Bryan Caplan  

Real Subjects Have No Arbiter

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When you challenge the morality of the status quo, people usually leap to its defense.  After a few rounds of argument, though, defenders of the status quo often retreat to meta-ethics.  Maybe immigration restrictions do seem wrong.  But how are we to decide?  Who precisely is the arbiter of right and wrong?

Faced with this question, I've long given the same answer: no one is the "arbiter" of right and wrong.  Individuals just have to consider the moral issue and form their best judgment.  That hardly makes morality subjective.  There's no arbiter of scientific or historical truth, either.

I now realize that my answer could have been stronger all along.  Yes, there's no arbiter of scientific truth, of historical truth, of moral truth.  But what truths - if any - do have an arbiter?  When, if ever, is there a Decider of truth?

There is a simple answer: arbiters do indeed exist - but only for purely social truths.  If your question is, "Are Jack and Mary married?," an arbiter might exist.  After all, to be married is nothing more than to be considered married by a society.  If the people in a society accept the Grand Poobah as the arbiter of marriage, then whatever he decides about two people's marital status is their true martial status. 

Similarly: If the people of the United States accept the Supreme Court as the arbiter of constitutionality, then it is the arbiter.  If people play a game where the rules say the Game Master is always right, then the Game Master is the arbiter of that game.  Etc.

What do all these arbiters have in common?  Simple: Their subjects are all make-believe to begin with!  That's why one person's judgment can be decisive: One version of "let's pretend" is "let's pretend that whatever X says, is true."  Fake subjects can have arbiters because there are no underlying facts to get in the way.

The converse is also true: If a subject has an arbiter, that subject is fake.  The fact that one person's say-so decides an issue reveals the make-believe nature of the issue.  Picture how you'd react if someone claimed to be the Arbiter of Math.  Impossible, right?  But why?  Because math is a real subject with real answers that are right or wrong no matter what anyone thinks.

When people ask, "Who's the arbiter of morality?," the correct answer is indeed "No one."  But this answer, though correct, it is woefully incomplete.  The critic's insinuation - morality is a subjective because it lacks an arbiter - is the opposite of the truth.  If morality had an arbiter, that would be a conclusive sign of its subjectivity.  The fact that morality lacks an arbiter is one sign - though hardly a conclusive one - that morality, like science, history, and math - has answers that no one's mere say-so can undo.

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COMMENTS (29 to date)
Joe Cushing writes:

I don't accept the supreme court as arbiter of constitutionality. I get that we use the supreme court to decide what the government is going to do with a law but whether or not a law is constitutional is a truth. Many laws that are unconstitutional have been upheld by the supreme court.

John David Galt writes:

I don't buy it.

Objective subjects, such as physics, do indeed "have an arbiter," but that arbiter isn't a person. The arbiter of physics is the technique of doing experiments and being able to repeat them, under controlled conditions, in front of witnesses, such that anyone who accepts the rules inherent in the scientific method and who sees your results must ultimately admit they are true.

I will accept that morals are objective facts when you can prove them by similarly-undeniable lab experiments. I don't think you can do that yet.

Joe Cushing writes:


Morals are emergent the way language is. It is a fact that all of the words here mean a specific thing. In the same way, it's a fact that many things are moral, immoral and required.

aretae writes:

By this logic..."are peaches good" must be likely to be objective. I think the test fails, and badly.

Mike writes:

I don't think "fake" is the right word. Convention, maybe. Social conventions aren't fake, they just depend on the beliefs of people.

@John: The scientific method can't be an arbiter in the way he means it because the scientific method is not a being. It is a method by which individuals make their own decisions about truth. Each person has to ultimately decide whether or not they accept the results of an experiment.

Sonic Charmer writes:

I would think that the subject 'What are my preferences?' has an arbiter, namely me. Likewise for your preferences, etc. I don't think these are "fake" subjects. I don't see what this reasoning is supposed to gain us.

Is this supposed to be part of the pro-unlimited immigration case? I guess I'd agree that 'there's no arbiter' isn't a good retort to Bryan's assertion that restricting immigration is immoral. The real retort is 'no it is not'.

Bob Murphy writes:

Bryan, I would encourage you to re-read this post and then try to tighten up the argument. For example, it sounds like you are saying people aren't married, and that the Supreme Court doesn't exist.

More important to my mind, if you ever do publish a revised version, you need to start with, "Assume there is no God."

ThomasL writes:

Any argument that asserts that marriage exists contingent on positive law is fundamentally flawed.

