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Moral Objectivity and Moral Relativity: Semantic Disputes

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This is another rather heavy-going philosophy essay written for my Bachelor of Arts. It highlights the problem I keep finding in just about every unit of philosophy I study, namely, that there really is no conflict in apparently opposing systems of philosophical argument – only a difference of semantics in describing concepts that are purely mental. The result is that much of philosophy is like a heated and needlessly complex dispute between two parties – one who argues that feeling happy is ‘happiness’, another arguing that feeling happy is in fact ‘delightfulness’ – when the feeling is either exactly the same in both cases or so insubstantial and subjective as we may as well equate them. Both sides in reality agree on content but disagree on what words they wish to use to describe the content and in the process of argument breed more and more convoluted and meaningless theories which multiply the supposed explanations in the same manner that superstitions multiplied in the Middle Ages to describe scientifically unexamined “causes” for the Black Death.

Moral objectivists claim that moral judgements are objectively true – not true relative to a particular moral code. Do you agree with their claim? Defend your view.

Moral objectivists argue that moral judgements are objectively true – that is, that there is a moral code that is relevant in all situations and societies. I do not agree with this claim – moral relativism seems more correct – and yet I do not believe there is necessarily any fundamental disagreement between the two general views. I will argue that the difference is only semantic – we are describing the same mental processes in different ways.

Firstly, I argue that a moral judgement cannot be objective in the way that, for example, a physical force of nature is. We can measure forces like wind or gravity by observation of the natural world. We cannot measure morality like this. The argument that there are moral forces outside of our human perception is I think untenable.

Granting that moral judgements must occur, as far as we know, in the human mind, the argument for moral objectivity must be based on the idea of some kind of universal affinity for moral judgement among all human beings. This seems possible as we do all undergo common developments: we are all of the same species, so we all have similarities in our physical structural properties; we all are born, must consume food, and so forth. Hence we all must develop a capacity for similar thoughts and reactions including, or so a moral objectivist would argue, the same capacity for moral judgement.

The argument follows then that if two people or societies disagree about moral codes, there must be some subjective influence that has led one or both disputants to deviate from the objective moral ground. This subjective influence would, in the view of the moral objectivist, be considered an erroneous influence, distorting the disputant’s objective moral judgement. The objectivist assumes that such a disputant has made a mistake – he or she has perhaps become distracted by lust or greed, ‘irrational feelings’ or wrong ideas.

Now, the moral relativist looks at this differently. According to moral relativism, moral disputes are generally caused by legitimately different moral codes. The moral relativist does not hold that there is an objective moral code but that each of us forms his or her ideas of moral right and wrong based on such things as upbringing, commitments, personal meaning, cultural background and so forth. Therefore, according to the moral relativist, all morals are subjective.

It is very important here that I clarify what I mean by ‘subjective’ in this essay. By ‘subjective’ I mean simply ‘other than objective’ or ‘preconditioned by factors unique to a society or individual.’ I am not suggesting that moral relativism necessarily implies different moral judgements on the level of individual opinion (or whim), only that moral relativism by its very nature argues for the possibility of different but equally correct moral codes. Whether these moral codes are considered different on only the societal level, the individual level, or both, is not the subject of this essay, and will depend on the particular moral relativist theory. Suffice it to say that moral relativists do not believe in a set moral code that applies universally to all peoples and it is this that I am implying by the use of the word ‘subjective’.

A moral relativist could deny the existence of psychological properties that are common to all humanity – after all, we cannot seem to decide on exactly which judgements are morally objective so perhaps none of them are. Scientists have struggled to find an entirely objective reaction pattern in human beings; it seems that human psychological functioning is always heavily influenced by environment and upbringing.[1] In fact, it is this openness and flexibility in the human brain that makes us so complex as a species. You could use this as the basis for an argument that there are no truly objective reactions of any kind in humanity – we are always affected by some subjective factors – and so the idea of moral objectivity would be without any strong foundation. However, I think this would be a weak argument in itself. We all may be individually unique to some extent but we are not biologically distinct – we are all the same species after all and clearly seem to share common abilities.

Considering this, I do not think that the moral relativists must believe that there are no objective psychological similarities between human beings. Some degree of universal human psychological structuring is likely.[2] In fact, I argue that the moral relativist need not be in any disagreement with the moral objectivist insofar as what is really conceptualised here: some kind of common objective human judging function (O) combines with or is altered by a unique subjective human judging function (S) to produce a current professed value judgement (J). I argue that the disagreement resides on the level at which the judgements are said to be moral. The relativist speaks only of moral judgements on the level of (J), the values professed at the end of the process, while the objectivist believes that (O), the objective human judging function, is the unchanging basis of all morality. Or put slightly differently, the objectivist thinks the views about morality we express, (J), are determined by objective values, (O), interfered with or supported by subjective values, (S), while the relativist thinks they are a legitimate, sometimes more or less unique combination of objective (O) and subjective (S) values. (Note that there is no assumption here that every moral philosopher is defining (O), (S) or (J) in exactly the same way – that is, the content of these categories will vary according to the theory, but the general category of objective (O), subjective (S) and their culmination in a position (J) is always part of the argument, stated or implied.)

