Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The anti-objectivist menu

Battlepanda thinks there aren't any objective moral facts, and so she's defying Dr. Velleman and calling herself a relativist. This reminds me of one of the big reasons why people think they're relativists -- they're unaware of the broad set of options besides objective realism and relativism. Judging from panda's post, I think she's an error theorist rather than a relativist. Let me go through two anti-objective-realist options other than relativism:

Error theory: Panda likens moral properties to Santa Claus and God, and this makes me think she's an error theorist rather than a relativist. The error theorist usually thinks our concept of a moral property is the concept of something objective. In other words, if there were moral properties, they'd be objective entities. Santa Claus, if he existed, would be an objective entity. If he existed, everyone would be speaking a truth if they said "Santa Claus delivers gifts" in their language. But the error theorist also thinks that the property of being morally right is absent from our world, just as the property of being Santa Claus is absent. This is why it's called error theory -- you hold that everyone who makes positive moral claims is in error. Battlepanda is an error theorist about Santa Claus and God, and maybe she should call herself an error theorist about morality as well.

I think many people who call themselves relativists are actually error theorists. They aren't saying that the truth-conditions of moral judgments depend on the speaker or the agent. They're trying to say that there aren't facts out there which can make moral judgments true. There are several motivations for this view. You might be perplexed about what sort of thing a moral property could be, or you might think the irresolvability of moral disagreement is a sign that we aren't latching onto any real properties in the world.

Non-cognitivism: Most people are cognitivists about morality -- they think that moral judgments express beliefs. Beliefs are truth-evaluable states -- it makes sense to talk about them being true or false. Other mental states of ours, like desires, are non-truth-evaluable. While a desire can be satisfied or unsatisfied, that's a whole different matter from being true or false. The non-cognitivist thinks that moral judgments express non-truth-evaluable mental states. These might be emotions, desires, or norm-acceptances (this last one was invented by Michigan ethics superstar Allan Gibbard). Non-cognitivism often has the benefit of making it easier to explain how our moral judgments motivate us to act. It can also allow you to retain talk of morality without requiring you to say there are any moral properties out there.

So if you're trying to figure out what your metaethical views are, the decision tree goes like this:
-First, decide if you think moral judgments express truth-evaluable mental states. If so, you're a cognitivist. If not, you're a non-cognitivist.
-Second, if you're a cognitivist, decide if you think relativism is part of our moral concepts. If not, you're an objectivist*. If you think moral judgments refer back to the speaker or the agent or their culture in the way Velleman talked about, you're a relativist.
-Third, if you're a cognitivist, figure out if the world includes the stuff that moral judgments are about. If so, you're a realist. If not, you're an error theorist.

Personally, I'm an objective realist. I take error theory more seriously than just about any objective realist that I've met, and I'm sensitive to the arguments in its favor. I just think we have a special way of knowing that pleasure is good and pain is bad, which gets us around problems in moral epistemology that trouble other ethical theories. Were it not for this, I'd be one of the few error theorists in today's philosophy world. As things stand, I'm one of the few Benthamite utilitarians.

*By objectivism I mean the view that our moral concepts are about something objective (non-relative). I don't mean the Ayn Rand junk. Stay away from the Ayn Rand junk.

Update: I've fixed the post so that "objectivist" is consistently used to refer to a view about moral concepts. Error theorists count as objectivists now. This makes the title not so apt, but oh well.

Update2: Attention Battlepanda scholars: I have since recanted the view that Panda is an error theorist. I still don't think she's a relativist in the sense that Velleman and I were talking about. Most likely, her talk of being a relativist shouldn't be read as a commitment to that position.


Blue said...


Why are there so few of us?

Battlepanda said...

Werewolf, darling.

Aren't you slicin' and dicin' this issues just a little bit too finely here? Here we are, talking about moral relativism, a concept that is widely held (if seldom acknowledged.) Is it really necessary to bring obscure terms like 'error theory' or 'non-cognitivism' into it? Like Velleman's original post, I think you have crossed the line from using semantics to clarify and using it to explain away the exception you do not like.

Besides, even taking your definition of error theory at face value, I 'm quite sure I'm not an error theorist. I didn't say that moral properties do not exist. I said that absolute morality does not exist. There is a big difference there. Morality is a human construct. An essential human construct that allows us to form societies and live with each other. But like every other human construct, it must by necessity change as human societies change. To argue that somewhere out in the ether is a perfect morality for all times, all peoples and all places really does seem as ridiculous to me as a Santa Claus that climbs down every single chimney all over the world on christmas eve to deliver presents.

Anonymous said...

As an aside, Angelica sounds kind of like a particularist. For instance, her denial that there is "a perfect morality for all times, all peoples and all places" sounds a bit like typical particularists' denial that there are any true, non-trivial moral principles which play an essential role in moral thought and/or judgment. But particularism does not entail relativism; in fact, if I'm not mistaken, Jonathan Dancy, a particularist, is a realist on Neil's definition of realism. I doubt Angelica is a realist, though.

Battlepanda said...

Oh, sure. David. Believing that there is an absolute gold standard for morality floating somewhere disconnected even if it is unknowable is being a realist, I suppose?

I think we're teetering on the edge of talking completely past each other here, so let just back up shall we?

I have firmly held beliefs. I am not a faint-hearted wuss who does not stand up for my values because I might trample on somebody elses feelings. It is precisely because my beliefs are strongly rooted in the reality of my time, place, society etc. etc. that I feel no need to prop them up with the empty premise that they must be universal somehow.

