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Subjectivist vs objectivist accounts of moral judgement


To: Heather E.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Subjectivist vs objectivist accounts of moral judgement
Date: 16 April 2001 08:10

Dear Heather,

Thank you for your e-mail of 4 April, with your essay for the Moral Philosophy program in response to the question, 'How would you attempt to convince someone who had not studied philosophy that there is something important at stake in the dispute between the subjectivist and objectivist accounts of moral judgement?'

This is not a bad piece of work. It's main virtue is that you have expressed what you see as the main issues simply and in bold outlines. Someone who had not studied philosophy before would, I think, be concerned by the questions that you raise.

In your opening paragraph, you state what seems to be a very clear alternative: "Can we be sure we are not making rules that serve just our own purposes, rather than the good of all, the world and its future?" As this is in the context of the possibility of "different societies" having their own codes of ethics, it is clear that the 'we' here is not intended simply as a generalization of 'I'. (As in, 'Can I be sure I am not making rules that serve just my own purposes? Can you be sure you are not making rules that serve just your own purposes?...'.)

On further reflection, which is confirmed by some things you say later, it appears that the worry, 'Can we be sure we are not...' is a concern about our hidden, psychological motivations. The worry is that we may convince ourselves that our rules serve the greater good, when in reality we are merely serving our own interests. This worry arises both on the level of 'us' or on the level of 'I'.

However, even if we were convinced that there was an objective code of morality, even if we had it written down on tablets of stone, this would still be a worry. In a particular case where I make what seems to be a moral judgement of another person's actions, or where I convince myself that an action of mine is made from morally impeccable motives, there is always the possibility of doubt. However perfect our system moral rules, human beings themselves are imperfect, subject to self-deception.

So is the question rather this: that in the absence of a universal, objective set of rules, there is nothing that makes one system of rules better than another, other than the fact that we like it? The difficulty here is that moral rules do not appear to us as something we chose to abide by because we like them. We choose them because they appear to us to be right, because they seem to give true expression to the rules that we perceive to be biding on human conduct. Here the subjectivist has to admit that there is an of illusion operating here, albeit a necessary illusion. In reality, according to the subjectivist, the only foundation for our system of rules is agreement between our likes and dislikes. Only this is not something that can be visible to us when we make moral judgements, for then the whole process would be seen to be a sham. (J.L. Mackie in 'Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong' calls his subjectivist view an 'error theory' of ethics.)

The subjectivist and the anti-subjectivist (we have yet to look at just what objectivism entails) are equally prone to doubts about their subjective motivations. The issue between them concerns the ultimate basis for the moral judgements that they make, in those circumstances when the operating motive indeed a moral one, rather than a secret motive of self-interest.

What about the philosophical view that moral rules ultimately serve self-interest? Here, the point you make about the possibility of 'voting out' one of the members certainly seems to be a genuine concern. A philosopher who held either that a society evolves an ideology of moral rules that serves its self-interest, or held that we as individuals subscribe to moral rules ultimately because of our self-interest, would argue that a system of rules where people could be 'voted out' could never succeed. It would not do the work that moral rules are required to do, so it would not be in the self-interest of society to adopt them, or in the self-interest of members of that society to subscribe to them.

Reading between the lines, however, the real worry seems to be that, as soon as we become aware of the fragile basis for moral rules on the subjectivist view, the motivation to observe those rules when they conflict with our self-interest - to 'believe' in them - dissipates. This is the point I make early on in the program about the fact that in day-to-day life morality does not make excessive demands on us. It is only in extreme circumstances that the issue, 'why be moral?' comes to the fore.

Yet what hope is there for an objectivist account when the goal is set so high - a universally acknowledged system of rules that serve 'the good of all, the world and its future'? Here, I am looking for room to manoeuvre. There may be a single framework that can be described in abstract terms - respect for the other, every person is an end in themself and not merely a means, and so on - which is capable of being 'clothed' in different systems of moral rules. My own obligations towards others, as a member of a particular society with its particular rules, by be further restricted by my own personal circumstances.

If that is true, however, then the psychological worry which you express at the beginning of your essay returns with renewed force. We shall have to deal with that somehow.

All the best,