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'There are no objective truths' - Discuss

Williams begins his discussion of morality by asking directly whether there is any rational reasoning for morality. The answer, surely, is that we certainly hope so, and that it is definitely the case that humans endeavour to find justification for their behaviour, and the systems which dictate how to act. The greatest problem for modern ethics, however, is that of justification of any ethical standpoint - few have come up with plausible reasons for following their system of ethics rather than any other system, and none have come up with reasons so compelling that everybody is able to see the validity of the argument, and thus is forced to concede that such a system must be followed. Two important questions are raised by this inability to prove any ethical system - firstly that of whether we ought to follow an unsubstantiated system, or whether we must demand proof before we commit to following any rules, and secondly whether such a proof really would lead to a widespread acceptance of a doctrine. The first (and probably more important, from the point of view of action, rather than academic interest) question I shall leave till a little later, but the second can be addressed more quickly and sorted out before there is a temptation to claim that compelling reasons to follow a particular type of morality have already been found.

Williams suggests, and I would agree, that if ethical terms are to mean anything, they must be such that being aware of what is right, or good (whether there be objective truths or not) is in itself a reason to follow the rules derived from this knowledge. As Williams points out, moral rules make people want to act in accordance with them, and are distinct from laws of states or societies in that they do not simply force people to obey them. Indeed we do not feel that murder would be absolutely fine so long as no policeman is around to deter us from the crime, or at least if we hold this view we are not claiming that murder is wrong in any ethical sense - and if we termed it 'bad' we would be using this word in the sense of 'detrimental to our wishes' rather than in a more abstract way of 'simply wrong' or immoral. Mackie points out that such a view is very Platonic - Plato suggested that Philosopher-Kings could be given unchecked power since if they knew ethical truths they would be obliged to follow them. Of course we might not be willing to cede power to such people when we could not be certain that they would indeed be aware of all ethical truths, but in theory this seems to be correct. If ideas of ethics are to work, then it must be that the term 'good' must contain connotations of 'that which must be done'. If we do not include a notion that 'You ought to do that which is good' then we would simply have divided things entirely arbitrarily, and there would be no point to such a separation. We might as well invent a new word, saying that which should be done is Blurgh. We would not even need to discuss whether that which is Blurgh is also good, since we would no longer have any interest in whether something is good or not, simply in whether it should be done or not. As Mackie points out, however, Plato's view is not entirely satisfactory. Cruelty, for example, is not wrong simply by coincidence with intent, or in spite of it, but to a very large degree because of it. It is wrong to do something that is cruel because of the deliberate attempt to hurt someone else, and so if we are to accept that knowing that you will be doing something that is wrong prevents you from doing it, we lose any sense of people doing things that are wrong in spite of knowing how wrong it is - and which are wrong, at least in part, because they know that it is wrong. It is not clear how we might fill this gap, except to point out that what is being claimed is that 'X is right' means 'You ought to do X', which is not the same as the claim that you will do X.

So returning from this tangent, I think it is possible to see that there is no current ethical system with evidence so compelling that anyone that hears it is forced to adopt this system, and this does, in fact, cause problems for anyone attempting to posit a system involving objective ethical truths. Such difficulties led to the rise of a different sort of ethical theory - those classed together (since they broadly say the same thing) as 'Subjectivism'. Subjectivism is the doctrine that states that person A can hold one ethical belief and person B can hold another, conflicting, view, and neither can ever tell the other that their view is wrong, and that they should hold some different view.

A more specific, stronger form of subjectivism is that of relativism, which holds that ethical systems make sense only in the context of particular societies, and that what is right is so purely because it is within a framework which says that that it is right. Therefore in a society which holds murder always to be indefensible, murder can be said to be wrong, whereas a society that uses human sacrifices as part of its rituals states that certain cases of murder (though it would probably simply be termed, less pejoratively, killing in such a case) are morally right.

