Thursday, July 29, 2004
Objectivity and morality
What is the source of this link? Well, one source, historically, is that moral theories have been constructed by men deeply committed to the idea of objective truth. More importantly, though, there seems to be a conceptual link between the idea that moral reasons are authoritative and the idea that they are objective.
Consider this typical case: Mary arrives home and finds two messages on her answering machine. The first is from Joseph, inviting her dancing. The other is from her Rabbi, reminding her that she is scheduled to help out at the soup kitchen. Mary finds that she is conflicted. She wants to go dancing with Joseph and, perhaps, consumate their relationship. But she also feels that she should do as the Rabbi says.
The most natural way of understanding Mary's conflict is as arising between her personal desires and something else. She wants to go dancing, but demands are made on her from outside. Subjective desire is in competition with, well, what? If it's just the desires of the Rabbi, or even of the soup hungry masses, then it's a conflict of like against like. There may be some way of showing that the Rabbi's subjective desires outweigh Mary's, but because they are essentially the same kind of thing the Rabbi's desires can't trump Mary's personal wants in the way that moral concerns are commonly thought to trump merely subjective desires.
Again, there is a natural move. This time it is to the position that the demands of morality are objective. The problem then becomes that of showing that objective concerns trump subjective interests, and the prospects here look better.
That is, the prospects looked better until postmodernism, pragmatism, or Goodman, depending on your predilections. At any rate, the project of defending an objective point of view doesn't look as simple as it once did. Nowadays the challenge is to show that you can get what you wanted out of objectivity from something less.
That's the general project, anyway. In specific contexts you have to deal with the legacy of the old program before you can try to rebuild along different lines.
In The Possibility of Altruism, written about 35 years ago, Thomas Nagel claimed that, "Given any subjective principle, one can construct a corresponding objective principle which accords primary objective value to acts of the sort justified by the subjective one." This was a move in an argument ultimately intended to show, "that the only acceptable reasons are objective ones." Nagel thought that if he could get to that conclusion then the next step, the step linking objective reasons to morality, would be relatively straightforward.
As Nagel notes, the correspondence claim is only interesting if the correpsonding objective principle implies more than the particular subjective principle from which it was derived. Which is to say that Nagel needs the result that there is a set of subjective principles which don't correspond to one another, but do correspond to the objective claim. An example from math might make this more clear. Consider the statements '2=2', '4='4', and '99999=99999'. The objective version of these statements is 'for any x, x=x'. The idea is that you could use your knowledge of, say, '2=2', to arrive at the objective principle. Once you had gotten there you could then derive from the objective principle all of the other equivalencies. So Nagel thinks with reasons that you can use your subjective reason to arrive at an objective formulation, and that for this to be a useful result the subjective reason you actually used must just be one of many that could have been used.
Why is this requirement necessary? Well, if it didn't hold then it would be hard to see the point in making the move to objectivity, since there would be a one to one correspondence between objective and subjective principles. This would mean that objective principles (and hence morality) would be no more general than the subjective principles with which we started. And without such an increase in generality, Nagel thinks, the prospects for additional authority are dim. Put another way, it would make the whole business of deriving objective principles look like a whole lot of hoo haw.
What do these objective principles look like? Something like this:
- Any person P in circumstances C should do act A
- Any person P whose life is threatened may use deadly force to protect her life
Critics want to deny that useful objective principles can be derived. Their most natural course is to point out ways in which proposed objective principles fail to capture the complex particularity of concrete cases. Their maddening problem is that for any concern they raise, Nagel can just say, "I'll pack that into C." The whole debate threatens to become a contest of endurance.
What critics need is some kind of general reason to believe that general reasons aren't possible. But that presents a bit of a paradox, doesn't it?