Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Irrelevance of the Status of Oughts

 Scott Scheule

What I'm about to say strikes me as obvious, but no less illustrious a personage as a coblogger had to have the point explained to him, so I'll spell it out. [To be fair, we merely misunderstood each other: upon explanation he agreed with me.]

Much is made of whether morality is objective or subjective. While it's an interesting ontological question, when it comes down to the question of which moral system is right or preferable, the question is entirely irrelevant.

To wit, some seem to think that if they can prove morality subjective, then utilitarianism wins over rights theories. This is bullshit. If morality is subjective, then even the basic axioms of utilitarianism are subjective. There is no objective command: Thou shalt increase utility. Rather, there is only the preference of the individual for a world with more utility, which is just as subjective as the preference of an individual for a world with strong property rights, or no capital punishment, etc. By the same token, if morality is objective, then one can equally well believe that it is objectively right to increase utility or that it is objectively right to respect deontological rights.

Some also seem to think that believing morality subjective leads to moral relativism. This is just as wrong. To be sure, my subjective moral preference may be for a world where right or wrong is decided by community standards. But my subjective preference may just as well be otherwise. And by the same token, moral relativism could easily be true, if morality is objective. It would be a fact of the matter that whatever the community standards are, they fix right and wrong. Or not.

There is a tendency for some to pass off a particular morality as objective, while others are just baseless opinions. Economists love this. It gives one side a rhetorical punch--they can claim to be the one who doesn't believe in spooky disembodied moral commands. Rather they believe in cold hard scientific fact--that is, of course, they believe in their personal moral preferences. This leads to the same conversation again and again, where the other side has to point out that the ontological status of morality cuts both ways. But there's no winner in this game of More Materialist Than Thou.

It goes like this:

HALL: Hey, Oates, you stole my bag of M&Ms.

OATES: Shut up, Daryl, they make me happier than you.

HALL: You have no right to my bag of M&Ms! I do!

OATES: There are no such thing as rights.

HALL: Why not?

OATES: It's all just a matter of personal preference. You prefer to keep your M&Ms. Instead, we should just decide things on what makes people happier.

HALL: But isn't saying that we should make people happy a personal preference, too?

OATES: No, it's not. Here, let me draw you the Supply-Demand Graph.

HALL: Nice work. I'm glad we bitched and moaned until they gave us an easel. But I don't get the point of your graph.

OATES: Well, look, it clearly says that if I get the M&Ms, there's a net increase in efficiency.


OATES: So that's good!

HALL: But what's good is just a personal preference!

OATES: Hmm. Well maybe what's good isn't a personal preference. Maybe morality is real, and the idea that you should give me the M&Ms is real too.

HALL: But maybe the idea that I should keep the M&Ms is real, too!

OATES: We're on.

Exit Oates.

HALL: Hey! Bring back my damn M&Ms!

In sum, the question of whether morality is subjective or objective, like the blogosphere, has theoretical but no practical import.