Thursday, February 3, 2011

Problems with Objectivism and conscience on the Objectivist account.

Note to reader:

The following post is a continuation of a series of posts on this blog entitled "The Distinction Between Morailty and Ethics". Please refer to the previous posts for my overview of other moral disciplines, namely: Socratic Ethics, Relativism, Subjectivism & Humean SubjectivismFor a short introduction to the distinction between morality and ethics, please go here.

Since Objectivism is a theory that explains moral persuasion, from the school of thought of metaethics, objections to it naturally follow from the other two theories on moral persuasion. In this write-up, I plan to explore relativist and subjectivist criticisms of objectivism.

Relativist Objections:

In her famous book, Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict describes how the Kwakiutl people of the Northwest Coast of Canada, especially their chieftains, saw the death of a family member as an affront or insult that could only be overcome, and dignity and nobility restored, by killing someone - man, woman or child - from another tribe. Does this show that the value of human life - perhaps the cornerstone of morality- is not universal? Could our sense of the value of innocent human life be a cultural creation - the product of our history and our social practices- a creation that the Kwakiutl never achieved? Is morality finally then conventional as relativist claim

In Arab Bedouin culture, with its strong emphasis on communal solidarity, marriages are arranged and no one can marry, or embark on any other significant enterprise in life, without the approval of their tribes's Sheikh. Western liberal culture regards this practice as an infringement of individual freedom and self-determination. Is there any independent standpoint from which we can evaluate these conflicting traditions? Is either right or wrong? Or are they different and incommensurable social conventions as relativists argue? 

Subjectivist Objections: 

Subjectivists argue whether there can really be any moral facts? Aren't facts things that we can, at least in principle, see or touch or hear in the world around us? But, as Hume said, we cant see good and evil. So Isn't morality in us, in the way we subjectively respond to our experience? 

Aren't feelings and desires what motivate us? How can the judgement that something is good or evil be a motive?

Objectivist Disclosure:

We are justified in following, and obliged to follow, our best- that is, our informed and considered - moral judgements even when those judgements are mistaken. However, society is entitled to stop us from following our consciences when the resulting action involves significant injustice or a significant threat to public order. This means that we can give reasons for our moral beliefs and judgements; we can be mistaken in our moral beliefs and judgements, and that moral beliefs and judgements can be true and false.

That is, individuals and communities may believe that they are morally justified in following a particular course of action; but this belief may be objectively wrong. Many of those who practised paternalistic slavery did so in good conscience, believing that some races were like children and incapable of choosing for themselves; but they were mistaken in this belief- an the profound injustice of slavery entitled those who opposed the practice to force slave owner to free their slaves. 

So, if we assume that Objectivism is correct, what sorts of reasons should guide us in our moral decision-making? How do we decide what is objectively right or wrong, good or evil? Relativism and Subjectivism appear to offer immediate guidance for moral decision-making- What is the social convention here? What are my feelings on the matter? 

Socratic Ethics, Utilitarianism, Natural Law Theory, Kantianism, Divine Command Theory and Ethical Liberalism are essentially Objectivist theories (though there is a significant subjectivist element in Preference Utilitarianism) which each provide a different answer to these questions - that is, they propose very different and conflicting "basic moral norms".

In my next post, I will explore the transition from Metaethics to Normative Ethics by looking at the key elements of the Utilitarian point of view.  

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