Why Moral Subjectivism Doesn’t Imply Moral Relativism
I seem to spend an awful lot of time defending my moral anti-realism from claims that without objective moral values, then morality is merely subjective.
However, this equivocates over two possible senses of ‘subjective.’
Given I don’t believe there are objective moral values, I do subscribe to a subjectivism of sorts. However, it’s not the subjectivism that says ‘what is right and wrong is entirely down to what I believe is right and wrong at the time.’ This kind of subjectivism slides easily into mad-dog moral relativism, a kind of free-for-all where the justification for any moral norm is that I believe it to be so.
That’s not the kind of subjectivism I’m in to.
The other kind suggests that what makes something right or wrong is not dependent on my personal proclivities, but on a common set of norms as agreed to by a group. Now, there might be disagreement over these norms or their specific applications, but there’s an agreement – implicit or explicit – that there does exist a right and wrong way to behave.
If I buy in to that agreement – that social contract if you will – then I’m bound to those norms irrespective of my personal desires or interests at the time. I might really want to lie, cheat or steal, but if I’m privy to the moral agreement, then I’m morally obliged not to.
The subjectivism comes in because there’s nothing objective, necessary or logically binding about my buying in to the moral agreement. In fact, for most people, their buy-in is implicit. And I’d suggest that virtually everybody does buy in to the moral agreement because, in the long run, it serves their interests – even if it forces them to quash certain proximate interests from time to time.
(There’s a bit of Allan Gibbard’s norm expressivism here, but I wouldn’t necessarily subscribe to Gibbard’s language, or his analysis of moral terms.)
Should someone not buy in to the moral agreement – or only do so when it suits them – the rest of the morally-bound community will probably not react well. You know, getting all stabby and lynchy and such. And there we have the basis of external moral motivation.
So, yes, there is some subjectivism about in my account of morality. But it’s not the kind of subjectivism that says I can make morality any way I want so that it suits me. It says that we all get together, nut out a set of behavioural rules, agree to abide by them, and then we’re bound. Not logically, but subjectively by agreement.
And I really don’t think that this, in any substantial way, undermines morality or moral authority. In fact, I think morality has been working this way throughout history already. It’s not been perfect, but as far as morality has worked, it has worked this way.
Some, such as Richard Joyce, worry that revealing this fact about morality – and the corresponding revelation that there are no objective values – means we might all throw our arms in the air and start looting. I’m more inclined to agree with Joshua Greene that the sooner we abandon any pretence that there are objective moral values – and abandon the often lethal arguments over who’s rendering of moral truth is the correct one – the better we’ll be.
The sooner we realise that morals are negotiated and agreed upon, the sooner we’ll loosen our grip just enough to encourage more tolerance and flexibility.
So there – subjectivism isn’t subjectivism isn’t subjectivism. And that’s alright.