an individual, "in their interests", or better rather than worse for them. (It is an undeniable fact that I am better off winning the lottery than being tortured to death.) And once we have that, it is easy to construct a naturalistic ethics. In fact, I do so right here. Why don't you hop on board?


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.