Discussion of Objective Morality: Objective vs Subjective

So, in his post on objective 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 one’s moral conclusions to someone else. Carrier starts, however, by talking about subjective experiences themselves, and trying to argue that even the most subjective of them — colour experiences — are really objective because they reduce to physical brain states and/or properties of physical systems. Thus, he argues:

There is at least one objective fact about colors, which is that wherever a certain physical system exists, the experience of colors will exist, as an inalienable property of that system. And even if that weren’t the case, even if physicalism or epiphenomenalism are false, it would still be the case that “colors exist” is an objectively true fact of the world—because our experience of them is a part of the world; therefore, this world does contain color experience, whatever it consists of. Whether we know that or believe it or not, it remains true. So even something as radically subjective as the existence of the color red is still an objective fact. So what exactly do we mean when we want to know if morals are objective facts? Are they like colors? Or are they like photons? Or are they like something else? Is there any way they could be, and not be an objective fact of the world?

The problem is that no one arguing that morality is or ought to be an objective fact rather than a subjective fact are denying that there is a fact of the matter about whether or not a particular subject is having particular experiences. That’s not what’s at stake here. But just because someone is having an internal experience doesn’t mean that that fact can be used to justify the conclusion one makes from those experiences. After all, just because you see a pink elephant doesn’t mean that you’re justified in concluding that there really is a pink elephant there, and that anyone else who is not having that specific experience ought to accept that there really is a pink elephant there just because you are having that experience. Thus, cycling back to justification, the personal experiences of one person cannot be used to justify the truth of a proposition to someone who is not having those experiences, no matter how certain someone is that the other person really is having those experiences. Now, of course, there are exceptions for testimony, where someone says that they are having a certain experience and it is presumed that the other person would, in fact, have that experience as well if they were in the same circumstances, but the worry over subjectivity is that the other person wouldn’t necessarily have the same experience in the exact same circumstances, and if that is accepted as possible and perhaps even likely then the testimony of those experiences can’t be used to justify anything more than the simple “I had this experience” proposition.

We want more than that to conclude that a proposition like “X is morally right” is true.

Carrier later talks about moralities being based on subjective feelings and experiences:

Likewise, pain and suffering are entirely subjective feelings. They are just like our opinions about music. What causes you pain may be different from what causes someone else pain. They might have PTSD, or a body in a different condition, or a different past history that makes some things more painful than others, or just genetically have a different pain tolerance than you. Yet that anyone’s pain and suffering are 100% subjective, all “just a feeling,” and different from person to person, there is still an objectively true fact that something is causing them pain. Even full-on divine-command-style Christians must agree: that pain is purely and only a “feeling” does not make it irrelevant to a third party’s moral judgment. To the contrary, moral judgment is always 100% dependent on whether that’s true, whether something you do will cause any pain or suffering.

But, again, that’s not what the debate is about. Utilitarianism is based on those sorts of hedonistic considerations, and yet it’s definitely considered a contender for being an objective morality. This is because it has a clear, set, universal criteria for what is or isn’t moral, even though that criteria is subjective. The objection that these sorts of subjective criteria usually get in formal philosophical circles is not that it makes morality subjective in an interesting way, but that as pain and pleasure are internal subjective feelings we don’t have access to them in order to make our determinations. I don’t have direct access to your internal subjective feelings, so only you know what they are. But I need to be able to know them in order to conclude what the action with the most hedonistic utility actually is … and I need to know them for everyone who might be involved. That would make Utilitarian views too difficult to implement. And Carrier’s move to specific brain states doesn’t help because it’s still too difficult if not impossible to bring everyone in and read their brain states to figure out what they are really feeling.

But note that Utilitarianism has this issue for, well, pretty much everything. You have to calculate future utility as well, and it’s impossible to predict the future with certainty. You also have to calculate it for anyone that might be involved, which is a daunting task to say the least. Fortunately, Utilitarianism can survive this sort of challenge by appealing to “as much as reasonable”; as Carrier himself notes later, all we can do is the best we can, and more importantly that’s all that we are required to do. The best that we can given our resources is not some kind of inferior situation that we just muddle through with, but is in fact what morality requires we do.

