Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Objectivism, Relativism, and Squatter's Rights in Metaethics (by Guest Blogger Hagop Sarkissian)

Moral objectivism is the view that moral truth (or justification) is independent of tradition, custom, or social acceptance. Put another way, it's the view that there is an objective fact of the matter whether any given action is morally right or wrong, permissible or impermissible. Moral objectivism is often contrasted with moral relativism, the view that moral truths (or justification) is relative to cultures or other such groups.

To me, moral relativism is just obviously true (as I have argued previously in comments on this blog). But many philosophers have argued that moral relativism does not jibe with ordinary moral discourse. Ordinary moral discourse, they claim, assumes moral objectivism. Philospohers making this claim range from moral realists on the one hand, to moral fictionalists (or 'error theorists') on the other.

Consider J.L. Mackie, who argued that ordinary moral claims purport to describe facts about mind-independent, objective moral values. Mackie denies that such values exist. "Although most people in making moral judgments implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively prescriptive, these claims are all false". Mackie thinks this 'error theory' "goes against assumptions ingrained in our thought and built into some of the ways in which language is used"; and "since it conflicts with what is sometimes called common sense, it needs very solid support. It is not something we can accept lightly or casually and then lightly pass on" (35).

Does common sense morality assume objectivity? According to a recent study by Goodwin and Darley, most folk actually don't believe that their moral judgments are objectively true, except for cases involving stock examples such as gunfire, robbery, and cheating. On many other moral issues, most believe their judgments to be opinion and not fact. Goodwin and Darley sum up one of their experiments as follows:

"Participants generally agreed (on a six-point scale) with the goodness of anonymous donations (5.42), the badness of opening gunfire on a crowd (5.79), or of robbing a bank (5.77), and the wrongness of conscious racial discrimination (5.86) or of cheating on a lifeguard exam (5.72). But they varied considerably in how likely they were to regard these statements as true: 36%, 68%, 61%, 54%, and 58%, respectively. Perhaps more strikingly, although participants generally agreed (albeit not as strongly) with the permissibility of abortion (4.12), assisted death (4.36), and stem cell research (4.58) in the way we described them, they were highly reluctant to assign truth to statements expressing this agreement: 2%, 8%, and 2%, respectively."

If these findings are replicated, they suggest that, contrary to what many moral realists and fictionalists claim, people believe that their moral claims are objectively true only in a narrow range of cases that enjoy widespread agreement, the rest of them being no more 'objectively true' than matters such as one's taste in music (4%), film (9%) or art (4%).

This brings me to "squatter's rights". In a recent paper, Eddy Nahmias and colleagues argue that a philosophical theory x has 'squatter's rights' compared to a competing theory y if, all else being equal, theory x accords with our common sense intuitions while theory y doesn't. If objectivism does not turn out to be the common sense view, I find it hard to see how relativism doesn't have squatter's rights in metaethics. It's consistent with common sense morality, does as good a job as any other theory in explaining moral agreement and disagreement, and seems best able to account for the variety of moral traditions existing in the world.

19 comments:

Brad C said...

Hi Hagop,

As usual, I am nervous about jumping to conclusions from empirical studies like this.

Can you give some more details on these studies?

In particular, what were the people asked that lead the writers to say people agreed that things were bad or good but that they we reluctant to say that these claims were true? Was "objectively true" - a phrase likely to engender confusion - used?

(1) In any case: Say Jones agrees that abortion is wrong but refuses to say that "abortion is wrong" is true. How should we interpret this behavior.

You seem to want to interpret as a reflection of an implicit embrace of relativism. But why should we?

Maybe Jones thinks it would be intolerant to claim that 'Abortion is wrong' is true. In fact, I find that many students are motivated by that consideration or because they assume some argument from disagreement establishes anti-realism. But, upon discussion, they often rethink their views and only a subset embrace relativism.

I would be reluctant to attribute a belief in relativism OR its denial to them at the outset for those reasons and because so few of them have a clear and distinct grasp of what these theories hold. Most people do not grasp the differences between, e.g., emotivism, crude subjectivism, cultural relativism, moral fictionalism, and eror theories.

(2) I would, consequently, agree that you are right that anti-relativists need to give an interpretation of what people normally say too, if they want to appeal to that.

