Subjective need not mean trivial

Another comment in the form of a Word document which I am pasting to this blog.

Those who believe that morality is objective often respond by saying that the alternative makes morality trivial using phrases like “makes right and wrong a popularity poll”, “reduces morality to a matter of opinion”, “what you ought to do is no more than a fashion” etc.

First l want to confirm what I mean by “objective”.  I don’t think it is necessary to have a long and subtle debate about this.   The truth of falsity of a statement is objective if it is independent of the opinions or reactions of the people involved.  For example,  the statement “there is currently life on the mars” is objective;  whether there is life or not is independent of our opinion or reaction.  It would be just as true or false if there were no people on earth to have opinions. On the other hand the statement “this book is interesting” is subjective.  It is true or false in virtue of readers’ opinions. 

Now consider an example of a subjective judgement “this film is funny”.  In one context this might be completely trivial.  Perhaps two friends who saw it on different occasions are discussing it over a meal. One found it funny.  The other did not. That is the end of the story.  Now put the same judgement in a different context.  Perhaps it is a pair of producers deciding whether to invest in a new film and they are assessing the directors’ previous work.  They only want to invest in what they consider good films.  The investor who found it funny might be deeply convinced that his partner doesn’t understand why the film is funny. If only he could show her, then she too would want to invest in this director. Conversely she thinks that he is seduced by the obvious jokes which are not really funny if you understand how obvious they are.

There are several key features of the second case.

1) This is no longer a trivial judgement.  It is not just a matter fashion or opinion.  A major decision rides on the judgement.  The judgement is inextricably tied to action.  The issue cannot be avoided by saying it is only a matter of opinion.

2) It matters to both parties not only that their own assessment is right but that the other party makes the same assessment.

3) Both parties are able to produce arguments and evidence to support their position.

4) Both parties believe that if they could only get the argument right they could persuade their partner to see their point of view.  They believe that their partner is deep down similar enough to them that they can be brought round to their way of thinking.

I propose that moral judgements have these characteristics and it this that makes them appear to be objective.

1) Moral judgments are not trivial. If you judge using animals for experiments to be wrong you making a commitment to prevent or discourage that activity.  Moral judgements are tied to action.

2) If you judge something to be wrong it also matters to you that others agree and do not perpetuate that thing.  Not only will you refrain from animal experiments.  You want others to recognise that and refrain as well and for them to encourage others to refrain.

3) You can use logical arguments and evidence to support moral judgements: what are the consequences of animal experiments? Is you position consistent with being a meat-eater?

4) If you think animal experiments are wrong then you believe that if only other people were reasonable and knew all the facts then most people would agree with you.

In the right context a subjective issue has all the importance of an objective issue and takes on many of the trappings of an objective issue.  But it is still subjective.


1 Response to “Subjective need not mean trivial”

  1. 1 remroom December 8, 2010 at 5:00 am

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