Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sins of the Left: The Moral Poverty of Ethical Subjectivism

Since my discussion of libertarianism has been getting some attention from the folks who have ventured over from Pharyngula, here's the companion piece about the problems with ethical subjectivism. There is also a nice post on a similar issue at Philosophy, et cetera.

When I teach ethics, the most common view in the room is Ethical Subjectivism, that moral judgments are purely a matter of personal decision. Everyone has his or her own ethical system and the fact that you consider an act morally right means that, for you, the act is morally right. While it comes from a good place, the desire to be tolerant, it is in fact, fatally flawed. Turning tolerance from a virtue into the only virtue undermines all meaningful ethical deliberation and handcuffs those who really think tolerance is important.

Two technical points about ethical subjectivsm: (1) the relativity of moral rightness - on this view, there is no sense of moral rightness apart from what someone believes; (2) the personal infallibility of moral judgment – it is impossible on this view for anyone to be wrong when they make a moral claim because rightness for them is just what they think it is.

Because of these two, reasoning about ethics now becomes akin to choosing a favorite flavor of ice cream. No matter how strong of a rational argument I formulate, I could never get you to assert that, “While I thought that chocolate tasted better, I was wrong; and for rational reasons I now assert that vanilla actually tastes better.” If you came upon two people in a violent argument about their favorite ice cream flavors, you'd do well to think the two are idiots. He screams, she screams, but we need not all scream for ice cream because there is nothing that the two disagree about. His favorite is chocolate and her favorite is vanilla. There is no point of contention to debate.

The ethical subjectivist reduces morality to this same level. A radical pro-lifer and a radical pro-choicer have nothing to discuss; they don’t really disagree about anything. It may be that I can’t understand why you don’t find certain things to be yucky like I do, but, hey, some people are turned on by grown people dressed in diapers, some people like Brussels sprouts, and somebody’s buying those Britney Spears albums. There is no accounting for taste.

But that's nothing like ethics. When we disagree about the moral acceptability of an action, we are disagreeing about something. Consider moments of moral doubt. We all find ourselves unsure about the right thing to do from time to time. That horrible knot in the pit of your stomach wouldn’t be there if the choice was just another version of Coke or Pepsi, paper or plastic, ribbed or French tickler. In cases of deep moral doubt, we don’t just feel, we think. Sometimes (and sometimes is all we need to see the problem with ethical subjectivism), we find an ethical argument convincing and we then have a good, rational reason for our choices. But if ethical subjectivism were right, because of the infallibility of moral judgment, moral doubt and good reasons could not exist because which ever way you decided would instantly become morally right.

But while it is fatally flawed, there is a good reason why ethical subjectivism is so ubiquitous, especially on the left. It is a reaction to people we all know who assert that there are two sides to every moral question: their side and the wrong side; people for whom everything is absolute and clear-cut. The technical philosophical term for such people is “asshole,” and ethical subjectivism is often an attempt by good, caring, rational, people to not be assholes.

But while the move to ethical subjectivism is motivated by good intentions, it fails on several counts. First, ethical subjectivism fails to make room for competing views about ethical issues because under ethical subjectivism there are no competing views! Everyone is right. If we were all ethical subjectivists, we would not be living in harmony with people who disagree with us, rather we would each be sequestered in our own little ethical bubble where it doesn’t matter how reasonable or wacko the folks in the surrounding bubbles are. If the idea was to create open-minded ethical discourse this ain’t it.

Secondly, the assholes have figured out that beating ethical subjectivists in moral conversation is easier than finding a white guy at the Republican National Convention. In reaction to the assholes’ lack of tolerance, the ethical subjectivist has elevated tolerance from its rightful place as a virtue and set it up on a pedestal as the virtue. There is no doubt that, all other things being equal, we ought to be tolerant. But all other things are not always equal and this slavish devotion to tolerance has allowed the assholes to sneak in hateful, discriminatory, oppressive views into mainstream public discourse. All they have to say is that by considering their horrendously morally objectionable view to be horrendously morally objectionable you are being intolerant, and, since you say that we always have to be tolerant, you must therefore tolerate the intolerance and injustice that they are advocating. The goodhearted folks who make the move to ethical subjectivism get their asses kicked every single time. Yes, it is good to be tolerant, but in some particular cases other virtues have to come first. Sometimes justice, fairness, and even promotion of tolerance itself require taking actions that do not place tolerance at the forefront. Tolerance is an important thing, but not the only important thing.