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Our Morality: A Defense of Moral Objectivism

After our recent ‘Death of Morality’ issue, Mitchell Silver replies to the amoralists.

Philosophers who aspire to describe reality without resort to myth, too often remain in thrall to the myth of absolute neutrality. Myths are not without their proper uses, and belief in absolute neutrality can be a useful, even an indispensable premise in the practices of science, jurisprudence, sports refereeing, and a host of other activities in which we want to discourage corrupting biases. Still, absolute neutrality is a myth, one memorably formulated by Thomas Nagel as ‘the view from nowhere’. There is no ‘view from nowhere’, and any philosophical practice which pretends to occupy that mythical perspective sows confusion.

In this article I will describe and defend my kind of moral viewpoint (not my specific viewpoint). The label I will use for this kind of viewpoint is ‘moral objectivism’, because this creates a stark contrast with ‘moral subjectivism’ and ‘moral relativism’ – the views that no coherent morality is better than any other coherent morality, which along with ‘moral nihilism’ – the denial of any morality – present the most philosophically popular moral perspectives that are not of my kind.

Moral objectivism, as I use the term, is the view that a single set of principles determines the permissibility of any action, and the correctness of any judgment regarding an action’s permissibility. Does this view deserve the label ‘moral objectivism?’ I think it does. Although it doesn’t claim that moral principles exist independent of the people who hold them, or that moral properties such as justice exist independently of moral principles, it forthrightly states that some actions are right and some are wrong, regardless of the judgments others may make about them. In making that claim, I am in conflict with the relativists and nihilists, both of whom assert that moral objectivism is poorly grounded compared to alternative metaethics. (A metaethic is a view about the nature of morality. It is not a particular moral view.) These philosophers maintain that moral objectivism requires that we can only validate an action’s moral status or a judgment’s moral correctness by resorting to some beyond-human authority – some moral reality external to people which serves as the source of whatever set of principles a moral objectivist believes determines moral values and correctness. These relativists and nihilists claim that objectivism needs something like God, but they disbelieve there is anything like God, so they conclude that moral objectivism requires something which does not exist.

I share the relativist/nihilist rejection of any form of supernaturalism. I do not believe in God, or in any other external authority that grounds moral objectivism. Indeed, I do not think morality can be grounded in any external source. Yet I am a moral objectivist, and I think there is a good chance you are too. In what follows I do not defend the content of my moral beliefs, nor make any presumptions about the content of yours. I do, however presume that many of you take the content your moral beliefs as seriously as I do mine. I will seek to persuade you that moral o bjectivism is at least as rational, as well-grounded, and as consistent with reality, as any alternative metaethic. The fundamental error of relativist and nihilist arguments against objectivism is the implicit claim that morality can be judged from nowhere.

Categorical Permissibility Rules: The Form of Morality

The nature of motivation is the province of psychologists, who study it empirically. However, without stirring from our armchairs, we can safely say that people are sometimes motivated by rules that they have accepted, such as ‘move chess bishops only along the diagonals’, or ‘floss daily’. Acceptance of a rule can, in part, constitute motives for actions.

Not only can rules motivate actions, they also influence judgments about the correctness of actions. The rule about chess bishops underlies my judgment that it is incorrect to move a bishop along the horizontal. While there are no precise criteria for whether or not a person has accepted a rule, or for measuring the degree of acceptance, ‘acceptance’ implies that the rule has some motivational force and influence on judgments. It would be nonsensical to say, “Silver accepts the rule forbidding moving bishops horizontally, although he is not in the least inclined to follow the rule, nor does he see anything at all incorrect about moving bishops horizontally.”

Among the rules that can motivate actions and determine judgments are those that classify all possible actions as either permissible or impermissible. I call such rules ‘categorical permissibility rules’ (henceforth, simply ‘permissibility rules’). Common examples of permissibility rules include: it is always impermissible to act in a way that will not increase overall happiness or reduce overall suffering (John Stuart Mill promoted that one); it is always impermissible to treat someone merely as a means (a favorite of Immanuel Kant’s); never do to others that which is hateful to you (the Talmudic version of a commonplace in religious ethics); always obey whatever the priest tells you God has commanded (another commonplace in religious traditions); and, never act against self-interest (Ayn Rand). Less common, but equally possible permissibility rules include: never run for a bus (Mel Brooks); and, never act against Mitchell Silver’s interests (no one, alas). There are an endless number of possible permissibility rules.

