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Who’s To Say?

Michael-John Turp asks if anyone has the authority to establish moral truth.

Socrates famously got himself into trouble by persistently questioning authority. He irritated his fellow citizens so much that he ended up on trial. Eventually he accepted his sentence of execution by drinking hemlock rather than evading the law by fleeing to an easy exile.

While few philosophers are as courageous (or as rash?) as Socrates, we generally remain similarly suspicious of appeals to authority. We worry that too many self-proclaimed authorities are purveyors of self-serving puffery and nonsense. We like to prod, probe and question received wisdom. We ask for reasons, evidence, and argument. Arguments should be weighed on their merits not their origins. Bad people can have good ideas, and good people can have bad ideas. In my experience, the authority-doubting question ‘Who’s to say?’ is especially popular among moral relativists.

In some contexts, it makes sense to answer this question positively and suppose that there is someone with the authority to ‘say’, that is, to dictate the truth. For example, a Supreme Court might have the authority to say whether some law is constitutional. More prosaically, parents get to say that bedtime is at 8 o’clock. In these cases, a decision is made by an appropriate authority. But philosophical questions are unlike this. We do not get to decide, for example, whether we have free will or whether God exists. In any case, there are no relevant authorities to whom we could delegate such decisions. I have wonderful philosophical colleagues, many of whom I suspect to be better-informed, smarter, and more virtuous than me. Sadly, I have no colleagues with the authority to decide whether for example the mind is identical to the brain.

Perhaps we have most reason to be suspicious of appeals to moral authority. The obvious concern here is that there are numerous self-serving reasons for wanting one’s moral pronouncements to guide the actions of others. Let’s call self-professed moral authorities moral gurus. It isn’t hard to think of moral gurus who turn out to be blowhards mostly interested in increasing their own power, prestige, and wealth. They might be manipulative Machiavellian villains. Perhaps more typically, though, moral gurus simply lack sufficient self-knowledge. It’s tempting, isn’t it, to objectify one’s prejudices by interpreting one’s own life and values as reflections of a deeper moral reality?

Given these concerns, we shouldn’t uncritically accept the declarations of moral gurus. Better to follow the Socratic path of persistent questioning: Why is this the thing to do? What reasons do you have for this policy? What arguments? What evidence? I don’t accept it just on your say-so. You ain’t the boss of me.

I suspect that many moral relativists share these suspicions. What then leads them to ask ‘Who’s to say?’ as a barbed way of simply rejecting objective moral truth?

Moral relativists often start from the factual observation that different cultures endorse different customs, different laws, and different moral rules. There are evident cultural differences with respect to issues such as slavery, capital punishment, same-sex relationships, and alcohol use. Someone familiar with these differences naturally starts to wonder who, if anyone, is right. And who’s to say? It would be unwise to assume a priori that we are right. Perhaps, then, nobody is right. Perhaps then we should be sceptical of the very idea of moral truth. Perhaps there is no sensible talk of right and wrong in matters of morality. Some prefer vanilla ice-cream. Others prefer raspberry ice-cream. The Spartans preferred selective infanticide. Us, not so much.

Who’s To Say?
Who’s To Say? by Cecilia Mou, 2023
Image © Cecilia Mou 2023. To see more art, please Instagram her at @mouceciliaart

Relatively Speaking

Interestingly, these days most moral relativists don’t go down this sceptical path. Let’s start with a typical case of disagreement in order to see the logic of their proposal.

Perhaps you believe that the Earth is round. Following an unfortunate tumble down a YouTube rabbit hole, I believe that the Earth is flat. As a simple matter of logic, it seems there are three possibilities: you have a false belief, I have a false belief, or we both have false beliefs (okay, okay, so strictly speaking, the Earth is an irregular ellipsoid). Similarly, in cases of a moral disagreement, it might seem that either I’m right, you’re right, or neither of us is right. Relativists, however, appeal to cases that don’t follow this pattern.

Let’s say that you believe there is a monster on the right, whereas I believe that the same monster is on the left. In this case, it is possible that we both have true beliefs. Perhaps we are facing each other, gazing into one another’s eyes, looking for courage and reassurance. Or perhaps the monster has moved while we’ve been speaking. In these cases it turns out that the sentence “The monster is on the left” is strictly speaking neither true nor false: it is incomplete until a frame of reference is specified – for example, “The monster is on my left, right now.

This is also the model relativists propose for moral truth: they say that ‘X is morally right’ is incomplete in the same sort of way as ‘X is on the left’ is. For instance, say that the Dothraki {in Game of Thrones. Ed} hold that slavery is morally permissible, and the Westerosi hold, to the apparent contrary, that slavery is morally impermissible. It looks like only one group (at most) can be right. But the relativist’s ingenious suggestion is that both Dothraki and Westerosi can be right relative to their respective cultures: slavery is morally permissible to the Dothraki and morally impermissible to the Westerosi.

On the one hand, this model of morality seems less judgy and more tolerant. On the other hand, it means that the moral status of slavery doesn’t directly depend on facts concerning, say, human wellbeing, equality, dignity and autonomy. Rather, the morality or otherwise of slavery depends on the attitudes of a relevant authority, that is, the prevailing cultural attitudes among the Dothraki and Westerosi.

