Copyright © 2007 Bruce W. Hauptli
In my previous lecture I distinguished moral objectivism and moral relativism. Today I am going to make the case for the former position. I am not going to tell you in detail what (or what sorts of things) are "just plain wrong"—that is not my "job" here. I will make suggestions regarding what I believe here, but I will not elaborate a complete moral theory. Instead I wish to build on my last lecture and lay the groundwork for you to see that one may adopt a critical, fallibilistic, and informed moral objectivism—one which allows you to respond coherently and responsibly to the possibilities that there are individuals who might hold moral values which differ from yours (and, even, that your own morals may well be in need of some modifications).
I. On Moral Values:
To begin let’s be clear what differentiates moral values from other values. In short, consider what distinguishes ethics (or morality—I will use these terms interchangeably), on the one hand, and etiquette, law, and religion and on the other:
Each of these "areas" employs evaluative terms and language—words like `right', `wrong', `obligatory', `good', `bad', `evil', `ought', and `should'. Moreover, each is essentially tied to action, and, indeed, tied to the concept we have of ourselves as agents. But the use of evaluative terms alone doesn't make a valuation or evaluation a moral one—even when the terms are applied to considerations generally within the province of morality. Consider:In addition to employing evaluative terms, judgments in morals, law, and etiquette provide standards of behavior, and call for certain sanctions where individuals fail to comply with those standards. As the possibility of civil disobedience shows, however, the standards set by ethics are often considered to be over-riding standards—that is, they are generally considered to "cut deeper" than the conventional and legal standards.-Abortion is illegal in some places.
-It is not right to eat peas with your knife.
-Vigorous sexual activity can be good exercise.1
-In "technical" language, we can say that employing evaluative terms (even in regard to ethical considerations) is not sufficient for ethics. The distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions may be made in a number of ways. Necessary conditions may be described as "those which must be there for an event to occur, or for a concept to apply" (thus paying your parking fines is necessary for graduation), while sufficient conditions are conditions such that the event must occur or a concept must apply (thus a direct double shotgun blast to the head is sufficient for death). Note that conditions may be sufficient without being necessary (as in the example), and that necessary conditions need not be sufficient (as in the example).
Of course, many have contended that in both religion and ethics we find evaluations, standards, and sanctions which over-ride conventional and legal evaluations, standards, and sanctions. Thus, characterizing ethical evaluations, standards, and sanctions as "over-riding" ones does not yet fully capture what distinguishes this area from the religious one. In discussing the relative roles of religion and ethics, at least for the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions, the story of Abraham and Isaac is important.2 Generally speaking, religious evaluations, standards, and sanctions ultimately rely upon an appeal to authority, and in ethics (or morality) the evaluations, standards, and sanctions must be grounded in an appeal to reason.3 Moreover, at least for philosophers, the appeal to reason is considered to be more important than that to authority.
In summary, then, moral values and evaluations involve the evaluative use of certain terms or concepts to assess actions and agents in the light of over-riding standards of behavior supported by reasons. Of course, this (or any other) characterization (or definition) does not tell us what, if anything, specifically, is moral.
II. Moral Relativism Is Wrong:
My first "objectivist" claim will be that moral relativism is wrong.4 [Moral] Relativists want to claim that there is no objective [moral] truth, and the appropriate question to ask them is:
Are you saying this "absolutely?" That is, do you wish to contend that
(a) according to you (in your belief [or moral] system), there are no objective moral truths, and everyone’s [moral] values and beliefs are as "valid" as anyone else’s,Of course, as any fool can plainly see, (b) is self-contradictory. Just as one can not meaningfully say "My morals are wrong,"5 so one can not consistently say (b). On the other hand, saying (a) leads the relativist into trouble. If, in say that everyone’s values and beliefs are equally good, then you are committed to claiming that my belief that there are objective truths is right (and my belief that you are wrong is right), and this means that you have to deny your own view.
(b) there are no objective [moral] truths, and that is an absolute fact.
At best, it seems, relativists who wish to offer a general theory must say something like this:
(c) The only absolute [moral] truth is that there are no others but this one.Of course, the relativist will need to defend this claim, and its alleged uniqueness certainly seems to speak against it.
