A sufficiently objective morality

Refuting moral relativism without metaphysics

Ariel Pontes
Sep 17, 2020 · 26 min read
Mathematical symbols on blackboard
Mathematical symbols on blackboard
Could morality be as objective as math?

Many theists fear that without a god, there can be no objective morality. Some progressives, on the other hand, think the absence of objective morality is something to be celebrated, and see the idea of imposing one single uniform moral standard on everybody as an instance of cultural imperialism. Cynics who don’t know how to justify their questionable behaviors also appeal to the idea that morality is relative to get away with it. I think both sides of this debate are wrong. In this article I will argue that sometimes objectivity comes in degrees, and that we don’t need gods to have a sufficiently objective morality.

Traditionally, ethics has been divided into three main branches:

  • Applied ethics — deals with concrete real-world questions such as “is abortion wrong”.

The boundary between these categories is fuzzy, but considering a few contemporary moral debates is enough to see why these concepts have stuck with us. Let’s consider veganism for example. Even as a mere reducetarian, when I claim veganism is morally virtuous many people are defensive. They often say veganism is a matter of opinion and everybody should be allowed to eat whatever they want. This is a meta-ethical view commonly known as moral relativism. According to this view, morality is not objective and therefore each person has their own morality and that should be accepted. If Muslims sects in Somalia want to perform genital mutilation on their girls, it’s their business and there’s nothing we can do but accept it and move on with our lives.

In normative ethics, on the other hand, a classic example of disagreement is the trolley problem. If there’s a trolley coming towards five people and the only way to save them is by pulling a lever and diverting the trolley to another track where a single person is killed, is it our moral obligation to pull the lever? Although almost everybody agrees that it would be permissible, not everybody agrees that it is a moral obligation. Most people say they would pull the lever, but there’s still a significant number who say they wouldn’t.

Even more controversial is the footbridge dilemma, a variation of the trolley problem in which instead of pulling a lever, the only way to stop the trolley is to push a fat man from a footbridge onto the tracks. Most people say they wouldn’t push the fat man, and they appeal to several concepts such as “fundamental rights”, being used “as a means to an end”, etc. The people who say they would push the fat man, on the other hand, appeal only to minimizing harm. These people agree that there is one right answer to the question, so they are not moral relativists. But although they may agree at the meta-ethical level, they disagree at the normative level, because they disagree on what should actually be done.

Finally, discussions about applied ethics involve the application of normative ethical theories to real-world issues instead of wacky thought experiments. Those who oppose abortion appeal to the “fundamental right to life”, or the value of a “potential life”, while those who are pro-choice also sometimes appeal to abstract notions such as a woman’s fundamental right to autonomy over her body, but sometimes to the more tangible suffering of millions of women who are harmed or die every year as a result of unsafe abortions, which are in turn a consequence of policies that prioritize clusters of cells with no evidence of sentience in detriment of the well-being of adult women perfectly capable of suffering, and also in detriment of the undesired and often poor orphaned children they leave behind. Since moral relativism is a meta-ethical view, this will be the main subject of this article.

Steelmanning relativism

Before presenting an alternative to moral relativism, let’s consider the argument of A.J. Ayer, who provides one of the strongest cases that I know of in favor of a meta-ethics that is, in a broad sense, relativistic: non-cognitivism. According to non-cognitivism, moral claims have no truth value. They are neither true nor false. Ayer was a leading figure in a philosophical movement called logical positivism, which attempted to rid philosophy of mysticism and pointless metaphysical speculation, and to make it as precise and reliable as the formal and natural sciences.

Verificationism

The method by which logical positivists did this was the method of verification. According to them, in order for a statement to be considered factually meaningful, it had to be verifiable, at least in principle. If I say there are dragons somewhere in the Milky Way, for example, the truth value of this statement is verifiable. If we thoroughly search each and every astronomical body in the Milky Way and find no dragon, the statement is False. If we find at least one dragon, however, it is true. The statement is therefore factually meaningful. Note that the statement does not need to be verifiable in practice, only in principle. The statement “you are the universe”, on the other hand, is meaningless because it has no truth-condition, no method of verification, not even in principle. It is essentially as meaningless as “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”, with the difference that the former sounds more beautiful and poetic. But although poetry has value, it mustn’t be masked as science.

