Bryan Caplan  

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ethics, But Were Afraid to Ask

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In 1992, I read an essay that changed my life: "Moral Objectivism," by the Wunderkind philosopher Michael Huemer. Even as an undergraduate, Huemer had a gift for making the hardest questions simple:

[S]ubjectivism must say (1) that moral judgements are not judgements at all and do not have propositional contents (that is, don't represent genuine claims) or, if they do, (2) what they claim is always false, or, if it is true, (3) it represents something about the subject making the statement rather than the object the statement purports to be about...

But each of these three views is surely false. The first has been refuted above in section 4.2, in which I presented four arguments to the effect that a moral statement is a proposition. The second runs contrary to patent observations that virtually everyone can see, such as the preferability of happiness to misery, the impermissibility of murder, etc. And the third view... can always be refuted by simple thought experiments, the general point of which is to hold the nature of the object constant and vary assumptions about the nature of the subject, and notice that the moral qualities remain unchanged. For instance, supposing that we all liked Nazism, yet all the same, it wouldn't make Nazism right...

Fourteen years later, Huemer is a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado, and has turned his early insight into a brilliant but accessible book, Ethical Intuitionism. If you read one book on ethical philosophy during your lifetime, this should be it!

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Adam writes:

I read that essay many years ago from the link on you web site, and it is indeed magnificent and highly thought provoking, and has had a significant impact on my ethical philosophy. However, I now think that his refutation of point number three is not satisfactory. When doing such thought experiments, no matter how you try to change the nature of the subject, there is still a "meta-subject", you, the experimenter, who will always be there in any such experiment, and is stealthily making moral judgements about the situation. No matter what level of abstraction you go to, there will always be someone one level higher making the moral judgements.

MikeG writes:

I'm with Adam on the third point. Imagine in place of Nazism, some alternate concept like "free speech." The refutation now reads:

For instance, supposing that we all liked free speech, yet all the same, it wouldn't make free speech right...

Still a true claim, by the way, unanimous liking is not sufficient to logically justify any claim. But the force of the attempted refutation relies on the reader's emotional response to Nazism, not on the logic of the assertion.

James writes:

Adam: You say there is always the possibility that you'll sneak in your personal moral judgements. Maybe, but this seems to imply too much. Specifically, it implies one can't trust oneself to think clearly about something. You might wind up sneaking ideas past the your own complacent mind. But most of the time thinking really works out pretty well for most people, so I doubt that this is quite the problem you claim it is.

Mike G: The force of the argument is not based on emotional reaction. MH is attacking the belief that "For all X, if X has the attribute of being liked, then X has the attribute of being right." A single counterexample is sufficient to falsify a "For all X" type of statement and that's what MH is doing.

Adam writes:

James: I'm not saying that people can't think clearly, I'm saying that they're deceiving themselves if they think that they can run an experiment and observe its results (thought experiment or otherwise) without affecting the experiment in any way. Most of the time, this does not invalidate the experiment, or the thought, but sometimes it must be taken in to account. Most people have moral intuitions that are very similar in most ways (I accept the rest of Huemer's theory of moral intuitionism), and thus there is strong agreement on moral issues, so it may seem that the standard you're using is objective rather than simply common to almost everyone.

James writes:


Actually, you said the experimenter is "...stealthily making moral judgements..." If so, the implication is that people really can't trust themselves to think clearly. (My mind sneaks ideas past itself! Would you trust such a defective apparatus?) I don't see how you can avoid this implication.

Adam writes:

Well, the unclarity in people's thinking is normally not important, so it doesn't cause problems most of the time.

James writes:

Adam: I'll have to take take your word on when unclarity is important and when it isn't. When I try to make that distinction, my mind sneaks things in.

Austin writes:

Adam has raised the basic problem with MH's conception of "intuition". He states in his essay that certain moral values "are simply immediate intuitions. There is no difficulty in this proposal, since there are numerous examples outside ethics of synthetic, a priori judgements apprehended by intuition." The implication here is that we do not need language or concepts to mediate our apprhension of moral values ("objects", as he says- although I don't see how an action has the same ontological status as a chair), or there is some "third entity" that is given prior to any thought. Yet in order to assert this one has to stand in a view from no-where, since we manifestly always already mediate our apprhension through language and concepts (what would it mean to have a non-linguistic apprhension of something? I couldn't say anything, so the apprhension would be pointless). Even though he's using Kantian language here he seems to be in a pre-Kantian mode if he thinks that somehow the subject isn't involved with changing the object of thought...

This of course doesn't imply that there is no such thing as "objectivism". There are many philospohers who note both how reality is given ("objective), but also that our conceptions ("subjective") inform reality is a certain way as well (Hegel, Husserl, Wittgenstein, etc.). In that way, "relativists" are not entirely incorrect, but on the other hand, they surely are absurd, considering nothing is "relative" or fluid and in flux except in reference to something stable and objective.

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