Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Objectivism and Mackie's Argument From Relativity II

**This is from guest blogger Chelsea R.** 
In his piece “The Subjectivity of Values” J. L. Mackie firmly states, “There are no objective values.”  Mackie believes there are no absolute, objective, universal moral truths and he argues in favor of moral skepticism, which is the view that we cannot have knowledge about morality.  
It seems to me that Mackie's view and emotivism are fairly similar.  However, his view is different because he does not say that moral judgments are meaningless. Rather, he says that they are a failed attempt at describing reality. Mackie considers moral judgments to be truth apt (unlike emotivism), but thinks that all moral judgments are false.  His view is called error theory because he thought that we are always in error whenever we make a moral judgment.      
Mackie first attacks objective morality in his piece in the section entitled “The Argument from Relativity.”  He first brings up differences in morals based upon culture. He says that morals are best understood on a relative level. Rather than one culture being correct and the others misinterpreting the moral principal, each culture receives their morals from their different ways of life. “Disagreement about moral codes seems to reflect people’s adherence to and participation in different ways of life.” (Ethical Theory, 2013, 27)  One culture is not more moral than another, and one culture is not considered right over another. This almost mimics moral relativism, where what is morally good/bad is determined by what a person or culture deems good/bad.  However, Mackie goes on to say that such moral disagreement violates his criterion for objective values. By pointing out vast moral discrepancies between cultures, Mackie tries to render the idea that a pre-set, universal, moral code is a farfetched idea. When one culture believes doing ‘x’ is right solely because the action is right, while another culture is neutral to ‘x’, moral principle ‘x’ is not capable of sparking action in every person solely on its intrinsic rightfulness. This logic is meant to make an objective value seem impossible.
I find Mackie’s arguments regarding cultural moral subjectivity to be rather unconvincing. For a Moral Objectivist, this entire argument can be ended swiftly. It can be the case that some cultures have adopted a moral code that clearly violates most ideas of morality. A moral objectivist would simply say that this culture is wrong and the moral principles that they’re violating are part of a pre-set universal truth. This claim from an objectivist would circumvent Mackie’s argument.
There some cultures that have normalized heinous acts like forced female genital mutilation, intense animal cruelty, and things of that nature. Mackie’s definition of an objective value is that the value must be the cause of an action solely for the intrinsic rightness of the action. Even if some people do not find these types of actions wrong, there are people do find them wrong and that will take action solely because it is right. His all-or-nothing approach in his definition of what an objective value is completely illegitimate because there is not one conceivable moral truth that will get a 100% pass rate. A non-moral example is the question, “Is there life on other planets?” This question is a proposition with truth-aptness; it has a clear yes or no answer. Just because people might disagree over the answer does not make the question false. Disagreements do not mean that there in an inherent lack of truth.


Michael Dean Hebert said...

I too find the argument unconvincing. I think he is confusing and conflating the need to explain how moral truths can be discovered and what causes moral intuitions. I think that Mackie is absolutely correct in saying that people tend to create moral codes out of their way of life rather than thinking about moral codes and attempting to live by them. This seems to be a psychological fact about humans, one which the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker argues for. Pinker claims humans are moral creatures ("moral" being used in a different sense here than we're used to in class, blame him not being a philosopher). As opposed to other animals, humans tend to rationalize their own actions and see themselves as the good guys. The tendency is to see ones own actions as justified (to be fair this isn't universal). This psychological truth, combined with the varieties of culture in the world have led to very different moral codes and moral intuitions, and can even explain what happens when people break from the traditional moral code of their culture to form their own intuitions.

So far I sound like Mackie, I know, but again I think this truth about the origin of moral intuitions is separable from the question of how we might actually come to know moral truths, if they do exist. Indded, I think they do. I believe that we can come to know moral truths through reason (I'll spare the details of my beliefs on the process here). So, to the argument from relativity, I counter-argue that explaining the origin and diversity of moral intuitions is no refutation of the existence of objective moral truths if the explanation does not involve claiming that diverse moral intuitions derive from different cultures having different levels of epistemic access to moral truths.

It is an objective truth that the Earth revolves around the sun, yet every person on the planet once had the intuition that the Sun revolved around the Earth. An application of evidence and reason has lead us to the truth of the matter after some debate. If the objective truth didn't cause any correct intuitions in this case, why would it have to be the case with moral objective truths? With the proper metaethical grounding and applied reason we can escape the supposed problem of conflicting moral intuitions and find objective moral truths.

Erik V said...

I agree with pretty much everything said in this post, especially the last paragraph. I've never understood why disagreement about a moral claim means that moral statements are not objective. If one enters into a moral debate, whether you're a relativist, objectivist, nihilist, emotivist, Baptist, etc., you try to show that you're right. One doesn't just go "Oh, I never thought of that. Thank you, I'll go now". They try to assert their position because they believe they are right for some reason. So why is it 'disagreement' always pops up as a way to shut down objectivity? Objectivist will always say "Nope, you're wrong, even if we disagree on this, this and this, because morality is objective and truth-apt and you are wrong". Relativists might say something like "No, if morality was objective, we would all know it and agree upon it" (right?). Can't something be known by one person, but not the other? Let me (feebly) try to make an example. What do you know about carbon? "It's an element and its represented by 'C' on the periodic table". Did you know its molecular weight is 12.00 g/mol, its most common isotope is carbon-14, whose half-life is 5700 years, etc. "No, I don't agree with that" Oh, okay I guess that's it, all we can agree upon about carbon is that its 'C' on the periodic table... No! I'm right. You're wrong. Take a science class. The position I'm arguing from is clearly an objective one (sorry I used an objective exampe too), and I know it makes this comment one sided, but the point I'm trying to make is why does disagreement nullify objectivity? Isn't it possible that one could know morality better than another, assert their claim, make a compelling claim, and convince the other (think of a parent teaching a child about sharing, or a Packers fan teaching a Bears fan what its like to be loved by someone). Well, I tried. Let's see where this goes.

Eric Bumbaca said...

I agree with the statement provided by Erik V. wholeheartedly, and I would like to present my issue with error theory.

My complaints regarding error theory are based largely on the shallowness of the conclusion. I do not find the conclusion to be rationally persuasive enough for me to accept that all moral claims are false. The reason we as a society ask moral questions is to obtain answers that will justify our ideas, laws and moral judgments. We do not ask moral questions in order to be told that moral sentiments are not meaningful (emotivism), that all moral claims are inherently false (error theory), and that there does not exist any moral knowledge (moral skepticism). We ask complex moral questions in order to achieve some level of greater understanding, no matter how complex the answer may be.

The validity of the argument supporting error theory is hard to question, but I also believe that both relativists and objectivists may observe this argument as not being rationally persuasive. I understand the tactics taken by the Ayer and Mackie in order to present their theory as the most correct, but I fail to see the usefulness in this tactic to solve moral issues confronting us today.

nolvorite said...

"Mackie’s definition of an objective value is that the value must be the cause of an action solely for the intrinsic rightness of the action. Even if some people do not find these types of actions wrong, there are people do find them wrong and that will take action solely because it is right. His all-or-nothing approach in his definition of what an objective value is completely illegitimate because there is not one conceivable moral truth that will get a 100% pass rate."

Nope, Mackie in fact has already countered this by saying that it's an inadequate counter to merely say morality is contingently/derivatively true--it's fallacious to assume that it is for the sake of argument.