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Metaethical SubjectivismReview - Metaethical Subjectivism
by Richard Double
Ashgate, 2006
Review by Matthew Pianalto
Jun 13th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 24)

"There are no objective values." Thus begins J.L Mackie's classic Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977), in which metaethical error-theory was originally expounded. Error-theory holds that although moral judgments appear to be about objective matters (e.g. what is really valuable, what we really ought to do), there is no good reason to believe that there are objective values, and so all moral judgments are false because they fail to refer. In Metaethical Subjectivism, Richard Double again makes the case for error-theory by focusing upon the fragmentary character of our moral intuitions and the apparent impossibility of corralling all of these intuitions into an objective normative ethical theory. The best explanation of the disunity among our moral intuitions, according to Double, is the metaphysical thesis that there are no objective values (or obligations, or virtues), rather than the objectivist thesis which must attribute the conflicting character of our moral judgments to cognitive error. Morality is metaethically subjective, claims Double, which means that we need only appeal to human psychology and feelings in order to explain the source of our moral judgments; morality is our invention, not our discovery.

Double's general strategy will be familiar to readers of Mackie. Double demonstrates great energy in compiling the evidence of conflicting moral intuitions in order to support what Mackie called the argument from relativity against objective moral values. Since the variety of subjectivism which both of these philosophers endorse is primarily a negative thesis (i.e. a thesis about what there isn't, viz. objective moral values), the bulk of the argument is directed against metaethical objectivism (which Double equates with moral realism). If objectivism fails, Double (and Mackie) win by default. Double is careful to distinguish his subjectivism from non-cognitivism (in Chapter 3), which he understands as a semantic rather than metaphysical theory (that moral judgments express feelings or approvals rather than truth-apt claims). Although he thinks that non-cognitivism is a fair way to argue for subjectivism, he finds it unnecessary to delve into semantics in order to establish his metaphysical thesis. How does Double do this? He shows us that in the realm of moral values, obligations, and virtues, "everything defeats everything" (Chapter 8).

Double argues that any objective normative theory must satisfy the requirements of soundness and completeness (Chapter 2). To satisfy soundness, such a theory must be non-fragmentary; that is, the theory must provide the same kinds of answers wherever it is applied in our moral reasoning, and it must not give conflicting answers to the question, "What should I do?" in any given case. A sound theory should not be open to obvious counterexample (as many believe both utilitarian and deontological theories to be), and it should not endorse contradictory claims, such as that one is both obligated and not obligated to perform a particular act. To satisfy completeness, an objective normative theory would have to provide a determinate answer in all cases. A theory can only claim to be objective, argues Double, if it can serve as a consistent, stable, and determinate guide for every moral case to which we apply it.

However, if Double is correct, no normative theory can satisfy these requirements. Anyone familiar with ethical theory has heard some standard objections to utilitarianism (that it may be morally permissible to kill an innocent person to save the lives of others), deontology (that it is absurd to tell the truth to someone who will use that information to do great harm), and virtue ethics (that what counts as a virtue in one society may seem monstrous in another society). Double's "everything defeats everything" argument (in Chapter 8) provides a multitude of cases, each designed to show that one moral system trumps another in that particular case. Ultimately, Double tries to show that every moral system, value, or virtue seems to get some particular case right (thus defeating the other approaches), but that none of our moral approaches gets all the cases right, and that there are some cases in which it is entirely unclear whether the emphasis of any value, system, or virtue will get the case right. (Double calls these "cases in which I do not know what to say.") The upshot of this barrage of cases and Double's handling of them is that no objective moral theory can legitimately claim to have satisfactory answers to all of our possible moral problems.

In a similar spirit, Double spends Chapters 5 and 6 showing that there are compelling arguments for both the claim that any objective theory should endorse a principle of impartiality and that any objective theory must (morally) allow room for some partiality (e.g. special treatment of relatives or friends, etc.). Again, if Double's arguments are correct, then any objective moral theory must endorse contradictory claims (i.e. it must be both partial and impartial).

Given all of the problems and inconsistencies that stand in the way of objective moral theory, Double believes that we should abandon objectivism and embrace his metaethical subjectivism. Subjectivism can easily account for the fragmentary character of our moral reasoning: we are raised in various cultures, are taught to emphasize various values, and possess different temperaments and interests that incline us to value differing goods. The subjectivist can accept the existence of conflicting moral intuitions as well as the fact that we may reason from different principle in different kinds of cases, and this need not, according to Double, lead us to give up moral reasoning altogether and to embrace moral nihilism or an "anything goes" view of morality (Chapter 9). Subjectivism can, he thinks, teach us the useful lesson that our own system of morality may not be the only viable system, and thus subjectivism may help to loosen the grip of moral fanaticism on us. Furthermore, the view that there are no objective values captures the phenomenology of our sense of conflict and uncertainty when we are faced with a moral decision: we feel this way because we are faced with choices to which there is no objective answer.

However, Double claims, "If, after arguing for metaethical subjectivism, it occurred to me that accepting my view would cause me to care less about treating individuals morally or disable my thinking about broad moral principles, I would still accept subjectivism. This is what it is to embrace Worldview metaphilosophy" (109). Although Double (happily, he notes) does not think that subjectivism leads to these consequences, he seems to think that it wouldn't matter even if subjectivism did deaden him to morality. It wouldn't matter from the perspective of his "metaphilosophy" which he calls the Worldview approach, in which the primary goal of philosophy is to construct the best possible theory of the world (see Chapter 1). If there are no objective values according to our best possible (metaphysical) theory, then we must accept that conclusion, come what may. But by attributing this attitude to the Worldview metaphilosophy, which he contrasts with a Praxis metaphilosophy in which the main goal is to guide human action and to improve the world, Double imports normative considerations into his argument at a higher level, and these considerations give shape to the entire course of his argument. Double accepts the often questioned distinction between metaethics and normative ethics, and thus believes that metaethical theorizing has no intrinsic connection with normative theory (that is, that doing metaethics doesn't involve making any substantive moral or normative assumptions) (see 111). The problem is that Double's metaphilosophy transforms the goal of providing the best possible metaphysical theory (of ethics and everything else) into an absolute value; Double claims that since metaphilosophies flow from attitudes and desires, there is no basis for arguing for or against a metaphilosophy: our desires cannot be true or false (see 9). Double's desire to locate in particular cases the fragmentation of value of which he seems convinced leads him to overlook certain possibilities, such as that a more robust moral pluralism is compatible with moral realism than he thinks possible. (He briefly addresses pluralism in Chapter 2, 26-27.) Furthermore, one may take issue with Double's heavy reliance on his own moral intuitions in order to adjudicate his many cases, or with his particular handling of some of the cases. (For my part, I think he offers an unfair treatment of issues such as integrity and the value of certain kinds of promises, even in the face of conflicting duties.)

Metaethical Subjectivism is written for philosophers working in ethics and requires a fair amount of familiarity with the contemporary literature in this field. Although I, too, am inclined toward a kind of subjectivism (a kind quite different than Double's error-theory), the moral seriousness with which we must decide what we should do (of which Double partakes in his repeated emphasis that he does care about answering the question, "What should I do?") seems to demand of us that we look for some kind of objective basis for our moral judgments, even if this foundation lacks the unity and pristine character which Double thinks realist ethical theories must possess. If Double's view about what an objective normative theory must be like is incorrect, then the rest of his argument can be called into question.

 

2006 Matthew Pianalto

 

Matthew Pianalto is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arkansas. His webpage is http://comp.uark.edu/~mpianal.


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