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Subjectivist vs. objectivist accounts of moral judgement


To: William R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Subjectivist vs. objectivist accounts of moral judgement
Date: 4 August 2004 09:21

Dear Bill,

Thank you for your email of 25 July, with the first of your five essays 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 a perceptive essay with which I find myself largely in agreement.

The question was looking for something different, so I have to admit my initial reaction was that you had misunderstood the distinction between 'subjective' and 'objective. But more of that in a minute.

According to you, what matters for moral judgement - as indeed for representation painting - is refined perception. This could be described as 'taking in the moral reality' in any give situation where we are faced with a moral choice. There are many substitutes that lure us away from training and honing our moral perceptions. On one side, there is the easy-going relativism which Sartre would describe as 'bad faith' : 'This is how I was brought up and socially conditioned and that is why I judge things to be so.' On the other side, there is the blinkered reliance on moral principles viewed as a priori laws, written in stone.

Iris Murdoch in her brilliant short book 'Sovereignty of Good' mounts a critique of the existentialist view of ethics, whose only rule is 'be consistent'. Murdoch argues for the necessity of a more realist, 'Platonist' vision of values towards which we aspire, values which are viewed as being in some sense 'outside' us rather than merely invented. This does not require embracing Plato's metaphysics. Murdoch's aim is rather to correct false theories about the phenomenology of moral judgement.

Some would see this as a defence of an objective view of ethics. I think that Murdoch would regard the question which provides the topic for this essay as misleading. The point, she would argue, is to understand the nitty-gritty reality of moral judgement. As you argue, both 'subjectivists' and 'objectivists' get this wrong.

However, I do still think there is something at stake when we raise the question of objectivity. When we act out of a sense of moral conviction, it matters to us where this conviction ultimately derives from. This is a question of truth and justification, not merely of giving an phenomenologically accurate description of the process of moral judgement.

I am in agreement with Kant that the ultimate justification for taking the moral, as opposed to the amoral point of view is a priori, and requires a metaphysical theory. I disagree with Kant's view that this entails absolute moral principles like, 'Never tell a lie, in any circumstances whatsoever.' (Incidentally, according to Kant moral judgements are always categorical imperatives and never hypothetical imperatives. 'Don't do that or God will punish you', 'Do this if you want people to approve of you', are hypothetical imperatives. The general form of a hypothetical imperative is, 'If you want X then do Y'.)

As I mentioned last time, Mackie regards the widely acknowledged variation in moral views in different cultures and societies - 'moral relativity' - as an argument against the idea that there exists an a priori justification, an objective ground for morals. I would argue that it is possible to hold that there is a core a priori principle, corresponding to Kant's 'Always treat the other person as an end, never as a mere means', which can be realized in more than one way of perceiving moral reality. It is a fact that perceptions differ at different times and places. This does not mean that there is no such thing as 'moral perception', or that it is all just a chimera of our own imagination.

Later in the program, we will be considering a view which I term the 'ethics of dialogue'. (For a preview see my essays, 'The Ethics of Dialogue' and 'Ethical Dialogue and the Limits of Tolerance' on the Wood Paths web site .) In order to establish this view it is necessary to do some metaphysics. I make no apology for this. It is not enough to set out, as I believe Murdoch does in 'Sovereignty of Good' merely to give a phenomenologically accurate description of moral judgement. (These issues are reconsidered in Murdoch's later, much longer book 'Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals'.)

Why be moral? To me that is the crucial question. Why be moral, in the face of the 'offer one cannot refuse'? There are no moral 'facts', no Platonic 'forms', even if, as Murdoch observes, things must appear to us 'as if' there are such things. What there is, is an a priori argument that we must always, without exception, be prepared to take the other person into account. Once that single principle is established, the rest follows.

All the best,