The concept of verifiability is important because it is not common outside philosophical circles to think of statements as being meaningless. We tend to think of any proposition as having to be either true or false. When a committed atheist is confronted with statements like “you are the universe”, “everything is energy”, or “everything happens for a reason”, for example, they may feel tempted to respond with “this is false” or “you have no evidence to assume this is true”, when in fact the appropriate response would be to say “you’re just putting words together in a way that sounds poetic and inspiring but it doesn’t mean anything”.

The unverifiability of normative statements

In Language, Truth, and Logic, Ayer (1936) argues that normative statements are unverifiable and therefore meaningless. He considers some of the attempts other thinkers have made of treating morality as an empirical enterprise, focusing on the between what he calls subjectivists, on the one hand, and utilitarians on the other.

According to him, utilitarians try to reduce normative claims to empirical claims by defining “good” or “bad” actions “in terms of the pleasure, or happiness, or satisfaction, to which they give rise.” Subjectivists, on the other hand, define “good” or “bad” in terms of “the feelings of approval which a certain person, or group of people, has towards them.” He rejects, however, that either reduction is successful. His argument is essentially that it is possible to say “sometimes the right thing to do is not the thing that maximizes happiness” without self-contradiction, and that it is also possible to say “I sometimes approve of things which are bad” without self-contradiction.

Emotivism

If when we talk about ethics we’re not talking about maximizing the overall happiness of humankind or about what certain individuals or communities approve of, then what are we talking about? That’s when Ayer introduces his own flavor of non-cognitivism, which later came to be known as emotivism. According to emotivism, when we say “stealing is wrong”, all we are actually saying is “stealing, boo!”, which gives emotivism its informal title of “hurray-boo theory”. Note that he does not say that we are saying “I disapprove of stealing” (as a subjectivist might say), because that would be a verifiable statement about one’s state of mind. We are literally just expressing our moral disapproval without making any statement. Moral judgements, therefore, are nothing more than expressions of emotion.

If this is true, however, then why do we have moral debates at all? Ayer responds to this objection by saying that we don’t actually have true moral debates.

This may seem, at first sight, to be a very paradoxical assertion. For we certainly do engage in disputes which are ordinarily regarded as disputes about questions of value. But, in all such cases, we find, if we consider the matter closely, that the dispute is not really about a question of value, but about a question of fact.

— Ayer, 1936

According to his view, when people engage in a dispute about a moral issue, they attempt to persuade their interlocutor by trying to convince them that they got the facts wrong. Two people may have a dispute about the legalization of prostitution, for example, with one side arguing that complete decriminalization of prostitution implemented by countries such as New Zealand has the best results, while others might argue that the Scandinavian model, in which selling sex is legal but buying is illegal, is more conducive to the well-being of women. We may have a dispute about whether an acquaintance did something immoral or not, but when we argue that they are not immoral, our arguments will involve, for example, convincing their accusers that their motives were in fact benign, and that he couldn’t have foreseen those negative consequences. These are factual arguments.

What’s wrong with relativism

Logical positivism is largely considered a dead movement, and the fact that aestheticians and moral philosophers continued their work, business as usual, in spite of having their entire fields of study declared meaningless is often cited as evidence supporting this view. However, I believe many of the critics of the movement throw the baby with the bath water when they fail to appreciate the importance of the principle of verification. We need a method of telling sense from nonsense, we need a better way to communicate, and the verification method can help. But does that mean we have to give up on the idea that some actions are objectively better than others morally? It depends on what you mean by objective.

As I’ve mentioned in my previous article, one of the important developments in philosophy that contributed to rendering logical positivism outdated was the idea of “language as use”. According to this movement, language does much more than describe reality, it also has an important performative dimension. When we say “get out of my property”, this is not a verifiable statement, but it is still meaningful. It is meaningful because it serves a role in a language-game. To point out that a statement has no factual content, therefore, gives us no reason to dismiss it as uninteresting philosophically. This would only be the case if we assume that the only business of philosophy is to be descriptive, but is that really the case?

When philosophers use a word — “knowledge,” “being,” “object,” “I,” “proposition,” “name” — and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home? — What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.

— Wittgenstein, 1953

In order to understand the meaning of a word or expression, we must first identify the language-game in which it is used. What is the original home of the normative claims analyzed by moral philosophers? A bit of introspection will reveal that, when we make a normative claim such as “stealing is wrong”, we are basically trying to convince our interlocutors or readers that people should act in a certain way, following some specific rules of conduct, and that those who don’t should be rightfully condemned.