While the argument here is a "logical" one, it should be clear that it applies much more broadly than it is generally taken to apply. Many people, for example, believe we should all be "tolerant" of other’s values, moral stances, etc. Such individuals see no problem maintaining that the "virtue" (or "value") of toleration should apply universally. Unfortunately, these individuals run into "logical" trouble when they are confronted by others who don’t value toleration. When they are confronted with the possibility that there are such individuals or groups, the tolerant people must say that they want to tolerate them and their values. But if they do so, they end up committed to an acceptance of intolerance! Here they fall prey to the relativists’ mistake noted above.
Now the philosophic argument on this issue certainly continues (there are those who advance "relativistic notions of truth," those who deny there is a contradiction here, and those who try maneuvers to slip between the "horns" of the dilemma) but I will content myself with this argument against relativism.
Those who raised your hands twice in response to Professor Placide’s questions last week ("How many of you are relativists?" and "How many are objectivists?") evidence just the sort of inconsistency I am pointing to with this argument. Of course we are all capable of holding, indeed holding deeply and strongly, to inconsistent positions! The propensity here is an understandable, but lamentable, theoretical inconsistency (rather than a praiseworthy plasticity of mind).
As Simon Blackburn notes,
…to have a stance is to stand somewhere, and in practical matters…that means being set to disagree with those who stand somewhere else.III. Moral Objectivism Isn’t Committed To the "Only One Right Answer Thesis:"
If relativism, then, is just a distraction, is it a valuable one or a dangerous one? I think it all depends. Sometimes we need reminding of alternative ways of thinking, alternative practices and ways of life, from which we can learn and which we can have no reason to condemn. We need to appreciate differences….But sometimes we need reminding that there is time to draw a line and take a stand, and that alternative ways of looking at things can be corrupt, ignorant, superstitious, wishful, out of touch, or plain evil. I t is a moral issue, whether we tolerate and learn or regret and oppose.6
In discussing "moral objectivism," we need to guard against an "Enlightenment presumption"—the view that there must be a single, simple, systematic set of answers to our concerns. This is a point upon which I ended my previous lecture. As I noted, in her "Postmodernism, Pluralism, and Pragmatism," Catherine Elgin maintains that:
vacillation between the absolute and the arbitrary stems from a failure to recognize the availability of an alternative. Either there is one right answer or there is not. That is obviously true. The error arises when we interpret the second disjunct as "or there is none." One way there can fail to be one right answer is that there is none. Another is that there are several. To say that a problem does not admit of a unique solution is not to say that it is unsolvable or that all proposed solutions are equally good. A math student asked to give the square root of 4 can correctly answer +2 or -2. But the fact that there are two correct answers does not entail that every answer is correct. She cannot hope to get credit if she answers 17. Likewise, a work like Madam Bovary admits of multiple correct interpretations. But not every interpretation is correct. The work cannot plausibly be construed as a commentary on the fall of the Roman Empire or a story about a boy and his dog.7We need to exercise care here because, as Elgin points out, there may be more than one objectively correct answer to a "moral question." There may well be several correct interpretations of, then, of Huck Finn, but no such interpretation can ignore the moral quandary Huck finds himself in as he and Jim come close to the point where Jim will have escaped.
IV. On Moral Skepticism:
Moral evaluations, judgments, and choices become important in situations where one is presented with a conflict—where one must choose between competing alternatives. As Christine Korsgaard says in her "The Normative Question," some moral theorists contend that
we have normative concepts because we are aware that the world contains normative phenomena, or is characterized by normative facts, and we are inspired by that awareness to construct theories about them.
But that is not why we have normative concepts. The very enterprise we are engaged in right now shows why we have those: it is because we have to figure out what to believe and what do. Normative concepts exist because human beings have normative problems. And we have normative problems because we are self-conscious rational animals, capable of reflection about what we ought to believe and to do.7a
The conflicts which engender such problems may arise within our moral theories or principles; between our principles and our sympathies; or as we confront others whose principles, theories, or sympathies differ from ours. Such conflicts and the resultant discussion of them leads some to be moral skeptics—individuals who accept that there is such a thing as objective moral rightness, but who believe that we can not know what actions and agents have this property. The moral skeptic, then, is a pessimistic moral objectivist who holds that there are moral truths, but holds that these are beyond our ken.