This is, to put it mildly, a surprising conclusion. The obvious worry is that prevailing cultural attitudes sometimes fail to withstand reflective scrutiny. Simply put, it seems like every culture (and individual) gets some things wrong morally. These failures can be easier to spot from a distance, such as when we look back at the moral mistakes of our ancestors. This is one reason why it makes sense to consider alternative cultural norms and pay attention to outside criticism. Quite certainly, other cultures do some things better than we do. When we tell our grandchildren about our lives now, which bits will make us blush? Our treatment of animals? Our blasé attitude towards nuclear proliferation? Our careless disregard for the environment? Or something harder to recognise? These don’t seem like mere fluctuations of fashion like hemlines or hats. They sound more like matters about which we can and should reason.

In fact, relativists often merely simplify or ignore moral reasoning by taking their eyes off moral reasons altogether, and refocusing on cultural norms.

There is an instructive comparison here with the theist’s idea that moral law requires a Law-Giver. According to ‘divine command theory’, an action is morally right if it’s in accordance with God’s commands. I’m on Socrates’ side, though, when he asks what reasons the gods have to command certain actions. This leads to the so-called ‘Euthyphro dilemma’, from Plato’s dialogue of that name: If there are independent reasons favouring an action as good, then we can appeal directly to those reasons, so why bring in God? On the contrary, without independent reasons for something being good, God’s commands would seem arbitrary. Of course, a theist such as St Augustine might appeal to God’s good character as itself the ultimate standard of goodness, and say that in this way goodness resides in or comes from God. So in this way the buck stops with our Creator. This makes sense within a religious framework. An appeal to cultural authority among secular moral relativists is, however, far more puzzling. Why think that the buck of moral justification stops with prevailing cultural norms? What could give cultures a God-like authority to determine moral truth?

The relativist’s question ‘Who’s to say?’ presupposes a cultural authority akin to divine command theory. Moreover, the logic of their argument implies a clear answer to our question – namely, prevailing cultural attitudes. Despite this, many relativists are actively suspicious of the idea that there is any privileged position of authority with respect to moral truth. For example, they often echo the postmodernist Michel Foucault’s insight that claims to moral knowledge can be used as instruments to seize and maintain power. And they are clearly right about that. Indeed, there’s a long and dreadful history of the powerful imposing their way of life on the weak and vulnerable in the name of their moral truth. Conquerors often have moral gurus by their side, helping to smother dissent. They can be all too sincere; and full of passionate intensity to boot.

Moral Visions

It seems that the relativists’ strategy of indexing moral truth to cultural norms saddles them with an ethics of authority despite themselves. Can we do better?

Three images come to mind when I try to think through moral authority. The first is of a moral guru handing down what he takes to be the absolute moral truth from a position of authority. He might be looking down from a preacher’s pulpit or a professor’s lectern, or a politician’s hustings. He might take himself to be in the business of civilizing the natives. This is a somewhat frightening image. In its most extreme version, it involves a toxic combination of power and moral certainty that is a prelude to authoritarianism, totalitarianism, oppression, even genocide. If the moral guru has something to say, then let him sit alongside us rather than delivering his truth from above. Let’s discuss his reasons, so that we can consider them together in a spirit of uncertainty.

The relativists’ alternative seems at least a step better. Here I imagine members of a shared culture gathered around their moral truths like campers around a fire. There is a measure of harmony, and often an acceptance that other campers have other fires that seem to keep them equally warm. Let a thousand campfires burn! There is also the sensible conservative insight that we may learn something from the ideas handed down by our ancestors – ideas that worked for them; or at least worked for most of them, more or less, some of the time.

I worry here, however, about the dissenting voices around the edges of the group, huddled against the cold, who suspect that their culture may have gone astray. Let’s hope they belong to a culture that tolerates such dissent if they dare voice it. In fact, let’s hope that their culture is responsive to rational argument. Also, let’s not think too much about those other groups of campers who are intent on spreading their fire – by force if necessary. After all, tolerance isn’t a universal moral norm.

The image of moral reasoning I prefer doesn’t involve moral gurus handing down the truth. Nor does it involve simply accepting the norms that happen to be prevalent in one’s own group. Rather it involves encountering members of other groups with a presumption of equality, respect and, most likely, common ignorance. So let’s wander a little away from our own moral campfire and try to consider as best we can how others live their lives, individually and collectively. Let’s do this without regard for any supposed moral authority, and without assuming that anyone already knows just what to do. In fact, the assumption that any culture has a monopoly on moral truth or on clear moral thinking strikes me as somewhere between naïve and ludicrous. It seems far more likely that we’re all wrong in some ways, and right in others. Let’s try to find out which beliefs are which. Let’s ask why others live as they do, and let’s try to understand why we live as we do. We might well learn something. We might even change for the better.

So, who’s to say? My answer is ‘nobody’. Not God. Not your culture. Not mine. Not moral gurus. And not – heaven help us! – professional moral philosophers like me. We should resist the assumption that anyone has special unquestionable authority with respect to moral matters. Moral questions are not decided by authorities or settled by fiat. Instead, in truth, we’re all sitting around in the moral fog together, trying to muddle through as best we can. There is light from other campfires around us, but it is often rather weak. Sometimes we have to squint. So let’s look closely and pay attention to reasons and evidence regardless of its origins. Similarly, let’s reject ideas that do not stand up to critical scrutiny, regardless of who proposes them.

I often don’t know where the moral truth lies. I suspect that sometimes you don’t either. I do, however, have some confidence that our best bet is to think these things through together without appeals to authority. Nobody gets to say, but we all get to deliberate, on an equal footing.

© Dr Michael-John Turp 2023

Michael-John Turp is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

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