Objectivity in Ethics

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What objectivity in ethics is depends, in part, on what ethics is. On the narrowest understanding, ethics consists in judgments about moral constraints, which govern a person's treatment of other people, as such. On the broadest understanding, ethics includes all normative judgments, which say which responses one ought to have, and all evaluative judgments, which assess people and things against standards, as good or bad, beautiful or ugly, and so on. While it may seem strained to interpret "ethics" so broadly, many of the questions about the objectivity of ethics in the narrow sense apply to normative and evaluative judgments in general.

In one sense, what is objective is what is so independently of one's particular attitudes or position. But this idea can be specified in different ways. In one sense, a particular ethical judgment is objective if and only if it is correct, where this is an evaluation of the judgment itself, not of how it is formed or sustained. If ethical judgments are beliefs, then it is natural to think that they are correct if and only if they are true. Scholars might call this objectivity as truth. But ethical judgments might be correct in some way other than being true. Immanuel Kant held that some ethical judgments are correct, even though ethical judgments are commands, which cannot be true or false. Scholars might call this more inclusive conception objectivity as correctness.

In another sense, a particular ethical judgment is objective if and only if it is formed and sustained in response to factors that tend to make such judgments correct. An ethical judgment is objective in this sense if it results from the judger's responsible assessment of the relevant ethical considerations, not unduly influenced by his or her desires, emotions, or affiliations. Scholars might call this objectivity as justification.

A different kind of objectivity, described by Thomas Nagel (1979), is possessed, in the first instance, not by particular judgments themselves, but instead by what those judgments are about. Something has objective value, in this sense, if it gives everyone reason to respond to it in the same way, regardless of his or her relation to it. For example, human suffering gives everyone reason to do what he or she can to alleviate it. Scholars might call this objectivity as impersonality and the associated values "impersonal" or "neutral" values. They contrast with things of "personal" or "relative" value, which give persons who stand in special relations to them reason to respond to them in special ways. For example, a child's suffering gives that child's parent more pressing reason to alleviate it than it gives others. There is a tendency, Nagel (1986) observed, to assimilate impersonality with justification and correctness, which misleadingly suggests that judgments of personal value, such as that a parent has reason to care specially for his or her child, are necessarily biased or false.

So far this entry has been considering the objectivity of particular ethical judgments and their contents. But some ask whether ethics as a whole, the sum of humankind's actual or possible ethical judgments taken together, is objective. Vaguely put, the question is whether ethical judgments are answerable to anything independent of them.

One might interpret this question as asking, "Is there an ethical reality?" where this "reality" is what ethical judgments would be answerable to. This question can be construed, in turn, as asking, "Are there ethical entities existing out there, in the world?" But this may be a tendentious formulation. What makes judgments distinctively ethical is not that they are about entities of a distinctive kind, which might exist somewhere, but instead that they predicate properties of a distinctive kind. What the question "Is there an ethical reality?" more plausibly asks is, "Do things actually have ethical properties?" And this seems to boil down to the questions "Are some actual or possible ethical beliefs, which predicate ethical properties of things, true? Can it be so that something is good or bad, right or wrong?" This is objectivity as truth, generalized to the domain as a whole. Note that in order for ethics to be objective in this sense, it is not enough that ethical judgments be either true or false. The "error theory" that J. L. Mackie (1977) proposed, which denies this kind of objectivity to ethics, asserts that all ethical judgments are false because they all contain a mistaken presupposition that something's having an ethical property is something that can be so.

Those who deny that ethical judgments are beliefs may still affirm that they can be correct, in some way other than being true. There are right and wrong answers to ethical questions, they may say, even if there is no ethical reality that makes them right or wrong. They affirm objectivity as correctness generalized to the domain as a whole.

In another sense, ethics is objective if some actual or possible ethical judgments are or could be justified. This is objectivity as justification generalized. If ethics lacks justification, it does not follow that it lacks correctness. The fact that no ethical beliefs are justified, for example, does not mean that no ethical beliefs are true. But it may seem to have similar practical implications. Even if one's ethical beliefs might be true, one has no reason to treat them as true.

In still another sense, ethics is objective if it does not "depend on" one's psychology. Scholars might call this objectivity as mind independence. Since the claim that ethics is mind independent is just the denial of the claim that ethics is mind dependent, the way to come to terms with the former is to come to terms with the latter. To understand what it might mean to deny that ethics "depends on" one's psychology, in other words, one needs first to understand what it might mean to assert it. It cannot be to assert that ethical judgments depend on one's psychology. This is a truism; all judgments are psychological phenomena. Nor can it be to assert that the things about which one makes ethical judgments depend on one's psychology. No one denies that some ethical judgments can be about psychological states, such as intentions to harm others.

