Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Objectivism and Mackie's Argument from Relativity

**This is from guest blogger Aaron F.**

In his article, "The Subjectivity of Values," J. L. Mackie argues for the claim that “there are no objective values” (Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 2007, 25), and in particular, that there are no objective moral values. While there may be objectively observable differences between actions that are generally characterized as morally good or bad, there is nothing that makes them objectively actually good or bad. He presents two main arguments for this claim, and I will briefly address the first, which he calls the argument from relativity.

The argument from relativity observes that there is substantial disagreement in the particulars of moral codes across space and time. Furthermore, instead of the culture of a particular people being formed to its moral code, it more frequently seems to be the case that the moral code is formed to the culture. The best explanation for this is supposed to be that moral codes depend on culture, not that differences in moral codes arise from a highly fallible ability to discern moral truths (30-31). This claim is further supplemented by the observation that human societies benefit from their members accepting moral codes as objective since this will often facilitate peace and stability (34). 

The moral objectivist might reply by arguing that it is only very general, basic principles that are objective.  Mackie, however, thinks this strategy fails because it does not render particular actions wrong in themselves. Rather, their wrongness derives from their relation to basic principles, and so we must discover the wrongness of particular actions by discerning this relation. Thus, the objectivist seems forced to claim that moral judgments proceed by reason from basic principles, which are discovered by some faculty of moral intuition. But actual judgments do not seem to be derivations from first principles. Rather, Mackie claims, they appear to immediately present particular actions as wrong or right—intuitions intervene at the level of particular judgments about discrete actions, condemning them directly, not derivatively (31).

I will now present a brief defense of the sort of objectivist view Mackie is attacking, namely, one on which there are basic moral principles that are objectively true and that are discerned by a faculty of moral intuition. My first task will be to give an account of Mackie’s observations, and then to briefly state a shortcoming of the argument from relativity. Let us begin by assuming that we have a faculty of moral intuition. Then we can explain the observation that moral codes fit cultures, rather than the other way around, in two ways. The first explanation, presented by Mackie as a standard objectivist claim, is that different particular moral codes could develop from the same basic principles given different cultural circumstances.

The second is that existing cultural standards could interfere with our ability to discern basic principles. For instance, suppose something like the Golden Rule is a basic principle. Then if a culture has developed the norm that everyone ought to favor his or her own interests above those of others, it is plausible to think that members of this society will have a more difficult time perceiving and accepting the Golden Rule than they would without the norm. Second, we may be able to say that our faculty of moral intuition is, in a sense, hyperactive, intervening to present judgments about particular actions directly even though it is meant to present judgments about basic moral principles. This might be thought of as akin to guessing at the answer to difficult sums when the correct result would be much more reliably found by using reason to work from basic principles that are immediately graspable through intuition.  Furthermore, if one engages in a good piece of moral reasoning the conclusion will be a sound moral judgment. Then, through familiarity, one may come to correctly judge particular actions as wrong or right without rehearsing the derivation.

Thus, it appears that the objectivist account can accommodate Mackie’s observations. However, he could still say that his explanation is superior in that it is more parsimonious. So I should make an attempt to show that his theory provides a worse explanation of the phenomena we observe than the objectivist's account. According to Mackie, the argument from relativity is supported by the observation that a given society has a vested interested in its members accepting a code of morality as objective. But this suggests that most members of most societies are under some kind massive self-deception, formulating and accepting contrived principles as though they were natural principles. Is it really more plausible to think that one can fabricate a set of moral principles, taking them to be objectively true, when they are really nothing but social constructs motivated, at least in part, by nothing more than their usefulness? If moral principles really were nothing but useful conventions, one would expect them to be viewed and accepted as just that, not as objective, universally binding rules. Thus, given that an objectivist account can accommodate all of Mackie’s observations, Mackie’s argument from relativity appears deficient in that the resulting picture does not adequately predict what we observe.

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