ThomasL writes:


You have a problem in your argument as well. Prove using the scientific method that:

1) Other people exist as "selves" in the same way that you exist as a "self."

2) There is a past, ie that the universe did not snap into existence at this moment with the verisimilitude of a past.

3) Your mother loves you.

And the big one---prove, using the scientific method:

4) That the only way to prove something is with the scientific method.

The kicker is (4), and (1)-(3) were just there to show that there are all kinds of things that we know that are not provable by scientific experimentation. To assert that we cannot know them at all, because we cannot know them scientifically, is absurd (literally). It is also invalid, because as (4) points out, the assertion that the only way to prove something is by the scientific method is impossible to prove by the scientific method. In philosophic terms, it is "self-referentially incoherent."

Steve Z writes:

Marriage (and laws generally) don't work the way this post implies that they do. Most states have a statute governing marriage, which sets the conditions of marriage. The selection process for fixing these conditions is arbitrary, but, once established, the conditions are not arbitrary. As with any laws, there are boundary cases, but there's a high rate of agreement about what constitutes marriage. In other words, marriage is not "subjective." It's not like you go to a judge and he just arbitrarily decides whether you are married or not.


Law just is an expression of popular morality. Through your knowledge of public choice, you're well aware it is an imperfect one. However, it has a better track record than the other contenders. So the meta-ethical debate, if you think vindicating your morals is more important than the rule of law, is to identify why the system you proposed earlier (executive supremacy for issues you like), is more appealing than the rule of law.

stuhlmann writes:

Physics does have an arbiter. The arbiter is the one who opens the box to see if Schrödinger's cat is dead or alive.

Mr Caplan is experiencing a theistic hangover.

Google " Theistic hangover"

Without being able to explain morality, that morality is something real that everyone should follow (why, if we are just gone when we die anyways?), he just tries to assume the problem away.

Andrew writes:

The guy with the biggest stick, and willing to use it, has always been the arbitor of morality.

It doesn't matter what actions of others I find immoral. It matters what I intend to do about them.

Becky Hargrove writes:

Is a medicine, remedy or treatment good or bad? It depends in part on the metabolism (or in current terms genetic makeup) of the person who it is prescribed to. But when such decisions get made, they tend towards finality, and the processes often do not show individual reactions and circumstances. Or, if they do they are not shared with the public. In the past, people may not always have had all the information they needed, but they tried over and over to get processes right, and then shared the results with everyone. What we grow in our garden depends on the local soil and climate. While DIY books try to tell us how to grow something, they can't account for our local circumstance very closely. Locals who grow things by trial or error can often teach a person how to do it better the first time, and the book helps in other ways. Likewise, norms may be set up properly for the knowledge that 'wins' over other knowledge ('scarcity' says which one can be applied) and the norms may be perfectly fine, but then people discover that the norms left out something which was in fact vital for the survival of something or someone else. People may find out decades later what happened, or they may never find out. Thanks for this post. None of this is to say we don't need arbiters and knowledge norms, just that a lot of knowledge needs to be used more purposely and widely than it is now allowed to.

Tony N writes:

I don't follow.

Morality isn't inherently precluded from having an arbiter. It's just that we haven't agreed on who/what that arbiter is. How this establishes the objectivity of morality is beyond understanding.

Who is the arbiter of cinema? There isn't one. Does this make the superiority of Caddyshack to Animal House (or vice versa) an objective truth?

Eric writes:

Just as Physics has an arbiter in natural experiments, mortality does have an arbiter, God. I don't see how people who deny the His existence can claim morality is objective. I have really appreciated those atheists who have the intellectual honesty to admit this, especially since this admission could lead people to believe that they are personally untrustworthy (which is, of course, not always the case. There are plenty of moral people who believe morality doesn't exist).

Roger writes:

If we define morals as ways humans interact with each other to achieve desired results, then we still have the problem of seven billion interpretations and perspectives of what is desired.

Tony N writes:

Perhaps the objectivity of morality is less important than we often imagine, though I, for one, am in the subjective camp.

Perhaps what really matters is that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking subjective=arbitrary. That’s where discussions of morality seem to derail.

Seth writes:

But to have open immigration, you first have to have something to emigrate from and immigrate to, which much like your marriage example, implies that the grand poobah of the region gets to recognize who is there under the conditions it prefers.