I will not offer an argument against the skeptics as I did against the relativists. But I need to undercut one bad reason for moral skepticism. Recognizing the problems with moral relativism, some individuals adopt the skeptical orientation because they are uncomfortable rendering overriding evaluations of others when such conflictive situations arise. These individuals wonder “Who are we to judge?” and, in the spirit of toleration, they precind form contending that anyone knows the “right answer” (or “right answers”) in such cases. Huck Finn is clearly uncomfortable as he confronts the conflict between this moral principles and his sympathy for Jim, and unable to rationally resolve the conflict, he chooses “to do whatever comes handiest.” Like Huck, many individuals refuse to evaluate and judge others when such conflicts arise, but, instead, hold that we can not judge and evaluate the others because we lack access to the “true, real, correct, or right” evaluative perspective. This attitude seems to encourage tolerance. In her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education, Martha Nussbaum maintains that:
students tend to think that skepticism is a way of being respectful to others. But good teaching will show that to refuse all application of moral standards to a foreign person or culture is not really a way of treating that person with respect. When we refuse to make judgments that we make freely in life with our own fellow citizens, we seem to be saying that this form of life is so alien and bizarre that it cannot be expected to be measured by the same set of standards. This is another way of being patronizing.7bIn short, she thinks there is something wrong with adopting the moral skeptic’s orientation. I will appeal to three examples in what follows, and if you find these appeals at all compelling, then skepticism should lose much of its appeal to you as you will be agreeing, hopefully for good reasons, with me that there are some specific objective moral truths. Of course, if you agree with me regarding these appeals (again assuming you have largely the reasons that I have), you will also be agreeing with me that moral relativism is wrong. You could agree with my claims that moral relativism and skepticism are wrong without accepting my specific examples, of course, but I will hope that we can find some common [moral] ground here.
V. The "Obliging Stranger" and Moral Objectivism:
William Gass’ "The Case of the Obliging Stranger" speaks to us in a way which undercuts moral relativism and moral skepticism.8 As he says,
any ethic that does not roundly condemn my action [baking the obliging stranger] is vicious. It is interesting that none is vicious for this reason. It is also interesting that no more convincing refutation of any ethic could be given than by showing that it approved of my baking the obliging stranger.9Generally, Gass recognizes, when we are in doubt about what it is which is "right" (or "moral"), it is important that we first hunt for facts. Here is his example:
"She left her husband with a broken hand and took the children."He goes on to note that where more facts don’t lead us into agreement, we should work to redescribe the case:
"He broke his hand on her head."
"Dear me; but even so!"
"He beat her every Thursday after tea and she finally couldn’t stand it any longer."
"Ah, of course, but the poor children."
"He beat them, too."
"My, my, and was there no other way?"
"The court would grant her no injunction."
"Judge Bridlegoose is a fool."
"Ah, of course, she did right, no doubt about it."
if more facts do not clear the case, we redescribe it, emphasizing first this fact and then that until it is clear, or until we have several clear versions of the original muddle. Many ethical disputes are due to the possession, by the contending parties, of different accounts of the same occasion, all satisfactorily clear, and this circumstance gives the disputants a deep feeling for the undoubted rightness of each of their versions.10In effect, Gass is appealing to the technique of reflective equilibrium which I mentioned in my last lecture. He is recommending that we critically examine the specifics of the situation which is engendering our moral disagreement in a manner which ensures that we are agreeing to a common characterization of the central aspects of the case. Hopefully we can get all the disputants to accept a single common description of the situation and the facts involved.
Sometimes, as he notes, we find ourselves agreeing on the facts and the overall description of the situation, but we find ourselves differing over the moral principles which we take to be involved. Here he says that
principles really obscure matters as often as they clear them. They are generally flags and slogans to which the individual is greatly attached.11In effect, he again appeals to reflective equilibrium to help us deal with conflicts within or between different moral theories and principles. He is concerned that we recognize that we need to focus upon the individuals and actions which our moral theories "are supposed to be based upon" [and concerned with] rather than with the principles and theories. That is all the help Gass gives us however: remember that ethics is about people, be careful as to how you describe the facts, be flexible and willing to redescribe cases, and watch out for principles.