Further, relativism demands that we therefore respect other ethical systems, held in other societies, and states that any other systems must be viewed on an equal footing as our own, since none can be justified any better than any other. This is, however, where the major problem with relativism begins. As Williams points out, relativism ends up using 'right' as a non-relative sense - it says that it is right not to interfere with the working of other societies - not just for our particular society, but as a general rule for all moral beings. Clearly this is not relativist, and yet this need not absolutely be a problem for the doctrine, since clearly ethical systems can exist that hold a single maxim to be the entirety of ethics (c.f. Utilitarianism!), and whilst it would require the relativist to drop the claim that ethics is entirely contained within axioms already established by societies, it would be possible to save the system by saying that non-interference is the single ethical principle that should be obeyed. What might be less readily accepted even with this softer kind of relativism is that this ethical principle of non-interference would have to be an objective ethical fact, and it should be clear that this would fall to exactly the same charge of non-demonstrability as any other system of objective facts. Williams dismisses even this as a sensible moral viewpoint - pointing out that 'When in Rome do as the Romans do' is never presented as a moral maxim, but simply as a guide to how you should act unless you want a run-in with the law or customs of the state you are currently in.

Perhaps even worse, as Williams points out, it is not in fact the case that with relativism there is only one ethical maxim that is not simply a practice within a given society - in fact all ethical claims are reducible to such facts. Relativism not only preaches that any society has the right to choose what system they use, but also says that for that society such a system is in fact right - i.e. that not only does England believe in equality between the sexes, but also that it is right that England believes in equality between the sexes, in an abstract, non-relativistic sense. Such a charge might be answered by the claim that the word 'right' is simply being used in two different senses - one of 'what a society deems to be right', and which does not imply any moral judgement, simply a comparison with the rules a society has set out, and the other (which relativism only claims applies to non-interference) that of what is right in some deeper sense, not just what people have termed right. Ultimately, however, this does not seem a terribly satisfactory response, and it seems that the position of the relativist is probably untenable.

In fact, there no longer seem to be any attempts to put forward such a strong type of relativism. The universe of Star Trek (which I take purely as an extreme example of something so ridiculous that it might seriously suggest such a principle) is a single example where relativism seems to be held as very important - the 'Prime Directive' of the Federation (who are presented as the indisputably correct moral force) is that exploratory ships must not interfere with primitive cultures on planets which they discover. Yet even here relativism doesn't seem to be presented in a serious light. In fact the 'Directive' seems to be there purely to patronise other races and assert moral superiority. It is never suggested that ethical systems held by other races are in any way equal to that held by the Federation, but seems simply to have arbitrarily decided to hold this principle, and this seems to be the case with all such propositions of relativism. In fact, this issue is only ever brought up in the programme when there is a conflict - and this conflict is always one of morality, where involvement is obviously the best course of action.

Possibly the greatest problem, however, for relativism is not one that is so fundamental as those that have already been discussed, but disputes simply that anyone would ever follow relativism as a moral doctrine. The problem is that relativism utterly fails to explain away feelings of disgust amongst certain people at the actions of other societies, and will surely fail to prevent them from intervening when they see things that horrify them. It should be clear that simply claiming that we can't make moral judgements about other societies isn't going to stop the English being horrified when they see other cultures performing human sacrifices, and it certainly won't stop them at least wanting to intervene. It must, however, be pointed out at this point that we must not make the mistake of simply equating disgust with moral righteousness. There are many examples where there is immediate disgust at various positions, but where an attitude of non-interference would help us make a better moral decision. Whilst many may be disgusted at homosexuality, for example, it should be clear to a modern society that this disgust is not an adequate moral guide, and that people should not be condemned simply for it. Likewise many acts which do not arouse disgust clearly aren't morally correct, such as happiness at the killing of paedophiles, for example, or the oblivious happiness on the part of the slave-masters with which people were enslaved. Obviously this is using ideas of morality in a sense which may not be subjectivistic, but I seek only to prove that initial ideas of disgust might not be a good moral indicator, and that an ethical system that fails to alter the implications of such disgust might not be one that could be fully supported. Ultimately, relativism simply begs the question of 'Why bother at all?' - if we are going to deny specific moral facts, it seems unclear why we should claim that societies can be morally right, but without any form of universality, which would seem to be the hallmark of any normal moral system.

