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Nagel Trashing Subjectivism, "Crude" and Otherwise

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The comment that causes the most irritation to people who teach ethics to undergraduates is the laziest objection (to any ethical argument) of all time: “who are we to say?” Who are we to say that female genital mutilation, practiced on children, is wrong? Who are we to say that China shouldn’t torture people? Who are we to say that God isn’t real?

This position – that ethical statements have no truth value, that one moral position is as good (and as false) as any other – amounts to a denial of reason, and ends up closer to nihilism than even the much-maligned David Benatar, who at least recognizes the universal value of preventing suffering.

With this sort of laziness in mind, Thomas Nagel has this to say about the denial of the reality and universality of moral reason:

To reason is to think systematically in ways anyone looking over my shoulder ought to be able to recognize as correct. It is this generality that relativists and subjectivists deny. Even when they introduce a simulacrum of it in the form of a condition of consensus among a linguistic or scientific or political community, it is the wrong kind of generality – since at its outer bounds it is statistical, not rational.

The worst of it is that subjectivism is not just an inconsequential intellectual flourish or badge of theoretical chic. It is used to deflect argument, or to belittle the pretensions of the arguments of others. Claims that something is without relativistic qualifications true or false, right or wrong, good or bad, risk being derided as expressions of a parochial perspective or form of life – not as a preliminary to showing that they are mistaken whereas something else is right, but as a way of showing that nothing is right and that instead we are all expressing our personal or cultural points of view. The actual result has been a growth in the already extreme intellectual laziness of contemporary culture and the collapse of serious argument throughout the lower reaches of the humanities and social sciences, together with a refusal to take seriously, as anything other than first-person avowals, the objective arguments of others. . . .

Many forms of relativism and subjectivism collapse into either self-contradiction or vacuity – self-contradiction because they end up claiming that nothing is the case, or vacuity because they boil down to the assertion that anything we say or believe is something we say or believe. I think that all general and most restricted forms of subjectivism that do not fail in either of these ways are pretty clearly false.

Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford University Press, 1997).


Written by Sister Y

June 2, 2008 at 8:43 pm

10 Responses

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  1. One can disbelieve in normative truths while still believing in some categories of truth. I believe the earth spins on an axis and around the sun, for instance. That’s something we can find out or falsify scientifically. Ethics are different. The is-ought gap is unbridgeable.


    June 2, 2008 at 9:41 pm

  2. “The is-ought gap is unbridgeable.”How can you make any statement about ethics – including saying that there’s no ethical truth – if you don’t believe in ethical truth? Isn’t “there is no ethical truth” a purported ethical truth? It seems to collapse on itself in a manner similar to the way in which logical positivism collapses on itself.

    Sister Y

    June 2, 2008 at 9:58 pm

  3. Curator: Short and sweet- on my way out the door!‘There is no ethical truth’ isn’t an ethically bound statement, so it’s valid. If I said, “It’s unethical to believe in ethics”, you’d have me. Got to run…have a good one!


    June 3, 2008 at 12:24 am

  4. “There are no ethical truths” is not an ethical statement but a meta-ethical one. The statement “Star Wars is a fictional universe” is meta with regard to Star Wars canon and true in our reality. Like Jim said, unless I made some ethical statement about ethics I have not contradicted myself.


    June 3, 2008 at 5:41 am

  5. I think the case can be made – Peter Unger makes it in his book <>Ignorance<> – that ethical statements have no truth value, and that no one can ever have a reason for doing anything – that there’s no authority, only power, we can never say anyone “should” do anything, nothing is better than anything else for any objective reason. It’s just an incredibly extreme position, and one that’s massively un-useful, like extreme skepticism in science. (The case can be made that there is no objective reality, but we can’t even <>do<> science if we take that seriously.) Also, I don’t think it’s the position you guys hold. TGGP, in your recent post on Walter Block, for instance, you say: “Since a counterfeiter or litterer (two examples I dispute) do not have the capability of destroying the state, they cannot be considered heroes because they have not alleviated the burden of statism from anyone. Instead what they do harms others.” Is harming others bad? Is alleviating the burden of statism good? Could anyone be considered a hero? Those are claims about moral reality.Jim, you think suffering is bad and it’s wrong to bring people into existence. Come on – that’s a universal moral claim (one I happen to agree with).