A more promising interpretation of the idea that ethics "depends on" one's psychologyof what is denied by the claim that ethics is objective in the present senseis that ethical judgments predicate some property involving human psychology. An extension of this idea, which scholars might call mind dependence of properties, might capture the sense in which noncognitivism represents ethics as mind dependent. According to noncognitivism, ethical judgments only appear to predicate properties of things, while they in fact only express the judger's decisions or feelings regarding those things. Noncognitivists, therefore, will not agree that ethical judgments predicate psychological properties. But they may say something that approximates this: that in place of predicating properties, ethical judgments express judgers' psychological states.

Another possible interpretation of the idea that ethics "depends on" one's psychology, which scholars might call mind dependence of correctness, is that what makes ethical judgments correct, when they are, is something about one's psychology. The mind dependence of ethical properties entails the mind dependence of ethical correctness. If ethical judgments predicate psychological properties, then what makes those judgments true or false are psychological facts. But one might deny that ethical judgments predicate properties, while still holding, first, that they can be correct and, second, that their correctness is mind dependent. A Kantian theory might claim that ethical judgments do not predicate special ethical properties of actions, but instead command that they be done. But it might hold first that these commands can be correct and, second, that what makes them correct is something about the human will.

A natural way of spelling out the thought that ethical properties are mind dependent, which David Lewis (1989) explored in his work, is dispositionalism. Dispositionalism holds that what it is for something to have an ethical property (to be good, say) just is for it to be the case that subjects in certain conditions would respond to it in a certain way (such as by approving of or desiring it). One reservation about dispositionalism is whether the relevant response can be specified without appealing to the ethical property at issue. If approving of or desiring something consists in believing it to be good, for example, then dispositionalism appears to be circular.

Another reservation is that dispositionalism seems to imply, implausibly, that the extension of ethical properties varies with dispositions to respond, so that if the relevant subjects in the relevant conditions were not to approve of, say, kindness, it would no longer be good. One proposal to overcome this reservation, considered by David Wiggins (1998), is to identify actual dispositions as the relevant dispositions. If dispositions in the actual world are held fixed, then the extension of goodness does not vary across possible worlds, even ones in which dispositions vary. Does this mean, however, that as the identity of the actual world varies, the extension of goodness also varies? If so, then, as Lewis (1989) and Christopher Peacocke (2004) observed, the source of the original reservation seems only to have been relocated. If not, then, as Barry Stroud (2000) argued, it is unclear in what sense goodness is still being said to "depend" on dispositions. The dispositions that are held fixed are held fixed, it seems, simply because they are responsive to goodness.

Dispositionalism, it is sometimes said, is compatible with the correctnessindeed the truthof ethical judgments. According to dispositionalism, the judgment that something is good is true if and only if subjects in the relevant conditions would approve of it. It might be said, however, that dispositionalism does not allow ethics to be correct in a more thoroughgoing sense. Although dispositionalism holds that judgments about the relevant responses can be correct, it also holds that there is no sense in which the responses themselves can be correct.

Some theories attempt to make mind dependence hospitable to a more thoroughgoing kind of correctness. John McDowell (1985) and Wiggins (1998) suggested that the relevant responses can be "merited" by their objects, and they proposed that what it is for something to be have an ethical property is, in part, for it to "merit" a certain response. In what way, then, are ethical properties still mind dependent? It is a necessary truth about any property that something has that property only if it "merits" a certain response: at very least, the judgment that it has that property. Perhaps the claim is that while this may be a necessary truth about every property, it is not an essential truth about every property. It is not part of "what it is" for something to have a shape property, for example, that it merits a response, whereas it is part of "what it is" for something to have an ethical property.

Kantians also argue for a mind dependence that is hospitable to a more thoroughgoing kind of correctness than dispositionalism allows. What makes an ethical judgment correct, according to Christine Korsgaard (1996), is that endorsing that judgment is constitutive of rational, reflective agency. Thus, the correctness of ethical judgments depends not on contingent tendencies of particular minds, as dispositionalism supposes, but instead on the necessary structure of a mind that is capable of asking ethical questions at all.

So much for what it might mean to assert or deny that ethics, as a whole, is objective. Why might one assert or deny it? Some have thought that ethics could be correct if and only if God laid down ethical laws. There are laws only where there is a lawgiver, the reasoning may go, and mortal lawgivers can establish only conventional laws. Therefore, God alone can establish ethical laws. Do all laws, however, require a lawgiver? Perhaps ethical laws, like logical laws, are not chosen by anyone. Moreover, it is unclear whether God could choose all ethical laws, for reasons given in the Euthyphro of Plato. If God chose certain ethical laws without regard for their goodness, then those laws would appear to be arbitrary, which it seems ethical laws cannot be. If instead God chose certain ethical laws because they were good, then God would appear to have been responding to prior and independent ethical laws, which he did not choose.

Others are anxious to deny that ethical judgments can be correct because they wish to justify tolerance of different ethical judgments. It is true that if no ethical judgment is correct, then one cannot ground one's intolerance of differing judgments on the claim that one's own judgments are correct. However, this shows only that there is a false premise in one argument for intolerance. It does not provide any positive justification for an ethical principle of tolerance. Moreover, to justify such an ethical requirement would seem to amount to establishing the correctness of at least one ethical judgment. So it is not clear whether the denial that ethical judgments can be correct is even compatible with the attempt to justify an ethical principle of tolerance.