BUT, finally, I suspect that many philosophers who appeal to common sense are NOT thinking about what people normally say, where that is construed statistically.

That is like thinking that ordinary language philosophers (e.g. Austin) were interested in normal speech so understood - on the contrary, they were interested in well wrought speech, which is, among other things, not on holiday.

It is, of course, not easy to spell out the alternative conceptions of common sense and ordinary language, but that seems to be where the real action is, so to speak; these studies of how people answer questionaires are in danger of attacking a straw man.

Richard said...

"Moral objectivism is the view that moral truth (or justification) is independent of tradition, custom, or social acceptance."

That's an odd definition. I count myself a 'moral objectivist', but would happily grant that facts about social context (customs, traditions, etc.) can have moral relevance. What makes me a moral objectivist is instead my insistence that the moral status of any given act token (in context) is fixed. Any particular token act is either right or wrong, and this fact does not vary relative to different assessors. (See here for further explanation.)

" Does common sense morality assume objectivity? According to a recent study by Goodwin and Darley, most folk actually don't believe that their moral judgments are objectively true."

Note that the question is whether common sense morality rationally commits us to objectivity. Not whether philosophically ignorant folk are inclined to profess a belief in objectivity or relativism. These empirical studies tell us what pop-philosophical theories are most rife in our culture at present. They do not address what our moral practices actually commit us to.

Hagop said...

As usual, I am nervous about jumping to conclusions from empirical studies like this. Can you give some more details on these studies?

As usual, I am happy to have you chime in!

The original paper is linked in the post above. If you can't access it for some reason, there was a nice write-up over at Chris S's "Mixing Memory" blog. But I'll try to clarify a bit by answering your questions below.

In particular, what were the people asked that lead the writers to say people agreed that things were bad or good but that they we reluctant to say that these claims were true? Was "objectively true" - a phrase likely to engender confusion - used?

Badness or goodness was measured on a 6 point likert scale. So, for example, participants were asked to rate between 1 (strongly disagree) and 6 (strongly agree) with statements such as " Anonymously donating a significant proportion of one's income to charity is a morally good action" or "Robbing a bank in order to pay for an expensive holiday is a morally bad action".

The phrase "objectively true" was not used at all. In the 2nd half of the experiment, participants were asked about statements which they strongly agreed or disagreed with (such as those above). They were told that another participant disagreed with them--(i.e. that another participant judged at the other end of the likert scale). They were then asked:

"What would you conclude about this disagreement? We are interested in what you would privately think about this – the question is not about what you would be willing to say to this other person. Please circle the number.
(1) The other person is surely mistaken.
(2) It is possible that neither you nor the other person is mistaken.
(3) It could be that you are mistaken, and the other person is correct.
(4) Other – please explain"

They took answer 1 to be strongly 'objectivist' in orientation.

In any case: Say Jones agrees that abortion is wrong but refuses to say that "abortion is wrong" is true. How should we interpret this behavior. You seem to want to interpret as a reflection of an implicit embrace of relativism. But why should we?

Just a clarification (and apologies if this was not clear). I do not think that there is an implicit embrace of relativism at all. My thought was that if this study were improved and replicated, most people might not be objectivists for many interesting moral beliefs. I have independent reasons to think that relativism is the most plausible metaethical view (which I very briefly listed at the end, and which I outlined in somewhat more detail in my previous comments linked in the original post).

I was more interested in the question of "squatter's rights". Squatter's rights don't establish any parituclar view as being true, but they do place a stronger burden of proof on competing views. You are certainly correct to say that if folk do turn out not to be objectivists, this does not mean they implicitly embrace relativism. I agree; that would require much further testing.

Maybe Jones thinks it would be intolerant to claim that 'Abortion is wrong' is true. In fact, I find that many students are motivated by that consideration or because they assume some argument from disagreement establishes anti-realism. But, upon discussion, they often rethink their views and only a subset embrace relativism.

I have similar concerns about the abortion (and other) questions, but my own worry is about sampling effects (since the participants were, as usual, undergrads).

Also, you're right that students may end up changing their opinions by taking philosophy classes (and being exposed to flimsy arguments in favor or relativism ;), but then we're not really tapping folk intuitions, are we?

I would, consequently, agree that you are right that anti-relativists need to give an interpretation of what people normally say too, if they want to appeal to that. BUT, finally, I suspect that many philosophers who appeal to common sense are NOT thinking about what people normally say, where that is construed statistically.

