Saturday, January 7, 2017

Moral disagreement and the quest for an objective moral theory

“Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes”.   Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, 1984

Ethical theories aim to explain why certain actions are right or wrong. They also aim to inform us of how we ought to make ethical decisions. Instead of approaching the subject of ethics by reflecting upon some abstract set of principles, some just appeal the moral authority of holy books or directly to the God those books were inspired by. Some would even consider the appeal to holy books to be an ethical theory of its own (i.e. divine command theory). Religious texts may offer moral wisdom and sound ethical principles to live by, but philosophers have been developing ethical theories—without appealing to God—for over two thousand years. Out of all of the theoretical options, is it reasonable to think that one ethical theory should be preferred? That is to say, is there an ethical theory that is objectively true, rendering all other theories false? There are several reasons for skepticism.

First, there are some who think that without God, morality has no foundation (*This problem arises particularly for philosophers because most are nonbelievers). The idea is that without some kind of objective standard of right and wrong—independent of anyone’s opinion—morality lacks a proper basis. Without an independent basis for morality, nothing is really right or wrong.There is much to say about this, but I will only raise two quick related objections. First, depending on how one understands the independence requirement, mathematical, logical, and scientific truths may also lack an “objective” basis. If morality has an objective foundation, it will be like mathematics or logic, starting from rationally intuitive, or self-evidently true starting axioms. Furthermore, on this reading of objectivity, even the existence of God might not be sufficient for objective morality. To cover some of the same ground as the old Euthyphro dillema, what makes the standards that God commands objective? Is it that since he is all knowing, he can perform all of the necessary moral calculations to determine what is right and wrong? Is it that the mind of God such that no moral calculations are necessary, and that God just automatically knows what is right and wrong via some inner moral sense that is perfect? Objectivity can be understood in weaker terms. Just like Descartes has been criticized for his defense of a strong conception of knowledge (i.e. requiring absolute certainty), we can criticize certain philosophers (e.g. William Lane Craig) for proposing a conception of objectivity that is too strong.

Second, there exists lots of disagreement about morality. The existence of moral disagreement across different cultures and individuals convinces many that moral relativism follows and that there just aren’t any objective moral truths to discover. The fact that there is moral disagreement does not refute objectivism, as it could be the case that most people are bad at moral reasoning or are ignorant of the relevant facts. Just as in the case of when you find people disagreeing on Facebook about the answer to a mathematical equation, doesn’t show that there isn’t a right solution, people disagreeing about the answer to a moral question doesn’t show there isn’t a right one. Some people are just bad at reasoning or ignorant of the facts relevant to solving a given problem. However, disagreement that obtains when two parties agree on all of the relevant facts, and employ sound logical reasoning, does seem problematic for objectivism. Persistent moral disagreement is not just thought to be theoretical, but actual, amongst experts in moral philosophy. To be clear, the presence of moral agreement is not required for objectivism to be true. It is not as if moral claims are made true by virtue of a consensus. That would be a really weird metaphysical view. The idea is that a consensus amongst experts would strongly suggest that there are objective answers to questions of right and wrong and that its absence suggests the falsity of objectivism.

The late philosopher Derek Parfit argued that most moral disagreement amongst experts is illusory. It is often assumed that the major ethical theories (e.g. utilitarianism, contractualism, and Kantianism) are incompatible with one another. But Parfit argued that once the views are properly understood, they actually complement one another and can be combined into overarching ethical theory he called ‘triple theory’ (1, 2). Parfit thinks the predicament moral philosophers find themselves in is similar to those of several hikers climbing different sides of the same mountain. It is only once the hikers reach the mountain’s summit, that they realize that they were all climbing the same mountain all along. Parfit’s claims are highly controversial, but worth taking seriously. For if his claims regarding moral disagreement are true, then there may be a strong case for moral objectivism.

It may be argued that constraining the analysis of ethical theories to those espoused by contemporary English speaking moral philosophers may be unjustified. What about all of the other forms of moral diversity in the world? For example, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the views of conservatives in the United States, all offer contrary accounts of morality than those of contemporary philosophers. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt, has deconstructed differing systems of morality around the world into five or six basic values: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, respect, and purity (3). Most moral philosophers, and political liberals, tend to view the first three values as central to moral theorizing, whereas religious conservatives tend to emphasize the importance of the last three. Haidt’s theory of moral foundations might show that there exist different starting points for moral theorizing, and that no one set of starting value assumptions is more valid than another. Moral pluralism, the view which states that there are several objectively true moral theories, might find support in Haidt’s work.

A response I find natural is to say that all of these differing value systems fail to stand up to the standards of rationality and logic. They appeal to a combination of false religious beliefs, the cultural practices or prejudices of one’s community, and negative emotional responses (e.g. disgust), all of which we have good reason to reject. The ethical theories proposed by philosophers are intended to be as far removed from prejudice and uninformed opinion as possible. Moral philosophers spend most of their lives developing objective reasons and arguments for why certain moral principles are plausible and should be accepted by any rational person. Since the ethical views espoused by religious believers are, for the most part, not well-considered, motivated by logical consistency, or backed by rational arguments, there is reason to suspect their beliefs about morality are mistaken. It may sound elitist to make such claims, but I think most of us would agree to the argument’s application with respect to most other domains of inquiry (e.g. science, mathematics). Scientists are much more likely to be right about an issue than laypeople who are completely uninformed. Why shouldn’t the same be true about ethics? To be clear, I do not want to say that the major religions get everything wrong about morality. I just want to make the point since their moral teachings were not based upon the same methodological standards as contemporary moral theories, we have some reason to doubt that they have equal claim to truth.

Assuming that most of the world’s population simply gets things wrong when it comes to morality, and that most moral philosophers are actually in agreement about the central tenets of an ethical theory, are there any other obstacles that may prevent the theory from being objective? One possibility is that aliens, very unlike human beings, may have systems of morality that are as well-considered, motivated by logical consistency and rational arguments, but that are incompatible with our “objective moral theory”. Here, the problem of fundamental moral disagreement resurfaces, but in the form of a disagreement between members of separate species. This would be a problem for objectivism, but it’s a theoretical possibility that obtains for mathematics, science, and perhaps even logic as well. We either could entertain relativism or pluralism regarding all domains of inquiry or we could maintain a faith in objectivism across the board and hope to find a consensus amongst all rational creatures.

A philosopher who, in my view, pioneered the path for an objective moral theory was the 19th century thinker Henry Sidgwick (4). Sidgwick defended a sophisticated version of utilitarianism that proved to be influential to the great moral philosophers of the 20th century (e.g. Parfit) (5). Reflecting upon the views of Sidgwick and Parfit have led me to seriously reconsider the merits of objectivism. While I did not flesh out either of their views in this post, I think there is much to admire about their philosophical projects, enough to spend several future blog posts discussing and appreciating.


1) Parfit, D., & Scheffler, S. (2011). On what matters: volume one (Vol. 1). Oxford University Press.
2) Parfit, D., & Scheffler, S. (2011). On what matters: volume two (Vol. 2). Oxford University Press.
3) Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage.
4) Sidgwick, H. (1907). The methods of ethics. Hackett Publishing.
5) de Lazari-Radek, K., & Singer, P. (2014). The point of view of the universe: Sidgwick and contemporary ethics. OUP Oxford.

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