Does moral objectivism result in authoritarianism?

Introduction

Moral objectivism is the view that (1) there are true statements about what we morally ought to do and (2) those statements are true independent of whatever we might think or whatever our cultures might say (in this sense, moral statements are said to be objectively true or false). Authoritarianism is the following of dictates, provided by some authority, often to the subjugation and oppression of historically disenfranchised or marginalized groups. For example, in part, the authoritarianism of Nazi era Germany resulted in the holocaust. As another example, we can think of conservatives who maintain power over women by seeking to control women’s bodies and sexualities or charismatic religious leaders who gain power over their followers and lead them to violence (e.g. Jonestown, ISIS, etc).

One commonly expressed worry about moral objectivism is that moral objectivism justifies marginalization and violence performed on other groups. If the nazis can claim the holocaust was objectively right, they can dismiss the views of others as fundamentally mistaken and blind to reality. In a contemporary example, we often hear from today’s conservative Christians that objective moral absolutes have been provided to us from God, according to which LGTBQ+ folks are an abomination and that the autonomy of women ought to be suppressed in order to save babies from abortions. (Alternatively, if you oppose LGTBQ+ individuals or abortion, imagine instead dogmatists you oppose who claim to have access to absolute moral truth.) Hasn’t the claim to know objective moral truths led to imperialism, marginalization, the dismissal of dissent, and the legitimization of the status quo? Aren’t all of these behaviors that one should avoid?

Facing what they understandd to be the horrific consequences of moral objectivism, many instead side with moral subjectivism. On moral subjectivism, everyone’s views about morality are equally valid because all are equally true. Since everyone’s views about morality are equally valid, the moral subjectivist suggests that no one’s moral views can be dismissed; the views of the disenfranchised and the marginalized are just as true as those of the powerful. Those with a penchant for imperialism are left with no justification for their actions, the moral subjectivist might claim, because the peoples they seek to conquer have just as much a right to live as they choose. I think this worry – that moral objectivism leads to authoritarianism – and the suggested solution – that we should be moral subjectivists – is fundamentally mistaken. As I will argue in this post, moral objectivism provides the best way to oppose imperialism, marginalization, the dismissal of dissent, the legitimization of the status quo, and other manifestations of authoritarianism.

The Argument from Tolerance

The Argument From Tolerance proceeds as follows:

P1. The best way to be tolerant of others is through moral subjectivism.

P2. We should be tolerant of others.

C Therefore, we should be moral subjectivists.

As described in the introduction, the worry that moral objectivism leads to autoritarianism involves the argument from tolerance, or something like it. For example, the subjugation and marginalization of a minority group in the name of some absolute moral truth involves a failure to be tolerant of the minority group. Readers may worry that tolerance is not the right word to use, but there is some collection of behaviors the subjectivist thinks moral objectivism leads to – e.g., imperialism, marginalization, the dismissal of dissent, the legitimization of the status quo, etc – and which they seek to prevent by denying moral objectivism. Here, I am using the word ‘tolerance’ as a placeholder for the avoidance all of those behaviors the subjectivist thinks moral objectivism leads to.

The problem is that, on moral subjectivism, one should be tolerant only if one believes that one should be tolerant. For example, contrary to what I said in the introduction, on moral subjectivism, those with a penchant for imperialism have a justification for their actions. According to the imperialist, imperialism is right and, on subjectivism, whatever they regard as right really is right. Ditto for those who marginalize, dismiss dissent, legitimize the status quo, or otherwise promote authoritarianism. All can be justified on moral subjectivism, so long as they reflect one’s personal attitudes.

Since we each have infallible access to our own attitudes, moral subjectivism suggests we are all infallible about moral truth. Subjectivism entails I am unable to be incorrect about what I should do, and that, so long as I follow my attitudes wherever they lead, I will be in the right. In contrast, objectivists claim there are mysterious moral truths independent of us and to which we only have imperfect access. On the former view, imperialists, marginalizers, dismissers, and those who follow the status quo will always be right because they are following their own personal moral truths. On the latter view, we can not only be mistaken, but we can recognize that our moral knowledge is imperfect and requires constant scrutiny and insight from others. The fact that there are deep disagreements about morality may cause us to be skeptical about moral conclusions, but only because we recognize how easy it is to be wrong. Properly construed, moral objectivism entails epistemic humility, but moral subjectivism entails hubris. For this reason, historically, some fascists have preferred relativism over objectivism. Benito Mussolini wrote:

From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology, and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable. If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories, and men who claim to be the bearers of an objective immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than fascism.

The second premise of the argument from tolerance – that we should be tolerant (or avoid, e.g., imperialism, marginalization, the dismissal of dissent, the legitimization of the status quo, etc) – was itself a universally applied moral statement. But if there is a universally true moral statement, as the argument from tolerance suggests, then the argument from tolerance is self-refuting.

Moral Subjectivism Cannot Make Sense of Moral Disagreement

One of the concerns about moral objectivism was that moral objectivism might lead us to dismiss those who dissent and the subjugation of peoples or cultures we don’t understand, perhaps because we assume we have better access to moral truth than they do. In order to voice this concern, the subjectivist needs a notion of moral disagreement. However, as I argue in this section, the moral subjectivist cannot make sense of moral disagreement. To illustrate the problem, consider two individuals with strong but opposing moral views. Perhaps one of them believes racial segregation is morally obligatory and the other believes racial segregation is a deep injustice. Let’s assume that moral subjectivism is true and see what follows.

On moral subjectivism, whatever anyone thinks is moral really is moral. Since the segregationist says that racial segregation is good, it follows that racial segregation really is good. On the other hand, the anti-segregationist says that segregation is not. It follows that racial segregation is simultaneously good and not good. That’s a contradiction. Our initial assumption – that moral subjectivism is true – must be false.