You may be right about this. But I do think that there are also appeals to just the sort of ordinary, pre-reflective folk judgments that studies like the one under consideration try to uncover, and that such appeals are meant to carry argumentative weight.

It is, of course, not easy to spell out the alternative conceptions of common sense and ordinary language, but that seems to be where the real action is, so to speak; these studies of how people answer questionaires are in danger of attacking a straw man.

For the record, I agree. I just think that appeals to ordinary intuitions are also not uncommon. If experimental work forces philosophers to be more careful in what they claim, then it would be valuable for that reason alone.

Hagop said...

Hi Richard,

Thanks for your comments! It sounds to me that you're a contextualist. (Well, I just checked the post you linked, and it seems you are). So, yes, you consider yourself an objectivist, but your views are clearly different than the sort of objectivism I outline above.

But then again, what you claim cannot be a form of relativism (your contextualism) seems to be something I embrace... as a relativist! Let's try something. I'm going to copy and paste something I wrote previously on this blog (with small revisions), and maybe you can tell me how you would label my view:

"... All we need to recognize is that: a) there is a plurality of values that people can embrace, and b) no single, true ranking of these values exists. This much is enough to get you to relativism rather quickly.

Take, as an example, a Confucian community, wherein the preservation of certain relationships embodied in an ideal of social harmony would be very high in determining what the true moral duties are in that community (even while having autonomy as one of its values). This morality will differ substantially from that of another community, which emphasizes the rights of the individual and the preservation of individual autonomy more than social harmony (even while having harmony among its values).

Both communities will therefore share values in common. However, the moralities of both communities will rule one another out in many situations, given the priority they give to certain values over others. So it might be true that family values will be more important to an individual in a Confucian culture (context), and that individual autonomy will be more important to an individual in another culture (context). So, it is true relative to Confucian rankings to act in a certain way, and true relative to other rankings to act in another way.

When fundamental ends are prioritized in a certain way (as they are in many cultures), there will be more or less sensible or efficient ways of configuring moral codes to meet those ends. Indeed, some such configurations will be inapt given the culture's value rankings. Hence, the moral truths of one community will be relative to it in the sense that other moralities and other configurations of moral codes will be ruled out for it."

On your view, is this relativism? Contextualism? I'm very curious to here where you would disagree, as I think that the kind of relativism I'm prone to accept might be amenable to contextualist readings.

Note that the question is whether common sense morality rationally commits us to objectivity. Not whether philosophically ignorant folk are inclined to profess a belief in objectivity or relativism. These empirical studies tell us what pop-philosophical theories are most rife in our culture at present. They do not address what our moral practices actually commit us to.

Thanks for this comment. It helps me to state my thoughts. I am, I think, interested whether common sense morality rationally commits us to cultural relativism, and am currently trying to devise experiments to test this. I'd be happy to share my results and get your feedback.

Brad C said...

Hi Hagop,

Wow - thanks for the thoughtful response (again)!

It sounds like we are more or less in agreement (leaving aside the question of what our practice commits us to).

One worry about this questions:

"What would you conclude about this disagreement? We are interested in what you would privately think about this – the question is not about what you would be willing to say to this other person. Please circle the number.
(1) The other person is surely mistaken.
(2) It is possible that neither you nor the other person is mistaken.
(3) It could be that you are mistaken, and the other person is correct.
(4) Other – please explain"

It might run together epistemic and ontological issues.

You and I might disagree about some objective fact F - you think that F and I think that not-F - without either of us making a mistake - if that is understood, for example, as making an epistemically irresponsible inference or assumption.

I think the set up might be designed to avoid this by talking about being mistaken rather than about making a mistake...but I am not that confident that the subjects will avoid running these together. I guess one could (maybe they did) run further experiments to try to figure out how people respond to questions about being mistaken - do they track questions about being justified, for example.

In any case this question seems to stack the deck against the thought that people endorse objectivism because 1 seems to be a claim to *know*, which is a lot stronger than an endorsement of "objectivism".

Ok - back to the dissertation!

Brad

Brandon said...