To clarify, we must look at an example. One society (society A) claims that it is improper (aka. morally bad) to cremate the dead. Another society (society B) says that cremation is morally good. As per above, the moral objectivist would explain this discrepancy with the view that the universal moral ground (O) – whatever that should say about disposing of the dead – has been altered or affirmed by some subjective values (S) unique to society A or B (such as religious views about the afterlife or the relative practicality of the burying the dead in the particular environment), producing their two differing professed values (J) above. The objectivist will then say that society A or society B can be considered right or wrong (or neither) according to whether their S affirms O or not. My point is the relativist essentially sees the same situation except that the relativist would not see O as determining what we refer to as morality; moral views are professed views (J), arrived at through sometimes unique though equally legitimate combinations of universal human values (O) – these not considered moral ideas per se – and subjectively unique factors (S). In this way, it makes perfect sense that the two societies would have differing views about cremation as each had to contend with differing subjective factors that are nonetheless legitimately arrived at.

To address the essentially definitional difference here, to discover which of these views is incorrect, we need to discover which one of them is defining morality incorrectly; should we rightly consider O or J as constituting morality proper? Unfortunately, there is no way of doing this as (O), the objective ground of judgement, and (J), the resulting professed moral views, are not objectively distinguishable – they are both just mental concepts; no one of these ‘exists’ more than the other, nor can either be said to be objectively more pertinent to ‘morality’. We can choose to call either (O) or (J) ‘morality’ if we so wish.[3]

This definitional conflict between what I am calling (O) and (J) explains all the objections to moral relativism put forward by James Rachel in his article.[4] The inductive argument for moral relativism, as Rachel states, does not prove there are no objective values (O), only a difference of professed opinion (J) – but I argue that this is all the moral relativist meant, as the relativist does not consider whatever constitutes (O) to be called ‘morality’. The apparently objectively immoral acts of repressive societies in the past or present do not pose problems for the moral relativist because it is only the professed views (J) of these societies that he or she considers as expressing their ‘morality’. The Nazi ‘morality’ may indeed disturb us in relation to what we perceive to be some objective human determinate (O), but the relativist is only considering the contemporary expression of these, (J), as constituting the concept ‘morality’. Also, these (J) morals are still capable of criticism from the point of view of our own current (J) views. Similar arguments can be used to clarify misunderstandings in relation to Rachel’s arguments about universal values (O) versus subjective customs (J),[5] and about the instances where the apparent universal function (O) is unaltered by the subjective factors (S) and so professed values (J) may happen to be the same as (O).[6]

To conclude, I argue we simply cannot answer the question as to the objective or relative nature of morality as we cannot agree on a sure definition of whether morality should properly be considered the objective human ground of judgement (O) or the professed judgements (J) reached as a result of subjective and objective factors.  We are likely to consider ourselves objectivists or relativists based on what level we conceive true ‘morality’ to be operating. I suspect that many relativists do not disagree fundamentally with objectivists; they may instead prefer to call the objective ground of judgement (O) something more mysterious than ‘morality’ or ‘utility’ such as ‘instinct’ or ‘intuition’. The relativist conception of the shadowy nature of (O) may invite this alternative conception. Since I personally prefer to see (O) as something like ‘intuition’ or ‘universal necessities’ (rather than ‘morality’), and (J) usually what I mean by ‘morality’, I find the relativist argument that tiny bit more compelling. But I must admit that neither moral objectivist nor moral relativist conceptions are fundamentally more correct since the difference between these general ideas of human functioning which defines them as objectivist or relativist is finally semantic only.

[1] N. Tinbergen, The Study of Instinct (London: Oxford University Press, 1951), 7-8.

[2] After all, philosophy itself often presupposes that we are all able to reason objectively.

[3] Although I have not the space to argue this here, I suspect that entirely subjective values (S) would not usually be considered as ‘morals’ in themselves by either party as these are usually seen as comprised of the subjective coincidences of social, cultural or environmental factors (if not just personal preferences) unrelated to an objective ground (O) that, whether it is conceived as ‘moral’ or not, still has a determining effect upon the professed (J) value.

[4] James Rachel, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), 15-29.

[5] Ibid., 23-25.

[6] Ibid., 25-26.


Written by tomtomrant

20 May 2012 at 10:39 am

Posted in philosophy

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