The language-game of moral philosophy, therefore, is essentially a persuasion game. And how does one persuade another? By appealing to their most basic intuitions and trying to show them that some of their beliefs lead to contradictions, which are subjectively experienced as intense cognitive dissonance, and by suggesting new beliefs that will hopefully reduce the cognitive dissonance and maximize mental comfort. We are essentially trying to converge using persuasion instead of force, trying to convince as many people as possible to agree on what we should and shouldn’t do at least at a basic level.

What about relativism? Well, relativism functions essentially as an opposing force. When I say “factory farming animals for food is bad” and somebody says “that’s just your opinion”, their utterance functions practically as an attempt to stop the debate. It’s a way of saying “stop trying to convince me that I should act differently”.

So who’s right? Objectivists of relativists? Clearly, when you look at moral language as performative, neither is factually right or wrong. And it doesn’t make much sense to talk about somebody being performatively right or wrong. Perhaps, therefore, we shouldn’t be asking who’s right or wrong but whose cause we should support. But how can we decide what cause to support?

David Hume is famous for the is-ought problem. Essentially, he argues that it is fundamentally impossible to derive an ought from an is. In other words, it is impossible to derive values from facts. Our deepest moral values are simply not susceptible to any new empirical data that might come to our possession. Sure, if we discover after many empirical analyses and experiments that a certain policy regarding prostitution for example is the best policy available, our moral judgement of that policy might change. But the deeper moral principle that informed that judgement, namely that a better policy is one that reduces suffering, remains unaffected. It will not and cannot ever be affected by any new information.

Our decision on whether to support the objectivist rather than the relativist cause, therefore, cannot rely solely on dispassionate analyses of empirical facts. In order to have an ought in our conclusion, we need to have an ought in our premises. And in order to avoid infinite regress, we must start from fundamental, axiomatic oughts. But how do we find these axiomatic oughts? Since we are used to factual language, one thing that might help is trying to translate the claims of objectivists and relativists from performative to descriptive, and that’s where verificationism comes in handy.

Ayer claims that attempts to frame moral utterances as factual have failed because it is possible to say “sometimes the right thing to do is not the one that maximizes happiness” without self-contradiction. But that is only a refutation of the utilitarians if we interpret them as saying that their central claim is a logical a priori truth, just like the statement “the pythagorean theorem is true”, for example. But the central claim of utilitarianism can also be interpreted as an empirical, a posteriori truth rather than a logical one. We can interpret them as saying essentially that the most universal moral instinct is the instinct to prevent suffering, and therefore any moral system with the ambition of being universally adopted must have this principle at its core.

When other moral principles conflict, it is to the principle of utility that we must resort in other to settle the dispute. Now that we have translated the central claim of utilitarianism to an empirical claim, you may be asking yourself: is this a plausible claim? This is an important question, and I believe that yes, it is plausible. But this will be the topic of my next article. For now let’s assume it is true, and consider whether we have found a sufficiently objective ground for morality.

Pragmatic objectivism

What does it mean to say something is objective? “Objectivity” is one of those words that is hard to define explicitly. It’s easier to think about it by using examples. We may say that “how good a song is” is subjective, but “what the diameter of the moon is” is objective. The diameter of the moon feels like a fundamental property of the universe that will continue to be 3,474.2km even if nobody is there to calculate it. The diameter of the moon was discovered, while the goodness of a song isn’t discovered, but only experienced subjectively. A priori mathematical truths also feel objective. It feels like 1+1=2 is, has always been, and always will be fundamentally true regardless of whether there’s anybody in the universe to feel this intuition.

Although common in the past and to some extent still in the present, it is increasingly unusual for people to see their aesthetic preferences as objectively superior to those of others. When we say we like a song, we tend to be aware that this is our subjective opinion. However, perhaps due to our ethnocentric cultural heritage, our language is still stubbornly objectivist. We’re more likely to say “that singer is really beautiful” than “I find that singer really beautiful”. We make it sound like a statement of fact. But is it? When I hear such a sentence, I can only interpret it as factual in two ways:

  1. I find that person beautiful.

The first statement is factual because it claims nothing beyond subjective experience, and nobody can deny another person’s phenomenal reality. The second is an objective, verifiable claim about the state of affairs of the external world. Remember, both statements may be impossible to verify due to lack of technology or other practical constraints, but the important point is that they are possible to verify in principle. We could use brain scanning technology to detect whether somebody truly finds a certain person beautiful, and we could do a massive global survey to check if it’s really true that this individual is universally considered beautiful.