I'm a little puzzled by your argument. You say:

In a recent paper, Eddy Nahmias and colleagues argue that a philosophical theory x has 'squatter's rights' compared to a competing theory y if, all else being equal, theory x accords with our common sense intuitions while theory y doesn't. If objectivism does not turn out to be the common sense view, I find it hard to see how relativism doesn't have squatter's rights in metaethics.

But the study you cite doesn't show that relativism accords with common sense intuitions at all, and certainly doesn't show that it accords with them better than objectivism; it just shows that people don't assume that all moral claims are objective. But relativism requires that no moral claims are objective in your sense.

In the eighteenth century moral philosophers looking at moral discourse had already recognized that you can divide moral claims into at least three different categories: claims about imposed obligations (like rules imposed by legitimate authority), claims about moral relations (i.e., objective moral facts in your sense), and claims based on moral taste. A great deal of eighteenth-century moral philosophy is devoted to the question of whether these can be reduced to one; some held that objective claims can't be reduced to the other, either because the others reduce to them (e.g., by approximation or by indirect relation) or because none can be reduced to the others. Such an objectivism is even more consistent with the experiment you are citing than relativism; the experiment cited shows that people do, in fact, seem to attribute an objectivity to moral claims -- if they fall within a narrow range.

Thus the experiment shows that objectivism has squatter's rights.

Anonymous said...

"Moral objectivism is often contrasted with moral relativism, the view that moral truths (or justification) is relative to cultures or other such groups."

But "relative" in what sense?

Moral justification is remarkably similar across cultures. No culture thinks facts are irrelevant. No culture thinks it permissible to act without reasons. No culture thinks it permissible to uselessly harm someone.

Of course, context is important in evaluating the *significance* of states of affairs. After all, skin piercing as a rite of passage is a lot different than inflicting pain for the pleasure of it.

However, no matter how important cultural context is, objective considerations of facts, clear-headed thinking, and the goal of minizing pain are universal features of moral discouse.

Cheers,
Kevin

Hagop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hagop said...

(oops,looks like I somehow deleted my last comment above.)

Thanks for the feedback, Brandon. It's helped me to rethink how to state my position. I'm overseas and my internet access is intermittent, so I won't be able to respond fully. However, a quick question for now:

But the study you cite doesn't show that relativism accords with common sense intuitions at all, and certainly doesn't show that it accords with them better than objectivism; it just shows that people don't assume that all moral claims are objective. But relativism requires that no moral claims are objective in your sense.

My question has to do with your last sentence. I'm not sure what you mean when you say that moral relativism requires that no moral claims are objective. I don't think moral relativism precludes there being some widely shared, perhaps even universal, beliefs. Such cross-cultural consensus might be a contingent matter of fact (even if the justifications for the beliefs vary considerably).

So I was wondering whether you can say more by what you mean by that last sentence.

Hagop said...

Hi Kevin,

Thanks for your question. In my response to Richard (above) I spelled out in greater detail just what I take relativism to mean, and I don't think it precludes there being some (perhaps many) similarities between moralities. Even with such shared characteristics, many tracts of morality will be reflective of disparities in more basic ends and values, and how they are ranked or prioritized. Do you think what I say there helps? If not, I'd be happy to elaborate.

Richard said...

Hi Hagop, thanks for your response. I think the fundamental moral principles/values are universal, but how they're best implemented may vary from context to context. Since you deny even the former claim, I'd agree that makes you a relativist.

Here's the simplest test: Take any particular act token X, e.g. American Joe's killing of Bob (fill in all the details here). Now ask: what is the moral status of that particular act X? Was the action permissible? If the answer is determined by the facts of the situation, then you're an objectivist. Alternatively, if you think the answer depends on who is asking the question, or must be parameterized (e.g. 'permissible according to Martian values, but impermissible according to Western values') then you're a relativist.

Brad C said...

Hi Richard,

You said: "Now ask: what is the moral status of that particular act X? Was the action permissible? If the answer is determined by the facts of the situation, then you're an objectivist."

This seems like an overly broad sufficient condition for being an objectivist.

Imagine the following: Jones kills Rashid and William kills Rashid Jr; Jones is racist but William is not.

Now imagine I think that Jones' action was permissible but that William's was not because of the difference between moral views the embrace. There are differences that are facts about the situations in which they acted, I would think, but then I would count as an objectivist.