KnowPD writes:

I'm not sure I understand the link between arbiter and subjectivity. Morality is objective because there is no arbiter. This argument suggests that the arbiter introduces subjectivity. In the case of the supreme court, couldn't an arbiter exist to enforce rights that are self-evident (i.e. through introspection?) The authority of the court is by fiat to some degree but the mere existence of the court does not suggest that rights, from which the constitution is derived, are arbitrary.

It also seems implausible to group subjectivity and relativity together. My moral judgement is relative to my moral sense. Moral sense varies from person to person. In this sense, morality is relative. Subjective, on the other hand, implies arbitrary. It is subjective what side of the road we drive on.

Tony N writes:
Subjective, on the other hand, implies arbitrary. It is subjective what side of the road we drive on.

I don’t see how subjective implies arbitrary. My entire set of preferences is subjective, but each preference is supported by reason. I don’t like pickles because they are too sour (subjective), so there is a reason behind my dislike for pickles. This doesn’t mean of course that pickles are objectively too sour. But it also doesn’t mean that I have no reason (arbitrary) to dislike pickles.

BZ writes:

ThomasL is my new hero. You are dead on buddy. The two great challenges in epistemology are from the Solipsists and the Nihilists. The former claims our senses are wrong, and thus the scientific method is a waste of time. The later claims our capacity for reason is flawed, and the whole project of knowledge is a waste of time. Neither challenge can be answered with the scientific method. I'll leave it as a problem to the reader as to what can answer them.

Regarding ethics; judgments are about standards and reality, and whether and to what extent they match. Ethics are about the standards you are bound to observe. Therefore, standards, since they are distinct of real things, cannot be facts/"real things" in the traditional sense. They can only exist in a mind, or "arbiter" as you put it. A standard without an arbiter is, literally, nothing at all.

James writes:


Why lab experiments? As I'm sure you are well aware, there are plenty of ways to determine whether something is an objective fact besides lab experiments.

Whatever your actual intentions, the appearance is that you are deliberately asking for a type of analysis irrelevant to the subject in order to avoid a specific conclusion. You might as well fall behind on your mortgage and then insist that you'll resume payments when the bank can conduct a lab experiment to prove that your contract obligates you to anything in particular.

IVV writes:


You been playing HackMaster? Didn't know which system you've been interested in lately.

KnowPD writes:

@TonyN- Arbitrary depends on how we define it. That you like or dislike of pickles is a fact - it's not arbitrary in the sense that it is based convention or you decide in a free will sense if you like pickles. Subjectivity is difficult to discuss because we all use different definition. If you define subjectivity as "varies from person to person" then sensations are subjective. The same argument can be made in the sense of moral subjectivity. If we treat the sensation or moral reaction itself as a fact, however, then you can make claims about the "objectivity" of morality. We can evaluate our own actions as moral but it is unclear whether the actions of others are moral, immoral, or amoral.

Tony N writes:


Yes, it is a fact that I dislike pickles. But that bears no relationship to a moral statement. That is simply a factual statement about me. What objectivists need to prove is that my reason for disliking pickles is a fact, and therefore everyone is bound to agree with it, just as we are bound to agree with the statement that 1+1=2. How do I prove objectively that pickles are too sour?

ThomasL writes:
KnowPD - Arbitrary depends on how we define it.


KnowPD writes:

It's a fact that you dislike pickles. It's not a general fact for all humans. I believe (at least in my own case) that moral sentiments on which moral judgments are based are the result of the same process I.e. is non-cognitive. Moral reasoning is post hoc. I've had debates with objectivists and can't determine if our psychological processes are the same but descriptions are different or if our differences are more fundamental. We reach generally the same conclusions but in different ways. However, they are generally quicker to condemn the actions of others than I am based on cognitive assumptions. My position is too arbitrary!

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Caplan: "When you challenge the morality of the status quo, people usually leap to its defense. After a few rounds of argument, though, defenders of the status quo often retreat to meta-ethics. Maybe immigration restrictions do seem wrong. But how are we to decide? Who precisely is the arbiter of right and wrong?"

That's pretty tendentious. "When [I] challenge... People leap... to defense... After a few rounds... defenders... retreat..." Caplan is awarding himself the debate, even though he hasn't persuaded the house yet.

Anyway, will no one else defend "meta-ethics?" Then I will.

First, I hope we may agree to recognize degrees, if not of morality, then of propriety to act on moral grounds. Second, let us recognize the need to resolve moral conflicts.

