Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Lewis's Three Arguments for Moral Objectivity

C. S. Lewis’s arguments for moral objectivity in Mere Christianity

First, an account of subjective vs. objective.

Something is objective just in case there can be real disagreements in which one party or the other must be mistaken. Both sides can’t be right. If I say O. J. killed Nicole and Ron, and you say he didn’t, one of us is mistaken. Even if, as the defense argued at the trial, there wasn’t evidence to settle the question beyond a reasonable doubt, the fact is that either O. J. did it, or he did not. So the question of O. J.’s guilt is an objective, not a subjective matter.

Something is subjective just in case there are no real disagreements and no one is really right or wrong. If I think McDonald’s burgers are better than Burger King’s, and you like Burger King’s better, we both can be right for ourselves. It’s a matter of what tastes good to us, and there is no grounds for dispute. As the Romans used to say “De gustibus non est disptandum” (in matters of taste there is no disputing).

Bertrand Russell said:

“The theory which I have been advocating is a form of the doctrine which is called the “subjectivity” of values. This doctrine consists in maintaining that, if two men differ about values, there is not a disagreement as to any kind of truth, but a difference of taste. If one man says “oysters are good” and another says “I think they are bad,” we recognize that there is nothing to argue about. The theory in question says that all differences as to values are of this sort, although we do not naturally think them so when we are dealing with matters that seem to us more exalted than oysters.”

This is the position that Lewis is criticizing both in Mere Christianity and in the Abolition of Man.

Lewis's first argument is the argument from implied practice. People are, at best, inconsistent moral subjectivists. He writes:

"But the most remarkable thing is this. whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking on to him he will be complaining 'It's not fair' before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties do not matter, but then, next minute, they spoil their case by saying taht the particular treaty they want to break was an unfair one. But if treaties do not matter, and if there iis no such ting as Right and Wrong--in other words, if there is no Law of Nature--what is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature just like anyone else?"

1. If ethics is subjective, then we should expect people to recognize that actions which they are inclined to think of as "wrong" are only wrong from their point of view.
2. But invariably, people view wrongs against themselves as actions that are really wrong.
3. Therefore moral values are objective and not subjective.

Some examples may help:

1) A student once wrote a paper for a professor defending moral subjectivism. He made extensive use of anthopological and sociological evidence and the paper was well-written. He put the paper in a blue folder and gave it to the professor. The professor returned it with an "F" and said "I do not like blue folders." The student, of course protested, pointing out all the effort that went into the paper. the teacher replied "Your paper argues that moral values are subjective, that they are a matter of preference?" Yes, replied the student. Well, the grade is an "F" I do not like blue folders. Of course the student could say "But that's not fair," but to do so would, of course, compromise his subjectivist principles.

2) A fellow philosophy teacher, who was an opponent of abortion and relativism, was having trouble with her 14-year old daughter. The daughter said "I think abortion is OK. That's my opinion. And if you don't think so, that's your opinion." I suggested to her (this is better philosophy than parenting)that she tell her daughter, "So long as you are under my roof, you do not have a right to your own opinion on abortion. So, until you change your mind, you're grounded." Of course, the daughter can reply "But that's not fair...I have a right to my opinion" but to do so would, once again,undermine her subjectivist principles.

3) In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin was proclaiming that he didn't believe in ethics, that it's a dog eat dog world, that if someone is in your way you have to push them out of the way to get ahead, and that the end justifies the means. All of a sudden, Hobbes shoves Calvin to the ground. Calvin yells WHY DID YOU DO THAT? Hobbes replies, " You were in my way. Now you're not. The end justifies the means."

By the way one way of defending objective moral values, which we have discussed earlier on this blog, is from the standpoint of rights. If we have rights, that means there is an objectively binding moral obligation on the part of others to allow you to exercise those rights. Otherwise, the idea of rights makes no sense. If I have a right to life, that only makes sense if you have a moral obligation not to kill me.

Lewis’s second argument is the Argument from Underlying Moral Consensus:

1. If morality were a subjective matter, we would expect to find sizable differences of fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
2. But there is, in general, agreement concerning fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
3. Therefore, morality is objective rather than subjective.

