Looking back at my school days, I remember a Ph.D. student in the philosophy department remarking on the differences between moral realism (the system of thought that says that there exists a literal, objective morality) and its alternatives by appealing to the consequences of holding each belief. The moral realist, he underscored, has the advantages of being able to say that society is making moral progress, and that some societies have been immoral at different times, such as Nazi Germany and slaveholding America. Moral relativists, moral nihilists, and all related parties, he pointed out, have no such recourse. So, surely, even if one is convinced that moral realism is false, this student concluded, it might be better not to mention that conviction ‘in polite company.’
In fact, the article by James Rachels which I discussed last week makes some very similar statements in its singular effort to refute cultural relativism. But is it true that believing morality is not truly objective is somehow uglier or less desirable than believing that there is an objective morality? To explore this, I will take a closer look at both sides.
Now, before anything else, it is very important to note that the relative desirability or ugliness of any given thought has no bearing on which thought is true. The least desirable thought may be true, and the most desirable thought may be false, or vice versa. But there are philosophical pragmatists like William James who feel that, in the absence of conflicting evidence, one might be justified in believing the most desirable or beneficial alternative. For such people, even noting that it is also the case that the sincerity or pragmatic value of any given thought has no bearing on whether that thought is true would be insufficient to shake the thought loose. Indeed, such a person has an entirely different definition of truth.
So, setting aside last week’s discussion of how likely it is that morality is not literally objective, and also shelving the effort of refuting or modifying philosophical pragmatism directly, I intend to show that moral realism is every bit as undesirable and ugly as its alternatives, in every practical case.
Now, in order to gauge whether one society’s morality is better than that of another, or whether any given society is making moral progress from one time period to another, it would be necessary to refer to a standard against which both societies or both time periods could be measured. As the aforementioned student points out, the moral realist believes that there exists such a standard, whereas moral nihilists, moral relativists, and adherents to other systems without an objective morality do not believe that there exists such a standard (or at least believe that the standard is not truly objective).
Taking only that fact, it is obvious how one could be tempted to say that the moral realist is on firmer ground to make the relevant judgments. But now, in pragmatic fashion, consider a real-world case. Say that moral realist A thinks that action X is the most morally correct in a given situation, and that moral realist B thinks that action Y is the most morally correct in that same situation. Who is correct? The one who more confidently declares that their morals are real and true? The issue, obviously, is that both realists take their source of moral knowledge to be the correct one. If A says that a particular book is the correct source, and B says that B’s moral intuition is the correct source, there is at present no way of deciding that one of them is definitely correct and the other definitely incorrect.
Now imagine that A is an SS officer in Nazi Germany, and that B is our friend the Ph.D. student. X and Y could be differing views on eugenics. Regrettably, absent a truly objective, universal, and consistent interface with the posited objective morality, B is actually on no firmer ground than anyone else to declare A immoral. But the problem goes deeper than that, as it is the case that many or most of the historical systems which the moral realist would want to castigate, from American slavery to European anti-Semitic blood libel to German Nazism, were established and upheld by moral realists who felt, just as the modern realist does, that morality exists objectively and that they know something about it. In light of this, perhaps the realists should be justifiably skittish about mentioning their views ‘in polite company.’
Now, here another point of order is necessary. In philosophy, a person can be a moral realist and yet hold that no human beings have access to objective morals (or indeed, that whether we have access to them, that they are real but not objective). In effect, they are claiming that, while morality exists, we don’t know what it is or what it says; the only moral knowledge entailed by this form of realism is the mere knowledge that morality exists (for a more detailed account of the various forms of moral realism and antirealism, see this encyclopedia entry). This is a position that is available, but I am proceeding as though any given moral realist would hold that they also know some or all of the facts about morality, whether from their own intuition or from some authoritative text or authority figure. The reason for this is that the somewhat weaker, more philosophical version of moral realism is not only highly uncommon in the world, but would also clearly not be able to make the bold claims about the utility and benefits of moral realism to which this article is responding.
The fact of the matter is that most people who hold that morality exists, and that it is objective, also claim that they know what is right and what is wrong. And this is where they get into very real epistemological trouble, as showcased above. The moral of the story (pun intended) is that a hard-line philosophical pragmatist should look elsewhere for the most useful and desirable conclusion; in all practical real-world cases, moral realism’s evaluative strength is null, except as an uncompromising expression of a bias or preference. And I restate once more: people holding to most other philosophical positions should already have acknowledged that there is no actual relationship between the likeability of an idea and its truth.
None of this is to say that moral nihilists or moral relativists can claim to accomplish the tasks set before them at the outset. Perhaps they can do so, under certain conditions and definitions, but none of that was argued here and it seems far more intuitive to agree that they can not. Rather, this is just to say that the moral realists’ apparent accomplishment of those tasks is tinged with any and all ugliness and fallaciousness ascribed to their opposition (with a heaping helping of the sort of absolute self-confidence that yields factional warring).
Never forget that an account of morality is incomplete without an account of moral knowledge. And if you claim to know about truly objective morality, then you had better have extremely solid evidence that your source for knowing about it is the correct source, or else it will seem to others as though you have simply deluded yourself that your opinions are facts.
The Morality Pageant: