Our old friend Vlastimil Vohanka from the Czech Republic asked me if moral objectivism is a respectable metaethical position. It depends on what exactly moral objectivism is. Let's first of all see if we can locate it on the metaethical map. Then I take a quick look at Mackie's 'argument from queerness.'
Let's think about sentences like
1. Slavery is a great moral evil.
Presumably anyone reading this blog will assent to (1) and also hold that everyone ought to assent to it. So our question does not concern the ground-level acceptability of (1) which is here simply taken for granted. Our concern is metaethical.
(1) is a grammatically indicative sentence that appears to predicate the property of being evil of an action-type or an institution-type. If it puzzles you how an action-type can be evil, I say: an action-type is evil just in case actual or possible tokens (instances) of the type are evil.
But is (1) a fact-stating piece of discourse? If yes, then it has a truth-value. But note that if sentences like (1) are truth-valued, it does not follow that some are true and others false. It might be that they are all false, as on J. L. Mackie's Error Theory, which I won't discuss in this entry. Now let's introduce some terminology.
TERMINOLOGY AND DISTINCTIONS
Cognitivist: One who maintains that sentences like (1) are either true or false. Cognitivism so defined allows that all moral claims are false. It also of course allows that some are true and some are false.
Moral Realist: A cognitivist who maintains that some sentences like (1) are true and others false. For the moral realist, there are moral facts. Thus, if sentences like (1) are true, then there are moral facts that make them true.
Moral Subjectivist: A cognitivist who thinks that the truth-maker of a true moral claim is a fact about an individual's mind. On this view, what makes 'Slavery is evil' true is a fact about some individual's mind, for example, the fact that Lincoln feels slavery to be repugnant. This implies that moral claims of the form 'A is good/evil' are elliptical for claims of the form 'A is good/evil-for-X.' For the subjectivist, then, it is objectively true that slavery is wrong-for-X and there is an objective moral fact that makes it true; it is just that this fact is X's being in a certain state.
What makes moral subjectivism subjective is that it allows that what is good/evil for one subject may not be good/evil for another. If moral subjectivism is true, and I am an abolitionist who is repelled by the thought of slavery, but you are a Southern slave holder who feels no repugnance at the thought of slavery and desires to own slaves, then our respective moral judgments, despite their objective truth-makers, do not conflict. It is easy to see that 'Slavery is wrong-for-me' and 'Slavery is not wrong-for-you' are not logical contradictories. Thus they can both be true.
It is important to realize that moral subjectivism as here defined does not imply alethic relativism, relativism about truth. Don't confuse 'It is true that slavery is wrong-for-Abe' with 'It is true-for-Abe that slavery is wrong.' What the moral subjectivist is maintaining is that moral claims, if true, are objectively true; but what makes them true are the subjective states of some person, states of desire, aversion, preference, and the like.
Moral Intersubjectivist: A cognitivist who holds that the truth-maker of a true moral claim is a fact about the practices and conventions of groups of people. Thus the truth-maker of 'It is wrong to eat human flesh' is the fact that we in our society do not do such a thing. This implies that moral claims of the form 'It is wrong to do A' are elliptical for claims of the form 'It is wrong-for-the-members-of-group-X to do A.'
Moral Objectivist: A cognitivist who maintains that the facts that make-true moral claims are not facts involving the desires, aversions, preferences, goals, etc. of individual minds, nor facts involving the practices and conventions of groups. For the objectivist, we value kindness because kindness is good; it is not good because we value it. The good is not good because it satisfies desire, need, wish, or will; it satisfies because it is good. The evil is not evil because it thwarts desire, etc.; it thwarts desire, etc. because it is evil. Thus for the objectivist, kindness is good and cruelty is evil, objectively, intrinsically, i.e., not in relation to individuals or groups of individuals. Slavery is wrong in and of itself regardless of the going practices in a given society and regardless of anyone's desires or aversions.
To illustrate, suppose you happen upon a defenceless person under brutal ansd unprovoked physical assault by a much stronger person. If you are a moral objectivist, you will perceive the state of affairs as one that objectively ought not be, and will maintain that the ought-not-be-ness is what it is quite apart from social practices and conventions and individual desires and aversions.
Noncognitivist: One who denies that sentences like (1) have truth-values, and thus denies that there are moral facts as their truth-makers. The noncognitivist is a sort of instrumentalist about moral language. The moral instrumentalist denies that when we employ moral language we are ascribing moral properties to actions, state of affairs, people, or institutions. What we are doing is essentially practical, not theoretical. When I say that slavery is wrong I am attempting to change your attitude to it, or trying to persuade you to work towards its eradication.