But perhaps you think I’ve gone too fast. After all, the moral subjectivist does not say that the segregationist’s moral beliefs were true for everyone; instead, they’d say that the segregationist’s views are true only for the segregationist. I don’t know how to make sense of the notion of things being true for one person and not another, but let that pass. Perhaps subjectivists do have an account of what it means for a sentence to be true for one and not another and they utilize that account in their moral subjectivism. But if so, another difficulty arises. Consider the segregationist’s claim:

(S) Racial segregation is good.

Ordinarily, we’d say that the anti-segregationist disagrees with (S). However, following the subjectivist’s account of truth, (S) is equivalent to something like:

(S’) According to the racial segregationist, racial segregation is good.

The anti-segregationist agrees with (S’). Given that the anti-segregationist agrees with (S’), and that (S’) is equivalent to (S), the anti-segregationist agrees with (S). A parallel argument can be constructed to show that the segregationist agrees with statements made by the anti-segregatonist. Thus, even though the segregationist and the anti-segregatonist believe that they are arguing with each other, according to subjectivism, they actually agree. Ditto for any moral disagreement whatever. All moral disagreement evaporates in a puff of smoke.

I present a choice to the subjectivist. Choose between the Scylla and Charybdis of accepting standard semantic accounts of truth but result in contradiction, or reject the standard accounts of truth but make a mockery of moral disagreement. Either result spells trouble for moral subjectivism. In comparison, objectivists have no trouble making sense of moral disagreement. On their view, morality may be objective, but morality is also hard to pin down and difficult to think about.

Conclusion

I’ve argued that moral objectivism does not lead where the subjectivist feared objectivism would lead. Objectivism allows us an important notion of epistemic humility that subjectivism would erase and allows us to make sense of moral disagreement. Moral objectivists may be dangerous when they claim to have better knowledge of morality than the rest of us and use their supposedly superior knowledge to legitimate authority and social structures, but there is no reason moral objectivists need to say that they know, with any sort of certainty, what we ought to do.

Moral subjectivists claim they know what is right for them to do. Moreover, in saying that everyone’s moral views are equally valid, moral subjectivism provides undo credence to oppressors, imperialists, and all the other social, cultural, and economic ills the subjectivist sought to avoid. Imperialistic and oppressive attitudes are not equally as legitimate as those they colonize and oppress; the pleas of a victim not to be murdered are not equally as legitimate as the glee shown by their killer; and the statements of an abuse victim, that they were wronged, are not equally as plausible as the statements of their abuser. In contrast, moral objectivists can say that imperialists, oppressors, murderers, and abusers are much more likely to be wrong than they are likely to be right.

As a last worry, the moral subjectivist might ask whether objectivism allows for any sort of pluralism. As previously discussed, epistemic humility can cause us to doubt whether we have access to moral truth or if someone else has a better idea of moral truth than we do. Given that moral disagreement is especially pernicious and difficult to settle, we should welcome a wide variety of voices to the table in the pursuit of moral truth. Given the nebulous nature of morality, if someone shows too much self-assurance concerning some moral view, we should be deeply skeptical and critical of their statements. The disenfranchised and the marginalized should not be easily dismissed because their voices alert us to points we might have easily missed.

There is a second way moral objectivism can encourage pluralism. The moral objectivist will say that some ways of setting up society are better than others. For example, a society where everyone has a happy but otherwise mediocre life is better than a society in which the government inflicts pain on everyone all of the time. However, there may be a large number of different ways of setting up society, each of which are equally good, and each of which equally promotes the flourishing of its citizens. The moral objectivist does not need to say that the American way of life is better than that of peoples indigenous to the Amazon. (Nor, for that matter, does the objectivist need to say that the way of life of their own culture is the best way of life.) Instead, the objectivist can consistently claim that multiple different kinds of culture are objectively good.

Thus, moral objectivism can not only avoid authoritarianism, but moral objectivism can fight against e.g., imperialism, marginalization, the dismissal of dissent, and the legitimization of the status quo in ways not accessible to the subjectivist. Furthermore, moral objectivism allows us to retain important pluralistic notions not available to subjectivism.

One comment

  • John B. Hodges
    July 18, 2015 - 7:02 am | Permalink

    The article makes a false dichotomy. Either morality is objective, in which case ethics is a science, attempting to discover moral truths that exist independently of humankind, which would be true even if the Universe were lifeless; OR morality is subjective, in which case there is no moral truth, only preferences and tastes. I would argue for a third view, that ethics is engineering, ethics is a strategy for dealing with other people. Values are subjective, in that things have value if and only if people value them; but ethical systems CAN be objective, moral precepts CAN be objectively valid, if we choose to value objective things. An objective ethical system is a consequentialist ethic that has an ultimate goal that is objectively measurable. I am proposing that all “oughts” are hypothetical, of the form “If you want X, then you ought to do Y.” If X is objectively measurable, then you can investigate by empirically, ideally by scientific procedures, whether or not Y is the most effective or efficient way to achieve X, or whether another strategy would be more effective. There would thus be a large number of objective ethical systems, one for each coherent strategy toward each objectively measurable goal. There would not be just one “correct” ethic, just as there would not be just one “correct” automobile. For example, the “social contract” approach to ethics: humans are social animals, who survive by cooperating in groups. So, “if you want to maintain peaceful and cooperative relations with your neighbors, don’t kill, steal, lie, or break agreements.” This is not exclusive, an imperialist ethic could be devised that said “If you want others to cooperate with you, assemble the best fighters into a Ruling Class and make all others obey you by force and the threat of force.” Some ethics will be more popular than others, which one becomes dominant in a society will be historically contingent.

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