We usually say that claims such as “Despacito is a terrible song” are subjective because they mask a claim about one’s subjective experience (“I dislike Despacito”) as an objective claim about external reality such as “Despacito is objectively bad just like 1+1=2 and if you disagree you’re factually wrong” (which is a problematic and unverifiable metaphysical claim). “Despacito is a terrible song” could also be interpreted as “so many people dislike Despacito that we can say that it is disliked universally enough to be considered objectively bad”. This claim would be more modest, but it is also quite obviously false, otherwise its video wouldn’t be the most liked in the history of YouTube. One could try to use other objective standards such as lyrical and instrumental complexity as a metric for aesthetic quality, but aesthetics is not the topic of the present article.

The bottom line is, if a person really is universally considered beautiful — and let’s say they are considered beautiful by 100% of people for the sake of simplicity — we can say that they are objectively beautiful in a pragmatic, intersubjective sense. It is in that sense, therefore, that I claim morality to be objective. Some may argue that a few centuries ago we unanimously agreed that the Sun revolved around the Earth, and yet the objective truth was that things worked the other way around. So even if we manage to convince the entire human population that some version of utilitarianism is right, how can we know that we’re not objectively wrong in this deeper sense? Well, we can’t. But then again, we can never know for sure that we are not wrong about any empirical matter. If new data comes in tomorrow showing that the Sun revolves around the Earth, we will be forced to change our minds. Every piece of scientific knowledge we have is tentative. In science nothing is proved, only disproved.

Besides, if we are to compare ethics with other fields of knowledge, it is more similar to the formal than to the empirical sciences. Think about it: if it is immoral to torture one innocent child, isn’t it twice as immoral to torture two? And isn’t this truth at least as objective as 1+1=2? You may say that I cheated by using an “if”, and that the premise that it’s immoral to torture an innocent child is not justified. Well, that’s true, but then again the law of non-contradiction, which is widely used in mathematical proofs, is also not justified. It is an assumption. An axiom. A self-evident truth that we take for granted because we have no alternative.

Some may say “but the law of non-contradiction is accepted unanimously by literally every healthy human being”. But isn’t the law of not inflicting avoidable pain on innocent creatures also universally accepted? One may argue that it’s not, and cite as evidence the fact that people violate this law all the time. But that assumes that people cannot hold contradictory beliefs, which is demonstrably untrue. The main difference between logico-mathematical contradictions and moral contradictions is really that we learn to spot and avoid the former in school, while in the latter case we have no formal training because it is taboo.

Somehow we managed to take the monopoly on metaphysics and epistemology from the hands of religion, creating a now centuries-old tradition of teaching school children about math and science, but somehow ethics remains the monopoly of religion and specialized higher education. This is a disaster and creates a false impression that there is no consensus in ethics. But there is. Moral philosophers may disagree on highbrow questions regarding the ontology of moral truths, but that doesn’t mean they disagree about most normative matters. Even opposing normative theories largely overlap, and as I will argue in my next article, they all reduce in one way or another to the principle of utility.

Besides, a few thousands of years ago, when all humans lived in hunter-gatherer tribes, we would have disagreed not only on moral matters, but factual as well. And we still do, in the case of those who derive their beliefs about external reality from religion rather than science. Does that mean there’s no objective answer to the question “is the Earth flat”? Of course it doesn’t. Some may accuse my reasoning of being paradoxical, because on the one hand I describe objectivity as intersubjective agreement, but on the other hand I reject the idea that past disagreement counts as evidence that the objective truths of the past were different from the objective truths of today. The best way to resolve this tension is to describe objectiveness as such:

A claim becomes increasingly worthy of being called an objective truth as its propensity to become universally and stably adopted in the entire population increases.

It is worth noting that I am not claiming that it is our propensity to agree about something over time that makes it an objective truth, but that it is this propensity that gives us reason to call those truths objective. That’s why we say science is objective and hallucinations aren’t. Therefore, if our propensity to agree on certain mathematical truths is enough to make us call them objective, then our propensity to agree with certain moral truths should also be enough to make us call them objective.

