Discussion of Objective Morality: Introduction

So, I’m going to start looking at Richard Carrier’s relatively recent post on objective morality here. Carrier’s first lament is this:

Is there an objectively true morality?

The question usually goes astray where those who ask or answer it never stop to clarify what they even mean by “objectively true.” In fact, people who ask or answer this question almost never define what they mean by that. And even when they do, they never establish that their definition is the pertinent one. Someone asking the question might mean objective in the sense of not made up, “true” whether we know or think or believe it’s true. Then someone who answers them might act as though “objective” meant based on an external authority, or not accessed through subjective experience. When in fact that’s not at all what the questioner was asking. Sometimes people confuse “objective” as the opposite of “relative,” when in fact many relative truths are also objectively true; or they confuse “objective” with “absolute, devoid of exceptions,” when in fact exceptions can be just as objectively true as the rule.

In reading the post, though, Carrier inserts a couple of other definitions of objective and seems to be equivocating a number of times, and it’s clear that in general there’s a bit of confusion over what the debate over objective morality is really about. One of the reasons for this is that there are different concerns that often get lumped into “objective morality”, with people then often using the differing senses of “objective” interchangeably because, in general, objective moralities avoid the problems with morality not being objective for all of the relevant senses, and so any claim that morality is not objective will run afoul of objective morality in general, no matter what one means by objective morality. So let me start, not by defining objective, but by outlining what I think are the two major concerns that drive philosophers to argue that morality must be objective. This is best described by two common questions:

1) Can moral claims be justified to anyone who is not the moral agent in question?
2) Are moral agents required to justify their moral claims to anyone who is not themselves?

Now, these may not seem that interesting or even that related to the morality debates, but they become very important when we look at moral disagreement. What happens when you say that taking action X is morally right, and someone else says that, no, taking action Y is what’s morally right, and in fact if you took action X you’d be acting immorally? It is at this point that justification becomes extremely important.

Note that if the answer to the first question is “No”, then the answer to the second question is also “No”, by the moral principle of “Ought implies can”. If moral claims cannot, by definition, be justified to anyone but the specific relevant moral agent, then we can’t require moral agents to justify them to other moral agents. But it is possible for the answer to the first question to be “Yes” and the answer to the second question to be “No”; someone might be able to justify their moral claims, but by definition morality does not require them to, and their determination is still morally correct even if they decline to.

It seems to me that the first question relates to questions around subjectivity: if moral claims can only be justified to the specific subject, then they can’t be justified — and thus can’t be required to be justified — to anyone else. The second question relates more to questions around relativism: is a moral agent inside the relevant grouping required to justify their moral claims to those outside of that group? There are consequences to each position, and I’ll examine them more in the next posts, but this hopefully makes more clear what the main concern of objective morality is: how are moral claims to be justified, particularly in cases of moral disagreement? Thus, my comments on the rest of Carrier’s post will focus on justification, and the consequences of the justification schemes that Carrier allows for.

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2 Responses to “Discussion of Objective Morality: Introduction”

  1. Discussion of Objective Morality: Objective vs Subjective | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] morality, the first distinction Carrier takes on is objective vs subjective morality. Remember that in my introduction I said that subjectivity tends to be associated more with whether it is possible to justify […]

  2. Discussion of Objective Morality: Objective vs Relative | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] like “Slavery is morally wrong” not an objective fact, in the sense that, as I said in the introduction they would not be required to justify that to anyone outside that group, even if they actually […]

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