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In what sense if any is ethics objective?


To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: In what sense if any is ethics objective?
Date: 11th April 2011 12:38

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 1 April with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics: Contemporary Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'In what sense, if any, is ethics objective?

I will try to avoid the temptation to launch into an essay on my own views on the question of objectivity in ethics, and concentrate on what you say about the question of objectivity under your four headings, physical objectivity, mathematical objectivity, disposition to affect normal observers, evaluation according to agreed standards.

You've missed something under the heading of physical objectivity. What about sociobiology and evolutionary ethics? According to this view, the objectivity of ethics derives from the theory of evolution by natural selection. Of course, it is contentious to claim this, even if accepts the orthodox Darwinist view (as I do). I would accuse evolutionary ethicists of committing the naturalistic fallacy. As it happens, one of my BA students Stuart Burns is a strong proponent of evolutionary ethics, as you will gather from a number of his answers on Ask a Philosopher.

Also, under this head, what about metaphysical objectivity, a la Plato's forms? You do allude to this in your brief discussion of Mackie's argument from queerness, but I would have thought that the idea of objectivity as founded in an 'object' that exists independently of us covers both the physical and metaphysical kinds of existence.

The mathematician Georg Kreisel once remarked, 'The problem is not the existence of mathematical objects, but the objectivity of mathematical statements.' Michael Dummett quotes this in his paper on the 'Philosophical basis of Intuitionist Logic', reprinted in 'Truth and Other Enigmas'. (In fact, I suspect that it's his favourite quote.) Plato didn't think that the answer to the questions raised, e.g. by Thrasymachus in the Republic was that 'a Form of Justice objectively exists'. He sets about elaborating a proof, which proceeds via a conceptual analysis of the nature of the soul. In effect, that is Plato's answer to Mackie.

Which brings us nicely to your second heading, 'mathematical objectivity', that is to say, a priori demonstration. Kant is a famous historical example. An example of a contemporary philosopher attempting a similar thing would be Thomas Nagel in his book 'The Possibility of Altruism' where he argues that belief in the existence of other minds is the logical 'interpretation' of altruism (qua objective moral motivation) in the same way that belief in my personal identity is the logical interpretation of prudence. How plausible is this strategy? My doubts about this arise (at least with respect to my own attempts to 'prove' objectivity) from the gap between establishing objectivity as a principle, and deriving substantial moral precepts. If the general a priori argument can't do this, then we are entitled to question the interest of the project.

As to the precepts that you list, this isn't going to cut any ice with a sceptic. We were talking about a priori 'proof'. Why is it wrong to torture people for fun? Because that's what 'we' believe. That's not a proof but just a statement about what we believe. You can use it as an axiom, on the assumption that the aim of ethics is to ensure maximal consistency amongst our beliefs. Then there might plausibly be considerations which are in some sense a priori. For example, if it is wrong for Peter to do X then if it is wrong for Paul to do X if there is no significant difference between Peter and Paul. But the axioms remain 'unproved'.

Your precept, 'if it is wrong for one person to suffer X, it is wrong for two to suffer X' doesn't look like a good example of a consistency constraint. Imagine you and I are the only two people in the universe and I feel the pain of man's solitude while you do not. That's something bad (I won't say 'wrong'), which wouldn't be so bad, or maybe not bad at all if we both felt it and could talk about it. (Sorry, there must be better examples than this. Perhaps along the lines of 'A trouble shared...'.)

Dispositional objectivity recalls McDowell's important paper, criticizing Foot's views of morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives. My worry here is that too much weight is placed on the notion of being a 'normal' perceiver. In the case of secondary qualities, we have a scientific theory which explains what it is to be normal, and the conditions under which a perceiver departs from normality. But in the case of ethics, it all boils down to what you've been conditioned to believe. If I succeed in breaking free from my social conditioning, Aleister Crowley style, then arguably I still have the knowledge of what the rest of humanity understand by 'cruel' but I no longer feel any temptation to criticize an action on account of its cruelty.

Evaluative objectivity looks like the easiest standard to meet, but even here there are worrying aspects of subjectivity. Take diving competitions. Everyone is agreed about the rules on the basis of which dives are awarded marks by judges. That doesn't prevent bitter disputes breaking out, especially when there is a suspicion of chauvinistic bias.

All the best,