    Sister Y

    June 3, 2008 at 6:09 am

  6. Curator: I SOOO disagree with Nagel here; though I reserve the possiblility that we may be talking past each other. I’m thinking of writing something about this objective/subjective thing relative to discussion within agreed upon parameters, and how consistency is more important than any idea about ‘ultimate’ truths. As always, you’ve got me thinking. As far as this…“Jim, you think suffering is bad and it’s wrong to bring people into existence. Come on – that’s a universal moral claim (one I happen to agree with).”Here’s an example of what I’m talking about; this reads as if you’re talking about deontological ‘bads’ and ‘wrongs’, when what I’ve always tried to stress is that my message is aimed at those who find resonance with my feelings. Those who have no sympathy for my emotional starting point (extremely self-interested egocentrics, for example) find my worldview absurd. I’ll try to expand at another time.


    June 3, 2008 at 1:36 pm

  7. Curator,You write:“I think the case can be made . . . [that] ethical statements have no truth value, and that no one can ever have a reason for doing anything – that there’s no authority, only power, we can never say anyone “should” do anything, nothing is better than anything else for any objective reason.”Isn’t this a bit of a non-sequitur? Even if normative claims have no objective truth value, we are left with expressible, if subjective, interests, preferences, intuitions, needs, desires and so on. And we are still faced with the problem of sorting through it all, a task which requires social interaction and deliberation. Just because the statement “murder is wrong” lacks objective content, doesn’t mean the fact that such a sentiment is widely held cannot be useful in fostering the creation of legal codes, institutional customs, and so on. Even a pure egoist might find use in reifying such a value through custom and code, since doing so could very well protect him from being harmed.One question I have goes to whether there is a distinction to be drawn between ethical claims which purport to be inviolable or transcendent, and ethical claims which seek some other “objective” countenance, perhaps lacking the quality of universalizability. If you say, as the emotivists put it, “FIE upon murder; murder is BAD!,” and it is given that this is but an expression of subjectively-bound sentiment, well, isn’t there something nevertheless objectively concrete about that subjectivity itself? It occurs in your brain, after all. Further assuming that the “boo murder!” sentiment is widely shared, i.e. that it is nested and nursed in the discrete subjectivities of millions or billions of brains, and further assuming that those brains also place value on consistency and logic, then doesn’t the basis for your appeal become, in a real as opposed to ideal sense, objective? Or at least arguable on terms that recognize the FACT of all of those floating preferences?


    June 3, 2008 at 4:28 pm

  8. Chip my brother, I like that you grant a sort of objectivity to moral intuition because it <>occurs in the brain<> – like, say, the perception of color. With color, we certainly don’t recognize subjectivity – if it looks green to me and you say it’s red, one of us is just <>wrong<>. With color and other observations of the physical world, we either all share the same perceptions, or there’s a nice explanation in accord with our <>other<> observations if we don’t (say, color blindness).As you say, most people happen to agree on <>some<> of the big moral issues – fie on murder, for instance – and those are the intuitions that we maybe start with when doing ethics. But there’s big, major, bloody disagreement about most of the major issues (suicide, abortion, sex, drugs, eating puppies . . . ). To the extent that we believe there’s this <>real thing<> in the world called The Good, we all just apparently have really bad vision. And if we do believe in this The Good, how do we tell which of us see any aspect of it more clearly than others?I don’t think you get there by majority rule. That route would indicate that slavery was “right” until recently, when it gradually became “wrong.” Ditto circumcision, in the United States. But here’s something related to your majority idea: our moral intuitions, even though we don’t agree, at least present themselves to us as objective facts. I don’t think it’s wrong for me to torture grandmas for fun, but okay for someone else – I just think it’s wrong for anyone to torture grandmas for fun. This perception of universal applicability, at least, seems to be true <>of certain of everyone’s moral intuitions<> – even if the content of the intuitions vary. I think we have to take intuitions seriously as a starting point – but then we do this thing, ethical reasoning, and we maybe even change our intuitions as a result. What are we doing when we do ethical reasoning, though? Ethical propositions aren’t exactly testable, except against those same stupid intuitions – oh, and for things like logical consistency. Yet I think we are doing something other than just verbally masturbating when we do ethics. The process (in the school I’m familiar with, not the insane Aristotelian stuff) in recent years has been one of a move toward greater objectivity, at its peak in consequentialism. Then there’s a move back from that, toward constraints/rights. The various theories try to maximize things like happiness, freedom, and the basic goods that help people achieve their projects.But from subjectivism you can’t say things like “happiness is good,” “torturing grandmothers for fun is bad,” or even “freedom is good.” All you can say is something like “I like freedom.”I think I’m closer to understanding TGGP’s position – he (TGGP’s a guy, right?) wants to get to something like consequentialism without a concept that it’s good for people to be happy, but just from self-interest plus contracts (I’m assuming no Rawlsian veil-of-ignorance, Original Position here, since that would be an ethical idea – is that correct?). Don’t get me wrong – I like self-interest plus contracts. But you don’t get to (a political instantiation of) consequentialism or constraints or a ban on murder or anything from pure self interest plus contracts. You get a magnification of the inequality of the initial distribution, with no possible appeal to fairness, reason, or The Good.Oh – and “there’s no ethical truth” <>is<> a statement of ethical truth, because in practical terms it unpacks into “anything is permitted,” or “nothing is wrong,” if you like.This is so much harder without liquor.