The important thing about this epistemic approach to objectivity is that it gets rid of unverifiable metaphysical concerns, of the simplistic black-and-white distinction between objective and subjective, and it recognizes the imperfect and tentative nature of any legitimate system of seeking knowledge. It treats absolute objective truth as something we aim for but may never reach. According to this paradigm, therefore, to say a moral theory T is objectively true is essentially to say that it is the best possible moral theory. That it is the moral theory that we collectively tend towards. That is, any other moral theory is at most as easy, but never easier, to transform into a stable, universally accepted moral code via non-violent persuasion and appeal to universal human intuitions. Similarly, to say action A is objectively wrong is equivalent to saying that, according to moral theory T, action A is wrong.

One might say this entails some strange conclusions, such as for example the possibility that two conflicting moral theories may be equally objective. But that’s not so strange if you remember that perfect objectivity is an unreachable goal. If we have two conflicting theories that are equally objective, therefore, all we can do is wait and see if another one will emerge that will beat the two, or if we will be able to amend one of them such that it becomes more convincing than the other. Until then, all we can do is flip a coin.

Metaphysical objectivity

Many philosophers throughout history, probably influenced by our religious cultural heritage, have proposed metaphysical arguments in favor of moral objectivism, from divine command theorists such as Saint Augustine to more recent secular philosophers such as Derek Parfit. This type of objectivism is commonly referred to as moral realism, and contrasted with anti-realism, the view that moral truths don’t exist. Moral realism differs from subjectivism subtly because the latter accepts the existence of moral truths, but assert that those truths are true by virtue of respecting the moral standards of an individual or group, rather than some objective, perfectly neutral, mind-independent standard.

These view may be tempting to some, but I think any attempt to defend them is a hopeless enterprise. I don’t see how the existence of metaphysically objective moral truths could possibly be proved a priori or verified empirically. Trying to prove that is like trying to prove the existence of objective logical truths. You can’t do it. Any attempt already assumes them to be true. Postulating a divine commander also doesn’t help because:

  1. Euthyphro dilemma: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” If the pious is loved because it is pious, than there’s some absolute moral standard independent of the gods, which would mean we don’t really need the gods to have objective morality. If it is pious because it is loved, that would imply that we could rape, kill and torture children if they allowed us, which I doubt even the most committed theists would be willing to do.

At the end of the day, if we want to avoid meaningless metaphysics, we cannot dissociate the idea of objectivity from the idea of social consensus.

When Grigori Perelman proved the Poincaré conjecture, did the mathematicians at Clay Mathematics Institute offer him a Fields Medal because he found an objective truth? Or because he tickled their brains with appeals to universal mathematical intuitions, making them have an experience of profound mental satisfaction at the thought of it being true? It is impossible to distinguish these two options because they are basically the same thing being described at different levels of analysis. Ultimately, all we can say is that we feel there is an external reality with objective properties. I feel the law of non-contradiction is objectively true. I feel 1+1 objectively equals 2. And I feel torturing innocent creatures is objectively wrong. “Objective” and “real” are just words that I use to try to describe my state of consciousness. Ultimately, everything reduces to experience.

My point is not that, because the existence of objective facts cannot be proven, we might as well do or believe anything. On the contrary. I know you’re not gonna do that anyway. You’re not gonna become a solipsist. You’re not gonna wake up tomorrow and jump out of the window expecting to fly, or assume that 1+1=3, etc. You will continue to assume some fundamental truths are objective and you will continue to interpret the input of your conscious experience in the light of those truths. And that is my point. If the basis upon which these logical, mathematical, and epistemic assumptions are grounded are no more solid than the basis upon which moral truths are grounded, then treating ethics differently from these other domains is simply inconsistent.

Leaving aside any rigorous epistemic principles, do I personally think there are objective truths that are independent of social consensus? Honestly, after having been bitten by the verificationist bug, it’s hard for me to even interpret this question. It’s very tempting for me to say that it is meaningless. But in some sense, yes, I do admit that I think there are objective truths. Logical, mathematical, and moral. But even when I think about this, I try to make it somewhat verifiable. I try to make sense of this question by asking other, more concrete questions.

If there are intelligent aliens in a distance galaxy, will they develop a similar logico-mathematical and moral system to ours? If we invent superintelligent AI and, instead of hardcoding our morality into them, we program them to learn they own morality, will their morality be equal to ours? If aliens and AI systems independently develop moral system similar to ours, is that evidence that morality is objective?