Emotivist: A noncognitivist who holds that moral language is not fact-stating but expressive of feeling. Thus one who utters (1) expresses his disapprobation or repugnance.
Prescriptivist: A noncognitivist for whom moral claims such as (1) are essentially commands, while denying that commands have any ontological backing. A prescriptivist who says that abortion is wrong is not predicating a moral property of abortion; he is prescribing that one not commit abortion or permit them to be performed or do anything that encourages or supports their performance.
THE ARGUMENT FROM QUEERNESS
A moral objectivist, then, is a cognitivist who holds that some moral claims are true, some are false, and that the true ones have as truth-makers objective facts, facts distinct from what individuals and groups think, feel, like, dislike, do, leave undone, etc.
At this juncture we encounter J.L. Mackie's Argument from Queerness, which is one of his arguments against the objectivity of values. (See Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, pp. 38-42.) The argument has two sides, one metaphysical the other epistemological.
Metaphysically, the argument questions whether there are the sorts of 'queer' entities that there would have to be if there were such things as (veridical) perceptions of value/disvalue. Epistemologically, it questions how there could be a faculty of value perception or value intuition.
Close attention to Mackie's text discerns two metaphysical arguments from queerness. Mackie argues enthymematically, so I will have to fill in the details.
A. "If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe." (p. 38) No such strange entities exist. Ergo, there are no objective values.
B. The wrongness of a state of affairs must supervene upon its natural properties, for example, "it is wrong because it is a piece of deliberate cruelty. But what in the world is signified by this 'because'?" (p. 41) Mackie's point here is that there are two things that are queer: the axiological properties themselves and the supervenience relation (which he thinks cannot be assimilated to
logical or semantic entailment) that connects the nonnatural value properties to the natural properties that form their subvenient basis.
Given this second argument, the epistemological problem is not merely one of explaining how we can be aware of objective values, but also of how we can be aware of their linkage to facts.
Does the Argument from Queerness Prove Too Much? There is a lot that is queer in our experience, and we may that find donning the empiricist straitjacket may force us to deny the reality of much more than objective values.
Let's consider alterational (as opposed to existential) change. Do we perceive it with the outer senses? A banana on my counter on Monday is yellow with a little green. On Wednesday the green is gone and the banana is wholly yellow. On Friday, a little brown is included in the color mix. We want to say that the banana has objectively changed in respect of color. But what justifies our saying this? Do we literally see that the the banana has changed in color? How do I know that it is numerically the same banana present on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday? How do I know that someone hasn't arranged things so that there are three different bananas, indiscernible except for color, that I perceive on the three different days? On that extraordinary arrangement I could not be said to be perceiving alterational change.
To perceive alterational change one must perceive identity over time. For there is change only if one and the same thing has different properties at different times. But I do not perceive the identity over time of the banana. I perceive a banana on Monday and a banana on Wednesday; but I do not perceive that these are numerically the same banana. For it is consistent with what I perceive that they be two similar bananas. I cannot tell from sense perception alone whether I am confronting numerically the same banana on two different occasions or two different bananas on the two occasions. If you disagree with this, tell me what sameness looks like. Does your cognitive apparatus come with an identity detector?
Suppose I get wired up on methamphetamines and stare at the banana the whole week long. That still would not amount to the perception of alterational change. For it is consistent with what I sense perceive that there be a series of momentary bananas coming in and out of existence so fast that I cannot tell that this is happening. To perceive change, I must perceive diachronic identity. I do not perceive the latter; so I do not perceive change.
Should we then dismiss alterational change as a queer entity on the ground that it cannot be perceived? Mackie might just bite the bullet here and say yes, we ought to dismiss it. Bananas and such are just diachronic bundles of instantaneous temporal parts so that, at ontological bottom, all change is existential change: the coming into, and going out of, existence of these temporal parts. There is no substratum of change, no transtemporal identity. But then he is going out on an ontological limb. Why is his limb more supportive than that of the moral objectivist?
Or consider property-possession. Is property-possession sense-perceivable? If not, should we dismiss it as a 'queer' entity? Here is a white piece of paper. I see the paper and I see the whiteness. But do I see the paper's being white, or that the paper is white? Not via sense perception alone. Although I see the paper, and I see (an instance of) whiteness, I do not see the copulative link between the two. Recall that Mackie complained about the mysterious link, the relation of supervenience, that is supposed to connect a supervenient axiological property to a subvenient natural property. Should not Mackie also complain about the mysterious link that connects a piece of paper to its whiteness?
I don't claim to have refuted Mackie's arguments, but I do claim to have neutralized them by showing that they are not compelling.
In conclusion, and by way of answering one of Vlastimil's questions, I see no reason why moral objectivism is not a serious contender in the arena of metaethical positions.