I received a question from someone hitting a wall when presenting the moral argument. His friend was dismissing the argument and just insisting that morality is just subjective. He wanted to know how we can respond in situations like that.
My response is below:
I’ve had similar struggles in presenting premise two of the moral argument. At first it does seem as though the critic can simply assert that they see morality as subjective…full stop.
What I have come to realize, however, is that they are often making a subtle misdirection from the issue at hand. What we need to communicate clearly when running this argument is that we are exploring different explanations of our moral experience. What is it that we experience when we experience moral values and duties? Which explanation best conforms to what we do in fact experience? Consider the scientist who posits a theory to explain some sort of physical phenomenon. He will then observe the phenomenon and then reflect on whether his theory is the best explanation for it. The phenomenon to be explained when we come to the moral argument is our moral experience.
Now you presented two very common objections to objective morality raised by your friend. The first is when he said, “…we’re merely using modern morality.” This sort of a claim takes a number of different forms, but it amounts to an appeal to moral disagreement. They will usually cite moral disagreements between individuals, between societies, or between time periods (modern vs ancient morality). It seems the form your friend has raised is disagreement between time periods since he is referring to “modern” morality. This fact of moral disagreement, however, does not imply that morality is subjective. Disagreement alone does not imply that there is no real object about which the disagreement occurs. Consider how this cashes out on another topic, that of science. Now it is very well know that we have advanced over time in our understanding of the laws of nature. We know much more now than we ever have in our history, and in this way our “modern science” would disagree with “ancient science” (which was known as natural philosophy centuries ago). So let’s consider the two statements below:
- Disagreement about moral norms means that moral norms do not exist independently of the people discussing them.
- Disagreement about the laws of nature means that the laws of nature do not exist independently of the people discussing them.
We can see the obvious mistake made in the second statement, and hopefully that can help to illustrate why the first statement is also mistaken.
Your friend also suggested that, “[morality] is all subjective and depends on the time and place of the situation.” It seems as if he is saying that if we had come from a different time and place (such as the Nazi society you described) that we would come to different conclusions about morality, and thus the conclusions we do have are suspect. We need to recognize that this just is the genetic fallacy. He is suggesting that the source of our moral intuitions undermines the validity of those intuitions. We have grown up in a society that thinks the world is round, does the fact that our beliefs about the shape of the earth are formed by our upbringing entail that the earth therefore is not round? Certainly not! We cannot undermine our moral experience simply by trying to describe how that moral experience came to be. Although not discussed in your e-mail, this is most often done through an appeal to evolutionary history. The critic will argue that our moral intuition is just a product of the evolutionary process. This is just another form of the genetic fallacy; we cannot undermine our moral experience simply by trying to undercut how that experience was developed.
So with those two objections out of the way, let’s return to your friend’s claim that morality is subjective. What we need to ask is, “Does the explanation that morality is subjective correspond to our moral experience?” In other words, do we experience subjective morality or do we experience objective morality?
When it comes to subjective morality, this is the claim that morality is subject-relative. That is to say it is relative to some sort of subject. There are typically two different subjects appealed to as the basis for subjective morality. We will want to ask if either of these options is consistent with our moral experience.
The first option is that morality is person-relative. This means that each person, individually, sets the “canon” of morality. This is often expressed as, “What’s true for you may not be true for me.” This is inconsistent, however, with feelings of guilt. We look at our behavior and feel that we have done wrong (at times). If we are, ourselves, the very canon for morality then all of our behaviors are by definition “the good”. If morality is relative to us, then by definition everything we do is moral. This, however, is inconsistent with our moral experience.
Additionally, we expect others to conform to our morality. We think the child abuser, for example, ought not abuse children. If our moral experience was that morality is person-relative, however, then we would not expect to think this. Consider our sense of taste. We do not expect others to like the same foods that we do because we recognize that taste is person-relative. Our moral experience is not like that.
Like above, if morality is society-relative then whatever society does is moral. In light of social norms like slavery and Nazism, however, it seems that this option is similarly incompatible with our moral experience. We do not think that adherence to social norms is necessarily “good”, but this would be what we would expect to think if our experience of morality was that morality is society-relative.
Additionally, social reformers would be immoral on this view. If society is the “canon” or measure by which something is moral, then anyone who goes against society would be doing something deeply immoral. We do not, however, view people like Martin Luther King Jr. as having done something morally wrong. If morality was society-relative, however, then we would expect to view such social reformers with contempt. Again, this is inconsistent with our moral experience.
In both of the examples above, moral progress seems to be impossible. Morality can shift from one state to another as a person or as society changes, but we cannot think of morality as having “improved” from such states. All that would be the case is that morality is different. This, however, contradicts our moral experience in which we do think that things like women’s rights represent an advance in the morality of society. We also seem to think that we can personally grow and become more virtuous people over time. This is not what we should expect to think if the morality that we experience is either person-relative or society-relative.
Now consider what we should expect of our moral experience if morality really is objective. It seems that we should expect that both individuals and societies can commit moral wrongs if morality is objective, and this is just what we experience. We should also expect to see people who stand up against corrupt individuals and societies as virtuous people. Again, this is what we do experience. Finally, we do think that both individuals and societies can become more virtuous over time and this is just what we should expect to think if the morality we experience is objective rather than subjective. I’m not aware of any experience we have of morality that we would expect to be different if morality really was objective.
Remember, the point here is that we want to make the case that what we find in our first-person moral experience is objective morality. It doesn’t matter what we think others may or may not experience. The question is, what does your friend find to be true of his moral experience? If his firsthand experience of morality is consistent with the view that morality is objective and inconsistent with the view that morality is subjective, then that experience gives him good reason to think that morality is objective. I suspect that your friend will agree that he thinks that both individuals and whole societies have engaged in wrongdoing, and thus his experience is that morality is objective.
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