Does the fact that moral disagreements exist prove that there are no objective values?
Over the course of human history, moral values have been one of the most disputable subjects of inquiry. Ever since we evolved into autonomous beings, the question of whether there are any objective values has led to various interpretations, broadly splitting up into two main forms of theories: moral non-objectivists (relativists) and moral objectivists.
We will first consider the claim of objectivists. Objectivists support the meta–ethical claim of objective values. So, what are objective values? As Plato states: ‘‘There is an absolute beauty and an absolute good, and of other things to which the term ‘many’ is applied there is an absolute; for they may be brought under a single idea, which is called the essence of each’’ [Plato, Republic, 507B] Objective values are defined as values that are objectively true, which are beyond the biases of an individual or a group. There are correct standards for moral questions, and its objectivity does not depend on the authority of moral disagreements. If murdering an innocent person is objectively evil, then someone who supports this view is right and any opposing statement is objectively wrong. Moral objectivists essentially support this definition, and thus argue that moral disagreements do not undermine the validity of moral objectivity.
On the non-objectivist side, the claims that oppose objective values are simple. Objective values are fabricated. All moral claims that ‘seek’ an objective value are mistaken. Moral truths are relative to a group or an individual, and ‘objective values’ will never have universal applications. Among non-objectivists, the definitions on morality vary widely.
For the sake of this article, among non-objectivists, we will consider the approach of error theorists. The claim of error-theorists is simple: ‘‘there are no objective moral values.’’ Since moral disagreements are observed ubiquitously, objectivity does not correspond to truth. Moral disagreements prove that objective values will always be in error. As Hume states: ‘‘the rules of morality are not conclusions of reason.’’ (Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, T3.1.1, p756) Unlike non-cognitivists, who believe that objective morality cannot be proposed since they are not apt to report facts, error-theorists believe that moral values should be questioned. However, this does purport the error-theorists’ stance on objectivity, since they believe that objectivists will always be in error. Thus, for error-theorists, moral disagreements prove that there are no objective values.
Both parties would agree on one thing: moral disagreements exist. Objectivists, however, believe that moral disagreements have no impact on objective values; while error-theorists believe that moral disagreements prove that objective values are a sham. So, does the fact that moral disagreements exist prove that there are no objective values?
In this discussion, we will focus on the argument of J.L. Mackie, who is one of the most notable error-theorists against moral objectivity. Mackie’s answer to the main question would be ‘yes’. Moral disagreements do in fact prove that there are no objective values. The main argument that backs up his reasoning is the argument of relativity.
Firstly, the argument of relativity mainly claims that all of our moral values derive from subjective interpretations. The reason why relativism proves that there are no objective values is simple: people tend to have a distorted image concerning objective values. People usually reflect their emotions by supporting the moral codes they participate in, rather than arguing for a genuinely objective moral concern. Mackie states: ‘‘people approve of monogamy because they participate in a monogamous way of life rather than that they participate in a monogamous way of life because they approve of monogamy.’’ (183) Simply put, Mackie is claiming that moral norms we participate in tend to influence our arousal, and it breaks down the principles of our values. In this instance, by participating in a monogamous society, we tend approach morality with our emotional biases. If we could hypothetically participate in another society that favored polygamy, it would be likely that our opinions concerning relationships would subjectively transform. Additionally, the actions of moral reformists are not an exception to this argument. Even though we may believe that the moral pursuit of a reformist is justifiable, their actions reflect their adherence towards another existing moral code, which clarifies Mackie’s statement that our search for objectivity cannot be intrinsically achieved.
Furthermore, Mackie refutes an objection against relativism. The objection against Mackie states that objective validity can be functionally achieved. Principles like universalizability and utilitarianism can be adapted to different moral codes for the sake of the well being of all groups, without disrespecting social differences, can prove that objective values could exist respective to moral disagreements. In reply, Mackie states that, ‘‘People judge that some things are good or right… not because they exemplify some general principle for which widespread implicit acceptance could be claimed, but because something about those things arouses certain responses immediately in them.’’ (Mackie, 184) From an error-theorists perspective, the concerns of Kant and Mill are not guided by an intrinsic motivation to search for objective morals; instead they are guided by their passion of constituting a universal principle. As Hume states: ‘‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’’ (Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 2.3.3 p. 415) All of our motivations are guided by our passions, which do not depend on good or bad intentions, and there are no exceptions to this rule. Hence, error theorists can conclude with Hobbes’ statement concerning morality: ‘‘whatsoever is the object of any man’s Appetite or Desire, that is it, which he for his part calleth Good’’(Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651) Searching for objective values are like searching for unicorns, so people should instead accept that only their own desires are worth pursuing concerning moral values.
Moral disagreements are inevitable. Nobody denies this. However, now we will consider the argument of David Enoch, who represents the objectivist perspective. Enoch’s response to our main question would simply be “no.” There are objective values in ethics.