These are all very interesting questions, but I don’t think answering them should be a priority from a normative perspective. At the end of the day, even if it is proven that different beings evolve similar moralities, and moral realists argue that this evolutionary convergence is evidence that beings with characteristics similar to ours inevitably evolve towards this “moral attractor” (an objective pattern that in some sense truly exists in nature), a committed anti-realist can always say that this is just an accident of nature and that it has no normative implications. I prefer, therefore, a more pragmatic approach.

Image for post
Image for post
Visual representation of a strange attractor. The simplified idea is that if you put an animal in an environment without flying animals, that animal will be “attracted” towards the flying niche if it’s small and aerodynamic enough. If you try to simulate that again with slightly different conditions, it will develop wings again but slightly different. This “attractor” is visually represented as a shape in the space of possible evolutionary paths. Given a set of initial conditions, we cannot predict the exact path, but we can know it will be constrained in that space (e.g. the animal will not evolve rotor blades, it will for sure develop some kind of wings). The evolution of morality may work similarly.

Refuting moral relativism

If “stealing is wrong” can be translated to “according to the best possible moral theory, stealing is wrong”, how can we translate moral relativism to an in principle empirically verifiable claim? The only way I can do it is by interpreting it as claiming that there is no best possible moral theory. Our moral instincts are so diverse from population to population that there is no hope that we could possibly ever converge. The present amount of agreement is the maximum amount possible. Convergence has ended (if it ever happened) and we have reached our peak of moral unity. Now that we have two opposing empirical claims, we can ask: which one is more plausible?

It doesn’t take very advanced research to notice that the history of humanity has been one of constant moral convergence. The abolition of slavery, of cruel forms of punishment, the emancipation of women, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the growing popularity of the vegan movement are all very illustrative outcomes of this trend. In The Expanding Circle, Peter Singer argues that this tendency is in large part a result of the fact that our capacity to reason and think logically naturally predisposes us to look for deeper underlying principles behind our everyday moral intuitions, and once we do that we quickly realize that the fact that we don’t like to be harmed or see our loved ones harmed is only an instance of the broader principle that harm is bad, period.

In most of our evolutionary history, we couldn’t afford to practice nonviolent resistance, follow a strict vegan diet, or donate resources to less fortunate tribes. We simply had to fight back, eat whatever we found, and hoard resources to be sure we can survive in harsher times. As we transitioned from a hunter-gatherer to a sedentary lifestyle, started to create technology and political institutions that increased our level of safety, and started trading with distant peoples, it started to become increasingly harder to justify extreme favoritism. Much more could be said about our history of moral progress, but this isn’t the main focus of this article. For those who are interested, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker provides an extensive review of the science on this topic. The point is, this is an empirical question that experts have researched and, according to our best knowledge, everything seems to indicate that we have been converging and there is no reason to presume that this is our peak. In that sense, therefore, we have a lot more reasons to believe relativism is wrong than right.

Moral relativism dies hard because it provides an easy answer to a fundamentally important question that anybody with an inquisitive mind has asked at some point: why do people disagree so much on moral issues? According to moral relativism, people disagree because morality is a cultural artifact just like music, cuisine, etc. Different cultures develop differently due to arbitrary variation in environmental conditions and therefore the moral values of any population will be equally valid just like the food or music of a culture is not objectively superior to the food or music of another.

This may seem like a potentially plausible philosophical point, but it fails to recognize the fact that historically we agree more than ever, and there is no reason to believe this trend will stop or revert. But perhaps an even bigger problem is that this factual (though historically myopic) observation almost always comes hand in hand with an accompanying prescription. Namely, that because morality is relative, we should leave others alone. But if moral relativism is true, then that’s just your opinion. Why should I respect it? Clearly, we are confronted with a paradox. Of course, most often the paradox won’t be explicitly stated, but it will almost always be implied. If you want to refute a moral relativist, therefore, the best thing you can do is ask: are you saying I should leave you alone because morality is relative?