A more prevalent concern among contemporary academic philosophers is that the objectivity of ethical judgments is incompatible with the apparent link between making an ethical judgment and being motivated to act accordingly. For example, Mackie (1977) denied that ethical judgments can be true, on the grounds that they presuppose "queer" properties: properties such that when someone believes that an object possesses one, he or she necessarily is moved in a particular way. Perhaps what is "queer" here, however, is the unqualified claim that making an ethical judgment entails being motivated to act accordingly. More plausible, as Michael Smith (1994) and Korsgaard (1986) argued in their works, is the thesis that making an ethical judgment entails being motivated, insofar as one is not irrational, to act accordingly. Smith and Korsgaard appeared to believe, however, that this revised thesis can be explained only if the content or correctness of ethical judgments is in a way mind dependent: dependent not on the tendencies of particular contingent minds, but instead on the structure or content of ideally rational psychology.

Other philosophers are impressed by disagreement in ethics. Ethical disagreement alone, however, does not entail that ethical judgments cannot be correct, any more than scientific disagreement entails that scientific judgments cannot be correct. The thought may beas Mackie (1977), for example, seemed to pursue itthat ethical disagreement is in some way different from other kinds of disagreement, and that this difference is evidence that ethical judgments are explained by something other than their subject matter, or that ethics cannot settle the questions that it asks. As this entry will discuss, however, these claimsthat ethics can be given an "unmasking explanation" and that it cannot resolve its own questionsmay seem plausible even in the absence of actual disagreement.

Still other philosophers, such as Gilbert Harman (1977), Bernard Williams (1985), and Crispin Wright (1992), doubted that ethics can be objective, on the grounds that its subject matter does not provide causal explanations. That an action was wrong, for example, does not seem to explain why anything that followed took place.

While causal powers might be required by a stipulated sense of "objectivity," it is not immediately obvious how they are relevant to objectivity intuitively understood as answerability to something independent of judgment. To be sure, some judgments are about causal powers, and so the possession of such powers is straightforwardly relevant to the correctness of such judgments. If celestial events have no influence on the fates of men, for example, then astrological beliefs are false. But as Ronald Dworkin (1996) and T.M. Scanlon (2003) noted, ethics does not purport to make judgments about causal powers. So whether ethical properties possess such powers does not seem to be similarly relevant to the correctness of ethical judgments.

What seems more plausibly relevant to objectivity is the power of the subject matter of ethics to explain, specifically, ethical judgments. If ethical beliefs, for example, are explained by something other than their putative subject matterif, as Stroud (2000) put it, an "unmasking explanation" can be given of ethicsthen it may seem that ethical beliefs are not suitably responsive to their subject matter. And if ethical beliefs are not suitably responsive to their subject matter, then they are not justified. Moreover, an unmasking explanation may be reason to doubt that ethical beliefs are true: to conclude that ethics, as a whole, is a kind of illusion. Such is the upshot of more familiar unmasking explanations of beliefs about, for example, ghosts and desert oases.

Dworkin (1996) and Scanlon (2003) questioned the assumption that beliefs can be suitably responsive to a subject matter, and hence justified, only if they are causally explained by it. Mathematical beliefs, by analogy, seem to be justified without being caused by their subject matter. Stroud (2000) doubted that an unmasking explanation of ethics can even be given. He argued that one cannot recognize ethical beliefsthe explanandum without accepting some ethical claims, which the "unmasking" explanans was supposed to avoid.

A final concern, as Wiggins (1995) and Scanlon (2003) have suggested, is simply that ethics may seem unable to settle any, or enough, of the questions it asks. It may seem, for example, that no argument could settle whether lying to one's friend to spare her feelings in a certain kind of situation is the right thing to do. Here there seems to be a sharp contrast with mathematics, which is able to settle many of the questions it asks. The failure of ethical argument might suggest that ethical judgments cannot be justified: that we lack sufficient reason to hold them. Or it might suggest that ethical judgments cannot be correct: that the subject matter of ethics does not constrain unique answers to the questions that can be asked about it.

This is a "first-order" or "substantive" doubt, which arises within ethical thought itself, about the prospects of its success. It is often distinguished from "second-order" or "metaethical" doubts, such as those raised by Mackie (1977) and Harman (1977), which are supposed neither to be based on, nor to imply anything, about the prospects of "internal" ethical argument. Dworkin (1996) doubted that this distinction can be sustained, concluding that purportedly "second-order" positions about the objectivity of ethics are, if they are intelligible at all, simply substantive positions within ethics.

See also Error Theory of Ethics; Ethical Naturalism; Ethical Relativism; Ethical Subjectivism; Metaethics; Moral Principles: Their Justification; Moral Realism; Noncognitivism; Rationalism in Ethics (Practical Reason Approaches); Response-Dependence Theories.


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Niko Kolodny (2005)