    Sister Y

    June 3, 2008 at 10:47 pm

  9. Curator,I know that it would be very easy for me to wade outside my depth in these matters, so I will only sketch at a few of points of clarification and perhaps some tentative criticism.First, I did not mean to suggest the case for majoritarian ethics, though I can see how my comments may permit this interpretation. My point about the objective nature of neuro-chemically rooted subjectivity is much in keeping with your own, i.e., that in the absence of some knowable thing that may be called “The Good,” it may at least provide us with a practical base point from which to plot our reasons and preferences, to engage in reasoned discourse, and to arrive at institutional or contractual frameworks for implementing enforceable constraints to reify our polished up boos and huzzahs. I would agree that intuitions can change through such a process.For me, the trouble with positing “The Good” in any objective sense, or for assigning some empirical truth value to moral language, is that I simply cannot convince myself that it stands. I know what I want, what I desire, what I value, and I’m even keen to construct fictions around these neuroquirks and to stump for laws and rules and codified “rights” that amplify them. There’s nothing wrong with masturbation, after all. The color/subjectivity question continues to bedevil philosophers of mind, but it seems likely to me that the answer may yet be obtained through some complex physical accounting of externally observable phenomena (photons, neurology, optical biology, etc.). But an ethical proposition simply refers back to itself. The enterprise of moral reasoning may yield doctrines or dogmas or values or metrics that can be leveraged to advance human goals or of some idea of justice. But I’m not sure this says anything about the empirical status of the underlying proposition. X is wrong because the consequence of x not being wrong is y? You can reshuffle the deck any number of ways, but you still end up referring back to the wrongness of that which is said to be wrong. A circular sentiment, no? Perhaps it’s lack of imagination, but I can’t seem to get past this fundamental problem. And my sense of the coldly indifferent Darwinian process that leads us to wrestle with such questions serves only to heighten my skepticism.In any event, I’ve ordered a number of those Oxford primers (on consequentialism, virtue ethics, deontology, etc.), and I’m going to read them carefully with a mind for what I may be missing. Perhaps something will jog. I’ll let you know.


    June 4, 2008 at 6:21 am

  10. My argument to Block is simply an example of using someone else’s terms because they will be more effective with him.I am indeed a dude as opposed to a chick.<>But you don’t get to (a political instantiation of) consequentialism or constraints or a ban on murder or anything from pure self interest plus contracts. You get a magnification of the inequality of the initial distribution, with no possible appeal to fairness, reason, or The Good.<>I had no part in setting up any political instantiation and I believe all the existing ones do magnify inequalities of previous redistribution. I don’t necessarily find an “appeal to fairness, reason, or The Good” to be desirable.<>Oh – and “there’s no ethical truth” is a statement of ethical truth, because in practical terms it unpacks into “anything is permitted,” or “nothing is wrong,” if you like.<>It could alternatively mean “nothing is good” or “nothing is obligatory”.


    June 6, 2008 at 10:14 pm

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