Guess I am just trying to push for a distinction between assessor-moral-scheme-relativism and actor-moral-scheme-relativism. Both seem to be sensibly called forms of relativism and are distinct from the basic contextualist point that the moral status of an act can be affected by the beliefs of the people who perform them (most obviously in cases where the person is excusably ignorant of certain descriptive or even evaluative facts - assuming that there are evaluative facts).

Brad C said...

Sorry...meant to hit preview, not publish...here is a cleaned up description of the case:

Imagine the following: Jones kills Rashid and William kills Rashid Jr; Jones is racist but William is not.

Now imagine that I judge that Jones' action was permissible but that William's was not. I claim that this difference results from the difference between the moral views that they embrace.

Finally, since the facts about their moral beliefs are facts about the situations in which they acted, I would count as an objectivist (according to your criterion).

Anonymous said...

Hi Hagop:

True, the rank and order of values differs by culture. It's also true they differ between individuals within cultures. But who denies this? Not objectivists. And certainly not relativists!

The distinction is misleading, I think.

At one level of description, evaluative judgments are relative to cultural mores. For instance, it's entirely customary for Tibetan monks to pulverize human flesh and feed it to the birds – a Tibetan sky burial, vultures as vehicles of heavenly salvation.

And at another level of description, evaluative judgments are relative to personal preferences. I prefer backpacking over intellectual activity – the latter is just too damn onerous and doesn't offer the steady reward of beauty that outdoor experiences do.

And yet at another level of description, evaluative judgments are NOT relative, in the sense that there are universal features of practical reasoning that transcend culture and personal preferences: Facts, logic, and the quest to minimize pain.

Best regards,
Kevin

Richard said...

Brad -- yes, absolutely, the thesis that each person objectively ought to do whatever accords with their own principles is a form of objectivism, on my view. (For when I say, "Jones acted wrongly," I am simply, objectively, mistaken. Whenever two people disagree over the moral status of a token act, there's an objective fact of the matter which of them is in error.)

jawats said...

To me, moral relativism is just obviously true...

I'm curious as to how a relativist could claim anything as objectively true, as you have noted in the above sentence..

Thanks!

Brandon said...

Hagop,

I meant that the moral relativist holds that no moral truths are independent of tradition, custom, or social acceptance; if someone holds that even a narrow range of moral truths -- or, indeed, even just one moral truth -- they are in objectivist territory, not relativist territory. Relativism is a much stronger position than objectivism: in terms of what they have to argue, the relativist needs every moral truth to be relative, but the objectivist just needs one objective moral truth. The Goodwin and Darley paper, I take it, shows that most people don't assume that all their beliefs are (equally) objective; this is a long way from showing that they hold that none of them are objective, and, indeed, the tendency seems to be to regard some moral claims as very good candidates for being objectively true.

Josh Weisberg said...

very interesting discussion!

Hagop: Just wanted to hear your thoughts on Brad C's point about epistemology and ontology.

My experience in teaching intro to ethics has been that students tend to hear "true" as an epistemic claim. So when there is a controversial subject like abortion, they tend not to think a claim is true; rather, they say that it's just opinion. But all they may be saying is that no one agrees, rather than that there is no objective fact of the matter.

Thus, answering (2)--it is possible that neither you nor the other person is mistaken--may simply be acknowledging that reasonable people disagree, not that there is no objective truth. That seems to be a further question not addressed by the survey.

On "squatters rights": A good theory always has to "save the appearances" as best it can, but I think that both objectivists and relativists can do that. That is, they can provide a gloss on ordinary speech and behavior. But in any event, you might trade off your failure to comport to commonsense by showing some other theoretical gain--better prediction of actual behavior, rather than reports on imagined examples, better fit with science, naturalism, religion, democracy, multiculturalism, etc. So, as you note, squatters rights only takes one so far, and it's not far at all, in my opinion. Commonsense is a necessary starting point for theorizing, but it is not so binding as to be the main determiner of burden or success.

Thanks!

The Fool said...

I think you've made a mistake. You need distinguish between someone's confidence in their judgment about X versus the nature of X itself.

If you read 7 digit number to me and ask me to repeat it, I may judge that I am 90% certain that I have repeated the right number because I have a weak nagging sense that I may have gotten one of the digits wrong although I really think it much more likely that I got it right.

Regardless, I will consider it an absolute 100% question of fact what the right answer is.