Ethics, I wish to say, is about something, and in the rush to establish principles, to elicit distinctions from a recalcitrant language, and to discover "laws," those lovely things and honored people, those vile seducers and ruddy villains our principles and laws are supposed to be based upon and our ethical theories to be about are overlooked and forgotten.12
This might well seem to leave us with either skepticism or relativism—but given his initial claim about ethics and the case of the "obliging stranger," this would be the wrong "moral" to draw from his essay. Remember: we are to rebuke and reject any theory which (and any individual who) does not condemn the treatment of the baking of the stranger.
Look, next, at the paraphrased version of Ted Bundy’s statement.13 Whereas Gass’ case is wholly imaginary, Ted Bundy’s is all too real. He explains to his victim (who he had failed to kill) that her life is of no more consequence to him than that of a "hog or steer." When he says "in any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you," it is important that you visualize him saying this to her directly, and that sends a shiver down my spine!
Here we are not dealing with fiction, we have a real case. In this case, I contend, we confront something which is just plain wrong. As Gass says, "that is really all I have to say--but I will not stop on that account!"
VI. Taking A Stand:
I am a fallibilist at heart—I recognize that we are, at best, fallible judges of the truth (whether we be talking about science, history, or morals). Our assertions, assessments, valuations, and evaluations are subject to correction. For this reason I will not tread too much further down the path of telling you what things (or sorts of things) are "just plain wrong." I accept the possibility that I could be wrong in regard to the two cases I have discussed (Gass and Bundy). But I accept this possibility only because I am a committed fallibilist and, thus, eschew certainty. I must, however, be totally frank and honest with you about these two cases:
(a) I don’t believe that any further facts would change my evaluation;In short, I contend that these examples are examples which should, all things considered, lead people to adhere to moral objectivism. Now I recognize that those individuals who march people off to slaughter, Gass’ "experimenter," Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer will probably demur from my conclusion, I don’t think I have to convince them (though I would like to). They may disagree with me, but that just means they are morally corrupt, bad, or evil. Moreover I believe that if we take our moral responsibilities and values seriously, we have to be willing to say this. As Blackburn says, "to have a stance is to stand somewhere, and…that means being set to disagree with those who stand somewhere else."14
(b) I don’t believe there is any way to redescribe them which would change my evaluation;
(c) While I recognize the importance of context in our descriptions, valuations, and evaluations; I don’t believe that my condemnation of the acts and individuals in these cases is only correct from "my" (or "our") perspective or context; and
(d) I don’t believe that I am here in the throes of some passion, or subject to a zealous adherence to some moral principle or theory.
Now I am not sure you will agree with me on these two cases. But if you do, there is still much hard work ahead of us if we want to be considered objectivists—that is if we want to prepare ourselves to deal with some of the evaluative and valuational conflicts which we have seen can come up as we “inhabit other lives.” There are going to be many hard cases—ones where it is not at all clear what we should say prior to extended reflection, ones where our emotions or our principles may get in the way of our examination of others' values and evaluations, or ones where it is hard to engage in the search for facts and to redescribe the situation. In these cases the objectivist urge is strong, and those of you who "raised your hands both times," find yourselves almost unable to take the relativists' side. While I, of course, don't want to encourage a return to relativism (or to skepticism), I think we need to engage in serious reflection in such cases!
You’ve had an opportunity to think about the obliging stranger and about Ted Bundy, and I will briefly outline another real case for you to consider. In Germany Armin Meiwes advertised on the internet for individuals who would be willing to be eaten by him. Meiwes wanted to be a cannibal, and he wanted a willing subject to be his lunch, so to speak. Bernd Brandes replied to the inquiry, and after meeting and discussing the situation fully, they agreed to participate in a joint activity. Meiwes killed Brandes consumed at least 44 pounds of his flesh. Now this case certainly seems to call for Gass’ line “something has been done wrong. Or something wrong has been done”—at a minimum it allows for a new rendition of Shakespeare: “To Be, Or To Be Lunch?”
