In yesterday’s post I suggested that there are two quite distinct sources for ‘moral’ judgements: value-egalitarianism (whatever matters to one person matters to everyone) and value-authoritarianism (a judgement made intuitively by one person is invested with the force to overrule all competing judgements).
In a form of ‘morality’ mainly associated with the political right and with religious or traditional systems, the two are blurred together; in a form of ‘morality’ mainly associated with the political left and with modern-era rationalism, value-egalitarianism is maintained on its own, in ‘pure form’.
Now having these two quite different things both being called ‘morality’ is tricky, especially when it comes to the idea of ‘moral relativism’. I’ve experienced this personally in that I know a lot of people with whom I agree on most things, but who identify as ‘moral relativists’; I very much don’t, and yet in discussing it I often feel that we’re arguing at cross purposes.
(I should warn readers, this post makes a lot of distinctions of meaning, and weird terminology abounds. Hopefully it is all adequately explained.)
So the idea I’m going for here is that ‘moral relativism’ can mean either the rejection of value-authoritarianism (a reasonable and sensible position, which fits very neatly with the acceptance of value-egalitarianism), or the rejection of value-egalitarianism as well (a chaotic position that makes a lot of discussions very difficult to have).
Actually, there’s a third thing it can mean, which is that any given moral principle can apply in different ways to different situations because the circumstances are relevantly different, which is a fairly obvious and easily-accepted principle for most people. E.g. the action of shooting someone in the head has different moral significance in peace, unjust war, just war, and self-defense. I’m not going to talk about this, just note it for clarity.
Anyway, in these two sorts of ‘moral relativism’, which I’ll call ‘intersubjectivism’ and ‘pure subjectivism’ for reasons that will become apparent, such terms as ‘absolute’ and ‘objective’ signify quite different things.
For someone who is an ‘intersubjectivist’, i.e. rejects value-authoritarianism but accepts value-egalitarianism, saying that ‘no moral values are objective’ means that no moral values have any source or foundation outside individuals-who-value-things themselves. However, moral values are still ‘objective’ to the individual in that they rest in other individuals. For example, the fact that killing, cooking and eating my grandparents is ‘wrong’ is objective for me because the (very intense) negative value it has for them is independent of what I happen to think. It just has no foundation that’s independent of all of us – apart from the purely formal principle of generalisation, that what’s bad for my grandparents is also ‘bad for me’ (i.e. I should avoid it).
It’s probably also important to distinguish different senses of ‘valuation’. In sense 1, valuing something is something like a ‘feeling’, in that whatever I fear, or whatever hurts me, or whatever I desperately don’t want to happen, is ‘negatively valued’ by me (and similarly for positive values). In sense 2, valuing something is something like an ‘opinion’, in that I form a ‘remote’ judgement about it, independently of how it affects me.
Now for straightforward logical reasons, value-egalitarianism can only take as ‘inputs’, valuations in sense 1. That’s because it produces valuations in sense 2 (all-things-considered-opinions) as its outputs. If its outputs were also its inputs, then this would create an infinite feedback loop that would make moral rasoning impossible. E.g. I have to weigh up the harms of different courses of action to me and to another person, but as soon as I have done so, and reached a final judgement (that, say, action X is right), that then becomes a new ‘datum’ that has to be added in, as though now action X would ‘benefit me’ more.
This allows us to say that valuations in sense 1 are ‘relative to the individual’ (if I enjoy homosexual acts and nobody is harmed, they are therefore ‘good’ for me) but that valuations in sense 2 are not (the fact that I happen to find homosexual acts disgusting is simply a reason for me not to engage in them, but not a reason to judge them in general ‘bad’ for everyone else).
Anyway. By contrast, for someone who is what I called a ‘pure subjectivist’, rejecting both value-authoritarianism and value-egalitarianism, saying that ‘no values are objective’ means that there’s nothing objective to me as an individual. When I make a decision about how to act, not only do I get to dismiss as irrelevant supposed ‘transcendent’ values deriving from God’s mighty commandments and such like, I also get to dismiss as irrelevant whether or not it will drive other people to miserable gibbering insanity, and whether or not it will starve anyone to death.
The upshot is, the only things I have to decide upon are my own personal preferences and valuations (in both sense 1 and sense 2). One consequence is that it becomes impossible for me to really be ‘wrong’: whatever I decide to do is, therefore, right (unless I come to change my mind). Another consequence is that morality becomes very hard to ‘communicate’, because saying ‘action X is wrong (in situation Y)’ can’t be either true or false, it will be true for some people and false for others.
We might say that the two senses of ‘objectivity’ being used are, on the one hand, ‘ontological objectivity’ (in the sense of wanting there to be a fact or entity independent of all sentient beings, that generates moral truths, like a divine author), and, on the other, ‘practical objectivity’ (in the sense of moral judgements admitting of ‘correct/incorrect’).
As may have emerged, I am an ‘intersubjectivist’: I think that ‘morality’ (value-egalitarianism) is practically objective, but not ontologically objective. In this it might be compared to logic or mathematics: there are no ‘entities’ existing ‘out there’ that make mathematical statements true or false (well, some people think there are but whatever), but nevertheless mathematical statements can be true or false, mathematical reasoning can be correct or faulty, and in general from within the totality of rational beings mathematics functions as though it existed independently of us.
Anyway, the point is that all these equivocal words provide a lot of room for misunderstanding. For me, the misunderstanding is, I think, that often other people come to associate ‘morality’ with ‘value-authoritarianism’, reject this, and call themselves ‘moral relativists’, meaning simply intersubjectivism. They then make statements about ‘objectivity’ and ‘relativity’ and so forth in the senses appropriate to that.
I, however, have been depraved by studying philosophy. My associations with the word ‘morality’ are coloured by what kinds of things moral philosophers talk about, and that’s mainly ‘value-egalitarianism’. I therefore take ‘intersubjectivism’ as a matter of course, and when people say ‘moral relativism’, I hear ‘pure subjectivism’, according to which I get to decide whether it matters that the person I’m having sex with does or doesn’t want it, and I reject that strongly. I then attach appropriate meanings to terms like ‘objective’ and ‘relative’.
Then me and the aforementioned people get into a pointless dispute where we’re both intersubjectivists, but they think I’m a value-authoritarian, and I think they’re pure subjectivists. It becomes very confusing.
This confusion, as a final note, is encouraged by actual value-authoritarians. The various arseholes who want to impose their personal inclinations and whims about what is and isn’t ‘natural’ or ‘holy’ as transcendent moral judgements, are keen to identify this as the be-all and end-all of ‘morality’, and accuse those intersubjectivists who rightly reject it as incoherent on the level of moral philosophy, not to mention as immoral, of being ‘moral relativists’ in the strong sense of ‘pure subjectivists’.
Now properly understood that’s obviously stupid. It amounts to not distinguishing “different people like the tastes of different foods, there’s no ‘objective’ tastiness or nastiness, so let everybody eat whatever food they want” from “there’s no ‘objective’ tastiness or nastiness, so it doesn’t matter what people are eating, so force-feed people with whatever you decide to force-feed them”.