Enoch starts off with three examples that demonstrate his case of objectivism. Before tying his argument to a conceptual concern, he plans to reveal our commitment to objectivity by the three tests he used.
The first test by Enoch is called The Spinach Test, and he starts the passage by explaining a joke that would be considered funny. A kid dislikes spinach, and when he is asked ‘why?’ his response is that if he liked it, he would have eaten it, but the spinach is still yucky. In this instance, this example is considered as a joke because he still provides his subjective dislike of spinach even in a hypothetical claim of him liking spinach. Similarly, a girl explains that she is happy that she was not born in the Middle Ages, because if she did, she would have believed the earth revolved around the sun, and that was a false belief. Next, another person expresses that he is happy that he was not born in the 18th century United States, if he were born that era, because he were, he would have believed in slavery , and it slavery is wrong. According to Enoch, the last two examples are not funny compared to the spinach joke. If the reaction to a scientific data (Earth) has the same response as a widely agreed moral principle (slavery is bad), ergo moral values are perceived in the same manner as scientific facts.
The second test is the disagreement test, and Enoch starts off by differentiating two types of arguments. An argument between preferences, such as comparing milk chocolate and dark chocolate, is not a fruitful discussion, because it cannot reach an objective truth. The argument of global warming, however, involves objective facts, so a disagreement on whether human actions contribute to global warming is a different type of disagreement than the chocolate example. Likewise, if we were questioning the morality of abortion, we would hypothetically proceed in a similar manner to the global warming case. When a topic involves facts, we intrinsically search for objective values in morality.
The third test assumes that if top hats became popular, this would change our opinion on the fashion direction of top hats. However, if we stated that cigarettes were healthy, this would not change the fact that cigarettes still cause cancer, since it is a scientific fact about smoking. Likewise, Enoch states that gender discrimination is wrong, and the societies that practiced gender-discrimination would not diminish the moral wrongdoing of gender-based discrimination, similar to the cigarette example, which points to the fact that morality lands into an objective truth.
The three tests were Enoch’s claim on demonstrating how all of us are moral objectivists, and then he replies to the main objection that disagreement does prove that moral objectivism is incorrect. Enoch states: ‘‘If moral disagreement undermines the objectivity of moral conclusions, meta-ethical disagreement seems to undermine the objectivity of meta-ethical conclusions, including the conclusion of this kind undermines objectivity.’’ (Enoch, 218) Enoch’s response to any type of objection is how other arguments ends up in self-defeat, since moral disagreements cannot undermine the objectivity of morality.
In the case of intolerance, responding to anything in an authoritative manner does not yield any clarification to an issue. Concerning the objectivity of values, there is no method on determining whether objectivism or non-objectivism is correct. Many people would claim that intolerance is not a good philosophical approach, and Enoch points out that our support against intolerance indicates our support of objectivist intuitions. Thus, the three tests are the only signs that prove objectivism, and non-objectivist beliefs do not have a pre-theoretical application. Therefore, our commitment towards objectivism lies beyond our moral disagreements.
Both Enoch and Mackie have a well-established argument on whether moral disagreements play a role in objectivity. Mackie’s point on the corruption of our foundations concerning moral preferences is a logically sensible argument against objectivity. If all moral inquiries only represent our arousal, objectivism does sound ridiculous. Similarly, Enoch’s case that demonstrates the self-defeat of a relativist philosophy also shows that it is philosophically impossible to determine which perspective is correct. However, I do not find The Spinach Test by Enoch to adequately support objectivism. Since it is a hypothetical case, it can yield a completely different result in a different culture, but Enoch does not take that into account. In a different moral code, people might laugh at the spinach and the slavery example, which would disrupt the moral objectivity against slavery.
In order to respond our main question, we have to understand that philosophy is not a math class, which means that our foundations are the only source on finding the answer. Even though I do not strongly favor objectivism or relativism in this case, Mackie’s argument of arousal, or Hume’s statement of us being ‘slave to our passions’, can explain the foundations of an objectivist belief. Enoch did not write this argument for a moral reform on objectivism, rather he wrote this argument because the topic aroused him. Enoch states that moral facts do not depend on our emotions, but if morality is a product of self-consciousness, should it not depend on our emotions? In my opinion, it is a better argument that reason was never associated with morality in comparison to there being objective values in the universe. If there are objective values, when did they appear? To answer the main question, my answer would be a hesitant “yes.” Moral disagreements prove that there are no objective values.
Mackie, J.L., and Russ Shafer-Landau. “15 — The Subjectivity of Values.” The Ethical Life, Oxford University Press.
Shafer-Landau, Russ, and David Enoch. “18 — Why I Am an Objectivist About Ethics.” The Ethical Life, Oxford University Press.
Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. “Moral Skepticism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 14 June 2002, plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism-moral/.
Sayre-McCord, Geoff. “Moral Realism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 3 Feb. 2015, plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-realism/.
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Allman, 1817.