philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Electronic Philosopher

Feature Articles

University of London BA

Philosophy Lovers Gallery

PhiloSophos Home

International Society for Philosophers

Objects, objectivity and ethics


To: Matthew A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Objects, objectivity and ethics
Date: 14 July 2006 10:40

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your email of 30 June, with your second essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'How does the distinction between the question of objectivity and the evidence of objects apply in the field of ethics?'

You start your essay with an admirably clear exposition of the problem with a Platonic view of moral values as 'objects', citing Mackie's 'queerness' argument. You go on to suggest that an alternative to this view is an 'ideal spectator' approach. However, you say that there are problems with this too: 'The ideal spectator approach is only able to account for the objectivity of moral values without the existence of moral objects by emptying those moral values of human concerns.'

The idea we are pursuing is that moral values arise from the 'disinterested viewpoint'. The correct action, from a moral point of view, can be deduced through logic alone - e.g. the logic of universalizability - without any reference to desires or goals which have the special metaphysical label 'objectively moral'.

You then go on to argue that there is an alternative to this 'ideal spectator' theory, in embracing 'the scientific method as one that provides an account of the nature of a world that exists 'out there' independently of the peculiarity of the human perspective.'

Obviously, this is not even going to look like an 'alternative' if it turns out that moral values are on the 'subjectivist or irrealist side of the division'. However, there is a theory (which I have argued at length over with another of my moral philosophy students) which offers a thoroughly 'naturalized' account of moral values, in the context of evolutionary biology. I wonder whether you were considering this possibility.

According to the evolutionary theory (as I shall call it) all 'moral' values are explained as instrumental in promoting human survival. In other words, I act morally because in the long term to do so is in my best interests. The evolutionary theorist hopes in this way to reconstruct morality in a thoroughly 'scientific' spirit, as objective 'laws' of human behaviour. This is fully 'objective', and doesn't require 'moral objects'. The problem is that it loses sight of the question by reducing 'moral' motivation to pure self-interest.

Another possibility is suggested by the theory of moral values as 'secondary qualities'. The theory was actually put forward by my former graduate supervisor at Oxford, John McDowell.

My objection to this theory (as explained in unit 8) is that there is a crucial disanalogy between the cases of, e.g. colour perception and the case of 'value perception'. In the case of colour perception, we have a perfectly good idea of what it is to be a 'normal perceiver'. There are tests for 'colour blindness' which can be used to sort out those subjects whose natural constitution is such as to allow the full range of colour judgements, and those whose judgement is impaired. As a matter of fact (which could have been otherwise, had we evolved differently) there is one, and only one 'norm' for colour perception, which underlies differences in the colour vocabularies of different human languages. The existence of this norm is an empirical discovery. Because of this 'common nature', we are able to offer a definition of, e.g. 'red' along the lines of, 'An object is red if and only if it appears red to normal perceivers in normal circumstances.'

This formula won't work for moral perception, however. First, we have discounted the 'evolutionary' view of morals according to which there is one and only one 'natural' set of moral values, viz. those that promote human survival. Secondly, we want to allow for the possibility that the minority view, perhaps the one voice who dissents, can turn out to be correct (e.g. consider societies where slavery was considered the acceptable 'norm').

Your last suggestion is not clear to me. 'Another possibility, however, is that moral qualities are not secondary but primary qualities of the objects in the world.' We have already discounted the theory that moral qualities are 'objects', so what is the difference in calling them 'primary qualities'? How is this going to evade Mackie's argument from queerness? It is precisely because moral objects would have to have 'queer' qualities that Mackie rejects them. But maybe I'm missing something here.

All the best,