Yet if we are not going to hold relativism to be correct, this does not mean that we should abandon it in a more lightly held sense - namely that respecting other societies rights to their views should be at least an issue. It is perfectly possible to hold that as far as possible we should allow societies to set rules how they desire, and only in the most extreme cases (and ones where we feel most certain that our opposing principle is in fact correct) should we intervene. In fact, this appears to be how modern societies do act. England does not seek to invade America (nor the possibility with more likelihood of success, of it happening the other way round) simply because of differing views about the moral implications of the death penalty. The societies may have different views on the matter (and in fact states within the US disagree on the matter), yet we respect different societies rights to make up their own minds.

So if we abandon relativism, and return to a wider view of subjectivism, we must ask what reason we would have for holding such a belief. At first sight, subjectivism seems anti-intuitive - the idea that every moral view is just as valid seems to make little sense, and not to be a view many people would want others to hold - if only because it does not allow them to assert not only that their view is right, but also the universality of their view. I would like to argue, however, that regardless of whether subjectivism is correct, regardless of whether there are objective ethical truths or not, we should hold and follow subjectivism, until we are able to prove some other system. In short, anyone that is unable to prove their morality should be a subjectivist, at least for the time being. Even if we have proved that subjectivism is wrong, returning to my question right at the beginning, I think that we should still follow it rather than an unproved system. It may sound ridiculous from the point of view of non-interference, but it is perfectly acceptable for a subjectivist to require others to be subjectivists. This may sound like someone inflicting their moral views on other, but I would argue that in fact it is not, it is simply requiring that people respect some basic ideas to which any ethical system must conform.

Whilst it may be reasonable to suggest that we cannot know the specifics of a system with objective ethical truths, I would argue that there are some things that can be known about it analytically. As Sidgwick points out, we cannot say that someone's desires are better than someone else's simply because 'he is he' - that is to say we do not hold my desires to be the measure of all ethical facts, since there is nothing so special about me that I can claim that my views are correct simply by virtue of my being me. If an objective system is to be the same for all minds then there are some features that we can see - such as that all minds must be valued alike. Likewise, when debating question of racism or sexism, for a true objective ethical system to work, we don't need to state that the black man has equal rights as the white, or that women have the same rights as men, because for the system to be objective, it must view any unnecessary distinctions as just that - we simply need to accept that all minds are valued equally.

It is perfectly fair, therefore, for the subjectivist to be disgusted when a system fails to obey this rule, in the name of an objective truth. It is, indeed, fair for a subjectivist to be disgusted when a Christian moralist justifies condemning other cultures for the sake of obedience to their god, if the offending act of the other cultures is in worship of their god. It represents the most vile hypocrisy for a cause to use its own unproved value system to attack another which justifies its action using an exactly similar set of unproved values, and this is why I believe that until a system has been proved, its proponents must act exactly as if they were subjectivists, respecting other systems as much as their own. Of course, systems which have clearly been shown to be wrong (though I'm not sure if any could be said to be such without an argument) can be attacked by a moralist, but this does not significantly increase their room to manoeuvre.

This possibility for moral disagreement itself is one of the strongest attacks on subjectivism. It states that if we are to argue about ethical values it can't be that we view all values held by different people equally. Yet this attack is exactly why we must require demonstrability before we allow one group to impose their morality on anyone else. The difference, it is often said, between scientific disagreement and moral ones is that once the scientific facts have been brought to light, the disagreement should disappear - usually with one side conceding they were wrong, though occasionally with the discovery that both were right - whereas ethical questions do not seem to be this way. Yet if objectivism is to be asserted then we must require such a condition - it must be the case that there is a possibility to demonstrate that A is right and B is wrong, and to have everyone convinced of this, because otherwise we will not have shown that disagreement is a problem specifically for subjectivism in the slightest.

Overall, therefore, I would say that subjectivism does not seem to hold as an ethical theory in the normal sense of the word. It does not seem to conform to many of the requirements of what an ethical system should do, and works mainly as a doctrine showing how we should act when we don't know better what to do. But I do feel that it works very well in this case, and that until a certain system has been conclusively proved we should all act as if we were true subjectivists, rather than imposing unproved beliefs on other people.