Suppose I think it immoral for one person to strike or manhandle another, except in immediate self-defense or defense of an innocent. I observe a mother spanking her (fairly large and articulate, say about 8 years old) child, though obviously not hard enough to inflict serious injury. Am I morally obliged to intervene? By speaking up? By grabbing the mother's arm, though in my locality that might constitute the crime of battery since spanking a child is lawful where I live?

If the mother rejects any verbal objections I offer and I decide to grab her arm because I think my moral judgement overrides that of society, would it be immoral for society to throw me in jail? For that matter, would the action of manhandling the mother be moral by my own standards? Shouldn't I weigh the harm my action may inflict against the harm I think the mother's actions inflict?

I could multiply hypotheticals-- but the point is, even if morality is binary (suppose any action, under specified circumstances, either is or is not moral), the actions we propose to take on moral grounds must be graduated-- it's all very well to prate about the universal moral obligation to refrain from murder, or to interfere with attempted murder if possible-- because nearly everyone agrees about the immorality of murder-- but the question of whether to interrupt a spanking is not so obvious.

These problems are why we must engage meta-ethics, not just arm-wave that moral questions are beyond human arbitration.

Caplan moved directly from the proposition that immigration restrictions are immoral to the proposition that an agent like President Obama may properly betray the social institutions he serves (break his contract) to facilitate immigration, excusing his defection by reference to overriding morality.

When challenged to explain why Obama's moral judgements should override those of the citizens who employ him (other than by circling back to his assertion-- a contention not accepted by most observers-- that immigration restrictions are approximately as immoral as murder), Caplan has decided to reject all criticism by calling it standardless meta-ethics.

I say, not so. To decide whether Obama's actions (betraying the citizens) are excused by morality, we have to entertain more than the lone binary question of morality now alleged by Caplan to be undecidable except as a matter of personal preference (Caplan wrote " one is the "arbiter" of right and wrong. Individuals just have to consider the moral issue and form their best judgment").

"Who is the arbiter of right and wrong?" Let us ask instead, "who is the arbiter of right-enough to justify oath-breaking?"

I say "peaceful open society" which represents the interest of most people in resolving disputes-- including moral disputes-- by reason rather than force. (Once again, I note that Caplan argues for pacifism. Of all people, Caplan should favor peaceful institutions for resolving disputes, in order to reduce the likelihood people will resort to war.)

Peaceful society works by asking individuals to give up acting on their private moral judgements (albeit under threat of coercion by society) when those differ too much from generally-accepted moral judgements as adopted by society's institutions (like parliaments and law-courts).

So long as the institutions of peaceful society remain "open," in the sense that persuasion can realistically lead to change,* I say that to betray those institutions is immoral-- because betraying peaceful institutions-- destroying trust in peaceful institutions-- prompts people to resolve disputes by violence. Civil violence is more harmful than most alleged moral violations which have yet to garner social disapproval (like excluding would-be immigrants).

Back to the spanking example. Any individual may consider spanking immoral. He may try to persuade society to his view and urge the legislature to outlaw spanking. But until he wins that argument, he should not interfere with someone else administering a spanking. If he does so anyway, society is morally justified in punishing him.

What about a President? Hardly anyone is in a better position to persuade. If a President cannot persuade society's institutions to adopt his moral views into law, then it is generally immoral for that President to simply dispense with the law to implement his private views.

The exception, as always, is for urgent matters of universal morality (murder, etc.). However, in open societies, the laws rarely disagree with universal morality, at least in the practical sense of "moral precepts with which nearly everyone agrees." Plenty of people claim universal applicability for their private moral judgements but until they persuade enough other people to get those judgements adopted into law, we needn't call them universal.**

A peaceful society with open institutions is the arbiter of right and wrong (and "universal" morality), for social purposes if not philosophical ones. A President is a magistrate of peaceful social institutions. He has a moral duty to uphold those institutions which is greater than any conflicting non-universal moral duty.

*Democracies like the United States are "open" in this sense (though very flawed in many ways). For example, persuasion acting through US institutions both outlawed and rehabilitated liquor between 1920 and 1933. Persuasion ended government (and nearly all private) racial discrimination in this country, though it took about a century to do so, after monstrous violence was required to end black slavery when the slaveholders forsook persuasion and institutions both.

**I'm not arguing that everything the government does is moral. Obviously government actors commit immoral acts very often and with impunity due to corruption and malfeasance. I'm arguing a different proposition: most grossly immoral acts are unlawful though the law may not be properly enforced.

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