Bright Colors, Dark Times

The next essay in “Supervillains and Philosophy” is “Bright Colors, Dark Times” by Christopher Robichaud. This essay attempts to contrast the Silver Age black and white morality with the Iron Age’s more grey morality to essentially contrast objectivist morality with moral nihilism (also called error theory) and moral relativism (also called subjectivism). It’s pretty clear that Robichaud supports objective morality, and so he ends up giving moral nihilism and moral relativism rather short shrift, minimizing the legitimate objections to moral objectivism and somewhat muting their defenses.

That’s actually not what’s that interesting to me. What’s interesting to me is how it fits into an on-going discussion that I’ve been having with Coel in the comments section of his blog over the same issues. Coel at times adopts aspects of both moral nihilism and moral relativism, but after reading this essay I’m convinced that he’s a moral nihilist. But on top of that he actually has a better defense of moral disagreement than Robichaud allows and also has a better objection to moral objectivism than Robichaud gives.

Let’s start with the objections to moral objectivism. The main problem Robichaud raises is the idea that moral objectivism can lead someone to intolerance and arrogance, with the belief that their moral system is the correct one. From a philosophical standpoint, this is actually not any kind of objection to moral objectivism. If the moral system is correct, then they should act accordingly, which means that they are to ensure that they don’t act excessively arrogant or intolerant. The moral system itself would moderate this. So this isn’t a real objection at all. The main objection from a strictly logical standpoint is one that Coel raises consistently: it doesn’t seem like there’s any method we can have for determining these sorts of moral facts. If they are to be facts just like any other, then we should be able to use the same methods that we use for celestial facts to discover them as well. But this doesn’t seem to work. So either they’re very strange facts indeed, or they aren’t those sorts of facts or, perhaps, are any sort of facts at all.

Coel also adopts what Robichaud argues is an objection from Mackie, which is about moral motivationalism. I believe that the above argument is closer to Mackie’s main objection, but Robichaud cites the argument that it seems that for all other facts we think that we can hold the belief but not have that incur any motivation for us to act on that belief, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for moral facts. As part of the discussion with Coel, I noted my skepticism for this doctrine and argued it on the basis that it’s certainly conceptually possible for someone to be amoral. There are two ways for someone to be amoral. The first is that they cannot act morally because they are incapable of understanding what it means for an action to be moral or immoral (my essay on psychopaths argues that they are amoral in that precise way, due to them not grasping the moral/conventional distinction). The other way is for them to be able to understand what is moral or immoral, but be incapable of caring about whether an action they take is moral or immoral (some sorts of sociopaths would be this sort, knowing about morality but not caring about it). But the latter case is precisely the sort of case Robichaud says Mackie cannot conceive of: someone (or a world) who understands right and wrong but is not motivated to act in any particular way on the distinction. However, this case follows from the very concept of morality itself, and so if we can have any kind of morality at all, we can have amoral people of that sort. So the motivationalist argument fails: we can easily conceive of someone who is capable of understanding moral facts but incapable of being motivated by them.

Robichaud also comments that moral nihilism and moral relativism have issues making sense of moral disagreement. However, Coel has given at least a partial defense of that. Robichaud comments that it looks like people are disagreeing when they say things like “X is immoral/No, it’s not!” but both views make it difficult to see what they could be disagreeing about. Coel makes a response that they are stating a feeling — making him a nihilist expressivist to Robichaud — but that the disagreement comes from the consequences of that feeling: whether or not they want to see a world where that thing exists. We can see the shift in argument by looking at this example. Imagine there are two people planning a party, and they’re trying to decide on what dessert to serve. The first person exclaims “I love chocolate cake!” while the second person replies “I hate chocolate cake”.

Taken as an expression of aesthetic preference — which is Coel’s big analogy/example — there’s no meaningful disagreement here. The first person really likes chocolate cake and the second person doesn’t, and they aren’t trying to convince the other that their personal experience is wrong. And yet, they definitely seem to be disagreeing about something. We can extend the conversation to see this. The first person could reply “This is a birthday party for X, and they’d love a chocolate cake!”, with the second person then being able to say “Well, then we can get a chocolate birthday cake, and also a cheesecake for people who don’t like chocolate cake.” It looks like there was a disagreement here, and one that was settled by a compromise. But they weren’t arguing over what the right aesthetic judgements were. So what were they disagreeing about?

Given the context, they were clearly disagreeing over what would be the right or best dessert to serve at the party. They were using the aesthetic judgements/experiences as brute facts to argue for why their option was the best one. It started from their own personal preferences and then expanded to include others. So we can make sense of those sorts of disagreements by appealing to an implied meaning which is what they’re really appealing to.

But this still has a problem, because it’s clear at this point that they aren’t disagreeing over aesthetics anymore. So if we extend this to morality, we can see that we can make sense of disagreement, but not sense of moral disagreement, because when properly analyzed it’s not in the realm of morality at all. This is bad for the relativist view, as moral judgements can only be used in disagreements as brute facts which is not how we tend to use them. It, however, is even worse for moral nihilism, as it can’t even use them as brute facts but there are no moral facts. So both views still have a problem with moral disagreement: not the disagreement part, but with the fact that the only way to make a sensible disagreement out of those statements is to make them no longer about morality at all.

At any rate, all of the views have some serious issues to deal with. Like most major philosophical problems, for the most part which view you favour will come down to which set of issues bother you more.


6 Responses to “Bright Colors, Dark Times”

  1. Tom Says:

    ‘The main problem Robichaud raises is the idea that moral objectivism can lead someone to intolerance and arrogance, with the belief that their moral system is the correct one.’

    I don’t see how this is supposed to be a problem for moral objectivism per se. If it’s a problem, it’s a problem for ANY system that purports to be objectively true, such as in metaphysics.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      It’s the idea of someone imposing their morals on others by force because they’re clearly the right ones, even if the other people don’t agree. That tends to not be seen as a good approach.

  2. Tom Says:

    ‘That tends to not be seen as a good approach’

    Good in what sense though? It can’t mean ‘good’ in the sense of moral normativity. It kind of sounds like that’s what’s being smuggled in here: ‘You should not force me to abide by your moral system!’ And if the opponent says ‘why not?’ it’s going to be very tempting not to resort to some sort of rights talk: ‘I have the right not to be coerced without my rational assent, or unless EVERYONE agrees on this moral system.’ Is there some response they have to this, because I can’t be the only one that’s brought it up..

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, that was basically my response: if they knew what the right moral system was and acted on it, then they’d only act that way when it was the morally right thing to do. We shouldn’t have any more issue with this than we would with people reasonably enforcing the law. As I said, Robichaud focuses on it but it’s a pretty weak objection to moral objectivism.

    • Andrew Says:

      Also, there’s an implicit assumption that coercion to a moral system is bad. But even that is a moral position and therefore up for discussion.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        Yeah, that’s why I said that it was a really weak argument that he presented as a strong one: if the person really does have the proper morality and acts on it, it’s not reasonable to criticize them for acting morally because some people don’t like the properly moral coercion they’re using.

        I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard that argument used in a philosophical context, which kinda says something.

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