If you accept, or stand ready to accept either implicitly or explicitly, a set of permissibility rules as determining the correctness of all possible actions, then you are a moral objectivist. Someone who accepts, say, the permissibility rule ‘everyone should pursue wealth above all else’ and judges all people and actions accordingly, relates to that rule as moral people relate to morality. It has the form of a moral rule, and anyone who accepts it is a moral objectivist, for she accepts a specific permissibility rule. For any objectivist, the content of her permissibility rules constitutes what she takes to be morality. Someone who accepts t he ‘everyone should pursue wealth above all else’ rule thereby takes the pursuit of wealth to be the essence of morality. I do not accept that rule, so I judge it a mistake to believe that it has moral authority. I judge those who accept that rule to be in moral error; but still, they are, like me, moral objectivists.

Of course, you don’t have to know you are an objectivist to be one. Perhaps you simply have never indulged in metaethics, or perhaps you are self-deceived, or lack self-knowledge, and do not realize that you accept a specific set of permissibility rules.

Clearly, many people do accept categorical permissibility rules, including me, maybe you, and very likely your mother. Permissibility rules exist, and anyone who has genuinely accepted a specific set of them must thus judge that morality exists. Moreover, the acceptance of permissibility rules (and thus morality) is a natural phenomenon. There is nothing mysterious or spooky about the rules, their acceptance by people, or about the motivational forces they produce. Accepting a permissibility rule is compatible with all of the following: understanding the scientific explanations of the causes of one’s acceptance; believing that you do not understand all of the implications of the rule you have accepted; believing that you could come to reform or abandon the rule you currently accept; failing sometimes, maybe often, and perhaps always, to act in accordance with the rule; and finally, knowing that others adhere to different permissibility rules.

Explaining Morality

The acceptance of permissibility rules has many causes, as does determination of the specific content of the rules. Among the most notable causes of content are other people’s permissibility rules, and other people’s reactions to yours. It’s easier to live with those who agree with you about the rules of permissible behavior. Moreover, we are influenced by what others, such as our parents, promote as the basic rules. In addition, most of us wish to be seen by others as decent members of society, who abide by commonly-accepted permissibility rules (ie, standards). Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) vividly pointed out that we all want to prosper, and we all represent a threat to each other, therefore, as prudent, self-interested animals, we naturally seek enforceable rules to promote prosperity and reduce the mutual threat. Other philosophers have argued that the most acceptable rules likely to emerge from this human condition will enshrine fairness and equality at their center. The social and life sciences have also weighed in: economists have shown how permissibility rules grease commerce, psychologists how they emerge from our emotions, sociologists how they stabilize communities, and evolutionary biologists how they enhance fitness.

The drive to organize our judgments of actions into a logical structure, the urge to rationalize or justify them, is surely one significant explanation of the existence of permissibility rules. Those who value reason and psychic harmony will likely be attracted to rules that justify their gut feelings. If you feel that bull-fighting is wrong, and you like to have reasons for your feelings, you will be open to a rule that implies bull-fighting is wrong. But the causal chain can also go in the opposite direction. An inclination for rational orderliness may cause your moral feelings to align with your current theoretical commitments. Some who have no pre-theoretical moral dislike of bull-fighting may well come to have a moral dislike of it because a rule they accept brands it as wrong. Many a philosopher has become a vegetarian not out of any sympathy for animals, but from a love of consistency and acceptance of a permissibility rule that forbids causing gratuitous suffering.

Justifying Moral Judgments

An explanation provides an account of what something is or how something came about, and in theory anything can be explained; but an explanation is not a justification: a justification gives an account of why something is right, or why it’s right to believe something. Little Mary’s belief that she will receive a Christmas gift is explained by her belief in Santa, but it is justified by her parents’ reliable generosity. Similarly, the above considerations go a long way to explaining the widespread acceptance of certain kinds of permissibility rules, but none of them justifies any permissibility rule. My charitable acts, such as they are, are explained by my upbringing; but if the acts are justified, it is due to a principle that recommends charity, or at least allows it. Only some things, such as beliefs, statements and actions, are candidates for justification. Explanations too are candidates for justification, for an explanation can be right or wrong. Since explanations can be justified, and justifications can be explained, it is easy to conflate the two. Nevertheless, explanation and justification are separate (albeit overlapping) processes, and by itself no amount of explanation ever justifies anything.