Because saying “yes” would mean to accept defeat, the only thing they can do is give up on this veneer of factual sounding language and expose the true speech act hiding behind it. This means being direct and saying something like “stop trying to change my mind” or “stop being imperialistic”. Unfortunately for them, this also sounds like accepting defeat. Returning to our example of veganism, a cynical anti-vegan relativist might try to sound rational and dispassionate by saying that you will continue to preach that veganism is good and they will continue to eat meat and that neither is either right or wrong and that it is what it is. This is a fair enough view in principle, but in reality nobody lives up to that level of moral nihilism.

Every moral relativist has a pet peeve that will trigger their moral outrage circuitry. Maybe they hate anti-vaxxers. Maybe they think taxation is theft. Maybe they think imperialism is bad. Maybe they hate a certain politician. Or maybe they hate vegans who protest in steakhouses. All you have to do is find what they hate and make them see that inconsistency. In practice, most people who use relativistic arguments do so not out of strong meta-ethical convictions, but in a desperate ad hoc attempt to justify their behavior and opinions instead of changing them, or simply for the sake of being stubborn and getting back at you for making them feel judged, even if you did all you could in order to not make them feel judged (which you should).

Unfortunately, many people are not willing to admit they feel judged even to themselves, especially men, since that is perceived as a sign of vulnerability. When you notice somebody is going in a relativistic direction, therefore, before starting a monologue about pragmatic objectivism and the weakness of non-cognitivism, simply find their pet peeve X and ask: is it wrong to do X? And trust me, pet peeves are better than generic examples like torturing children. People will go very far to preserve their sense of identity and prove you wrong, even if it takes biting very hard bullets. But if you threaten their sense of identity from two sides, forcing them to either accept that, say, veganism is good or that anti-vaxxers aren’t harmful, then they are less likely to defend extreme ideas such as moral relativism.

Conclusion

Humans have been killing each other over moral disagreements for hundreds of thousands of years. The diversity of moral beliefs that we see in the world today, even after decades of globalization and cultural homogenization, is seen by many as evidence that morality is as subjective as a preference for chocolate over vanilla. According to A. J. Ayer, normative claims are nothing but noises we make in order to express our subjective moral preferences, they have no truth value and are factually meaningless.

As I have argued, however, Ayer’s rejection of the utilitarian claim that something is “wrong” when it causes more unnecessary suffering than it prevents is based on the specific interpretation that this claim asserts logical necessity, when in fact it may be interpreted as an empirical claim that merely states that, deep down, everybody is a utilitarian by nature, and that the only things keeping us from realizing that are our cognitive biases and blindness to the logical inconsistencies in our own belief-systems. Ayer was right to point out that there’s a performative component to moral claims, but he went too far in implying that this is all there is to moral claims.

When you ground all your theory on a specific interpretation of what moral claims really mean, all you need in order to refute that theory is one individual who claims to mean something else, as I have just done. Unlike Ayer, I am not putting words in people’s mouths or arrogantly pretending to know better than them what they really mean when they make normative claims. I am simply explaining what I mean when I make a normative claim, and I’m offering this perspective to whoever thinks it might be useful.

In the language game of real-world moral discussions (the original home of any moral claim), to bring up moral relativism as a defense when your views are criticized as immoral is essentially equivalent to saying “stop trying to persuade me, I’m not going to change my mind”. If this is a promise, in the sense that you are committing yourself to not changing your mind, you can either admit you’re dogmatic and irrational, or you can reconsider your values.

If this is a prediction, in the sense that you’re in principle open to changing your mind but can’t imagine how it would happen in practice, fair enough, indeed you might not. Some changes need generations to take place. But still, try to be open to the possibility that you will. However, if you jump from the fact that you personally are not convinced to the conclusion that nobody can be persuaded to change their minds on moral issues, then the burden is on you to support this claim with some data, because it is an empirical claim that goes against everything we know about the history of humanity’s moral progress.

Humanist Voices

Official Secular-Humanist publication by Humanist Voices

Ariel Pontes

Written by

Secular-humanist, M.A. in analytic philosophy, volunteer at @YoungHumanIntl, blogger at ghostlessmachine.com. Support me at http://bit.ly/ArielPatreon.

Humanist Voices

Official Secular-Humanist publication by Humanist Voices

Ariel Pontes

Written by

Secular-humanist, M.A. in analytic philosophy, volunteer at @YoungHumanIntl, blogger at ghostlessmachine.com. Support me at http://bit.ly/ArielPatreon.

Humanist Voices

Official Secular-Humanist publication by Humanist Voices

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