But, was something wrong done? Here we have two consenting adults with compatible desires willingly choosing to fulfill one another’s wishes—Meiwes wanted to be a cannibal, and Brandes wanted to be eaten. If one allows that generally individuals should be allowed to set out a plan for their lives as long as they don’t harm others, then how can we intervene to prohibit someone whose life-plan is to “be lunch?”
How should we approach such cases? Well, let's follow Gass' suggestions. First seek further facts. So, we go to the internet. We learn that over 200 people responded to Meiwes' inquiries; that he interviewed two others besides Brandes and rejected them as "candidates;" that Brandes came to Meiwes' farmhouse, consumed 20 sleeping pills and a bottle of schnapps, and that Brands then, as they had agreed, removed a body part from Brandes and fried it for them both to eat. After discussing their meal, and bleeding badly, Brandes retired to a shower and bleed. Subsequently Meiwes stabbed him in the neck and after he died he butchered the body, and froze future meals. We know all of this because of the lengthy video-tape which captures much of what occurred including Brandes willing participation in the activity.
Do these facts help lessen our moral disapproval? What other principles besides allowing individuals to freely pursue their life-plans seem to be relevant here? Note that in Germany cannibalism is not illegal (and Meiwes was sentenced to manslaughter and he will serve a sentence of eight and a half years). Does it matter that Meiwes talked openly about his activity on a cannibal web-site (it was only after someone reported what they had read in his chat room that Meiwes was arrested), that he met with at least five other respondents to his inquiry after he and Brandes had completed their compact?
VII. Reflective Equilibrium, Critical and Fallibilistic Valuing, and Finding One’s [Moral] Narrative Voice:
Now some of you are certainly wondering how I can be so uncompromising, so certain, so absolutistic, in regard to the obliging stranger and Ted Bundy, but so conflicted about the German cannibalism case. Those who have paid attention are especially confused given my fallibilism, naturalism, contextualism, and anti-essentialism! Let me try and make my view clear.
My fallibilism makes me cautious in my assertions, valuations, and evaluations. While I accept the possibility that today’s science and medicine might not be the ultimate truth, however, I think those who don’t accept the chemists’ accounts of the nonpotability of hydrochloric acid or the accounts of their illness offered by surgeons are fools. It would take some really extraordinary events before I could even begin to consider giving up these sorts of beliefs and theories. I recognize, however, that practicing scientists actively subject their beliefs and theories to serious tests—they actively try to falsify, and are comfortable with theories and beliefs only if they survive repeated critical scrutiny.
Unlike what we can do in the case of our scientific beliefs and theories, however, in the case of moral valuations and beliefs it is clearly inappropriate to engage in empirical investigation. You, for example, would certainly not want me to conduct an experiment on you regarding the effects of unjust grading! I am far more willing to continence the possibility that I am wrong in my moral values and evaluations than I am in my scientific believings and theorizing, and so here too I want to actively look for possible errors. Given the inappropriateness of empirical investigation, however, I employ the technique of reflective equilibrium. I think cases like Gass’ (which I first confronted as an undergraduate much like yourselves) allow us to critically and creatively examine our valuations and evaluations.
It is important that we note that this technique is not scientific—there is no way to reduce this process to a set of mechanical steps or a simple rational algorithmic process. Moreover, there is an inherent subjectivity in this process which is not found in the process of testing our scientific beliefs. We employ stories (narratives) because we shouln’t experiment on real people, and in these narratives we speak not only of the factual situations, but also of the values, valuations, and feelings of the individuals involved. Indeed, it is a process which heavily relies upon both the appeal to emotions and to "narrative understanding." Bierce, Bennett, and Sacks do much to portray, as far as possible what it is like to be the individuals they are discussing. They try to place us, as far as possible, within their setting.