The permissibility rules you accept are for you neither justified nor unjustified: they justify. As the sources of moral justification, permissibility rules are similar to the sources of non-moral justification: no adequate reason can be given for accepting or rejecting the sources that does not beg the question. We can justify beliefs; but we can justify the principles we employ to justify beliefs only with circular reasoning. Likewise, we can justify actions, but we cannot without circularity or indefinite regress justify the principles we employ to justify actions. The justification of principles would require a resort to other justifying principles, which would themselves be unjustified. As Hume taught us, the belief that the future will resemble the past is unjustifiable, but we label those who disbelieve the sun will rise tomorrow ‘irrational’. For most of us, inductive reasoning [reasoning from experience, eg of rising suns] is an essential tool for justifying beliefs. It does a fairly good job of justifying beliefs we feel ought to be justified, in spite of the fact that its implications are not always clear or beyond dispute. Moreover, the principle of induction is compatible with the other principles most of us have in our belief-justifying-tool-kit. Of course there are those who reject the entire tool-kit. We call them ‘mad’, or ‘illogical’. Analogously, we call those who truly reject our central permissibility rules ‘monstrous’ or ‘morally obtuse’. For example, without us having justified the underlying moral principle which rationalizes the judgment, we label ‘immoral’ those who disbelieve that genocide is wrong. This is not simple name-calling, it is categorization according to the epistemological and moral principles we accept.

As long as a set of permissibility rules does not require impossible actions (cure cancer, fly to Mars, eat your cake and have it, never die), or posit non-existing entities (the tooth fairy, the Devil, the eternal incorporeal commander), there are no epistemic or practical reasons for rejecting or it, just as there are none for accepting it. Hume famously, and correctly, said that you cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’. It is equally important to note that you cannot derive ‘ought not to accept oughts’ from ‘is’. The rejection of all permissibility rules has no more justification than the acceptance of a specific permissibility rule. The consequences of accepting or rejecting permissibility rules are another matter entirely; but whatever they are, by themselves consequences cannot constitute a justification. Relativists and nihilists sometimes attempt to justify their anti-objectivism by invoking what they assert are the effects of belief in moral objectivism: arrogance, smugness, intolerance, and widespread suffering. I dispute that those are the dominant effects of all objectivisms: a liberal, sensitive, egalitarian consequentialist (a species of objectivist), ever mindful of the fallibility of her judgments, can humbly try to foresee suffering, and minimize it. However, even granting the relativist/ nihilist assessment of the empirical effects of all and any objectivism, without a permissibility principle requiring avoidance of those effects, the relativist/nihilist has provided no grounds for rejecting objectivism. Railing against objectivism for the harms it causes is like protesting that the Constitution is unconstitutional.

To say that a permissibility rule is unjustified is not to say that it is arbitrary, it’s only to say that it is contingent – that, like the historical and personal facts on which it is based, it might have been other than what it is. No permissibility rule is true of necessity. If I wasn’t who I am, I might well have had other permissibility rules, or none. But the fact that our permissibility rules are expressions of who we are makes them the opposite of arbitrary – not accidental attachments to us, but rather organic elements of us. Although we cannot justify them, we can be proud of them, loyal to them, and pleased with their effects. We can note how well they perform certain functions, and we can be pleased that their acceptance violates no norms of knowledge nor requires belief in metaphysical oddities. Still, these feelings and observations do not justify our rules.

Metaethics and Moral Disagreement

Although it brings all possible actions under a single standard, a permissibility rule can be complex, and its application sensitive to circumstances. A permissibility rule may require that the time, place, effects, and the nature of the people involved be considered when evaluating an action. It may even take into account the acceptance of different permissibility rules by other people. (Indeed, objectivity demands the incorporation of information from as many perspectives as possible.) Information about other peoples’ rules should shape a moral perspective, but it doesn’t undermine its validity. For instance, I know that there are people who categorically accept the rule that one should never mistreat their holy scriptures. I accept no such rule, but my awareness of others’ acceptance of the rule, combined with a rule I do accept, that everyone should show respect for others’ feelings, results in me not mistreating others’ holy scriptures. I do not respect the ‘holy scripture rule’ in itself; but I respect the holders of that rule, and in doing so I must often respect their rule. But this derivative respect for their permissibility rules does not mean I accept their rules to make my moral judgments.

Your metaethics depends on whether you genuinely accept a permissibility rule. If you have genuinely accepted specific permissibility rules, in accordance with that acceptance, then you must judge that there are rules which categorize any action’s permissibility, ie, its morality, and you are a moral objectivist. If in addition you accept the same permissibility rules as I do, we agree about the essential substance of morality. Nonetheless, we may yet disagree about the correct classification of a particular action, or kind of action. These disagreements can stem from disputes about concepts (how shall we define ‘pain’?), facts (does an eighteen-week-old fetus feel pain?), or logic (does ‘we ought not perform abortions’ follow from ‘we ought never inflict pain unnecessarily’?). Common acceptance of specific permissibility rules leaves room for differences of particular judgments.

