Objecting to Objectivism: Ethics as an Epiphenomenon June 3, 2014Posted by Shaun McGonigal in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: ethics, moral values, Objectivism, philosophy, relativism, subjective experience
OK, I give up on the analysis of Ayn Rand. It’s repetitive, annoying, and it’s not getting us anywhere. Ayn Rand was a terrible philosopher, she should not be taken seriously, and selfishness simply cannot be the basis for anything ethical. So, instead, let’s look at some idea which might actually get us towards an objective ethics.
Or, more precisely, an intersubjective ethics.
Why not objectivism?
Clearly, Rand’s rationalized whims dubbed objective was a philosophical failure. Her system was egoism in disguise, a projected set of values onto the tapestry of the universe. In the end, it was no different from Plato’s ironic projection of his thoughts onto the outside of the cave (ironic because it was the very phenomenon of projection that he thought he was correcting). Ayn Rand thought her selfish values were universalizable.
But beyond Rand’s particular brand of “Objectivism”, there is a further problem with moral objectivism as it is conceived in ethical philosophy. Here, for example, is how the distinction between objective and relativistic ethics is described on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The metaphysical component of metaethics involves discovering specifically whether moral values are eternal truths that exist in a spirit-like realm, or simply human conventions. There are two general directions that discussions of this topic take, one other-worldly and one this-worldly.
If you read the rest of that section, you will see this distinction played out between immutable objectively true moral codes or values pitted against either individualistically derived or culturally maintained sets of ideas which are dependent upon human thought. Here are a couple snippets from that page:
Proponents of the other-worldly view typically hold that moral values are objective in the sense that they exist in a spirit-like realm beyond subjective human conventions. They also hold that they are absolute, or eternal, in that they never change, and also that they are universal insofar as they apply to all rational creatures around the world and throughout time.
Technically, skeptics did not reject moral values themselves, but only denied that values exist as spirit-like objects, or as divine commands in the mind of God. Moral values, they argued, are strictly human inventions, a position that has since been called moral relativism…. In addition to espousing skepticism and relativism, this-worldly approaches to the metaphysical status of morality deny the absolute and universal nature of morality and hold instead that moral values in fact change from society to society throughout time and throughout the world. They frequently attempt to defend their position by citing examples of values that differ dramatically from one culture to another, such as attitudes about polygamy, homosexuality and human sacrifice.
Ever since I started reading philosophy, around the age of 14 or so, something about this distinction bothered me. It bothered me so much that my MA thesis was geared around the ontological aspects of this same distinction, as it pertained to the relationship between science and religion (ontology, to be more specific) especially.
I have come to conclude (tentatively, of course) that this philosophical dichotomy–whether between ontological realism or anti-realism, objectivism or relativism, etc–is a kind of cognitive splitting. And sure, I’m aware that many thinkers have existed in the many grey areas between such extremes, but I feel that defining the problem in such dichotomies isn’t helping and perpetuates us thinking of these questions in terms of ethics being either objective or relative, when it might be neither.
I believe that there is a nuanced and subtle way to appeal to the cognitive, emotional, and social advantages of both objective morality and relativism. If this approach is sufficiently powerful, it could establish a metaethical, normative, and potentially applied ethical way of thinking which achieves the best of both worlds, as it were, without sacrificing either reality or the sense of shared values. That is, such an approach may satisfy our desire for consistency and meaning which objectivist approaches provide, while at the same time allowing our individual subjective experiences to not be truncated by proposed “objective” truths which those experiences might contradict.
Truth, after all, must rise out of subjective experience and be weeded out by empirical methodologies. Truth is not derived from meditating on universal imaginary worlds, revelation from gods, or ideologies. Truth is the thing that individual people conceive of and offer to the rest of us to test, criticize, and perhaps accept as worthy of adoption. We should think of whims, values, and ethical preferences the same way.
The parts of us that are attracted to the certainty of an objective moral foundation, whether from religion, reason, etc, look for a way to project our individual experiences, values, and conclusions onto the world. It creates the illusion that our values are not merely opinion. But the parts of us which recognize the diversity and (often) contradictory nature of those subjective experiences will balk at the possibility of there being an objective reality to ethics. Whether people see this subjective diversity as the source of evil, chaos, or mere inefficiency, it creates a problem in establishing any shared ethics.
Whether we feel compelled to myopically obsess over our own values and desires or to altruistically sacrifice for the sake of the whole (as well as all the grey areas in between, of course) are one type of approach to addressing this problem, but it is not the only way.
Ethics as an emergent property of society
There is no Platonic world of Ideas, divine creator, or some other objective source of moral conclusions or values. Moral values only make sense within the scope of a plurality of sentient beings who interact, and it is only with such beings that questions of harm, welfare, rights, etc can become relevant. This, to most, might seem to imply that any conversation about morality must be relativistic, subjectivist, and possibly ultimately selfish or nihilistic in nature.
And it is certainly possible to construct a normative ethic which stays within this realm of relativism. Ayn Rand did it (poorly), Nietzsche did it (brilliantly, but often misunderstood), and there are many others to choose from. But if we remain convinced of and mired in the realm of relativism, problems arise related to whose subjective whims to follow (if we should follow any, of course) and how to proceed with establishing guidelines, social rules, or even laws. If there is no objective source, how can we escape pure, selfish, ethical egoism?
This has been the lament of many moralists, and not only from religious conservatives. Their arguments are sophomoric and trite, but they are obviously hitting on an issue with cognitive, emotional, and social weight because it keeps working. The lament of meaninglessness, poignantly illustrated by Dostoevsky with his claim that without god “all is permitted,” is trotted out frequently by those terrified of subjectivism and relativism.