I do not care to assume titles given to me by moral absolutists who think I'm making too much sense to really be a moral relativist. Let's keep this discussion simple: Those who believe in an absolute morality are moral absolutists. Those who don't believe in an absolute morality are moral relativists. I understand that both the term absolutist and relativist have picked up negative connotations like barnicles on an old pier, but that can't be helped.

Blue said...

I agree with Angelica that "relativism" has come to mean many possible things, and has a much more general use in our culture. Like "liberal", defining what it SHOULD mean academically doesn't tell us anything useful about what the people who claim it or attack it. (Especially when it then comes to pulling quotes from historical figures who talked about relativism good or bad, but clearly were no more or less likely to be academically accurate than the rest of us).

BVXI has specific people in mind when he attacks, and most of those people know they're being attacked. And since he contrasted it with fundamentalism, Neil is probably right in what he was really talking about. (And it was us.)

TheJew said...


Evaluate the following statement:

There exists a mapping from knowledge sets to actions that is moral.

In other words, for every possible accumulation of experiences, there exists a set of correct actions. For illustration, if I had lived your life and knew what you know (and didn't know the things I currently know), would I have to be in favor of the return of the Estate Tax to be ethical (presuming you support the Esate Tax)? Or is it possible that "different people" can have different "interprtations" of your experiences, coming to hold a different set of ethics?

TheJew said...


Since Yglesias is impossible to reach through comments and I presume email, here may be a good place to introduce the meme that Relativism is a word applied by a certain school of German thought to the work of Weber, specifically by Leo Strauss. History and Natural Right is Strauss' criticism of relativism, his label of Weber's moral philosophy ("judge all cultures on their own terms" or some such thing as I remember).

Ratz no doubt was influenced by the same German philosophy as Strauss.

Battlepanda said...

Hey, thejew.

I am a simple panda with simple ideas. Perhaps in a mathamatical or philosophical sense, any given situation requiring an action will automatically yield an optimal "most moral" option. I don't know. All I know is, in the real world all we can do is to do the best we can.

Richard Y Chappell said...

"Those who don't believe in an absolute morality are moral relativists."

That simply isn't true. At least, it depends what you mean by "absolute". I don't think lying is always wrong, it depends on the situation. But once you fix the situation, there is one correct answer as to whether something is moral or immoral -- the truth doesn't vary from person to person, only beliefs do.

For example, if a Nazi comes to the door asking about the Jew in the attic, the moral thing to do is lie (assuming various facts about the situation which I won't bother to fill in here). Anyone who says otherwise is just plain wrong. But an "absolutist" would say that lying is always wrong, no matter the situation. So there's an important difference between objectivism and absolutism.

Anonymous said...

Though I wonder if she's confusing sociological with philosophical "morals" there. Compare the following concepts:

(1) The set of rules or norms accepted within a society which governs how people act.

(2) How people ought to act.

These are clearly very different. (A society may be governed by horribly immoral norms or "morals", just think back to Taliban Afghanistan.)

But I do think Angelica's core views can be saved. She says morality is "An essential human construct that allows us to form societies and live with each other."

We might develop this by saying that moral actions are those that benefit society [utilitarianism? communitarianism?], or which accord to those rules that are necessary to a well-functioning society [social contract theory]. Either way, this is objectivism, not relativism.

The question of what sort of behaviour "allows us to form societies and live with each other" is an objective one. Sure, it's not absolute; the specifics will vary according to the situation (just like, for utilitarians, how best to "maximise happiness" will vary from situation to situation). But it's not merely a matter of opinion either.

Let's be clear on just what relativism is. Suppose that, speaking of the same particular act, one persons says "that is moral" and another says "no, that is immoral". Moral relativism is the claim that it's possible for both speakers to speak truly.

This is not plausible. Fortunately, few people actually believe any such thing. Instead, they mistakenly use the term 'relativism' to apply to a broad range of different (and only vaguely related) ideas. That's what Velleman pointed out so well -- and now Neil too.

Richard Y Chappell said...

I should add that Hilzoy's post on this topic is really, really excellent.

Battlepanda said...

I see the distinction you make between absolutism (X is always wrong) and objectivism (Given the situation you described, there is only one moral decision). However, I still beg to differ.

The situation is the input. Our values are the operation. The moral decision is the output. You have chosen a situation in which involve a value that is widely shared among humans, i.e. human life is precious. Therefore it indeed appear that there can only be one moral course of action. However, by choosing objectivism, you are outsourcing the value-formation process to an infallible external authority. Where does this authority come from?

Human societies have a lot in common, and that can make some widely shared value appear to be universal. Yet unless you have a framework that explains all of morality, not just extreme examples, I am going to remain unconvinced that there always exists in every situation a most moral course to take.

Maybe you want to argue that morality is for the really important stuff. Life and death. Torture. Rape. Stuff we all agree about. But I believe such a restriction on morality weakens it. For instance, I make a moral decision to recycle even though it is inconvenient to me because my values dictate that the environment is important and I percieve it to be at risk. Yet I think it is hubris to pretend that I am taking the only moral path by recycling.

Neil Sinhababu said...

I've finally got around to commenting on the issues raised here. Apologies -- between moving, a 3-hour seminar, subletting issues, and drinking, it was a busy day.

Anonymous said...

I'm a relativist, but I don't know who Vellman is, so I might not be a Vellman relativist. :)

Just because something is relative doesn't mean it doesn't exist, nor does it mean that it's not contingent on other things...


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