An argument against moral objectivism

 

1  To be objective is to rely on facts, rather than judgements, beliefs or opinions, which are subjective.

2  A factual assertion is a linguistic expression which (classically) may be true or false, because it makes a claim about a feature of reality that may or may not be the case.

3  The truth or falsehood of a factual assertion is independent of judgement, belief or opinion. (We call a true factual assertion a fact.)

4  A fact describes a feature of reality correctly, given the way we use the words or other signs involved. So there must be a feature of reality for it to describe.

5  There seems to be no evidence that moral rightness and wrongness are features of reality that may or may not be the case. The absence of evidence may not mean they do not exist, but it does mean that to believe they do exist is irrational.

6  In practice, we use words such as moral, immoral, right, wrong, good and bad to express judgements, beliefs or opinions about some features of reality.

7  If moral rightness and wrongness are not features of reality, moral assertions are not and cannot be factual.

8  If moral assertions are not factual, there can be no moral facts, and morality is not and cannot be objective.

 

Notes

This argument assumes we are part of a reality we can know about and describe correctly. And it assumes a standard use of the words truth, fact and objectivity.

But any use of language (of signs such as words) is conventional, contextual and purposive. And we can describe things in many different ways. So what we call truth and facts, and therefore objectivity, is always within a context, or from a perspective.

(To mistake abstract nouns, such as truth and objectivity, for things of some kind that we may not understand, or that may not exist, is an ancient metaphysical delusion.)

Our linguistic practices constitute everything we say about everything, including what we say about our linguistic practices. The things we talk about cannot tell us what our words mean. So there is no foundation, for what we say, beneath our linguistic practices. And in practice, we distinguish functionally between factual and non-factual assertions.

The task for moral objectivists and moral realists is to provide an example of what they think is a moral fact, and show why, in context, it describes a feature of reality correctly, independent of judgement, belief or opinion. And theirs is the burden of proof. But the following notes assume that morality is not objective.

 

A  To look for a moral feature of reality, such as the rightness or wrongness of capital punishment, is to misunderstand the function of a moral assertion. To mistake a moral assertion for a factual one is to make a category error.

B  How ever strongly or widely held, a moral judgement remains a judgement. For example, even if everyone believes capital punishment is morally wrong, it cannot be a fact that it is morally wrong.

C  Whatever facts we deploy to justify a moral judgement, it remains a judgement. And others can deploy the same facts differently, or different facts, to justify different moral judgements. That is our inescapable moral predicament.

E  That moral judgements are subjective explains why we can argue about them, and why they can change over time. If there were moral facts, their truth would be unarguable and unchanging.

F  That there are no moral facts does not mean we cannot make moral judgements. On the contrary, it means that we can. To be moral, we have no choice but to make moral judgements.

G  Moral values and judgements often matter deeply to us, and we tend to think of them as universal: not restricted to a time and place. (To think otherwise would be morally inconsistent.) And this may explain why we can think morality is objective – that there are moral facts. It is an understandable misunderstanding.

H  Some behaviour, such as the abuse of children, arouses moral outrage and disgust in many or most of us. But to cite what may be even universally regarded as a moral atrocity as an example of a moral fact is to make a fallacious appeal to emotion.

I  Talk of the distinction between moral ontology and moral epistemology assumes what has yet to be shown: that there are moral things which can therefore be known.

J  Talk of moral intuition and moral conscience also assumes what has yet to be shown. There seems to be no objective way to adjudicate between conflicting moral intuitions or deliverances of moral conscience, which points to their subjectivity.

K  There is a useful analogy between moral and aesthetic assertions. Like moral rightness and wrongness, ugliness and beauty are not independent properties or features of reality. To say a thing is ugly or beautiful is to express a judgement, belief or opinion, not to make a factual claim. It cannot be a fact that a thing is ugly or beautiful.

 

Peter Holmes

May 2019