And relativists of all stripes will attempt to respond with other meaningful values. Some might say that we can and should create our values. We can get together, agree on some basic principles and rules, and decide to abide by it or face whatever consequences we also agreed to. Social contract theory, in essence, is where potentially conflicting and disagreeing people agree on how to run our lives as a group.
Some might point to an ideal as a sort of agreed upon arbitrary replacement for the idea of an objective source. It would be sort of like creating an idol, giving it qualities, and asking everyone to try and emulate this idol. In the absence of a clear objective source, we idolize either a person (which we might deify), an idea (such as democracy, freedom, etc), or even a set of traditions which define who we are, how we behave, and who we demonize. We often do all of these things to various degrees.
All of these approaches necessitate that we utilize our subjective perspectives in some manner. But because they emerge as private experience, walled away from the rest of the world behind a veil of subjectivity, does not mean that we have to conclude that morality is a selfish enterprise. In fact, if we remain behind those walls, then we cannot do ethics at all. The ideas have to come from us, ultimately, but we have to use our ability to communicate, understand, and agree to implement any of these ideas as ethical constructs.
While such a set of values would grow out of subjective soils, it would either live or die in the real, intersubjective, world based upon how well it survives the trials of communication, interaction, and contradictions between other individuals and ourselves. A selfish whim or value will either work as a shared value, or it will not. No one individual can decide this alone (although individuals may articulate it better), because whether it works is not subject to any one person (or even a set of persons who happen to accidentally agree), but to how the value supervenes on the group.
When a value is presented by a person to a group, society, or even all of sentient life, it can be evaluated in a different environment from which it grew. As this idea moves away from individuals and towards the diversity of subjective opinions, it will either survive as a value which can be shared, or it won’t. No matter how well this value suits a person, or even a small group of like-minded individuals, if it cannot be applied to the group then its value as a moral foundation or value may be weak.
If you cannot show how the idea which you value in your life among yourself, friends, or family, is useful or helpful to everyone then it might not be a value which most people can share. My (hypothetical) selfish interest to do whatever I want, and not care about the desires of others, cannot be a shared value because there is a logical contradiction to applying it to the group. The idea is self-refuting when applied to the ethically relevant group;society.
Kant and the Scientists
Much like Kant’s categorical imperative, if the value a person presents to the world cannot provide value to the group, then the idea may be useless and possibly amoral (if not down right immoral). The philosophical and scientific study of ethics is, therefore, an epiphenomenon of subjectivist, relativistic, preferences. But rather than remaining at that limited and myopic level of description, looking at the effects of introducing those subjectivist preferences to the group dynamic creates an emergent property, ethical philosophy, which acts as a sieve for what moral principles are valid for consideration.
Thus, it does not create an objectivist ethic, because such a thing is impossible. It creates, however, a level of description which acts very much like objectivity in relation to our minds. It is a reality outside of us, but it was created by our collective effort, communication, and understanding. Being intersubjective, it is always being revised and updated just like a scientific theory. The strength of its propositions is directly related to how well it survives criticism and attempts to sink it.
It is not selfish, because selfishness is incapable of the relevant understanding and concern necessary to create the conversation which could sustain it. It is not absolute, because it is subject to actual circumstances which might change. It adjusts to our preferences, values, and thus is perfectly suited for progression and improvement as our understanding of ourselves, the world, and communication is improved.
It is also not relativistic. It is not culturally relative because all cultures have to deal with the realities of the facts about human psychology, harm, and the inter-related aspects of human existence. All cultures are subject to the same reality, and merely having the mass opinion that, for example, slavery is acceptable does not survive the larger skeptical, empirical, and rational analysis of the effects of slavery on people. It’s also not relativistic in the sense of being a matter of whims, because being subjected to scrutiny from any and all people erases that.
It is, however, skeptical and scientific. While this approach begins as individual subjective preferences, just like with other questions about the nature of reality it gets exposed to other people who will try to demonstrate problems with those ideas. Morality, values, and meaning are not ontologically different from other facts. The facts about how I feel, why I feel that way, etc are empirical questions. Once we realize that we are talking (when talking about ethics) about how to best implement ideas about how to behave in relation to other people, the question is one of doing the empirical work to find out how my feelings interact with the feelings of other people.
Because if I accept the reality that other people exist, have similar types of internal experiences as I, and that I’m capable of figuring out some things about those feelings, preferences, and whims, then ethics becomes a philosophical puzzle about how best to arrange guidelines, rules, or laws about how to interact which maximizes the experience of people. And then we can pull in questions of consequences, best habits and personality traits, and fairness (among other considerations) in order to figure out the details.
Ethics is an enterprise for science. Just like with facts about the nature of reality, it starts with subjective experiences and through epiphenomenal processes the emergent property of true things comes about(ideally). But for it to work we all have to be willing to be wrong, especially about our own values. Our preferences, even if they are working for us, might be better supplanted by other values (in some cases). We cannot allow ourselves to rationalize our selfish preferences as a fundamental value. We cannot allow self-justification, groupthink, or tribalism to convince us that our group has superior values. If our values are hurting other people, it is very possible they are not the best values.
And, most importantly, we can not allow ourselves to idolize, deify, or even consider settled, our values. They must always be open for criticism and debate. There is no room for sacred ideals, ideologies, or tribalistic jingoism in values. The more isolated our values are, the more exposure makes them defensive or aggressive, and the less communication with alternatives exists, the less powerful those values will be.
Ethics is not merely relative and it is not objective. But it can be shared as an intersubjective reality and it can draw from our most personal experiences and values. In the end, ethics cannot rely on either any ultimate reality or personal preference; it must rely on reality potentially telling us that our preferences might be harmful and in need of alteration.The truth points to itself, but the truth is also not written in stones, ideals, or hearts. It is only written, collectively, in the great conversation which I hope we all keep having.