On the objectivity of ethical judgments

It is fashionable, these days, to deny that there is such thing as objective morality. It’s not exactly a novel position, as Aristotle pointed out that what goes in Athens doesn’t go in Sparta, meaning that what is considered ethically acceptable in one place may not be in the other and vice versa. Ethics, after all, comes from the Greek word for character, which Cicero translated into what became the Latin root for morality, meaning habit, custom.

Perhaps the current anti-realist and relativist trend is a predictable, and even welcome, corrective to centuries of moral realism founded in religion. As everyone who is brought up within one of the faiths in the Abrahamic tradition knows well, X is right (or wrong) because God says it is right (or wrong). And you better behave accordingly or else. The problem with that sort of deontological (rule-based) approach is that it was debunked by Socrates almost two and a half millennia ago, specifically in the delightful Platonic dialogue known as the Euthyphro. At one point, Socrates puts the crucial question to the obnoxious title character who thinks he knows exactly the difference between pious and impious (right and wrong, in modern terminology) because he so well understands the gods: “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.” Either way you answer, you are in trouble, despite the protestations of countless theologians during the past two millennia. (See here and here for details.)

And if you think there is a non-God invoking way to get moral realism, I invite you to read about J.L. Mackie’s famous “argument from queerness,” which pretty much dispatches of that possibility as well. Yes, I know, there are critics of these arguments. This is philosophy, there are critics of everything. But both the Euthyphro and Mackie’s approaches are more than satisfactory to my judgment, as I find the rejoinders wholly inadequate and chiefly based on either unproductive logic chopping or a misunderstanding of the actual argument.

So now what? If realism isn’t tenable and therefore anti-realism wins by default, are we forced to agree that there is no objectivity in ethics? Not exactly. An interesting article by Tim Sommers in 3 Quarks Daily, entitled “Two sources of objectivity in ethics” offers a third way, one very similar to something I have been arguing for a number of years, and which in a technical paper published when I was a graduate student in philosophy I referred to as moral quasi-realism.

After introducing Mackey’s “error theory” of moral judgment, according to which when we say that something is immoral we are simply saying that we have a profound dislike for it, Sommers acknowledges the existence of simplistic forms of modern moral realism derived from a scientistic attitude to the problem, as in Sam Harris’ infamous book, The Moral Landscape (see my review here). Amusingly, Sommers writes:

“[Then] there is Sam Harris’s widely-read book from a few years ago: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Now, if ‘science’ could determine human values, depending on exactly how it did so, we might well have an answer to ... subjectivism. Unfortunately, if I had been asked to review that book, I might have followed Wittgenstein who once said of a book that he would agree with it if you put the entire text in brackets and wrote in front ‘It is not the case that…’ … Harris’s central claim that ‘science’ will save ethics is either tautological – because whatever objective methods we develop to answer ethical questions will be, by an expansive enough definition, some kind of science – or false – since none of the existing sciences – physics, chemistry, or even biology – are likely ever to answer ethical questions.”

Precisely, so let us not waste any more time on this. The core of Sommers’ article is that if we look at things from outside the narrow confines imposed by the false dichotomy of realism vs anti-realism, there are two sources of objectivity in ethics, firmly grounding what I call quasi-realism.

The first such source can easily be understood by making an analogy between ethics and health. Since we are biological organisms of a certain kinds, there are objective statements about what is or is not, biologically speaking, healthy for us.The fact that people don’t always act accordingly, or that they have different opinions about it, is irrelevant. When your doctor tells you not to smoke, or to drink less, she is making a normative, not just descriptive, statement. You ought not to smoke, or you ought to drink less (if you wish to keep healthy and live longer).

Similarly, from an ethical perspective, we are highly social beings capable of language and sophisticated reasoning, so there are certain things that are objectively good or bad for us from a moral perspective (if we care about human welfare and flourishing). Random violence from others is bad, access to education is good; being another person’s slave is bad, being able to pursue our projects as rational agents is good. And so forth.

(Harris has also made the medicine-ethics analogy, but clumsily botched it by wanting to extract far more from it than is warranted. And he wasn’t original there either: all ancient Western philosophers thought of ethics that way.)

As Sommers puts it, welfare, like health, is at least partially objective. Which would not have come as news to the Greco-Romans at all, from Socrates to Aristotle to the Stoics. Notice, though, the qualifier “partially” and notice also my two “if” parenthetical statements above. There are many ways to be healthy or unhealthy, medically speaking; and there are many ways of being ethical or unethical, morally speaking. Which is why facts (and therefore “science”) underdetermine moral philosophy. We need the facts, but we also need to reason and argue about them. And the “if” qualifiers make it clear that we are talking about what philosophers call practical reasoning of the instrumental kind, not a priori theoretical reasoning. There is not much sensible theoretical reasoning to be done about ethics because moral goodness and badness are not objective features of the world, they are only semi-objective features of the human world.

Which brings us to Sommers’ second source of objectivity in ethics. We have just concluded that ethics is a kind of reasoning about means to our ends in terms of welfare or flourishing. Again: IF we want people to be able to pursue their autonomous projects THEN we need to guarantee them not only safety and access to food and shelter, but also higher level goods, like education, health care, and so forth. And this sort of instrumental reasoning can be raised one level, so to speak, in order for us to reason (and argue) about the ends themselves, not just the means to achieve them. Should we have the goal of maximizing human agency? Flourishing? How should we balance those sorts of goals in the context of a diverse society where people have different understandings of what flourishing means? And so forth.

Here Sommers makes the same comparison between ethics and mathematics that I’ve been proposing for years as a sensible way to demystify what it means to arrive at objective ethical judgments:

“If [all of this] sounds unlikely, even mystical, compare mathematics. Mathematics is also all in our head. The principles lead to axioms which lead to proofs. But they begin as intuitions to be balanced and fit together. All the rigor comes later. … There are whole disciplines – rational decision theory and microeconomics, at least – devoted to systematizing how we think about reasoning about means to ends. There is controversy there and competing axioms are proposed. But almost no one thinks that developing an axiomatic approach to instrumental reasoning is subjective.”

While Sommers applies this parallel with mathematics to ethics in particular, I have developed a general application of it to the nature of philosophical inquiry more broadly construed. For me all branches of philosophy -- from ethics to metaphysics, from political philosophy to aesthetics -- work in the way Sommers describes: they take as input certain facts about the world and then build alternative accounts of how to think about those facts. This is not science because the facts of the world always grossly underdetermine our philosophical accounts, and the job of the philosopher can be thought of as that of: (i) arriving at new accounts that are internally coherent and externally congruous with the best available facts; and (ii) critically examining existing accounts in order to either reject or refine them.

Sommers summarizes his take, with which I wholeheartedly agree, in this way:

“So here are at least two potential sources of objectivity that can inform our ethics. On the one hand, welfare, what is good and bad for persons, is (at least partly) objective – it’s really out there, part of ‘the furniture of the world’ (Quine). On the other hand, reasoning about what to do is a kind of reasoning. Like all reasoning, it goes on inside our heads, but, like all reasoning, it (potentially) has a kind of objective rigor to it.”

It will come to no surprise to my regular readers that this is exactly the approach used in virtue ethics, and in particular (but certainly not only) by the Stoics. There is no paradox at all involved in acknowledging (with Mackey) that moral facts are not Platonic ideas out there in the world, and yet rejecting the relativist conclusion that anything goes, or that (again Mackey) when we say “X is unethical” we are simply expressing a strong dislike. There are good reasons, based on facts about human nature, and which can be philosophically articulated, for arriving at ethical judgments.

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