HSV Public Lecture by Leslie Allan, at Hawthorn Community Precinct on 23 February 2017
Les explained that after completing a degree in electronics he studied philosophy part-time for nine years at La Trobe University, with a particular interest in ethics and epistemology. He is now retired but philosophic discourse remains an enduring passion, and he regularly posts essays online at Rational Realm.
Throughout last year he had a lengthy dialogue with a US professor of astrophysics, Coel Hellier, who maintained that ethics can be explained by personal preferences alone, that is, that there is nothing objective about moral reasoning. This position, furthermore, is one that is shared by many people with a scientific outlook.
The nub of Les’s rebuttal to Coel’s argument hinges on three key ideas:
- Secular humanists who label themselves as ‘subjectivists’ put themselves at a significant social and political disadvantage. Their arguments are easily discounted.
- Ethics is neither exclusively ‘objective’ nor ‘subjective’.
- Recognizing the objective dimension has a long and distinguished tradition in moral philosophy among scientific naturalists and secular humanists.
Those who oppose the subjectivist position, especially those arguing from a religionist viewpoint, reduce it to nihilism. Without an objective moral grounding, especially one that references God, they argue, any condemnation of war, oppression or crime as evil is groundless.
Most moral philosophers down the ages have argued for an objective basis for morality, albeit from widely different conceptual frameworks. But Les would take issue with:
- Theists identifying the good and the right with God’s preferences and commands.
- Intuitionists mistakenly conflating moral attributes with some mysterious realm of non-natural properties and transcendent rules.
- Neo-Aristotelians and Natural Law theorists relying on a dubious teleology of life’s evolution on earth.
- Kantian Rationalists trying to derive moral rules from the demands of pure reason.
Les argues that it is a mistake to counterpoise ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’, if the latter devolves from personal attitudes and preferences. And also a mistake to base ethics on human-independent facts.
He maintains that, rather than tapping into some transcendental realm to derive moral facts, objectivity in moral judgements could be better aligned with impartiality. This is an ideal espoused by our legal system and depicted in iconic statues of Justice, shown blindfolded in order to dispense objective judgements without fear or favour.
Accusing someone of being subjective in their moral reasoning usually connotes that they are basing their judgements on selfish reasons or of being partisan.
Some critics claim that Les has misappropriated ‘objectivity’ to fit his own position. Major dictionaries define ‘objective’ as relating to things external to the mind, with a secondary definition of ‘impartial’ and ‘unbiased’. Therefore, ‘objective’ may refer to human-independent facts, or an impartial, non-partisan position, while ‘subjective’ refers to human attitudes and preferences, with a self-referential bias, which may, or may not, be self-serving. In ethics this dichotomy is a false one. Instead, Les maintains, ethics involves both an objective, as well as a subjective, dimension.
He prefers to expand the subjective component to encapsulate the human-centredness in morality. Consider the evolutionary underpinnings of our behavior, such as the question of kin altruism in our genes, as advocated by Dawkins1, and the social learning of reciprocal altruism as described by Singer2. Our moral norms have been grounded in social contracts, customs and laws for millennia.
The objective component, on the other hand, where the impartial nature of morality is emphasized, has had a strong tradition in the history of moral philosophy. Some prominent examples include the following,
- David Hume’s (1711–76) Ideal Observer – For Hume, when we make moral judgements, we are trying to stand in the shoes of a dispassionate observer, without regard for self and our particular social group. Even though our judgments are fundamentally based on sentiment (that is, personal feelings), they are formulated from what he called a ‘general’ point of view [A Treatise of Human Nature, book III, part III, §I; Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, 228f]. Henry Sidgwick called this the ‘point of view of the universe’.
- Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) categorical imperative – Kant tried to capture this idea of
universality in his categorical imperative. This was his notion that a moral rule necessarily must be such that it is willed for all; that it be universally applied.
- Richard Hare’s (1919–2002) Prescriptivism (Oxford) – Hare built into his theory of universal Prescriptivism the idea that moral judgements are prescriptions that we want to apply to everyone.
- Henry Sidgwick’s (1838–1900) and John Stuart Mill’s (1806–73) Utilitarianism – Sidgwick, Mill and later Utilitarians encapsulated moral objectivity with their ‘principle of impartiality’. This famous principle is translated as the requirement for the equal consideration of all interests.
- John Rawls’s (1921–2002) social contract – Refining the work of earlier social constructivists, such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rawls put the requirement for ‘impartiality’ at the centre of his view of the social contract. For Rawls, our moral norms are rules agreed upon by actors communicating behind a veil of ignorance about one’s wealth, gender, nationality, etc.
So, ‘is morality a question of taste?’ Subjectivists might argue that Les’s focus on impartiality as a central objective component is nothing more than another personal preference, wrapped up in a cloud of moral disputation.
In defence, Les argues that the problem of demarcating judgements of taste from moral valuations turns on two requirements: sociality and impartiality. Sociality refers to a judgement about how we treat each other.
Subjectivists would agree with that. Impartiality necessitates, however, that the judgement must not be self-serving or parochial. In summary, for a judgement to be a moral judgement it must satisfy both of these features of moral discourse.
Follow this and additional essays at: www.RationalRealm.com
Is Morality a Matter of Taste?, Leslie Allan, <http://www.RationalRealm.com/philosophy/ethics/is-morality-matter-taste.html>
Practical Ethics, Peter Singer, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense, Coel Hellier, <https://coelsblog.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/six-reasons-why-objective-morality-is-nonsense>
- The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, 1976.
- The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution and Moral Progress, Peter Singer, Princeton University Press, 2011.
Report by Jennie Stuart