I contend that it is by doing so that we become able to look anew and critically at our own beliefs, evaluations, passions, and values. In effect these writers and I are promoting a form of narrative understanding. This sort of understanding is radically different from the sort of "analysis-and-synthesis" model of understanding offered by Wilson. The goal of such narratives is not simply to present "alternative" lives to us. Bierce, Bennett, Sacks, and Gass are not simply describing other's lives and asking us to simply say "Oh, that's different." Instead, they are endeavoring to engender a critical self-understanding—they want us to critically consider our valuations and evaluations of both our own and of other's lives, values, and beliefs.
The central question such a narrative understanding is concerned with is: "What sort of person will I be?" To answer this question one must, of course, have an understanding of what sort of person one is, and one must have some idea of what the available alternatives are, and here the activity of "inhabiting other lives" is important (both in terms of being an "insider looking in from the outside," and in terms of being an "insider looking outside").
These activities, however, are not pursued for their intrinsic value or intellectual interest. Instead, they are pursued here so that one may critically inhabit one’s evolving life in a manner which allows one to take responsibility for the narrative you are writing. In effect, each of you is writing a biography. While you may at times feel like you are "many characters" who are "in search of an author," and while your life story is partly conditioned by your past, your family, your culture, and your biology, you must ultimately take responsibility for the story you are writing with your actions. There are many factors which make "normal writing" difficult for all of us. We have to decide whether to employ the active or passive voice; whether to write in the present, past, or future tense; whether our sentences are garbled and awkward; and what style works best for us. Moreover, at least for the writing we do here at the University, we have to decide whether to plagiarize, obfuscate, employ sexist language, etc.
The narrative responsibility I am highlighting, however, is far more serious. If your biography is plagiarized, the life you live is really not yours. If your biography is garbled, unclear, contradictory, or without a coherent thesis, then the "fault" is wholly your own—you had the opportunity to edit, revise, and critically consider before you hit the "send" button.
There are many editorial choices, of course. You can (and should, I contend) be concerned whether or not the biography you are writing is "moral" and whether or not it is beautiful"—and I believe we should all strive to write our biographies as well as Gass writes his prose.
1 These examples are used by Fred Feldman in his Introductory Ethics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1978), on p. 4 as he offers his characterization of ethics. Back
2 Divine Command and Natural Law theories of morality, of course, assign an important role in morality to religious considerations. This is a qualification which takes us too far afield at this juncture however. Back
3 If I were to try and give "the full story" here, I would have to say that they must be grounded in reason, the emotions, and the appetites; and I would have to add some qualifications regarding culture and society. These refinements are too technical for our discussion however. Back
4 Cf., Simon Blackburn, “Relatively Speaking,” which may be accessed from http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=12. The essay is my core departure-point here (though the argument he offers is one which has been frequently offered by anti-relativists throughout the history of Western thought). This essay originally appeared in Think (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1999). Back
5 See the argument in my lecture Relativism, Objectivism, and Judging and the associated readings (Ambrose Bierce, "The Horseman In The Sky," San Francisco Examiner, 04/14/1889); and Jonathan Bennett, "The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn," originally in Philosophy v. 49 ). Back
6 Simon Blackburn, “Relatively Speaking,” op. cit., p. 2. Emphasis added to the passage at three points. Back
7 Catherine Elgin, "Postmodernism, Pluralism, and Pragmatism," in her Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary (Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1997), pp. 161-175, p. 194. Emphasis added to the passage twice. The whole book is, of course, of central relevance to the orientation which I am appealing to here. Back
7a Christine Korsgaard, "The Normative Question," in The Sources of Normativity, ed. Onora O'Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1996), pp. 7-48, p. 46. Back
7b Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1997), pp. 137-138. Back
8 William Gass, “The Case of the Obliging Stranger,” The Philosophical Review v. 66 (1957), pp. 193-204. Back
9 Ibid., p. 193. Back
10 Ibid., p. 202. Back
11 Ibid., p. 203. Back
12 Ibid., p. 204. Back
13 The paraphrase is from a tape-recorded conversation between Ted Bundy and one of his victims in Henry V. Jaffa’s Homosexuality and the Natural Law (Claremont: The Claremont Institute of the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, 1990), pp. 3-4. Back
14 Simon Blackburn, “Relatively Speaking,” op. cit., p. 2. Back
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Revised on Thursday, July 16, 2015