Your specific permissibility rules constitute what you take to be morality, but they are likely to permit inconsistent courses of action: permission is not the same as direction. For example, a rule that implies you should not eat animals allows that the daily consumption of carrots is moral and that the refusal to ever eat carrots is also moral. Indeed that rule permits you to starve yourself to death. You remain a moral objectivist even if the permissibility rule(s) you accept allow you to do almost anything. S ome permissibility rules allow an infinite number of morally permissible acts. The only requirement for your moral objectivist status is that the rules you accept classify some actions as morally out-of-bounds. And objectivism is not totalitarianism: even if you believe there are some things that no one ought to do, you can believe that there are many ways to lead an overall good life, and many situations that permit different courses of action. Hence a moral objectivist can be an ethical pluralist.

There may be people who share your permissibility rules, but also accept additional permissibility rules you do not accept. Maybe, like you, they think it immoral to eat animals, but unlike you, they also believe it is immoral to eat carrots. What are you to make of these people? You must judge that these people misclassify many actions as immoral. You must judge that they have mistaken what are matters of custom, convention, or personal taste, for matters of moral import. You may well judge that two parties, both of whom take themselves to be in serious moral conflict – one says it is immoral to eat carrots, the other that it is immoral not to eat carrots – are both correctthat their preferred course of action is morally permissible, and are both incorrect that the other’s preference is morally forbidden. Their passionate belief that they are in moral disagreement does not mean you must, from your perspective, take them to be in moral disagreement.

Your assessment of other people’s morality depends on which specific permissibility rules you genuinely accept. If you really accept as categorical a rule that permits carrot eating, then you must conclude that others are simply morally incorrect to judge carrot eating immoral. You are not doubting the sincerity of their judgment; but acknowledging their sincerity is not the same as acknowledging their correctness.

Now if your permissibility rules conflict with the rules I accept, we are both objectivists, but we’re in fundamental moral conflict. To remain true to my acceptance of rules that allow but do not demand carrot eating, I must conclude that you are mistaken to think eating carrots is immoral. True to your different permissibility rules, you must judge my moral indifference to carrot consumption morally incorrect. Anyone tempted to take a perspective above the fray will either have permissibility rules from which she can judge which of us is correct (if either), or she has not accepted any permissibility rules. If she has accepted permissibility rules, they will either allow or disallow carrot eating. She is an objectivist, just like us, and can weigh in on our dispute. If she accepts no permissibility rules whatsoever, the very idea of moral permissibility has no claim on her, and she has nothing relevant to offer those of us who do feel the pull of permissibility rules. She is not an objectivist, and both you and I (albeit by virtue of different rules) must conclude that she is without morals. Hardly someone we should ask to arbitrate our moral dispute over carrot eating.

Relativists, Nihilists, Amoralists and Objectivists

If you, dear reader, claim in perfectly good faith not to accept any permissibility rules, then I could in haste judge that you are without morals. But not to worry; I believe that your moral nihilism is probably only a theoretical posture, inconsistent with your actual acceptance of permissibility rules, as reflected in your actual judgments of particular actions. Although your acceptance of permissibility rules implies that you accept that those rules are applicable to all actions and judgments, including your own theoretical judgments, your permissibility rules may allow you (as mine do me) to temporarily pretend that you do not accept them, in order to see what might in theory follow from their non-acceptance. But temporarily playing the amoralist in order to try and imagine how the world looks from that perspective, is not genuine amorality.

The assertion of a robust moral relativism means adopting a perspective from which all permissibility rules are viewed as equally valid. It is important (and often difficult) to keep in mind that moral relativism is not the descriptive claim that people have different and conflicting moral judgments; rather it is the normative claim that no moral judgment is more or less correct than any other. To become a sincere moral relativist one must abandon one’s permissibility rules without embracing other permissibility rules. A relativist could consistently act in accordance with any permissibility rule, but she cannot consistently believe there are any justifications for these actions.

If you sincerely and fully, even if only in theory, accept, say, a rule that it’s immoral to torture people, a rule that it’s immoral not to torture people, and another rule that torture is morally indifferent, then you’ve taken an incoherent theoretical position that’s equivalent to the denial of morality – moral nihilism. The other way to go, the non-acceptance of all permissibility rules, is not the mythical stance of neutrality, it is the particular viewpoint of amorality. It is not the discovery that no rules apply to all possible actions; it is a failure to apply any such rules. It is not an undistorted perspective which reveals morality’s non-existence: it is simply an amoral perspective. This is not how I see things, and I suspect it is not how you see things. I am, and you probably are, a moral objectivist.

Moral objectivism requires only the acceptance of a set of permissibility rules. This involves no metaphysical delusions. Your permissibility rules may be tolerant, liberal, modest, tentative and undogmatic, or the opposite. So long as they’re truly yours, you are a moral objectivist. So are you?

© Mitchell Silver 2011

Mitchell Silver is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts/Boston and the author of books on secular religious identity and secular understandings of theology. He is currently writing a book on moral objectivism.

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