But, at any rate, the issue is not that it relies on subjective feelings and therefore it is entirely subjective. No one claims that appealing to the pain or emotions of someone in order to determine what is morally right makes that moral view necessarily subjective. Moreover — and this will come up again when we talk about relativism — simply because what is morally right might vary as per conditions or circumstances doesn’t do that either, or else, again, Utilitarianism isn’t an objective morality. Moreover, pretty much all objective moralities allow for differences depending on circumstances. So the fight isn’t over that.

Carrier, oddly, does indeed get what the fight is over, but then uses lots of other concepts to bury that so that he can come to his conclusion that the distinction of objective vs subjective isn’t useful:

Typically the objective/subjective distinction is made between “opinions/feelings/emotions” (subjective facts) and “that which can be independently observed or measured” or “that which exists regardless of what we think or feel” (objective facts). …

The distinction people want to make, then, is between our having an opinion, and that opinion being true. When opinions make assertions of fact (“in my opinion, no one will buy this product”), they can be false. Then they are really just less-informed beliefs about the world, rather than pure opinions. They differ from what people want to call “objective facts” only in how well informed the conclusion is from what we can all observe or measure. But what about opinions that can’t be false? For example, “in my opinion, this music sucks” could be making a claim to objective fact (it could be making an assertion that the music fails to satisfy some mutually accepted standard), but often it’s simply stating how the subject feels. That the music at that moment sucks to them is an undeniably true fact of how they feel about the music. And that it sucks, in that case, cannot even be false (for them). It is in that case like the color red.

And yet there is still an objectively true fact of the world here: their feeling that way about the music will manifest in a physical arrangement and state of their brain that can in principle be observed by a suitably informed third party, without ever having to ask them what they thought of the music.

Yes, but clearly that objectively true fact is irrelevant to whether or not the statement is, in fact, true. As Carrier himself notes, the option “This music sucks” can’t be false. Well, of course, he’s wrong about that; someone has direct access to their own experiences, but that doesn’t mean that the statement “This music sucks to me at the moment” can’t be false. Of course it can be false if they are, in fact, actually enjoying that music at that point in time. What he means here is that as long as they are actually having that experience, then there is no way to prove that statement false, no matter what objective evidence one brings to bear. No one can argue in any credible way that that person really ought to like that music based on things like the objective qualities of the notes or even their past history with similar music. They don’t like it, and that’s all that can be said about that.

So if we accept that a subjective morality claim puts the claim in areas like, say, appreciation of music, then we can ask if it seems reasonable to say that “Slavery is wrong” is in the same category of opinions. Let’s presume that someone says that slavery is not morally wrong based on some sort of internal feeling; they just feel that it is. With music, in general if they justify “For me, this music sucks” with “I’m not enjoying it”, there’s nothing more to be said. Would we consider this to be the case for “slavery is not morally wrong”? Moreover, opinions about things like music can easily justify taking actions, like going to see that band, buying their CDs, dictating to others what music can be allowed at a party, and so on. But we cannot challenge their view that they love that band (and so should go to their concert) or hate that band (and so won’t have them at their party). Sure, we might be able to use other arguments to try to sway them — they can’t afford the tickets, others really like that band and so the party will be more of a success — but none of those are arguments that go towards their musical views. By the same token, if morality is subjective then if someone chooses to buy a slave because it is at least not morally wrong to do so we would be unable to argue that they are wrong and that slavery is really immoral. Instead, again, we could appeal to non-moral arguments, like the law or the expense or whatever. But all of these would be considering that their moral judgement was, at least, not open to judgement. We would stop arguing on the basis of morality and start arguing on the basis of practicality or something else. At that point, what’s morality doing?

Now, the same concerns will come up in relativism, so I’ll address some other specific objections there. But the real worry about subjective morality is precisely the idea that moral claims will turn out like musical claims: true if that person feels that way, and false if they don’t, which means that we cannot claim that they are wrong about their moral assessments. But if they can’t be wrong about their moral assessments, then moral criticism is mostly meaningless, either idle chatter or acting like morality is objective when it really isn’t just as it is now for musical assessments. Ironically, Carrier identifies the problem only to equivocate on “objective” to try to avoid it.



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