Yes, there are differences in moral codes. However, some differences in moral codes can be explained in terms of differences about the facts. People don’t burn witches today (Lewis’s example) not because using Satan’s supernatural powers wouldn’t a serious offense against humanity to warrant severe punishment, but because we no longer believe people actually have and use such powers.

Consider also the differences concerning human sacrifice. (Ollie’s example) The ancient Aztecs thought it was right to sacrifice humans, we do not. However, the Aztecs and ourselves both believe that we have a prima facie obligation not to kill people. The Aztecs, however, believed that there were gods who had the right to demand human sacrifices, and when they are demanded, the duty not to kill is overridden by the moral requirement to do what the gods command. The Abrahamic tradition, going back to, well, Abraham, maintains that the true God does not make those sorts of demands.

Other differences can be explained in terms of how widely we expand the concept of “neighbor.” Moral codes require that we treat our neighbor with respect, but we may limit the concept of “neighbor” to one’s fellow tribe member, or countryman, or a member of one’s own race, etc. It is Jesus’s contribution (in the parable of the Good Samaritan) to our moral understanding that we ought to assess the question “Who is my neighbor” from the bottom of a ditch.

“I only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of doublecrossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might as well imagine a country in where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.” (p. 19 in my edition).

The third argument for moral objectivity is the Argument from Reformers. There have been reformers in the history of the human race whom we believe to have improved our understanding of what is right and wrong. An example (mine) would be Rosa Parks. Parks challenged the principle that African-American people should acquiesce in being treated as inferiors and challenged the Birmingham bus system’s policy of requiring African-American riders to give up their seats. Because of her stand, and that of Martin Luther King and other leaders of the civil rights movements, laws were changed in such a way as to require equal treatment under the law.

But if you think that the laws of the state of Alabama are more just today than they were when Rosa refused to give up her seat, then you are applying an objective standard of justice. If on the other hand, you maintain that morals are just social conventions, then Rosa’s actions would have to be considered wrong, because they contravened the social convention of the time.

So the argument is:

1. If moral values are subjective, then moral codes cannot improve, since there is no objective standard by which to judge one code better than another.
2. But the work of people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks shows that moral codes can be made more just.
3. Therefore, moral values are objective rather than subjective.


Earth and All Stars said...

I'll play devils advocate here and object with this:

Moral values are subjective, and they can change. Change doesn't mean better, just what a society temporarily agrees upon.

MLK's work or Hitler's work being "better" is all a matter of perspective. Fortunately now days in Western culture we generally seem to agree on laws that make for peaceful, non-violent societies for their citizens.

I like peaceful, non-violent societies and perhaps maybe you don't agree, but thanks to democracy the non-violent people have the upper hand right now.

Obviously convincing someone of something that isn't necessarily true is sophistry, but it is sophistry that I and most people can agree we like.

David Wood said...

That is, I think, the most honest response atheists can give.

billy said...

I think that people generally have a consensus about what is good based upon evolution (what is good for the individual/kinship group's survival) and social values. So moral values would be subjective but not arbitrary.

I don't see how you could show that moral values are truly objective. I don't think those examples do.

Mike D said...

I don't perceive a concensus between survival on an individual level and on a social level. We seem to often sacrifice the one for the good of the many or we may diminish the good of the many for the sake of the individual. If the survival of the individual and the group are the primary determination of moral values, I agree that moral values are then subjective but they are also arbitrary.

If the survival of the fittest is the test of social values, there is no objectivity in morality. It is only when you can identify change in moral values and characterize as beter or worse by some standard that you can sense objectivity in moral values.

J.Clark said...

"I don't see how you could show that moral values are truly objective. I don't think those examples do."

Well you are claiming an objective judgment about something. If we cannot be objective then your statement is meaningless. or you are allowing yourself wiggle room with the word "truly."

The nature of subjectivity is self defeating and self contradictory. You cannot make an objective claim that says values are subjective or mere perspective. To make any propositional truth that you think others also should accept is consciously or unconsciously ascribing to objectivity.